Hindus were eating beef for much longer than they haven’t been

For Hinduism, the cow is not an object of worship (it attracts no gods or goddesses) but it has become both a symbol (of what exactly?) and a taboo. In any urban environment, cows in India provide ready examples of how ill-fed and ill-nurtured they actually are. My grandmother was a strict – but quite normal – vegetarian (no fish, meat or eggs). Unlike the Jains she had no problem with dairy products or root vegetables or honey. I once tried to convince her that beef, coming from complete herbivores, was “more fundamentally vegetarian” than poultry, who were known to relish worms and insects when they were available. She was not amused. (She was not amused either by my arguments that whiskey was strictly vegetarian).

In the current political circus in India where all the ardent, self-styled Hindu fanatics (BJP, Shiv Sena, RSS, VHP ….) are castigating the eating of beef and all beef-eaters, they are attempting to rewrite a history which they conveniently forget. They have gone so far – and have fallen as low – as to justify the lynching of a Muslim for slaughtering and eating a cow.

Eating of beef only began to be discouraged when the Brahmins became significant land-owners and cattle-owners from about 500- 600 CE. The “general” ban on the killing of cows and the eating of beef by Hindus only goes back to about 1200 CE. Taking the roots of Hinduism as having first germinated at the time of the Indus-Saraswati Valley Civilisation, that would have been about 3,000 BCE (5,000 years ago). Which of course means that Hindus were eating beef for some 4,200 years while they have abstained from the practice for only about 800 years. As the practice of eating beef declined, cow-slaughter for religious sacrifice was increasingly restricted to very special and rare events. Inevitably the resulting beef was insufficient for all the multitude and so was reserved for just the most important Brahmins present. So the Brahmins were probably the last of the castes to give up the practice. Others couldn’t afford it anyway.

Holy Cow

Back in 2001, Professor D N Jha published “the best-kept secret in Indian history — the beef-eating habits of ancient Hindus, Buddhists and even early Jains” in his book Holy Cow—Beef in Indian Dietary Conditions. His scholarly work is probably the most definitive work ever on the subject. It is not available in India of course. A civil court in Hyderabad banned it. Some Government Ministers (BJP, who else) demanded ritualised book burnings. He was threatened and had to have police protection for a while. It was reprinted as the The Myth of the Holy Cow and can still be obtained – with some difficulty – outside India.

There were a few favourable reviews in 2001 and 2002 but generally his book was ignored by academia and kept hidden for fear of “hurting Hindu sensibilities” or of other reprisals. The Indian academic establishment is not known for its political bravery. Their views are incredibly supple and bend with whichever political wind is blowing strongest. Many of the reviews are still available on the internet but many from that time have been removed. Jha retired in 2007. Jha was a socialist and that has also been used as a stick to criticise his views on communalism and the BJP’s saffronisation program. But it seems to me that his arguments are generally correct on the subject of beef in Hindu history  As Outlook reported in 2002

“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”.

A few quotes from his final chapter:

“Although Manu (200Bc – 200 AD) extols the virtue of ahimsa, he provides a list of creatures whose flesh was edible. He exempts the camel from being killed for food but does not grant this privilege to the cow.”

“The Mahabharata also makes a laudatory reference to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen, 2000 cows were butchered each day …. being distributed among the brahmanas.”

“Sita assures the Yamuna .. that she would worship the river with a 1000 cows and a hundred jars of wine when Rama accomplishes his vow.”


  1. The Hindu – Beef eating: strangulating history
  2. Outlook – A Brahmin’s Cow Tales
  3. The Guardian – One man’s beef …..

A few days ago the Wall Street Journal conducted an email interview with DN Jha.

The killing of an Indian Muslim man allegedly lynched last month by a Hindu mob who suspected him of having slaughtered and eaten a cow, has refocused attention on attitudes toward the animal in a constitutionally secular country with a Hindu majority.

Historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha, who has drawn fire from Hindu nationalists for writing that Hinduism hasn’t always regarded beef-eating as an offense, said the recent cow-related violence was part of a “dangerous trend of increasing intolerance  in the country.”

The former Delhi University professor, who is now retired, says he received death threats after the publication of a 2001 book about beef in Indians’ dietary traditions and based on ancient texts, “The Myth of the Holy Cow. 

In an email interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Jha discussed the emergence of the cow as a sacred animal and the politics of meat among conservative Hindus.

Mr. Jha: It was only in the early Christian centuries, around the middle of the first millennium A.D., that the Brahminical texts began to discourage and even disapprove of cow slaughter.

This change of attitude can be understood against the general background of the transformation of the rural society in post -Mauryan centuries, especially from around the middle of the first millennium A.D., which ushered in a phase of unprecedented agrarian expansion.  Brahmins emerged as  a feudal land owning class and, unlike in the earlier period, became more and more involved in agriculture. This led to the recognition of the pivotal role of animal husbandry, and the disapproval of killing of cattle by the Brahmins. All this is encapsulated in the concept of kali age in which many age-old  practices came to be  forbidden.  

WSJ: Is eating cow meat incompatible with Hinduism today?

Mr. Jha: There is substantial evidence in ancient Indian texts which testify to the prevalence of the practice of beef eating for many centuries in ancient India. The practice gradually disappeared in those regions, which are now called the “cow belt.” But it has continued in many other parts of the country, especially Kerala and north eastern states. In Kerala, 72 communities eat beef and many of them are Hindus. So, I would not say that beef eating is incompatible with Hinduism. But, at the same time there are many Hindus who would not even touch beef or even meat or fish.

What may be unacceptable to one set of Hindus may be acceptable to another. …..

The discouragement of cow-slaughter and the eating of beef was essentially an economic necessity of the time and had little to do with religion then. It came in when the value of a living cow far exceeded the value of a dead one, and when the wealth of the Brahmins was counted in cows. What easier way of maintaining their wealth than by introducing a regulation beneficial to themselves and justifying it on the grounds of the religion that they were the custodians of?

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3 Responses to “Hindus were eating beef for much longer than they haven’t been”

  1. atypicalrationale Says:

    Hi, i really enjoyed reading your post, it provided some substantially backed perspective on this topic. I think your proposition that the sentiments against the slaughter of cows as an economic neccessity makes irrefutable sense. Also, very well organised information and research, thanks for sharing! I hope you don’t mind if my blog quotes your article in a post we may publish along similar lines soon. Check us out at http://www.atypicalrationale.wordpress.com, hope you enjoy it!

  2. RSS can take credit for Modi and BJP getting thrashed in Bihar | The k2p blog Says:

    […] nonsense. The anti-beef campaign gained attention around the world for its stupidity since Hindus were eating beef for much longer than they haven’t been. But the final straw and greatest blunder was when RSS/BJP leaders started attacking Shah Rukh […]

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