Hindus and their Holy Cow

After the sweeping election win of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP party four years ago, there is a barrage of misleading propaganda coming from Modi and his government about the so-called glorious past of India and the sacred Hindu culture. Hindu fundamentalist forces (sic), under the tutelage of Modi and his government, are busy attacking Muslim and Christian minorities while BJP’s RSS backers want Modi government to declare India as a Hindu nation! BJP governments in various states like Maharashtra and Haryana have gone so far as to ban the eating of cow beef saying that for Hindus cow is sacred. Many people now have lost their lives at the hands of so-called “cow vigilantes”. Mob lynching in the name of cows is on the rise, and the government is mum. The myth of India’s Holy Cow perpetuates and gives a (phony) justification for such draconian policies and horrific incidents.

What I want do in this brief article is to examine the reality of the Hindu Holy Cow. I will present the underlying cause of this old Hindu ban/taboo on eating cow beef. What factors are driving this ban? How and when this ban originated? What were the realities about eating of animal meat of ancient Indian Hindus, especially the present non-beef eating upper Brahmin caste, before this ban/taboo came into effect slowly? Searching for answers of these questions will expose the myth which the fundamentalist forces are spreading about the Indian culture.

Columbia anthropologist Professor Marvin Harris’ wonderful book Cannibals and Kings explains the origin of not only the Holy Cow taboo but also all other kinds of religious taboos like a ban/taboo on eating pigs amongst the ancient Israelites and the Muslims today. Harris devotes one full separate chapter on explaining the origins of the Indian Holy Cow i.e., ban on eating cow beef. I will use Harris’ work to explain this historical taboo, which is still working under Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP government, but in a different political garb.

Harris’ main line of argument about the origin of culture – including such religious bans – goes like this:

My aim is to show the relationship between material and spiritual well-being and the cost/benefit of various systems for increasing production and controlling population growth. In the past, irresistible reproductive pressures arising from the lack of safe and effective means of contraception led recurrently to the intensification of production. Such intensification has always led to environmental depletion, which in general results in new systems of production – each with a characteristic form of institutionalized violence, drudgery, exploitation, and cruelty. Thus reproductive pressure, intensification, and environmental depletion would appear to provide the key to understanding the evolution of family organization, property relations, political economy, and religious beliefs, including dietary preferences and food taboos.

The reproductive pressure results into intensification of production process which in turn results into depletion of ecological resources which then leads to different cultural practices like the Hindu ban on eating cow beef to counter the deteriorating benefit-cost ratio of standard of living and survival. Religion provides just an excuse and a motive force to enforce such bans which are necessary to maintain the population from dying off in the face of such ecological depletion.

What is the origin of all kinds of religious taboos on eating animal flesh? I said all kinds of animals because the Hindu ban on eating cow beef is not unique in the world. Muslims also have a religious ban on eating Pigs. Single common principle is behind all these bans. Here is the answer:

Before I attempt to explain why it was pork that first became the object of supernatural interdictions, let me say something about the general principles governing the establishment of taboos on animal flesh. As suggested by Eric Ross, who has studied the problem of animal taboos among the Indians of the Amazon basin, the most important general point to be kept in mind is that the ecological role of particular species is not fixed for all time but is part of dynamic process. Cultures tend to impose supernatural sanctions on the consumption of animal flesh when the ratio of communal benefit to costs associated with the use of a particular species deteriorates. Cheap and abundant species whose flesh can be eaten without danger to the rest of the system by which food is obtained seldom become the target of supernatural proscriptions. Animals that have high benefits and low costs at one time, but that become more costly later on, are the principal targets of supernatural sanctions. The most severe restrictions tend to develop when a nutritionally valuable species not only becomes more expensive but its continued use endangers the existing mode of existence.

This principle applies to the ban on eating cow flesh by Hindus as well as ban on eating pigs by Muslims. As I have said above, this ban has nothing to do with cow as some holy animal which should be worshiped for its own sake. In fact, the treatment of cow by most Hindus as mostly a scavenger animal speaks amply about the real treatment given to it by them! Bulls are given more importance because they are the ones which are most useful in agriculture. Cow gives birth to these bulls and also provides essential nutrient in the form of milk and its products so it is allowed to wander and  scavenge on trash to stay alive. The ban is a practical cost-benefit calculation by the Hindus to protect their standard of living. Religion is a powerful proscription tool for this ban to become effective and so historically religious veneer was applied to this ban.

The history of Hindu Holy Cow is also quite revealing looking at the present worship of cows by Hindus. Historically all ancient Vedic people use to eat animal flesh with taste, including, and more often by, Hindu Brahmin priests! In fact, these priest had the monopoly over animal sacrifice and flesh eating. Here is Marvin Harris again:

Thus the Brahmans gradually came to be part of the meat-eating elite whose monopoly over the privilege of slaughtering animals for redistributive feasts had been transformed into a monopoly over the privilege of eating them. Long after ordinary people in northern India had becomes functional vegetarians, the Hindu upper castes – later the most ardent advocates of meatless diets – continued to dine lustily on beef and other kinds of meat.

Kshiti Mohan Sen, in his important book on Hinduism, also described this historical reality:

The Vedic ideal help up the life of the householder, who, through sacrifices and offerings, might reach the joys of heaven, which were his desire. The non-Vedic cultures must have contributed to Hinduism the ideas of renunciation and asceticism leading to moksha, mukti, or nirvana, which were quite alien to the Aryan code of values. The Aryans were non-vegetarians and ‘slaying cows for guests’ seems to have been considered a highly praiseworthy act among Aryan squires. The Hindu belief in non-violence (ahimsa), which contributed to Buddhism and Jainism, is definitely of non-Vedic origin. (emphasis mine)

This is the real history which no one teaches in the classrooms. Around the 4th century BC, because of production intensification and ecological depletion cow became more important alive for farming rather than dead for her flesh, the Hindu farmers one by one started implementing this ban on slaughtering cows. As Harris explained, it were the low caste Hindu farmers who stopped eating cow flesh first because they couldn’t afford to lose their cows during one or two drought seasons (if they kill cattle in drought then when rain again arrives they are left with no cattle for farming). But when commoners stopped eating cow beef, the elite Brahman priests were still consuming it!

The Hindu Holy Cow is a cultural phenomenon which has its roots in practical cost-benefit calculations by human beings for their survival.  This history exposes the lies that the present government and its Hindu nationalist backers are spreading. The ban which started to safeguard the standard of living of people has become a political tool today. Politicians are using it for the purpose of their own survival i.e., winning elections and remaining in power to plunder people! I personally have no problem whatsoever with peoples’ eating habits. Everyone is Free to Choose whatever they want to eat as long as they follow the Libertarian principle of Non-Aggression i.e., they don’t physically harm or threaten to harm other humans and their private property. In the end, as Marvin Harris said, when it comes to survival, economics mostly trumps religion:

Religions have generally changed to conform to the requirements of reducing costs and maximizing benefits in the struggle to keep living standards from falling; cases in which production systems have changed to conform to the requirements of changed religious systems regardless of cost/benefit considerations either do not exist or are extremely rare.

This means, as long as the cost-benefit ratio and political equation are in favor of cow as an alive animal, the taboo will remain in place. The day eating cow again becomes more beneficial, both from survival and political point of views, don’t be surprised to see Hindus themselves start slaughtering and eating cows again! Ultimately it is a matter of survival, and when it comes to survival, humans will not hesitate in killing and eating each other, as many past and present cannibalistic societies do, too!!!

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