Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Sticker showing baby Krishna stealing milk from a cow.

Modern Hindus Forbidden From Eating Beef But Ancient Hindus Ate the Sacred Cow

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Wendy Doniger /The Conversation  

Just this past June, at a national meeting of various Hindu organizations in India, a popular preacher, Sadhvi Saraswati, suggested that those who consumed beef should be publicly hanged. Later, at the same conclave, an animal rights activist, Chetan Sharma, said,

“Cow is also the reason for global warming. When she is slaughtered, something called EPW is released, which is directly responsible for global warming. It’s what is called emotional pain waves.”

These provocative remarks come at a time when vigilante Hindu groups in India are lynching people for eating beef. Such killings have increased since Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata party came to power in September 2014. In September 2015, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched by a mob in a village near New Delhi on suspicion that he had consumed beef. Since then, many attacks by cow vigilante groups have followed. Modi’s government has also prohibited the slaughter of buffalo, thus destroying the Muslim-dominated buffalo meat industry and causing widespread economic hardship.

Most people seem to assume that no Hindu has ever consumed beef. But is this true?

As a scholar, studying Sanskrit and ancient Indian religion for over 50 years, I know of many texts that offer a clear answer to this question.

The ancient Hindu belief holds cows as symbols of abundance, power, and altruistic giving.

The ancient Hindu belief holds cows as symbols of abundance, power, and altruistic giving. (maestroviejo)

Cows in Ancient Indian History

Scholars have known for centuries that the ancient Indians ate beef. After the fourth century BC, when the practice of vegetarianism spread throughout India among Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, many Hindus continued to eat beef.

In the time of the oldest Hindu sacred text, the Rig Veda (c. 1500 BC), cow meat was consumed. Like most cattle-breeding cultures, the Vedic Indians generally ate the castrated steers, but they would eat the female of the species during rituals or when welcoming a guest or a person of high status.

Ancient ritual texts known as Brahmanas (c. 900 BC) and other texts that taught religious duty (dharma), from the third century BC, say that a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when a guest arrives.

According to these texts, “the cow is food.” Even when one passage in the “Shatapatha Brahmana” ( forbids the eating of either cow or bull, a revered ancient Hindu sage named Yajnavalkya immediately contradicts it, saying that, nevertheless, he eats the meat of both cow and bull, “as long as it’s tender.”

Cows painted over a door are believed to bring good luck.

Cows painted over a door are believed to bring good luck. (Ross Funnell/ CC BY NC ND 2.0)

It was the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata (composed between 300 BC and AD 300) that explained the transition to the non-eating of cows in a famous myth:

“Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”

This myth imagines a transition from hunting wild cattle to preserving their lives, domesticating them, and breeding them for milk, a transition to agriculture and pastoral life. It visualizes the cow as the paradigmatic animal that yields food without being killed.

Chaurasi Devataon-wali Gai, or "The Cow with 84 deities" by Raja Ravi Varma.

Chaurasi Devataon-wali Gai, or "The Cow with 84 deities" by Raja Ravi Varma. (Public Domain) In this poster condemning the consumption of beef, the sacred cow Kamadhenu is depicted as containing various deities within her body.

Beef-Eating and Caste

Some dharma texts composed in this same period insist that cows should not be eaten. Some Hindus who did eat meat made a special exception and did not eat the meat of cow. Such people may have regarded beef-eating in the light of what the historian Romila Thapar describes as a “matter of status” – the higher the caste, the greater the food restrictions. Various religious sanctions were used to impose prohibition on beef eating, but, as Thapar demonstrates, “only among the upper castes.”

As I see it, the arguments against eating cows are a combination of a symbolic argument about female purity and docility (symbolized by the cow who generously gives her milk to her calf), a religious argument about Brahmin sanctity (as Brahmins came increasingly to be identified with cows and to be paid by donations of cows) and a way for castes to rise in social ranking.

Sociologist M. N. Srinivas pointed out that the lower castes gave up beef when they wanted to move up the social ladder through the process known as “Sanskritization.”

Gandhi. (Public Domain) A central tenet of Gandhi’s teaching was vegetarianism. But he did not call for a beef ban.

Gandhi. (Public Domain) A central tenet of Gandhi’s teaching was vegetarianism. But he did not call for a beef ban.

By the 19th century, the cow-protection movement had arisen. One of the implicit objects of this movement was the oppression of Muslims.

Famously, Gandhi attempted to make vegetarianism, particularly the taboo against eating beef, a central tenet of Hinduism. Gandhi’s attitude to cows was tied to his idea of nonviolence.

He used the image of the Earth cow (the one that King Prithu milked) as a kind of Mother Earth, to symbolize his imagined Indian nation. His insistence on cow protection was a major factor in his failure to attract large-scale Muslim support.

Yet even Gandhi never called for the banning of cow slaughter in India. He said,

“How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.”

White cows decorated for Diwali celebrations.

White cows decorated for Diwali celebrations. (CC BY 2.0)

Today’s India

From my perspective, in our day, the nationalist and fundamentalist “Hindutva” (“Hindu-ness”) movement is attempting to use this notion of the sanctity of the cow to disenfranchise Muslims. And it is not only the beef-eating Muslims (and Christians) who are the target of Hindutva’s hate brigade. Lower-caste Hindus are also being attacked. Attacks of this type are not new. This has been going on since Hindutva began in 1923. And indeed, in 2002, in a north Indian town, five lower-caste Hindus were lynched for skinning a cow.

But, as local analysis shows, the violence has greatly increased under the Modi government. IndiaSpend, a data journalism initiative, found that “Muslims were the target of 51 percent of violence centered on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 86 percent of 28 Indians killed in 63 incidents…As many of 97 percent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014.”

In 2015, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, lower-caste Hindus were flogged for skinning a dead cow, triggering spontaneous street protests and contributing to the resignation of the state’s chief minister.

As these and so many other recent attacks demonstrate, cows – innocent, docile animals – have become in India a lightning rod for human cruelty, in the name of religion.

Cow on Delhi street.

Cow on Delhi street. (John Hill/CC BY SA 3.0)

Top Image: Sticker showing baby Krishna stealing milk from a cow. Source: counterclockwise/CC BY NC SA 2.0

The article ‘Hinduism and its Complicated History with Cows (and People Who Eat Them) by Wendy Doniger was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.



Hachiaman, can I ask what are your qualifications that make you believe you're able to discredit her entire career like that? .....None? Shocking /s

Wendy is just some Anti Hindu scholar who don't know much about Hinduism.
She talks about beef eating in Vedas, but she don't know that vedas are collection of mantras or spells, how could you get reference of beef eating from it?
She don't know damn thing about sanskrit, her translations are incorrect.

If someone doesn't believe in eating meat from certain animals - cattle, pigs or whatever, that is their business and they should leave those do alone. Don't force your beliefs on anyone else - it is that simple. Live and let live.

Throughout history many if not most peoples who gained power over others felt they were able to do so because of the superiority of their gods, and proceeded to obliterate to the greatest extent possible the temples and religious activities of the vanquished. In few places did this happen more so than with the Muslim conquest of India and the Spanish conquests of native-American empires. This abuse of power exhibited by Modi and his zealots is but another example of this in our modern times, as is the destruction of antiquities and the murdering of Christians in territories under the influence of ISIS. The political correctness tyranny happening in the USA with its increasingly violent demonstrations is another. Personal liberty to believe and speak as one wishes without government interference so long as it does not harm or interfere in the personal liberty of others is perhaps the most precious thing anyone can hope to achieve and is well worth fighting for.

...are ultimately nasty, controlling, authoritarian creepazoids who want to completely dominate your neighbors life because of YOUR IDIOTIC beliefs based on nothing but the ravings of some control freak, con man who scared stupid sheeple into believing his madeup Sky Daddy story...
in short, religionists are the opposite of enlightenment; at LEAST 90% are lying hypocrites, and i know this atheist is 'more xtian' than 90% of the self-proclaimed xtians who think their assumed moral superiority gives them the right to -literally- lord it over everyone else...
nope, there is a quote which sums this up quite nicely: WITHOUT religion, good people would continue to do good things, and bad people would continue to do bad things; BUT, it takes religion to make good people do bad things...
oh, and cow is quite tasty, stupid hindu freaks; why don't you big, bwave stupidheads come over to amerika (or austrailia, or argentina, etc), and start lynching cow-eaters, and see how far that gets you, you ignorant, dirt-laden, hypocritical, selfish, intolerant dickheads...


ancient-origins's picture


This is the Ancient Origins team, and here is our mission: “To inspire open-minded learning about our past for the betterment of our future through the sharing of research, education, and knowledge”.

At Ancient Origins we believe that one of... Read More

Next article