There is copious evidence that the Vedic Aryans sacrificed cows and ate beef. In the Vedas there are references to various kinds of sacrifice in which cows were killed and its flesh was eaten. This practise continued in the post-Vedic period, up to the pre-Mauryan period. Gradually, from the Mauryan period onwards references to cow killing begin to figure less in our sources. The Brahmins, who were the main proponents of the sacrifices, now began to discourage and even disapprove of the killing of the cow. Their disapproval was linked with the idea of Kaliyuga, which is first enunciated in the Mahabharata and the early Puranic texts belonging to the post-Mauryan and Gupta period.
The Brahmin law givers now began to argue that certain old practises had to be given up in the Kaliyuga and one of them is the practise of killing a cow. Their discouragement and disapproval of the practise is clear from the dharmashastric injunction that a cow killer is an untouchable. Cow killing was given up and beef gradually disappeared from the Brahminical food menu; it now became part of the food culture of the untouchable castes whose number increased over time.
During the medieval period, with the advent of Islam, cow became an emotive cultural symbol of the Brahmanical social order and there were occasional tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims; two instances of confrontation between them in the 17th and 18th centuries are well documented. Cow became a more emotive cultural symbol with the rise of the Maratha kingdom and Shivaji, who is considered to be the saviour of Brahmins and cows. This animal became a mark of Hindu identity mainly during this time.
The Sikh Kuka/ Namdhari Movement in late 19th century used cow as symbol for mobilising Hindus and Sikhs against the British who had allowed cow slaughter in the Punjab. In 1882, Dayanand Saraswati founded the Gow Rakshini Sabha (Cow Protection Society) and was successful in mobilising a wide variety of people under this symbol, which was mainly directed against the Muslims. From then onwards, cow has become an important factor in India’s communal politics.
So cow killing, associated with many Vedic sacrifices, tended to lose its importance over time. In the post-Mauryan and Gupta periods and subsequent centuries, the Brahminical injunctions clearly discourage and disapprove of cow slaughter. In the medieval period, we see it emerging as an emotive symbol and in the 19th century, it became a mark of Hindu identity. The aggressive projection of Hindu identity has significantly influenced politics in India during the 20th century. With its increased belligerence now, it is playing a vicious role in contemporary politics.
(As told to Ursila Ali.)