07/10/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

What The Hindu Scriptures Really Say About Cow Worship

India, Young Student Of Religious Studies Memorizing Rigveda Or Vedas. (Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Education Images via Getty Images
India, Young Student Of Religious Studies Memorizing Rigveda Or Vedas. (Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)


India is home to 300 million cattle and is the world's largest exporter of beef -- it exported $4.8 billion worth of beef only last year -- and its fifth-biggest consumer. Not only is the beef industry big in India, so far we have also been able to exercise individual freedom to eat or not eat beef. But since Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the rhetoric of cow protection and beef banning has spun out of control. In March, the Maharashtra Government extended the ban on cow slaughter to include bulls and bullocks. A few weeks later, the state of Haryana passed similar legislation.

"The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (700 BCE) advocates that parents should eat rice cooked with beef or veal if they want a learned son who is a knower of the Vedas."

In April, Mohammed Tarafdar, who was caught smuggling two calves near the Bangladesh border "was chained to a tree and beaten by members of the cow protection force and was forced "to recite a Hindu prayer". Later, Jishnu Basu, an RSS spokesman in West Bengal said, "Killing or smuggling a cow is equivalent to raping a Hindu girl or destroying a Hindu temple". And very recently, Mohammad Akhlaque was lynched by a mob in Bisada village over false rumours that he ate beef. Question is, when and how did the life of the supposed Holy Cow become bigger than the life a Hindu girl or a Muslim man in India? Do the Indian scriptures dictate such reverence for cows at the expense of human lives?

Turns out not. The earliest Vedas do not prohibit the slaughter of cattle. In fact, they ordain it as a part of sacrificial rites. Cattle were not only the major sacrificial victims in the Vedic times, but cow milk products like ghee were also regularly used for oblation -- a practice that continues to this day. Moreover, the Brahmans that performed the cow sacrifices also readily ate the consecrated beef. It is true that the Rigveda (1500-1200 BCE) alludes to the mystical relationship between the cow and the universe, while the Atharvaveda (1200-1000 BCE) calls the cow the "all producing and all containing universe" but they are silent concerning matters of cow slaughter.

The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (700 BCE) advocates that parents should eat rice cooked with beef or veal if they want a learned son who is a knower of the Vedas. In the Chandogya Upanisad (800-600 BCE) there are clearer references to refrain from killing all animals. It says, "atha yat tapo danam draavam ahimsasatyavacanam iti ta asya daksindh" ('Austerity, almsgiving, uprightness, harmlessness, truthfulness; these are one's gifts for the priests" (Hume 1977, 213). Here "harmlessness" or nonviolence is used as a virtue and not a dogma, along with a number of other traits that suitably qualify as "gifts" to give to priests in payment for sacrificial duties rendered.

"The Bhagavata Purana... prohibits alcohol more than it does meat. Bummer!"

In the Dharmaśāstra, Vasistha states that a host may offer hospitality to a Brahman priest by cooking a full-grown ox, while Gautama notes that if an ascetic invited to eat at a sacrifice rejects meat then he shall go to hell for as many years as the slaughtered beast has hairs. It is not until the very end of the Vedic period that we find even the slightest allusions to cow slaughter. Therefore, it is safe to assume that at the close of the Vedic period, the cow was still being slaughtered and eaten by Hindus, even though it served as a powerful symbol.

The text that perhaps distances itself farthest from the sacrificial cult is the Bhagavata Purana (400-1000 CE), where refraining from harming all living beings in thought, word, or deed is promoted as the highest Dharma. However, even the Bhagavata Purana acknowledges that for special rites a king may kill the required number of animals, and that one with a penchant for meat may eat the remnants of the sacrificed animals. The Bhagavata Purana also allows the consumption of meat in emergency situations like famines. In fact, it prohibits alcohol more than it does meat. Bummer!

Cow worship is a relatively recent development in India. Some scholars believe that it was with the advent of Buddhism and Jainism at the beginning of the fifth century BCE that the notion of ahimsa or nonviolence slowly rose in prominence within Brahmanical circles (Basham 1959, 48-54). The sacred texts and law books from this period make ample references to it. The Bhagavad Gita (500-400 BCE), for example, "mentions the term four times (10.5, 13.7, 16.2, 17.4), but it is not used in a doctrinal sense" (Frank J Korom 2000, 188). Manusmrti (200 BCE-300 CE) explicitly prohibits eating meat for Brahmans, but does not prohibit its consumption by other castes (Frank J. Korom 2000, 188), and obviously other religions.

Other scholars believe that an even more important event that shaped the modern form of cow worship was the Islamic invasion, which took place in the 8th century CE. Hindus may have found it politically expedient to set themselves apart from the beef-eating invaders by emphasising the need to prevent the slaughter of their sacred animals. Thereafter, the cow taboo assumed its modern significance. Therefore, the claims of the right-wing Hindu parties that the Islamic invasion introduced cow slaughter to India are categorically false. Quite the opposite is true. The ban on beef is, and historically has been, not a religious but a political move to make the Indian state more aligned as a Hindu nation, which is completely unconstitutional because India is a secular country.

"The ban on beef is, and historically has been, not a religious but a political move to make the Indian state more aligned as a Hindu nation, which is completely unconstitutional..."

Another reason that the Hindutva ideologues give in favour of the beef ban is congruent with Marvin Harris's observations in Human Nature in 1978. Harris proposed that the cattle in India formed the backbone of agricultural households as they were used to plough the fields, provide dung for fuel and fertiliser and produce calves that would eventually plough the fields and produce milk. He noted that families that did not sell or consume their cattle during hard times came out stronger afterward. And that may have been true in 1978, but those ancient strategies probably aren't working anymore. In Maharashtra alone, on an average, four farmers have committed suicide every day since 2011. So, instead of relying on primitive agricultural techniques, perhaps the government should provide a financial safety net and invest in responsible agricultural policies in order to deal with the current agricultural crisis and to save the farmers.

The laws have affected not just farmers. Thousands of butchers and vendors, in conjunction with the leather industry, have protested in Mumbai. Not just Muslims and Christians in the country, but also Dalit Hindus who rely on beef as an affordable source of protein have seen the ban on beef as an attack on their culture. In protest of the government's forceful imposition of their ideology on citizens, Hindu Dalit students, and others, have organised beef-eating festivals. This onslaught on the $5 billion industry (in just exports!) contradicts the BJP government's slogan of "Shining India" and with its promises of "economic progress", which proves that the ban is only a political move to pander to the party's political base.

I believe that the irrational, non-economic and mythical aspects of the Indian cattle complex are greatly overemphasised. Rational, economic and historic interpretations of the taboos, customs and rituals associated with management of Indian cattle can lead to effective answers. The cattle complex in India has to be examined under the adaptive processes of the ecological system, rather than Hindu theology.

I will end with an anecdote, which, in my opinion, sums up the "mother cow" debate.

An enthusiast from the Society of Cow Protection once came for an interview with Swami Vivekananda and asked for his contribution. On learning that the society had a considerable amount of funds, Swamiji said to the preacher, "A terrible famine has broken out in central India. Nine lakh people, your own brothers and sisters, have fallen into the jaws of death, yet you have not thought it your duty, even though you have the means, to help them in that terrible calamity with food"? The preacher replied, "No, we protect the mother-cows of our country from the hands of the butchers, because the Shâstras say that the cow is our mother." Swamiji smilingly replied, "Yes, the cow is indeed your mother. Who else could give birth to such accomplished children?"

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