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Wendy Doniger /The Conversation
Just this past June, at a national meeting of various Hindu organizations in India, a popular preacher, Sadhvi Saraswati, suggested that those who consumed beef should be publicly hanged. Later, at the same conclave, an animal rights activist, Chetan Sharma, said,
“Cow is also the reason for global warming. When she is slaughtered, something called EPW is released, which is directly responsible for global warming. It’s what is called emotional pain waves.”
These provocative remarks come at a time when vigilante Hindu groups in India are lynching people for eating beef. Such killings have increased since Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata party came to power in September 2014. In September 2015, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched by a mob in a village near New Delhi on suspicion that he had consumed beef . Since then , many attacks by cow vigilante groups have followed. Modi’s government has also prohibited the slaughter of buffalo, thus destroying the Muslim-dominated buffalo meat industry and causing widespread economic hardship.
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Most people seem to assume that no Hindu has ever consumed beef. But is this true?
As a scholar, studying Sanskrit and ancient Indian religion for over 50 years, I know of many texts that offer a clear answer to this question.
The ancient Hindu belief holds cows as symbols of abundance, power, and altruistic giving. ( maestroviejo)
Cows in Ancient Indian History
Scholars have known for centuries that the ancient Indians ate beef. After the fourth century BC, when the practice of vegetarianism spread throughout India among Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, many Hindus continued to eat beef.
In the time of the oldest Hindu sacred text , the Rig Veda (c. 1500 BC), cow meat was consumed . Like most cattle-breeding cultures, the Vedic Indians generally ate the castrated steers, but they would eat the female of the species during rituals or when welcoming a guest or a person of high status.
Ancient ritual texts known as Brahmanas (c. 900 BC) and other texts that taught religious duty (dharma), from the third century BC, say that a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when a guest arrives.
According to these texts , “the cow is food.” Even when one passage in the “Shatapatha Brahmana” (126.96.36.199) forbids the eating of either cow or bull, a revered ancient Hindu sage named Yajnavalkya immediately contradicts it, saying that, nevertheless, he eats the meat of both cow and bull, “as long as it’s tender.”
Cows painted over a door are believed to bring good luck. (Ross Funnell/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
It was the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata (composed between 300 BC and AD 300) that explained the transition to the non-eating of cows in a famous myth :
“Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”
This myth imagines a transition from hunting wild cattle to preserving their lives, domesticating them, and breeding them for milk, a transition to agriculture and pastoral life. It visualizes the cow as the paradigmatic animal that yields food without being killed.
Chaurasi Devataon-wali Gai , or "The Cow with 84 deities" by Raja Ravi Varma. In this poster condemning the consumption of beef, the sacred cow Kamadhenu is depicted as containing various deities within her body.
Beef-Eating and Caste
Some dharma texts composed in this same period insist that cows should not be eaten. Some Hindus who did eat meat made a special exception and did not eat the meat of cow. Such people may have regarded beef-eating in the light of what the historian Romila Thapar describes as a “matter of status” – the higher the caste, the greater the food restrictions. Various religious sanctions were used to impose prohibition on beef eating, but, as Thapar demonstrates, “only among the upper castes.”
As I see it, the arguments against eating cows are a combination of a symbolic argument about female purity and docility (symbolized by the cow who generously gives her milk to her calf), a religious argument about Brahmin sanctity (as Brahmins came increasingly to be identified with cows and to be paid by donations of cows) and a way for castes to rise in social ranking.
Sociologist M. N. Srinivas pointed out that the lower castes gave up beef when they wanted to move up the social ladder through the process known as “Sanskritization.”
Gandhi. ( ) A central tenet of Gandhi’s teaching was vegetarianism. But he did not call for a beef ban.
By the 19th century, the cow-protection movement had arisen. One of the implicit objects of this movement was the oppression of Muslims .
Famously, Gandhi attempted to make vegetarianism, particularly the taboo against eating beef, a central tenet of Hinduism. Gandhi’s attitude to cows was tied to his idea of nonviolence.
He used the image of the Earth cow (the one that King Prithu milked) as a kind of Mother Earth, to symbolize his imagined Indian nation. His insistence on cow protection was a major factor in his failure to attract large-scale Muslim support .
Yet even Gandhi never called for the banning of cow slaughter in India. He said ,
“How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.”
White cows decorated for Diwali celebrations. ( CC BY 2.0 )
From my perspective, in our day, the nationalist and fundamentalist “Hindutva” (“Hindu-ness”) movement is attempting to use this notion of the sanctity of the cow to disenfranchise Muslims. And it is not only the beef-eating Muslims (and Christians) who are the target of Hindutva’s hate brigade. Lower-caste Hindus are also being attacked. Attacks of this type are not new. This has been going on since Hindutva began in 1923 . And indeed, in 2002, in a north Indian town, five lower-caste Hindus were lynched for skinning a cow.
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But, as local analysis shows, the violence has greatly increased under the Modi government. IndiaSpend, a data journalism initiative, found that “Muslims were the target of 51 percent of violence centered on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) and comprised 86 percent of 28 Indians killed in 63 incidents…As many of 97 percent of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014.”
In 2015, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, lower-caste Hindus were flogged for skinning a dead cow, triggering spontaneous street protests and contributing to the resignation of the state’s chief minister.
As these and so many other recent attacks demonstrate, cows – innocent, docile animals – have become in India a lightning rod for human cruelty, in the name of religion.
Cow on Delhi street. (John Hill/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Why Is the Cow Important to Hindus?
The cow is sacred in Hinduism, so modern Hindus do not eat beef. There is debate over whether ancient Hindus in the Indus River Valley refused to eat beef. As the Vedas, the ancient Hindu holy texts, honor the cow, some scholars argue that the refusal to harm cows extends back to the advent of the Vedas nearly 4,000 years. Other scholars claim that the strict beef taboo was developed as a way to further differentiate Hindus from Muslims after Islam arrived in India in the early eighth century AD. Regardless of how the cow taboo began, it has become deeply entrenched in Indian culture.
Well over 1 billion people live in India today, and roughly 80 percent of the subcontinent&rsquos population is Hindu. This massive religious majority has influenced the creation of laws that prohibit the harm or slaughter of cows. In India, a person can be jailed for harming a cow, and cows can be seen wandering around freely even in large cities. The complications caused by mixing herds of cows with automobiles, bikes and buses have caused some Indians to push back against the laws that allow cows to roam through cities. Other Indians continue to support the practice of free-roaming cows, however, and the law has stood.
The oldest known mention of the religious importance of the cow is found in the Vedas. The oldest Veda, the Rig Veda, associates the cow with wealth and joyous earthly life. One verse says &ldquothe cows have come and have brought us good fortune. In our stalls, contented, may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us, many-colored, giving milk for Indra [one of the ancient Hindu gods] each day. You make, O cows, the thin man sleek to the unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing. In our assemblies we laud your vigor.&rdquo Verses such as these lend credence to the claim that the importance of the cow was ingrained in Hindu culture nearly 2,000 years before Muhammad was ever born and that the beef taboo was not a Hindu reaction to the arrival of Islam.
The ancient Vedas also correlate the cow with the earth itself. The cow is honored as &ldquothe nourisher,&rdquo the &ldquoever-giving and undemanding provider.&rdquo Such descriptions of the cow&rsquos willingly provided bounty are likely due to the number of cow products that were used by the ancient Hindus and still continue to be used by modern Indians today. Cow dung is a readily available fuel source, and dairy products form the base of many Indian meals. Yogurt is used in many Indian recipes as is milk. Milk, buttermilk and ghee, clarified butter, are also considered to make up three of the seven oceans that surround the universe in Hindu cosmology. Furthermore, milk and ghee are essential to Hindu worship. They are offered to deities as sacrifices, used as part of Hindu penance and in rites of passage, such as Hindu weddings.
The cow is also seen as more than merely a symbol of good things. In addition to viewing the cow as a symbol of life, the Vedas mention two goddesses who take the form of a cow. Mother Earth is sometimes a cow as is the goddess Kamadhenu. Kamadhenu is perhaps best known for her appearance in a Hindu myth where she appears as the &ldquowish-granting cow.&rdquo In this myth, she provides her owner with whatever he desires. Kamadhenu, however, is not just a granter of wishes. She is considered to be the mother of the eleven Rudras, the Vedic gods of storms and tempests. It is believed that she emerged from the ocean when the first gods and demons churned it to create amrita, the nectar of immortality, and later became the mother of all cows.
The popular god Shiva is also associated with cows. Shiva&rsquos steed, Nandi, is a bull, and Nandi is worshipped in his own right as the bearer of truth and righteousness. Statutes of Nandi are common in temples that are Shaiva, or dedicated primarily to the worship of Shiva, but some Nandi statues are found outside of Shaiva temples for worship only of Nandi. Krishna is another extremely popular god that is tied to cows. Hindu mythology holds that Krishna grew up as a cow-herder, and one of Krishna&rsquos epithets is bala-gopala, the child who protects the cows.
Vaishnavas believe that Vishnu is the Supreme Being and worship Krishna as the eighth of Vishnu&rsquos ten avataras, or incarnations. In addition to Vaishnava Hindus, there are also Hindus who worship Krishna as the Supreme Being in his own right. Almost half of India&rsquos massive population is Vaishnava, and a further 25 percent of Hindus are Shaiva and believe that Shiva is the Supreme Being.
In addition to their close association with the divine, the docile nature of cows is said to exemplify the Hindu virtue ahimsa, &ldquononinjury.&rdquo Cows can also be seen as symbolizing Hinduism itself as every part of a cow has a religious parallel. The four legs of the cow are seen as symbolizing the four Vedas, and the length of a cow&rsquos legs is associated with the Himalayan Mountains. The four teats of a cow&rsquos udder correspond to the four purusharthas, or life goals of Hinduism.
From the ancient Vedas to everyday worship, respecting the humble cow is an essential part of Hindu life. Cow statues are visible in temples, and many people own images that emphasize the religious importance of cows. Cows freely roam the cities of India, and there is no doubt that the cow will continue to be honored by Hindus for centuries to come. This humble animal has been at or near the center of Hinduism for over 4,000 years, and the cow will not be giving up its high status anytime soon regardless of how many times its herds block city traffic.
Meat Eating in Hinduism and Buddhism
Those who are not familiar with Hinduism believe that Hindus generally do not eat meat, and meat eating is an exception rather than a rule. The meat eating habits of Hindus evolved overtime and were never the same. Their current beliefs and practices do not necessarily reflect the historical truths concerning the meat eating habits of the people who lived in the Indian subcontinent and practiced various forms of Hinduism.
In ancient times, India was the land of immigrants. Numerous people came and settled in India. Whenever there were invasions, soldiers who came with the invaders but did not want to return to their homelands settled in various parts of India. They married local women, adapted to the local customs, and became part of the local milieu. For example, the people who lived in southern India, were not only Dravidians, but also foreigners who came from Central Asia, Persia, and Greece, such as Sakas, the Kushanas, Pahlavas, and even Chinese, who settled in the south, married local women, and took up various caste duties according to their background. Some of them served the local kings and became feudal lords.
Thus, the subcontinent represented a heterogeneous society consisting of people from various backgrounds. India was also home to a number of materialists or atheists known as Carvakas and Lokayatas. Apart from the law books, which dictated the rules regarding the general conduct, each caste had its own rules, which the caste members were obliged to follow to be part of the community. Therefore, we should approach the subject of meat eating with caution, keeping the diversity of the people who lived in the past in the Indian subcontinent and worshipped various gods and goddesses.
A vast majority of Indians ate meat regularly and meat eating was never prohibited in ancient India. Certain sections of society and some ascetic traditions practiced vegetarianism both for religious and spiritual purposes, but it is not true that they constituted the majority.
Meat-eating is strictly prohibited in Jainism, whereas it is conditionally allowed in Hinduism and Buddhism. In all three religions, the rules regarding meat eating are established according to their beliefs regarding karma and virtue such as nonviolence and compassion.
Animal sacrifices (jantu-bali) were part of the rural traditions of ancient India which gradually found their way into Hinduism. We have indications that Vedic people practiced both animal and human sacrifices (naramedha-yajna). In ancient India, meat was sold in the markets and animals were offered for sale for both sacrificial and eating purposes. India also has a long tradition of fishing in rivers and seas, since the Indus times.
Horse meat from horse-sacrifices was used not only as an offering to nourish gods, but also shared by the participants as the remains of the sacrifice. The host of the sacrifice, who was usual the king, receive the royal share and it was apportioned among the king, the queens and the rest of his entourage according to a formula. Kings also performed human sacrifices occasionally to appease gods and secure their favors against natural calamities and enemy forces.
Hindu law books prescribe rules for meat eating for the four castes and specify which type of meat is allowed for human consumption and under what circumstances. Buddhist texts also lay down rules for meat eating by the monks. Hunting was a royal pastime, in which both men and women participated.
Kings in India went on hunting expeditions regularly to rid the forests of dangerous animals and make them safer against people who lived there and the travelers who journeyed through them. Some kings like Ashoka, however, prohibited hunting and killing of animals.
However, as time went by, meat-eating became a more restrictive practice in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Presently, vegetarianism is a fashion and a vanity among the elite and the middle class Hindus. They may not perform sacrifices, worship gods, or practice virtues such as honesty, compassion towards fellow human beings, charity, etc., but would make sure that everyone knows about their preference for vegetarian food because it is the current trend and gives them an aura of superiority in a community that has taken to the filmy practices of pseudo culture and hybrid lifestyles.
For more information on this subject pleaser refer to the following links.
The ‘Splainer: What makes the cow sacred to Hindus?
The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.
Since September, four Muslims in India have been killed by predominantly Hindu mobs after they were suspected of either eating beef or slaughtering a cow, considered sacred by the country’s majority Hindus. What is behind the religious beliefs underpinning these killings? Let us ‘Splain .
A: No. Hindus do not consider the cow to be a god and they do not worship it. Hindus, however, are vegetarians and they consider the cow to be a sacred symbol of life that should be protected and revered. In the Vedas, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, the cow is associated with Aditi, the mother of all the gods. Hindu imagery often pictures a pretty cow — usually white — garlanded with flowers as a sign of the faith’s special reverence. Hindus even have a “cow holiday” called Gopastami (this year on Nov. 19) when all cows — even the ones left to wander through busy streets and rural villages — are washed and dressed with flowers. To harm a cow or kill a cow — especially for food — is considered taboo by most Hindus.
Q: Why are cows considered so sacred? Why not some other animal, like the cat of ancient Egypt?
A: Hindus see the cow as a particularly generous, docile creature, one that gives more to human beings than she takes from them. The cow, they say, produces five things — milk, cheese, butter (or ghee), urine and dung. The first three are eaten and used in worship of the Hindu gods, while the last two can be used in religious devotion or in penance or burned for fuel. When was the last time your cat gave you anything besides a dead mouse? And here’s a fun fact — Hindus associate several animals with different gods and consider them sacred, including the monkey (Hanuman), the elephant (Ganesh), the tiger (Durga) and even the rat (Ganesh). But none is as revered as the cow.
Q: Have Hindus always considered the cow sacred?
A: No. In ancient India, cattle and oxen were sacrificed to the gods and the meat was eaten. But even then, milk-producing cows were off-limits, likely because their milk was so precious as a food source. But with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism — two other world religions with roots in India and a philosophy of vegetarianism — Hindus, too, stopped eating meat. By the first century A.D., cows had come to be associated with Brahmans, the highest caste, or class, in Hinduism. To kill a cow was likened to killing a Brahman — a big taboo. Soon after, Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the three main Hindu gods, was often depicted in literature and art as cavorting with cows.
Q: What’s behind the current events in India? Why are Hindus apparently killing Muslims over cows?
A: There is a lot more at work here than just vegetarianism or a reverence for the bovine. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014 at the head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. In speeches, Modi has condemned the “widespread killing of our cows” and has been criticized for being largely silent or late to comment on the slayings of Muslims suspected of eating beef or slaughtering cows. Vigilante groups such as “Save the Cow” have arisen, barging into the houses of Muslims, looking for beef. Ten members of “Save the Cow” were arrested in October after they allegedly killed a Muslim man suspected of having beef in his refrigerator. Local police say he did not. One member of Save the Cow told The New York Times, “We are more attached to
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The Vedas Edit
The Vedic texts have verses that scholars have interpreted to either mean support or opposition to meat-based food.  Early Vedic texts such as the Rigveda (10.87.16), states Nanditha Krishna, condemns all killings of men, cattle and horses, and prays to god Agni to punish those who kill.    The Shatapatha Brahmana (188.8.131.52) condemns the consumption of beef from cows and oxen as a sin.  The Atharvaveda mentions that "rice, barley, bean, and sesamum" are the food allotted for human consumption.  According to Harris, from ancient times, vegetarianism became a well accepted mainstream Hindu tradition.  
While Jha and Bhaduri contend that some of the verses also support the eating of flesh, especially beef, on some occasion,  Maneka Gandhi points out that in context, and consistent with other Vedic verses and the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, the verses have been mistranslated.  Edwin Bryant points out that although references to animal sacrifice and consumption of animal flesh is found in the Vedas, these acts were not fully accepted as there were signs of unease and tension owing to the 'gory brutality of sacrificial butchery' dating back to as early as the older Vedas.  The concept of ahimsa (non-injury to living beings) is first observed as an ethical concept in the Vedas that found expression as a central tenet in Hindu texts concerned with spiritual and philosophical topics. 
Upanishads, Samhitas and Sutras Edit
The Upanishads form the basis for Vedanta, which is considered the culmination of the Vedas and the philosophical paradigm of Hinduism,  and support the abstention from injuring living beings, proposing ahimsa as a necessity for salvation or enlightenment (Chandogya Upanishad 8.15). 
The Upanishads and Sutra texts of Hinduism discuss moderate diet and proper nutrition,  as well as Aharatattva (dietetics).  The Upanishads and Sutra texts invoke the concept of virtuous self-restraint in matters of food, while the Samhitas discuss what and when certain foods are suitable. A few Hindu texts such as Hathayoga Pradipika combine both. 
Moderation in diet is called Mitahara, and this is discussed in Shandilya Upanishad,  as well as by Svātmārāma as a virtue.    It is one of the yamas (virtuous self restraints) discussed in ancient Indian texts. [note 1]
Some of the earliest ideas behind Mitahara trace to ancient era Taittiriya Upanishad, which in various hymns discusses the importance of food to healthy living, to the cycle of life,  as well as to its role in one's body and its effect on Self (Atman, Spirit).  The Upanishad, states Stiles,  notes “from food life springs forth, by food it is sustained, and in food it merges when life departs”.
Many ancient and medieval Hindu texts debate the rationale for a voluntary stop to cow slaughter and the pursuit of vegetarianism as a part of a general abstention from violence against others and all killing of animals.   Some significant debates between pro-non-vegetarianism and pro-vegetarianism, with mention of cattle meat as food, is found in several books of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, particularly its Book III, XII, XIII and XIV.  It is also found in the Ramayana.  These two epics are not only literary classics, but they have also been popular religious classics. 
The Bhagavad Gita includes verses on diet and moderation in food in Chapter 6. It states in verse 6.16 that a Yogi must neither eat too much nor too little, neither sleep too much nor too little.  Understanding and regulating one's established habits about eating, sleeping and recreation is suggested as essential to the practice of yoga in verse 6.17.  
Another ancient Indian text, Tirukkuṛaḷ, originally written in the South Indian language of Tamil, states moderate diet as a virtuous lifestyle and criticizes "non-vegetarianism" in its Pulaan Maruthal (abstinence from flesh or meat) chapter, through verses 251 through 260.  Verse 251, for instance, questions "how can one be possessed of kindness, who, to increase his own flesh, eats the flesh of other creatures." It also says that "the wise, who are devoid of mental delusions, do not eat the severed body of other creatures" (verse 258), suggesting that "flesh is nothing but the despicable wound of a mangled body" (verse 257). It continues to say that not eating meat is a practice more sacred than the most sacred religious practices ever known (verse 259) and that only those who refrain from killing and eating the kill are worthy of veneration (verse 260). This text, written before 400 CE, and sometimes called the Tamil Veda, discusses eating habits and its role in a healthy life (Mitahara), dedicating Chapter 95 of Book 7 to it.  Tirukkuṛaḷ states in verses 943 through 945, "eat in moderation, when you feel hungry, foods that are agreeable to your body, refraining from foods that your body finds disagreeable". Tiruvalluvar also emphasizes overeating has ill effects on health, in verse 946, as “the pleasures of health abide in the man who eats moderately. The pains of disease dwell with him who eats excessively.”  
Verses 1.57 through 1.63 of the Hathayoga Pradipika suggests that taste cravings should not drive one's eating habits, rather the best diet is one that is tasty, nutritious and likable as well as sufficient to meet the needs of one's body and for one's inner self.  It recommends that one must "eat only when one feels hungry" and "neither overeat nor eat to completely fill the capacity of one's stomach rather leave a quarter portion empty and fill three quarters with quality food and fresh water".  Verses 1.59 to 1.61 of Hathayoga Pradipika suggest a mitahara regimen of a yogi avoids foods with excessive amounts of sour, salt, bitterness, oil, spice burn, unripe vegetables, fermented foods or alcohol. The practice of Mitahara, in Hathayoga Pradipika, includes avoiding stale, impure and tamasic foods, and consuming moderate amounts of fresh, vital and sattvic foods. 
According to Kane, one who is about to eat food should greet the food when it is served to him, should honour it, never speak ill, and never find fault in it.  
The Dharmasastra literature, states Patrick Olivelle, admonishes "people not to cook for themselves alone", offer it to the gods, to forefathers, to fellow human beings as hospitality and as alms to the monks and needy.  Olivelle claims all living beings are interdependent in matters of food and thus food must be respected, worshipped and taken with care.  Olivelle states that the Shastras recommend that when a person sees food, he should fold his hands, bow to it, and say a prayer of thanks.  This reverence for food reaches a state of extreme in the renouncer or monk traditions in Hinduism.  The Hindu tradition views procurement and preparation of food as necessarily a violent process, where other life forms and nature are disturbed, in part destroyed, changed and reformulated into something edible and palatable. The mendicants (sannyasin, ascetics) avoid being the initiator of this process, and therefore depend entirely on begging for food that is left over of householders.  In pursuit of their spiritual beliefs, states Olivelle, the "mendicants eat other people's left overs".  If they cannot find left overs, they seek fallen fruit or seeds left in field after harvest. 
The forest hermits of Hinduism, on the other hand, do not even beg for left overs.  Their food is wild and uncultivated. Their diet would consist mainly of fruits, roots, leaves, and anything that grows naturally in the forest.  They avoided stepping on plowed land, lest they hurt a seedling. They attempted to live a life that minimizes, preferably eliminates, the possibility of harm to any life form. 
The Manusmriti discusses diet in chapter 5, where like other Hindu texts, it includes verses that strongly discourage meat eating, as well as verses where meat eating is declared appropriate in times of adversity and various circumstances, recommending that the meat in such circumstances be produced with minimal harm and suffering to the animal.  The verses 5.48-5.52 of Manusmriti explain the reason for avoiding meat as follows (abridged),
One can never obtain meat without causing injury to living beings. he should, therefore, abstain from meat. Reflecting on how meat is obtained and on how embodied creatures are tied up and killed, he should quit eating any kind of meat. The man who authorizes, the man who butchers, the man who slaughters, the man who buys or sells, the man who cooks, the man who serves, and the man who eats – these are all killers. There is no greater sinner than a man who, outside of an offering to gods or ancestors, wants to make his own flesh thrive at the expense of someone else's.
In contrast, verse 5.33 of Manusmriti states that a man may eat meat in a time of adversity, verse 5.27 recommends that eating meat is okay if not eating meat may place a person's health and life at risk, while various verses such as 5.31 and 5.39 recommend that the meat be produced as a sacrifice (Jhatka method).  In verses 3.267 to 3.272, Manusmriti approves of fish and meats of deer, antelope, poultry, goat, sheep, rabbit and others as part of sacrificial food. However, Manusmriti is a law book not a spritiual book. So it permits to eat meat but it doesn't promote.  In an exegetical analysis of Manusmriti, Patrick Olivelle states that the document shows opposing views on eating meat was common among ancient Hindus, and that underlying emerging thought on appropriate diet was driven by ethic of non-injury and spiritual thoughts about all life forms, the trend being to reduce the consumption of meat and favour a non-injurious vegetarian lifestyle. 
Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita – two major ancient Hindu texts on health-related subjects, include many chapters on the role of diet and personal needs of an individual. In Chapter 10 of Sushruta Samhita, for example, the diet and nutrition for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children are described.  It recommends milk, butter, fluid foods, fruits, vegetables and fibrous diets for expecting mothers along with soups made from jangala (wild) meat.  In most cases, vegetarian diets are preferred and recommended in the Samhitas however, for those recovering from injuries, growing children, those who do high levels of physical exercise, and expecting mothers, Sutrasthanam's Chapter 20 and other texts recommend carefully prepared meat. Sushruta Samhita also recommends a rotation and balance in foods consumed, in moderation.  For this purposes, it classifies foods by various characteristics, such as taste. In Chapter 42 of Sutrasthanam, for example, it lists six tastes – madhura (sweet), amla (acidic), lavana (salty), katuka (pungent), tikta (bitter) and kashaya (astringent). It then lists various sources of foods that deliver these tastes and recommends that all six tastes (flavors) be consumed in moderation and routinely, as a habit for good health. 
Hinduism does not explicitly prohibit eating meat, but it does strongly recommend ahimsa – the concept of non-violence against all life forms including animals.   As a consequence, many Hindus prefer a vegetarian or lacto-vegetarian lifestyle, and methods of food production that are in harmony with nature, compassionate, and respectful of other life forms as well as nature. 
India is a strange country. People do not kill
any living creatures, do not keep pigs and fowl,
and do not sell live cattle.
—Faxian, 4th/5th century CE
Chinese pilgrim to India 
Hinduism does not require a vegetarian diet,  but some Hindus avoid eating meat because it minimizes hurting other life forms.  Vegetarianism is considered satvic, that is purifying the body and mind lifestyle in some Hindu texts.  
Lacto-vegetarianism is favored by many Hindus, which includes milk-based foods and all other non-animal derived foods, but it excludes meat and eggs.  There are three main reasons for this: the principle of nonviolence (ahimsa) applied to animals,  the intention to offer only vegetarian food to their preferred deity and then to receive it back as prasad, and the conviction that non-vegetarian food is detrimental for the mind and for spiritual development.   Many Hindus point to scriptural bases, such as the Mahabharata's maxim that "Nonviolence is the highest duty and the highest teaching",  as advocating a vegetarian diet.
A typical modern urban Hindu lacto-vegetarian meal is based on a combination of grains such as rice and wheat, legumes, green vegetables, and dairy products.  Depending on the geographical region the staples may include millet based flatbreads. Fat derived from slaughtered animals is avoided. 
A number of Hindus, particularly those following the Vaishnav tradition, refrain from eating onions and garlic during Chaturmas period (roughly July - November of Gregorian calendar).  In Maharashtra, a number of Hindu families also do not eat any egg plant (Brinjal / Aubergine) preparations during this period. 
The followers of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Hare Krishna) abstain from meat, fish, and fowl. The related Pushtimargi sect followers also avoid certain vegetables such as onion, mushrooms and garlic, out of the belief that these are tamas (harmful).   Swaminarayan movement members staunchly adhere to a diet that is devoid of meat, eggs, and seafood. 
What Are Hindus Not Allowed To Do?
Religion is a set of beliefs that guides the person on how to live life ideally. It includes restricting the person from doing such things which are not either good for him or the society. It also tells us how to do things in the right manner. Hinduism also has a set of beliefs and puts some restrictions on us so that we would live an ideal and healthy life. We will try to list out all those things which are not allowed in Hinduism.
1. Hindus are not allowed to eat beef because the cow is considered as the most sacred animal.
2. Killing a cow is also not allowed as it is considered as one of the biggest sins.
3. Adultery is not allowed for both males and females.
4. Premarital sex is not allowed for both males and females.
5. After consuming alcohol and/or eating non-vegetarian food, one should not enter the temple unless he/she takes a bath.
6. Women are not allowed to enter the temples during menstruation.
7. People belonging to some particular castes are not allowed to eat nonvegetarian food e.g. Brahmin, Weavers, Vaishya, etc. It depends on the region and the availability of food.
8. Killing innocent people is not allowed.
9. Hurting others physically or emotionally is considered a sin.
10. Promiscuity in thoughts, words, and deeds.
12. Disrespecting elders including parents and teachers.
14. It is recommended to eat vegetarian food as killing animals is considered as a sin.
17. Misappropriation or bribery.
18. It is recommended that you should not eat non-veg food on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and some other festival days.
19. You should not cut hair or nail on Saturdays.
We will add more information to this article from time to time. If you know more information about restrictions in Hinduism, please feel free to use our comment section.
14 Frequently Asked Questions
Longer answer: Contrary to prevailing misconceptions, Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being, though by different names. This is because the peoples of India with different languages and cultures have understood the one God in their own distinct way. Through history there arose four principal Hindu denominations—Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism. For Saivites, God is Siva. For Shaktas, Goddess Shakti is supreme. For Vaishnavites, Lord Vishnu is God. For Smartas—who see all Deities as reflections of the One God—the choice of Deity is left to the devotee. This liberal Smarta perspective is well known, but it is not the prevailing Hindu view. Due to this diversity, Hindus are profoundly tolerant of other religions, respecting the fact that each has its own pathway to the one God.
One of the unique understandings in Hinduism is that God is not far away, living in a remote heaven, but is inside each and every soul, in the heart and consciousness, waiting to be discovered. This knowing that God is always with us gives us hope and courage. Knowing the One Great God in this intimate and experiential way is the goal of Hindu spirituality.
Elaboration: Hinduism is both monotheistic and henotheistic. Hindus were never polytheistic, in the sense that there are many equal Gods. Henotheism (literally “one God”) better defines the Hindu view. It means the worship of one God without denying the existence of other Gods. We Hindus believe in the one all-pervasive God who energizes the entire universe. We can see Him in the life shining out of the eyes of humans and all creatures. This view of God as existing in and giving life to all things is called panentheism. It is different from pantheism, which is the belief that God is the natural universe and nothing more. It is also different from strict theism which says God is only above the world, apart and transcendent. Panentheism is an all-encompassing concept. It says that God is both in the world and beyond it, both immanent and transcendent. That is the highest Hindu view. Hindus also believe in many Gods who perform various functions, like executives in a large corporation. These should not be confused with the Supreme God. These Divinities are highly advanced beings who have specific duties and powers—not unlike the heavenly spirits, overlords or archangels revered in other faiths. Each denomination worships the Supreme God and its own pantheon of divine beings. What is sometimes confusing to non-Hindus is that Hindus of various sects may call the one God by many different names, according to their denomination or regional tradition. Truth for the Hindu has many names, but that does not make for many truths. Hinduism gives us the freedom to approach God in our own way, encouraging a multiplicity of paths, not asking for conformity to just one.
There is much confusion about this subject, even among Hindus. Learn the right terms and the subtle differences in them, and you can explain the profound ways Hindus look at Divinity. Others will be delighted with the richness of the Indian concepts of God. You may wish to mention that some Hindus believe only in the formless Absolute Reality as God others believe in God as personal Lord and Creator. This freedom makes the understanding of God in Hinduism, the oldest living religion, the richest in all of Earth’s existing faiths.
2. Do Hindus believe in reincarnation?
A: Yes, we believe the soul is immortal and takes birth time and time again. Through this process, we have experiences, learn lessons and evolve spiritually. Finally we graduate from physical birth.
Longer answer: Carnate means “of flesh,” and reincarnate means to “reenter the flesh.” Yes, Hindus believe in reincarnation. To us, it explains the natural way the soul evolves from immaturity to spiritual illumination. Life and death are realities for all of us. Hinduism believes that the soul is immortal, that it never dies, but inhabits one body after another on the Earth during its evolutionary journey. Like the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly, physical death is a most natural transition for the soul, which survives and, guided by karma, continues its long pilgrimage until it is one with God.
I myself have had many lives before this one and expect to have more. Finally, when I have it all worked out and all the lessons have been learned, I will attain enlightenment and moksha, liberation. This means I will still exist, but will no longer be pulled back to be born in a physical body.
Even modern science is discovering reincarnation. There have been many cases of individuals” remembering their past lives. These have been researched by scientists, psychiatrists and parapsychologists during the past decades and documented in good books and videos. Young children speak of vivid past-life memories, which fade as they grow older, as the veils of individuality shroud the soul’s intuitive understanding. Great mystics speak of their past lives as well. So do our ancient scriptures, the Vedas, reveal the reality of reincarnation. Reincarnation is believed in by the Jains and the Sikhs, by the Indians of the Americas, and by the Buddhists, certain Jewish sects, the Pagans and the many indigenous faiths. Even Christianity originally taught reincarnation, but formally renounced it in the twelfth century. It is, in fact, one of the widest held articles of faith on planet Earth.
Elaboration: At death the soul leaves the physical body. But the soul does not die. It lives on in a subtle body called the astral body. The astral body exists in the nonphysical dimension called the astral plane, which is also the world we are in during our dreams at night when we sleep. Here we continue to have experiences until we are reborn again in another physical body as a baby. Each reincarnating soul chooses a home and a family which can best fulfill its next step of learning and maturation. After many lifetimes of following dharma, the soul is fully matured in love, wisdom and knowledge of God. There is no longer a need for physical birth, for all lessons have been learned, all karmas fulfilled. That soul is then liberated, freed from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Evolution then continues in the more refined spiritual worlds. Similarly, after we graduate from elementary school we never have to go back to the fifth grade. We have gone beyond that level in understanding. Thus, life’s ultimate goal is not money, not clothes, not sex, not power, not food or any other of the instinctive needs. These are natural pursuits, but our real purpose on this Earth is to know, to love and to serve God and the Gods. That leads to the rare and priceless objects of life: enlightenment and liberation. This Hindu view of the soul’s evolution answers many otherwise bewildering questions, removing the fear of death while giving assurance that each soul is evolving toward the same spiritual destiny, for the Hindu believes that karma and reincarnation are leading every single soul to God Realization.
A: Karma is the universal principle of cause and effect. Our actions, both good and bad, come back to us in the future, helping us to learn from life’s lessons and become better people.
Longer answer: Karma is one of the nat- ural laws of the mind, just as gravity is a law of matter. Just as God created gravity to bring order to the physical world, He created karma as a divine system of justice that is self-governing and infinitely fair. It automatically creates the appropriate future experience in response to the current action. Karma simply means “action” or “cause and effect.” When something happens to us that is apparently unfortunate or unjust, it is not God punishing us. It is the result of our own past actions. The Vedas, Hinduism’s revealed scripture, tell us if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness if we sow evil, we will reap evil. Thus we create our own destiny through thought and action. And the divine law is: whatever karma we are experiencing in our life is just what we need at the moment, and nothing can happen but that we have the strength to meet it. Even harsh karma, when faced in wisdom, can be the greatest catalyst for spiritual growth. Understanding the way karma works, we seek to live a good and virtuous life through right thought, right speech and right action. This is called dharma.
Elaboration: Karma is basically energy. I throw energy out through thoughts, words and deeds, and it comes back to me, in time, through other people. Karma is our best teacher, for we must always face the consequences of our actions and thus improve and refine our behavior, or suffer if we do not. We Hindus look at time as a circle, as things cycle around again. Professor Einstein came to the same conclusion. He saw time as a curve, and space as well. This would eventually make a circle. Karma is a very just law which, like gravity, treats everyone the same. Because we Hindus understand karma, we do not hate or resent people who do us harm. We understand they are giving back the effects of the causes we set in motion at an earlier time. The law of karma puts man at the center of responsibility for everything he does and everything that is done to him.
Karma is a word we hear quite often on television. ‘this is my karma,” or “It must have been something I did in a past life to bring such good karma to me.” We hear karma simply defined as “What goes around, comes around.” In some schools of Hinduism, karma is looked upon as something bad—perhaps because we are most aware of this law when we are facing difficult karma, and not so aware of it when life is going smoothly. Even some Hindus equate karma with sin, and this is what evangelical Christians preach that it means. Many people believe that karma means “fate,” a preordained destiny over which one has no control, which is also untrue.
The process of action and reaction on all levels—physical, mental and spiritual—is karma. Here is an example. I say kind words to you, and you feel peaceful and happy. I say harsh words to you, and you become ruffled and upset. The kindness and the harshness will return to me, through others, at a later time. This is karma. An architect thinks creative, productive thoughts while drawing plans for a new building. But were he to think destructive, unproductive thoughts, he would soon not be able to accomplish any kind of positive task even if he desired to do so. This is karma, a natural law of the mind. We must also be very careful about our thoughts, because thought creates, and thoughts make karmas—good, bad and mixed.
4. Why do Hindus worship the cow?
A: The cow represents the giving nature of life to every Hindu. Honoring this gentle animal, who gives more than she takes, we honor all creatures.
Longer answer: Hindus regard all living- creatures as sacred—mammals, fishes, birds and more. We acknowledge this reverence for life in our special affection for the cow. At festivals we decorate and honor her, but we do not worship her in the sense that we worship the Deity. To the Hindu, the cow symbolizes all other creatures. The cow is a symbol of the Earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider. The cow represents life and the sustenance of life. The cow is so generous, taking nothing but water, grass and grain. It gives and gives and gives of its milk, as does the liberated soul give of his spiritual knowledge. The cow is so vital to life, the virtual sustainer of life, for many humans. The cow is a symbol of grace and abundance. Veneration of the cow instills in Hindus the virtues of gentleness, receptivity and connectedness with nature.
Elaboration: The generous cow gives milk and cream, yogurt and cheese, butter and ice cream, ghee and buttermilk. The only cow-question for Hindus is, “Why don’t more people respect and protect this remarkable creature?” Mahatma Gandhi once said, “One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. The cow means the entire subhuman world.”
In the Hindu tradition, the cow is honored, garlanded and given special feedings at festivals all over India, most importantly the annual Gopashtama festival. Demonstrating how dearly Hindus love their cows, colorful cow jewelry and clothing is sold at fairs all over the Indian countryside. From a young age, Hindu children are taught to decorate the cow with garlands, paint and ornaments. Her nature is epitomized in Kamadhenu, the divine, wish-fulfilling cow. The cow and her sacred gifts—milk and ghee in particular—are essential elements in Hindu worship, penance and rites of passage. In India, more than 3,000 institutions called Gaushalas, maintained by charitable trusts, care for old and infirm cows. And while many Hindus are not vegetarians, most respect the still widely held code of abstaining from eating beef. By her docile, tolerant nature, the cow exemplifies the cardinal virtue of Hinduism, noninjury, known as ahimsa. The cow also symbolizes dignity, strength, endurance, maternity and selfless service. In the Vedas, cows represent wealth and joyous Earthly life. From the Rig Veda (4.28.16) we read. ‘the cows have come and have brought us good fortune. In our stalls, contented, may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us, many-colored, giving milk for Indra each day. You make, O cows, the thin man sleek to the unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing. In our assemblies we laud your vigor.”
5. Are Hindus idol worshipers?
A: Hindus do not worship a stone or metal “idol” as God. We worship God through the image. We invoke the presence of God from the higher, unseen worlds, into the image so that we can commune with Him and receive His blessings.
Longer answer: The stone or metal deity images in Hindu temples and shrines are not mere symbols of the Gods. They are the form through which their love, power and blessings flood forth into this world. We may lik-en this mystery to our ability to communicate with others through the telephone. We do not talk to the telephone rather we use it as a means of communication with another person. Without the telephone, we could not converse across long distances and without the sanctified icon in the temple, we cannot easily commune with the Deity. Divinity can also be invoked and felt in a sacred fire, or in a tree, or in the enlightened person of a satguru. In our temples, God is invoked in the sanctum by highly trained priests. Through the practice of yoga, or meditation, we invoke God inside ourself. Yoga means to yoke oneself to God within. The image or icon of worship is a focus for our prayers and devotions.
Another way to explain icon worship is to acknowledge that Hindus believe God is everywhere, in all things, whether stone, wood, creatures or people. So, it is not surprising that they feel comfortable worshiping the Divine in His material manifestation. The Hindu can see God in stone and water, fire, air and ether, and inside his own soul. Indeed, there are Hindu temples which have in the sanctum sanctorum no image at all but a yantra, a symbolic or mystic diagram. However, the sight of the image en-hances the devotee’s worship.
Elaboration: In Hinduism one of the ultimate attainments is when the seeker transcends the need of all form and symbol. This is the yogi’s goal. In this way Hinduism is the least idol-oriented of all the religions of the world. There is no religion that is more aware of the transcendent, timeless, formless, causeless Truth. Nor is there any religion which uses more symbols to represent Truth in preparation for that realization.
Humorously speaking, Hindus are not idle worshipers. I have never seen a Hindu worship in a lazy or idle way. They worship with great vigor and devotion, with unstinting regularity and constancy. There’s nothing idle about our ways of worship! (A little humor never hurts.) But, of course, the question is about “graven images.” All religions have their symbols of holiness through which the sacred flows into the mundane. To name a few: the Christian cross, or statues of Mother Mary and Saint Theresa, the holy Kaaba in Mecca, the Sikh Adi Granth enshrined in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Arc and Torah of the Jews, the image of a meditating Buddha, the totems of indigenous and Pagan faiths, and the artifacts of the holy men and women of all religions. Such icons, or graven images, are held in awe by the followers of the respective faiths. The question is, does this make all such religionists idol worshipers? The answer is, yes and no. From our perspective, idol worship is an intelligent, mystical practice shared by all of the world’s great faiths.
The human mind releases itself from suffering through the use of forms and symbols that awaken reverence, evoke sanctity and spiritual wisdom. Even a fundamentalist Christian who rejects all forms of idol worship, including those of the Catholic and Episcopal churches, would resent someone who showed disrespect for his Bible. This is because he considers it sacred. His book and the Hindu’s icon are much alike in this way.
6. Are Hindus forbidden to eat meat?
A: Hindus teach vegetarianism as a way to live with a minimum of hurt to other beings. But in today’s world not all Hindus are vegetarians.
Longer answer: Our religion does not lay down rigid “do’s and don’ts.” There are no commandments. Hinduism gives us the wisdom to make up our own mind on what we put in our body, for it is the only one we have—in this life, at least. Vegetarians are more numerous in the South of India than in the North. This is because of the North’s cooler climactic conditions and past Islamic influence. Priests and religious leaders are definitely vegetarian, so as to maintain a high level of purity and spiritual consciousness to fulfill their responsibilities, and to awaken the refined areas of their nature. Soldiers and law-enforcement officers are generally not vegetarians, because they have to keep alive their aggressive forces in order to perform their work. To practice yoga and be successful in meditation, it is mandatory to be vegetarian. It is a matter of wisdom—the application of knowledge at any given moment. Today, about twenty percent of all Hindus are vegetarians.
Elaboration: This can be a touchy subject. There are several ways to respond, depending on who is asking and the background in which he was raised. But the overlying principle that defines the Hindu answer to this query is ahimsa—refraining from injuring, physically, mentally or emotionally, anyone or any living creature. The Hindu who wishes to strictly follow the path of noninjury naturally adopts a vegetarian diet. It’s a matter of conscience more than anything else.
When we eat meat, fish, fowl and eggs, we absorb the vibration of the instinctive creatures into our nerve system. This chemically alters our consciousness and amplifies our lower nature, which is prone to fear, anger, jealousy, confusion, resentment and the like. Many Hindu swamis advise followers to be well-established vegetarians prior to initiation into mantra, and to remain vegetarian thereafter. But most do not insist upon vegetarianism for those not seeking initiation. Swamis have learned that families who are vegetarian have fewer problems than those who are not. Poignant scriptural citations counsel against eating meat. The Yajur Veda (36.18) calls for kindliness toward all creatures living on the Earth, in the air and in the water. The Tirukural, a 2,200-year-old masterpiece of ethics, states, “When a man realizes that meat is the butchered flesh of another creature, he will abstain from eating it” (257). The Manu Dharma Shastras state, “Having well considered the origin of flesh and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let one entirely abstain from eating flesh,” and “When the diet is pure, the mind and heart are pure.” For guidance in this and all matters, Hindus also rely on their own guru, community elders, their own conscience and their knowledge of the benefits of abstaining from meat and enjoying a wholesome vegetarian diet. Of course, there are good Hindus who eat meat, and there are not-so-good Hindus who are vegetarians.
Today in America and Europe millions of people are vegetarians because they want to live a long time and be healthy. Many feel a moral obligation to shun the mentality of violence to which meat-eating gives rise.
A: Our “Bible” is called the Veda. The Veda, which means “wisdom,” is comprised of four ancient and holy scriptures which all Hindus revere as the revealed word of God.
Longer answer: Like the Taoist Tao te Ching, the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Sikh Adi Granth, the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible and the Muslim Koran—the Veda is the Hindu holy book. The four books of the Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva—include over 100,000 verses. The knowledge imparted by the Vedas ranges from earthy devotion to high philosophy. Their words and wisdom permeate Hindu thought, ritual and meditation. The Vedas are the ultimate scriptural authority for Hindus. Their oldest portions are said by some to date back as far as 6,000 bce, orally transmitted for most of history and written down in Sanskrit in the last few millennia, making them the world’s longest and most ancient scripture. The Vedas open a rare window into ancient Indian society, proclaiming life’s sacredness and the way to oneness with God.
Elaboration: For untold centuries unto today, the Vedas have remained the sustaining force and authoritative doctrine, guiding followers in ways of worship, duty and enlightenment. The Vedas are the meditative and philosophical focus for millions of monks and a billion seekers. Their stanzas are chanted from memory by priests and laymen daily as liturgy in temple worship and domestic ritual. All Hindus wholeheartedly accept the Vedas, yet each draws selectively, interprets freely and amplifies abundantly. Over time, this tolerant allegiance has woven the varied tapestry of Indian Hindu Dharma.
Each of the four Vedas has four sections: Samhitas (hymn collections), Brahmanas (priestly manuals), Aran-yakas (forest treatises) and Upanishads (enlightened discourses). The Samhitas and Brah-manas affirm that God is immanent and transcendent and prescribe ritual worship, mantra and devotional hymns to establish communication with the spiritual worlds. The hymns are invocations to the One Divine and to the Divinities of nature, such as the Sun, the Rain, the Wind, the Fire and the Dawn—as well as prayers for matrimony, progeny, prosperity, concord, protection, domestic rites and more.
The Aranyakas and Upanishads outline the soul’s evolutionary journey, provide yogic philosophical training and propound realization of man’s oneness with God as the destiny of all souls. Today, the Vedas are published in Sanskrit, English, French, German and other languages. But it is the popular, metaphysical Upanishads that have been most amply and ably translated. The Vedas advise: “Let there be no neglect of Truth. Let there be no neglect of dharma. Let there be no neglect of welfare. Let there be no neglect of prosperity. Let there be no ne-glect of study and teaching. Let there be no neglect of the du-ties to the Gods and the ancestors” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11.1). “United your resolve, un-ited your hearts, may your spirits be one, that you may long to-gether dwell in unity and concord!” (Rig Veda 10.191.4). ‘there, where there is no darkness, nor night, nor day, nor being, nor nonbeing, there is the Auspicious One, alone, absolute and eternal. There is the glorious splendor of that Light from whom in the beginning sprang ancient wisdom” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.18). ‘taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad, one should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation. Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of That, penetrate that Imperishable as the mark, my friend” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.3).
8. Why do many Hindus wear a dot near the middle of their forehead?
A: The dot worn on the forehead is a religious symbol. It represents divine sight and shows that one is a Hindu. For women, it is also a beauty mark.
Longer answer: The dot worn between the eyes or in the middle of the forehead is a sign that one is a Hindu. It is called the bindi in the Hindi language, bindu in Sanskrit and pottu in Tamil. In olden days, all Hindu men and women wore these marks, and they both also wore earrings. Today it is the women who are most faithful in wearing the bindi.
The dot has a mystical meaning. It represents the third eye of spiritual sight, which sees things the physical eyes cannot see. Hindus seek to awaken their inner sight through yoga. The forehead dot is a reminder to use and cultivate this spiritual vision to perceive and better understand life’s inner workings—to see things not just physically, but with the “mind’s eye” as well. The bindi is made of red powder (called sindur, traditionally made from powdered turmeric and fresh lime juice), sandalpaste or cosmetics.
In addition to the simple dot, there are many types of forehead marks, known as tilaka in Sanskrit. Each mark represents a particular sect or denomination of our vast religion. We have four major sects: Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism. Vaishnava Hindus, for example, wear a v-shaped tilaka made of white clay. Elaborate tilakas are worn by Hindus mainly at religious events, though many wear the simple bindi, indicating they are Hindu, even in the general public. By these marks we know what a person believes, and therefore know how to begin conversations.
For Hindu women, the forehead dot is also a beauty mark, not unlike the black mark European and American women once wore on the cheek. The red bindi is generally a sign of marriage. A black bindi is often worn before marriage to ward off the evil eye. As an exotic fashion statement, the dot’s color complements the color of a lady’s sari. Ornate bindis are even worn by actresses in popular American TV shows.
Elaboration: Men and women of a particular religion wishing to identify themselves to one another often do so by wearing distinctive religious symbols. Often these are blessed in their temples, churches or synagogues. Christians wear a cross on a necklace. Jewish boys wear small leather cases that hold scriptural passages, and the round cap called yarmulka. Sikh men wear their hair in a turban. In many countries, Muslim women cover their head with a scarf, called hajib.
Do not be ashamed to wear the bindi on your forehead in the United States, Canada, Europe or any country of the world. Wear it proudly. The forehead dot will distinguish you from all other people as a very special person, a Hindu, a knower of eternal truths. You will never be mistaken as belonging to another nationality or religion. The sacred forehead dot is an easy way of distinguishing Hindus from Muslims. And don’t be intimidated when people ask you what the dot means. Now you have lots of information to give a good answer, which will probably lead to more questions about your venerable religion.
For both boys and girls, men and women, the dot can be small or large depending on the circumstance, but should always be there when appropriate. Naturally, we don’t want to flaunt our religion in the face of others. We observe that many Christian men and women take off or conceal their crosses in the corporate business world. Some communities and institutions disallow wearing religious symbols entirely.
9. Are the Gods of Hinduism really married?
A: It is true that God is often depicted with a spouse in our traditional stories. However, on a deeper philosophical level, the Supreme Being and the Gods are neither male nor female and are therefore not married.
Longer answer: In popular, village Hindu ism God is represented as male, and God’s energy, or Shakti, is personified as His spouse—for example, Vishnu and Lakshmi. In Hindu temples, art and mythology, God is everywhere seen as the beloved, divine couple. Philosophically, however, the caution is always made that God and God’s energy are One, and the metaphor of the inseparable divine couple serves only to illustrate this Oneness.
Hinduism is taught on many levels to many different people, and to uneducated people who are not able to understand high philosophy, Hinduism is taught in story form. Because the temple is the center of every Hindu community, and everyone is focused on the temple and the Gods within it, the Gods are the major players in these stories. Hindus who understand the higher philosophy seek to find God on the inside while also worshiping God in the temples. Simple folk strive to be like a God, or like a Goddess. These tales, called Puranas, have long been the basis of dance, plays and storytelling around the fire in the homes to children as they are growing up. The stories illustrate how a family should live, how they should raise their children, and much more. Before the printing press, there were few books, and Hinduism was conveyed orally through stories and parables. While these often violent children’s tales should not be perpetuated, there remains much of value in the extensive writings of the Puranas.
Elaboration: Those who learn the higher Hindu philosophies know that Gods are neither male nor female. In fact, attaining to that Godly level of being is one of the mystical goals of yoga. This is accomplished by blending the feminine and masculine currents, ida and pingala, into the spiritual current, sushumna, in the center of the spine within each individual.
Hindus know that the Gods do not marry, that they are complete within themselves. This unity is depicted in the traditional icon of Ardhanarishvara, Siva as half man and half woman, and in the teaching that Siva and Shakti are one, that Shakti is Siva’s energy. Siva is dearly loved as our Father-Mother God. Yet, sexual gender and matrimonial relations are of the physical and emotional realms, whereas the Gods exist in a stratum that far supersedes these levels of life. For that matter, the soul itself is neither male nor female.
Some modern swamis now urge devotees not to pay any attention to Puranic stories about the Gods, saying that they have no relationship with the world today—that they are misleading and confusing and should no longer be taught to the children. Instead, they encourage followers to deepen themselves with the higher philosophies of the Vedic Upanishads and the realizations of Hindu seers.
Other faiths sometimes criticize the Hindu religion as a sort of comic-book religion, and we should not be part of perpetuating that image by passing on such misconceptions as the marriage of the Gods. Other religions move and adjust with the times. Hinduism must also do so. It must offer answers to the questions about God, soul and world—answers that are reasonable, that can be understood and accepted even by a child, that are coherent, sensible and strictly in accord with scripture and tradition. This is necessary in the technological age, necessary in order that Hinduism will be a religion of the future, not of the past.
10. What about caste and untouchability?
A: Caste is the hereditary division of Indian society based on occupation. The lowest class, deemed untouchables, suffer from discrimination and mistreatment. It is illegal in India to discriminate against, abuse or insult anyone on the basis of caste.
Longer answer: Caste, from the Portu guese casta, meaning “clan” or “lineage,” refers to two systems within Hindu society. The first is varna, the division of society into four groups: workers, business people, lawmakers/law enforcers and priests. The second is jati, the thousands of occupational guilds whose members follow a single profession. Jati members usually marry within their own jati and follow traditions associated with their jati. In urban areas they often enter other occupations, but still usually arrange marriages within the jati.
Wealth, especially in urban areas, often trumps caste. Industrialization and education have greatly altered India’s jati system by eliminating or changing the professions upon which it was originally based, and opening new employment options. The jatis are evolving to function today less like guilds and more like large clans of related families. At the bottom are the so-called untouchables, who perform the dirtiest jobs and have suffered much like the black people of America, who were freed from slavery just 138 years ago. Strong laws have been passed in India to end caste-based discrimination. Modern Hindus rightly deplore caste abuse and are working to set matters right. Just as in the US, it is a difficult task that will take decades, especially in the villages.
Elaboration: Caste is, no doubt, the biggest stick that Hindus get beaten with. It is taught as the defining attribute, or fatal flaw, of Hinduism in Western schools. Untouchability as a formal system shocks Westerners. One response we can make is to separate social stratification from the issue of racial/class discrimination.
First issue: social stratification. India is one of the world’s oldest societies. It has sustained a continuity of culture and religion for thousands of years. Europe, on the other hand, has seen millenniums of upheaval. Still, one only has to go back to before the 17th-century industrial revolution to find a social system that is similar to caste. European society then comprised the landed elite (including royalty, a hereditary caste maintained to this day), merchants, artisans and peasants. The artisans formed guilds, occupation-based organizations that served both as closed unions and marketing monopolies. The guild legacy remains in Western surnames such as Smith, a metal worker. There was no public education system, and each generation learned at home the family occupation. There was little technological change, so jobs were static. Industrialization and public education altered (but did not destroy) this class system in the West, just as they are changing caste and jati in India today.
Second issue: racial/class discrimination. Most Indians are unfamiliar with the extent of discrimination in the West today. In America, for example, hundreds of thousands live destitute and homeless on city streets, as true “untouchables.” US cities are more racially segregated than before the 1950s Civil Rights Movement because of “white flight” to the suburbs. Black Americans receive harsher sentences than white Americans for the same crime. Many Native American Indians live at the bottom of society, destitute and alcoholic, on barren Indian reservations. This kind of response—we can call it the “You”re one, too” defense—doesn’t mean Hindus should not work much harder to end caste discrimination. But it reminds others that no country in the world is yet free from racial discrimination.
11. Is Yoga a Hindu Practice?
A: Deeply rooted in Hindu scripture and belief, yoga is, and always was, a vital part of Hindu religion and culture. Today it is embraced by tens of millions of non-Hindus seeking its renowned benefits to physical, mental and spiritual health.
Longer answer: In recent years a vigorous debate has arisen as to whether yoga is intrinsically a Hindu practice or a universal science. The word yoga has changed as the practice moved west. Its original meaning, “union with God,” has been replaced with the more secular definition presented by upscale yoga studios around the world that teach a regimen of asanas along with basic breathing and a little meditation. A typical studio ad focuses on the physicality, stating that “yoga increases the circulation of oxygen-rich blood, nourishing and detoxifying the internal organs, musculature, cardiovascular, immune, endocrine, digestive, reproductive and nervous systems.” The United States alone has over 20 million practitioners, and there are hundreds of millions worldwide
B.K.S. Iyengar, a renowned yoga teacher, gives a more traditional definition on his website: “Yoga is one of the six systems of Indian philosophy. The word yoga originates from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means ‘union.’ On the spiritual plane, it means union of the Individual Self with the Universal Self.”
Elaboration: The term yoga actually refers to a wide range of Hindu practices so it is important to specify what kind of yoga is being discussed. In common modern usage, yoga typically refers to hatha yoga—the performance of yoga postures, or asanas, which are drawn from ancient Hindu scriptures. Hatha yoga has always been performed by Hindus as a preparation for meditation today, especially in the West, its health benefits commonly supersede the spiritual. Hatha yoga is just one facet of a broader body of knowledge and practice known as ashtanga yoga, which consists of eight stages. (Ashta means eight anga means limb). The famous Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali, who lived around 200 bce, is considered the first systematic presentation of the ancient tradition of yoga.
To appreciate yoga’s spiritual and religious nature, one need only consider each of its eight limbs, or facets. The first is yama, the ethical restraints of these, the most important is ahimsa, noninjuriousness. The second is niyama, specific religious observances, including puja in one’s home shrine and repeating mantras. The third is asana, the widely practiced hatha yoga postures. The remaining five limbs are all related to meditation: pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (illumination, or oneness with God).
Can those of other faiths benefit from the practice of yoga—without threatening their religion’s beliefs? Certainly followers of liberal religious traditions can do so. However, clerics of conservative faith traditions have spoken against its practice for their adherents. For example, in 2008 the leading Islamic council in Malaysia issued an edict prohibiting the country’s Muslims from practicing yoga. Council chairman Abdul Shukor Husim explained: “We are of the view that yoga, which originates in Hinduism… destroys a Muslim’s faith. There are other ways to get exercise. You can go cycling, swimming, etc.”
The Reverend Richard Farr, vicar of Saint Mary’s Church in Henham, England, commented in 2001: “I accept that for some people it is simply an exercise. But it is also often a gateway into other spiritualities, including Eastern mysticism.” The Vatican has issued numerous edicts about the pursuit of yoga. In 1989 it warned that practices like Zen and yoga can “degenerate into a cult of the body” that debases Christian prayer.
It is sometimes argued that yoga is not Hindu per se only the roots are Hindu. The fact that yoga is pursued by many non-Hindus is irrelevant to its validity as a Hindu practice. The roots of yoga, its scriptural origins, are Hindu. The stem of yoga, its practice, is Hindu and the flower of yoga, mystical union with God, is Hindu. Yoga, in its full glory, is entirely Hindu. Practice at your own risk!
12. How do Hindus view other religions?
A: Hindus honor all religious traditions and the people within them. While regarding our faith as uniquely endowed, we believe that there is no exclusive path, no one way for all.
Longer answer: In India, where Hindus are the overwhelming majority, the rights of minority religions have always been honored. Hindus have welcomed, embraced and lived peacefully among other religions for centuries. During those same centuries, Hinduism itself evolved into hundreds of strains, and thus Hindus are fully at home with many different traditions and viewpoints within their own faith. Hence, they are naturally tolerant of other religions, respecting the fact that each has unique beliefs, practices, goals and paths of attainment, and not objecting when the doctrines of one conflict with those of another. Hindus readily accept the idea that it is not necessary, desirable or even possible for everyone to hold the same beliefs. And certainly such differences should never be cause for tension, criticism, intolerance or violence.
An ancient Sanskrit verse summarizes the Hindu attitude: “As the different streams, having their sources in different places, all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”
Hindus do not proselytize, meaning they do not try to convert members of other faiths to their own. Proselytizing is based upon the belief that one’s religion is the only true religion and everyone else should join it. Hindus hold the view that all faiths are beneficial. A devout Hindu is supportive of all efforts that lead to a pure and virtuous life and would consider it unthinkable to dissuade a sincere devotee from his chosen faith. They know that good citizens and stable societies are created from groups of religious people in all nations. While encouraging others to follow their chosen path with dedication, Hindus hold Sanatana Dharma to be the fullest expression of religion, and do accept sincere souls who seek entrance into Hinduism.
Elaboration: When discussing other religions, Hindu leaders often quote a verse from the Rig Veda (1.164.46): “Ekam Sat, viprah bahudha vadanti,” meaning “Truth is One, sages describe it variously.” It conveys a core Hindu idea: that there can be multiple valid viewpoints about the Supreme. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, philosopher and former president of India, stressed this point: “The Hindu recognizes one Supreme Spirit, though different names are given to it.”
In expressing religious tolerance, Hindus sometimes cite the above verse to assert that all religions are the same. In reality, all religions are not the same, nor is that indicated by this verse. It simply says that all religions revere the One Truth all believe in the One Supreme Being. Their beliefs and practices are different their paths are distinct. Instead of saying, “All religions are the same,” it is better to state that “all religions are good.”
Hindus share values common to all faiths: piety, love of God, respect for tradition, a stress on duty, responsibility and basic human virtues, such as nonviolence, truthfulness, compassion and charity. They know that good citizens and stable societies are created from groups of religious people in all nations. They also acknowledge and honor the many ways that religions differ. For example, meditation and yoga are commonly practiced in Eastern religions but not usually in Western faiths.
The heart of a religion is its understanding of the soul’s relationship to God. Hinduism and most Eastern religions believe that, at the highest level, God and soul are one, inseparable, while Western faiths maintain that Creator and creation are eternally distinct.
Hindus support and participate in ecumenical gatherings with other religions, while upholding their own traditions. They confidently defend their faith, proceed contentedly with their practices and avoid the enchantment of other ways, be they ancient or modern.
13. Why do some Hindu Gods have animal features?
A: In dreams and visions the inner-plane beings have revealed themselves to mankind to be of many forms, expressing many powers. Some appear human, and others, like Ganesha, have animal features.
Longer answer: The various Gods in Hinduism’s wide-ranging traditions possess distinct personalities and forms based on how they have been seen in visions and how they are depicted in stories and legends. Hindus feel no need to question the fact, for instance, that Lord Ganesha has the head of an elephant. They know He has been seen in this way by rishis and even by ordinary devotees. Did He choose that form to distinguish Himself as the Lord of Obstacles? No one really knows. The important fact is that millions of Hindus worship and receive blessings from the benevolent Elephant-Faced God every day. Many Hindus seeking an explanation hold that Ganesha is a real being who looks like an elephant. Others believe the elephant form is symbolic. Millions are content with the ancient stories in the Puranas that explain how He came to have an elephant head. Interestingly, and perhaps because of His endearing visage, Ganesha is the most popular of all the Hindu Deities. Numerous other Hindu Divinities have animal attributes, including Hanuman, Varuna, Kamadhenu, the Nagas, the vahanas (animal mounts of the Gods) and four of Vishnu’s ten incarnations (fish, turtle, boar and half-man-half-lion).
Elaboration: An exploration of other ancient faiths shows that Hinduism is not alone in having Divinities with animal attributes. The ancient Greeks worshiped the God Pan, who has the hindquarters, legs and horns of a goat, and the Sea Gods Ichthyocentaurs, with human heads and torsos, the front legs of a horse and the serpentine tails of fish. In Egypt’s pantheon, Anubis (God of the Underworld) is a falcon-headed man, as is Ra (the Sun God). Thoth (Lord of Wisdom and of the Moon) has the head of an ibis or a baboon, and His consort, Bastet, has the form of a cat or a lioness. The Mesoamerican peoples worshiped Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent. The Assyrians feared the powerful serpent Goddess Tiamat and revered various winged beings. In Japan—where Buddhism and Shintoism are intertwined—Kitsune the fox and Tengu the bird man are powerful shape-shifters who can transform into human or inanimate shapes to trick humans. Many shrines there are guarded by a pair of magical lion-dogs known as the Koma-inu or Shishi.
In a discussion with Christians, who tend to ridicule Hinduism on this point, you can recall that winged angels are half-human and half-bird. Four-headed beings called the Cherubims were central in the early Christianity. In the Bible’s Book of Revelation, John writes: “I saw a throne standing in heaven and the One who was sitting on the throne… In the center, grouped around the throne itself, were four animals with many eyes, in front and behind. The first animal was like a lion, the second like a bull, the third animal had a human face, and the fourth animal was like a flying eagle. Each of the four animals had six wings…” (4:1-8). The description matches an account by Jewish prophet Elijah centuries before. Importantly, these beings are the most powerful beings in the pantheon, closest to the Creator.
Over the millennia, worship and awareness of Deities with animal features was eclipsed in most cultures as the monotheistic religions grew into prominence. Were these beings mere myth and imagination, as depicted by modern scholars? Or were the peoples of ancient times aware of a mystical reality that has been sealed off? In most cultures, the old Gods have been put in exile. Only in Hinduism does such worship thrive in unbroken continuity.
One might note the obvious fact that Homo sapiens, too, is an animal species, one among many.
14. Why do Hindus cremate the dead?
A: Hindus arrange swift cremation of the dead, ideally within 24 hours. The fire and accompanying rites sever ties to earthly life and give momentum to the soul for its continuing spiritual journey.
Longer answer: Hindus traditionally cremate their dead because a fiery dissolution of the body brings swifter, more complete release of the soul than burial, which preserves the soul’s psychic connection to its just-ended earthly life. After death, the departed soul hovers close to the earth plane in its astral body, emotionally attached to the physical body and its old surroundings, still able to see this material world. The funeral rites and burning of the body signify spiritual release, notifying the soul that, in fact, death has come. Some of the funeral chants address the deceased, urging the soul to relinquish attachments and continue its spiritual journey. The Gods and devas are invoked to assist the soul in its transition. The fire severs ties to earthly life and gives momentum to the soul, granting at least momentary access to refined, heavenly realms. All attention is on a singular goal, as expressed in this prayer from the Rig Veda: “Release him again, O Agni, to the fathers. The one offered to you now proceeds to his destiny. Putting on new life, let him approach the surviving, let him reunite with a [new] body, All-Knowing One!” (10. 16. 5).
Elaboration: Hindus do not believe in bodily resurrection and the reuniting of each soul with its physical body, so they place no importance on preserving the corpse, which is the intent of burial in Christianity and Islam. The Hindu belief in reincarnation gives assurance that death is merely the soul’s release from the current life. An ancient text puts it simply, “Even as the snake sloughs off its skin, even as the bird leaves its shell, even as in its waking state the soul forgets happenings of the dream state, thus does the soul migrate from one body to another…” (Tirumantiram 2132).
Family and friends take an active part in releasing the departed soul: preparing the body, joining in the rituals, transporting the body to the cremation grounds and lighting the pyre. After cremation, the ashes are ceremoniously committed to a river (often the Ganga), lake or ocean, along with garlands and flowers. While the rites allow family a dignified farewell and an opportunity to express grief, all present know there will be other bodies, other lives. Mourning is never suppressed, but scriptures admonish against excessive lamentation and encourage joyous release. The departed soul feels the impact of emotional forces directed at him, and prolonged grieving can hold him in earthly consciousness, inhibiting full transition to the inner worlds. Hindus speak of death as the Great Departure, regarding it as life’s most exalted moment. The death anniversary is called Liberation Day.
Cremation is prescribed in the Vedic texts, and Hindu funeral customs are remarkably uniform throughout India. Cremation is also practiced by other Indic faiths, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, and is becoming popular worldwide. Many believe the body should be disposed of as swiftly and cleanly as possible and that fire is the purest way to return the physical elements to their source. It is less expensive than burial, with a smaller impact on the environment. Recent figures show cremations are chosen by 35% in the US, 72% in the UK, 99.9% in Japan, 68% in Canada and 49% in China.
Infants and small children, however, are buried in Hindu tradition. Another exception pertains to enlightened souls, for whom the body is often interred in a crypt filled with salt, and a shrine or temple is constructed at the site. Sacred texts assert their remarkable disciplines have endowed the physical body with immense spiritual power, which can radiate for generations, giving blessings through this sacred samadhi, especially if that soul remains aware of the Earth plane.
(H) 461-469: Harris, India’s Sacred Cow
In Marvin Harris’s “India’s Sacred Cow,” the ancient and religious beliefs of the cow are identified in India and it’s Hindu culture. At the core part of the culture, Harris exemplifies the usages of cattle within the Indian society but also identifies the economic needs for the cow. With the ever changing viewpoints among the sacred cow, Harris identifies the changing adaptation and usage of the Sacred cow in a modern day India.
“The Hindu, it seems, would rather starve to death than eat his cow or even deprive it of food” (461). As Harris says, cattle may appear to go through marketplaces unhindered and undisturbed grazing away at an already scarce food supply. By the standards of the Hindu, the spiritual values seem to be more important to the Indians than life itself. According to Fred Simmons at the University of California Davis, “Hinduism is an irrational ideology that compels people to overlook abundant, nutritious foods for scarcer, less healthful foods” (461). Even as Hindu’s devote themselves to preserve Indian life, millions of people fall ill to starvation every day in accordance to Hindu tradition. Among the spiritual, are the poor who accept the sacred cows to their beliefs regardless of their own well-beings.
Cow worship carries over into politics. “In 1966, a crowd of 120,000 people, led by holy men, demonstrated in front of the Indian house of parliament in support of the All-Party cow protection Campaign Committee” (462). These driven ideologies have manifested themselves not only into spiritual rites, but to the Indian political system as well. It is curious as to why the Indian culture continues to protect the cow despite the nations population rate and famine rates. The exemplification of India’s devotion to the cow cannot be explained in any way. Although, recorded 3,000 years ago, in Indian history, the Vedas from the first millennium B.C contain contradictory passages, some referring to ritual slaughter, and others to strict taboo on beef consumption. Even the “Social and Rural Economy of Northern India 600 B.c-200 A.D., concludes that many of the sacred cow passages were incorporated into the priests of a later period” (462). To this degree, this meant that the status of the Indian cow had undergone a spiritual transformation. By 1,000 A.D., all Hindus were forbidden to eat beef as the spiritual recognition of Ahimsa (belief in the unity of life), took shape in a modern complex.
Even as religious practices forbade the slaughter of cows, cattle promotes the recovery of the agricultural system from the dry Indian conditions and periods of drought. During the hot dry days of the summer, cows are encouraged to scavenge for the scarce food supply of food stalls, roads and cities to receive their nutritional values in food. Even when food is scarce, the cows are valued enough to get the remainder of “scraps” for their nutritional needs. While cows can bare both Oxen and Bullocks, they are essential for the agriculture plowing of the fields, milk, manure, and their spiritual components. Oddly enough even though the consumption of the flesh of the cow is prohibited, Hindu’s have a group of individuals called “untouchables” (the lowest ranking class of India), who are called upon to drag away the carcasses of deceased cows. To handle the cows, they must go through certain rites of “purification” and generally skin and consume the flesh of the cows even though these practices are rarely acknowledged. In addition, “in many cities such as new Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay, it is legal to sell beef to retail customers and restaurants to serve steak” (467).
It is most probable that meat eating came about as a slow practical matter. As cows are needed for the procreation of Oxen and cattle and many other resources, it is possible that over the centuries that only the priesthood abolished the killings of cows to protect the Zebus from a population faced with starvation. What the Hindu’s may call sacred may be their own doings of spiritual affiliation or maybe the belief to remove the temptation from slaughtering the population of cows which are vital to the economy and political structure of Indian society. “Human society is neither random or capricious” (469). Perhaps societies draw upon the necessities of life without extincting or destroying the surroundings of the earth. Whether individuals learn to value the sacred cow or view it as a party platform to religion, politics or agriculture, we must all learn to value life and the agriculture which supports it. Although my views are quite different, I can surely say that I believe the sacred cow to be a taboo, and the maintenance of social class systems and religious beliefs in India.
The ever-popular Facebook can be so useful! The other day in the middle of a heated debate on the beef ban, a gentleman pointed out that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was all in favour of beef ban in Maharashtra and North India including Jammu and Kashmir as also Bihar, had no problem with eating of beef in Kerala as it was considered part of a local dietary tradition.
Not too sure of the authenticity of the claim, I decided to walk down history lane to find out. It brought with it ample rewards, nostalgia seeped knowledge and a search for renowned historian D.N. Jha’s books all over again. In college, we had read his works on ancient India with varying degrees of curiosity and amusement. Until one day, a lecturer dropped a bombshell, “Cow was not sacred in ancient India,” she said. Brought up on notions of the cow’s sacredness in these parts of the country, we contested her claims. It was a no-win situation for us, as she calmly advised us to read D.N. Jha!
That was the age when Internet was not exactly round the corner and most reputed books had run out of stock when it came to Jha’s books – he was more widely read than I initially imagined in my ignorance-filled days. If at that time I could not lay my hands on “The Myth of the Holy Cow”, this time I was luckier. And what an eye-opener it proved! We had been told during our graduation days in Delhi University that cattle were sacrificed in huge numbers during the Vedic Age. There were rituals which could not be completed without the sacrifice of cattle, horse and the like. But what Jha writes in “The Myth of the Holy Cow” gives me a delicious reason to stick to non-vegetarian diet – no disrespect intended for lovers of Arhar dal. Not just human beings even deities ate meat. And in 2015 people are slaughtered on mere suspicion of storing beef!
Writes Jha in his book, “Animal sacrifices were very common, the most important of them being the famous asvamedha and rajasuya. These and several other major sacrifices involved the killing of animals, including cattle, which constituted the chief form of the wealth of the early Aryans. Not surprisingly, they prayed for cattle and sacrificed them to propitiate their gods. The Vedic gods had no marked dietary preferences. Milk, butter, barley, oxen, goats and sheep were their usual food, though some of them seem to have had their special preferences. Indra had a special liking for bulls. Agni was not a tippler like Indra, but was fond of the flesh of horses, bulls and cows. The toothless Pusan, the guardian of the roads, ate mush as a Hobson’s choice. Soma was the name of an intoxicant but, equally important, of a god, and killing animals (including cattle) for him was basic to most of the Rgvedic yajnas. The Maruts and the asvins were also offered cows. The Vedas mention about 250 animals out of which at least 50 were deemed fit for sacrifice, by implication for divine as well as human consumption. The Taittiriya Brahmana categorically tells us, ‘Verily the cow is food’ (atho annam vai gauh) and Yajnavalkya’s insistence on eating the tender (amsala) flesh of the cow is well known.”
He does not stop here. To make it easier for an average student of history, and the happily oblivious common man, he cites examples from the Mahabharata and Ramayana to drive home the point – life was incomplete without a non-vegetarian meal for deities and dasas alike. He reminds that “the Mahabharata also makes a laudatory reference to the king Rantideva in whose kitchen two thousand cows were butchered each day, their flesh, along with grain, being distributed among the Brahmanas.”
Similarly, he takes recourse to Valmiki’s Ramayana to tell us of the dietary tradition of the gods and goddesses. “Rama was born after his father Dasarath performed a big sacrifice involving the slaughter of a large number of animals declared edible by the Dharmasastras. Sita, assures the Yamuna, while crossing it that she would worship the river with a thousand cows and a hundred jars of wine when Rama accomplishes his vow. Her fondness for deer meat drives her husband crazy enough to kill Maricha, a deer in disguise. Bharadvaja welcomes Rama by slaughtering a fatted calf in his honour,” Jha writes in the conclusion of the book where he also clearly tells us that whether it was the Age of the Mauryan Empire, including the period of Asoka or the Gupta Age, animal sacrifice as also eating of their flesh was very much prevalent. For instance, ceremonial welcome of guests was considered complete only with honey, curd and flesh of cow or bull.
Even the “sacred thread ceremony for its part was not all that sacred for it was necessary for a snataka to wear an upper garment of cowhide” and the deadtoo were sent away with animals. “The thick fat of the cow was used to cover the corpse and a bull was burnt along with it to enable the departed to ride in the nether world,” the illustrious historian writes.
Even the arrival of Buddhism and Jainism did not put a full stop to the practice. After all, Buddha is said to have died after consuming a meal made of pork. Also Manu provided a list of creatures whose flesh was considered edible. In the list he exempted camel from being killed but not the cow. In fact, animal sacrifice, including that of cattle continued till modern times. As Jha has written, “As late as the 18th Century Ghanasyama, a minister for a Tanjore ruler, states that the killing of cow in honour of a guest was the ancient rule.” Even Vivekananda is said to have consumed meat in the U.S.
Of course, there is another stream of thought under which in medieval times cow killers were considered untouchables. Cow killing as also beef eating came to be associated with untouchables – this runs similar to what sociologist K.N. Srinivas once told us that in the early modern age, beef eating was considered a lower caste practice and upper castes, when they did consume meat, limited themselves to mutton or fish.
So, guys who are quick to take offence when somebody suggests that man is superior to all creations, take a deep breath. Go back to your roots. Discover history anew.
Is Shashi Tharoor right in saying ancient Hindu Rishis ate beef?
In a recent discussion on his book, Why I am a Hindu, Shashi Tharoor says he claimed that ancient Indian Rishis ate beef. He had relied on books written by colonial and Marxist historians who had a clear agenda behind making such claims. As a person coming from Kerala, he should understand that beef became a commonplace dish only in the recent past.
In the erstwhile Travancore and Kochi states, cow slaughter was strictly banned. There were Travancore kings who used to wake up in the morning seeing the cow, as it was considered to be a good omen. The Travancore state opted for the Dutch against the Portuguese because the latter looted temples and promoted cow-slaughter. One of the key points of the Treaty of Mavelikkara of 1753 signed between the Dutch and Travancore king Marthanda Varma was that the former wouldn’t interfere in the religious and internal affairs of the southern princely state. Political constraints forced the Kochi kings to take a lenient view of cow-slaughter only in the Fort Kochi area, where a large number of Portuguese nationals used to put up elsewhere in the erstwhile princely state ban on cow-slaughter was strictly enforced. However, members of certain lower caste communities were allowed to consume dead cow.
There is an interesting story about Kerala’s most prominent social reformer and spiritual leader Sri Narayana Guru, whom Marxist leader EMS Nambudiripad had described as a “petty bourgeoisie”. Once a disciple raised a doubt: “Swami, we drink cow’s milk, then what is wrong with eating its flesh? After listening to him, the Guru enquired: “Is your mother alive?” The man answered in the negative. The Guru again asked: “So what did you do with the body? Buried or ate it?”
Not only Hindus but the members of the indigenous Syrian Christian community also abstained from beef consumption in the past. So when the Portuguese launched an aggressive drive to convert Syrian Christians into ‘Christianity’, the first thing they did was to cut off the Hindu character and practices of the native Christians, writes Dr CI Issac in his book Evolution of Christian Church in India. One of the declarations at the Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor) in June 1559, watershed in the history of Christianity in India, chaired by Archbishop of Goa Alexis De Menezes was “abstinence from beef was un-Christian”. A section of Syrian Christians opposed this condition, as they feared beef consumption would bring them down in the caste hierarchy. Even today when many traditions and practices are becoming obsolete and redundant, several Hindu families in Kerala religiously observe the practice of feeding Onasadya (Onam feast) to cattle before even offering it to the God. Also, the defining feature of Parabrahma temple at Ochira in Kollam is the bull.
However, Communists have managed to build a narrative in Kerala that it’s cool to have beef, as the Vedic rishis used to relish it. In an interview to the Frontline, DN Jha, the Marxist historian who authored The Myth of Holy Cow, makes a startling claim: “In Kerala, everybody eats beef, except Namboothiris. Some 72 per cent of the communities (in the country) eat beef.” But the question that begs an answer is — if such an overwhelming number of people in the country eat beef is it politically a wise decision for the Hindutva forces to take it up as their core issue. Also, how come then 29 Indian states, including the most populous ones, have put restrictions or ban on cow slaughter? Anyway, those who have read Arun Shourie’s The Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud — in which he has shown how Jha had “concocted evidence and distorted sources” — would definitely take the Marxist historian’s statements and claims with a handful of salt.
The Mughals realised that if they had to rule India, they could not support cow slaughter. Even during Aurangazeb’s regime, there were strict restrictions on cow slaughter. But the British failed to realise this. Mahatma Gandhi believed that cow protection could turn out to be a rallying point for the people in their fight for freedom. He says: “Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observance of caste rules but by their ability to protect the cow. Whilst professing the religion of cow-protection, we have enslaved the cow and her progeny, and have become slaves ourselves.”
Gandhiji launched the Khilafat movement hoping that he could persuade Muslims to give up cow slaughter. He says: “I yield to none in my regard for the cow. I have made the Khilafat cause my own, because I see that through its preservation full protection can be secured for the cow. I do not ask my Mussalman friends to save the cow in consideration of my service. My prayer ascends daily to God Almighty, that my service of a cause I hold to be just may appear so pleasing to Him, that He may change the hearts of the Mussalmans, and fill them with pity for their Hindu neighbours and make them save the animal that latter hold dear as life itself.”
But Gandhiji’s prayers couldn’t bring about change in the hearts of fanatic Mappilas who slaughtered cows and fed them to Hindus who were forcibly converted to Islam during the Malabar rebellion of 1921. Witness accounts say many neophytes couldn’t take it — they vomited. Communists made sure that some of the brutes who indulged in one of the worst communal pogroms in India were rehabilitated in the pantheon of freedom fighters, as they saw an opportunity for collaboration with the Muslim League, whom Nehru had called ‘a dead horse’. The Leftists not only revived the ‘dead horse’ but carved out Malappuram district on communal lines, thereby implementing the ‘two-nation’ theory within Independent India.
One of the political parties that campaigns against ban on cow slaughter is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). The canard that Hindu rishis and saints of antiquity used to consume beef was spread by Marxist historians, though British scholars were the first to make such outlandish claims. Such a notion was created due to deliberate misreading of the Vedas and Upanishads by Western Indologists. The British had a definite purpose behind such faulty interpretations. DN Jha relied upon such interpretations to build his theory, as he is not proficient in Sanskrit. His motives were not disinterested, he had a sinister plan: to destroy Hinduism for ideological purposes. So the Communists/Marxists targeted Hinduism and its symbols. In a conversation which I had with him, Jha said whosoever says the Vedas has science is a fool. Jha, in his book, writes: “It (the cow) was not yet held sacred both oxen and cows were slaughtered for food. Beef was a delicacy offered to the guest.” He has drawn ideas from the Vedic Index of Names and Subjects by Arthur Anthony Macdonell and Arthur Berriedale Keith. The Western scholars translate a shloka from the Shatapata Brahmana (184.108.40.206) thus: “The great sage Yajnavalkya was wont to eat the meat of milch cows and bullocks (dhenuvanaduha) if only it was amsala (tender).
Taking a cue from this, Jha begins his book with its first chapter titled: “Animals are verily food but Yajnavalkya favours beef.”
The controversial line in the shloka in the Shatapata Brahmana is: “Asnami eva aham amsalam ched bhavathi ithi”— meaning “I shall consume those (food items) that are tender”.
Noted Vedic scholar and author Acharya Sri Rajesh tears apart the argument of the Western scholars by delving deep into the etymology of the word amsala. According to him, nowhere in the treatise of Panini or in the Amarakosha, the Sanskrit lexicon, does it say that amsala means flesh – and that too cow’s flesh. On the other hand, it means fleshy fruits. In dhenuvanaduha, dhenu, though it means cow, in this context it is milk and vanaduha means foodgrain. So Yajnavalkya says he would like to have fruits instead of milk or dishes prepared out of foodgrain. An entirely harmless shloka was interpreted to mean exactly the opposite.
Similarly, there are scores of instances where shlokas have been misinterpreted by Western scholars and their Indian collaborators to give an impression that beef consumption was considered auspicious in religious functions. For instance, Ralph TH Griffith in his book Hymns of the Rigveda translates the shloka Suryaya vahathu pragatsavika yamavasyajath, Aghasu hanyanthe gavoranjunyo paruhyathe (Rig Veda 10.85.13), thus: “The bridal pomp of Surya, which Savitar started, moved along. In Magha days are oxen slain, in Arjuris they wed the bride.
According to the Nirukta, the study of correct interpretation of Sanskrit words in the Vedas, gavo means, also means rays — as per the principle: Sarvepi rashmayo gavo uchyathe (rays of light are also called gavo). To cut the story short, the literal meaning of the shloka is: “The bride Sun rays travels to the house of moon and stays there in the month of Magha.” This is in fact a beautiful rendition of the celestial changes taking place in the month of Magha. It really means the duration of nights is long in Magha.
One can cite many such instances where shlokas in the Hindu scriptures have been misinterpreted to mean just the opposite of what they were meant to convey. Ironically even DN Jha himself concedes in his book that in more than one place in the Rig Veda cow has been described as aghanya (not to be killed), though he has a different interpretation for that. But Jha and Western scholars have conveniently ignored the fact that the recurring refrain in the Vedas and Upanishads is ga ma himsi (don’t kill cow). For instance, the Atharv Veda (11.2.1) says “don’t kill two-legged or four-legged animals”, while the Yajur Veda calls upon people to protect cow and drink its nectar-like milk instead of eating its flesh by slaughtering it.
Sir Monier Williams who occupied the prestigious Boden Chair for Sanskrit Studies at Oxford has introduced many distortions in his work, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, that also strengthened the theory that ancient Hindus were beef eaters. The objective of the Boden Chair, according Monier Williams’ own words, “was to promote translation of the scriptures into Sanskrit so as to enable his (Col Joseph Boden) countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian religion.” At another context, Williams writes: “When the walls of mighty fortress of Brahmanism are encircled, undermined and finally stormed by the soldiers of the cross, the victory of Christianity must be signal and complete.” Alexander Cunningham, the first director-general of Archaeological Society of India, too had similar motivations when he undertook excavation of India’s past. He hoped that his excavations would “show that Brahmanism …was of comparatively modern origin, and had been constantly receiving additions and alterations facts which prove that the establishment of the Christian religion in India must ultimately succeed.”