India’s Holy Cow

by Madhusudan Raj

The present Narendra Modi government of India issued orders banning the selling of cattle (cow and buffalo) beef a couple of days ago. This diktat has created a fury in various Indian states, especially the southern states and the state of West Bengal both of which have now announced that they will not abide by this diktat citing the prerogative under the legal federal structure of the Indian nation. People in the southern states and elsewhere have arranged beef parties to protest this ban. The politics behind India’s Holy Cow is intensifying day by day.

To understand this ban we must unravel the mystery of holy cow i.e., why is cow so important in India? To untangle this mystery we have to look back in the history of the Indian subcontinent where this ban originated many centuries ago.

To unravel this mystery I am going to chiefly use the work of Columbia university anthropologist Professor Marvin Harris. Harris in his book Cannibals and Kings explains the origin of not only this taboo on eating cow, but also all other kinds of religious taboos like a ban on eating pigs among the ancient Israelite and the Muslims today. Harris devotes one full chapter on explaining the origins of the Indian Holy Cow i.e., ban on eating cow beef. I will use Harris’ work to explain this historical taboo, which is still working under the Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP government under a political garb.

Harris’ main line of argument about the origin of culture – including such religious bans – goes like this:

My aim is to show the relationship between material and spiritual well-being and cost/benefits of various systems for increasing production and controlling population growth. In the past, irresistible reproductive pressures arising from the lack of safe and effective means of contraception led recurrently to the intensification of production. Such intensification has always led to environmental depletion, which in general results in new systems of production – each with a characteristic form of institutionalized violence, drudgery, exploitation, or cruelty. Thus reproductive pressure, intensification, and environmental depletion would appear to produce the key for understanding the evolution of family organization, property relations, political economy, and religious beliefs, including dietary preferences and food taboos. (p. xii)

As Harris explained, the reproductive pressure results into intensification of production process which in turn results into depletion of ecological resources which in turn leads to different cultural practices like the Hindu ban on eating cow beef to counter the deteriorating benefit-cost ratio of standard of living and survival. Religion works only as a motive force to enforce such bans which are necessary to maintain the population from dying off in the face of such ecological depletion.

What is the origin of all kinds of religious taboos on eating animal flesh? I said all kinds of animals because the Hindu ban on eating cow beef is not unique in the world. Muslims also have a religious ban on eating pig. Single common principle is behind all these bans. Harris provides the answer:

Before I attempt to explain why it was pork that first became the object of supernatural interdictions, let me say something about the general principles governing the establishment of taboos on animal flesh. As suggested by Eric Ross, who has studied the problem of animal taboos among Indians of Amazon basin, the most important general point to be kept in mind is that the ecological role of particular species is not fixed for all time but is part of a dynamic process. Cultures tend to impose supernatural sanctions on the consumption of animal flesh when the ratio of communal benefit to costs associated with the use of a particular species deteriorates. Cheap and abundant species whose flesh can be eaten without the danger to the rest of the system by which food is obtained seldom become the target of supernatural proscription. Animals that have high benefits and low costs at one time, but that become more costly later on, are the principal targets of supernatural sanctions. The most severe restriction tends to develop when a nutritionally valued species not only become more expensive but its continued use endangers the existing mode of subsistence. The pig is such a species.  (pp. 196-197)

This principle applies to the ban on eating cow flesh by Hindus as well as ban on eating pig by Muslims. As one can discern from the on-going analysis, this ban has nothing to do with cow as some kind of a holy animal which should be worshiped for its own sake. In fact, the treatment of cow by Hindus as mostly a scavenger animal speaks amply about the real treatment given to it by them! Oxen and bull are given more importance because they are the ones which are most useful in agriculture. Cow gives birth to these oxen and bull and also provides essential nutrients in the form of milk and its products so it is allowed to wander and scavenge on trash to stay alive. The ban was a practical cost-benefit calculation by ancient Hindus to protect their standard of living and ensure survival. Religion is a powerful proscription tool for this ban to become effective and so the religious veneer was applied historically to this ban.

The history of holy cow is also quite revealing looking at the present worship of cow by Hindus. Historically all ancient Vedic people use to eat animal flesh with taste, including, and more often by, Hindu Brahmin priests! In fact, these priests had the monopoly over animal sacrifice and eating. Marvin Harris explains:

Thus the Brahmans gradually came to be part of the meat-eating elite whose monopoly over the privilege of slaughtering animals for redistributive feasts had been transformed into a monopoly over the privilege of eating them. Long after ordinary people in northern India had become functional vegetarians, the Hindu upper castes – later the most ardent advocates of meatless diets – continued to dine lustily on beef and other kinds of meat. (p. 215)

This then is the real history which no one teaches in the classroom. Around 4th century BC, because of production intensification and ecological depletion cows became more important alive for farming rather than dead for her flesh, farmers one by one started implementing this ban on slaughtering cow. As Harris explains, it were the low caste Hindu farmers who stopped eating cow flesh first because they couldn’t afford to lose their cows during one or two drought seasons (if they killed cattle in the drought season then when the rain again arrives they are left with no cattle for farming, and that means starvation and death). When commoners stopped eating cow beef, the elite Brahman priests were still eating it! As centuries past by slowly the cow became holy and eating her beef became a sin.

Thus, the Hindu holy cow is just another cultural phenomenon which has its roots in cost-benefit calculations by human beings for their survival like all other cultural phenomena. My purpose of presenting this history was to illuminate the root cause of why the present Narendra Modi government and its Hindu nationalist backers are imposing this cow beef ban since coming to power three years ago. The ban which historically started as a measure of survival has now become a political tool under Narendra Modi government. Politicians of all stripes, including BJP and Congress party, are using it for the same but slightly different purpose of their own parasitical survival i.e., winning elections and remaining in power forever!

Personally I have no problem whatsoever with peoples’ eating habits. Everyone is free to choose whatever they want to eat as long as they don’t physically harm or threaten to harm other humans and their pet animals, which is their private property. In the end, as Marvin Harris said, when it comes to survival, economics mostly trumps over religion:

Religions have generally changed to conform to the requirements of reducing costs and maximizing benefits in the struggle to keep the living standards from falling; cases in which production systems have changed to conform to the requirements of changed religious systems regardless of cost/benefit considerations either do not exist or are extremely rare.

And in the present ban case too the economic case of survival for the politicians and their backers is triumphing. Remember that the state officials i.e., politicians have only two goals in their minds which drive their lives:  1) election, and 2) re-election. To understand their policies we need to keep these two goals in focus. The on-going ban of cattle beef is aimed at these two ends only. There is nothing else in it.

Share Article
Kindly Note:
If you expect us to respond to your comment, please give a logical and civilized comment after reading the entire article. Also, be precise and restrict it to between 150-200 words.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.