08 Aug 2017 16:06 IST

Cow, beef and India

Banning cow slaughter goes against our culture

The recent row over consumption of beef has led to various interpretations of Indian history and culture. Notwithstanding the arguments in favour of and against eating beef, it may be beneficial to understand how cow, beef and non-vegetarisnism have been perceived in ancient Indian culture.

Cattle has been an integral part of economy and religion in the Indian sub-continent right from the first evidence of domestication of animals in the Mesolithic period (around 8000-6000 BC) in Begar in Rajasthan and Adamgarh in Uttar Pradesh.

In the Harappan Civilisation, which flourished between 3000 BC and 2000 BC, there is strong evidence of harnessing of bull/buffalo for economic and religious purposes. As there was no decipherable script of this great urban civilisation of India, nothing can be said on whether beef was consumed or not.

The ascendancy of cow in Indian culture to an adorable and respectable position is a direct influence of the Aryan culture. The literary evidence from the the Rig Veda and remaining three Vedas clearly shows that while slaughter of animals including buffaloes was the order of the day in some religious rituals, cow was spared and has been described as “Goghana” which means “not to be slayed”.

This slaughter of the animals for ritual purposes and dietary needs was accepted and continued till the Buddha launched a protest against the high scale of violence against animals. Not many are aware that the message of the Buddha on non-violence had an economic angle; he was probably upset with the wastage of cattle which could have been put to better use in a roaring agrarian and urban economy of the 6th century BC. But the Buddha never advocated complete vegetarianism.

The brahmanas, who were also non-vegetarians during the Guptan period, had switched over to vegetarianism as a response to the cultural and and ethical challenge posed by Buddhism. But other sections of the Hindu society continued to be non-vegetarians and there has been no adequate evidence in historical sources that consumption of beef was not practised by non-brahmans.

With the arrival of the Turks by the 11th century AD and evolution of the Islamic culture, consumption of beef including the cow meat continued as a matter of food preference. Modern Indian history shows that Arya Samaj’s cow-protection committees had sparked off communal tension in Calcutta as early as 1880s.

All these suggest cow protection has been a part of Indian culture from the Vedic period to the 19th century. However, there has been no complete evidence for non-consumption of beef (not cow meat) in India prior to the advent of Islam.

The issue has the potential to trigger communal trouble given the transformation of ancient “Hindu” culture to the Indo-Islamic culture in medieval India. Any deviation from the policy of toleration could be a threat to secular India culture.

Culture is like a running stream as it is a way of life. New practices and ways have to be tolerated and respected. While a plea could be made to respect the cow, forceful execution of a ban on beef consumption could be counter productive.

Even emperor Asoka (273 BC-232 BC) never forced a meat ban on people. He only restricted the animal slaughter in his royal kitchen to two deer and one peacock a day! Are our policymakers listening?

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)