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Of dead cows and Dalits: Revisiting Babasaheb Ambedkar's inconvenient history of caste conversion

"He saw the universal brotherhood of Islam uniting just Muslims. He was critical of the spirit of aggression of political Islam that takes advantage of the weakness of Hindus and follows gangsterism," declared Prafulla Ketkar, editor of the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, expounding on his publication's controversial edition commemorating BR Ambedkar's 124th birth anniversary.

Ketkar went on to claim that Ambedkar supported 'reconversion', saying, "In a way, he also supported ghar wapsi. That he converted to Buddhism after Gandhi's death and as per his promise to Gandhiji chose the religion closest to Hinduism after giving a lot of time to Hindu society."

 Of dead cows and Dalits: Revisiting Babasaheb Ambedkars inconvenient history of caste conversion

Reuters image.

The attempt of the RSS to focus on Ambedkar's purported disdain for Islam, of course, diverts attention from his withering analysis of Hinduism, the pathetic social status it accords to Dalits, and the legitimising of their exploitation. It also elides the reasons why Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, and inspired a segment of Mahars in Maharashtra to convert to do the same in 1956.

Through conversion, Dr Ambedkar subtly sought to overturn the centuries-old triumph of Brahmanism over Buddhism, the consequence of which he thought was Hinduism as we know it today – and which he ultimately rejected. For the RSS bosses wishing to reconfigure Ambedkar’s thoughts through an undue emphasis on just an aspect of his prodigious writings, it might make tremendous sense to read his The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why they Became Untouchables?

From dead cow to sacred cow

Reading Ambedkar's writing will be particularly edifying for the RSS bosses who are currently spearheading the movement to expand the ban on cow slaughter to include bullocks and oxen, besides imposing punishment for its violation far more severe than what even committing of social crimes invite. The ban on cattle-slaughter, as we all know, has been justified because it is said to hurt the sentiments of all Hindus.

However, in The Untouchables, Ambedkar’s analysis links the untouchable status of certain castes to their eating of the dead cow. This became a marker of untouchability because of the historical process through which the consumption of beef became a religious taboo.

As Dr Ambedkar writes, “… If beef-eating had remained a secular affair – a mere matter of individual taste – such a bar between those who ate beef and those who did not would not have arisen. Unfortunately beef-eating, instead of being treated as a purely secular matter, was made a matter of religion. This happened because the Brahmins made the cow a sacred animal. This made beef-eating a sacrilege.”

In contrast to the extant RSS commentary claiming that the cow had been a sacred animal for all Hindus from time immemorial, Dr Ambedkar cites from innumerable ancient texts to show otherwise. “In Rig Veda (X. 86.14) Indira 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 an axe.”

He quotes Taittiriya Brahmana to show it described even the kind of cows and oxen to be sacrificed for different 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 Pushan; a red cow to Rudra; and so on,” Dr Ambedkar writes.

He also records a fact which is well known – the killing of cow in honour of the guest had become so rampant that it inspired the synonym of go-ghna, or the killer of the cow, to describe him. The Ashvalayana Grahya Sutra, he says, advises people to let loose their cows to evade adhering to the social norm demanding they be slaughtered at the arrival of guests.

Perhaps feeding beef to guests became a binding socio-cultural norm because the performance of religious rituals included sacrificing the cow. For the non-Brahmins, however, the cow was a prohibitively expensive animal, sacrificed to propitiate deities only on special occasions.

“But the case with the Brahmin was different,” Dr Ambedkar notes. “In a period overridden by ritualism there was hardly a day on which there was no cow sacrifice to which the Brahmin was not invited by some non-Brahmin. For the Brahmin every day was a beef-steak day.” Considering the grip of Brahmins over the society, and the importance of the cow in the agrarian economy then, it was only natural for societal reaction to set in.

Buddhist roots of the beef ban

This reaction against the Brahmin facilitated the rise of Buddhism, which, contrary to the popular belief in India, did not ban cow-slaughter, but imposed certain restrictions on it – that is, what was needless and unnecessary. Since Buddhism was opposed to the extreme, suffocating ritualism of the Brahmin, the practice of cow-slaughter began to wane.

However, Buddhism did allow people to eat beef, not even banning it for Buddhist monks. Dr Ambedkar quotes the Chinese traveller Yuan Chwang to say the Buddhist monks were disallowed to eat the flesh of those animals “which they had seen put to death for them, or about which they had been told that it had been slain for them… (or) not suspected by them to have been on their account.” Barring these three types – described, rather evocatively, as “unseen, unheard, unsuspected” – they could otherwise eat meat of any animal, including of those which died naturally or was killed by a predatory creature.

The rise and consolidation of Buddhism dethroned the Brahmins, so to speak, from their pedestal of prestige, prompting them to rethink the strategies to re-establish their supremacy. The mere banning of animal sacrifice for religious purposes wouldn’t have sufficed, Dr Ambedkar speculates, because it would have only put them on par with the Buddhist monks. The Brahmin’s goal, he argues, was to occupy the place of honour the Buddhist monk had acquired by “their opposition to the killing of the cow for sacrificial purposes.”

Dr Ambedkar goes on to write, “To achieve their purpose the Brahmins had to adopt the usual tactics of a reckless adventurer… It is the strategy which all rightists use to overcome the leftists. The only way to beat the Buddhists was to go a step further and be vegetarians.” Thus, the practice of cow-slaughter was abandoned and vegetarianism began to be considered virtuous.

As Hinduism began to stage a comeback and Brahmins started to again enjoy royal patronage, the cow acquired a sacred status, its killing deemed a sacrilege. “Cow-killing was made a mortal sin or a capital offence by the Gupta kings who were champions of Hinduism,” notes Dr Ambedkar. He quotes historian D.R. Bhandarkar, who in his Some Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture cites a copper plate inscription, dated 465 AD and belonging to Skandagupta’s reign, which equates gau-hatya, or cow-slaughter, with brahma-hatya, or the slaying of a Brahmin. This equivalence is more or less echoed in an earlier inscription of 412 AD. It was from then on cow-slaughter began to be considered a mortal sin.

Beef becomes a caste marker

Barring the untouchable castes, why did other non-Brahmins forsake beef? Ambedkar says it was because inferior classes tend to imitate the lifestyle of superior classes – which the Brahmin had become at least from the Gupta period. He goes on to ask a pertinent question: Why did the untouchable castes not give up eating beef? Incidentally, Ambedkar refers to them as the Broken Men, or tribes which were vanquished and routed and compelled to live outside the villages.

Dr Ambedkar says these castes, or the Broken Men, were too penurious to slaughter cows for their consumption. They, perforce, had to eat the flesh of cows which died naturally. When cow-slaughter was proscribed and declared sacrilegious, the Broken Men were allowed to consume the flesh of the dead cow – after all, they were eating what they had not killed, but had died naturally. It did not flout the violation of the ban. The meat of dead cow given to them free was, and still remains in large parts of India, their principal food of sustenance.

In fact, Ambedkar says castes such as the Mahars traditionally enjoyed the right to remove and carry away dead cows from the houses of those who owned them. But what was once a privilege became an obligation, says Ambedkar. He observes, “As they could not escape carrying the dead cow they did not mind using the flesh as food in the manner in which they were doing previously.”

Obviously, obligations almost always have the force of sanction. There is inherent compulsion built into this system. Ambedkar notes perspicaciously, “There is no community which is really an Untouchable community which has not something to do with the dead cow. Some eat her flesh, some remove the skin, some manufacture articles out of her skin and bones.”

Obviously, beef isn’t a taboo for Dalits even today. The inclusion of cattle in the market economy – to be sold, bought, and slaughtered – the increase in cattle population, the consequent cheaper price at which its meat can be purchased, are all factors why Dalits wouldn’t hesitate to consume beef.

This is why the RSS-inspired ban on cow-slaughter remains as much a cultural imposition as it was centuries ago. Just as the Gupta dynasty harnessed their power in the fifth century to declare the killing of cow as a mortal sin or fit for capital punishment, so is the RSS exploiting the BJP’s majority at the Centre to expand the ban on cow-slaughter to include the bull and the bullock.

In this endeavour to further its cultural project, Ambedkar’s writings become an obstacle difficult to surmount. It just suits the RSS to project him as anti-Muslim, forgetting his defining interest was to guide the Dalits to walk the path most favourable to their interests. Islam and Hinduism were weeds or, at best, irrelevant overgrowth slowing the march of Dalits to win honour, respect and, above all, their rights.

(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores. Email:

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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2015 13:39:15 IST