Interview with D.N. Jha, the historian of ancient and medieval India and the author of Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions and The Myth of the Holy Cow. By AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA

The issue of cow slaughter and beef consumption is once again in the eye of a political storm. Hindutva ideologues, aided by the government, have successfully mounted cow-protection programmes across the country and are in the process of using the cow as a political symbol to polarise Hindu and Muslim communities. Frontline spoke to D.N. Jha, the eminent historian of ancient and medieval India, on the food practices in India over the centuries and the place of the cow within these systems. Jha has published numerous seminal books on ancient and medieval India.

His books Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions (2002) and The Myth of the Holy Cow (2009) drew upon vast historical sources to establish the practice of beef consumption from ancient India onwards, thus dispelling the Hindutva myth that the practice of beef-eating was introduced during Islamic rule in India. His books attracted considerable controversy and Jha also received death threats from Hindu extremists for positing the theory. He explains how popular myths about the cow and beef-eating were systematically etched into the nation’s memory by Hindutva extremists and speaks about their larger political interests in rewriting history. Excerpts from an email interview:

What prompted you to take up historical research on the dietary habits of early India? Why does beef-eating become so central an issue in your book?

Since I was interested in the issue of Hindu identity and its relation to food culture, I undertook the research on the early dietary history of India. In the course of my study I found that there was considerable material on beef-eating which could be put together. Also, those were the days when the NDA I [National Democratic Alliance] was in power at the Centre and there was a controversy going on about the mention of beef-eating in NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training] textbooks. This prompted me to integrate the relevant data into a book and present it before the reading public. That is why the history of beef-eating became central to the book. But if you read the book you will come across much evidence on the practice of eating the flesh of other animals, too.

The cow has been an important figure in an agrarian economy. Was there any economic logic to cow sacrifices or slaughter in early India?

Cattle sacrifices can be explained in terms of both economic and cultural factors. As you know, the Indo-Aryans migrated to India around the middle of the second millennium B.C. and they brought along with them several traits of Indo-European life, such as pastoralism, incipient agriculture and religious beliefs and practices including the practice of animal/cattle sacrifice. They also brought with them a number of Indo-Iranian gods (e.g., Indra, Agni, Soma, etc.) for whom sacrifices were made. Since sedentary agriculture had yet to develop, the sacrifice of animals—including cattle—met both dietary and sacrificial requirements. Amongst the gods, Indra had a special liking for bulls and buffaloes and amongst men, the respected sage of Mithila, Yajnavalkya, was fond of cow’s flesh.

Are there other historians who have worked on the dietary habits of people in the Vedic age and after? D.D. Kosambi had written about Brahmins eating beef in his book Ancient India.

R.L. Mitra was the first Indian scholar to write on the practice of beef-eating during the Vedic period. Several other scholars, including P.V. Kane and D.D. Kosambi, have referred to it. So I am not the first to write about sacrificial killing of the cow and beef-eating. But unlike other scholars I have argued that beef-eating has continued to remain a part of Indian tradition even after the Vedic period, for which there is considerable evidence.

Could you also cite some historical texts which, according to your research, made it clear that beef-eating had been a normal practice in early and medieval India? Were there instances in early Indian texts where cow “worship” is also validated?

In my book The Myth of the Holy Cow, I have tried to show that far from being a “baneful bequeathal” of Islam, beef-eating was common in the Vedic period. This is evident from the sacrifices made to the gods, to which there are many references. These are from Vedic as well as post-Vedic texts. At one place in the Rg Veda (X.86.14), Indra, the greatest of the Vedic gods, is described as stating “they cook for me fifteen plus twenty oxen”. At other places he is referred to as having eaten the flesh of bulls (X.28.3), of one (X.27.2), or of a hundred buffaloes (VI.17.11) or 300 buffaloes (V.29.7) or a thousand buffaloes (VIII.12.8). Cattle were also sacrificed for Agni, who is described in the Rg Veda as “one whose food is ox and the barren cow” (VIII.43.11). Many similar references are available from later Vedic texts and one of them, the Taittiriya Brahmana (III.9.8), unambiguously refers to the sacrificial killing of the cow which is “verily food”. That the sacrificial victim was generally meant for human consumption is indicated by several texts, especially the Gopatha Brahmana (I.3.18), wherein it is stated that the carcass was to be divided into thirty-six shares.

Cattle were killed also in ordinary domestic rites. A Rg Vedic passage (X.85.13) refers to the slaughter of a cow on the occasion of marriage, and later, in the Aitareya Brahmana (III.4), we are told that “if a ruler of men comes as a guest or anyone else deserving of honour comes, people kill a cow.

One of the most important occasions for killing a cow was the reception of important guests (madhuparka), referred frequently in the Vedic and later texts. Literary references to “madhuparka” are found till quite late in ancient India. Cattle slaughter was also intimately connected with the cult of the dead and the degree of satisfaction the manes derived from the shraddha varied according to the animal offered: the Apastamba Dharmasutra speaks of how cow’s flesh gratified the pitris (dead ancestors) for a year. Thus, there is no doubt that killing of the cow and eating its flesh was quite common in the Vedic and post-Vedic times. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (VI.4.18) even goes to the ridiculous extent of recommending a diet of veal or beef with rice and ghee to the person desirous of having a learned son.

While there is copious evidence of cow slaughter and beef-eating, there is also much evidence of the cow being treated as riches for which the Vedic people fought wars. As pointed out by the Vedic scholar Michael Witzel, it was also likened to Aditi (mother of gods, but literally boundless heaven ), the earth (prithvi), the cosmic waters whose release by Indra established the cosmic law (rta), maternity, and poetry (vac), which was the monopoly of Brahmins. The cow, we are told, is used frequently in similes and metaphors and, it has been argued, these came to be taken literally in the course of time. But the cow was neither unslayable nor sacred in the Vedic period.

So, the Sangh Parivar’s agenda today is one of selective or convenient revivalism? One of its ideologues, K.R. Malkani, espoused beef-eating publicly.

The views of the Sangh Parivar on the cow issue are unprincipled and hypocritical. K.R. Malkani, its one-time ideologue, said as early as 1966 without equivocation that flesh of cows dying a natural death can be eaten. How does it go with the Parivar’s foolish demand for a blanket national ban on cow slaughter?

The cow has become a great political symbol for the Hindu Right. How do you assess it historically? When did the cow become “holy”, and does this coincide with the onset of communalism in Indian history? Some historians have shown that the cow was a communalised animal even in the late 19th century.

Available evidence suggests that from the post-Mauryan period onwards the Brahminical attitude to cow-killing had begun to change. This may be explained in terms of both economic and religious developments. But one thing is clear, Brahminical texts now repeatedly began to state that the practice of cow-killing was not permissible in the Kali age. This accorded the cow a special place and made it unslayable.

So the unslayabilty of this animal would appear to be essentially a part of the Brahminical ideology, which in the early medieval period relegated beef-eating to untouchable castes, and the Vyasasmriti (I.12) clearly states a cow-killer to be an untouchable. But during the medieval period, the practice of killing cows came to be associated with Muslims and they were stereotyped as beef-eaters. Also there were occasional cow-related tensions. I am inclined to think that the cow, which may have been emerging as an emotive symbol among the Brahminical circles during the medieval period, became much more emotive with the rise of the Maratha kingdom and Shivaji, who was thought of as the protector of cows and Brahmins. But it was in the late 19th century that this animal was first used by the Sikh Kuka movement for mass political mobilisation against the British. At around the same time, in 1882 to be precise, Dayanand Saraswati founded the Goraksini Sabha and he used it for uniting a wide variety of people against the Muslims. What was initially a Brahmin ideology now became a mark of Hindu identity.

The Sangh Parivar often dismisses professional history-writing in India and its conclusions. It says that Indian historians are way too influenced by Western historians and thus have failed to examine Indian culture and traditions properly. Indian historians have been called as “sons of Macaulay and Marx” by proponents of Hindutva. Your comments.

The dismissal of history written by professional historians by the Sangh Parivar speaks volumes about its abysmal ignorance of both Indian and Western historiography. If you look at the trends of history-writing in India, especially after Independence, it will be abundantly clear that Indian historians have effectively questioned the basic tenets of colonial historiography and provided an alternative perspective for understanding India’s past. On the other hand, look at the Sangh Parivar, which is clinging to the scheme of periodisation of Indian history into Hindu and Muslim periods, first enunciated by James Mill. Shouldn’t we call its members children of James Mill then?

The Sangh Parivar has renewed efforts to falsely glorify early Indian practices and debunk the medieval period as it views both the periods only as “Hindu” and “Muslim” regimes respectively. What, according to you, are the problems with these divisions?

The division of Indian history into Hindu and Muslim periods is based on the assumption that the rulers belonging to the former time segment were all Hindus and those belonging to the latter were Muslims. But this is not true. There was no Hinduism or Hindu in ancient India. Ashoka, the most well-known ruler of ancient India, was a Buddhist and not “Hindu”. Similarly, all rulers in the so-called Muslim period were not Muslims—the Cholas were not Muslims!

This periodisation has also communalised the writing of Indian history and has led to undue glorification of the “Hindu” period and to the unjustified denigration of the “Muslim” period. A much better periodisation scheme can be evolved on the basis of the turning points in social, economic (including technological) and cultural history rather than on the basis of the fortuitous changes of the ruling dynasties. This can clarify many issues of social change over a long period.

The NDA government at the Centre has hardly shown any interest in exploring the British period or the colonial era despite its nationalist agenda. Why?

The NDA government’s nationalism is a sham. It never engaged in anti-colonial struggle. And when it did, its most respected leader, “Veer” Savarkar, was, in fact, so veer (brave) that he appealed to the British for clemency. Now the legacy of even those who fought for Independence is being either obliterated or diluted. Please recall Subramanian Swamy’s tirade against the “Nehruvian” historians.

There is a general consensus among professional historians across the world that any research on historical events, personalities, economies, society, etc., is best read bearing in mind the nature of the state in its times. A contextual research of historical events is deemed the most important way to study history. However, the Sangh Parivar’s versions of history are veering towards what one can call “de-contextualised history of individuals”. In this biographic approach towards history, Shahjahan, Aurangazeb and Mahmud of Ghazni become villains, and Hindu rulers like Maharana Pratap, Prithviraj Chauhan, etc., become heroes. Do you see a methodological problem in this kind of history?

This is related to my response to your previous question. Assessment of rulers should be done against the background of social, economic, cultural and other developments of their time. Decontextualised history will lead to the glorification of individuals like Prithviraj Chauhan and Maharana Pratap and the demonisation of Muslim rulers who defeated them in battle.

The proponents of Hindutva defend their versions of history by saying that professional historians are ideologically anti-Hindu and have never bothered to explore the syncretic traditions of Hinduism, while taking a keen interest in the traditions of other religions. Is this true?

This is far from true. Professional historians in India and abroad have devoted much attention to religious syncretism in ancient and medieval India. D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer and a number of other scholars have analysed the syncretic tradition of India. But the votaries of Hindutva do not read, they only shout. They are a bunch of ignoramuses.