The Myth of the Holy Cow
Resume: The Elusive Holy Cow
(concluding chapter of DN Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow)
Several points emerge from our limited survey of the textual evidence, mostly drawn from Brahmanical sources drawn from the Rgveda onwards. In the first place, it is clear that the early Aryans, who migrated to India from outside, brought along with them certain cultural elements. After their migration into the Indian subcontinent pastoralism, nomadism and animal sacrifice remained characteristic features of their lives for several centuries until sedentary field agriculture became the mainstay of their livelihood. Animal sacrifices were very common, the most important of them being the famous asvamedha and rajasuya. These and several other major sacrifices involved the killing of animals including cattle, which constituted the chief form of the wealth of the early Aryans. Not surprisingly, they prayed for cattle and sacrificed them to propitiate their gods. The Vedic gods had no marked dietary preferences. Milk, butter, barley, oxen, goats and sheep were their usual food, though some of them seem to have had their special preferences. Indra had a special liking for bulls. Agni was not a tippler like Indra, but was fond of the flesh of horses, bulls and cows. The toothless Pusan, the guardian of the roads, ate mush as a Hobson’s choice. Soma was the name of an intoxicant but, equally important, of a god, and killing animals (including cattle) for him was basic to most of the Rgvedic yajnas. The Maruts and the asvins were also offered cows. The Vedas mention about 250 animals out of which at least 50 were deemed fit for sacrifice, by implication for divine as well as human consumption. The Taittiriya Brahmana categorically tells us: Verily the cow is food (atho annam vai gauh) and Yajnavalkya‘s insistence on eating the tender (amsala) flesh of the cow is well known. Although there is reason to believe that a brahmana’s cow may not have been killed, that is no index of its inherent sanctity in the Vedic period or even later.
The subsequent Brahmanical texts (e.g. Grhyasutras and Dharmasutras) provide ample evidence of the eating of flesh including beef. Domestic rites and rituals associated with agricultural and other activities involved the killing of cattle. The ceremonial welcome of guests (sometimes known as arghya but generally as madhuparka) consisted not only of a meal of a mixture of curds and honey but also of the flesh of a cow or bull. Early lawgivers go to the extent of making meat mandatory in the madhuparka — an injunction more or less dittoed by several later legal texts. The sacred thread ceremony for its part was not all that sacred; for it was necessary for a snataka to wear an upper garment of cowhide.
The slaughter of animals formed an important component of the cult of the dead in the Vedic texts. The thick fat of the cow was used to cover the corpse and a bull was burnt along with it to enable the departed to ride in the nether world. Funerary rites include the feeding of brahmanas after the prescribed period and quite often the flesh of the cow or ox was offered to the dead. The textual prescriptions indicate the degree of satisfaction obtained by the ancestors’ souls according to the animal offered — cow meat could keep them content for at least a year! The Vedic and the post-Vedic texts often mention the killing of animals including the kine in the ritual context. There was, therefore, a relationship between the sacrifice and sustenance. But this does not necessarily mean that different types of meat were eaten only if offered in sacrifice. Archaeological evidence, in fact, suggests non-ritual killing of cattle. This is indicative of the fact that beef and other animal flesh formed part of the dietary culture of people and that edible flesh was not always ritually consecrated.
The idea of ahimsa seems to have made its first appearance in the Upanisadic thought and literature. There is no doubt that Gautama Buddha and Mahavira vehemently challenged the efficacy of the Vedic animal sacrifice, although a general aversion to beef and other kinds of animal flesh is not borne out by Buddhist and Jaina texts. Despite the fact that the Buddha espoused the cause of ahimsa, he is said to have died after eating a meal of pork (sukaramaddava). Asoka’s compassion for animals is undeniable, though cattle were killed for food during the Mauryan period as is evident from the Arthasastra of Kautilya and Asoka’s own list of animals exempt from slaughter, which, significantly, does not include the cow. The Buddhists in India and outside continued to eat various types of meat including beef even in later times, often inviting unsavoury criticism from the Jainas. In Lahul, for example, Buddhists eat beef, albeit secretly, and in Tibet they eat cows, sheep, pigs and yak.
Like Buddhism, Jainism also questioned the efficacy of animal sacrifice and enthusiastically took up the cause of non-violence. But meat eating was so common in Vedic and post-Vedic times that even Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, is said to have eaten poultry. Perhaps the early Jainas were no strict vegetarians. A great Jaina logician of the eighth century tells us that monks did not have objection to eating flesh or fish given to them by the laity. In spite of all this, there is no doubt that meat became a strong taboo among the followers of Jainism. Its canonical and non-canonical literature provides overwhelming evidence on the subject. The inflexibility of the Jaina attitude is deeply rooted in the basic tenets of Jaina philosophy, which, at least in theory, is impartial in its respect for all forms of life without according any special status to the cow. Thus, although both Buddhism, and, to a greater extent, Jainism contributed to the growth of ahimsa doctrine, neither seems to have developed the sacred cow concept independently.
Despite the Upanisadic, Buddhist and Jaina advocacy of ahimsa, the practice of ritual and random killing of animals including cattle continued in the post-Mauryan centuries. Although Manu (200 BC-AD 200) extols the virtue of ahimsa, he provides a list of creatures whose flesh was edible. He exempts the camel from being killed for food, but does not grant this privilege to the cow. On the contrary, he opines that animal slaughter in accordance with Vedic practice does not amount to killing, thus giving sanction to the ritual slaughter off cattle. He further recommends meat eating on occasions like madhuparka and sraddha. One may not be far from the truth if one interprets Manu’s injunctions as a justification for ritual cattle slaughter and beef eating, as indeed a later commentator does.
Next in point of time is the law book of Yajnavalkya (AD 100-300) who not only enumerates the kosher animals and fish but also states that a learned brahmana (srotriya) should be welcomed with a big ox or goat, delicious food and sweet words. That the practice of flesh eating and killing cattle for food was customary right through the Gupta period and later is sufficiently borne out by references to it found in the Puranas and the Epics. Several Puranic texts, we are told, bear testimony to the feeding of brahmanas with beef at the funeral ceremony, though some of them prohibit the killing of a cow in honour of the guest and others recommend buffalo sacrifice for the goddess at Durga Puja, Navaratri, or Dasara.
The evidence from the epics is quite eloquent. Most of the characters in the Mahabharata are meat eaters. Draupadi promises to Jayadratha and his retinue that Yudhisthira would provide them with a variety of game including gayal, sambara and buffalo. The Pandavas seem to have survived on meat during their exile. The Mahabharata also makes a laudatory reference to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen two thousand cows were butchered each day, their flesh, along with grain, being distributed among the brahmanas. Similarly the Ramayana of Valmiki makes frequent references to the killing of animals including the cow for sacrifice and for food. Rama was born after his father Dasaratha performed a big sacrifice involving the slaughter of a large number of animals declared edible by the Dharmasastras. Sita, assures the Yamuna, while crossing it that she would worship the river with a thousand cows and a hundred jars of wine when Rama accomplishes his vow. Her fondness for deer meat drives her husband crazy enough to kill Marica, a deer in disguise. Bharadvaja welcomes Rama by slaughtering a fatted calf in his honour.
Non-vegetarian dietary practices find an important place in the early Indian medical treatises, whose chronology broadly coincides with that of the law books of Manu and Yajnavalkya, the early Puranas and the two epics. Caraka, Susruta and Vagbhata provide an impressive list of fish and animals and all three speak of the therapeutic uses of beef. The continuity of the tradition of eating beef is also echoed in early Indian secular literature till late times. In the Gupta period, Kalidasa alludes to the story of Rantideva who killed numerous cows every day in his kitchen. More than two centuries later, Bhavabhuti refers to two instances of guest reception, which included the killing of heifer. In the tenth century, Rajasekhara mentions the practice of killing an ox or a goat in honour of a guest. Later Sriharsa mentions a variety of non-vegetarian delicacies served at a dazzling marriage feast and refers to two interesting instances of cow killing. At that time, however, Somesvara shows clear preference for pork over other meats and does not mention beef at all.
While the above references, albeit limited in number, indicate that the ancient practice of killing the kine for food continued till about the twelfth century, there is considerable evidence in the commentaries on the Kavya literature and the earlier Dharmasastra texts to show that the Brahmanical writers retained its memory till very late times. Among the commantators on the secular literature, Candupandita from Gujarat, Narahari from Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, and Mallinatha who is associated with the king Devaraya II of Vidyanagara (Vijayanagara), clearly indicate that, in earlier times, the cow was done to death for rituals and hence for food. As late as the eighteenth century Ghanasyama, a minister for a Tanjore ruler, states that the killing of cow in honour of a guest was the ancient rule.
Similarly the authors of Dharmasastra commentaries and religious digests from the ninth century onwards keep alive the memory of the archaic practice of beef eating and some of them even go so far as to permit beef in specific circumstances. For example, Medhatithi, probably a Kashmiri brahmana, says that a bull or ox was killed in honour of a ruler or anyone deserving to be honoured, and unambiguously allows eating the flesh of cow (govyajamamsam) on ritual occasions. Several other writers of exegetical works seem to lend support to this view, though sometimes indirectly. Viswarupa of Malwa, probably a pupil of Sankara, Vijnanesvara who may have lived not far from Kalyana in modern Karnataka, Haradatta, also a southerner (daksinatya), Lakshmidhara, a minister of the Gahadwala king Hemadri, Narasimha a minister of the Yadavas of Devagiri, and Mitra Misra from Gopacala (Gwalior) support the practice of killing a cow on special occasions. Thus even when the Dharmasastra commentators view cow killing with disfavour, they generally admit that it was an ancient practice but to be avoided in the kali age.
While the above evidence is indicative of the continuity of the practice of beef eating, the lawgivers had already begun to discourage it around the middle of the first millennium when society began to be gradually feudalized, leading to major socio-cultural transformation. This phase of transition, first described in the epic and puranic passages as the kaliyuga, i.e. kalivarjyas. While the list of kalivarjyas swelled up over time, most of the relevant texts mention cow slaughter, as forbidden in the kaliyuga. According to some early medieval lawgivers a cow killer was an untouchable and one incurred sin even by talking to him. They increasingly associated cow killing and beef eating with the proliferating number of untouchable castes. It is, however, interesting that some of them consider these acts as no more than minor behavioural aberrations.
Equally interesting is the fact that almost all the prescriptive texts enumerate cow killing as a minor sin (upapataka), not a major offence (mahapataka). Moreover, the Smrti texts provide easy escape routes by laying down expiatory procedures for intentional as well as inadvertent killing of the cow. This may imply that cattle slaughter may not have been uncommon in society, and the atonements were prescribed merely to discourage eating of beef. To what extent the Dharmasastric injunctions were effective, however, remains a matter of speculation; for the possibility of at least some people eating beef on the sly cannot be ruled out. As recently as the late nineteenth century it was alleged that Swami Vivekananda ate beef during his stay in America, though he vehemently defended his action. Also, Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the hypocrisy of the orthodox Hindus who do not so much as hesitate or inquire when during the illness the doctor … prescribes them beef tea. Even today 72 communities in Kerala — not all of them untouchable perhaps — prefer beef to the expensive mutton and the Hindutva forces are persuading them to go easy on it.
Although cow slaughter and the eating of beef gradually came to be viewed as a sin and a source of pollution from the early medieval period, the cow and its products (milk, curds, clarified butter, dung and urine) or their mixture called pancagavya had assumed a purificatory role much earlier. Vedic texts attest to the ritual use of cow’s milk and milk products, but the term pancagavya occurs for the first time in the Baudhayana Dharmasutra. Manu, Visnu, Vasistha, Yajnavalkya and several later lawgivers like Atri, Devala and Parasara mention the use of the mixture of the five products of the cow for both purification and expiation. The commentaries and religious digests, most of which belong to the medieval period, abound in references to the purificatory role of the pancagavya. It is interesting that the medical treatises of Caraka, Susruta and Vagbhata speak of its medicinal uses. The underlying assumption in all these cases is that the pancagavya is pure. But several Dharmasastra texts forbid its use by women and the lower castes. If a sudra drinks pancagavya, we are told, he goes to hell.
It is curious that prescriptive texts that repeatedly refer to the purificatory role of the cow, also provide much evidence of the notion of pollution and impurity associated with this animal. According to Manu, the food smelt by a cow has to be purified. Other early lawgivers like Visnu and Yajnavalkya also express similar views. The latter in fact says that while the mouth of the goat and horse is pure that of the cow is not. Among the later juridical texts, those of Angirasa, Parasara, Vyasa, and so on, support the idea of the cow’s mouth being impure. The lawgiver Sankha categorically states that all limbs of the cow are pure except her mouth. The commentaries on different Dharmasastra texts reinforce the notion of impurity of the cow’s mouth. All this runs counter to the idea of the purificatory role of the cow.
Needless to say, then, that the image of the cow projected by Indian textual traditions, especially the Brahmanical-Dharmasastric works, over the centuries is polymorphic. Its story through the millennia is full of inconsistencies and has not always been in conformity with dietary practices current in society. It was killed but the killing was not killing. When it was not slain, mere remembering the old practice of butchery satisfied the brahmanas. Its five products including faeces and urine has been considered pure but not its mouth. Yet through these incongruous attitudes the Indian cow has struggled its way to sanctity.
But the holiness of the cow is elusive. For there has never been a cow-goddess, nor any temple in her honour. Nevertheless the veneration of this animal has come to be viewed as a characteristic of modern day non-existent monolithic Hinduism bandied about by the Hindutva forces.
- I've retained the British spelling for words like honour. All emphases are mine.
- The myth of the holy cow has at least on one occasion helped the Sangh reap an economic bonanza -- McDonalds' $10 million settlement in the beef-in-vegetarian-fries controversy included liberal dole-outs to several Sangh groups in the United States, including the Hindu Students Council.]