Wednesday, November 26, 2008



Are you a Vegetarian?

It would have been extremely difficult, in fact almost impossible, to have been a vegetarian in Vedic times anywhere in the world. Almost all the fruits and vegetables, so commonly available today, had not been domesticated to be fit for human consumption while cereals, the only vegetarian food that
could be stored to eat at a later time, were very scarce till about 4,000 years ago when they first appeared with the Harappans and then slowly spread to other areas. The Harappans only had barley, millets and a little wheat. Rice only came to India from south East Asia very much later.

Furthermore if the Aryas had been a nomadic people, they would never have stayed long enough at any place to cultivate cereals or any other crops. The wandering tribes would have certainly picked up wild seasonal fruits, vegetables, edible roots and leaves but these were very poor and unpredictable sources of food until they were especially domesticated for higher yields. And they were also usually very scarce in winter and summer. So meat and milk products must have been the main staples of their diets.

The Rigveda, as one of India’s earliest texts, gives numerous examples of meat eating with verses giving clear instructions on how to slaughter, cook, cut and distribute the parts of horses and bulls at their sacrifices. Few people know that the Vedic Gaomeda, or cow sacrifice, was a standard ritual for important sacrifices like the Rajsuya yagna (consecration of rulers) or that the royal ritual of Ashwameda ended with the slaughter of the consecrated stallion as is described in rather gory detail in CLXII- verses 9 to 22 of the Rigveda.

The Rigveda did not give very much importance to the cow though the bull and ghee, or clarified butter, were important. Horses were also accorded great importance. But Indra, the tawny bearded supreme Vedic god was specifically offered the best sides of beef. Only by the most extreme sophistry can the Vedic verses be interpreted to have any meaning other than the eating of beef. Hymns 86, verses 13 and 14 in book X can hardly be more explicit:

“Wealthy Vrasakpayi, blest with sons and consorts of thy sons, Indra will eat thy bulls, thy oblation that affecteth much. Supreme is Indra over all. Fifteen in number, then, for me a score of bullocks they prepare and I devour the fat thereof. They fill my belly full. Supreme is Indra over all.”

There are frequent examples of meat and beef eating in the Rigveda At one place Indra states… `cook me fifteen plus twenty oxen’. Another important Vedic deity is Agni, who is called protector of all men, and is also described as…`one whose food is the ox and the barren cow’. The Gopatha Brahmana mentions twenty-one Yajna sacrifices. A bull (vrsabha) was sacrificed to Indra, a dappled cow to the Maruts, and a copper cow to the Ashvins and a cow was also sacrificed to Varuna and Mitra. There are numerous other examples in the Brahmanas, Upanishads and other sacred texts.

The Dharmasutras list a number of animals and birds that are fit to be eaten including the cow. The cow was also the preferred dakshina, or sacrificial fee, to pay to Brahmin priests. When Vishwamitra came to visit Vashishta he ordered his disciples to kill a bull in honour of his guest.

Early Buddhist and Jain texts recount their horror about such extravagant taking of life and the wanton killing of cattle at their sacrifices. Several Vedic texts conversely express indignation at the disturbance of their sacred sacrifices by the local Dasyus. The native Indian humped bull ‘Bos Indicus’, as portrayed in many Indus seals, may have been a pre-Aryan native object of worship that got absorbed by the evolving religion. The association of the Nandi bull with non-Vedic deity Shiva could also point to such a pre-Vedic tradition.

But in ancient times, when food sources were very scarce, even the Buddhists and Jains sometimes had to eat meat and even beef if these were placed in their begging bowls but they abhorred killing. The Samyutta Nikaya tells us that at the time of Buddha’s visit to Sravasti, Presanjit the king of Kosala was to sacrifice 500 oxen, 500 male calves, 500 female calves and 500 sheep until he was dissuaded by Buddha. Jains were generally much more strongly against eating meat but their monastic rules allowed meat eating in extreme circumstances.

In the Upanishads, there is a specific injunction given by the father of the sage Nachiketa that milch cows should not be killed but that the old ones had to be killed. The Traita Brahmana talks of yagnas or sacrifices of bulls and cows.
Verse 1-5-14-19 of the Apastambha Dharma Sutra actually says that the cow is holy and is therefore to be eaten. The only written prohibitions, concerning beef, to be found in any old text, concerned punishments for the theft of cattle belonging to a king.

Cows, like all female animals, were seldom eaten in all societies for the simple reason that they gave calves as well as milk while just one bull was enough to service numerous females. It is for this reason that almost all meat be it mutton, pork or chicken was usually from well fattened males. Pork was however always of a wild boor as there were no domesticated pigs in ancient times. There are however several texts in many Indian scriptures stating that barren cows that could not produce calves or milk must be killed and eaten.

Valmiki’s Ramayana has many instances of the killing and eating of deer and other animals Sita even offered 100,000 cows and equal jars of wine to feed the Brahmins if the goddess of the Ganga were to bring her husband safely back from exile. In the Mahabharat, 2,000 cows were slaughtered every day in the kitchen of king Rantideva who used to distribute beef and food grains to many Brahmins. According to this text, the Vanaparvan, the river Caramavati (Chambal) originated from the blood of the slaughtered cows. Draupadi also offered Jayadratha and his companions 50 deer to eat.

Manu, in his law book, the Manusmriti says that it is a divine rule to eat meat on sacrificial occasions or while honoring the gods or guests. He attests that…
`animals were created for the sake of sacrifice and that killing for ritual occasions is non-killing because all sacrificial foods attain higher levels of existence’.

The eating of beef or meat is also mentioned in several ancient medical texts. The treatise of Caraka Samhita, so important in Ayurveda, lists 28 animals including cows, whose flesh is recommended for the cure of various ailments. It describes the benefits of beef for disorders of wind, catarrh and irregular fever. Caraka specifically recommends a gruel of beef gravy soured with pomegranates as a remedy for prolonged fever.

Meat and beef eating is often mentioned in the more recent Puranas. Sangham literature in Tamilnadu has many instances of meat eating. Thousands of buffaloes were sacrificed every year at the Athanuramman temple in Salem. Similar slaughter used to occur in Kali temples in Bengal, Assam and Orissa.
Tribal, Jain and Buddhist traditions had a deep veneration for all forms of life including bulls and cows long before the Vedic tradition became established. The Brahmins seem to have incorporated this intense Jain and Buddhist aversion to all killing like many other local traditions that later became part of their continuously evolving religious code.

It seems certain that the strict prohibitions against meat or beef did not exist in India till after the end of the Buddhist period. The Chinese travelers Fa-Hsien and Hiuen-Tsang who were in India in the 5th and 7th centuries AD, both comment on many strange taboos, unique to India, especially the Jain influenced prohibitions concerning root vegetables like onions and garlic. Their silence about beef that was widely eaten in China suggests that no taboo had existed at these times.

Jains as staunch vegetarians were especially averse to harming all life forms. They considered that root vegetables such as garlic, onions, carrots and beets (potatoes only came to India about 400 years ago) had several root clusters, to make them into a number of individual living organisms. So they forbade eating these, as it would result in taking many lives and of acquiring many more Karmas. They also forbade the eating of cabbages and cauliflowers whose tight leaves could contain hidden insects. As Jains influenced many other sects, their taboos as well as their tradition of austerity, gradually became a part of Hindu sacred customs.

Although almost all the ancient texts endorse or condone the eating of meat and beef this was modified by the Brahmins in more recent times that now ambiguously state the basis of very dubious literary authority that although the eating of beef had been permissible in ancient times it is forbidden in the present times of the Kalyuga.

The aversion to eating beef is much more a matter of local custom than anything that is offensive to the Vedas or other Hindu scriptures. This is evidenced by the many Brahmins in the eastern and southern parts of India having no aversion to eating beef despite otherwise being very diligent in their beliefs and faith.

The cow only became sacred with the emergence of the Krishna cult in the Hindi speaking areas of North India after the 12th century AD. Ramanuja began the Vaishnav Bhakti form of devotion but it was Jaideva’s Gita Govinda followed by the preaching of Chaitanya (1485 - 1533 AD) that really established the adoration of Krishna with his gopis and cattle. It is not surprising therefore that archeological evidence in Vrindavan, that was the location of so much of the Krishna legend, does not have any structures of any great age.

Because beef was commonly eaten by Muslims, cow protection was to become an important political statement during the past 150 years. The first movement to protect the cow was by the Sikh Kuka (Namdhari) sect in 1870. In 1882, Dayanand Sarasvati founded the first Gorakshini Sabha and challenged the Muslim practice of beef eating provoking a series of communal riots in the 1880’s and 1890’s. These were to later encourage further communal clashes where thousands were killed in Azamgarh in 1893, Ayodhya in 1912 and Shahabad in 1917. So eating beef unfortunately moved from being just a matter of diet to becoming a defining icon of Hindu versus Muslim identity.

Despite strong religious sentiments among most Hindu’s about cow slaughter, the practical realities of cattle breeding shows that cow slaughter today is commonplace in almost every Indian village. The Government’s livestock census of 2003 estimates that India has 285 million, or over18% of the world’s cattle. Milch buffaloes and draught bullocks are important sources of milk, fodder, fuel, income and employment, even if they contribute little in India to meat production so important to the livestock industry worldwide.

This data clearly shows the actual numbers of cattle have been slowly declining and that deliberate culling of cattle is widely practiced throughout India. UP, for example, has 17.7 million female buffaloes compared to just 4.9 million males and 16.9 million cows to 8.2 million bulls. In Andhra, there are 10.6 million female buffaloes but just 1.6 million males and 9.3 million cows to 4.7 million bulls. This clearly shows that despite the pious claims cattle slaughter is widespread.

Paradoxically, the keepers of India’s cattle themselves perpetuate some of the worst crimes against cattle. Studies in Mumbai and Delhi show that many thousands of pregnant cows and buffaloes are brought into `tabelas’, or cattle sheds, in the slums of Indian cities. As half the calves they deliver are males, and an economic liability, they are killed as soon as the mother’s milk steadies.

No comments: