Skip to comments.The beef-eaters of ancient India ( Book Review
Posted on 08/07/2002 10:19:39 AM PDT by swarthyguy
The only shocking thing about this book is the news that someone has found it shocking has been shocked, shocked (as Claude Raines would have said) by the argument that people used to eat cows in ancient India. The Myth of the Holy Cow is a dry, straight academic survey of the history of Sanskrit texts dealing with the eating, or not-eating, of cows. The author, Dwijendra Narayan Jha, Professor of History at the University of Delhi, has marshalled indisputable evidence proving what every scholar of India has known for well over a century:
(1) In ancient India, from the time of the oldest sacred text, the Rig Veda (c 1000 BC), cows were eaten regularly, both ritually and for many of the same reasons that people nowadays eat Big Macs (I eat beef, as long as it is juicy, said a great Vedic sage, Yajnavalkya, in about 900 BC).
(2) Almost as early, the practice of vegetarianism in general, and, somewhat later, the prohibition of beef-eating in particular, spread throughout India, in Buddhism and Jainism as well as in Hinduism, and continued alongside an on-going practice of meat-eating.
(3) Several reformers, most famously Gandhi, made vegetarianism a central tenet of Hinduism.
Nothing shocking here. Yet the dust jacket of the book proudly proclaims: A Book the Government of India Demands be Ritually Burned, and the blurb assures us that the book has been banned by the Hyderabad Civil Court and the authors life has been threatened. The Observer likened the books reception to that of Salman Rushdies Satanic Verses , and even the more-PC-than-thou Lingua Franca tells us that the book was pulled from the countrys shelves. Why?
The belief that the Hindus have sacred cows is attested in no less an authority than the OED , which defines the term as, primarily, designating The cow as an object of veneration amongst Hindus, and cites an 1891 reference from Rudyard Kiplings father, already in the context of HinduMuslim conflict (J. L. KIPLING Beast & Man in India vi. 116 The Muhammedan . . . creed is in opposition to theirs and there are rankling memories of a thousand insults to it wrought on the sacred cow.) But the term soon became a global metaphor, indeed a backhanded anti-Hindu ethnic slur, designating precisely the sort of fanaticism that has dogged Professor Jhas book. In US journalism the word came to mean someone who must not be criticized, and in American literature, an idea, institution, etc, unreasonably held to be immune from questioning or criticism, a sense in which Margaret Mitchell used it in 1936 in Gone with the Wind (I think of my brother, living among the sacred cows of Charleston, and most reverent towards them). The present right-wing BJP government, in its fanatical pursuit of Hindutva (literally, Hindu-tion), has ignored the figurative usages that characterize its own methods and attempted to use the alleged literal sanctity of the cow to disenfranchise Muslims, some of whom eat beef and/or slaughter the cows that many Hindus eat. This is apparently what makes this a shocking book: it contradicts the party line, which is that We Hindus have always been here in India, and have Never Eaten Cow; those Muslims have come in, and Kill and Eat Cows, and therefore must be destroyed. The Hindutva argument resembles in many respects the old they-are-eating-our-children-and-poisoning-our-wells accusation, which, as Carlo Ginzburg has demonstrated, was levelled not just against the witches in Europe but, long before that, by the Christians against the Jews, the Romans against the Christians, and the Jews against various enemies .
Since the human species is by nature carnivorous, what is surprising is that there ever were vegetarians, not that we were all, once, meat-eaters, and many of us still are. It is one of the ironies of history that the British, who called themselves Beef-eaters, ruled India. Yet the ancient inhabitants of India resembled nineteenth-century Texans as much as Victorian Britons: the people of the Rig Veda (like other members of the Indo-European family) were cattle-herders and cattle-rustlers, who went about stealing other peoples cows and pretending to be taking them back, all in the service of a religion that argued for Lebensraum , constant expansion, more and more grazing land for their horses. They sacrificed cows to the gods and ate them , and counted their wealth in pashus (cattle), cognate with Latin pecus (as in impecunious) and Spanish pecos (as in Pecos Bill).
The idea of a sacred cow is an Irish bull (the old British chauvinist term for an oxymoron ). The word sacred is in any case a Christian term that can be, at best, vaguely and inadequately applied in India, but cows would not in any case qualify for the adjective: there are no cow-goddesses or temples to cows, or icons of cows to which worship is offered, though there are festivals in which people decorate cows and give them fruit and flowers. Since cows are not deities, there is no need for cow statues, as, unlike deities, cows are always visibly present on earth. Benign bulls are beautifully depicted at the doors of Shiva temples, and there are temples to monkeys, tiger temples, temple elephants, shrines to snakes, and even a temple or two to dogs, who are closely associated with Bhairava (an aspect of Shiva), though dogs are as unclean to caste-minded Hindus as pigs are to orthodox Jews. Cows are, in fact, one of the few animals that are not the object of worship in India. Yet cows have been, for centuries, cultural symbols of non-violence and of the passive, bovine aspect of women, in sharp contrast with mares, whom the mythology depicts as over-sexed, insatiable and fatally attractive.
Professor Jha traces the history of the doctrine forbidding the eating of cows or the killing of cows, soundly and thoroughly covering both the classic texts and cutting-edge scholarship, Indian and European, but his arguments are not always as nuanced as they might be. Holy (or sacred) means a lot more than not-to-be-killed. Few of us kill, or eat, our children, but none would argue that they are sacred. Eating meat in sacrifice is not the same as eating meat for dinner, and killing, too, can be dichotomized in this way: the great Hindu law-book by Manu argued that: The Self-existent One himself created sacrificial animals for sacrifice; sacrifice is for the good of this whole universe; and therefore killing in a sacrifice is not killing.
To this day it is often argued in India that the meat of animals killed for the table is poison because such animals die in fear and anger, while animals killed for sacrifice are happy to die, and so their meat is sweet. This is a very old way of combating guilt; the myth of the cow who willingly offers not only her milk but her flesh to be eaten is attested in the Jaiminiya Brahmana, c 900 BC , which also imagines humans soundlessly screaming while they are being eaten in the other world, in punishment for eating, in this world, not only animals but plants if they have not been consecrated for sacrifice. More often, however, the cow is singled out for special treatment precisely because she is an animal that you can eat (in the form of her milk) without killing her; the Hindu parallel to the cornucopia (or the German Tischlein deck dich) is the myth of the wishing-cow, from whom you can milk anything you desire not just food but silk cloths, armies of soldiers, anything.
The issue is further complicated by the concept of ahimsa , often translated as non-injury a concept that Gandhi, in particular, made world-famous but more literally, the absence of the desire to injure or kill. Ahimsa represents not a political doctrine or even a social theory, but the emotion of the horror of killing, which we have seen attested in 900 BC. Vegetarianism and compassion for animals are not the same thing at all; vegetarianism does not equal non-injury.
It is usual for most individuals to eat meat without killing animals (most non-vegetarians, few of whom hunt or butcher, do it every day) and equally normal for an individual to kill without eating meat (what percentage of hit-men or soldiers devour their fallen enemies?) Indeed, Jan Heesterman has suggested that vegetarianism and killing went hand in hand: that in the earliest period of Indian civilization, meat-eating householders would, in time of war, consecrate themselves as warriors by giving up the eating of meat. They either ate meat or killed. In later Hinduism, the strictures against eating and killing continued to work at odds, so that it was regarded as better (for most people, in general: the rules would vary according to the caste status of the person in each case) to kill an Untouchable than to kill a Brahmin, but better to eat a Brahmin (presuming that one came across a dead one) than to eat an Untouchable (under the same circumstances). It makes a difference if you find the meat already killed or have to kill it, and this would apply not only to Brahmins vs Untouchables but to cows vs dogs as road-kill.
Nevertheless, the logical assumption that any animal that one ate had to have been killed by someone led to a natural association between the ideal of vegetarianism and the ideal of non-violence toward living creatures. And this ideal came to prevail in India, reinforced by the idea of reincarnation and its implication that humans and animals were part of a single system of the recycling of souls: do not kill/eat an animal, for it might be your grandmother, or your grandchild, or you. For you are whom you ate, and you may become whom you eat. Food taboos of this sort come in all shapes and sizes in India: there are vegetarians, vegans, people who eat chicken or fish or eggs but not beef, who eat beef as long as it is disguised as curry but not when served as a rare rib roast, or do not drink milk, and so forth.
The lawbooks and their commentaries obsessively count the angels on the head of a roasting skewer. And when we fold this mix back into the broader issues, we must distinguish killing, tormenting (for Hindus will often treat cows in ways that soft-hearted Americans who eat beef regard as very cruel indeed), sacrificing, eating and, finally, worshipping, which is quite another issue and, as we have seen, not relevant to Hindu cows at all. Jha doesnt sort all of this out, but it really doesnt matter. His basic point stands and is proved beyond dispute: the claim that Hindus have never eaten cows is false.
But what is the relevance of history? If we could prove that human sacrifice was attested in the Rig Veda (and humans were, at least theoretically, included in the list of sacrificial victims or pashus , along with horses, cows, goats and sheep), would that justify cannibalism today? Not logically or legally, but to a certain type of reactionary religious mind, it would indeed; the past is a very important template for the present; we must do in the present what our ancestors did in illo tempore, as Mircea Eliade taught us to call it. And so this sort of historical study does indeed hit the BJP where it hurts.
But who will listen? Who cares? Will any of the people making the Hindutva arguments which are not historical or scholarly but religious and political read Professor Jhas book, or even the TLS review of it? Michel Foucault and Edward Said, among others, have taught us that scholarship is often deeply implicated in creating the political mess in the first place, but scholarship has demonstrated far less power to clean the mess up; like the sorcerers apprentice, or Frankenstein, or the scientists on the Manhattan Project, scholars create imperialist monsters that they cannot control but merely watch, aghast, from the sidelines, crying, No, no, put it down ! Scholars lack all conviction, while ideologues are full of passionate intensity. Yet the fact that The Myth of the Holy Cow has been attacked is a good sign, a sign that someone among those thugs in the government reads, and worries that the pen may still be, if not mightier than the nuclear arsenal, at least a weapon worth scanning for, like knives at airports, a weapon capable of subversion.
Holy cow and wholly chao.
India better strike the law that allows people to legally marry cows!
Yeah, OK. That's quite an attractive mare ya got there, Bob.
how do you like it cooked?
I dunno, let's find out :)
You were saying.....
Note: this topic is from August 7, 2002.
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