Write angle Ziya Us Salam

To eat or not to eat

Jacket of D.N. Jha's book.   | Photo Credit: 24dmc writeangle

The ever-popular Facebook can be so useful! The other day in the middle of a heated debate on the beef ban, a gentleman pointed out that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was all in favour of beef ban in Maharashtra and North India including Jammu and Kashmir as also Bihar, had no problem with eating of beef in Kerala as it was considered part of a local dietary tradition.

Not too sure of the authenticity of the claim, I decided to walk down history lane to find out. It brought with it ample rewards, nostalgia seeped knowledge; and a search for renowned historian D.N. Jha’s books all over again. In college, we had read his works on ancient India with varying degrees of curiosity and amusement. Until one day, a lecturer dropped a bombshell, “Cow was not sacred in ancient India,” she said. Brought up on notions of the cow’s sacredness in these parts of the country, we contested her claims. It was a no-win situation for us, as she calmly advised us to read D.N. Jha!

That was the age when Internet was not exactly round the corner and most reputed books had run out of stock when it came to Jha’s books – he was more widely read than I initially imagined in my ignorance-filled days. If at that time I could not lay my hands on “The Myth of the Holy Cow”, this time I was luckier. And what an eye-opener it proved! We had been told during our graduation days in Delhi University that cattle were sacrificed in huge numbers during the Vedic Age. There were rituals which could not be completed without the sacrifice of cattle, horse and the like. But what Jha writes in “The Myth of the Holy Cow” gives me a delicious reason to stick to non-vegetarian diet – no disrespect intended for lovers of Arhar dal. Not just human beings even deities ate meat. And in 2015 people are slaughtered on mere suspicion of storing beef!

Writes Jha in his book, “Animal sacrifices were very common, the most important of them being the famous asvamedha and rajasuya. These and several other major sacrifices involved the killing of animals, including cattle, which constituted the chief form of the wealth of the early Aryans. Not surprisingly, they prayed for cattle and sacrificed them to propitiate their gods. The Vedic gods had no marked dietary preferences. Milk, butter, barley, oxen, goats and sheep were their usual food, though some of them seem to have had their special preferences. Indra had a special liking for bulls. Agni was not a tippler like Indra, but was fond of the flesh of horses, bulls and cows. The toothless Pusan, the guardian of the roads, ate mush as a Hobson’s choice. Soma was the name of an intoxicant but, equally important, of a god, and killing animals (including cattle) for him was basic to most of the Rgvedic yajnas. The Maruts and the asvins were also offered cows. The Vedas mention about 250 animals out of which at least 50 were deemed fit for sacrifice, by implication for divine as well as human consumption. The Taittiriya Brahmana categorically tells us, ‘Verily the cow is food’ (atho annam vai gauh) and Yajnavalkya’s insistence on eating the tender (amsala) flesh of the cow is well known.”

He does not stop here. To make it easier for an average student of history, and the happily oblivious common man, he cites examples from the Mahabharata and Ramayana to drive home the point – life was incomplete without a non-vegetarian meal for deities and dasas alike. He reminds that “the Mahabharata also makes a laudatory reference to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen two thousand cows were butchered each day, their flesh, along with grain, being distributed among the Brahmanas.”

Similarly, he takes recourse to Valmiki’s Ramayana to tell us of the dietary tradition of the gods and goddesses. “Rama was born after his father Dasarath performed a big sacrifice involving the slaughter of a large number of animals declared edible by the Dharmasastras. Sita, assures the Yamuna, while crossing it that she would worship the river with a thousand cows and a hundred jars of wine when Rama accomplishes his vow. Her fondness for deer meat drives her husband crazy enough to kill Maricha, a deer in disguise. Bharadvaja welcomes Rama by slaughtering a fatted calf in his honour,” Jha writes in the conclusion of the book where he also clearly tells us that whether it was the Age of the Mauryan Empire, including the period of Asoka or the Gupta Age, animal sacrifice as also eating of their flesh was very much prevalent. For instance, ceremonial welcome of guests was considered complete only with honey, curd and flesh of cow or bull.

Even the “sacred thread ceremony for its part was not all that sacred; for it was necessary for a snataka to wear an upper garment of cowhide” and the deadtoo were sent away with animals. “The thick fat of the cow was used to cover the corpse and a bull was burnt along with it to enable the departed to ride in the nether world,” the illustrious historian writes.

Even the arrival of Buddhism and Jainism did not put a full stop to the practice. After all, Buddha is said to have died after consuming a meal made of pork. Also Manu provided a list of creatures whose flesh was considered edible. In the list he exempted camel from being killed but not the cow. In fact, animal sacrifice, including that of cattle continued till modern times. As Jha has written, “As late as the 18th Century Ghanasyama, a minister for a Tanjore ruler, states that the killing of cow in honour of a guest was the ancient rule.” Even Vivekananda is said to have consumed meat in the U.S.

Of course, there is another stream of thought under which in medieval times cow killers were considered untouchables. Cow killing as also beef eating came to be associated with untouchables – this runs similar to what sociologist K.N. Srinivas once told us that in the early modern age, beef eating was considered a lower caste practice and upper castes, when they did consume meat, limited themselves to mutton or fish.

So, guys who are quick to take offence when somebody suggests that man is superior to all creations, take a deep breath. Go back to your roots. Discover history anew.

(The author is a seasoned literary critic)

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 11:22:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Ziya_Us_Salam/to-eat-or-not-to-eat/article7797190.ece

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