Tuesday, Oct 04, 2022

Explained: Holiness of the Cow and Controversy Over Beef-Eating In Ancient India

A sampling of scholarship suggests both ancient Indian texts and rulers adopted a mixed approach — condoning as well as prohibiting the killing and consumption of cows, depending on circumstances.

beef ban, beef ban issue, beef ban controversy, Hindu,  beef ban India, bjp beef ban, india news, nation news Though there seems to have been some feeling against the killing of cows even in Vedic times, Asoka did not forbid the slaughter of cattle, and oxen, at any rate, were killed for food even later.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar

The Untouchables: Who were they and why they became Untouchables?
Writings and Speeches, 1948

What is the evidence… that Hindus never ate beef and were opposed to the killing of cow?

…In the Rig Veda… the cow is spoken of as Aghnya…, ‘one who does not deserve to be killed’… Another reference… [is] where the cow is called Devi (Goddess). [But] Aghnya… means a cow that was yielding milk and therefore not fit for being killed. That the cow is venerated in the Rig Veda is of course true. [But] the utility of the cow did not prevent the Aryan from killing the cow for purposes of food…

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…The testimony of the Satapatha Brahmana and the Apastamba Dharma Sutra… are merely exhortations against the excesses of cow-killing and not prohibitions against cow-killing.


…Why did the Non-Brahmin give up beef-eating? …It was due to their desire to imitate the Brahmins… [But] why did [Brahmins] give up beef-eating?

To my mind, it was strategy… The clue to the worship of the cow is to be found in the struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism and the means adopted by Brahmanism to establish its supremacy over Buddhism…
…Beef-eating was made a sacrilege… The Broken Men who continued to eat beef became guilty… There was no other fate left for [them] except to be treated unfit for association, i.e., as Untouchables.

A L Basham
The Wonder That Was India, 1954


Though there seems to have been some feeling against the killing of cows even in Vedic times, Asoka did not forbid the slaughter of cattle, and oxen, at any rate, were killed for food even later. But the Arthasastra refers to… herds of aged, diseased and sterile cattle, and it therefore appears that before the Christian era cattle were normally allowed to die a natural death, at least in some parts of the country…

Mahadev Chakravarti
Beef-Eating in Ancient India Social Scientist, June 1979

“Beef-eating was… popular with the Vedic Indians… Not only for the purpose of sacrifices but for food also, the bovine species were killed in regular slaughter-houses and this is evident from [a] hymn of the Rgveda…

Interestingly enough in the same Veda the cow is sometimes considered inviolable as indicated by her designation aghnya (‘not to be slain’) which occurs sixteen times in the entire Rgveda… We should point out that the Sanskrit word used for the sacrificial cow is Vasa (i.e. ‘sterile cow’) and a milch cow was seldom sacrificed.


…Ancient Indian medical works like the Charaka Samhita recommend beef for pregnant women, but prohibits it for everyday use for everybody…

D N Jha
The Myth of the Holy Cow, 2002

[Among the early Aryans], animal sacrifices were very common… Indra had a special liking for bulls… Maruts and the asvins were offered cows… The Taittiriya Brahmana categorically tells us: Verily the cow is food (atho annam vai gauh) and Yajnavalkya’s insistence on eating the tender (amsala) flesh of the cow is well known.

…[Grhyasutras and Dharmasutras] provide ample evidence of the eating of flesh including beef… The ceremonial welcome of guests (sometimes known as arghya but generally as madhuparka) consisted… of the flesh of a cow or bull… [At] the sacred thread ceremony… it was necessary for a snataka to wear an upper garment of cowhide.

…Cattle were killed for food during the Mauryan period as is evident from the Arthasastra of Kautilya and Asoka’s own list of animals exempt from slaughter, which, significantly, does not include the cow…

…The Mahabharata makes a laudatory reference to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen two thousand cows were butchered each day… The Ramayana of Valmiki makes frequent references to the killing of animals including the cow for sacrifice and for food…


…Caraka, Susruta and Vagbhata… speak of the therapeutic uses of beef.

Wendy Doniger
The Hindus: An Alternative History, 2009

…It is evident that people did eat meat, including beef, though in ways that were becoming increasingly qualified… Eating meat in a sacrifice is not the same as eating meat for dinner, and killing too can be dichotomized in this way, as can the eating of cows versus other sorts of meat, though several texts combine the permission for eating meat (including cow) at a sacrifice… and meat offered to a… guest…


…One Brahmana passage forbids the eating of either cow or bull (dhenu or anaduha), [but] the text then adds, “However, Yajnavalkya said, ‘I do eat [the meat of both cow and bull], as long as it’s tasty.’”… We can see… the conflicted belief that there is a chain of food and eaters… that both justifies itself and demands that we break out of it: It happens, but it must not happen.

First published on: 08-06-2015 at 01:45:28 am
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