There was no 'Vedic beef-eating'. Here's what Vedas say on killing cows

The problem lies with the inability to interpret the ancient texts in the correct sense.

 |  6-minute read |   01-11-2015
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Beef and cow hog the headlines these days. Cow fascism and cow protection, beef ban and beef fests, beef threats and beef protests... the hullabaloo, it seems won't reach a culminating point soon. And, all the political parties, irrespective of their ideological differences are striving hard to get political mileage from the beef row. Additional reports of communal tension in the name of cow are expected to continue to trickle in. I didn't post any comment on the issue till I read Dr MGS Narayanan's article titled "Here's The Unpalatable Truth About Beef And Hinduism" in The Huffington Post. Dr Narayanan has never been a politician. He's widely acclaimed as one of the eminent historians in Kerala and had graced the chairman's post at the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Certainly, his views should be counted.

In India, issues around the cow, or "Gau" in Sanskrit, has been sensitive since the times of foreign invasion. Cows are considered "sacred" in Indian culture. This "sacred" animal has been an integral part of daily life in pre- and post-independent India. "The Aryans followed a mixed pastoral and agricultural economy, in which cattle played a predominant part. The farmer prayed for increase of cattle; the warrior expected cattle as booty; the priest was rewarded for his services with cattle. Cattle were in fact a sort of currency, and values were reckoned in heads of cattle," eminent indologist AL Basham stated in his much-acclaimed work The Wonder That Was India.

Also read: Why Hindus stopped eating beef and began to worship cows

People in India's rural areas are very sensitive about this animal as they look upon the cow as "gaumata" (mother). There are about 300 million cows in India which produce useful commodities like milk and dung cakes and promise capacity addition by giving birth to more calves. A study, conducted by economists Santosh Anagol of the University of Pennsylvania, Alvin Etang of Economic Growth Center, Yale University, and Dean Karlan of department of Economics, Yale University, two years back, states that as an investment instrument, cow is a bad option, though it can boost the savings of people in rural India. That's the economics of cows. Let leave that now and come back to Narayanan's article.

As an academic and historian, he put forward some ambiguous points sans valid proof to claim that eating cows was popular in the Vedic period. He is right on saying that there's no Hindu religion. The term religion itself was alien to ancient Indians and the label "Hindu" was equated with the common culture of the people living here. The society in ancient India was based on four varnas, (the term "varna" means character, quality or nature. As Basham explained in his book, "varna" doesn't mean, and has never meant, caste), and that social structure was known to the world as the chaturvarna system. It was basically an ancient stratification of society and later misinterpreted as the root cause of caste discrimination in India. In the initial phase, the four varnas - the brahmins (priests, teachers and preachers), the kshatriyas (kings, governors, warriors and soldiers), the vaishyas (cattle-herders, agriculturists, artisans, and merchants) and the shudras (labourers and service providers) - were not decided by birth, but by karma (actions).

Also read: Why beef eating should not be made into a virtue

Lord Krishna, one of the most popular deities in India, made it clear in the Bhagavad Gita, cāturvarṇyaṃ mayā sṛṣṭaṃ guṇakarmavibhāgaśaḥ... It says the four-fold order was created according to the divisions of quality and work, and birth has nothing to do with it. Anybody can be a brahmin by performing actions according to those virtues. One can assume all the four roles in a single life. Now, let me come to the issue of beef-eating by brahmins. The translation or interpretation of Vedic scripts demands expertise in Vedic vocabulary, philology and grammar. But Western indologists like Max Müller, Griffith, Wilson, and Williams tried to interpret the Vedas with their little knowledge in Vedic Sanskrit. And, there is also a strong argument from Hindutva groups that the British had a hidden agenda of misinterpreting Vedas to alienate Indians from their identity and culture. Let us go through some of the mantras in the Vedas which unambiguously says a big "no" to killing animals for food.

  • Yasmintsarvaani bhutaanyaatmaivaabhuudvijaanatah
  • Tatra ko mohah kah shokah ekatvamanupasyatah
  • - Yajurveda 40.7

"Those who see all beings as souls do not feel infatuation or anguish at their sight, for they experience oneness with them."

  • Breehimattam yavamattamatho maashamatho tilam
  • Esha vaam bhaago nihito ratnadheyaaya dantau
  • maa hinsishtam pitaram maataram cha
  • - Atharvaveda 6.140.2

"O teeth! You eat rice, you eat barley, you eat gram and you eat sesame. These are specifically meant for you. Do not kill those who are capable of being fathers and mothers."

Another mantra in Atharvaveda says, "It is definitely a great sin to kill innocents. Do not kill our cows, horses and people."

Vedas, the most ancient scriptures readable to present-day man, never promote animal slaughter. The problem lies with spreading awareness on Vedas and the inability to interpret the gem of knowledge in the correct sense owing to the lethargy of Indians.

The fundamentals of Hindu culture lie in the Vedas. But, the Hindus were tuned to toe the lines of Semitic theory under the aegis of the British. Except Swami Dayanand Saraswati, none of the Indian leaders dared to spearhead a reformation purely based on the Vedas. Dayanand, the founder of Arya Samaj movement, had the courage to take on the so-called Hindu system with his exceptional knowledge in the Vedic scriptures. He believed and propounded that Vedas belong to all living beings in the universe. According to Dayanand, even the most celebrated Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita and epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana have relevance till they support the concepts in the Vedas. He presented the ancient Indian thought as egalitarian and liberal, at the same time believed in the infallible authority of the Vedas. Dayanand was a champion of promoting vegetarianism, women empowerment, child education and fight against untouchability.

In a recent book in Malayalam titled Arshabharathathile Gomamsabakshanam, Acharya MR Rajesh, an ardent follower of Dayanand and the founder of Kasyapa Veda Research Foundation (KVRF), candidly states the vegetarian aspects of the Vedas and how misinterpretation of beef-eating gained momentum in the country. The need of the hour is to democratise the Vedas and propagate the culture of peaceful coexistence. And, mind that promoting vegetarianism should not be done in the name of so-called religion.


Dipin Damodharan Dipin Damodharan @dipinbharath

The writer is co-founder of EduQuest and Ex-Editorial Head, DC Media, DC Books.

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