Those From the Hindu Right Who Oppose Beef-Eating Ignore the Practices of Their Own Ancestors

21 June 2017

India Dissents, an anthology edited by the poet Ashok Vajpeyi, is a collection of expressions of dissent spanning nearly three millennia. Beginning from writings Nasidiya Sukta, in the Rigveda, the volume examines the tradition of registering doubts and protest against the Indian state and its traditions and practices. It includes writings from: the Tamil poet Sundarar, who rebukes god for ignoring the devout public; the Sikh guru, Nanak, who writes against the divisive religious and caste systems; the Dalit poet Kalavve, who condemns caste oppression and patriarchy; the writer Ismat Chughtai, who mocks the trial against her on the charges of obscenity; the laywer Siddharth Narrain, who chides the Supreme Court for terming the LGBTQ community in India a “miniscule minority”; the writer Robin S Ngangom, who addresses state-sponsored terrorism and the militarisation of states such as Meghalaya, from where he hails; and the activist Soni Sori, who opposes the state action against Maoist rebels and the tribal residents in Chhattisgarh; among several others. The book emphasises that India—both in its ancient and present forms—has always included a robust culture of dissent and critique.

The following excerpt is by DN Jha, the text of which was part of his 2001 book The Myth of the Holy Cow. (When Jha's book was first published, leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had called for it to be burned publicly.) In this extract, Jha writes about how various factions of the Hindu right—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in particular—deny or ignore ancient Indian history when they claim that cow-worship is integral to Hinduism. 

Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill. Our mother when she dies means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when alive.

These are the words of Mahatma Gandhi explaining the importance of the cow. His explanation, devoid of religious rigmarole, is quite simple: the cow is important because of its resource value in an agrarian society whose members derive a substantial part of their sustenance from its milk and other dairy products. But Gandhi contradicts himself and says elsewhere, “the central fact of Hinduism is cow protection… The cow protection ideal set up by Hinduism is essentially different from and transcends the dairy ideal of the West. The latter is based on economic values, the former…lays stress on the spiritual aspect, viz., the idea of penance and self-sacrifice for the martyred innocence which it embodies…”

This statement of Gandhi is significantly different from the former, in that it lays stress on his religious commitment to protect the cow. Most Hindus today are guided by a religious concern for cow protection. Therefore an average Indian, rooted in what appears to him as his traditional Hindu religious heritage, carries the load of the misconception that his ancestors, especially the Vedic Aryans, attached great importance to the cow on account of its inherent sacredness. The “sacred” cow has come to be considered a symbol of community identity of the Hindus whose cultural tradition is often imagined as threatened by Muslims, who are thought of as beef-eaters. The sanctity of the cow has, therefore, been announced with the flourish of trumpets and has been wrongly traced back to the Vedas, which are supposedly of divine origin and the fountainhead of all knowledge and wisdom. In other words, some sections of Indian society trace the concept of sacred cow to the very period when it was sacrificed and its flesh was eaten.

DN Jha is a leading Indian historian.

Keywords: Hindu Hinduism VHP RSS beef DN Jha Sangh Parivar Cow politics gau raksha cow protection Gau Rakshaks Beef politics beef eating Cow worship