Although the BJP and Congress Party both seem keen on banning cow slaughter throughout India, it looks as though dissent from other parties has blocked the move for the time being. Some critics protest that cow worship is a strictly Hindu idea that must not be imposed on others in a secular state. I agree.
But I go further. I hold that cow slaughter and beef eating are proven Hindu traditions of old. This has been recorded by any number of scholars of the Vedas and epics. Let me give as an example Nirad Chaudhuri’s passages from The Continent of Circe.
Vedic literature shows great love for and pride in cattle, as is to be expected of a pastoral people. Love of cows in the Vedas goes with “every possible economic use of cattle, including, of course, their slaughter for food”. The Vedic spirit continues into the age when epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata were written.
Chaudhuri notes that a debate had already begun between those who opposed and those who defended cow slaughter. The two ideas co-existed, very much like the debate today about vegetarianism. The Mahabharata mentions, “without thinking it necessary to add any excuse, that a very hospitable king used to have 20,100 cattle slaughtered every day for his guests.” On the other hand, another story tells of a king who has slaughtered a cow to entertain a sage, an act that is criticised as sinful by another sage.
Such differences of view are a key characteristic of Hinduism. It has never been a rigid, Semitic-style religion with a chief pre-late laying down one single interpretation of holy texts. From ancient times some Hindus opposed cow slaughter, but many others regarded it as not merely permissible but obligatory to show honour to guests.
By the time the Dharma Shastras were penned, beef consumption had “ceased or virtually ceased”. Nevertheless, the play Uttara-Rama-Charitra, one of the most celebrated versions of the Ramayana written by Bhavabhuti in the 8th century AD, has the following dialogue between two hermit boys at Ayodhya, Saudahataki and Dandayana.
S: What is the name of the guest who has arrived today with a big train of women?
D: Stop joking. It is no less a person than the revered Vasishta himself.
S: Is it Vasishta, eh?
D: Who else?
S: I thought it was a tiger or a wolf. For, as soon as he came, he crunched up our poor tawny heifer.
D: It is written that meat should be given along with curds and honey. So every host offers a heifer, a big bull, or a goat to a learned Brahmin who comes as a guest. This is laid down in sacred law.
Today, with the Hindutva bri-gade in full cry, such a dialogue in a modern play would probably cause a riot and be banned.
Yet, this was uncontroversial in its time. Clearly, the notion that the cow is sacred is merely a sectional Hindu view. It is by no means traditional Hinduism or essential Hinduism. If anything, it is a recent reformist Hinduism. I have no objection to reformers, but I object vociferously when they pretend to speak for all Hindus, or for essential Hinduism.
Some Vishwa Hindu Parishad types say that the cow gives milk which is essential for rearing all of us, so the cow is our mother, and hence deserves to be protected from slaughter. Chaudhuri remarks caustically that the “relationship is expressed not in terms of economics or animal husbandry… but as a matter of ethics, as if one was speaking of a man’s relationship with his wet nurse.”
On this supposition, the buffalo is an even greater mother of Hindus than the cow, as buffaloes in north India provide more milk than cows. But nobody worships the poor buffalo. Indeed, the buffalo is ceremonially sacrificed as part of Hindu worship in parts of eastern India.
In Vedic times, neither untouchables nor tribals were regarded as Hindus. Even when the first census was enumerated in the 19th century, dalits and tribals were not counted as Hindus.
But such is the power of modern upper caste Hindu imperialism that it now claims as its own these two groups whom it cruelly reviled and oppressed through the ages. Dalits and tribals have always eaten beef.
Yet, the VHP brigade (and its camp-followers in the Congress) claim unhesitatingly that Hindus do not eat beef. A ban on cow slaughter would be an imposition on hundreds of millions of dalits and tribals, no less than on non-Hindus.
I have long opposed a ban on cow slaughter as a secular liberal. But in the light of Bhavabhuti’s narrative, I also oppose the ban as a beef-eating Hindu. I am following in the footsteps of Vasishta, no less.