Prof. DN Jha, Cow and a commonsense critique!

The passing away of Prof. D. N. Jha marks the end of an era in the Marxist historical school in India. He along with D.D. Koshambi, R.S.Sharma, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib were considered to be the ‘Big five’ of this school. As a historian, the two greatest controversies that he generated was his argument that (a) Babri Masjid was built on virgin land and not on a destroyed temple and (b) cow was not a sacred animal in India, and beef was consumed regularly in ancient India. This was elucidated in his book, ‘The myth of the holy cow’. In this article, I concentrate on the second argument, that of widespread prevalence of cow slaughter and beef consumption in ancient India, since on the first issue, archeological evidence unearthed under the Babri Masjid had proved that the Masjid was not constructed on a virgin land.

In an interview published in the Frontline magazine on 30th October 2015, titled ‘The cow was neither unslayable nor sacred in the Vedic period’, he stated, ‘In my book, ‘The myth of the holy cow’ I have tried to show that far from being the ‘baneful bequeathal’ of Islam, beef eating was common in the Vedic period’. To justify the argument, the book quotes verses from the Rig Veda, Taittiriya Brahmana, Gopatha Brahmana and Brihadaranya Upanishad. While reading the book (had done when it was published) the following points came to my mind;

First, arguing that cow slaughter and beef eating was ‘widely’ and ‘commonly’ practiced during Vedic times based on selective quoting of verses from texts, is hardly convincing for the same texts contain verses which forbid the killing not only of the cows, but all animals. Here are a few examples;

Manusmriti (5.51) states that ‘Those who permit the slaying of animals, those who bring animals for slaughter, those who slaughter, those who sell meat, those who purchase meat, those who prepare dish of it, those who serve meat and those who eat it are all murderers’.

Atharvaveda (10.1.29) states that ‘It is definitely a sin to kill innocents. Do not kill cows, horses and the people’.

Yajurveda (1.1) states that ‘Animals are not to be killed. Protect the animals’.

Seeing such verses, which clearly prohibits the killing of animals, including of cows, to argue that the practice of cow slaughter and beef eating was widespread in Vedic times appears slightly farfetched. Common sense should suggest that even if the practice existed, it was contested and not commonly practiced.

Second, in the same interview in Frontline he concedes that available evidence suggests, that from the post Mauryan period (now that is from 200 BCE by conservative estimates) onwards, the Brahmanical attitude towards cow killing began to change, and sacred texts started repeatedly stressing that cow killing was not permissible in the Kali age. These texts accorded the cow a special status and forbade its slaughter. So the learned Professor does concede that in India, for thousands of years, cow slaughter has faced a religious taboo amongst the Hindus. This fact however does not prevent him from twisting the issue and projecting it as a conspiracy that has recently been created by the Hindu right.

Societal norms are never static and keep changing with changing times. Let us take the taboo that Islam places on alcohol. A reading of the Holy Quran (I quote from The Holy Quran by M. Pickthall here) clearly reveals that alcohol ban was imposed gradually for the Muslims. The first reference to alcohol is found is Chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah) verse 219 (2:219) which states, ‘They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say, in both is great sin, and (some) utility of men, but the sin of them is far greater than their usefulness.’ As we can see here, the Quran does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol in this verse. Hadith has it that one day one of the drunk led his companions in the Maghrib (sunset) prayers and mixed up the ayats in the recital. Thereafter, a stronger message was sent in Chapter 4 (Al-Ni’sa) verse 43 (4:43) which states, ‘O you who believe! Draw not near to prayer when you are drunk, till you know that which you utter, not when you are polluted..’ Alcohol was finally prohibited in Chapter 5 (Al-Ma’idah) verse 90-91 (5:90-91) which states, ‘O you who believe, strong drinks and games and chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it aside in order that you may succeed…’.

Now how logical and rational would it be to ignore this verse in Chapter 5 of the Quran, which declares alcohol as haram for the Muslims, and write a book titled ‘The myth of alcohol as haram in Islam’ by selectively quoting verse 2:219?

Third, the argument that the acts done today are justified, for they find mention in ancient texts is fraught with serious moral hazard. Texts like Vajasaneyi Samhita (Yajurved), Taittriya Brahmana, Kalika Purana etc mention Purush Medha (Human Sacrifice), (though I must add that the sacrifice of Purush here is symbolic (the sacrifice of human ego) than of his body), but can a literal interpretation of these references in these texts be used to justify say the recent killings by a mother of her two children in Andhra Pradesh, wherein she justified the killing saying the children would come alive in two days?  

Four, now to the role of the defenders of secularism and protector of Indian Muslims that these leftist historians, our learned Professor included, have self-appropriated for themselves. In doing so, (a) they illogically conflate and seek to establish a relationship between today’s Indian Muslims and the Muslim rulers of the medieval era, which has no rational basis, (b) try to sanitize history with a view to airbrush the religious atrocities carried out by some of these Muslim rulers. Their approach was to create a ‘selective amnesia’ about these events of the past, but what these professional historians of the leftist school fail to understand is that history is not only a subject matter of text books, but also has an oral tradition to it. This history based on an admixture of facts and folklore are passed from generation to generation. Seeking to justify cow slaughter and beef eating linking it to Vedic texts, with a view to somehow protect the Muslim rulers who indulged in these acts, was not only childish but extremely disingenuous. Not all Muslim rulers who ruled India disregarded the Hindu sentiments about cows. Many amongst then imposed restrictions, banned cow slaughter and gave up eating beef voluntarily. While we have references in Al Baruni’s work about Muhammad bin Qasim getting cows killed and defiling idols with cow meat during the conquest of Multan, historical evidence of an Ahmed Shah Durrani, getting the sacred pool of Golden Temple with the blood of cows, Aurengzeb defiling Chintamani Parasvnath Jain temple by getting cows killed inside it, on the other hand we also have references of the ‘Wasaya’ (Will) of Babur where he warns Humuyun against cow slaughter (some however argue that the will is forged). In the book Tezkerah-al-Vakiat written by Gouhar, a domestic help of Humuyun (translated by Major Charles Stewart of East India Company), Humuyun opposed cow slaughter, and when he was offered beef after driving out his rebellious brother Kamran from the city of Kabul, he refused to consume it. Akbar is said to have banned cow slaughter during his reign.

It is surprising that the learned leftist historians ignore these exceptions and tar all the Muslim monarchs as beef eaters (thereby needing to defend them doing so), it is rightist and nationalist historians like Dharampal (completely ignored by the leftist cabal) who in his work ‘The British origin of cow slaughter in India’ argues that by 1700s beef eating was an exception rather than rule amongst the Muslims in India. This was because most of the Indian converts to Islam still carried the Hindu tradition of treating beef as taboo. Cow slaughter and beef eating was actually promoted by the British as an important instrument of their policy of divide and rule. Much of the demand for beef in India was not from the Muslims but from the British. In her letter dated December 8, 1893, Queen Victoria wrote to the Indian Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne that, ‘Though the Muhammadan’s cow killing is made a pretext for the agitation, it is, in fact directed against us who kill far more cows for our army than the Muhammadans.’ The demand for a ban on cow slaughter was not only raised by the Hindus, but also by many in the Muslim community. In 1919, many nationalist Muslims like Maulana Md Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Shaukat Ali among many others, openly called for the Muyslims to give up beef eating. Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a leader of the Sufi Chistia Silsila wrote a book, ‘Tark-e-gaw-kashi’ (Refrain from cow slaughter) in 1921, calling upon his followers to give up cow slaughter.

Unfortunately, instead of writing and recording history as had happened, the leftist historians tried being too smart by half, instrumentalised history so that ideals like secularism could be promoted. However, since this approach clearly militated against facts and (also) commonsense, it produced exactly the opposite results in the long run. Communal differences got aggravated, conversation between communities broke down, legalese triumphed over common sense.

I conclude by paying my respects to the departed Professor. As it is with all the big names of the leftist historiographic school, his scholarship can never be doubted, but their intellectual dishonesty and instrumentalization of history, did more harm than good. May Bhagwan grant sadgati to the departed soul. Om Shanti!  

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