DID THE HINDUS NEVER EAT BEEF ?
TO the question whether the Hindus ever ate beef, every Touchable
Hindu, whether he is a Brahmin or a non-Brahmin, will say ‘no,
never’. In a certain sense, he is right. From times no Hindu has eaten
beef. If this is all that the Touchable Hindu wants to convey by his
answer there need be no quarrel over it. But when the learned
Brahmins argue that the Hindus not only never ate beef but they
always held the cow to be sacred and were always opposed to the
killing of the cow, it is impossible to accept their view.
What is the evidence in support of the construction that the Hindus
never ate beef and were opposed to the killing of the cow?
There are two series of references in the Rig Veda on which reliance
is placed. In one of these, the cow is spoken of as Aghnya. They are
Rig Veda 1.164, 27; IV.1.6; V 82-8; VII.69. 71; X.87. Aghnya means
‘one who does not deserve to be killed’. From this, it is argued that
this was a prohibition against the killing of the cow and that since
the Vedas are the final authority in the matter of religion, it is
concluded that the Aryans could not have killed the cows, much less
could they have eaten beef. In another series of references the cow
is spoken of as sacred. They are Rig Veda VI.28.1.8. and VIII, 101.
15. In these verses the cow is addressed as Mother of Rudras, the
Daughter of Vasus, the Sister of the Adityas and the Centre of Nectar.
Another reference on the subject is in Rig Veda VIII. 101. 16 where
the cow is called Devi (Goddess).
Raliance is also placed on certain passages in the Brahmanas and
There are two passages in the Satapatha Brahmana which relate
to animal sacrifice and beef-eating. One is at III. 1.2.21 and reads
as follows :-
“He (the Adhvaryu) then makes him enter the hall. Let him not eat (the flesh) of
either the cow or the ox, for the cow and the ox doubtless support everything here on
earth. The gods spake, ‘verily, the cow and the ox support everything
here; come, let us bestow on the cow and the ox whatever vigour belonged to
other species (of animals); and therefore the cow and the ox eat most. Hence
were one to eat (the flesh) of an ox or a cow, there would be, as it were,
an eating of everything, or, as it were, a going to the end (or, to destruction)...
Let him therefore not eat (the flesh) of the cow and the ox.”
The other passage is at 1, 2, 3, 6. It speaks against animal sacrifice
and on ethical grounds.
A similar statement is contained in the Apastambha Dharma Sutra
at 1, 5, 17, 29. Apastambha lays a general embargo on the eating
of cow’s flesh.
Such is the evidence in support of the contention that the Hindus
never ate beef. What conclusion can be drawn from this evidence?
So far as the evidence from the Rig Veda is concerned the
conclusion is based on a misreading and misunderstanding of the
texts. The adjective Aghnya applied to the cow in the Rig Veda means
a cow that was yielding milk and therefore not fit for being killed.
That the cow is venerated in the Rig Veda is of course true. But
this regard and venerations of the cow are only to be expected from
an agricultural community like the Indo-Aryans. This application of
the utility of the cow did not prevent the Aryan from killing the cow
for purposes of food. Indeed the cow was killed because the cow was
regarded as sacred. As observed by Mr.Kane:
“It was not that the cow was not sacred in Vedic times, it was because
of her sacredness that it is ordained in the Vajasaneyi Samhita that beef
should be eaten.”1
That the Aryans of the Rig Veda did kill cows for purposes of food
and ate beef is abundantly clear from the Rig Veda itself. In Rig
Veda (X. 86.14) Indra says:- “They cook for one 15 plus twenty oxen”.
The Rig Veda (X.91.14) says that for Agni were sacrificed horses,
bulls, oxen, barren cows and rams. From the Rig Veda (X.72.6) it
appears that the cow was killed with a sword or axe.
As to the testimony of the Satapatha Bramhana, can it be said
to be conclusive? Obviously, it cannot be. For there are passages in
the other Bramhanas which give a different opinion.
To give only one instance. Among the Kamyashtis set forth in the
Taittiriya Bramhana, not only the sacrifice of oxen and cows are laid
down, but we are even told what kind and description of oxen and
cows are to be offered to what deities. Thus, a dwarf ox is to be
chosen for sacrifice to Vishnu; a drooping horned bull with a blaze
on the forehead to Indra as the destroyer of Vritra; a black cow to
1 Dharm Shaslra Vichar (Marathi) p, 180.
Pushan; a red cow to Rudra; and so on. The Taittiriya Bramhana
notes another sacrifice called Panchasaradiya-seva, the most important
element of which was the immolation of seventeen five-year old
humpless, dwraf-bulls, and as many dwarf heifers under three yearold.
As against the statement of the Apastamba Dharma Sutra, the
following points may be noted.
First is the contrary statement contained in that Very Sutra. At
14, 15, 29, the Sutra says :-
“The cow and the bull are sacred and therefore should be eaten”.
The second is the prescription of Madhuparka contained in the
Grahya Sutras. Among the Aryans the etiquette for receiving important
guests had become settled into custom and had become a
ceremony. The most important offering was Madhuparka. A detailed
descriptions regarding Madhuparka are to be found in the various
Grahya Sutras. According to most of the Grahya Sutras there are
six persons who have a right to be served with Madhuparka namely;
(1) Ritwija or the Brahmin called to perform a sacrifice, (2) Acharya,
the teacher, (3) The bridegroom (4) The King (5) The Snatak, the
student who has just finished his studies at the Gurukul and (6) Any
person who is dear to the host. Some add Atithi to this list. Except
in the case of Ritvija, King and Acharya, Madhuparka is to be offered
to the rest once in a year. To the Ritvija, King and Acharya it is
to be offered each time they come.
What was this Madhuparka made of ? There is divergence about
the substances mixed in offering Madhuparka. Asv.gr and Ap.gr.
(13.10) prescribe a mixture of honey and curds or clarified butter and
curds. Others like Par.gr. 13 prescribe a mixture of three (curds,
honey and butter). Ap.gr.(13.11-12) states the view of some that those
three may be mixed or five (those three with fried yava grain and
barley). Hir.gr.I, 12, 10-12 give the option of mixing three of five
(curds, honey, ghee, water and ground grain). The Kausika Sutra (92)
speaks of nine kinds of mixtures, viz., Brahma (honey and curds). Aindra
(of payasa), Saumya (curds and ghee), Pausna (ghee and mantha),
Sarasvata (milk and ghee), Mausala (wine and ghee, this being used
only in Sautramanai and Rajasuya sacrifices), Parivrajaka (sesame oil
and oil cake). The Madhava gr.I.9.22 says that the Veda declares that
the Madhuparka must not be without flesh and so it recommends
that if the cow is let loose, goat’s meat or payasa (rice cooked in
milk) may be offered; the Hir.gr. 1.13, 14 says that other meat should
be offered; Baud.gr. (1.2,51-54) says that when the cow is let off, the
flesh of a goat or ram may be offered or some forest flesh (of a deer,etc.) may be offered, as there can be no Madhuparka without flesh
or if one is unable to offer flesh one may cook ground grains.
Thus the essential element in Madhuparka is flesh and particularly
The killing of cow for the guest had grown to such an extent that
the guest came to be called ‘Go-ghna’ which means the killer of the
cow. To avoid this slaughter of the cows the Ashvalayana Grahya
Sutra (1.24.25) suggests that the cow should be let loose when the
guest comes so as to escape the rule of etiquette.
Thirdly, reference may be made to the ritual relating to disposal
of the dead to counter the testimony of the Apastamba Dharma Sutra.
The Sutra says1 :-
“1. He should then put the following (sacrificial) implements (on the
2. Into the right hand the (spoon called) Guhu.
3. Into the left the (other spoon called) Upabhrit.
4. On his right side the wooden sacrificial sword called Sphya, on his
left side the Agnihotrahavani (i.e., the laddle with which the
Agnihotra oblations are sacrified).
5. On his chest the (big sacrificial laddle called) Dhruva. On his head
the dishes. On his teeth the pressing stones.
6. On the two sides of his nose, the two smaller sacrificial laddies called
7. Or, if there is only one (Sruva), breaking it (in two pieces).
8. On his two ears the two Prasitraharanas (i.e, the vessels into which
the portion of the sacrificial food belonging to the Brahmin) is put
9. Or, if there is only one (Prasitraharana), breaking it (in two pieces).
10. On his belly the (vessel called) Patri.
11. And the cup into which the cut-off portion (of the sacrificial food)
12. On his secret parts the (staff called) Samy.
13. On his thighs two kindling woods.
14. On his legs the mortar and the pestle.
15. On his feet the two baskets.
16. Or, if there is only one (basket), breaking it in two pieces.
17. Those of the implements which have a hollow (into which liquids
can be poured) are filled with sprinkled butter.
1 Kane’s vol. II. Part I p. 545.
18. The son (of the deceased person) should take the under and the
upper mill-stone for himself.
19. And the implements made of copper, iron and earthenware.
20. Taking out the omentum of the she-animal he should cover therewith
the head and the mouth (of the dead person) with the verse, ‘But
on the armour (which will protect thee) against Agni, by that which
comes from the cows.’ (Rig Veda. X.16.7).
21. Taking out the kidneys of the animal he should lay them into the
hands (of the dead body) with the verse, escape the two hounds,
the sons of Sarma (Rig Veda X 14.10) the right kidney into the right
hand and the left into the left hand.
22. The heart of the animals he puts on the heart of the deceased.
23. And two lumps of flour or rice according to some teachers.
24. Only if there are no kidneys according to some teachers.
25. Having distributed the whole (animal), limb by limb (placing its
different limbs on the corresponding limbs of the deceased) and
having covered it with its hide, he recites when the Pranita water
is carried forward (the verse), ‘Agni do not overturn this cup,’ (Rig
26. Bending his left knee he should sacrifice Yugya oblation into the
Dakshina fire with the formulas ‘To Agni Svaha, to Kama Svaha,
to the world Svaha, to Anumati Svaha’.
27. A fifth (oblation) on the chest of the deceased with the formula ‘from
this one verily thou hast been born. May he now be born out of
thee. To the heaven worlds Svaha.’ ”
From the above passage quoted from the Ashvalayan Grahya Sutra
it is clear that among the ancient Indo-Aryans when a person died,
an animal had to be killed and the parts of the animal were placed
on the appropriate parts of the dead body before the dead body was
Such is the state of the evidence on the subject of cow-killing and
beef-eating. Which part of it is to be accepted as true? The correct
view is that the testimony of the Satapatha Brahmana and the
Apastamba Dharma Sutra in so far as it supports the view that
Hindus were against cow-killing and beef-eating, are merely exhortations
against the excesses of cow-killing and not prohibitions against
cow-killing. Indeed the exhortations prove that cow-killing and eating
of beef had become a common practice. That notwithstanding these
exhortations cow-killing and beef-eating continued. That most often
they fell on deaf ears is proved by the conduct of Yajnavalkya, the
great Rishi of the Aryans. The first passage quoted above from the
Satapatha Brahmana was really addressed to Yajnavalkya as an
exhortation. How did Yajnavalkya respond? After listening to the
exhortation this is what Yajnavalkya said :–
“I, for one, eat it, provided that it is tender”
That the Hindus at one time did kill cows and did eat beef is proved
abundantly by the description of the Yajnas given in the Buddhist
Sutras which relate to periods much later than the Vedas and the
Brahmanas. The scale on which the slaughter of cows and animals
took place was colossal. It is not possible to give a total of such
slaughter on all accounts committed by the Brahmins in the name
of religion. Some idea of the extent of this slaughter can however
be had from references to it in the Buddhist literature. As an
illustration reference may be made to the Kutadanta Sutta in which
Buddha preached against the performance of animal sacrifices to
Brahmin Kutadanta. Buddha, though speaking in a tone of sarcastic
travesty, gives a good idea of the practices and rituals of the Vedic
sacrifices when he said:
“And further, O Brahmin, at that sacrifice neither were any oxen slain,
neither goats, nor fowls, nor fatted pigs, nor were any kind of living creatures
put to death. No trees were cut down to be used as posts, no Darbha grasses
mown to stress around the sacrificial spot. And the slaves and messengers
and workmen there employed were driven neither by rods nor fear, nor carried
on their work weeping with tears upon their faces.”
Kutadanta on the other hand in thanking Buddha for his conversion
gives an idea of the magnitude of the slaughter of animals which
took place at such sacrifices when he says :-
“I, even I betake myself to the venerable Gotama as my guide, to the
Doctrine and the Order. May the venerable One accept me as a disciple, as
one who, from this day forth, as long as life endures, has taken him as his
guide. And I myself, O, Gotama, will have the seven hundred bulls, and the
seven hundred steers, and the seven hundred heifers, and the seven hundred
goats, and the seven hundred rams set free. To them I grant their life. Let
them eat grass and drink fresh water and may cool breezes waft around them.”
In the Samyuta Nikaya (III,1-9) we have another description of
a Yajna performed by Pasenadi, king of Kosala. It is said that five
hundred bulls, five hundred calves and many heifers, goats and rams
were led to the pillar to be sacrificed.
With this evidence no one can doubt that there was a time when
Hindus –both Brahmins and non-Brahmins –ate not only flesh but
WHO WERE THE SHUDRAS? How they came to be the Fourth Varna in the Indo-Aryan Society • Book • 1947