Sunday, May 23, 2010

Problems in Censoring The Myth of The Holy Cow (term paper for the Literature and Censorship Course, 2010)

When the French writer Andre Malraux asked Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958 about his "greatest difficulty since Independence" then Nehru replied, "Creating a just state by just means". He then added: "Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country. (Ahmed)

ON MARCH 4, 2008, two Muslims and a Dalit were stripped, beaten mercilessly and publicly humiliated by Bajrang Dal activists in Shantipura in Karnataka's Chikmaglur district. The three had been declared guilty of having killed a cow. (Sanjana).

After reading the first quotation, one would expect secularism to be one of the basic tenets inserted by the Constituent Assembly in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. Surprisingly, we note that it’s only with the 42nd Amendment Act of 1976, the concept of Secular state found its appropriate place. Even though the politics and ideology of secularism might be said to have exhausted their possibilities (Nandy 67), we can still take a look at the two popular definitions, as evident from the writings of social theorists like Max Weber, Bradlaugh, Ashis Nandy, George Jacob Holyoake. The first definition involves the construction of a selective public space devoid of any religious belief, where people assert their national identity above their religious one. The aforementioned selection is of rationalism and scientific thought over religious faith and ideology. The second one is an accommodative public space, where religious tolerance and mutual co-existence lay down the basic framework. One of the most important issues that problematise both these definitions, and particularly the second one, is the tendency of certain communities to take offence. In the multi-ethnic context of India, the absence of a Uniform Civil Code makes its presence felt every time a fatwa is issued, book burning ritual is carried out or a communal riot breaks out. “Saffronisation” of the curriculum and indiscriminate banning of books is the literary outcome of a political mobilisation, based on a religious ideology. But the problem is not as one dimensional as it seems. The book being on trial or facing censorship is associated with several problematic aspects of multi-textual representation of history, creation of a national identity and a lurking aspect of gaining political power[1]. The censorship of Dwijendra Narayan Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow is a classic case, embodying all these socio-political aspects, yet posing a challenge to our faith in the freedom of speech and rational enquiry.
Even though we claim the Indian civilization to be an advanced one, one still observes how an animal is totemised here and political propaganda has aligned itself along the lines of cow protection [2]. A popular misconception is that the Hindutva followers (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], Bajrang Dal, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad[VHP], collectively known as the Sangh Parivar) are solely responsible for it. Cow protection is as much a part of their beliefs as it is of the Indian National Congress Party ( BJP’s biggest critic on secular grounds) and the Telugu Desam Party. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, justified the need for cow protection as the animal serves multiple benefits in India’s primarily agrarian economy [3]. Article 48 of the Directive Principles of State Policy prohibits the slaughter of cows, calves and other milch and draught animals. M.S. Gowalkar, one of the founder members of R.S.S. conceptualized the cow as the living symbol of the Mother Earth and denounced its slaughter as an insult to national honor. The UP State Cow Protection Commission has claimed that "houses with an outer coating of cow dung could be the safest place to be in during a nuclear attack" (Sorabjee). Over the ages, Congress’ symbol has transformed from a pair of bulls (Ambrett) to “Cow and Calf” (Prudent Indian) and finally the Open Palm Symbol in the 70’s.
However, there are loopholes in the agenda of Hindutva followers as well as those of so-called secular parties. itself claims:

Ironically for the sake of the cow a Hindu Kingdom was really lost when the defeated army of Mahmud Ghauri smartly covered their retreat by blocking the path of the pursing Hindu army with a herd of cows. The Hindu army did not advance, since they would have had to slaughter (or at least harm) the cows, if they had to pursue the fleeing Muslim army. The cow after all was their mother Go-mata (sic)!! And so the Muslim army succeeded in escaping, only to attack again the following year and defeat the Hindu army and take over the Kingdom. This happened in the year 1191 at Tarain in North India when Prithviraj Chauhan first defeated Mahamud Ghauri in 1191 and then was defeated by Ghauri in 1192 beginning the era of Muslim rule in India. (The Young Hindu Mahasabha team)

The Government under Indira Gandhi refused to accept the anti cow-slaughter petition and characteristically, fired on the Sadhu-led mob. According to Dr. S. P. Radharishnan, Hindu thought is pluralistic, tolerant and borne out by psychological mediation of real life experience (Radhakrishnan). Under such circumstances, how can an ideology claim that Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists are all Hindus and yet refuse to accommodate their dietary habits (BJP)? It has been noted by historians that "Hindus" did not conceive themselves as a religious unity in any sense except in opposition to foreign rule (Wikipedia). The last citation is filled with controversial clauses which will help in the deliberation of my argument. If we question the basis of laying down the ideology of Hindutva, its found that the Holy scriptures, epics and historical records are the tools to reconstructing this myth of the holy cow.
Dwijendra Narayan Jha employs the same tools namely, his reading of the Vedas, Puranas, Dharmashastra texts; teachings of Yajnavalkya and Brihasputi; the Buddhist teachings contained in Brahmanadhammika Sutta and Sutta Nipata; medical treatises like Sushruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita; literary classics like Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Sriharsa’s Naisadhacharita; the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Right from ‘“Animals are verily food” Yajnavalkya favours beef,’ to the ‘Resume: The Elusive Holy Cow’ the author tries to do away with the veneration of the cow. The first chapter systematically analyses segments of Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads to show that the killing among cow is not included among its list of moral transgressions. In ‘The rejection of Animal sacrifice: an assertion of the sacredness of the cow’ Jha shows how the advent of Budhism and Jainism professed the doctrine of ahimsa and encouraged the rejection of cow slaughter. However, he quotes ample evidence to show that the practice of consuming beef or killing the animal for the same was never discontinued, even during the reign of Ashoka. “The monastic order,” Jha writes, “was practical enough to realize that it was living in a flesh eating non-Buddhist society and that it was not easy to break away completely from contemporary dietary practices. The pragmatism of early Buddhism is best reflected in Kassapa Buddha’s statement that ‘defilement comes not from eating meat but from sin’ and encapsulated in the doctrine of the Middle Path preached by Gautama Buddha who refused to make vegetarianism compulsory for monks. . .”

Jha brings to our attention an interesting rite repeatedly mentioned in the texts of the later Vedic period, relating to the reception of guests and is called arghya, or more popularly, madhuparka. The killing of the kine (cow) to honour guests seems to have been prevalent from earlier times. The Rigveda (X.68.3) mentions the word atithinir, which has been interpreted as “cows fit for guests”, and refers to at least one Vedic hero, Atithigva, meaning literally “slaying cows for guests”.
The cow was also killed on festive occasions like marriage. A Rgvedic passage, for instance, refers to the slaughter of a cow on the occasion of marriage and later, in the Aitareya Brahmana, we are told, that “if the ruler of men comes as a guest or any one else deserving of honour comes, people kill a bull or a cow”.

In “The Later DharmaShastric Tradition and Beyond,” Jha repeats Prajapati’s holy words on the eternal life cycle, as to how the unending food chain is lucidly explained in the Shastras. The Dharmashastras are silent about whether the carcass was to be eaten or not but Jha does cite the popular penances, forbidding beef consumption and cow slaughter. These include doomed to hell for as many days as the hair on one’s body, bathing in the water of the Holy river Ganges (that too from specific banks), and anointment with the Pancagavya- a mixture of Cow Dung, Gomutra( urine of the cow), milk, curds and ghee .

Apart from the exhaustive research which has gone into writing the book, Jha’s deliberative rhetoric is worthy of mention. What is evident from the book is that the scriptures are not just a bit contradictory, rather, with progression from the nomadic pastoral lifestyle to an agrarian and trade based one, economic issues have modified the customs and laws of the state. Jha strives to show that the non killing of cows and abstention from eating its flesh could not have been a mark of common identity for the Brahmanas or the Brahmanical moral order. He never disregards the literary corpus establishing the sacredness of the cow. In the Introduction to his book, he sets down explicit references to the work of both Western and Indian scholars. H. H. Wilson’s opinion on gomedha and aswamedha has been offset by William Crooke’s 1894 ethnographic findings. The strong case for cow protection, set forth by L. L. Sundara Ram in 1927 has been given ample scope, even though it preached the biased notion of Muslims being responsible for cow slaughter. Jha proves that he is part of a long continuing discourse of writing on the Hindu practice of beef consumption in early India. Almost all the individual subtopics in Chapters 2 and 3 are ended in a note similar to, “Be that as it may, there is substantial evidence against the inherent sanctity of the bovine including the cow”. For the lay reader, his continuous references to the ancient texts might seem a bit tiring but the book is primarily written as a serious historical tome. By lay reader, I allude to a person who hasn’t read the cited texts in Sanskrit or Pali. Nonetheless, Jha has furnished us with all the actual non-translated passages in his endnotes. From the Book Cover and Preface of the book, its evident he is writing under the pain of death and hence uses all the figurative languages of a person evading the censors. His refutation of the Myth of the Holy Cow is never one sided, rather the controversy lying at the heart of the book prefigures the discourse.
The Wikipedia page on the book asserts that the book is still banned in 5 states of India, including Andhra Pradesh (A Hyderabad Civil Court ruled against its publication):

Even before his book could hit the stands, the VHP exhorted its cadre to confiscate and burn copies. The BJP followed suit: one of its MPs, R.S. Rawat, wrote to the Union home minister demanding not only a ban on the book but also the arrest and prosecution of its author and CB Publishers. But before the book could be burnt or banned, the Jain Seva Sangh stepped in. Outraged by Jha's reported assertion that their founder Mahavira ate meat, the Hyderabad-based organisation sought a court injunction against the book, leaving the nonplussed historian without the words to fight his war. (Reddy)

The Cover page says that it’s a book that the Indian Government wanted to be ritually burned (that is when BJP was in power, in 2001). Failing to get it printed from Delhi by either CB publishers or Matrix Publishers, Jha felt that a “self appointed custodian of ‘Hinduism’” has sentenced him to death. Finally, Mr Tariq Ali and Verso books came to his rescue and helped him publish the book offshore, outside the jurisdiction of the Indian government. Even though the book claims to have generated as much controversy as The Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie, it’s not known whether, being caught in possession of the book can lead to a serious offence. Interestingly, only the second Verso edition of the book is available in the reference section of libraries around the country. First hand copies are few and possessively treasured in personal collections.

Golwalkar’s call for a national ban on cow slaughter still rings true as various Hindutva forces mobilize themselves against Dalits found in possession of cow hides or even a live cow. This happens on the belief of Hindus uniting for a common ideal of patriotism, and the Jha’s book attacks right at the root of it. Identity politics has confused our notion of raising arms against a fellow being. The Jhajjar killings of October 2002 are not a solitary incident, riots by the Namdhari sect in 1870’s, communal riots in 1880’s, 1890’s, 1970’s justify that 14.39% of the cases of communal violence in India, is due to cow slaughter. The masses would have succumbed to Jha’s theories completely and questioned the Hindutva forces, if not for other scholars rising against the contents of his book.

Even though the Indologists were the first few people to scientifically lay down the history of India, today their works are under the scanner, on grounds of authenticity. Their factual inaccuracies and ignorance of Indian customs and traditions has almost stigmatized every Western Scholar who tries to work on India’s “silent and evasive pasts”(Nandy). In recent times, Paul Courtright, Wendy Doniger, J. W. Laine, no one has escaped the wrath of the mob. Unfortunately, D. N. Jha has been accused of citing from Western scholars’ translation of Hindu texts and he has failed to provide a just counter argument. Even though some of the translations from Sanskrit to English were done by him, he did rely heavily on Max Mueller and P. V. Kane’s texts. One of his most acerbic crtics, B. D. Ukhul says:

Twelfth mantra [of the Rigveda] emphasizes on the qualities of the warrior and its translation is as follows:

They who crave for the meat of a horse and declare the horse fit to be killed should be exterminated. Those who keep the fast horse well trained and disciplined deserve to be praised by us for the strength of their character and perseverance. (IT CLEARLY DEMOLISHES THE THESIS OF JHA AND PROVES THAT HE HAS MERELY QUOTED CITATIONS AND HARDLY CARED TO LOOK AT THE ACTUAL TEXT BUT INSPIRED BY THE FOLLOWING TRANSLATION OF WILSON):
“Let their exertions be for our good who watch the cooking of the horse; who say, it is fragrant; therefore give us some: who solicit the flesh of the horse as alms”. (WHAT AN IMMENSE DAMAGE TO THE SPIRIT OF THE MANTRA).

Jha is accused of being unaware of the interpolations and inflexions of Sanskrit to translate the texts for himself and verify his claims. A single word could have multiple meanings and Hindutva scholars ask for a spiritual, personal interpretation of the text. This again questions the function of texts like Dharmasutras, Grhyasutras whose primary purpose was to instruct in the day to day activities of a common man in Ancient India.

Interestingly these arguments never arose before the book was banned by an elected government in what is meant to be a democratic polity. The BJP government did not institute a committee to look into the factual correctness of Jha’ argument and pronounced its judgment, keeping with the popular sentiments. The proceedings of the Civil Court in Hyderabad are not available to the public. The freedom to hold an intellectual debate in an atmosphere of uncensored thought and in the spirit of rational enquiry, was largely found missing. On the other hand, Jha is not sitting still and is raring to take a pot shot at politicised religious beliefs with his forthcoming book on the adulterous gods and their inebriated women (Reddy).


[1] “Fundamentalism is the upholder of status quo and while defending its own version of religious faith, it has its eyes on a larger objective of capturing state power.” For further elucidation of this view point see Kumar.

[2] Exterior to Australia, totemic institutions were found and are still observed among North American Indians, as well as among the races of the Polynesian Islands Group, in East India, and in a large part of Africa.” Firstly, when it comes to economic growth, we are far ahead of all the Australian aborigines, African tribes or races of Polynesia, yet our governance remains enshrouded in totemic customs. Secondly, I am deliberately shelving aside the inherently sexual implications of totemism, as it is irrelevant to my present discussion. (Freud.)

[3] Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill. Our mother when she dies means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when alive.(Gandhi)


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< congress-nation-at-a-glance-and-ram-rajya/>

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