History, Hinduism and Beef Eating

The debate on Hinduism and beef eating is not only old, but also one that has made a mark on Indian history time and again. This was, for example, one of the primary triggers for the First War of Independence in 1857 in which use (or rumour of use) of cartridges greased with cow and pig fat sparked a revolt among Indian soldiers of East India Company, which later flared up to such a scale that it marked the end of company rule in India. As recently as last week, a man was killed and his son injured by a mob that claimed that he had consumed beef – an incident which is being used by parties across political spectrum to strengthen the hold on their respective vote banks and gain political mileage. There was also a controversy in the last month regarding the enforcement of ban on beef in Jammu and Kashmir, which is still under judicial review. Apart from matters of law and order, which are for courts to decide, these recent incidents raise important questions on whether beef eating is really unacceptable to Hindus, and if it is, whether it justifies a more general ban on consumption of beef that applies even to followers of other religions.

The first of these questions, namely, whether beef eating is unacceptable to Hindus, is not easy to answer for the simple reason that Hindus are not a monolithic group. There are different groups within Hinduism who have their own beliefs and follow their own customs, and it cannot be denied that some of these groups eat meat, including that of cow. That said, Hindu scriptures and texts are generally unequivocal about the holiness of cow and the need to protect her. In Srimad Bhagavatham, for example, worship of cow is treated as equivalent to worship of the Lord himself. Sri Krishna is the protector of cows, so to slaughter cows would definitely not be something that a devotee of Lord Krishna would want to engage in or condone. The duty of a King as laid down in Hindu texts includes protection of cows. So it is not surprising that there are many Hindus who would like the government to protect cows through laws that ban slaughtering of cows and eating of beef. It is this public opinion that has resulted in ban on cattle slaughter in many Indian states, with punishment of over 5 years of imprisonment in many.

An important point to note is that this opposition of Hindus to cow slaughter, or laws banning slaughter and consumption of cattle, is not a creation of BJP, RSS or their affiliates as the so called “liberal” political parties would have us believe. The opposition was strong even 500 years ago, respecting which Mughal emperor Babar forbade killing of cows. The laws banning cow slaughter that are in effect in most states of India have also been enacted much before BJP rose to power.  So I think there is no doubt that for a large section of Hindus, cow is sacred, close to their heart, and an important religious symbol associated with their worship of God – and this has been so for centuries (and perhaps millenniums).

A pamphlet against beef eating that was circulated around 1890. Some modern liberals might see Narendra Modi's and RSS' hand in it.
A pamphlet against beef eating that was circulated around 1890. Some modern liberals might see Narendra Modi’s and RSS’ hand in it.

One of the pointless arguments raised by some to counter this fact is the claim that sages and Brahmins during the Vedic period and the Devas they worshiped used to consume meat – specifically beef, making it unnecessary for Hindus of today to oppose the consumption of beef. Without even going into the veracity of this claim, I can only laugh at this line of thought proposed by those who disregard all the spiritual wisdom in our scriptures, but are happy to hand pick specific verses out of their context and contort them to suit their own hedonistic obsessions. For the sake of argument, let’s assume (without any real evidence) that ancient Hindus consumed beef and other types of meat. How does that mean we should follow that practice even now? If there is evidence of demand and acceptance of dowry among “Hindus” in ancient India, or if Vedas advocated following a Varna system (that got transmuted into the caste system which everybody seems to be against), will the proponents of these arguments rally for reinstitution of dowry or varna system? Do they believe in applying all principles found in Manusmriti to the construction of today’s society? That would be as crazy as a call for building the legal system around a centuries old and now irrelevant code such as the Sharia (and that has been done in many countries, for a reason that will be clear towards the end of this post).

Vedas and scriptures offer timeless spiritual wisdom, which is as valuable now as it ever has been. That wisdom is at a level where it has reached the zenith, is complete, and has no scope for further expansion. In the realm of mundane affairs such as society, law and order, and science, on the other hand, it is imprudent to ignore all the progress that has been made since and, of course, to not apply our own common sense, intelligence and sense of propriety in following the spirit of the scriptures rather than blindly holding on to the words. This is what differentiates a progressive society from a stagnant one. So, if it is really true that Hindus used to eat beef during Vedic times but have become more vegetarian recently, I see it as a sign of progress.

When man was a hunter-gatherer, or when agriculture was still in its infancy, man will have had to depend on meat to survive. As civilization advanced and our sense of compassion grew beyond our species to the entire animal kingdom, more and more vegetarian foods started replacing meat in human diet. This technological progress, coupled with the deep rooted compassion that is at the core of Indian philosophy (a.k.a Hinduism) could have played a role in the rise of vegetarianism and a stigma towards eating meat – especially that of cow, which is a gentle animal that has played an irreplaceable part in our agrarian revolution. Compassion for all species as for oneself is a virtue that has been categorically extolled in, and urged by, the Vedas. If we can adhere to that principle and take it to the next level by making use of technological progress, that is definitely the direction that our seers would have wanted us to take.

(Note:  I am not implying that vedic people would have slaughtered and consumed their cattle – just making my point that even if they did so out of necessity, it is no reason for us to do so when there are so many other options available now)

Even if we leave compassion aside for a moment, from a purely environmental standpoint, meat production places a disproportionate burden on the environment and is not sustainable in the scale required to feed our country at the current level of population. Switching to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet in a greater degree can help in this regard. Then there are the effects of antibiotics and growth hormone abuse in animals reared for food. Though these considerations are significant and motivate many to turn vegetarian, these are not the primary reasons behind my support for vegetarianism. Nevertheless, there is no reason to not bring up valid points that might appeal to some of those who do not appreciate sanctity of all life and compassion towards all beings.

While I have made my support for vegetarianism clear, what I think does not really matter at all, given how less power I wield. Laws in a democracy are formed based on the collective conscience of citizens. If the majority feel that it is wrong to kill a human being, that will be the law irrespective of the opinion that I or anybody else has on the subject. Similarly, if the majority consider it wrong to kill an animal, that can also be made into a law. If there is a law, all are bound to abide by it regardless of their personal beliefs. For example, let us say that I do not consider it wrong for two willing adults to engage in a dual to death, as used to happen till a couple of centuries ago in many Asian and European countries. However, the law in my country does not allow it, and so I have no choice. Similarly, those who like to run around without clothes on will be restricted in a society that has collectively decided to treat nudity as obscenity. In my opinion, there are no objective rules around this – it is just what the law says. If you disagree with the law, you can mobilize public opinion, try to bring to power another party that shares your views, and change the laws. But other than that, I don’t see how law against killing humans is good and law against killing animals is bad.

One important aspect to be considered while making any such law is that food is not always just a matter of choice – it is often dictated by tradition and availability.  India has many different traditions and many of them might involve consumption of meat and fish due to geographical and historical influences. To strike down these traditions with the blade of law would prove disastrous in more ways than one. Firstly, we will lose a part of the rich and varied heritage that we are so proud of. Even more important, a move like this will likely create a nutritional hole in the diet of a population that has neither the knowledge, nor resources, to address it with vegetarian substitutes.  So, though I am ideologically against slaughter and consumption of meat, I do not consider a blanket ban on it advisable in a country as vast and diverse as India. As in the case of existing laws against slaughter of cattle, any such law should be duly considered at the level of each state or even lower.

Finally, having made my view on beef ban clear, not clarifying my position on the recent unfortunate incident in UP would probably send a wrong signal, though my position is a direct extrapolation of the central argument on which I have based my discussion so far. If we have moral, ethical and (to some extent) legal responsibility to treat animals with kindness, we have at least as much responsibility to treat other humans beings also with no less kindness. So those who would kill a man by accusing him of having eaten meat are completely missing the point as to why they are advised to abjure meat. I condemn the action of the mob that lynched a man in UP based on a rumour that he ate beef just as I would condemn, in no less certain terms, a mob that would lynch a person accused of (a possibly greater crime of) rape or murder. Individuals and mobs have no business judging others or handing out “punishments” for supposed crimes. This applies equally to fanatics of any ideology, or goons from political organizations. (In Kerala, it is mostly cadre of leftist parties and organizations such as SFI and DYFI that I have seen engage in violence, kill their opponents, and destroy public property. Ironically, they are also the first to condemn mobs that are no different from them except in the colour of their headband that engage in violence elsewhere in the country.)

India is a secular (well, quite pseudo-secular due to the minority appeasement followed by successive governments) country. This is essentially because Hinduism, and most Hindus, are, by nature, secular. Religious communities that faced persecution in many different parts of the world have found asylum in India and have been practicing their faith without interference. This is how it has been for ages, and this is how it should always be. This is not because our our constitution defines us as secular or our laws enforce it. Rather, our constitution and laws are only a reflection of the very nature of Hinduism that is tolerant of differences and is compassionate to others. It is in everybody’s interest that this spirit of love, compassion and tolerance is nurtured, and imbibed by other religions that have gained following in India. Respecting the ban on production and consumption of beef (where it exists), and working to reduce slaughter in general, are in line with this spirit of our motherland.

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3 thoughts on “History, Hinduism and Beef Eating

  1. This is a balanced article. I would draw the attention of the readers to the book “Practical Vedanta” which discusses at length what is Sanatana Dharma and what are man made rules – shruti vs smriti. Most of the rules quoted here fall in the category of smriti. Smritis are many in number, have evolved over time, and are changeable. So quoting some smriti is meaningless, and we need to adapt to today’s conditions and even more importantly go by what is dharma and shruti. As Mahatama Gandhi pointed out there are some issues where even a minority of one should be respected and majority alone cannot dictate. From a very down to earth practical perspective, note that even 1% of India is a lot of people, and being fanatical can only lead the country into a civil war as we see within even Muslim countries today due to sect differences.

    1. Thank you for the insightful comment. I do not dispute your view, and there could be cases in which I also support minority views. However, when we talk about a democracy, it is the views of the majority that matter. Otherwise, who is to decide on which matters minority opinion should be followed?

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