Historian's beefy tale gets political goat
Jitendra Verma/New Delhi
In a classic case of academic work spilling into the political arena, a well-known historian is receiving threats to his life for writing a book on the beef-eating tradition in ancient India.
Prof D N Jha, of Delhi University's Department of History, has been living under police protection ever since he received two anonymous calls threatening him of dire consequences if he went ahead with the publication of his book, Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions. The book is expected to hit the market this week.
The 183-page work, being published by Matrix Books, is expected to trigger a new controversy as the author claims that ancient Indians ate beef contrary to popular belief. Says D N Jha: "It's widely believed that beef-eating was introduced by the Muslim rulers. But before the advent of Islam, Indians were very much associated with beef. It was part of ancient Indians' diet."
An expert on ancient India, Dr Jha adds: "It's wrong to use dietary habits as a mark of community identity or religious community. Killing of the cow doesn't mean a person is a Muslim or a Hindu."
It's wasn't an easy journey for Jha to get the controversial subject into book form. An earlier publisher got cold feet at the last stage, when the final proof was being checked.
The idea for the book was born when Dr Jha was researching on the ancient dietary habits of India. "I wrote this book while researching on the subject," says the author. "The aim was to educate people on not to associate beef eating with any religious identity."
The book, comprising seven chapters including the introduction, provides various instances of beef eating in ancient India. Secular and religious texts point to the fact that beef eating was quite prevalent in varying degrees. "Even Mahavir had eaten cock's meat. And, Buddha too, had tasted beef but he died after taking a pork meal," says Jha.
Emperor Ashoka, after adopting Buddhism, issued a list of animals and birds which shouldn't be killed. The list didn't include the cow. Because of his Buddhist beliefs, Ashoka did say only a limited number of animals and birds could be killed in the royal kitchen, says Dr Jha. "He ordered two peacocks and a deer every day. This shows he was not a vegetarian."
The book's first chapter provides several examples from religious texts about beef eating. The Rigveda refers to the cooking of ox's flesh for offerings to gods, especially Indra. God Agni, second in importance after Indra, is described as one whose food is the ox and the barren cow, the book notes.
"This practice continues up to eighth century AD in some form or other. But at the same time, there was tendency among Brahmins to discourage the practice of killing cows in Kalyug," says Jha.
Another example given in the book is from Manusmriti (200 BC - 200 AD) which provides the list of animals whose flesh could be eaten. The book says: "The porcupine, hedgehog, rhinoceros, tortoise and the hare; all those domestic animals with teeth in one jaw only, the only exception being the camel and, significantly, not the cow.
According to Yajnvalkya Smriti (100-300 AD), a learned Brahmin should be welcomed with a big ox or goat, delicious food and sweet words. "This indicates his endorsement of the earlier killing of cattle to welcome honourable guests," says Jha. There is also a reference to beef eating in Mahabharata. A king called Rantideva achieved "unrivalled fame" by distributing beef with foodgrain to Brahmins. About two thousands cows were slaughtered everyday in his kitchen.
Even medical texts like Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita and Astangahritaya of Vagbhata referred to the use of beef in case of specific illnesses. The book refers to Charaka prescribing a gruel prepared with beef gravy, soured with pomegranates, as a remedy for intermittent fever.