Cow has become a political animal. It’s symptomatic of our times that a Muslim family can be brutally attacked, head of the family killed and his son critically injured, on a mere suspicion that its members ate beef and stored it in their refrigerator. While two years ago, it was the killing fields of Muzaffarnagar where fires of communal violence raged; this time it was Dadri in Gautam Buddha Nagar near Delhi. Hastinapur is not very far from both these places where, as the belief goes, preparatory events leading to the great fratricidal war of Mahabharata had taken place thousands of years ago.
However, such incidents are not entirely unexpected because India is being ruled by a political party that believes in imposing a peculiar version of “Hindu way of life (Hindutva)” in utter disregard to the huge differences in the cultures of different communities living in the country. A strange myth is being propagated about the Hindus that they are vegetarians and that cow should not be killed under any circumstances. That’s why a fierce controversy had erupted when renowned historian D.N. Jha published his well-researched book “Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions” in 2001. Two years later, Granthshilpi came out with its Hindi translation. At that time too, the Bharatiya Janata Party was ruling the country as the leading partner in the coalition government at the Centre, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. This fact is important because, as Vyasa says in the Mahabharata, “Raja kalasya karanam” –– it is the ruler who shapes up the times.
Jha presented an impressive array of documentary evidence that left no doubt about the custom of beef eating in the Vedic as well as later periods of Indian history. This view enjoyed the support of such great traditional scholars like Pandurang Vaman Kane, a recipient of Bharat Ratna, and H.D. Sankalia, doyen of Indian archaeologists, besides many others. Kalidasa in “Meghdoot”, Bhavabhuti in “Mahavircharit” and “Uttarramacharit”, Rajeshwara in “Bal Ramayana” and Shriharsha in “Naishadhcharit” clearly mention instances of beef eating. Even in our own times, famous Kannada writer Bhairappa, winner of the Sahitya Akademi award, mentions beef eating in his Mahabharata-based novel “Parva”.
At the same time, one must mention that the custom of beef eating among high-caste Hindus experienced a gradual decline but did not disappear altogether. As D.D. Kosambi asks in “The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India”, the question arises as to why “a modern orthodox Hindu would place beef-eating on the same level as cannibalism, whereas Vedic Brahmins had fattened upon a steady diet of sacrificed beef”. It seems that like many other communal constructs, the myth that beef eating was an absolute no-no before the advent of the Muslims in the subcontinent also has its origins in the 19th Century when the process of identity creation had started both among the Hindus as well as the Muslims.
Ironically, India has emerged as the world’s top beef exporter. Is this beef being produced without killing cows? So, it is kosher to kill cows so that foreigners can eat beef but a crime if Indians eat it! And, do those who pride themselves on being vegetarian really know what they are eating? On June 5, 2001, The Hindu published a news story based on the latest report of the Animal Welfare Board of India. As Diwali is approaching us, this piece of information should be of particular interest. According to the report, “silver foil or “varak” used for decorating sweets… is made by placing thin metal strips between steaming intestines of freshly slaughtered animals. The metal is then pounded between ox-gut and the sheets are carefully transferred in special paper for marketing.” One is not sure if the process of manufacturing silver foil has dramatically changed in the past 14 years. One may also recall that in the early 1980s, a Jain-owned company was charged with importing beef tallow for mixing with vegetable oil.
Those who swear by Indian culture should pay heed to what Vyasa says in the Mahabharata: “Guhyam brahma tadidam braveemi, na hi manushat shreshtaram hi kinchit” (I am telling you the ultimate truth. There is nothing superior to a human being.) One can’t have any quarrel with those who consider cow as “holy” and beef eating a taboo but they have no business to impose their will on others, that too in such a violent manner that results in death and injuries. One remembers Ghalib in such times: “Adami ko bhi mayassar nahin insan hona” (Man is not allowed to remain human.)
A modern orthodox Hindu would place beef-eating on the same level as cannibalism, whereas Vedic Brahmins had fattened upon a steady diet of sacrificed beef. -- D D Kosambi