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Volume 11, No. 8—November 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Banned in Benares

WHEN THE BRITISH COLONIAL ENTERPRISE on the Indian subcontinent received its first major blow in the mid-nineteenth century, it was apparently a substance as innocuous as animal fat that stoked the fires of rebellion. Known variously as the 1857 Mutiny or the first Indian war of independence, the war is generally said to have been set off by the presence of beef and pork fat in the British-issued greased cartridges that Hindu and Muslim soldiers had to bite off before loading into their rifles.

Of course, the uprising had a number of political and economic causes, but the Hindu ban on eating beef has been a flash point in India ever since. Upholding the protected status of the cow became a rallying point for extremist Hindu groups in the late nineteenth century. More than a hundred years later, in a country now ruled by the Hindu right-wing BJP, the politics of beef remains contentious. When the Delhi University historian D.N. Jha recently challenged the prevailing attitudes about cows and beef, he was denounced by the government, and his book on the subject was pulled from the country's shelves.

In August, Jha, a reputable scholar of ancient Indian history, published Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions (Matrix Books), in which he argues that the current iconic status of the cow would have made little sense to the ancestors of present-day Hindus. The widespread assumption that beef eating was foreign to the subcontinent until it was introduced by Muslim invaders in the twelfth century is incorrect, insists Jha; not only were the ancient Hindus of the Vedic Age no strangers to the pleasures of beef, but the now prohibited meat once had an important position in the hierarchy of offerings made to Hindu gods.

Though right-wing commentators often fulminate against what they see as anti-Hinduism in the work of India's generally secular historians, the reaction to Holy Cow has been particularly fierce. The hostility began even before publication, when Jha received threatening phone calls after a chapter was posted on a Web site. During correction of the final proofs, the book's original publisher withdrew from the project, saying, "I will be lynched if I publish that Bhagawan Mahavira ate meat"—a reference to the founder of the vegetarian Jain religion. (Jha says he is not the first historian to have considered the possibility that Jain monks and their founder ate meat in certain extraordinary situations, and he says his work never disputes the fact that Jain texts generally endorse strict vegetarianism.) Hindu priests in Benares have held demonstrations against the book, describing the author as part of "anti-national forces trying to destroy Indian culture and tradition."

Upon the book's publication, groups loyal to the BJP—whose election manifesto routinely promises to ban the slaughter of "cows and cow-progeny" in those states where it is not already illegal—immediately demanded the author's arrest and a ban on the book. Jha has not been arrested, but after a number of religious and animal-rights groups filed petitions, a court in the southern city of Hyderabad ordered the publisher to desist from printing, publishing, and releasing the book anywhere in India until further hearings are held. As a result, says Jha, Holy Cow is "for all intents and purposes banned."

In today's India, sectarian politics has ensured that beef is eaten only by those considered on the fringes of mainstream society. Because it is cheaper than mutton or chicken, beef is often the food of India's poor. Hindus with liberal tendencies eat it, but the fundamentalist right usually attributes the practice to the misguided secularism of communists. Even in states where it can be sold openly, beef is rarely found in markets with a predominantly Hindu clientele.

It wasn't always so, says Jha. Drawing on a wide range of secular and sacred sources dating back to the second millennium b.c., he concludes that the ancient cow was "a combination of paradoxes"—its mouth was considered impure, but cow products (milk, bile, urine) were often used in purification rites. Jha thus contends that the static tradition his accusers cling to is not borne out by rational historical inquiry, which instead reveals that "the image of the cow projected by Indian textual traditions—over the centuries is polymorphic." His chronological study of sacred and secular texts contains abundant references to ritual slaughter of cattle and the consumption of the sacrificial meat, as well as to archaeological evidence of bone fragments ("often with cut marks") and "the therapeutic use of meats." It is only around the middle of the first millennium a.d., Jha says, that Hindu texts began to disapprove of the killing of cows and the consumption of beef.

Jha ascribes these developments to a shift in rural lifestyle from a pastoral mode to a more hierarchical agrarian society. This change, he writes, was accompanied by the "gradual replacement of Vedic sacrifice" by a new religious system in which an "emphasis on the donation of land and other agrarian resources like—cattle—made it necessary for the law givers to forbid the killing of kine." Older dietary habits did not die out, however, and while penances were laid down for eating beef or killing a cow, such acts were usually treated as minor sins, not major infractions.

Though Jha is known for his combative political stance—he does not hesitate to call Hindu ideologues "ignoramuses" in his preface—he acknowledges that the controversy over the history of beef eating is "more than a century old" and that many scholars, including conservative Sanskritists, have understood that beef "formed an important item of food in ancient India." Somewhat bemused by the attention his scholarly tract is getting, he nonetheless laments the tendency of dominant Hindu groups to divide Indian society into pure selves and demonized others. Jha refers to ethnic riots that begin with Hindus throwing pig flesh into mosques and Muslims flinging beef into temples as contemporary examples of such destructive patterns of behavior. He himself is a Brahmin and a vegetarian by habit. "But if a situation so demands," he says, "I eat nonvegetarian food, including beef, without any sense of guilt. To others I appear a bad eater, but I enjoy whatever food I eat."

Siddhartha Deb


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