The cow has been a political animal in modern India, but it has become more political under the present BJP governments at the Centre and in some states, which are obsessed with beef bans and cow slaughter. But the ritual killing of cattle was de rigueur among the Vedic people, who routinely sacrificed cattle and ate their flesh. The Rigveda frequently refers to the cooking of the flesh of animals, including that of the ox, as an offering to the gods, especially Indra. In most Vedic yajnas, cattle were killed and their flesh eaten. Although some post-Vedic texts recommend the offering of animal effigies in lieu of livestock, ancient Indians continued to kill cattle and eat beef, which was the favourite food of Yajnavalkya, the respected sage from Mithila. He made the obdurate statement that he would continue to eat the flesh of cows and bullocks so long as it was tender (Shatapatha Brahmana). The practice of cattle-killing on sacrificial and other occasions, attested to by a number of post-Vedic texts, possibly continued for centuries.
However, post-Mauryan lawgivers are either ambivalent or generally reticent on the issue or, more often, disapprove of cattle-killing. The Manusmriti (200 BC-200 AD), the most representative of the legal texts, allows the consumption of the flesh, among others, of all domestic animals with teeth in one jaw, the only exception being the camel, not the cow. While the text remains noncommittal on the issue of beef-eating, it tells us that one does not do any wrong by eating meat while honouring the gods, the manes and guests, for eating meat on sacrificial occasions is a divine rule. The commentator Medhatithi (9th century) interprets that passage to mean that the eating of cattle flesh was in keeping with the Vedic and post-Vedic practice, which included the killing of cattle. Another law book, Yajnavalkyasmriti (100 AD-300 AD), also discusses lawful and forbidden food and endorses the Vedic practice of killing animals and eating the consecrated meat, but unlike the Manusmriti, it clearly states that a learned Brahmin should be welcomed with a big ox or goat, delicious food and sweet words.
Thus, unlike earlier normative texts, post-Mauryan law books either restrict cow-killing to guest reception or are reticent about it. Interestingly, they try to cover up the issue by approving of all sacrifices having Vedic sanction because, according to them, Vedic killing is not killing. This obfuscation was accompanied by the almost-simultaneous development of the idea of the Kali Yuga, first described in the Mahabharata and the early Puranas. During the Kali age, the brahminical texts tell us, a number of earlier practices, including the killing of kine, were prohibited and came to be known as kalivarjas. Repeated assertions that the cow should not be killed in the Kali age tended to make the cow unslayable and led to the disappearance of beef from the Brahmin’s menu. The killing of cows now came in for condemnation in the dharmashastra texts and the cow killer was doomed to become an untouchable. The Vyasasmriti categorically states that a cow killer is untouchable and that one incurs sin by even talking to him. Beef-eating thus seems to have become a criterion of untouchability. Earlier a part of the brahminical haute cuisine, beef now gradually became an important component of the food culture of the untouchable castes, whose number proliferated over time.
During the medieval period, cow-killing became the basis of religious differentiation between Hindus and Muslims, who were stereotyped as beef-eaters. This led to occasional tensions; two such clashes in the 17th and 18th centuries are well documented. It may have been in response to this kind of conflict that Akbar (1556-1605), under the influence of Jains, issued firmans ordering his officials not to allow the slaughter of animals (including the cow) on specific occasions — a policy followed by Jahangir (1605-1627). Obviously both were trying to control inter-religious tensions. Even the will of Babur, which advised Humayun not to allow the killing of cows, may have been a response to the views of the Brahmins. Although the will itself was a later forgery, it does indicate the state’s willingness to respect the view that was gaining ground. There is no doubt that during the medieval period, the cow was emerging as an emotive cultural symbol in brahminical circles. It became more emotive with the rise of Maratha power in the 17th century under Shivaji, who was often viewed as an incarnation of god, descended on Earth for the deliverance of the cow and the Brahmins. It was first used for mass political mobilisation by the Sikh Kuka (Namdhari) movement, which rallied Hindus and Sikhs against the British, who had allowed the killing of cows in the Punjab. At around the same time, Dayanand Saraswati founded the first Goraksini Sabha in 1882. He made the cow a symbol of the unity of a wide range of people against Muslims and challenged the Muslim practice of its slaughter, provoking a series of Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1880s and 1890s. This was accompanied by an intensification of the cow-protection movement following the decree of the North-Western Provinces High Court that the cow was not a sacred object. The cow now emerged fully as a mark of Hindu identity.
So the story of the cow is riddled with puzzles and paradoxes. In Vedic and post-Vedic times, when the ritual killing of this animal and eating its flesh was in vogue, it was considered to be an item of wealth and was likened with Aditi (mother of gods), the earth, the cosmic waters whose release by Indra established the cosmic law, maternity, and to poetry, which was the monopoly of the Brahmins. Subsequently, if it was killed according to Vedic precepts, it was not killing, because Vedic killing was not killing. Even when the slaughter of bovines came to be forbidden in the Kali age, cow-killing remained a minor sin. When the dharmashastras assigned a purificatory role to the cow’s five products, they considered its faeces and urine as pure but not its mouth; and food smelt by it needed to be purified. Yet, through these incongruous attitudes, the Indian cow has struggled its way to sanctity. But its holiness is elusive. For there is no cow goddess, nor any temple in her honour — though it should not surprise us if some disgruntled elements set up one.
Jha, a former professor and chair at the department of history, Delhi University, is author of ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow’.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Elusive holiness of the cow’)