We Indians often take everything on face value and not try to upset the established customs and religions by our forefather. I mean how can we be seen as the ones revolting against the traditions long established, right?
After a string of bans and communal incidents we decided to delve deeper into the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of one particular subject – ‘How Hindus Came To Not Eating Beef’ and you would be surprised as to what we found.
Eating beef in Hinduism is considered a sin. Whether Brahmin or not, every Hindu will swear to not eating cow meat because it is sacred to him. The Rig Veda too refers to the cow as Aghanya or ‘the one who does not deserve to be killed’. The Rig Veda further goes on to address the cow as Mother of Rudras, the Daughter of Vasus, the sister of the Adityas and the Centre of Nectar. There is no doubt that the cow was sacred to the Aryans and that they would never kill it for any purpose.
But does this conclusive evidence prove in any way that Hindus – Brahmins or Non-Brahmins, did not eat beef at one time? The answer to that question lies in the finer details of ‘Brahmanas’ (ancient Indian texts). In Taittiriya Brahmana, it is clearly written that a dwarf ox should be chosen for sacrifice to Vishnu, a black cow to Pushan and a red cow to Rudra. It even says that “…the killing of cow for the guest had grown to such an extent that the guest came to be called ‘Go-ghna’ which means the killer of the cow. To avoid this slaughter of the cows the Ashvateyana Grahya Sutra (1.24.25) suggests that the cow should be let loose when the guest comes so as to escape the rule of etiquette.”
If these texts are not enough proof that Hindus ate beef, the Laws of Manu can disburse any lingering doubts. The Laws of Manu do not prohibit the killing or eating of cow’s meat; in fact, he considered cow as an impure animal. In chapter three he even goes on to say: “He (Snataka) who is famous (for the strict performance of) his duties and has received his heritage, the Veda from his father, shall be honored, sitting on couch and adorned with a garland with the present of a cow (the honey-mixture).”
With these ancient texts of the Brahmanas, it is abundantly clear that at one time not only did Hindus eat flesh but also cow meat. But if that is the case then at what point in history did such a big transformation happen that from eating and sacrificing cows it became the ‘Sacred One’ for Hindus?
This transformation can be referred back to that time when Ashoka was the one true king. His pillar edicts point to a change in the eating habits through proper legislation. Edict V says:
“Thus said His Sacred and Gracious Majesty, the king: When I had been consecrated twenty-six years the following species were declared exempt from slaughter, namely: parrots, starlings adjutants, Brahmany ducks, geese, pandirnukhas, gelatas, bats, queen-ants, female tortoises, boneless fish, vedaveyakas, gangapuputakas, skate, (river) tortoise, porcupines, tree-squinrels, barasingha stag, Brahmany bulls, monkeys, rhinoceros, grey doves village pigeons, and all fourfooted animals which are not utilised or eaten.”
Though some historians argue that it is not conclusive proof as to Non-Brahmins being forced to not eat beef, it does hold some ground. This edict also brings us to another important question as to why the Brahmins then stop eating flesh or meat of any kind if Asoka had only banned the sacrifice of above mentioned animals.
The answer to this question lies in the tussle for supremacy between Brahmanism and Buddhism. Buddhism became the single biggest religion in India in the time of the great Buddha. In order to gain its relevance back, Brahmins started following most of the concepts of Buddhism in its purest form. When Buddha died, the Brahmins also started installing figures of Shiva inside the temples (copying the Buddhists who built Stupas) which was completely against Brahmanism. Also, the Buddhists had completely rejected the ritual of Yajna by Brahmins which consisted of sacrificing the cows. This was in accordance to the laws by Ashoka. As the Brahmins were extremely looked down for this ritual and called Gognha (the one who kills cows), the Brahmins decided to give up eating flesh, cow’s or not, altogether.
In time, killing and eating cow’s meat became intolerable as propagated by various religious heads is now established as an unpardonable sin.