Cow as a political crutch in Hindutva politics

Photograph courtesy: Kashmiri cartoonist and graphic artist Mir Suhail
Photograph courtesy: Kashmiri cartoonist and graphic artist Mir Suhail
Photograph courtesy: Kashmiri cartoonist and graphic artist Mir Suhail

The idea of the cow as the revered mother, worthy of lifetime service, and therefore outside the purview of the abattoir, is no earlier than a sixteenth century construct. Most Hindus today are under the impression that their Vedic ancestors revered the cow for its sacredness, a misconception actively encouraged by the drivers of current Hindutva politics. Hindutva, a relatively new political ideology that uses elements of Hinduism and the ‘otherness’ of Abrahamic faiths, drives the current majoritarian political discourse in India, using religious polarization as its raison d’etre. It proudly tom-toms the Vedic concept of ‘Vasudev Kutambhakam’ (the world is one family), as its motivation. Hindutva also displays a paranoid awareness of its identity and speaks constantly about the threat of being swamped by the miniscule adherents of exclusivist Abrahamic faiths, thus, in the process, becoming exclusivist itself, contrary to the principles of ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’, which it hypocritically holds dear.

The sacred cow has thus become a symbol of community identity, juxtaposed against the Muslims, who are portrayed as a community that slaughters and eats what is sacred to the Hindus. The sacredness of the cow is sought to be traced wrongly to Vedic times. In effect, to a period when the cow was, in fact, slaughtered and eaten. It was a sacred duty of Hindu observance to sacrifice the cow, eat it and share it with the community, for certain occasions.

According to Professor DN Jha, Professor of History at the Delhi University and author of the 2009 book ‘Myth of the holy cow’, cow politics originated during the times of Babur. During the reigns of Babur, Akbar, Jehangir and Aurangzeb, restrictive bans were applied on the slaughter of cows to accommodate Jain and Brahminical sensibilities.

The central theme of Hindutva cow politics is that cow slaughter and consumption as food was brought in by Muslim invaders, without realizing that for their Vedic ancestors cow meat constituted haute cuisine. The earliest Vedic references to the sacrifice and consumption of cow meat comes from the oldest of the Vedas, the Rigveda. There are over seven hundred references in the Rigveda to cow related sources of food. The Aryans, after all, were a pastoral community and carried on their Indo-European tradition of cattle rearing. Agriculture, for the Aryans, was secondary to cattle rearing. Wealth and social status therefore, was measured in terms of the number of cattle possessed.

The following is an excerpt from Professor DN Jha’s ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow’, which goes on to highlight how the Vedic texts mention cow sacrifice. “…later Vedic texts provide detailed descriptions of sacrifices and frequently refer to ritual cattle slaughter. The Gopatha Brahmana alone mentions twenty-one yajnas, though all of them may not have involved animal killing. A bull (vrsabha) was sacrificed to Indra, a dappled cow to the Maruts and a copper coloured cow to the Asvins. A cow was also sacrificed to Mitra and Varuna. In most public sacrifices, (the asvamedha, rajasuya, and vajapeya) flesh of various types of animals, especially that of the cow/ox/bull was required. The agnyadheya, which was a preparatory rite preceding all public sacrifices, required a cow to be killed and the adhvaryu priest is said to have ‘put apart…on the red hide of a bull…four dishfuls of rice’. In the ashvamedha (dorse sacrifice) the most important of the Vedic public sacrifices, first referred to in the Rigveda, and discussed in the Brahmanas, more than 600 animals (including wild boars) and birds were killed and its finale was marked by the sacrifice of 21 sterile cows, though the Taittirya Samhita. (V.6 11-20) enumerates 180 animals, including horses, bulls, cows, deer and nilgai to be killed. The gosava, (cow sacrifice) was an important component of the rajasuya and vajapeya sacrifices. In the latter, the Satapatha Brahmana tells us, a sterile spotted cow was offered to Maruts. Similarly, in the agnistoma, a sterile cow was sacrificed.”

Vedic literature also specifies two hundred different varieties of animals fit for human consumption. It goes on to mention the method of carving up the flesh of animals into thirty-six pieces and even specifies that the animals are to be killed by samitara — by strangulation. The Satapatha Brahmana declares elsewhere, ‘meat is the best kind of food’. After the emergence of agriculture, fixed settlements became common place, and rules were framed for the construction of houses. “Of the many rules, at least two provide for the sacrifice of a black cow,” Jha writes in his book.

It is clear from the Rigveda and the Atharvaveda that the cow was never considered sacred. It is a lie that Hindutva politics seeks to spread, and succeeds, as the general populace is not well-versed with Vedic texts. Hindutva politics is evolving in keeping with the basic character of all religion-centric political philosophies — it hates the intellectual and anything to do with learning. It appears to ‘revere’ Vedic science, even if it is patently ignorant of the Veda, as we can see from the references above. It therefore seeks to create a fraudulent image and understanding of ancient texts, to base its polarizing political ideology on paranoia and relentless strife with other faiths. And in doing so it is mocking, challenging and destroying the basic tenets of the ancient texts.

If we are to prevent India from descending into medieval savagery driven to paranoia by not more than 15% of its voters, it is important that Hindutva lies are challenged at every step, with the intellect and with scholarly output. We need more media outlets that will be willing to engage with the Hindu mind and disseminate scholarly research. We require more scholars willing to research and disseminate knowledge among students and the uninitiated, about our historical past, so that the motivated Hindutva political discourse can be countered effectively. India has a tradition of learning and scholarship. Just riding on learning and scholarship, we can counter the terrifying, medieval future that the fascists seem determined to thrust upon this country.


Rajiv Tyagi flew MiG21s as a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force. Currently, he designs computational electronics systems, treks in the mountains, and tells stories.

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