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.