Did Vedic Hindus really eat cow?
By Sandhya Jain
12 December 2001

Under the pretext of disseminating true knowledge about the past to young, impressionable school children, a perverse assault has been launched upon the religious sensitivities of the Hindu community. Marxist historians allege that ancient Hindus ate beef, that this is recorded in their sacred scriptures, and that this should be taught to school children. The Hindu prohibition on cow slaughter, they say, is a more recent development and Hindus are shying away from this truth because it is intimately linked with their sense of identity.

A Marxist specialist on ancient India, ignorant in both Vedic and Panini’s Sanskrit, claims that the Shatapatha Brahmana and Vasistha Dharmasutra clearly state that guests were honoured by serving beef. She also cites archaeological evidence as reported by H.D. Sankalia and B.B. Lal. While the lady thinks her evidence is irrefutable, I have decided to pick up the gauntlet.

To begin with, the Shatapatha Brahmana is Yajnavalkya’s commentary on the Yajur Veda, and not a revealed text. As for the Vasistha Dharmasutra, the legendary Sanskritist, late P.V. Kane, said, "beyond the name Vasistha there is hardly anything special in the dharmasutra to connect it with the Rgveda." Kane also added, "grave doubts have been entertained about the authenticity of the whole of the text of the Vas.Dh.S. as the mss. (manuscripts) contain varying numbers of chapters from 6 to 30, and as the text is hopelessly corrupt in several places… many verses…bear the impress of a comparatively late age." Kane tentatively places this text between 300-100 B.C., that is, long after the end of the Vedic age.

According to archaeologists, the early Vedic age tentatively falls between the fourteen century BC to the first millennium BC. The later Vedic period lies between 1000 BC to 600-700 BC. But if we go by astronomical dating of some of the hymns, we get a period of 7000 BC for a portion of the Vedas.

the honest question, however, is whether the Vedas offer evidence about cow slaughter and beef-eating, and if not, how the controversy arose in the first place. A few clarifications are in order before we proceed. The word ‘cow’ (gau), for instance, is used throughout the Vedas in diverse senses, and, depending on the context of the verse, could mean the animal cow, waters, sun-rays, learned persons, Vedic verses, or Prithvi (earth as Divine Mother).

Then, Vedic society was heterogeneous, pluralistic, and non-vegetarian. In theory, it is possible that the cow was killed and eaten. The fact, however, is that throughout the Vedas the cow is called a non-killable animal, or "aghnya." According to "An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Sanskrit on Historical Principles" (Vol. I, Deccan College, Poona), "aghnya" means "not to be killed or violated" and is used for cows and for waters in the presence of which oaths were taken.

The Rig and Sama Veda call the cow "aghnya" and "Aditi", ie. not to be murdered (Rig 1-64-27; 5-83-8; 7-68-9; 1-164-40; 8-69-2; 9-1-9; 9-93-3; 10-6-11; 10-87-16). They extol the cow as un-killable, un-murderable, whose milk purifies the mind and keeps it free from sin. Verse 10-87-16 prescribes severe punishment for the person who kills a cow. The Atharva Veda recommends beheading (8-3-16) for such a crime; the Rig Veda advocates expulsion from the kingdom (8-101-15).

Hence, it seems unlikely that the cow would be slaughtered to entertain guests, as claimed by Marxist historians. But before coming to any conclusion, the archaeological evidence should also be examined. Archaeologists have excavated bones of cattle in huge quantity, "cattle" is a collective noun which includes the cow, bull, buffalo, nilgai and all other bovine animals. Nowhere in the world can experts differentiate between the bones of cows and other cattle recovered from excavations.

There are good reasons for this difficulty. Most of the bones found are not whole carcasses, but large pieces of limbs. Experts feel that these could be the remains of animals that died naturally and were skinned for their hide and bones. Ancient man used bones to make knives and other tools; the splintered bones found could be part of the tool-making exercise. In all honesty, therefore, cattle bone finds do not prove cow slaughter or the eating of cow meat, especially when all literary evidence points in the opposite direction.

There has been talk about cut-marks on the bones. But apart from tool-making, even if a tanner skins dead cattle for the hide, he will inflict cut marks on the carcass. Scientifically, it is not possible to say if the marks on the bones are ante-mortem or post-mortem. This can be determined only where the body is intact (animal or human), by analyzing blood vessels, tissue, rigor mortis and other factors.
Fortunately, there is now clinching evidence why the Marxist claim on cow-flesh rests on false premises. As already stated, the allegation rests mainly on literary sources and their interpretation, and we are in a position to trace the source of the mischief – the Vachaspatyam of Pandit Taranath and his British mentors.

Pandit Taranath, a professor of grammar at the Calcutta Sanskrit College, compiled a six-volume Sanskrit-to-Sanskrit dictionary, which is used by scholars to this day. The Vachaspatyam is a valuable guide for scholars because there are certain words in the samhita (mantra) section of the Vedas that are not found later in the Puranas.

What most Sanskrit scholars have failed to notice is that Taranath artfully corrupted the meanings of a few crucial words of the Vedic samhita to endorse the meaning given by Max Muller in his translation of the Vedas. Swami Prakashanand Saraswati has exposed this beautifully in "The True History and the Religion of India, A Concise Encyclopedia of Authentic Hinduism" (Motilal Banarsidass).

The British idea was that Max Muller would translate the Rig Veda "in such a scornful manner that Hindus themselves should begin to reproach their own religion of the Vedas," while a Hindu pandit would "compile an elaborate Sanskrit dictionary that should exhibit disgraceful meanings of certain words of the Vedic mantras." As Hindus would not question a dictionary by a Hindu pandit, the British would be able to claim that whatever Max Muller wrote about the Vedas was according to the dictionary of the Hindus.

Swami Prakashanand Saraswati focuses on two words – goghn and ashvamedh. "Goghn" means a guest who receives a cow as gift. Panini created a special sutra to establish the rule that goghn will only mean the receiver of a cow (and will not be used in any other sense). But Taranath ignored Panini’s injunction and wrote that "goghn" means "the killer of a cow." He similarly converted the ashvamedh yagna from ‘ritual worship of the horse’ to the "killing of the horse."

The Swami proves the British hand in this mischief through the patronage given to Taranath by the Government of Bengal in 1866, when Lt. Governor Sir Cecil Beadon sanctioned ten thousand rupees for two hundred copies of his dictionary. This was a king’s ransom in those days, as even in the 1930s the headmaster of a vernacular primary school received a salary of twenty rupees a month. Today, ten thousand rupees is the equivalent of two million rupees.

When the basic premise upon which all modern translations rest is thus knocked off its pedestal, what beef is left in the theory that Vedic Hindus enjoyed the flesh of the cow? I rest my case.

History meets Dharma in politics

By Sandhya Jain
An inscrutable destiny, Mahakaal, has presented modern India with a strange paradox. Punjab, land of the Vedas, and Uttar Pradesh, quintessential Aryavarta where Vedic civilization reached its pinnacle, are caught in a peculiar face-off between History and Dharma, even as both states prepare for assembly elections in the forthcoming year. The issue of the revision and replacement of NCERT textbooks has been so sharply politicized by Leftist academics and Left-leaning politicians that it is virtually impossible to join the debate on purely scholarly grounds.

Prima facie, the controversy is over the historical projection of the Jats and Sikhs, and the dietary practices of ancient Hindus. Attempts to redress the bruised sentiments of various communities have resulted in a volley of abuse (saffronization, talibanisation, myth-as-history, et al). While the veracity of historical presentation should not be sacrificed to political convenience, it is worth investigating if the critics have a credible case. Several writers have refuted the projection of Jat kings and Sikh Gurus as plunderers on the basis of historical records, but the dietary habits of ancient Hindus are still to be examined.

Food preferences ascribed to primitive ancestors should normally not invite much notice; what is objectionable is the attempt to present the veneration of the cow as a late development in Hindu society which bigots are insisting upon to maintain an anti-Muslim identity. Former Union minister P. Chidambaram has said as much: "look at the portions expunged from history textbooks… Beef is believed to be the favourite meat of Muslims and is believed to be abhorred by Hindus. The subliminal connection is made, and out goes the reference to beef. No one cares to answer the question whether in modern India many Hindus, especially the very poor, consume beef (usually meat of the buffalo)" (India Today, 17 December 2001).

I leave it to Chidambaram to explain how very poor Hindus can afford buffalo meat – as if it is cheaper than vegetables – and if buffalo-meat is the same as cow-meat. To return to the leftist claim, however, its sum and substance is that vague references in scriptures are supported by archaeological evidence, and hence amount to historical fact. The truth is that the Vedic era is shrouded in mystery. The mantras are not the product of a single revelation to a solitary rishi, but span a period of at least a thousand years. And their historical dating remains problematical, to say the least.

Ironically, Leftists cannot honestly state that archaeological findings corroborate their claims about Vedic society.

Leftists maintain that the Indus Valley civilization was pre-Aryan, and was destroyed by Vedic-Aryan invaders. But archaeological excavations do not confirm either the ‘Aryan Invasion’ or the separate existence of Vedic-Aryans. What they do reveal is a continuity of theme and motif, which has prompted Pakistani archaeologists to re-name ‘pre-Harappan’ sites as ‘early Harappan’.

Presently, the period from 1400-1000 BC is accepted as early Vedic, and 1000-600 BC as later Vedic. But the astronomical dating of hymns gives us 7000 BC and 3700 BC as probable dates for some hymns. Understandably, there is no consensus on the subject. Some modern archaeologists feel Harappa may well represent Vedic culture as, according to Carbon-14 dating, it falls between 3000-1500 BC. Later mature Harappa is put at 2000-1700 BC, when the Sarasvati dried up.

There is another difficulty with archaeology, which concerns the excavation of cattle bones. "Cattle" is a collective noun, which includes cow, bull, buffalo, nilgai and all bovine animals. Contrary to the Marxist contention, cattle bone does not automatically mean cow bone, as nowhere in the world have experts been able to differentiate the bones so clearly. This is because the bones found are mainly large pieces of limbs. The cattle could have died naturally or been killed by wild animals, and later skinned for their hide and bones (to make bone tools). Then, the term ‘gau’ (cow) is itself a collective noun used to denote cattle. It also has other diverse meanings and, depending upon the context, could mean cow, waters, sunrays, learned persons, Vedic verses, Prithvi, or innocent.

Some general assumptions about Vedic society are, however, possible. It was principally agrarian, with grains forming the staple diet. It was heterogeneous and pluralistic, and admittedly non-vegetarian at the time when the cow was being singled out as an object of veneration. Even in this early age, debates were already raging in support of and in opposition to meat-eating, and for and against animal sacrifice; there were rishis who were clothed and those without dress; and munis who ‘ate air’ (went without food). It is obvious that Vedic society was actively engaged in evolving its dharma (way of life), and the development of these strands of thought can be clearly discerned in later developments in society.

That the trend was in favour of vegetarianism can be seen from the Rig Veda Samhita itself. In as many as twenty-seven places, the cow is referred to as aghnya, (repeat aghnya) not to be hurt or killed, and also called Aditi, Divine Mother. The Rig and Sama Veda extensively extol the virtues of the cow, cow’s milk and ghee. The Rig Veda (10-87-16) prescribes severe punishment for one who kills the cow, even expulsion from the kingdom (8-101-15); the Atharva Veda recommends beheading (8-3-16), while the Yajur Veda (30-18) says the killer of the cow deserves to be hanged.

The end of the Upanishadic period (Vedanta) coincides with the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which intensify the move towards vegetarianism as a higher form of culture. Gautam Buddha discouraged monks from initiating the slaughter of animals, but permitted them to accept cooked flesh as alms. Mahavira took the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) to unprecedented heights, which set vegetarianism and asceticism as the desirable social and moral codes for all dharmic people. The subsequent asceticism of Brahmins and the Vaishnava code of conduct are enormously indebted to Jainism.

Historically, it is undeniable that the Hindu tradition has favoured vegetarianism as a way of life for at least two-and-a-half-thousand years, during which cow-meat has been taboo. The Ashokan edicts help trace some of this development, with Ashoka delineating the reduction in the killing of animals in the royal kitchen; the non-killing of certain animals on certain days; and so on. Foreign travelers like Hueng Tsang and Fa Hien have testified that beef-eating was taboo in ancient India. This is also codified in the Charak Samhita, dated around the first century BC, and the Parashar Smriti, dated around the first century AD.
We may also note that traditionally every community was governed by desh-jati-kul dharma (rules of region, caste, family), under which members were mostly prohibited from slaughtering and consuming the animals raised by them, such as cattle, goats, sheep; a practice which continues to this day. To conclude, reverence for the cow has been etched so deeply in Hindu consciousness that the use of beef tallow to grease bullet cartridges drove Mangal Pandey to trigger off the 1857 revolt against the British. This is a proud chapter in Indian history, even though it failed, and the political compulsions of present-day Marxists and secularists cannot de-legitimize it.

I am amazed that instead of narrating the perpetual universalization of socio-cultural practices valued for enhancing public morality and consciousness, Leftist historians are attempting to denigrate the whole society with cheap jibes about cow-meat in an historically undefined past.

Sources: Hindunet

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