Most people who grew up in a traditional Hindu family are well aware of the significance of the cow and the taboo against eating beef. The cow is worshipped and revered and there are quite a few rituals where the cow is required. In a large part of the Hindu society, the taboo against eating beef is such that consuming the meat of a cow could lead to being disowned if people in the family became aware of it. All of this is known and is not challenged by anybody.
Most of us who were raised in ordinary traditional Hindu families grew up with the knowledge that beef is the one thing that we were strictly not allowed to consume, under any circumstances. Being from a vegetarian family, the subject of meat-eating itself was seldom discussed, however, for several families I knew, even eating meat in certain restaurants and hotels was avoided because one could never be cent per cent sure what meat was served. And the reasons cited for the taboo were entirely religious.
We worship the cow, we do not eat it. It is one of the dogmas that was never challenged, at least, not in my immediate circle growing up. Even growing up in friend circles which were predominantly Hindu, the idea of eating beef somewhere was never voiced. It is something that just never came up. The taboo against beef is so internalized that it became one of the dogmas that are practically unchallenged. Reverence for the cow is part of our identity. It is a part of who we are as a collective.
Now the world has changed a lot in the past few decades. Teenagers often travel outside their hometowns for their education and young adults move out because of jobs or education and numerous other reasons. Among a cosmopolitan crowd with liberal values, it is easy to lose touch with our roots and sight of our identity. Even then, the farthest the overwhelming majority of us travel is the opinion that consuming beef is a culinary choice.
Some might choose to eat it but we, personally, will not because it goes against the values that have been inculcated within us. The notion that consuming beef is merely a culinary preference is almost always due to our exposure to a cosmopolitan crowd. It never has anything to do with conclusions we have reached after careful consideration following a reading of our scriptures.
Just as the taboo against consuming beef is a consequence of upbringing and not scripture reading, similarly, the notion that consuming beef is merely a culinary preference is a consequence of exposure to cosmopolitan influence. The scriptural justification that is often made after that conclusion has already been reached.
In fact, my journey was similar. When I was 4, we moved to a new house and the most predominant image in my memory from that time is how we worshipped a cow before we stepped foot in the house. I remember gau-mata dressed up with bells and ornamented cloth. Us putting kumkum on her forehead, and hoping, that her blessing illuminates our new house. Growing up, I remember my grandfather taking me to the nearby gaushala to feed gau-mata on my birthday. On festivals, I remember the first few rotis being made as a prasad to gau-mata.
Well into college, even the discussion of beef consumption was not really something that was discussed, as it is today.
The first time I was confronted with my ideological position on beef was when I was in Pune, Maharashtra and a bunch of us friends decided to go to Hard Rock Cafe which had only recently opened up in the city. Several dishes had beef in them, and when I looked at the menu, I got uncomfortable. While I wondered whether I should even eat there or perhaps just stick to my coke, a friend proceeded to order a beef burger.
I didn’t really say anything. I simply excused myself, told her I had to leave for an assignment and met up with other friends for lunch. We ate Misal Pav.
The person who ordered the beef burger was a friend and continued to be so for a long time. At that time, beef-eating was her culinary preference which I did not agree with, and for me, she had a right to that choice and I had simply no right to lecture her or tell her that it was not acceptable as a Hindu (she was one too).
But somewhere along the line, my opinions changed. It went from ‘it is her culinary preference’ to ‘beef is ok, but cow-meat is not’ to ‘Hindus should not eat beef, period’.
It is under these circumstances that we approach the recent discussion around beef.
The Beef Controversy
There is a lot of discussion underway regarding the permissibility of the consumption of beef in the Hindu religion. On one side, there are people who say those who eat beef cannot be Hindu while there are others who maintain beef is a culinary preference. I, personally, lean towards the former.
I am, obviously, no Dharmaguru to make that assertion, so, of course, I am speaking in my personal capacity.
One of the claims that is made to justify eating beef is that Hinduism is a diverse religion and there is nothing wrong if some people eat beef. But this is a bizarre conclusion to reach. There is the diversity of beliefs, yes, but one thing that a large part of the Hindu society believes in is that cow is an animal to revere and beef should not be consumed.
It is for these reasons that it is perplexing to me that such a notion is even floated. I think this is where the lack of a central authority in Hinduism is most acutely felt unlike Christianity where there is the Church and in Islam where the book serves as the central authority and leaves very little room for interpretation.
The argument often furthered is that there are indeed certain scriptures that allow beef-eating while others condemn it. As I have said earlier, I am no Dharmaguru and hence, the scriptural interpretation is not something I will not get into. Why certain sects evolved and started eating beef, was there a Mughal influence, and which scriptural context should be followed by all Hindus is something I am neither equipped to comment on, nor it is my place.
However, I can say with certainty that in most average Hindu households, beef eating is not permissible for deeply religious reasons. For that reason, I mostly find the intellectual discourse around beef-eating rather vacuous and almost tone-deaf to what goes on in most Hindu households. The fact that we may know someone who eats beef cannot be considered the standard by which we take ideological positions on issues.
If someone knows a murderer, are we to justify murder on that premise? If someone knows a person who likes to kill exotic animals for sport, are we to start justifying the act altogether?
The argument that “I know someone who eats beef and are still Dharmic” is a vacuous attempt to justify personal habits and extrapolate that to taking an ideological position. To me personally, it appears to be disingenuous and I try to keep away from such pursuits. Just because we know someone who is doing something that might be against the basic tenets of Hinduism, doesn’t mean that the dogma has to be done away with. To suggest that it must, signifies arrogance, and not to mention, stupidity.
The other argument that is often furthered is that several Hindu communities do consume beef and hence, not consuming beef cannot be a litmus test of being Hindu. Frankly, Hindus have liberalised their religion so much that nothing really is considered to be a litmus test for being a Hindu, however, I have a problem with legitimising beef-eating using this argument.
One of the states that is often cited is Kerala. “Kerala Hindus eat beef. Are they then not Hindus?”
My argument here is rather simple – it is entirely possible that the sect evolved into eating beef for reasons other than them considering it acceptable from the time of their ancestors.
For this, I would redirect you to an article written by user @dauhshanti. He beautifully traced the Hindu history of Kerala and proved how beef-eating was never a core part of that sect to begin with.
He writes, “In the old days, warriors of Kerala who were mostly from the Nair community, once trained in Kalaris, the schools of martial arts, took an oath to protect Brahmins and cows, as part of service to the king. This is recorded by Duarte Barbosa, a 16th-century Portuguese writer”.
“The King then asks him if he will maintain the customs and rules of the other Nayres (Nairs), and he and his kinsmen respond ‘ Yes.’ Then the King commands him to gird on his right side a sword with a red sheath, and when it is girt on he causes him to approach near to himself and la, his right hand on his head, saying therewith certain words which none may hear, seemingly a prayer, and then embraces him saying ‘ Paje Gubrantarca, that is to say ‘ Protect cows and Bramenes (Brahmins)”
A similar oath was made by the most powerful Nair kings of Kerala, the Samuthiris or Zamorins of Calicut before their royal coronation
“At Yagneswaram he is met by Vemaneheri Namputiri, a descendant of Melattur Agnihotri. The Eralped (Zamorin) gives him an ola (text), promising to protect Brahmins, temples and cows.”
(The Zamorins of Calicut by K.V. Krishna Ayyar)
16-17th-century French traveller Pyrard de Laval also writes about reverence to cows given by people of Kerala.
” I must not forget to mention, in passing, and as the opportunity arises, the great honour rendered by these people to cows, however low-bred, filthy, and all covered with dirt and dung they may be. They are allowed to enter the king’s palace, and whithersoever their way leads, without anyone disputing their passage; even the king himself, and all the greatest lords, give place to them with the utmost respect and reverence, and the same with bulls and oxen.”
(The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval, Volume 1)
These excerpts presented by him clearly point towards the fact that beef-eating was something that was introduced later. This could very well be true for several other sects that consume beef today.
Therefore, using this argument to say that beef-eating should be considered acceptable, is to say that the disintegrated version of Dharma must be acceptable to us. I don’t believe in that. Not in today’s day and age when Dharma seems to be slipping right in front of our eyes.
While those who take the position that consuming beef is unacceptable and should be considered a taboo (and a non-negotiable) are considered ‘orthodox’, those who say that it is a culinary preference theorise that the former is trying to mirror Islamists and are attempting to ex-communicate people from the Hindu fold for eating beef.
That argument is equally vacuous, if I can be honest here.
The Hindu society has lost its organisational structure. There is absolutely no way that anyone can be ex-communicated from the Hindu society, least of all, on the say-so of someone like me. There is no metric to judge whether someone is a Hindu or not. Whether that is a good thing or bad, again depends on how ideologically rooted one is. Therefore, to deride those who wish to stick to the fact that beef-eating is a non-negotiable, or at least, should be a non-negotiable in the Hindu society, with this argument, is a strawman at best. Nobody can or should give certificates of Hinduism and nobody is a representative of the entire Hindu society. However, talking about personal non-negotiables is essential because it is out of those personal opinions that a societal opinion is crafted.
Why the Taboo against beef eating needs to be strengthened
Hinduism is a living, breathing religion. It changes with the times and for the times (again, whether that is good or bad depends on where you stand ideologically). In the current times, it is my personal belief that beef-eating has to be stigmatised as it has now become not only a matter of personal faith but a matter of cultural and religious resistance.
Beef, in today’s world, has become the single most subject that is invoked to mock Hindus and show them “their place”. Remind them, that they are nothing in a religionless country where minorities are mollycoddled and the majority faith is desecrated to uphold mythical values of secularism. Beef parties are specifically held to mock Hindus, cows are deliberately slaughtered on the road, Hindus are called cow-piss drinkers by Leftists and Islamists and beef, has become their rallying point against the Hindu faith.
One can even draw a parallel with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. There is a reason why the movement resonated even with those who did not believe in Lord Ram or were his traditional bhaktas. It was a symbol of Hindu resistance and assertion that our faith will not be taken hostage by a secular state that is hell-bent on giving ancient tyrants far more respect than the people of the land.
For me, personally, it is this deliberate desecration of my faith that hand-held me from believing that ‘beef-eating is a culinary preference’ to ‘those who consume beef cannot be considered Hindus’. Does that mean I have the authority to excommunicate someone from the faith? No. Does that mean that it is a strict non-negotiable for me? Absolutely. Do I mean that the Hindu society itself should stigmatise the consumption of beef in their own circles? Yes.
The cow, traditionally, has been a symbol of Hindu resistance against foreign invasions and imperialism. For centuries, the greatest heroes of our civilization have been motivated to achieve great feats by virtue of their devotion towards the cow. There is the story of the great Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj who was so enraged by the slaughter of a cow that he attacked Adil Shahi soldiers as a young boy.
The ban on cow slaughter was strictly enforced during the rule of the Maratha Empire. The devotion towards the cow and the ban on cow slaughter was not only enforced by the Maratha Empire but other great Hindu kingdoms and Empires as well. The cow has always been the symbol of Hindu resistance towards imperialism.
It is for this reason that the efforts to normalize beef-eating feels like an assault on Hinduism itself. It is no secret that the Hindu Civilization today is under attack from various nefarious fronts that seek to destroy it. Every day, the news of idols being desecrated and Temples being attacked makes it way to the news. There is a Jihad against the Hindu Civilization in Kashmir and Maoists and Communists and Evangelical Christians seek to destroy our civilization as well.
And now, a symbol of our cultural resistance is being reduced to a mere culinary preference. The objective here clearly is to turn Hindus against the ethos of our civilization itself and make our way of life a soft target in the process. Whether beef can be consumed by a Hindu or not is a debate that has been settled long ago and only strengthened by the events that followed foreign invasions. That a debate has been initiated regarding the matter is a further indication of the attacks against our civilization.
Historically, Hindus have been force-fed beef in order to forcefully convert them to Islam. That tactic is used even today. In 2019, a Hindu woman was force-fed beef to convert her to Islam. In 2020 a similar case came to light as well. Cows have been slaughtered to insult the Hindu people. And now we are told that beef eating is merely a culinary preference. It is important to note here that in my view, any Hindu who sees how beef-eating is used to undermine the very sanctity of our faith and our very existence, could give up beef since it is a ‘preference’ for them and not a staple diet.
For me, the normalisation of beef-eating today is little more than a disguised attempt to undermine our resolve to defend our way of life. To counter such trends, it is imperative that the taboo against beef-eating is strengthened manifold. And only society, together, can find a solution.