'If policy-makers hold the lives of animals to be more significant than the welfare of a human populace, I can't believe that they're likely to do anything progressive for India.'
Almost 17 years ago, Varsha Bhosle took on the anti-beef lobby on these pages. The day after Maharashtra banned the consumption and sale of beef, we repost Varsha's column, which is still being discussed on the Internet all these years later.
Bhosle is still in Opposition mode, thanks to Bharatiya Janata Party corporator Parag Alvani getting hives over "our children" being lured to non-vegetarianism by Ronald McDonald. Before taking off, let me make one thing clear -- excepting pizza, I detest all Western fast-food. Personally, I'll be glad to see KFC being replaced by a Singh's Tandoori Chicken. And I don't eat beef in India. But, I've had enough of swadeshi veggienazis. So here goes...
On March 31, 1996, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad set about to play the worst April Fool's joke on India. Its London spokesman, Hasmukh Shah, said on BBC's Sunday: "We have offered to look after the 12 million cattle which are facing execution (in Britain)... It is immoral to slaughter these cows and they should be allowed to lead their natural lives."
No, the VHP wasn't going to open a sick corral in Britain to nurse the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy-inflicted cows. Instead, it wanted Britain to cough up 1 billion pounds in shipment charges -- to transport the cows to India!
Which was convenient for the UK since the cost of slaughtering the cows would have amounted to more than 20 billion pounds. And it was safe for the VHP's milk-consuming spokesman living in Britain. Please note: None of this happened at the lunatic-fringe level. Apart from Britain's health secretary being sounded, Shah claimed that the diseased-cow-importing proposal had the support of the BJP -- the strongest contender against the Congress in the coming elections.
In the world according to the VHP (so close is it to Garp's), India could afford to sustain the extra 12 million heads: "India has sanctuaries across the country where the cattle can be allowed to live the full course of their lives. We already support a total of 500 million cattle." I guess the august body believed that: a. India is not susceptible to drought and famine and has a surplus of grass, fodder and land to spare; b. in sanctuaries, the mad-cows would never be preyed upon, and thus the danger of BSE infecting other animals was nonexistent; c. never could an Indian be bribed to "lose" a few BSE-cankered cattle heads; and d. in a nation of doodh mein milaavat, there was no question of BSE-tainted milk products finding their way to the market...
Shah termed the impending cow slaughter merely "immoral." There was no reference to the sanctity of cows as exists in the VHP's version of Hinduism... Clever...
But not clever enough: In 1995, if the VHP had offered to harbour Australia's huge rabbit population which was infected by the rabbit calcivirus disease and thus slated to be destroyed, I may have seen the morality in the mad-cow proposal.
If the VHP had sent donations and volunteers to save the millions of penguins, pelicans, seals and terns about to be wiped off by the July 1996 oil slick off Tasmania or the spill off Alaska, I may have said, OK, these guys really feel for all praani-jaat.
While all this wildlife was on the verge of extinction, the Parivar was busy in India trying to bring a ban on cows raised for the very purpose of slaughter. The VHP has never had a presence in any animal rights issue except that of the holy cow. And don't we all know that the communities with the most money to spare for donations are predominantly vegetarian and especially against beef-consumption?
The Bhagwad Gita is the source which inspired Chanakya's niti. The sages of the VHP, however, read the tome differently. That the sublime means to save cows could end in an evil -- the poisoning of India -- did not occur to them. This kind of blinkered thinking denotes a type of Hindu not different from the mad mullahs of Islam. Gou-hatya as paap and sooar-khana as haraam are two faces of the same counterfeit coin.
Hinduism has no constraints on animal slaughter -- unless you count the prescriptive methods of cooking, carving and distribution of the meat of animals as such. It is based on the theology of sanaatan Vedic Aryans, but Hare Krishna-ites, who live by the same scriptures and strive to recreate an inferred Vedic lifestyle with gurukuls, etc, would rather not be known as Hindu...
They are quite right. Theirs is an extremist cult mere decades old, while Hinduism flourishes where its sister civilisations bowed to Christianity or Buddhism or Islam. Today, there's not a trace of the heritage of Rameses, Caesar or Confucius, of the Hellenic Greeks, or of Nineveh and Babylon. However, right from the dawn of civilisation, an unbroken thread of culture has continued to run through Brahmvart, then Aryavart and Bharatvarsh, to Hindustan and India. It wouldn't have been possible if the philosophy wasn't rock-solid and yet flexible against the winds of cultural wars.
Just as the Quran is employed to sanction fatwas against ideas, so also is Hinduism being used to prop up the bigotries of puritans -- which lot always is lethal for any society. The Sangh Parivar will have us believe that Hindutva asks for protection of cows as a religious tenet. Bullshit! It's simply goodbye Hindu laissez faire; hello, Hindutva fatwas.
Indian Food, a scholarly look at the gastronomic traditions of ancient India by Dr K T Acharya, indicates that Vedic Aryans ate all kinds of meats, including horses, buffaloes, bulls and cows. For instance, the Rigved recounts the rituals in animal sacrifice and the roasting and carving of its meat -- with Brahmin priests receiving the choicest cuts as prasaad. A black cow was favoured by Pushan, red by Rudra, an ox by Vishnu, and bulls by Agni and Indra -- the latter urged to slay his foes "just as cows are butchered at the altar of sacrifice."
In the Mahabharat and Ramayan, sumptuous feasts abound with the meat of pigs, deer, sheep, fowl and "young buffalo calves roasted on spits with ghee dripping on them." The Atharvaved mentions the sacrificial cow as "destined for the Gods and Brahmins." And in the Brhadaranyak Upanishad, Sushrutha, the father of Indian medicine, describes beef as being pavitra for health. So much for Hindu vegetarianism itself, let alone holy cows.
When utilitarian needs sought to discourage the slaying of milch cows and draught oxen by declaring beef-eating a sin, the Upanishad sage Yagnavalkya stated in the Shatapath Brahmana, "That may well be, but I shall eat of it nevertheless if the flesh is tender." *That* is the true face of Hinduism, where the odds are weighed by an individual instead of blindly following a supposedly divine decree of haraam. Karma and moksha are at his discretion alone.
It wasn't until the rule of the Buddhist emperor Ashok and the advent of Mahavir that the ethos of vegetarianism began to take hold among a section of the populace, mainly Brahmins. However, even after centuries of glorification of the Utopian concept of ahimsa, today, only about a quarter of India's population is fully vegetarian. (Thank god for the Kshatriyas and Shudhras.)
Veggienazis hold that flesh-eating is contrary to the advance of humankind; that man progressed to agriculture while hunting remained savage; that it's unkind to beasts. The argument is as dumb as saying that now that the world has progressed to PCs and the Internet, reading books is primitive. For, pulping wood into paper is cruel to living trees and more harmful to ecology than the dispatching of animals bred for the purpose. So, should reading books be deterred?
Of us Hindu "savages", a robust percentage *chooses* to eat beef, and, more significantly, the poor can't afford much else. Besides, it's eaten by Christians, Jews and Parsis, too. But since the VHP gets to tweak its thumb at Mozzies, everybody is to be exposed to the vagaries of Ashok Singhal & Company.
The hypocrisy of it all amazes me: By the scriptures, the slaying of cows is a lesser sin (upapaatak) than the drinking of alcohol (mahapaatak). Even so, the prohibition of alcohol is not brandished as a Hindu mainstay, nor is it seriously enforced.
A top Shiv Sainik has converted his restaurant into a pub: A ban on liquor holds no thrills since it doesn't irk Mozzies -- who, on their part, insist on slaughtering cows to tweak their thumbs at Hindus.
The Sangh Parivar seems to communicate exclusively with Him/Her. I don't like it -- it's the first step to a theocratic rule, akin to repression by the Shariat. After railing against the transparently self-serving stands of the Shahi Imam (who at least has a religious warrant), the BJP itself will flounder into the dubious realm of religious edicts, which, by nature, are forever open to interpretation.
I've always promoted Hindutva's struggle against illegal immigrants, its move to abolish the Minorities Commission, and to implement the Uniform Civil Code. I have also accepted Ram Janmabhoomi. These measures are necessary for a society where no one is more equal than the others, and they are based on the functioning of a government.
When the party is bandied as targeting Mozzies on these issues, it's the anti-Hindu factions who mar progress by implanting a self-demeaning form of liberalism in Hindus *and* an unfounded righteousness in Muslims.
I can't say the same about a ban on beef. It's a god-forsaken concept, far removed from democracy and governmental performance, and with no basis in the Vedas, whence evolved classical Hinduism.
In the Gita, when Arjun refused to fight his Kaurav cousins, Lord Krishna's ensuing argument may be boiled down to a Machiavellian one-liner: The end (of establishing a dharma-sanstha) justifies the means (massacre of kinsmen): Let the arrows rip and leave the consequences to Me. Which, incidentally, Arjun did. The beauty of Hinduism lies in this very practicality -- of an individual's considering the odds of his own temporal actions.
At least in madness of the VHP kind, the Congress tradition has been remarkably different: In his column in Navjeevan, Mahatma Gandhi, while replying to an avalanche of letters deploring his 'inhumane' deed of putting to sleep a terminally-ill cow of the Sabarmati Ashram, stolidly defended his decision. Surprised? Why? Gandhi was a learned man, more than well-versed in the Bhagwad Gita.
Even at a selfish level, a ban on cow slaughter frightens me: What if Muslims ask for a ban on my bacon? What if Jains demand one on mutton, chicken and fish? What if Maneka wants to ban cheese (which requires cow rennet)? Someday, some loony-tunes may give in and I'll be stuck with, yuck, only bhindis and karelas!
If policy-makers hold the lives of animals to be more significant than the welfare of a human populace, I can't believe that they're likely to do anything progressive for India. If the BJP wants to keep only its orthodox bhasma-smeared votes (which, I'm told, are more numerous than my kind), bring on the ban. But a thinking person's support has to be weaned by going above and beyond groundless puritanism.
That's what makes me a Hindu. What about you?
Varsha's column was first published on April 16, 1998.
Varsha Bhosle sadly passed into the ages in October 2011. We grieve and mourn her loss.