Interview with D.N. Jha, historian of ancient India and the author of
‘The Myth of the Holy Cow'
By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta
Frontline - 2012
Q: Your book ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow' dispels the impression that Muslims introduced beef-eating in the Indian subcontinent. What were the most important sources you used to come to this conclusion?
A: For over a century, the sanctity of the cow in India has been a matter of more than academic debate. Hindu communalists and their fundamentalist organisations have been propagating that the killing of the cow and eating its flesh were introduced in India by the followers of Islam, and accordingly, they have stereotyped Muslims as beef-eaters. The best way to dispel this myth is to draw data from Indian religious texts to show the prevalence of beef-eating in ancient India. Accordingly, I have used evidence from Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain religious texts to show that our ancestors ate beef much before Islam came to India.
Q: Could you give us some examples of where cows were used for consumption and for sacrifices in ancient India?
A: Animal sacrifice was very common in the Vedic period. In the agnadheya, which was a preparatory rite preceding all public sacrifices, a cow was required to be killed. In the asvamedha, the most important of public sacrifices, more than 600 animals and birds were killed and its finale was marked by the sacrifice of 21 cows. In the gosava, an important component of public sacrifices like the rajasuya and the vajapeya, a cow was offered to Maruts. The killing of animals, including cattle, figures in several other yajnas as well.
In the Vedic texts and the Dharmashastras, there are also references to occasions when cows were killed for consumption, and eating of beef was de rigeur. One later Vedic text unambiguously tells us that “verily the cow is food”, and another refers to the sage Yajnavalkya's stubborn insistence on eating the tender flesh of the cow. The reception of a guest, according to Vedic and post-Vedic normative texts, required the killing of a cow in his honour. Textual evidence also indicates that Brahmins were fed the flesh of the cow in funerary rites. I have indicated only a small portion of evidence, but ancient Indian texts provide copious references to the killing of the cow for sacrifice and sustenance.
A prominent bas relief carving of a sacred cow in Mamallapuram.