One never really got a great beef steak in Madhya Pradesh (MP), and after the ban on cow slaughter, one certainly won’t. But that is beside the point.
Many will view MP as part of a fairly successful and disturbing project to Talibanise food in India, and to kill the remarkable Hindu diversity of dietary practices. In the name of ‘respecting Hindu sentiment’, our food has started resembling Jain thalis.
It is perhaps a coincidence that though a small community, Jains exercise great influence on our business and politics (often as donors) both in India and abroad. They are welcome to their beliefs, but from many accounts, Hindu India has had a varied tradition with respect to eating meat, and specifically beef.
Today, however, nearly two-third of Indian states have banned cow slaughter, some even going to the extent of outlawing all bovine slaughter.
Should the government decide what we eat? Is there a caste system even among animals — you can kill goats and poultry but not bulls and cows? And then there is the question of the moment: Is it un-Hindu to consume beef?
It is not, argues Dwijendra Narayan Jha in his controversial book, The Myth Of The Holy Cow. “The killing of cattle and eating of meat were fairly common among Vedic Indians,” writes Jha. “Although flesh-eating was forbidden for a Vedic teacher during [specific] months, according to a Dharmasutra text the flesh of cows and bulls was pure and could be eaten. Not surprisingly, beef was the favourite of the much-respected sage of Mithila, Yajnavalkya, who made the obdurate statement that he would continue to eat the flesh of cows and oxen as long as it was tender.”
The Rig Veda, he says, often refers to cooking of the ox. Brahmins and priests were apparently entitled to feast on animals sacrificed for the fulfilment of the sacred law. Historian Romila Thapar supports that premise in her Early India. “The eating of beef was reserved for specific occasions, such as rituals or when welcoming a guest of high status,” she writes. “The economic value of the cow… may have contributed to the later attitude of regarding the cow as sacred and inviolable.”
Hinduism scholar Wendy Doniger tries to explain the transition in a slightly different context. “The transition from eating the cow’s flesh (as was done in the Vedas) to drinking the cow’s milk alone is described in a myth in which the cow comes to symbolise the bloodless culture of the sage in contrast to the bloody nature of the hunter,” writes Doniger.
But democratic India must offer space to both the hunter and the sage. It is absurd to de-beef or vegetarianise a demographically diverse country with such an expansive, vibrant coastline and the world’s highest cattle population. In 2010, we were reportedly the fourth largest buffalo meat (carabeef) exporter with a R7,000 crore industry. The spirit of censorship travels from food to clothes to other things. Parting thought: If Khajuraho were created in modern Madhya Pradesh, it most likely would have been banned too.