Hindu Holy Wars
The Myth of the Holy Cow
by D.N. Jha
183 pp.; $22
What happens when an eminent historian argues that a society's sacred cows have not always been as sacred as people now imagine them to be? In The Myth of the Holy Cow, D.N. Jha has enraged Hindu fundamentalists by arguing that the ancient Hindus enjoyed a good steak once in a while. In a country where no beef is served at MacDonald's, Jha's claims are a Big Deal. By demystifying India's sacred cow, Jha has fanned the flames of a larger debate over the content of history textbooks used in India's public schools. Should textbooks seek to present an unbiased view of the past, or should they seek to preserve a nation's cultural heritage and nurture patriotism among its youth?
According to Jha, the Indo-Aryans, semi-nomadic pastoralists who invaded India during the second millennium B.C.E., routinely consumed beef and other types of meat that were used for ritual sacrifices. Their sacred texts, particularly the Vedas, which are central to the Hindu religion, are replete with references to animal sacrifices of various kinds. In funeral rites (shraddha), for example, animal sacrifices were believed to offer varying degrees of satisfaction to ancestors depending on the animal. According to Jha, preference for beef in such sacrifices was "generally unquestioned," and members of even the highest, priestly caste (brahmanas) consumed beef at community feasts.
Jha is by no means the first to uncover the flesh-eating habits of ancient Hindus. Beginning in the 19th century, British, German, and Indian scholars have made similar observations. But while previous scholars have limited their findings to isolated instances of beef eating, mostly derived from Vedic texts, Jha attempts to unearth a more prevalent "flesh-eating tradition," spanning many centuries. Page after page, chapter after chapter, Jha presents massive evidence to support his claims, sometimes requiring as many as 140 notes for a mere 20-page chapter. Even the Buddha and his disciples, he observes, do not seem to have abstained from meat. Indeed, some texts show that the Buddha, the epitome of ahimsa (nonviolence), ate pork.
In light of such pervasive evidence of meat-eating (including beef), how did the worship and protection of the cow in India originate? Around the middle of the first millennium, much of Indian society gradually became more agricultural and underwent significant sociocultural changes in the process. It was during this period, referred to in its literature as the kaliyuga, that religious and legal texts, according to Jha, began to designate cow slaughter as a minor sin. These textual prohibitions of cow slaughter, however, could not eradicate the memory of the practice from an earlier era. And in spite of rising opposition within Jain and Buddhist traditions, cow slaughter and beef-eating remained far more common than what modern stereotypes about Eastern vegetarianism would incline us to believe.
Throughout the book, Jha exposes the many contradictions associated with the higher, ritual status that gradually came to be ascribed to the cow. By enumerating the multiple and often contradictory aspects of this tradition, Jha ends up telling a story that is very much anchored in the present: the construction of a modern, monolithic Hindu identity. In pre-modern times, cows served multiple purposes and enjoyed varying degrees of ritual honor (and dishonor). But since the late 19th century, cow protection has become a rallying cry for Hindu nationalist opposition to Islam and the recovery of a "lost Hindu heritage." Organized cow protection became a tool of mass political mobilization in north India during the 1880s and '90s and acquired national prominence during the 20th century through the life and teachings of Gandhi.
Such investment of symbols with new meanings in the construction of nationalism is not unique to India, of course: similar examples of the "invention of tradition" can be observed in nations throughout the world. In fact, the most important issue raised by Jha's book is not about India's history of beef-eating but rather about history-writing itself and its subjection to the interests of nationalism. As the front cover points out, the government of India has demanded that Jha's book be ritually burned because of its affront to Hindu sensibilities. In the world's largest and most complex democracy, from where does this impulse toward censorship arise?
Ever since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 1998, ideologues of the Hindu Right have infiltrated the ranks of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and have pursued an agenda to "Hindu-ize" public education. After removing D.N. Jha from his post as chair of the history syllabus committee, the Right-dominated NCERT proceeded to instruct the Central Board of Secondary Education to delete certain passages from history textbooks in order to avoid "hurting the sentiments" of religious communities. In a multi-religious society such as India's, such language appears to convey a respect for all religions. But critics of the NCERT charge that the textbook deletions privilege Hinduism while displaying bigotry toward religious minorities.
Among the deletions from NCERT-sanctioned textbooks are passages indicating the prevalence of beef-eating in ancient India. Without consulting the authors, the NCERT ordered deletions of such passages from two books on ancient India, one by R.S. Sharma and the other by Romila Thapar. Both are recognized internationally as the leading authorities on ancient Indian history. In the same vein, the NCERT ordered the deletion of a passage pertaining to the legacy of a prominent 17th-century Sikh leader, Guru Tegh Bahadhur, from a textbook by Satish Chandra on the grounds that the account misrepresented the guru's sense of patriotism. Furthermore, passages that describe the historical abuses of the Hindu caste system have been deleted, while those describing the corruption of the Catholic priesthood and the brutality of Islamic conquests have been retained. Attempts to blur lines of distinction between myth and fact, to promote the study of Vedic astrology at universities, and to consistently denigrate contributions of non-Hindus to India's past are part and parcel of what critics are now calling the Talibanization of Indian education, Hindu style.
To gain a sense for the volatility of India's history-textbooks debate, one need only consider that armed guards, circling a mile-long perimeter, had to be stationed at the December 2001 meeting of the Indian History Congress—the equivalent of the American Historical Association—in Bhopal. This was due to threats of violence and disruptions by militant Hindus, resentful of what they see as a Leftist domination of India's historical enterprise. K.S. Sudershan, a high-ranking official of the militant Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has labeled opponents of the NCERT deletions "anti-Hindu Euro-Indians." And Murli Manohar Joshi, India's Minister of Human Resource Development and himself an RSS member, has labeled contributions of the most prominent Indian historians as "intellectual terrorism unleashed by the left," which is "more dangerous than cross border terrorism."1 Such comments—which recall fascist rhetoric from Nazi Germany—have been employed to provoke and justify violent attacks against Muslims and Christians in the state of Gujarat. Perhaps the real battle for the soul of India and the future of its secular democracy is being fought not in Kashmir, as the media would have us believe, but in history textbooks.
As exotic as India's debate over its sacred cows might appear to us on this side of the Atlantic, there's no warrant for condescension. In the United States, liberals and conservatives continue to wage a spirited battle over the place of religion in public life, a battle fought not only from church pulpits but also within public schools, legislatures, and courts of law. Religious conservatives in America oppose the encroachments of an aggressive secularism, the public endorsement of moral relativism, and a politically correct multiculturalism. How far removed are such concerns from the desire of Hindu conservatives to promote "value education" and their sense of outrage over the "pseudo-secularist" Indian Constitution's protection of religious minorities at the expense of their Hindu heritage?
Feeling insecure when one's sacred cows come under siege is one thing, but how one responds is another matter altogether. Perhaps the greatest safeguard against ethnic and religious strife in the 21st century lies in our willingness to experience some measure of vulnerability in the face of pluralism. According to Andrew Walls, it is Christianity's "inherent fragility," its "inbuilt vulnerability," which has allowed it not only to take root within every culture but also to endure periods of recession in its historical development. The realization that religious allegiance cannot be secured through force has resulted in more authentic professions of faith.2 By rewriting history, extreme elements in India have chosen another path.
Chandra Mallampalli is assistant professor of history at Westmont College.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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1. "Book Historians under POTO? Listen to Joshi," Indian Express, December 20, 2001.
2. Andrew Walls, The Cross-cultural Process in Christian History (Orbis, 2002).
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