Sacred Games 

How the cow has through the ages transformed from a cultural and economic factor into a political animal, starting with Colonial India.

Published: 05th August 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th August 2018 11:04 AM   |  A+A-


As much as 1.53 million tonnes of beef come from India’s 115 million buffaloes.

As a nationalist metaphor, the cow is the soul of India. As historic fact, it plays an integral role in the Indian economy, that over time had entered religious beliefs and practices. Legends and myths are often images recovered from the long-lost mirror of time, which the legerdemain of history transforms into icons of the coming ages. The Vedic narrative believes Aryans invaded the Indus Valley to capture cattle and land. The word for war in the Rig Veda is ‘Gavishti’, meaning the ‘search for cows’.

Cattle were trophies of war and some scholars even interpret the beginning of the Mahabharata war as a conflict between two tribes to recover stolen cattle. At the time of the Aryan intrusion into India, and during its expansion, tribal societies were redrawing the map of the subcontinent. Anthropologists espostulate that there were more noble clans than actual kings. 

This is illustrated best in Episode 44 of the Mahabharata. The cows of Virata kingdom are stolen by King Susarma who takes King Matsya captive. Arjuna, who along with his brothers was living in King Matsya’s palace as the eunuch Brinhala, helps the king’s son Uttara win the battle and saves the king. Both the King Matsya and his cows are rescued and brought back home and Yudhisthira reveals the true identities of the Pandava brothers. The importance of the cow to the kings of ancient India was undisputable. The role of cattle in itinerant tribes like the original Aryans and pastoral economies in Harappa and Mohenjo-daro was predominantly economic.

Bulls were for tilling the land and cows gave milk, butter, ghee, curd and buttermilk as food, urine in medicinal potions and dung to be used as manure. The Mahabharata also tells the legend of King Prithu who chased the Earth during a famine urging it to sustain his people. The Earth took the form of a cow and appealed to the king to spare her life and gave them milk. This transition marks the point when the cow becomes a giver of life instead of just a sustainer. Since cattle play a holistic role in agricultural societies, it entered the pantheon of religion as sacrificial animals and divine beings. In nationalist India, the cow has acquired a political identity as well—both a uniting factor and a polarising force.

The gentlest of beasts, which has nourished mankind for countless centuries, is at the centre of a controversy over mob savagery, imperilling the very idea of the modern Indian identity. The deadliest year for cow-related violence across the country was 2017—11 people died in 37 incidents of lynching mostly in North India: Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The data agency India Spend counted 289 victims in 158 major assaults between 2010 and 2018. The number has come down this year; so far five people have died in nine separate instances.

The uproar over the lynchings has been so loud, reverberating across the Western and Indian media prompting the Union government to draft a law against mob lynchings. Eighty-four per cent of victims of cow vigilantism are Muslims, according to the agency. The animosity of Hindus towards Islam was born during the religious tyranny of Islamic rule when millions were forcibly converted, temples defiled and razed and religious tax enforced. It was under British rule that communal hatred became institutionalised. 

The reason behind the cow becoming a contentious symbol was partly due to British ignorance about Hinduism’s subtleties and partly to emphasise the division between Hindus and Muslims. For Hindus, the cow’s pastoral heritage deems it to be an apologue of life itself. ‘Gopastami’ is observed by Hindus in many parts of India as a holiday in respect of the cow. In British India, festivals often were occasions marred by cow-related riots. The years between 1880 and 1925 were the worst. According to a historical survey of major communal riots in India between 1717 and 1977, 22 of 167 incidents were over cow slaughter.

An IFPS report showed that the first incident of cow-related violence happened in April 1881—in Punjab, which less than a century later witnessed the most savagery after the 1947 Partition, when the Muslim population was forcibly expelled from East Punjab and the Hindu/Sikh population in West Punjab. Punjab has been communally volatile for centuries. In 1881, the Multan British administration specified a particular gate on the outskirts, only through which, beef could be carted into the city. Muslims rioted and were put down by a special police force. A case of cow slaughter two years later would set Punjab on fire. In 1893, a pamphlet surfaced depicting a man telling a meat eater shown as a demon holding sword, “Don’t kill, cow is life-source for all”. Muslims interpreted the demon in the pamphlet was they.

Irony has a long memory. Mohammed Akhlaq was killed on September 28, 2015, in Dadri by a mob that suspected him of eating beef on Eid. In 1883, during Bakr-Id, a British magistrate restrained a maulana in Multan from killing a cow he had purchased from a Hindu. The cleric approached the Lahore High Court, which told him to go ahead. The judgment emboldened Muslims in Punjab and during the next Id, the number of slaughtered cows rose from 30 to 170 and reached 450 by 1886. The same year, in a manner reminiscent of Dadri, Hindus seized beef from Muslim butchers accusing them of breaking an 1849 law. In October 1886, during Muharram, beef-centric riots broke out in Delhi, Hoshiarpur, 

Faridpur, Alapur, Etawa and Ambala. In 1849, the British government banned beef in Multan. But communal riots flared up in Varanasi and Patna. Was beef such a contentious issue during Mughal rule, when Islamic imperial ambitions were at its peak in Asia? Historians depend on translations of royal biographies and travelogues to understand the past. No mention of cow slaughter is found in Tuzuk-i-Baburi, Babur’s biography. His son Humayun’s biography, Humayun Nama, also does not contain any references. 

Killing cows were banned by Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan until Aurangzeb is recorded by historian J Gordon Melton as ordering a cow to be slaughtered on the premises of a Jain temple. There is recorded evidence of a cow slaughter trial presided over by Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar later. For the Mughals, banning beef was a pragmatic administrative decision than a question of belief. They had no desire to provoke Hindus in occupied territory into rebellion, which would have hindered tax collection and disrupted the agricultural economy.

A grazing tax was imposed on people regardless of religion under Ala-ud-Din-Khilji (1296-1316). The Akbarian treatise on animal husbandry Ain-i-Akbari stresses the importance of taxation on cattle owned by a family though there was no tax on goshalas. The emperor’s grand vizier and biographer Shaikh Abu al-Fazal ibn Mubarak notes that the Emperor used to pay personal attention ‘to the improvement of cattle’. Besides, the Mughals were signing treaties with Hindu states, which saw the advantage of diplomacy over war. Since the holy cow is central to the Hindu way of life, successive Islamic rulers felt it was wise to keep intact the status quo in bovine matters. Religious despots Hyder Ali and son Tipu Sultan who converted millions of Hindus by the sword decreed that anyone found killing cows would lose their hands. 

The patient inclusivity of Hinduism is responsible for the transmutation of Islamic influences over a period of time. A 19th-century illustration at the Philadelphia Museum by an unnamed artist from Jodhpur, Rajasthan shows Kamadhenu as a white zebu cow with a crowned, frontal female face, colourful ‘eagle’ wings and the peacock tail of Buraq, the animal which the prophet Muhammad rode to heaven on his night journey (Miraj). Zebu cows were popular in the Indus Valley. From the 15th century on, Persian artists gave Buraq an equine body, wings and a woman’s face. A similar sculpture of Kamadhenu in the Batu Caves, Malaysia, indicates the geographic spread of this synthesis. 
The Mughal policy of utilitarian tolerance changed with the advent of the East India Company in Mughal India. The difference between the two regimes lay in their economic outlooks. While the Islamic conquerors put down roots in lands they conquered, developed them for taxation and integrated their culture, forming an indigenously grafted society, the purpose of colonial invasions was to find and export raw materials in conquered territories to industries back home.

Notes Karl Marx in Das Kapital, “The twin processes arose in the 19th century with the destruction of important Indian hand industries, chiefly textiles, and the conversion of Indian agrarian economy into a source of raw material for the workshop of England.” Since the Vedic civilisation, the Indian economy has been agrarian, with the cow playing a vital role. The intensity of Hindu-Muslim animosity in Ayodhya probably has its origins in British India. In 1912, cow-related violence in Faizabad and Ayodhya continued for three years until an emergency order was passed in 1915 forbidding cow slaughter in Ayodhya during Id. In the rest of the country, it was a different story. Native anger against the British in many Indian princely states succeeded in uniting Hindu and Muslim nationalists—the 1857 Mutiny being the most historic. The unification theory ran in concurrent streams.

Hinduism had been under siege for centuries: first by the Mussalman kings and later the British. In uniting Hinduism, the cow was the glue. In a letter dated December 8, 1893, to Lord Lansdowne, the Viceroy of India, Queen Victoria wrote, “Though the Muhammadans’ cow-killing is made the pretext for the agitation, it is in fact directed against us, who kill far more cows for our army, etc than the Muhammadans.” The British Empire was at its zenith. Its armies needed a constant supply of meat, and beef was the most in demand. Swami Dayanand Saraswati who was at the forefront of the anti-cow slaughter movement wrote a seminal draft, Goukarunanidhih (Ocean of Mercy for the Cow), to inspire Hindus.

The British Origin of Cow-Slaughter in India by Gandhian expert Dharampal and T M Mukundan published in 2002 and commissioned by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee lays the blame over communalising the cow squarely at the door of the colonisers. Using documents at India House in London, it concluded that the slaughterhouses that mushroomed in India after the 1857 Mutiny, when troops were sent from the United Kingdom to consolidate British hold, were responsible.

To prevent a second Hindu-Muslim military confederacy, the Divide and Rule policy came into existence. Licences were issued to mutton shops to be turned into ‘Qasais’ where cattle could be butchered to meet the growing demands of English soldiers for beef. 
However, reverence for the cow in India predates Islam by hundreds of centuries. The Indus Valley Civilisation, a contemporary of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, had over 1,052 cities and settlements; the largest being Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Irrigated by the Indus River system, it was a rich agricultural and thickly forested ecosystem. In the northwestern region of the subcontinent, excavations show evidence of domesticated animals.

By 2600 BCE, the Indus civilisation became urbanised. Cows were vital to nomadic people, both for food and trade. Botanist and historian M S Randhawa notes that artefacts found in Western Rajasthan dating between 2450 and 2300 BC proves animal husbandry was a well-developed science. Later records of the Mauryan and post-Mauryan period (324 BC-320 AD) tell the same story. After capturing cattle from the Asvayanas and Asvakayanas, Alexander had ordered the bullocks to be used for draft purposes and the cows for milk to be used in feeding his troops, making butter, ghee, cheese and as offerings to the gods. Scholar of the Maurya period N N Kher noted that cow milk was used to treat eye diseases of elephants while cattle dung, bones and raw beef were used as manure. Royal officials were posted to keep cattle healthy. The Arthashastra mentions penalties for ignoring cow welfare; any cow owner who delayed milking his animals forfeited his profit from the sale of milk. Vrajabhumis, colonies populated by lower castes and tribals which ringed towns and villages, kept vast herds of cattle in sheds (pasusthana and vraja).

The sophistication of cattle maintenance of the period is evident in the comparison with 16th century Europe where cows were scarce since methods to maintain cattle in the freezing winters had not been invented. Millennia later, colonial intervention in traditional rural Indian economy would devastate India’s agricultural backbone. Randhawa cites the forcible increase in cotton export to the textile mills of Manchester, which resulted in the shrinking of food crops at the cost of growth in cash crops—an example of what economic historian A Gunder Frank calls the ‘development of underdevelopment’. A consequence of such British policies was the shrinkage of pasture, resulting in fodder famine. As the Independence movement gained traction, the cow as a symbol of the Indian gestalt was reactivated with a vengeance by Gandhi. At a public meeting in Muzaffarpur, he declared: “If we cannot stop cow slaughter by the British, we have no right to raise our hands against Muslims.” 

The resurgence of the holy cow in the politics of rebellion obscured prevailing inconsistencies in Hindu texts. The paper titled Hinduism and War by American theologian and Indologist Robert R Hume has references to Rig Veda hymns describing Aryans marching into battle, invoking Vedic gods such as Indra. Many of these expeditions were to grab cattle from indigenous dwellers. A Sanskrit word for ‘warrior’ is gosu-yudh, the ‘fighter for cattle’.

Writes Hume: “It is noteworthy that in the Rig Veda the work of cattle-raiding is expressly likened to the doings of certain of the deities.” The reason for variations in the cow’s significance in holy texts could be that most of them were written over years; some even over centuries. They reflect the practices and prejudices of each period and often have dissonances that have kept obscurantists in business. Some commentators on the Vedic period quote the Rig Veda to question the authenticity of the Indian Rights’ anti-beef movement by proclaiming that ancient Indians ate the flesh of cows. The 900 BC Brahmana ritualistic documents allow the slaughter of a bull or a cow to honour an esteemed guest. An unverified story of the ancient Hindu sage Yajnavalkya saying the meat of the cow can be eaten, “as long as it’s tender” is widely quoted as proof. However, the Shatapatha Brahmana forbids the eating of either cow or bull; a clear contradiction to the belief that cows were widely butchered and cooked. Much of religion relies on interpretation. The saying ‘the cow is food’ in Vedic texts could be a metaphor for the milk, ghee, butter and cheese that are products of the sacred animal and its dung that is used as fertiliser for crops. In Vedic rituals, Aditi is symbolised by a cow and cow products are sacrificial foods.

The Vedas attribute Creation itself to Aditi. The cow is the Mother of Creation in the Vedic narrative; the cosmic waters which were released by Indra from confinement in a cave are described as ‘coming forth like lowing pregnant cows’ who then give birth to the Sun. The Vedas extol the cow Aditi, meaning boundlessness, freedom, expansion—both in the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda, Aditi is called prithvi (the wide one: the earth). The Rig Veda describes the earth as feminine; she is Prithvi. In the Atharva Veda, hymn to goddess Earth, Aditi is a plentiful source of milk to worshippers. One of the Naighantukas, compilations of rare Sanskrit words used by sages to understand esoteric texts, equates the cow (gau) with earth, heaven and speech (vach).

Over time, the ancient feminine symbol as a divine gender prototype went on to become the universal Hindu allegory of a holy entity by itself, nourishing the Universe as well as sustaining it. Says the Rig Veda, “Any female at all, whether a deity like Usas, or a cosmic element like the Waters (apas), or a human queen, or just a beautiful young woman seems flattered if she is called a cow or compared to a cow or is characterised as a mother of cows.” The gods belong to gojata. The cow is described 16 times in the Rig Veda as aghnya (not to be slain). The cow’s five products—milk, butter ghee, urine and dung—are used in sacrifices and other rituals even now. 

As Aryan society formed into kingdoms and fiefdoms, the caste system came into being as a social code. The cow came to be associated with the Brahmins, and was paid as fee after a yagna. Its linkages to Brahminism and vegetarianism is closely associated with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in the economically flourishing Mauryan period. The cow became a symbol of wealth and prosperity, prized by the priestly class. As in all religions like the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, the priestly class was the exclusive channels to god. In ancient India likewise, it was the Brahmin who was the powerful arbiter of affairs between the king and divinity; the solely authorised agents to conduct sacrifices. Hence, the economic factor and the religious aspect of the cow became one; it was considered a sin to kill a cow belonging to a Brahmin. Hume notes that the caste system in its present form did not exist among the ancestors of the modern Hindus.

The society of the Indo-Aryans and their brethren the Iranians had a triple vertical level comprising priests, warriors and commoners; and not necessarily hereditary. After the Aryans settled down into permanently agricultural communities after enslaving the racially different former inhabitants, the caste structure was formalised in Hindu society, as noted partially in the Rig Veda. The fourth caste was the conquered indigenes, who were the lowest rung of the Hindu empire. Hume observes the three upper castes were distinctly Aryan. The conquered aborigines, described as ‘inferior (adhara), flat-nosed (an-as), and the black skin (krsna tvac), however, were left to follow their practices; which suggests political pragmatism of a new ruling order of not interfering with the conquered race to avoid conflict since the Aryan civilisation needed time to grow stronger. The aborigines could eat beef unhindered.

Sociologist M N Srinivas believes the economic structure of the caste system evolved through ‘Sanskritisation’ by which lower castes could move up the social ladder. The price for their promotion was abandoning their practice of eating beef. The high numbers of vegetarians in Hindus of that period, especially among the upper castes, could be attributed to two factors: differentiation from lower castes and to meet the challenge of Buddhism and Jainism. Ahimsa was the abiding philosophy of both the new faiths, which disapproved of the killing and eating of living beings. The lower castes, attracted to the new prophets, formed a challenge to the established order in spite of their food preferences. Slaughtering is taboo in Buddhism and protecting cattle brings good karma. A new translation of the Buddhist text Sutta Nipata from Pali by Saddhatissa quotes the Buddha describing “the ideal mode of life of Brahmins in the Golden Age”. 

The truth of cattle being killed behind the spate of cow-related violence today is not all about religion. In Haryana and Rajasthan, local toughs supported by politicians and the police are running extortion rackets in the name of gau raksha from cattle transporters. In a gaushala in Dwarka, Delhi, 48 cows died mysteriously. Cow shelters, operated by fly-by-night trusts, dubious swamis and politicians are ploys to get cheap land and funds from the government.

The Upanishads say that you are what you eat, but when faith and politics clash, the result is a mixed model. Pork is banned in Muslim countries like the UAE but is sold in malls. In spite of the lament that cow vigilantes are destroying the Indian meat and leather industry, beef exports have gone up by 16 per cent since the BJP came to power in 2014. The Indian beef industry sends out mostly buffalo meat; last year, Indian beef exports to 65 countries amounted to $4.3 billion and expected to grow by $200 million in 2018.

As much as 1.53 million tonnes of beef come from India’s 115 million buffaloes. The vast majority of people working in slaughterhouses being Muslims, the crackdown on the illegal abattoirs has become political manure for the BJP’s opponents. However, the production and export figures do not match, say industry experts, who fear that illegal cow meat is entering the stream regularly. India has 76 million cows, producing 140 million tonnes of milk a year making us the world’s largest milk producing country.

After the crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses two years ago, the Indian leather industry posted a decline. But in 2017, exports grew by 1.48 per cent at $4,388 million between April and December 2017 as against $4,324 million for the same period in 2016. The Centre will spend Rs 2,600 crore to create about 3 lakh jobs in the industry. Four mega clusters with tanneries, leather goods and footwear manufacturing units and training centres are being set up in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

The economics of beef has inevitably taken precedence over the politics of beef. Religion and its elder sibling, history, is a leitmotif of avatars. The world is today engaged in a war of not only civilisations but the essential tenets of divine race. Christianity, though the world’s largest religion at 34.1 per cent of the population, is slowing down. Islam is rising faster and 29.7 per cent of the world’s population will be Muslim by 2050; 2.8 billion Muslims compared to 2.9 billion Christians. Hinduism, the world’s third largest faith, continues to be self-sustaining and eternal in spite of the invasions of India and its cultures by outsiders and subsequent conversions and genocides. 

At the core of its belief system is Kamadhenu, beloved of sage Jamadagni. From fable rose the mother-goddess cult of ancient Hinduism. The Mahabharata describes her story as a battle between good and evil: the thousand-armed Heheya king Kartavirya Arjuna took away Kamadhenu after destroying Jamadagni’s ashram, only to be slain and the cow returned to the sage by his son Parashurama. Blood is being spilt in its name once again, and ancient enmities are stoked to inflame the land. However, the heritage of ancient India has never reasserted itself as much as today to rescue the sacred, gentle and benevolent animal from the warped violence in God's name and its own.


The foundation of the British Empire in India was laid by Robert Clive, its first Commander-in-Chief. Bengal was a coveted prize, being India’s thriving industrial region. In 1750, India accounted for 25 per cent of global economic production compared to England’s 1.9 per cent. The fertile Ganges River Basin made Bengal an agricultural powerhouse. After defeating Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah at the Battle of Plassey, Clive consolidated British rule in India. His strategy was to divide and rule, pitting Muslims against Hindus. In 1760, Clive opened the first slaughterhouse in India, with a daily capacity to kill 30,000 cows. The butchers were Muslims, for whom beef became financial sustenance. By the end of the century, the cattle population had declined dramatically and India faced a fodder and fertiliser crisis and had to depend on industrial manure from Britain. India’s domestic economy was broken and communal discord was sown. 

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  • hbalakrishnan

    " The Vedic narrative believes Aryans invaded the Indus Valley to capture cattle and land. The word for war in the Rig Veda is ‘Gavishti’, meaning the ‘search for cows’. " Welcome to the CLUB of " Eminent Historians : Their Line; Their Technology; THEIR FRAUD ". Discredited AIT - yet the weriter believes in it !! Sad.
    8 months ago reply
  • Sandeep

    Which part of the vedic narrative talk of Aryans invading the Indus Valley? If the very first chapter of the article is filled with a lie like this, what credibility does the author have? Which world does the author live in, in the 19th century world of British colonial propaganda? Hasn't he realised there is no proof for this theory? that it was the result of either intentional or stupid translation by the british scholars? :D Didn't read beyond the first paragraph because of this stupidity!
    8 months ago reply
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