A Case for Cow-Protection without Whitewashing the Past

A Case for Cow-Protection without Whitewashing the Past

“Cow” is called “aghnya”- the inviolable, the one which should not be harmed or killed. Hindus perceive her as the mother who nourishes everyone, as the abode of all goodness, and the very embodiment of Sattva, where all deities manifest themselves. Rig-Veda (6.28.1-8) calls her the bringer of fortunes, while Puranas describe her as Kamadenu- the wish fulfilling cow. In other words, cow is a sacred animal for the Hindus, which should be nourished, protected, and cherished very dearly.

In the last many decades, with illegal cow smuggling becoming rampant and slaughterhouses cropping up at every nook and corner, cow-protection has become a very critical political issue. While some Hindu organizations have repeatedly appealed for blanket ban on cow-slaughter and beef consumption, the left-liberals, including those in academia and media have become self-appointed guardians of people’s eating habits.

These left-liberals have accused Hindus of hypocrisy and have alleged how their Vedic ancestors slaughtered hordes and hordes of cows and bulls every other day and consumed beef extensively in the typical leftist fashion of “suppresio veri, suggestion falsi”, all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that the cows were only to be sacrificed in the context of certain specific rituals and that too never for taste, or the fact that there is a Hindu prescription for Kaliyuga, which prohibits any slaughter of cows in this age. Unfortunately, the Hindu response from some quarters have also completely ignored these tenets and they have instead indulged in equally faulty assertions, with memes like “Myth of beef in Vedas” doing the rounds on the internet.

While the hypocrisy of the left is well known and I have also dealt about it in the context of beef parties elsewhere, in the present article I will concentrate on why there is no need for Hindus to distort and whitewash our past in order to build a case for cow-protection in the present.

Whitewashing of the past: An unnecessary and misleading distraction

Swami Vivekananda once said: “Even if truth destroys the whole universe, still it is truth; stand by it.” The emphasis on truth can be considered one of the defining traits of Sanatana Dharma. As the Upanishads say, “Satyam vada, Dharmam Chara”, Dharma in speech is Truth, Truth in action is Dharma. Yet, unfortunately, owing to preconceived notions, as well as in an attempt to counter the anti-Hindu narrative, which has been continuously built, first by the British and now by the Leftist academia and media, a certain section of Hindu scholars and activists have popularized the view that “cow-sacrifice” and “beef” is absolutely nowhere mentioned in the Hindu scriptures and any citations that go against this contention are either ignored or are branded as interpolations.

We can categorize these whitewashing attempts into three broad categories. Though a detailed elaboration of the issue is beyond the scope of the article, I would cite just one example in each case to illustrate the point.

  1. Selective quoting from scriptures: While Hindu responders countering the left narrative rightly highlight numerous references from Hindu scriptures including the Vedas to display the sacredness of the cow and its inviolable nature in Hinduism, they conveniently ignore numerous references to the sacrifice of cows mentioned in texts like Grihyasutras. Paraskara Grihyasutra (3.8), for example, speaks about go-yajna, wherein a cow is sacrificed and its various parts are offered to different deities. Similarly, Apastamba Grihyasutra (1.3.9) explicitly lists occasions where cow-sacrifice can be carried out (without violating Dharmic tenets): madhuparka (in honor of certain guests), as sacrifice for the pitrs, and in marriage.
  2. Rejecting contrarian verses as interpolations:  An important verse in Manu Smriti states that animals can be sacrificed only during madhuparka, yajnas, and during rites in honor of ancestors (Verse 5.41). Since, the primary animal, which was supposed to be offered to specific kinds of guests during madhuparka, who would then make a choice whether to sacrifice it or let it go free, was the cow, the verse from Manu Smriti acts as an important evidence that shows how cow sacrifice and consumption of beef as “Prasada” was permitted during certain ceremonies. Yet, because this goes against the convenient rhetoric that there is no reference to cow-sacrifice or beef in Hinduism, some Hindu scholars brand this verse as “interpolated” simply because the verse contains a phrase towards the end saying “as stated by Manu.” The argument of these scholars is that since entire Manu Smriti constitutes the message of Manu, there was no need to specify “as stated by Manu” and this shows that the verse is later-day interpolation. But, this argument has no standing in reality. If one turns back to the very first chapter, Manu himself says that his student Bhrigu will explain to them the teachings on Dharma, which he had himself imparted to Bhrigu. That is, from the end of first chapter, it Rishi Bhrigu and not Manu, who is the narrator and hence the phrase “as stated by Manu” makes perfect sense. Another argument made by upholders of interpolation argument is that since, Manu Smriti 5.51 says that those who involve in slaying of animals, as well as those who consume it are all guilty of slaying, the verse 5.41 quoted before must be an interpolation. This again does great injustice to Manu Smriti by reducing its nuanced treatment of the issue of food, meat and ahimsa into an axiomatic injunction. Interested people may further study chapter 5 in depth to understand how Manu makes space for everybody all the while enunciating clearly the final ideal. Thus, this argument of interpolation is too convenient to be true and in reality, it has no standing in many of the cases.
  3. Discarding primary meaning of the words for their secondary and tertiary meanings, since the primary meaning goes contrary to preconceived notions: In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Verse 6.4.18), it is said that the couple who wish for a son well versed in all the four Vedas and have a full term of life, they should have rice cooked with “mamsa” of either “uksha” or “rishabha” by mixing it with clarified butter. Now, the primary meaning of “mamsa” is meat, “uksha” is a vigorous bull with a capacity to breed and “rishabha” is the bull more advanced in years. But, since, this verse directly speaks about consumption of bull’s meat for sake of a certain kind of progeny and goes against the meme that no beef in Vedic literature, these Hindu scholars have dropped in the primary meanings of all the three words and have instead argued that “mamsa” means “fruit pulp”, while “uksha” and “rishabha” are references to medicinal plants having properties to strengthen virility. Now, it is indeed true that Ayurvedic texts attest to the presence of medicinal plants named rishabha and uksha. In fact, uksha refers to the famous Soma. Though, because of its property to increase virility, the reference at the first glance may indeed appear to be related to these medicinal plants, a closer look at the context points otherwise. Studying verses from 6.4.14 to 6.4.18, it is clear that the Upanishad prescribes different recipes to beget children of different competencies in the said verses. It prescribes a combination of rice, milk and ghee in case a couples wants a son who would grow up to master one Veda. Similarly, a mixture of rice, curd and ghee is prescribed for a son who would learn two Vedas; a mixture of rice, water, and ghee for a son who would learn 3 Vedas; and a mixture of rice, sesame, and ghee for a daughter who would grow into a scholar. Now, if the purpose of the recipes was to suggest medicinal preparations to increase virility alone, why would they prescribe water, milk, curd, or sesame, none of which have any special character of inducing virility? Instead, the purpose of the verses clearly appears to ensure that the couples would be able to beget children of different temperaments and competencies. Also, all the items mentioned in the recipe be it ghee or sesame or water are easily available at home, including bulls. But, the medicinal plants, especially one like Soma is difficult to procure. Thus, it is plain that the reference of the verse 18 is not medicinal plant but the meat of the bull. Moreover, if the primary meaning was to be discarded and a secondary meaning were to be taken, Adi Shankaracharya in his commentary on the verse would have highlighted the same. But, he has not done. He has commented on the verse taking primary meaning itself. This serves as an example about how certain Hindu scholars are trying to discard primary meanings of the words simply because it goes against their pre-conceived notions and instead are force-fitting secondary and tertiary meanings into the scriptural statements.

Such whitewashing of the past are not only a distraction because it impedes genuine discussion on the topic, it also does great injustice to the tradition we have inherited from the wise Rishis, who were always nuanced in their discourse, and were very accommodative of the needs and capacities of all people. More importantly, such whitewashing is a travesty of truth, the same truth, which is the hallmark of Sanatana Dharma. We do not need to whitewash the past to build a case for cow protection in the present. All we need is only a proper understanding of our texts and tradition.

A genuine case for cow protection based on Hindu tradition

A genuine case for cow protection can only be made based on a correct understanding of Hindu tradition. Just like Truth, Ahimsa is one of the hallmark of Hinduism. It is a Samanya Dharma, a duty common to all humans. Mahabharata Anushasana parva (117.37-41), for example, says “Non-Violence is the highest duty (dharma), non-violence is the highest self-control (damaH), non-violence is the highest gift (dAnam) and non-violence is the highest penance (tapaH)….The gifts given in all sacrifices, the ablutions made in all sacred waters, the merits acquired from all kinds of gifts (mentioned in the scriptures), all these do not come equal ahiMsA (i.e. they do not equal the merits attained by the practice of ahiMsA).” Yet, this glorification of Ahimsa is not a propagation of pacifism. Instead, Manu Smriti (8.349) says that the violence used for self-defence or when someone is forcibly stealing or when protecting women and Brahmanas does not cause violation of dharma. Kurma Purana (Uttara-bhaga 11.15) goes a step further and enunciates that the violence committed according to rules of scriptures (eg: in yajna’s etc.) is considered as ahimsa itself. In other words, though Ahimsa is the ideal, its application involves use of Himsa for the sake of Dharma as per the tenets of Shastras.

This same criteria is applicable with respect to inviolability of the cow as well. While cow is a sacred animal and hence it cannot be and should not be harmed in any manner for selfish reasons, including for the sake of taste, it can be sacrificed in certain rituals and ceremonies like Yajnas, Madhuparka, Shraddha, etc. as enunciated in the scriptures (Apastamba Grihyasutra 1.3.9)  without violating the dictum of cow being “inviolable”. This is so because, the purpose of these rituals is not the fulfilment of selfish craving for cow-meat. Instead, the purpose is religious and spiritual and results in welfare of whole society and only a little quantity of the remnant meat from the offering is consumed as a “Prasada”. As a result, these animals also attain heaven and a higher next birth (Manu Smriti 5.40-42) That is, even the animals thus sacrificed are benefited. But, this is not the case with consuming beef or any meat only for the sake of taste. Those who consume beef or any other meat only for the sake of taste, do so to satisfy their inner cravings. There is neither spiritual merit for oneself, nor welfare of the others. No merit is acquired even by the animal which has been consumed. It is for this reason, the Manu Smriti (5.51) says that he who kills the animal, who buys and sells the meat, and who consumes it all are considered killers of that animal i.e. all share the Karmic burden of causing the death of the animal. Hence, Manu Smriti concludes that animals should only be killed during Madhuparka, Yajna, and in rituals dedicated to deities and pitrs (5.41), and adds that those who kill animals for one’s pleasure will never find happiness (5.45).

On the one hand, we have assertions from the Left academics about how Hindu ancestors killed and consumed hordes and hordes of cows and bulls for the sake of taste. And on the other hand, we have some right scholars arguing that there is absolutely no mention of cow sacrifice and partaking of beef in Hindu scriptures. But, contrary to both assertions, the reality was that while Hindus did sacrifice cows in certain situations and consumed their meat in a small quantity as prasada, it was not in hordes and was never for the sake of taste. Instead, cows were inviolable, which were never killed for selfish purposes, be it for money, as business, or for purely consumption. The only occasions when the cows were predominantly sacrificed were certain specific religious and spiritual rituals and ceremonies conducted sporadically and these sacrifices imparted spiritual merit and a higher birth even on the animals thus sacrificed. Even the example of partaking beef in the context of progeny as mentioned in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad must be seen in the context of how having children is an very important Dharmic action, one that is supposed to help the parents pay their debts to ancestors and save them from falling into suffering. The same applies to the reported medical usage of beef in certain situations according to Ayurveda. The gist is, in none of the cases where cows were sacrificed, the purpose was taste or appetite. Instead, a small quantity of beef was either consumed as “Prasada” or for medicinal purpose (A detailed account of the issue of beef in Ancient India and their origin in history can be read here).

This understanding, not whitewashing, should be the basis of our cow-protection narrative. While our ancestors killed cows and bulls only for Dharmic purposes and consumed a small quantity of beef as “Prasada”, today, cows are smuggled and slaughtered solely for the purpose of satisfying the craving for beef. While our ancestors called the cow “inviolable” and considered it sin to harm her in any way for selfish reason, today we have completely abandoned our cows and bulls, who end up either in diaries or in slaughterhouses, where no love, no compassion is showed to the animal. While our ancestors not only protected and cherished the cows, they also ensured the spiritual evolution and a better life for them by occasionally sacrificing them in yajnas and rituals, today we are not even able to ensure cows are fed well and have a proper shelter to sleep. It is also worth noting in the passing that though cow-sacrifices in the occasions mentioned earlier was considered as a Dharmic action in the previous yugas, we have Puranic recommendation from Brahma-vaivarta Purana (Krsna-jnama Khanda 185.180) that this should no longer be practiced in Kali yuga, since, people are more attached to desires and may even misuse these rituals for satisfying the craving for beef and the way a section of Indians today celebrate beef parties has only reinforced this wisdom embedded in the Puranas!

The gist is, from the standpoint of Dharma, there is no legitimacy for either the slaughter of cow or its consumption today. Killing of cows purely for taste and appetite was Adharma in the past and remains so even in the present. As to the sacrifice of cows for ritualistic purpose, as seen above, though practiced in previous yugas, it is to be given up in Kaliyuga and we already see this as having materialized on the ground for many centuries now, since Hindus no longer sacrifice cows in rituals like madhuparka, shraddha, or vivaha.

The love and care for the cows embedded in Hinduism stems from the Hindu view of ecology, which perceives the entire cosmos as one integral whole pervaded by divinity and promotes harmony. The reason for the special place given to cow among all animals is that it is the most Sattvic of all animals. Most animals be it those in the wild or those domesticated as pets, have varying degree of tamas and rajas in them. But, cow is one of the very few animals, which is full of Sattva. It is this innate Sattva, which makes the cow defenseless, but it also makes her compassionate and loving, as can be seen by one who regularly interacts with the animal.

In some sense, in the Hindu worldview, cow has become a symbol of all animals. A society which at least cherishes and protects its cows, has some goodness and compassion left in it, though it may already be fast falling down the ladder of Adharma. On the other hand, a society, which projects cow-slaughter, that too for a selfish reason as “taste”, as a virtue has fallen down to irredeemable levels of Adharma.

It is high time that Hindu society as a whole rise and recognize cow as a symbol of Dharma that frees one from the depths of Adharma and make this a new mantra for cow-protection movement.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Sammod Acharya and Nagaraja Gundappa for their inputs on some technical points.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Nithin Sridhar

Nithin Sridhar has a degree in Civil Engineering, and having worked in the construction field, he passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality, and ecology. He was the former editor of IndiaFacts (2016-2020)- a portal on Indian history and culture; He is editor of Advaita Academy dedicated to the dissemination of Advaita Vedanta. He is a Consulting Editor to Indic Today Magazine. He is based in Mysuru, Karnataka. His first book "Musings On Hinduism" provided an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. His latest book 'Samanya Dharma' enunciates upon general tenets of ethics as available in Hindu texts. However, his most widely read book is "Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective" that examines menstruation notions and practices prevalent in different cultures & religions from across the world. He tweets at @nkgrock.