We live in a country where at least once a year, scholars, politicians, activists, and occasionally, celebrities, meet up with Arnab Goswami (or the likes) to discuss a very important factor to the country’s integrity - cows. While some say that these killings have increased since the BJP government has come into power, others argue that cows have been prohibited as food for millennia in our country. It gets a little confusing to discern the facts from opinions. What does history, as studied by scholars, say, though?
Let’s start with the Indus Valley Civilization. Archaeologists can tell what the people of this civilization ate by analyzing the teeth and bones that were discarded after their meals. The findings show that cattle was an integral part of their daily meals and was used for meat and possibly milk. The humped cow, also known as Zebu was what they were familiar with, most likely.
“How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed?" - Mahatma Gandhi
Next comes the culture surrounded with a lot of controversies, the Vedic ‘Aryan’ people, who are famously known for treating cows as sacred creatures. While there are many theories as to how cows came to be regarded as sacred, a story in the Mahabharata offers an insight into the query. The story says, King Prithu, an avatar of Vishnu, had to free his people from the famine, and so he went to the earth-goddess ‘Prithvi’, known to have food hidden in her abdomen. She took the form of a cow and ran away, leading to a chase. The chase ended when she decided to give her milk as a form of nourishment to the people. And that’s why cows are sacred, say the Vedas.
It’s pretty evident that cows were sacred in the ancient Indian society, but that does not mean that they were exempt from being eaten. People who wrote and compiled the Rig Veda ate the meat of either the females or of castrated bulls. Ancient ritual texts called the Brahmanas (around 900 B.C) say, that when a guest arrives, a cow or a bull should be killed for meat. According to historian Romila Thapar, the higher a person was in the caste-ladder, the more restraints they had on eating meat. What does this mean, exactly?
It basically means that if you were a Brahmin, eating meat wouldn’t be okay, but it would be completely fine if you belonged to the lower castes.
Since we live in an era where eating cows lead to mob lynching, it’s very important to address how people in the past were punished for eating cows. Manu, who was one of the earliest lawgivers in our country, does not prescribe any particular punishment to those who have consumed cow meat. In some later texts, the degree of punishment varied by caste. Let me explain, if you kill a cow that belongs to a Brahmin, it’s a greater sin than killing a cow that belonged to a Vaishya. In spite of these ideas, the Dharmasastras or the Manusmriti do not prescribe any dire punishment for killing a cow, and certainly, don’t speak of killing human beings for doing so.
The ‘cow protection movement’ arose in the late 19th Century, and the first of this kind were not even Hindus, but Sikhs. Even Gandhi, who was against the killing of cows, in accordance with his philosophy of vegetarianism, did not forbid anyone from eating cows. He said, “How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.”
Cow lynchings though can officially be traced back to the beginning of Hindutva in 1923. And since then, Muslims and lower caste Hindus have been the prime targets of these cow-favouring mobs.
We live in a culture that is profoundly diverse. The truth is that some people worshipped cows, while some ate them. But what is true is that mobs never went out like they do now to kill people who eat beef. So if our ancestors, who the Hindutva mob looks out to as a benchmark for the ideal cow respecting society, can be so lax with the consumption of this sacred animal, then why can’t we?