Dharma has been made out to be a complicated word. That way you can call anything dharma. Currently, many Hindu - or rather Hindutva - leaders want to equate it with commandment, taking a cue from Abrahamic mythology that they love to otherwise mock. So dharma becomes law that you can use to control (or oppress?) sections of the population, create parameters for ethics and morality, deem what is good and right. But there is another word for law - it's called niti. Niti (law) and riti (tradition) can be inspired by dharma, but is not dharma. Dharma is a thought, not an action.
Dharma is equated with the act of not killing, or ahimsa. This value placed non-violence began with monastic orders, Jainism and Buddhism, and was restricted to monastic orders, and certain communities, not imposed on all people. It was yama, or discipline, that is the first step prescribed for someone who wishes to practice Raja Yoga as prescribed by Patanjali. In the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha turned ahimsa into a tool for non-violent political protest. Somewhere along the line ahimsa became associated with nobility and goodness. Neither violence, nor non-violence is dharma. For dharma is a thought, not an action.
Action is karma. Reaction is karma. Karma is a worldview that does not qualify actions as right and wrong but as having a cause and a consequence. Monasticism is neither good nor bad, it's a choice of action that enables one to break free from the cycle of rebirths, but when men start finding glory in withdrawing from women, somewhere along the line women become "temptations" and sex becomes "dirty". Likewise, when eating some kind of food is valorised over other, some foods become pure, and other kinds of food become impure. With concepts such as purity and impurity, we create a society of hierarchy, which was never the intention of monasticism, but ends up becoming its consequence. This is why in the Gita, Krishna speaks out against withdrawal from duties, even those involving violence, and in chapter four, verse 18, says, "The wise can see inaction in action, and action in inaction."
So what is dharma? Dharma is potential. The best of what anything or anyone can do. Fire can burn; that is its dharma. Trees can grow and bear flower and fruit; that is its dharma. Birds eat, fly, mate, migrate, take care of young; that is its dharma. What are humans supposed to do? What is human dharma? This is a tough one. For humans have imagination. Hence the vast literature on it.
Humans can imagine a reality alternative to the reality we experience. So we have choices. Some animals like crows and cats and dolphins and chimpanzees have imagination but nothing in the human scale. So while they also have choice, whether to freeze or flee or fight in danger, and to play, and to problem solve, their abilities are nowhere in the human scale.
Dharma becomes even more complicated when we introduce social structures upon it: what is a man supposed to do, what is a woman supposed to do, what is a child supposed to do. What is the son of a charioteer supposed to do? What is the son of a cobbler supposed to do? What is a king supposed to do? What is a priest supposed to do? Gender, age and family vocation and economic situation shape our choices. In case of humans, dharma is the seed of thought that determines what will sprout as action. It is not what you do that is dharma; it is why you do it that is dharma. What is that thought?
For that we have to appreciate what only humans can do. What no plant or animal can do. What is that? It is the ability to reject the law of the jungle: that might is right, that only the fit can thrive. This is called matsya nyaya (law of fish) in Sanskrit. That is why Vishnu takes the form of fish in his first avatar. As a small fish escaping the jaws of a big fish, Vishnu asks Manu, father of humanity, to save him. Only humans can respond to cries of help. When we do, we validate our humanity. Animals and plants do not help other animals or birds (except the young of their herd or pack), not because they are cruel or indifferent, but because they do not have the wherewithal to do so.
Humans can help the helpless. Humans can choose not to dominate. Humans can choose not to be territorial or violent. Humans can share. Humans can help the unfit thrive. To do so is dharma. Simple.
But this makes dharma very tough. For who decides if we are helping or not. Dharma is not what we imagine it to be. We may think we are being kind, but if those around us feel we are cruel, then it cannot be dharma. Human subjectivity comes into play. Human plurality comes into play. Who decides who is the oppressor and oppressed? The parties involved or a third-party judge. But God is no judge in Hindu mythology. And in nature, there is no oppressor and oppressed, only eaters and eaten, predators and prey, the food chain and the pecking order. There is no objectivity here. This is why dharma is complex.
So people want to save cows. They say it is dharma. It is the Hindu way. That is a controversial statement. For it sounds like a commandment, which has never been the Hindu way. Hinduism has always appreciated the flux of society, changing with period, place and people (kala, sthan, and patra). In fact, there are verses (furiously debated and far from conclusive) in Vedic scriptures that suggest ancient Hindus did consume meat, probably even beef, before the rise of monastic orders in Hinduism.
Veda has a very mature view of violence, not a romantic view, very different from the monastic view of Buddhism and Jainism where the whole point is to withdraw from existence itself. Vedic scriptures are very clear that violence is a necessary component of existence, if one chooses to be part of existence. To live, we have to eat; to eat, we have to consume; when we consume, we kill. Nature is full of violence as animals graze and hunt for food. Even farming vegetables involves killing pests and weeds. Hence the Taittiriya Upanishad (3.10) describes divinity through the qualification, "I am food. I am that which eats food."
Veda recognises that sanskriti or culture exists by consuming prakriti or nature. Thus in the Mahabharata the forest of Khandava is burned to establish the city of Indra-prastha on Krishna's instructions. It recognises that violence is integral to the defence of notion of property, which is itself seen as a necessary delusion. So Parshurama slaughters the king who steals his father's cow, and those who support him. So Ram fights Ravana to rescue his wife. And when things get ambiguous on who is the proprietor then, Krishna takes the side of the weak, the Pandavas (five brothers, seven armies) and not the strong, the Kauravas (100 brothers, 11 armies) not because the former are good but because the latter refuses to compromise.
This understanding, not endorsement, of violence is why the Goddess alone, not the male gods, are offered sacrifice of male, only male, animals - the bull, the buffalo, the goat, the rooster. She embodies nature, and this blood offering to her is to remind us of the aggressive dominating alpha tendency that needs to be kept in check, often violently, for civilisation to thrive and dharma to grow. This understanding, not endorsement, of violence is also why the Mahabharata has a Vyadha Gita, where a butcher gives Vedic wisdom to a hermit who has withdrawn from family responsibilities.
Cow was sacred in Vedic times, when people lived a pastoral life, as it was the source of milk from which one could make curd and ghee, hence food. So cow protection had much to do with economics. Did this protection of cow extend to the bull, or the buffalo? We are not sure. Does cow protection mean cattle protection? Does it mean not eating buff (buffalo) meat? There is no clear answers or injunctions anywhere.
No one opposes the violent castration of a bull and turning him into a beast of burden to pull ploughs and carts. It's a price of culture and we are willing to pay the price. Durga kills the buffalo, who is visualised as an asura. Shiva kills the elephant and the tiger, also forms of asuras, and wraps his body with its blood-soaked hide. Krishna kills the wild horse, Keshi, and a violent calf, Vatsa, also considered asuras. These images of violence can be taken literally as acts of violence that helps humans tame nature and establish culture. Or they can be taken as potent metaphors for masculine aggression, again the masculine referring to the tendency to dominate, not gender per se.
Metaphorically, the earth is a cow. Puranas speak of Vena who plundered the earth until the earth protested and the rishis decided to kill him and how Prithu, the primal king, promised the earth-cow that he would protect her and nurture her. Puranas speak of Vishnu wiping the tears of the earth-cow and promising to relieve her of the burden of greedy kings (one reason why the wars of Ramayana and Mahabharata are fought). Today, we let industry destroy the earth; NGOs like Greenpeace protest. Governments have to tread the line between development and saving the ecosystem carefully. We don't want Venas, but the current government seems to be also punishing those who stand up to modern-day Venas. So much for respecting rishis, who protected the earth-cow.
Metaphorically, cow is the foremost symbol of livelihood. Killing cows was destroying someone's source of livelihood. It was not acceptable. It could not be dharma. By banning the consumption of beef, many butchers will be deprived of livelihood. Many poor farmers will be forced to take care of old cows, which will add to their economic burden. Many tribals and Muslims and Christians and non-Brahmanical Hindus will be deprived of a much favoured and cheap non-vegetarian food, a source of protein for them. Is this dharma?
For all its faults, the old community-based society (I do not use the word "caste" as implicit in the word is oppression) rules were restricted to communities. Jains and Buddhists could practice their vegetarianism without imposing it on Kshatriya rulers. Muslims could eat beef in their community without disturbing the Brahmins in the neighbourhood. However, as we have rejected this old system, and strive for a secular democratic republic we want the same rules for all communities. This has its benefits, for women for example and LGBTQ communities. But it also comes at a cost. Vegetarian communities want all communities to be vegetarian. We are becoming "missionary" in our zeal. We may not be able to get a uniform civil code in matters such as marriage and divorce but, we certainly can ban beef across the board, stating religious sensitivity of one community and steamrolling over customs and practices of others.
Yes saving cows can be dharma. But banning beef is a lazy, inauthentic, even a mischievous way to go about it. A far superior and authentic solution would be establishing cow shelters as many Hindus and Jain do, and buying old cows from poor farmers at prices much higher than that offered by butchers. But this will cost a lot of money, and the vegetarian business community knows is not economically viable. Surely money can be spent if we believe saving cows is dharma? But the Maharashtra Government, which has banned beef recently, knows this will not win it votes. Tax payers will be furious.
Banning beef will create conflict, conflict will provide media fodder, polarise society, divert attention from real issues (like land grabbing, dispossession, draconian labour laws, marital rape, violence against women, children and LGBTQ), and maybe even win votes. So banning beef is more a political decision, in my view. Not one based on helping the meek. Raja-niti, not raja-dharma.