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There's Nothing 'Intolerant' About Protecting Cows

19/11/2015 9:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi, India, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Of late, it has come to pass that some truly unfortunate, but scattered, incidents of communal violence in India, coupled with some ill-timed, stupid and nasty comments made by fringe elements on the political right, are used as excuses to casually dismiss all that is held sacred in the Hindu tradition. Worse yet, there is little acknowledgment that tying the few and disjointed ghastly murders and other such episodes, occurring at vast distances from each other, into a narrative conveniently labelled "a rising tide of intolerance" is but confirmation bias on the part of those who have scarcely ever had anything good to say about Hindus anyway.

Of particular note is the issue of eating beef, which has been ceaselessly exploited by vested interests of every flavour for their own ends: in particular, by the left-wing elite as a litmus test for tolerance, failing which they have been wont to show their distress by returning the awards they have garnered over several decades of cosying up to the political class. However, no less a person than MK Gandhi had said, "Cow-protection is the dearest possession of the Hindu and heart. It is the one concrete belief common to all Hindus. No one who does not believe in cow-protection can possibly be a Hindu." And, "The central fact of Hinduism is cow-protection. Cow-protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man, through the cow, is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives." So, was the doyen of non-violence also an early proponent of intolerance?

" [The] debate on the ethics of eating meat... cannot be waved away merely by labelling any criticism as intolerance. "

It has even been suggested that occasional references to meat-eating in the various Hindu scriptures mean that all meat-eating, and in particular beef-eating, must be accepted as legitimate, and any criticism of the same merely reflects intolerance. However, as PV Kane notes in his monumental work on the history of the dharmaśāstras, the common word for meat in most Indian languages is said to derive from the Sanskrit phrase māṃ saḥ, and indicates the reciprocity required by the law of karma, i.e. that the meat-eater will return to the dinner table not as the diner but as the delicacy.

There is, even today, much debate on the ethics of eating meat, which cannot be waved away merely by labelling any criticism as intolerance. There have been numerous cases of people who worked in slaughterhouses deciding to go vegetarian, and anyone who has an interest in the matter is well advised to view some of the many hidden-camera videos of slaughterhouses that are available online, to decide for themselves.

cows india

On the question of meat-eating in general, or cow-killing specifically, being permitted by scripture, there is also always the question of śiṣṭācāra, or the conduct learned from worthy preceptors, more than just a bare reading of texts. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa advises that one not stupidly copy something described in the scriptures without applying one's own mind, and illustrates the point by pointing to the allegory of Lord Śiva drinking poison to save the world, which of course is behaviour no sane person would emulate.

It is also not as if there is no criticism of beef-eating in Hindu texts; Baudhāyana says that one who eats beef is a mleccha (barbarian), and other sages give similar proscriptions. Inferring acceptance of meat-eating (which was never permitted in its present wholesale form) from disjointed references (almost always also under the interpretation of people with an agenda) is akin to accepting 21st-century sex trafficking -- in spite of its many documented horrors -- merely based on the many references to concubinary and prostitution in the Bible and other texts.

Most importantly, perhaps, we should note that while the ancient physician Suśruta may seem to have permitted beef in a medicinal role (but again not wholesale), the World Health Organization has recently classified it as a known carcinogen. Are we so lacking in scientific temper as to not know which authority to prefer? Are we also unwilling to consider, for example, that each calorie derived from beef requires dozens, or hundreds, of grain calories, and corresponding multiples in expenses of fresh water and other resources -- something that our perennially impoverished country can scarcely afford at scale? Worldwide, a majority of people follow primarily a vegetarian diet, and the meat-based diet common in the U.S. is not sustainable, as it requires too much consumption of fossil fuels, and use of land and water resources.

All this having been said, however, it is also true that opponents of beef (especially those who merely take up such a position for political reasons) have not made much sense either. Gandhiji once made a remark that still holds true today: "Unfortunately today we seem to believe that the problem of cow protection consists merely in preventing non-Hindus, especially Musalmans, from beef eating and cow killing. That seems to be absurd."

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