Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hindus and their Holy Cow

After the sweeping election win of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP party last year, there is a barrage of Hindu propaganda coming from Modi and his government about the so-called glorious past of India and the sacred Hindu culture. Hindu fundamentalist forces, under the tutelage of Modi and his government, are busy attacking the Muslim and Christian minorities while BJP's backers, the RSS, wants Modi government to declare India as a Hindu nation! BJP governments in various states like Maharashtra and Haryana have gone so far as to ban the eating of cow beef totally saying that for Hindus cow is sacred. The myth of India's Holy Cow perpetuates and gives a (phony) justification to such draconian measures of these state governments.

What I want do in this brief article is reveal the reality of the Hindu Holy Cow. I will present the underlying cause of this old Hindu ban/taboo on eating cow beef. What factors are driving this ban? How and when this ban originated? What were the realities about eating of animal meat of Indian Hindus, especially the present non-beef eating upper Brahmin caste, before this ban/taboo came into effect slowly? I will give answers of these questions. Searching for this Truth will also expose the myth which the fundamentalist people are spreading about the Indian culture. I am right now reading Columbia anthropologist Professor Marvin Harris' wonderful book Cannibals and Kings where he explains the origin of not only this taboo on eating cows but also all other kinds of religious taboos like a ban/taboo on eating pigs amongst the ancient Israelites and the Muslims today. Harris devotes one full separate chapter on explaining the origins of the Indian Holy Cow i.e., ban on eating cow beef. I will use Harris' quotes to explain this historical taboo, which is still working under Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP government, but in a different political garb.

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

So, this is the origin of human culture. The reproductive pressure results into intensification of production process which in turn results into depletion of ecological resources which then 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 provides just an excuse and 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 Pigs. Single common principle is behind all these bans. Harris provides the answer:

This principle applies to the ban on eating Cow flesh by Hindus as well as ban on eating Pigs by Muslims. As I have said above, this ban has nothing to do with Cow as some Holy animal which should be worshiped for its own sake. In fact, the treatment of Cow by the Hindus as mostly a scavenger animal speaks amply about the real treatment given to it by them! Oxens and Bulls are given more importance because they are the ones which are most useful in agriculture. Cow gives birth to these Oxens and Bulls and also provides essential nutrient in form of milk and its products so it is allowed to wander here and there to scavenge on trash and stay alive. The ban is a practical cost-benefit calculation by the Hindus to protect their standard of living. 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 Hindu 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 priest had the monopoly over animal sacrifice and eating. Here is Marvin Harris again: 

This is the real history which no one teaches in the classrooms. Around the 4th century BC, because of production intensification and ecological depletion cows became more important alive for farming rather than dead for her flesh, the Hindu 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 can't afford to lose their cows during one or two drought seasons (if they kill cattle in drought then when rain again arrives they are left with no cattle for farming, which became main source of food supply by then). But when commoners stopped eating cow beef, the elite Brahman priests were still lustily eating it!  

So, the Hindu holy cow is just a cultural phenomenon which has its roots in cold cost-benefit calculations by human beings for their survival like all other cultural traits. My purpose of presenting this history is to expose the lies that the present government and its Hindu nationalist backers are spreading. The ban which was started to safeguard the standard of living of people has became a political tool today. Politicians are using it for the same purpose of their own survival i.e., winning elections and remaining in power to plunder people! I personally have no problem whatsoever with peoples' eating habits. Everyone is Free to Choose whatever they want to eat as long as they follow the Libertarian principle of Non-Aggression i.e., 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:

This means, as long as the cost-benefit ratio is in favor of Cow as alive animal, the ban will remain in place. The day eating cow again becomes more beneficial, don't be surprised to see Hindus themselves start slaughtering and eating cows again! Ultimately, it is a matter of survival, and when it comes to survival, history is evident that, humans will not hesitate in killing and eating other humans also (as many past Cannibalistic societies have done)!!!  

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