The Myth of the Holy Cow

D.N. Jha

Verso 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009
Cows have not always been sacred in India: in ancient times cow sacrifice and beef-eating were widespread. The Myth of the Holy Cow presents the evidence for this and traces how it changed, setting the sacredness of cows in the context of more general strictures against killing and meat-eating.

Jha begins with the Indo-European background, the Vedic texts, and archaeology: "the Vedic references to cattle flesh as an important dietary item tie up very well with archaeological evidence". The Upanishads offer suggestions for ritual substitution, with some questioning of the efficacy of animal sacrifice.

Buddhism rejected sacrifice and its ahimsa doctrine prohibited killing, but theoretical debates persisted and meat-eating remained common. "The prohibition of killing was carried to its extreme and the ahimsa doctrine was practised much more vigorously in Jainism". But neither faith held the cow as sacred.

The law books of Manu, Yajnvalkya and others discuss lawful and forbidden foods. Manu "exempts the camel from being killed for food, but does not grant this privilege to the cow"; and in general ritual cow slaughter is not considered killing. Jha also considers evidence from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics and from medical and astrological texts.

The Brahmanical rejection of cow killing started to develop around the middle of the first millennium AD. But "commentaries and religious digests from the ninth century onwards keep alive the memory of the archaic practice of beef eating and some of them even go so far as to permit beef in specific circumstances". The kali age had to be distinguished from earlier ages. When it came to purity and impurity, there was a paradoxical contradiction between the purity of the products of the cow and the impurity of its mouth.

There are extensive notes to each chapter in addition to a large bibliography. Along with the indices and other accessory material, this leaves just eighty pages of actual text, making The Myth of the Holy Cow more of a long essay than a monograph. Even with the references consigned to the notes, the density of sources, terminology and so forth may be daunting for readers unfamiliar with the Indian traditions.

A brief introduction considers the political status of cow veneration as a tenet of modern fundamentalist Hinduism, while the back cover proudly announces the book's banning in Hyderabad. The Myth of the Holy Cow is not a polemic, however, but a scholarly history of attitudes to meat-eating and cows in South Asia, of interest outside the context of Indian politico-religious debates.

December 2009

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%T The Myth of the Holy Cow
%A Jha, D.N.
%I Verso
%D 2002
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1859844243
%P 183pp