Hinduism and its complicated history with cows

Are cows sacred to all Hindus? PRODaniel Incandela, CC BY-NC

File 20170706 26461 mfgsrl
Are cows sacred to all Hindus?
PRODaniel Incandela, CC BY-NC

(The Conversation) Just this past June, at a national meeting of various Hindu organizations in India, a popular preacher, Sadhvi Saraswati, suggested that those who consumed beef should be publicly hanged. Later, at the same conclave, an animal rights activist, Chetan Sharma, said,

“Cow is also the reason for global warming. When she is slaughtered, something called EPW is released, which is directly responsible for global warming. It’s what is called emotional pain waves.”

These provocative remarks come at a time when vigilante Hindu groups in India are lynching people for eating beef. Such killings have increased since Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata party came to power in September 2014. In September 2015, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched by a mob in a village near New Delhi on suspicion that he had consumed beef. Since then, many attacks by cow vigilante groups have followed. Modi’s government has also prohibited the slaughter of buffalo, thus destroying the Muslim-dominated buffalo meat industry and causing widespread economic hardship.

Most people seem to assume that no Hindu has ever consumed beef. But is this true?

As a scholar, studying Sanskrit and ancient Indian religion for over 50 years, I know of many texts that offer a clear answer to this question.

Cows in ancient Indian history

Scholars have known for centuries that the ancient Indians ate beef. After the fourth century B.C., when the practice of vegetarianism spread throughout India among Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, many Hindus continued to eat beef.

In the time of the oldest Hindu sacred text, the Rig Veda (c. 1500 B.C.), cow meat was consumed. Like most cattle-breeding cultures, the Vedic Indians generally ate the castrated steers, but they would eat the female of the species during rituals or when welcoming a guest or a person of high status.

Ancient ritual texts known as Brahmanas (c. 900 B.C.) and other texts that taught religious duty (dharma), from the third century B.C., say that a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when a guest arrives.

According to these texts, “the cow is food.” Even when one passage in the “Shatapatha Brahmana” ( forbids the eating of either cow or bull, a revered ancient Hindu sage named Yajnavalkya immediately contradicts it, saying that, nevertheless, he eats the meat of both cow and bull, “as long as it’s tender.”

Cows painted over a door are believed to bring good luck.
Ross Funnell, CC BY-NC-ND

It was the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata (composed between 300 B.C. and A.D. 300) that explained the transition to the non eating of cows in a famous myth:

“Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”

This myth imagines a transition from hunting wild cattle to preserving their lives, domesticating them, and breeding them for milk, a transition to agriculture and pastoral life. It visualizes the cow as the paradigmatic animal that yields food without being killed.

Beef-eating and caste

Some dharma texts composed in this same period insist that cows should not be eaten. Some Hindus who did eat meat made a special exception and did not eat the meat of cow. Such people may have regarded beef-eating in the light of what the historian Romila Thapar describes as a “matter of status” – the higher the caste, the greater the food restrictions. Various religious sanctions were used to impose prohibition on beef eating, but, as Thapar demonstrates, “only among the upper castes.”

As I see it, the arguments against eating cows are a combination of a symbolic argument about female purity and docility (symbolized by the cow who generously gives her milk to her calf), a religious argument about Brahmin sanctity (as Brahmins came increasingly to be identified with cows and to be paid by donations of cows) and a way for castes to rise in social ranking.

Sociologist M. N. Srinivas pointed out that the lower castes gave up beef when they wanted to move up the social ladder through the process known as “Sanskritization.”

A central tenet of Gandhi’s teaching was vegetarianism. But he did not call for a beef ban.

By the 19th century, the cow-protection movement had arisen. One of the implicit objects of this movement was the oppression of Muslims.

Famously, Gandhi attempted to make vegetarianism, particularly the taboo against eating beef, a central tenet of Hinduism. Gandhi’s attitude to cows was tied to his idea of nonviolence.

He used the image of the Earth cow (the one that King Prithu milked) as a kind of Mother Earth, to symbolize his imagined Indian nation. His insistence on cow protection was a major factor in his failure to attract large-scale Muslim support.

Yet even Gandhi never called for the banning of cow slaughter in India. He said,

“How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.”

Today’s India

From my perspective, in our day, the nationalist and fundamentalist “Hindutva” (“Hindu-ness”) movement is attempting to use this notion of the sanctity of the cow to disenfranchise Muslims. And it is not only the beef-eating Muslims (and Christians) who are the target of Hindutva’s hate brigade. Lower-caste Hindus are also being attacked. Attacks of this type are not new. This has been going on since Hindutva began in 1923. And indeed, in 2002, in a north Indian town, five lower-caste Hindus were lynched for skinning a cow.

But, as local analysis shows, the violence has greatly increased under the Modi government. IndiaSpend, a data journalism initiative, found that “Muslims were the target of 51 percent of violence centered on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 86 percent of 28 Indians killed in 63 incidents…As many of 97 percent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014.”

In 2015, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, lower-caste Hindus were flogged for skinning a dead cow, triggering spontaneous street protests and contributing to the resignation of the state’s chief minister.

As these and so many other recent attacks demonstrate, cows – innocent, docile animals – have become in India a lightning rod for human cruelty, in the name of religion.

(Wendy Doniger, is a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article)

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  • I’m a broken record: fundamentalism is the bane of society and appears to be a dangerous trend worldwide and religion, like all human endeavors, is not immune to using violence.

    This article has me craving a double bacon cheeseburger for lunch.

  • Holy Cow and then there is the following:

    Hinduism (from an online Hindu site) – “Hinduism cannot be described as an organized religion. It is not founded by any individual. Hinduism is God centered and therefore one can call Hinduism as founded by God, because the answer to the question ‘Who is behind the eternal principles and who makes them work?’ will have to be ‘Cosmic power, Divine power, God’”

    The caste/laborer system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence are problems when saying a fair and rational God founded Hinduism.

  • Not but some Hindus kill people who butcher and/or eat cows. That is done in the name of religion.

  • My entire life, I have had Hindu friends and it wasn’t until recently that I knew how much they hate. Very sad. I still love some of them.

  • Here is an excerpt from the article: “Muslims … comprised 86 percent of 28 Indians killed”. 86 percent of 28 is 24. 24 Indian Muslims have been killed. In what time period? The article says 2010-2017, about 8 years. 24 Indian Muslims in 8 years. That’s too low to justify the word “hate”.

  • Along with the rise in violence over butchering cows there has been an increase in violence against Christians since Modi was elected.

  • Okay, that ruined Hinduism for me as a being only a silly but benign religion — now someone ruin Jainism for me as far as causing human deaths, probably unintentionally (8-day fast? no insect control on crops?)

  • Why? With around 1billion adherents, the number of incidents is too small to honestly form a negative opinion.

  • I would rather say that visceral reactions are being expressed to a greater degree since Modi was elected. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to give a slant to any kind of news.

    Where do these visceral reactions come from? From these facts: (i) The Indian traditions satisfy all the Islamic-Christian criteria of idolatry (ii) Muslims don’t have a sizable intelligentsia that is prepared to debate multiple points of view. (iii) To academic professors, the developmental (or linear or teleological) view of history is important, so they cannot but see the Indian traditions as grotesque. (Aside: The adjective “grotesque” was used by Immanuel Kant. Modern professors are too politically correct to say “grotesque”. On my part, I am grateful to Kant, as he at least made clear what bothers academic professors!)

    Good point that miniscule numbers are involved here, but is that good enough to wholeheartedly rejoice about? I can’t pretend to know enough about, well anything, but it does seem social animals killing their own kind due to tradition, myth, or metaphor isn’t a best practice. Once these incidents occur, does the rest of the Hindu population explode in moral outrage for people killing people because people killed, ate, or skinned cows like most of the rest of the world does? (maybe they do express such outrage, I don’t know) and also respond by making stronger laws, and by providing “public service announcements” while taking other actions such as applying extreme and perpetual peer pressure so that these sort of obviously not-good murder-death-kill incidents against humans do not happen again? or is it allowed to continue, because many Hindus think, although it is fringe and extreme, maybe those people should not have been killing, eating or skinning cows and maybe they are slightly fuzzy about death as a punishment. It sort of has the same ring as the Charlie Hebdo killings where apologists for Islam blame the victims for their own deaths, albeit, in the case of Hinduism, to a much, much, much, lesser magnitude of an honestly negative outcome.

  • I don’t want to offend anyone’s faith.

    Can we skip the burger. And just go with the bacon?

  • Exactly, a judicious knowledge of Levitical dietary requirements applies here.

  • I certainly don’t hold it against Hinduism unless there is something in their scriptures to justify or encourage the violence.

  • From what I remember of my Bible days some of the forbidden animals such as swine and rabbits were a source of trichinosis. Shellfish, too, are a problem if the water is contaminated. The Israelites were good about washing and quarantine. They ruined it by following up with animal sacrifices. Not eating a cow because you think it’s sacred is something else.

  • Because the Vedas are “fundamental” scriptures and allow the eating of beef, a true Hindu “fundamentalist” should be fine with beef-eating.

  • My point, to Arbustin’s comment was, that he was correct in describing a bacon cheeseburger as a “triple whammy” from the Jewish perspective, as Jews are prohibited from eating pork, and combining dairy with beef: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.”

  • Jesus said it isn’t what goes into your mouth but what comes from your heart that can defile you. That’s so true.

    If a mortal Jesus did exist he might have said something like that, because in Biblical days a mortal Jesus would have been taught that the heart was the seat of emotion, moral direction and decision making ability. Then again, it is highly doubtful a mortal Jesus existed and infinitely less probable that a supernatural Jesus existed, at least so improbable that the existence and likelihood of supernatural Jesus would be indistinguishable from zero. Since Jesus is likely just myth and metaphor, that literally means mythical Jesus was brainless.