Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Eating Beef in India

"You eat beef?!? I thought it was forbidden for Hindus!"

How many times have I heard this and how many time did I have to explain and defend the wide-wide range of eating habits in India?...well, I've stopped counting.

Until sometime back, I would hold forth on the cultural diversity of India; that Hinduism is not a religion of the book and that it does not presume to micro-manage the life and habits of its adherants; and that in many Indian states - especially in the South, North-Eastern and Himalayan region, Hindus have absolutely no qualms about consuming beef. It is possible, I tell them, that the Indians they met earlier were all Hindus from the Gangetic-plains or the Western states where cattle had been traditionally a valuable economic asset, etc,.

If the look of disbelief and that you-are-just-a-subversive look persists, I try to tell them that in my home state, Kerala, no public non-veg eatery (or college canteen) would stay in business if it did not serve "parotta & beef-fry".

I guess the surprise is understandable. So rather than going on the "cultural diversity" pitch, I've been trying to understand when and how the dogma against beef-eating came into practice.

It was not surprising to discover that there is no stricture against beef-eating in any of the ancient texts. According to Prof. Ram Puniyani, in the great epics and classics -

Many gods such as Indra and Agni are described as having special preferences for different types of flesh - Indra had weakness for bull's meat and Agni for bull's and cow's. It is recorded that the Maruts and the Asvins were also offered cows. In the Vedas there is a mention of around 250 animals out of which at least 50 were supposed to be fit for sacrifice and consumption. In the Mahabharata there is a mention of a king named Rantideva who achieved great fame by distributing foodgrains and beef to Brahmins. Taittiriya Brahman categorically tells us: `Verily the cow is food' (atho annam via gauh) and Yajnavalkya's insistence on eating the tender (amsala) flesh of the cow is well known. Even later Brahminical texts provide the evidence for eating beef. Even Manusmriti did not prohibit the consumption of beef.
Also -
In therapeutic section of Charak Samhita (pages 86-87) the flesh of cow is prescribed as a medicine for various diseases. It is also prescribed for making soup. It is emphatically advised as a cure for irregular fever, consumption, and emaciation. The fat of the cow is recommended for debility and rheumatism
The "Ashtanga Hrdaya Sutra Sthana" (the essence of eight limbs), written or compiled by Vagbhata, a Karachi-born buddhist savant, in circa 800AD  includes references to specific foods that are to consumed or avoided as a part of the healing regimen ("pathyam"). It includes specific references to the medicinal properties of beef (cow and buffalo - verse 66 & 67, Chapter - Annaswarupa Vijnaniya).

Apparently, one of the cudgels that Gautama Buddha picked against Hinduism was that the Brahmins were sacrificing cattle needlessly. At the same time, his emphasis on non-violence was not blind or rigid. Buddha did taste beef and the fact that he died due to eating pork is well known.

So when did the Brahmins, who were happily slaughtering cattle do a U-turn and wake up to the virtues of vegetarianism? Prof. Puniyani believes that -

One of the appeals to the spread of Buddhism was the protection of cattle wealth, which was needed for the agricultural economy. In a way while Brahminism `succeeded' in banishing Buddhism from India, it had also to transform itself from the `animal sacrifice' state to the one which could be in tune with the times. It is here that this ideology took up the cow as a symbol of their ideological march. But unlike Buddha whose pronouncements were based on reason, the counteraction of Brahminical ideology took the form of a blind faith based on assertion. So while Buddha's non-violence was for the preservation of animal wealth for the social and compassionate reasons the counter was based purely on symbolism.
So, there you are. The ban on beef-eating did not emerge as an affirmation of the value of life or from a clear conviction about the virtues of vegetarianism. It was just a convenient political ideology to sway the masses against Buddhism.
Today, it continues to be used exactly the same way by the right-wing "Hindutva" fanatics in their efforts to broaden their political support base. Therefore the issue of beef-eating in India has always been just another stepping stone for those who lust for power and influence. It has absolutely nothing to do with the spiritual moorings of Hinduism as a religion.

(If only I could lay my hands now on a plate of hot parotta &beef-fry!!...  :P' ' ' )

Saudahataki: What is the name of the guest who has arrived today with a big train of women?Dandayana: Stop joking. It is no less a person than the revered Vasishta himself.Saudahataki: Is it Vasishta, eh?Dandayana: Who else?Saudahataki: I thought it was a tiger or a wolf. For, as soon as he came, he crunched up our poor tawny heifer.Dandayana: It is written that meat should be given along with curds and honey. So every host offers a heifer, a big bull, or a goat to a learned Brahmin who comes as a guest. This is laid down in sacred law.
This is a dialogue between two hermit boys at Ayodhya in Uttara-Rama-Charitra, one of the most celebrated versions of the Ramayana written by Bhavabhuti in the 8th century AD (Aiyar 2003).

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