For over a month, the mild, balding professor of history, Dwijendra Narayan Jha, has been shuffling to his classroom in Delhi University escorted by a police constable. Teaching ancient history does not usually endanger one’s health, but ever since Jha went public with the best-kept secret in Indian history—the beef-eating habits of ancient Hindus, Buddhists and even early Jains in a book titled Holy Cow—Beef in Indian Dietary Conditions—his phone hasn’t stopped ringing. “The calls are usually abusive,” says Jha, “but sometimes they demand to know what evidence I have, and one day late in July it was an anonymous caller threatening dire consequences if I ever brought out my book.”
The calls had two effects on the 61-year-old historian: he called the police and braced himself for battle. “There is a cultural war going on and academics have a role to play,” Jha says calmly. But it’s not the kind of war that he had anticipated. Even before his book could hit the stands, the vhp exhorted its cadre to confiscate and burn copies. The bjp followed suit: one of its MPs, R.S. Rawat, wrote to the Union home minister demanding not only a ban on the book but also the arrest and prosecution of its author and CB Publishers. But before the book could be burnt or banned, the Jain Seva Sangh stepped in. Outraged by Jha’s reported assertion that their founder Mahavira ate meat, the Hyderabad-based organisation sought a court injunction against the book, leaving the nonplussed historian without the words to fight his war. Anticipating controversy and debate, Jha meticulously scoured ancient texts, culling material from original sources for over two years. “If they want to ban my book, then they will have to ban the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sutras and the epics. Where will they stop? I have given evidence, if they have counter-evidence, why don’t they come forward with it? But they are so illiterate, they haven’t even heard of those texts, let alone read them. I have texts and they go by blind faith,” he says. “That is what a historian can and should do: counter faith with facts,” he adds.
Jha’s interest in dietary history began a few years ago after reading French historian Fernand Braudel’s history of early modern European diet. But he soon became intrigued by the beef-eating habits of Indians which existed in Rig Vedic times and continued till the 19th century and after, despite repeated Brahminical injunctions against cow-killing. That ancient Hindus, including Brahmins, were beef-eaters, willing to incur the minor penalty that an agrarian society began imposing on cow-killers, and that this fondness for cattle meat had nothing to do with Islam or Christianity came neither as a shock nor surprise to this unconventional Brahmin, whose first name Dwijendra means “the holiest of Brahmins”. “No serious historian, not even ‘Hindu’ ones like R.C. Majumdar or K.M. Munshi, has ever disputed that ancient Hindus ate beef,” says Jha. However, convinced that repeated Brahminical injunctions not to kill cows reflected a popular proclivity for beef, Jha went further and unearthed irrefutable evidence of cow slaughter and consumption by Hindus of all classes, including Brahmins, until as late as the 19th century. “I was expecting this,” says Jha, who tasted beef for the first time nearly 30 years ago at Cambridge. “It was difficult to believe Brahmins were laying down norms without a reason. I think there is much more evidence than I got.”
The cow as a sacred animal, Jha believes, did not really gain currency until Dayanand Saraswati’s cow protection movement in the 19th century”. The cow became a tool of mass political mobilisation with the organised cow-protection movement,” the historian points out. “The killing of cows stopped gradually with the agrarian society and caste rigidity. The Brahmins found it convenient to say that those who ate beef were untouchable. But they themselves continued to consume it, recommending it for occasions such as shraadh. Simultaneously, they trivialised the beef taboo by saying that eating beef is like cleaning your teeth with your fingers. It was never a sin to eat it, merely an indecorum. There was never a taboo, only discouragement.”
With this discovery, culled from ancient scriptures, medical texts, the Manusmriti and religious commentaries, Jha impishly “decided to take the bull by its horns” and publish a book on his findings. “There is a saying in Hindi: Laaton ke bhoot, baaton se nahin maante (Those used to force are not persuaded by words). So I had to give them the shock treatment,” he explains.
Only, Jha’s “shock treatment” did not stop with Hindus. Buddhists, he claims, citing canonical texts like Mahaparinibbana Sutta and Anguttara Nikaya, also ate beef and other meat. “In fact, the Buddha died after eating a meal of pork,” he says. “Vegetarianism was not a viable option for Buddhist monks in a society that loved meat of all kinds—pig, rhinoceros, cow, buffalo, fish, snake, birds, including crows and peacocks. Only camel and dog meat was taboo in India.”
Similarly with the early Jains. Citing the Bhagavatisutra, Jha points out that Mahavira once ate a chicken meal to gain strength for a yogic battle with an adversary. “His only condition was to ask the woman who cooked the meal to find a chicken already killed by a cat instead of slaughtering a fresh one,” says Jha. “This has upset the Jains, but why are they not upset with the texts that carry these stories? I found these in bookstores run by devout Jain booksellers like Motilal Banarsidass and Sohanlal Jain Dharam Pracharak Samiti.”
Despite Jha’s avowed dislike of “being conspicuous”, the man whose family consists of “a wife and three servants” has never shied away from controversy. His family is accustomed to his “mad ways” and his upbringing has been unorthodox enough to allow him to experiment even with beef. But his community of orthodox Maithili Brahmins in Bihar has not taken kindly to his book either. “They didn’t like me citing sources from Mithila to prove my point,” says Jha nonchalantly.
“Indian society has come to such a juncture,” says Jha, “that historians have to play an active role in countering superstitions and unreason.” He took up cudgels during the Ayodhya dispute and even objected to the TV serialisation of epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. “It politicised the myths and propagated a value system and religiosity not in keeping with a state-run broadcaster,” he says. “Ramanand Sagar’s version of the epics is not real history.”
“Old and tired out” Jha may call himself, but there’s something irrepressible about him. Bans and fatwas haven’t stopped him from beginning work on his next book. “It will be called,” says Jha with deadpan face, “Adulterous Gods and their Inebriated Women”.