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History meets Dharma in politics

History meets Dharma in politics

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: December 18, 2001

An inscrutable destiny, Mahakaal, has presented modern India with a strange paradox. Punjab, land of the Vedas, and Uttar Pradesh, quintessential Aryavarta where Vedic civilization reached its pinnacle, are caught in a peculiar face-off between History and Dharma, even as both states prepare for assembly elections in the forthcoming year. The issue of the revision and replacement of NCERT textbooks has been so sharply politicized by Leftist academics and Left-leaning politicians that it is virtually impossible to join the debate on purely scholarly grounds.

Prima facie, the controversy is over the historical projection of the Jats and Sikhs, and the dietary practices of ancient Hindus. Attempts to redress the bruised sentiments of various communities have resulted in a volley of abuse (saffronization, talibanisation, myth-as-history, et al). While the veracity of historical presentation should not be sacrificed to political convenience, it is worth investigating if the critics have a credible case. Several writers have refuted the projection of Jat kings and Sikh Gurus as plunderers on the basis of historical records, but the dietary habits of ancient Hindus are still to be examined.

Food preferences ascribed to primitive ancestors should normally not invite much notice; what is objectionable is the attempt to present the veneration of the cow as a late development in Hindu society which bigots are insisting upon to maintain an anti-Muslim identity. Former Union minister P. Chidambaram has said as much: "look at the portions expunged from history textbooks. Beef is believed to be the favourite meat of Muslims and is believed to be abhorred by Hindus. The subliminal connection is made, and out goes the reference to beef. No one cares to answer the question whether in modern India many Hindus, especially the very poor, consume beef (usually meat of the buffalo)" (India Today, 17 December 2001).

I leave it to Chidambaram to explain how very poor Hindus can afford buffalo meat - as if it is cheaper than vegetables - and if buffalo-meat is the same as cow-meat. To return to the leftist claim, however, its sum and substance is that vague references in scriptures are supported by archaeological evidence, and hence amount to historical fact. The truth is that the Vedic era is shrouded in mystery. The mantras are not the product of a single revelation to a solitary rishi, but span a period of at least a thousand years. And their historical dating remains problematical, to say the least.

Ironically, Leftists cannot honestly state that archaeological findings corroborate their claims about Vedic society. Leftists maintain that the Indus Valley civilization was pre-Aryan, and was destroyed by Vedic-Aryan invaders. But archaeological excavations do not confirm either the 'Aryan Invasion' or the separate existence of Vedic-Aryans. What they do reveal is a continuity of theme and motif, which has prompted Pakistani archaeologists to re-name 'pre-Harappan' sites as 'early Harappan'.

Presently, the period from 1400-1000 BC is accepted as early Vedic, and 1000-600 BC as later Vedic. But the astronomical dating of hymns gives us 7000 BC and 3700 BC as probable dates for some hymns. Understandably, there is no consensus on the subject. Some modern archaeologists feel Harappa may well represent Vedic culture as, according to Carbon-14 dating, it falls between 3000-1500 BC. Later mature Harappa is put at 2000-1700 BC, when the Sarasvati dried up.

There is another difficulty with archaeology, which concerns the excavation of cattle bones. "Cattle" is a collective noun, which includes cow, bull, buffalo, nilgai and all bovine animals. Contrary to the Marxist contention, cattle bone does not automatically mean cow bone, as nowhere in the world have experts been able to differentiate the bones so clearly. This is because the bones found are mainly large pieces of limbs. The cattle could have died naturally or been killed by wild animals, and later skinned for their hide and bones (to make bone tools). Then, the term 'gau' (cow) is itself a collective noun used to denote cattle. It also has other diverse meanings and, depending upon the context, could mean cow, waters, sunrays, learned persons, Vedic verses, Prithvi, or innocent.

Some general assumptions about Vedic society are, however, possible. It was principally agrarian, with grains forming the staple diet. It was heterogeneous and pluralistic, and admittedly non-vegetarian at the time when the cow was being singled out as an object of veneration. Even in this early age, debates were already raging in support of and in opposition to meat-eating, and for and against animal sacrifice; there were rishis who were clothed and those without dress; and munis who 'ate air' (went without food). It is obvious that Vedic society was actively engaged in evolving its dharma (way of life), and the development of these strands of thought can be clearly discerned in later developments in society.

That the trend was in favour of vegetarianism can be seen from the Rig Veda Samhita itself. In as many as twenty-seven places, the cow is referred to as aghnya, (repeat aghnya) not to be hurt or killed, and also called Aditi, Divine Mother. The Rig and Sama Veda extensively extol the virtues of the cow, cow's milk and ghee. The Rig Veda (10-87-16) prescribes severe punishment for one who kills the cow, even expulsion from the kingdom (8-101-15); the Atharva Veda recommends beheading (8-3-16), while the Yajur Veda (30-18) says the killer of the cow deserves to be hanged.

The end of the Upanishadic period (Vedanta) coincides with the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which intensify the move towards vegetarianism as a higher form of culture. Gautam Buddha discouraged monks from initiating the slaughter of animals, but permitted them to accept cooked flesh as alms. Mahavira took the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) to unprecedented heights, which set vegetarianism and asceticism as the desirable social and moral codes for all dharmic people. The subsequent asceticism of Brahmins and the Vaishnava code of conduct are enormously indebted to Jainism.

Historically, it is undeniable that the Hindu tradition has favoured vegetarianism as a way of life for at least two-and-a-half-thousand years, during which cow-meat has been taboo. The Ashokan edicts help trace some of this development, with Ashoka delineating the reduction in the killing of animals in the royal kitchen; the non-killing of certain animals on certain days; and so on. Foreign travellers like Hueng Tsang and Fa Hien have testified that beef-eating was taboo in ancient India. This is also codified in the Charak Samhita, dated around the first century BC, and the Parashar Smriti, dated around the first century AD.

We may also note that traditionally every community was governed by desh-jati-kul dharma (rules of region, caste, family), under which members were mostly prohibited from slaughtering and consuming the animals raised by them, such as cattle, goats, sheep; a practice which continues to this day. To conclude, reverence for the cow has been etched so deeply in Hindu consciousness that the use of beef tallow to grease bullet cartridges drove Mangal Pandey to trigger off the 1857 revolt against the British. This is a proud chapter in Indian history, even though it failed, and the political compulsions of present-day Marxists and secularists cannot de-legitimize it.

I am amazed that instead of narrating the perpetual universalization of socio-cultural practices valued for enhancing public morality and consciousness, Leftist historians are attempting to denigrate the whole society with cheap jibes about cow-meat in an historically undefined past.

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