Is Shashi Tharoor right in saying ancient Hindu Rishis ate beef?

In a recent discussion on his book, Why I am a Hindu, Shashi Tharoor says he claimed that ancient Indian Rishis ate beef. He had relied on books written by colonial and Marxist historians who had a clear agenda behind making such claims. As a person coming from Kerala, he should understand that beef became a commonplace dish only in the recent past.

In the erstwhile Travancore and Kochi states, cow slaughter was strictly banned. There were Travancore kings who used to wake up in the morning seeing the cow, as it was considered to be a good omen. The Travancore state opted for the Dutch against the Portuguese because the latter looted temples and promoted cow-slaughter. One of the key points of the Treaty of Mavelikkara of 1753 signed between the Dutch and Travancore king Marthanda Varma was that the former wouldn’t interfere in the religious and internal affairs of the southern princely state. Political constraints forced the Kochi kings to take a lenient view of cow-slaughter only in the Fort Kochi area, where a large number of Portuguese nationals used to put up; elsewhere in the erstwhile princely state ban on cow-slaughter was strictly enforced. However, members of certain lower caste communities were allowed to consume dead cow.

There is an interesting story about Kerala’s most prominent social reformer and spiritual leader Sri Narayana Guru, whom Marxist leader EMS Nambudiripad had described as a “petty bourgeoisie”. Once a disciple raised a doubt: “Swami, we drink cow’s milk, then what is wrong with eating its flesh? After listening to him, the Guru enquired: “Is your mother alive?” The man answered in the negative. The Guru again asked: “So what did you do with the body? Buried or ate it?”

Not only Hindus but the members of the indigenous Syrian Christian community also abstained from beef consumption in the past. So when the Portuguese launched an aggressive drive to convert Syrian Christians into ‘Christianity’, the first thing they did was to cut off the Hindu character and practices of the native Christians, writes Dr CI Issac in his book Evolution of Christian Church in India. One of the declarations at the Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor) in June 1559, watershed in the history of Christianity in India, chaired by Archbishop of Goa Alexis De Menezes was “abstinence from beef was un-Christian”.  A section of Syrian Christians opposed this condition, as they feared beef consumption would bring them down in the caste hierarchy. Even today when many traditions and practices are becoming obsolete and redundant, several Hindu families in Kerala religiously observe the practice of feeding Onasadya (Onam feast) to cattle before even offering it to the God. Also, the defining feature of Parabrahma temple at Ochira in Kollam is the bull.

However, Communists have managed to build a narrative in Kerala that it’s cool to have beef, as the Vedic rishis used to relish it. In an interview to the Frontline, DN Jha, the Marxist historian who authored The Myth of Holy Cow, makes a startling claim: “In Kerala, everybody eats beef, except Namboothiris. Some 72 per cent of the communities (in the country) eat beef.” But the question that begs an answer is — if such an overwhelming number of people in the country eat beef is it politically a wise decision for the Hindutva forces to take it up as their core issue. Also, how come then 29 Indian states, including the most populous ones, have put restrictions or ban on cow slaughter?  Anyway, those who have read Arun Shourie’s The Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud — in which he has shown how Jha had “concocted evidence and distorted sources” — would definitely take the Marxist historian’s statements and claims with a handful of salt.

The Mughals realised that if they had to rule India, they could not support cow slaughter. Even during Aurangazeb’s regime, there were strict restrictions on cow slaughter. But the British failed to realise this. Mahatma Gandhi believed that cow protection could turn out to be a rallying point for the people in their fight for freedom.  He says: “Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observance of caste rules but by their ability to protect the cow. Whilst professing the religion of cow-protection, we have enslaved the cow and her progeny, and have become slaves ourselves.”

Gandhiji launched the Khilafat movement hoping that he could persuade Muslims to give up cow slaughter. He says: “I yield to none in my regard for the cow. I have made the Khilafat cause my own, because I see that through its preservation full protection can be secured for the cow. I do not ask my Mussalman friends to save the cow in consideration of my service. My prayer ascends daily to God Almighty, that my service of a cause I hold to be just may appear so pleasing to Him, that He may change the hearts of the Mussalmans, and fill them with pity for their Hindu neighbours and make them save the animal that latter hold dear as life itself.”

But Gandhiji’s prayers couldn’t bring about change in the hearts of fanatic Mappilas who slaughtered cows and fed them to Hindus who were forcibly converted to Islam during the Malabar rebellion of 1921. Witness accounts say many neophytes couldn’t take it — they vomited. Communists made sure that some of the brutes who indulged in one of the worst communal pogroms in India were rehabilitated in the pantheon of freedom fighters, as they saw an opportunity for collaboration with the Muslim League, whom Nehru had called ‘a dead horse’.  The Leftists not only revived the ‘dead horse’ but carved out Malappuram district on communal lines, thereby implementing the ‘two-nation’ theory within Independent India.

One of the political parties that campaigns against ban on cow slaughter is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). The canard that Hindu rishis and saints of antiquity used to consume beef was spread by Marxist historians, though British scholars were the first to make such outlandish claims. Such a notion was created due to deliberate misreading of the Vedas and Upanishads by Western Indologists. The British had a definite purpose behind such faulty interpretations.  DN Jha relied upon such interpretations to build his theory, as he is not proficient in Sanskrit. His motives were not disinterested, he had a sinister plan: to destroy Hinduism for ideological purposes. So the Communists/Marxists targeted Hinduism and its symbols. In a conversation which I had with him, Jha said whosoever says the Vedas has science is a fool. Jha, in his book, writes: “It (the cow) was not yet held sacred; both oxen and cows were slaughtered for food. Beef was a delicacy offered to the guest.” He has drawn ideas from the Vedic Index of Names and Subjects by Arthur Anthony Macdonell and Arthur Berriedale Keith. The Western scholars translate a shloka from the Shatapata Brahmana ( thus: “The great sage Yajnavalkya was wont to eat the meat of milch cows and bullocks (dhenuvanaduha) if only it was amsala (tender).

Taking a cue from this, Jha begins his book with its first chapter titled: “Animals are verily food but Yajnavalkya favours beef.”

The controversial line in the shloka in the Shatapata Brahmana is: “Asnami eva aham amsalam ched bhavathi ithi”— meaning “I shall consume those (food items) that are tender”.

Noted Vedic scholar and author Acharya Sri Rajesh tears apart the argument of the Western scholars by delving deep into the etymology of the word amsala. According to him, nowhere in the treatise of Panini or in the Amarakosha, the Sanskrit lexicon, does it say that amsala means flesh – and that too cow’s flesh. On the other hand, it means fleshy fruits. In dhenuvanaduha, dhenu, though it means cow, in this context it is milk and vanaduha means foodgrain. So Yajnavalkya says he would like to have fruits instead of milk or dishes prepared out of foodgrain. An entirely harmless shloka was interpreted to mean exactly the opposite.

Similarly, there are scores of instances where shlokas have been misinterpreted by Western scholars and their Indian collaborators to give an impression that beef consumption was considered auspicious in religious functions. For instance, Ralph TH Griffith in his book Hymns of the Rigveda translates the shloka Suryaya vahathu pragatsavika yamavasyajath, Aghasu hanyanthe gavoranjunyo paruhyathe (Rig Veda; 10.85.13), thus: “The bridal pomp of Surya, which Savitar started, moved along. In Magha days are oxen slain, in Arjuris they wed the bride.

According to the Nirukta, the study of correct interpretation of Sanskrit words in the Vedas, gavo means, also means rays — as per the principle: Sarvepi rashmayo gavo uchyathe (rays of light are also called gavo). To cut the story short, the literal meaning of the shloka is: “The bride Sun rays travels to the house of moon and stays there in the month of Magha.” This is in fact a beautiful rendition of the celestial changes taking place in the month of Magha. It really means the duration of nights is long in Magha.

One can cite many such instances where shlokas in the Hindu scriptures have been misinterpreted to mean just the opposite of what they were meant to convey. Ironically even DN Jha himself concedes in his book that in more than one place in the Rig Veda cow has been described as aghanya (not to be killed), though he has a different interpretation for that. But Jha and Western scholars have conveniently ignored the fact that the recurring refrain in the Vedas and Upanishads is ga ma himsi (don’t kill cow). For instance, the Atharv Veda (11.2.1) says “don’t kill two-legged or four-legged animals”, while the Yajur Veda calls upon people to protect cow and drink its nectar-like milk instead of eating its flesh by slaughtering it.

Sir Monier Williams who occupied the prestigious Boden Chair for Sanskrit Studies at Oxford has introduced many distortions in his work, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, that also strengthened the theory that ancient Hindus were beef eaters.  The objective of the Boden Chair, according Monier Williams’ own words, “was to promote translation of the scriptures into Sanskrit; so as to enable his (Col Joseph Boden) countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion.” At another context, Williams writes: “When the walls of mighty fortress of Brahmanism are encircled, undermined and finally stormed by the soldiers of the cross, the victory of Christianity must be signal and complete.”  Alexander Cunningham, the first director-general of Archaeological Society of India, too had similar motivations when he undertook excavation of India’s past. He hoped that his excavations would “show that Brahmanism …was of comparatively modern origin, and had been constantly receiving additions and alterations; facts which prove that the establishment of the Christian religion in India must ultimately succeed.”