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Chandra Mallampalli

Hindu Holy Wars

The myth of the holy cow

The Myth of the Holy Cow
by D.N. Jha
Verso, 2002
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 ...

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