A beef with Hindutva

When I was getting ready for my PhD program to study Indian philosophy, I figured I should get more acquainted with the classics, so I sat down to read through the Upaniṣads in their entirety. I was making my way through a passage about what a man should ask his wife to do if they want a good and learned son. I saw it advance through progressively better outcomes, a son who knows one Veda, two Vedas, three. And then it culminated in this passage:

‘I want a learned and famous son, a captivating orator assisting at councils, who will master all the Vedas and life out his full life span’—if this is his wish, he should get her to cook that rice with meat and the two of them should eat it mixed with ghee. The couple thus becomes capable of begetting such a son. The meat may be that of a young or a fully grown bull. (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.18, Olivelle translation)

I was startled. One of the first things you would typically learn in “Hinduism 101” is that “Hindus” are supposedly forbidden from eating beef, that that is one of the key requirements of their “religion”. And that certainly fit my own experience with the Indian side of my family, who consider themselves Hindu and don’t eat beef. I had vaguely heard of D.N. Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow, and its argued that the prohibition on eating beef was not as ancient as we think it is. But I hadn’t expected to encounter the very opposite – an instruction to eat cows right there in the Brḥadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.

The other thing you typically learn in “Hinduism 101” is that the Vedas are “the sacred texts of Hinduism”, and the Upaniṣads (the Vedānta, the “end of the Vedas”) the most sacred of all. But here, right in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad – the oldest and longest Upaniṣad, first in all the collections – is an instruction that if you want the goal, clearly highly valued in the text, of having a learned son, then you should eat the meat of a bull. There’s no qualification attached here, no hint that this is a transgression of normal rules, nothing elsewhere in the text to say that these are special circumstances and normally you shouldn’t eat meat or even beef. It sure sounds like in these “sacred texts of Hinduism”, eating beef is just normal, and in significant circumstances encouraged. I had expected that Jha’s argument on the myth would have gone over obscure historical sources in painstaking detail to show that maybe there had been some cow eating somewhere in past Indian societies. I didn’t expect that it would be something this obvious, something that stares you in the face even when you’re not looking for it.

All of this came back to me as I read Milan Singh’s Substack post on Narendra Modi’s India. Singh reminds us that the RSS – a militant Hindu fraternal organization with close ties to Modi’s BJP party – has been trying to ban the slaughter of cows, “which are considered to be sacred in Hinduism.” The RSS and related organizations have rarely taken the law as a restraint on their actions; Singh cites a Human Rights Watch report that identifies 44 people killed in India on suspicion that they were slaughtering cattle, 36 of whom were Muslims. What those slaughtered people were doing, it turns out, is something required to fulfill the injunctions of the Upaniṣads.

The RSS, the BJP, and a variety of other organizations share a pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim ideology that they refer to as Hindutva, literally “Hindu-ness”. To characterize the Hindutva ideology more descriptively in English, there are a couple of reasonably accurate nouns one can attach to the adjective “Hindu”: one can call it Hindu militancy or Hindu nationalism. The term that’s not at all accurate to describe them, though, is Hindu fundamentalism.

The term “fundamentalist” was first used as a self-description by Protestant Christians who believed the Bible to be infallible, a source of ultimate truth. If we’re going to use the term “fundamentalist” in a serious way – not just a throwaway pejorative to mean “any tradition more theologically conservative than mine”) – then it needs to have that core feature of scriptural infallibility. By that definition, there are many fundamentalist Muslims, who take the Qur’an as being absolutely and often literally right; in his assertion of the primacy of scripture over philosophy and observation, al-Ghazālī seems like a good example. Catholics, on the other hand, are almost never fundamentalist, since they place at least as much authority on the pope and the church as the text.

Militant Hindus, in turn, are extremely far from fundamentalism. Most of them probably aren’t even aware that the Upaniṣads’ endorsement of beef-eating exists. Protestant fundamentalists might also be relatively ignorant of what’s in the Bible, but their conservative politics is one that is tied to what’s in the Bible as read by other people who read the Bible. With Hindu nationalists I’ve never seen any reason to think they’re even trying.

Hindu nationalism isn’t about scripture and fundamentalism, that’s clear to me. What is it about? Well, whenever I try to explain Indian politics the first thing that usually comes to mind is an old joke about the Troubles in Ireland:

A man is walking along the streets of Belfast late at night and is suddenly surrounded by a gang of young toughs. Their leader yells at him, “You! Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” Not wanting to get into trouble, the man tries to sidestep the question and gently says “No, no, I’m an atheist.” The leader retorts “Yeah yeah yeah, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

The “sectarian” violence in Ireland was never really about the Bible or the Church, about anything that people believed in. It was about “who is your gang?” When the riots start, which people will defend you and which will attack you? In the study I’ve done of Indian politics, that always seems to be what the “Hindu vs. Muslim” divide is really about: who is on which side of the fight, a fight that in some respects is no longer really about anything except the fight itself, the memories each side has of violence done to it and the response in kind. Attempts to ban cow slaughter or destroy mosques, I think, are really about this fight: about asserting the dominance of one social group over another, establishing that group as the winner in the fight. Now that it is also so clearly divided into two hostile factions that rarely speak to one another, I worry that the United States today might be headed in a similar direction.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

8 Replies to “A beef with Hindutva”

  1. Few thoughts in response to the article.

    1. Bull and cow are different. The quoted verse states consuming bull meat.
    2. One verse of BU does not conclusively establish a principle representing the vast gamut of Hindu literature.
    3. If the Upaniṣads are “Vedānta”, the Bhagavad Gītā is “the essence” of Vedānta and Gītā clearly promotes cow protection and the larger principle of ahimsa.
    4. Ahimsa is one of the yamas of Patanjali Yoga Sūtras.
    5. A prescription for a particular goal is intrinsically conditional. To take it as normal is misreading the context.

    How many ‘intellectuals’ and ‘knowers of Veda’ who are also astounding ‘orators’ has beef eaters produced? Do you know of any? I don’t. On the contrary I know a few vegetarian yogīs who fit in close to these qualities.

  2. It does say the meat of a bull (a male bovine animal) though, not a cow. And…just because there are some instances of eating meat in ancient times because they might not have had the right resources to get protein from, does not justify us doing the same things today. Ahimsa as a tenet can be seen in the vedas too. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahimsa?wprov=sfla1).

    If we are talking about violence between human groups, that ia Muslims or Hindus or any other group, do we not see the violence that is right in front of us, the elephant in the room, that is violence done to animals (tens of billions of animals die for human consumption every year)?

    As Isaac Bashevis Singer says: “In their behavior toward creatures, all men are Nazis. Human beings see oppression vividly when they’re the victims. Otherwise they victimize blindly and without a thought.”

  3. A distinction is to be made between cow-meat and non-cow meat be it buffalo meat or sheep/goat meat. Usually Hindus (as well as Christians in some parts of India) don’t eat cow meat but eat other types of meat and fish.The underlying idea is ‘go-maata’ ( cow-mother) the vocative used primarily in North India where cows roam around freely anywhere. A Kashmiri Brahmin, I am told, loves to have sheep-meat/goat-meat. A Hindu in Kerala usually eats buffalo meat or goat meat, though there could be some exceptions! Of late there have been attempts to homogenise the food habits of people with the qualification ‘who is a Hindu’ and ‘what constitutes a Hindu way of life’ (Syndicated Hinduism ?). Among all religions, Hinduism to my mind is the most plural when it comes to food habits because plurality is built into the very metaphysical essence of Hindu beliefs. In that sense no two Hindus are identical. Heterogeneity, and not homogeneity, is the overarching principle. As the Rg Vedic poet sang ‘Ekam sat, vipra bahudha vadanti’.

    • The heterogeneity is because of individual choice. The principles governing the culture of Bharat are universal and timeless. Sub-cultures within Bharat that consume meat of any type are violating the principle of ahimsa. Sure, that is their choice. But, to conclude that Hinduism is okay with such a choice is incorrect.

      I am a Bhāratīya and know my culture inside-out.

  4. Ahimsa was a principle raised by ascetics like Kapila, against Vedic animal sacrifice;and taken up by the Jains. The ‘ciw-mothet’ policy was then s compromise, aimed at protecting milk supply for young children. Today such wisdom of the middle way is scarecr, amidst all the polarizing rhetoric.

    The Yogaśāstrabhāshya 2.19, has it in the figure of Devadatta who ‘appears to be poor’ because ‘his cows are dying’. In this image we have Devadatta as an exemplar of the true Hindu way, following the way into the shadows of death. Where the aged cows finally fell, the rest of the heard would turn away, and the carrion birds would come in, feasting on the carcasses and fertilizing the field in the process, while the pasture was fallowed and restored, to better condition due to the fertilizer.

    In the background of legend, the Devadatta is a conch-horn blown in the royal train, as in Bhāgavad-gītā I; and then in the Mokṣa-dharma reflecting the long debate on liberation after the war, Bhṛgu introduces a devadatta as one of five upa-vāyus or faculties of the body. In the Brahma Upaniṣad (78-9) Devadatta is in deep sleep, in a trance, or otherwise unconscious; reflecting the sustained interest of the Upaniṣads in states of consciousness.

    But the devadatta faculty is not mere arousal, for which Bhṛgu supplies the naga, the kundalini of tantra; and in addition the familiar factors of desire and aversion. Deva-datta means literally ‘devoted to god,’ and where god is taken in the sense of Veda or Word, that resolves into the subject of speech, consistent with the conch commanding attention.

    The Yogaśāstrabhāshya 2.19 then takes up fact that through speech this subject becomes the object of attributions and the bearer of a reputation or Persona in the sense of Carl Jung. Yet where classical Greek philosophy allows simply a rational soul, Bhṛgu admits in addition to the devadatta a dhananjaya, in which name Arjuna from the Gītā is elsewhere addressed, thus signifying the subject of command.

    The distinction here was matched by Kant allowing faculties of understanding and judgement, a stance then well reveived in India. Yet where the Analytical philosophy that followed kept grasping at an integral epistemological subject, the Indian Schools left the subject deconstructed as it were, among diverse pramānas or means to knowledge. After Carl Jung, Jaques Lacan came closest to that kind of understanding, seeking an alterative to the rational soul of the Scholastics; and much like the Bhāshya 2.19, posed the ego as an illusion, a fiction.

    Polarizing stances are the shadows cast by the illusiory ego, and have no part in wisdom.

  5. // asserting the dominance of one social group over another //

    What is the problem b/w Hindu Vs. Muslim Vs. Liberals asserting themselves ? They all seek hegemony trying to assert themselves from their epistemological vantage points. Modern politics is all abt. assertion & claims.

  6. “Hindu nationalism isn’t about scripture and fundamentalism, that’s clear to me. What _is_ it about? … about asserting the dominance of one social group over another, establishing that group as the winner in the fight.”

    I am not sure which scholar you have in mind when you say this is what you get from your study of Indian politics. Alok Rai, Premchand’s grandson and a retired English professor from DU, in “Hindi Nationalism” (https://www.rekhta.org/ebooks/detail/hindi-nationalism-alok-rai-ebooks) offers a different answer using the lens of political psychology. I read it a couple times but a long time but as far as I remember, a crude summary of his argument would be as follows. There is historical memory at work in what has today come to be Hindutva but it’s not the simple memory of ‘which side wins’. After crushing the 1857 rebellion, the British found it useful to play up the antagonism between some sections of Hindus and Muslims for their own interests. At the same time, a section of Hindus, scarred by the defeat of 1857, that wanted to hit back against the Raj but felt it did not have the strength to challenge again deflected its animus for the British towards Muslims. Rai goes on to build on this (primary?) hypothesis to a host of other things such as the rise of Hindi language politics in north India but I don’t remember the details right now.

  7. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s “Autobiography of an Unknown Indian” describes in detail the regular bull sacrifices performed by Bengali Hindus at the turn of the twentieth century. The prohibition was originally on slaughtering cows (because they give milk). It evolved into beef bans much later, I think.

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