Beef politics and religion: Why the idea needs to go beyond just cow protection

To posit the ban on beef as something imposed only by a Brahmin caste on society is unfortunate. There is a strong case for providing all animals the protection from an over-expanding animal husbandry industry and excessive meat-eating

hidden October 23, 2015 13:30:36 IST
Beef politics and religion: Why the idea needs to go beyond just cow protection

By Deepika Ahlawat

Walking down Piccadilly the other day, I saw a strident protest outside the Japanese embassy against that country’s slaughter of dolphins. Now this is the kind of protest, I thought, as I accepted sundry leaflets, which would also find a great deal of support in Indian media. The dolphin is such a fashionable animal to support — it is streamlined and elegant, supposedly a possessor of almost human intelligence, and the country that kills them for commercial purposes is isolated and developed enough to be made into an unproblematic ideological adversary. The dolphin’s cause is a safe cause.

Unlike the cow, which is distinctly non-streamlined, does humongous shits, is frightfully common, and tastes very good to the great many people who eat it. The cow’s cause, for all its sacredness, must surely be a bleak one.

Beef politics and religion Why the idea needs to go beyond just cow protection

Representational image. Reuters

Beef politics must be discussed in the context of a wider paradigm of clash of religious ideas, particularly of monotheistic with polytheistic ones. To do this objectively is virtually impossible: religious indoctrination, after all, is a primary from of social engagement, both for its adherents and for its discontents and rebels.

The first few centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era saw the Roman Empire locked in a vicious battle between paganism and Christianity. Both groups assumed the identities of persecutor and persecuted, depending on which group had political patronage at a given time. The last heyday of the pagans came under Julian the Apostate (r. 361-363 CE) who renounced the Christian identity of his youth and resumed Imperial patronage of the ancient gods and their philosophers until his death at the hands of the Sassanids.

The pagan position was represented by the philosophers of the Neoplatonist school, including Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. The last of these, a favourite of Julian and descended from royal priests, was deeply invested in the intellectual systems of classical pagan philosophy and its patrons. He proposed an influential theological model in which theurgy and the priesthood played an important part in connecting man to the divine.

In this new theology, ritual and revealed scripture superseded philosophy as the desired practice of the elite to enact religion or attain spiritual understanding. This Neoplatonist cosmology, far from deriving from Socratic dialectics, relied on prescriptive theology and its priests to compete against the Church and its interlocutors. Iamblichus thus transmuted paganism into just another sort of Christianity, and set the stage for the victory of the pale Galilean, perhaps even more than the death of Julian. But Christianity, having had lesser time to fracture, dissipate and dilute, was simpler, had more comprehensive and uniform theological constructs and jurisprudence, and provided stronger group identities. Paganism simply could not compete.

And so the reign of Hecate ended soon after Julian, as his successors resumed their patronage of Christianity, which held largely uncontested sway in the eastern empire until it was challenged by Islam in the eighth century.


Nietzsche’s vivid prose exposed the power of the priest in Christianity, but the parasitic priesthood is a universal phenomenon. This priestly class, the universal Brahmins as it were, created rationales and narratives of justification for those in power. Their own power, less risky and obvious than those of the rulers, was comparatively banal and quotidian, and yet more pervasive and better entrenched. It was also, unless specifically sought out, invisible, and yet replete with everyday influence, making them the fiercest stake-holders in the regimes they created, justified and maintained.

Just as Iamblichus sought the authority of scripture in the writings of Plato and in the mystical revelations of the Chaldean Oracles, Hindu Puranic texts also assumed revelatory antecedents in a world where they had to compete with later religious movements. Privileged groups used the authority of scripture to perpetuate exploitation of vulnerable groups like women and Dalits. As Hinduism formed and reformed with time, the priesthood continued, despite the lack of a central church, to shape it as a tool for their own power.

Many passages in the Manu Smriti, or Manav Dharma Shastra, for example (which came to be considered a key revelatory scripture) are concerned solely with the preservation and benefit of the Brahmin varna. Like most texts written in the past, the Manu Smriti is now anachronistic and many of its passages are offensive in today’s moral and ethical universe even to practising Hindus. However, far from being a guiding text for today’s Hindus, its contents, despite being more easily accessible than ever before, are known to few, and adhered to by fewer.The rejection of ideas from key texts is not a modern, ‘rational’ one—Abu’l Fazl notes how inter-varna marriage, conditionally permissible in Manav Dharma Shastra, was a discontinued practice even in the 16th century.

Modern debates on religion tend to reduceit to a division between the rational and irrational. This is simplistic and erroneous: religion, as can be seen by a survey of the classical philosophy of the pagans, or indeed in the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths, represents mankind’s earliest attempts to understand the world and to give it order. That man’s nature also seems inevitably to lead to the hijacking of these meta-narratives by the order of priests and their patrons is a separate issue - it should not take away from the truth of the first assertion.To, therefore, dismiss all religious belief as irrational and disposable just because it comes from a religious stable is both short-sighted and irrational.

Hinduism as a religion, philosophy and lifestyle has its intellectual roots in the first awareness that mankind had of its self-identification as a conscious and intelligent species, at its wonder at being able to imagine a future, and to be able to grapple with cause and consequence. Dating from the earliest coalescing of civilisation, it holds within it, albeit in a massively edited form, our species’ first understanding of settlement and community, and of our first social contract.

It holds within it the covenant of wonder that we had with nature, the covenant that allowed us to marvel at reproduction, to see the vagina, womb, and penis as wondrous things, and to celebrate life that we alone amongst all the animals could observe not just with instinct but with intellect.

It also marks the mutualistic relationship between two species, where one gives up its milk to feed the young of another. This wondrous covenant dating from when our ancestors first began to practice animal husbandry and live in settled communities evolved into the complex theosophy of the sacred cow.

We are so inured to animal exploitation today that we can barely appreciate the profundity of this first act of domestication, and so it survives in only in a symbolic, ill-understood form as a religious edict.   Of course, in an animal husbandry-led economy, cows also became currency and important commodities in ritual gift exchange, and as carriers of symbolic power and meaning for the priesthood. Their sacredness within this matrix of meaning is equivalent to the deification of some humans to Messianic status within other religious groups. Yet the dismissal of pagan spiritual beliefs as somehow being less logical than the spiritual beliefs of revealed religions is extremely widespread, and is perhaps best illustrated by the story of Thor’s Oak.

In the eighth century, Winfrid, later Bishop Boniface, cut down Thor’s Oak in modern day Germany,to demonstrate the powerlessness of pagan gods. Thor’s priests warned that the cutting down of the holy tree would lead to the end of the world, but Boniface, drunk in the power of his faith, chopped it down anyway. The world didn’t end, but northern Europe entered the age of Christianity and with it a homocentric conception of the world that gave man leave to exploit nature without consequences.

Worryingly, it is this seemingly secular and rational intellectual environment - embodied in the invisible, normative Protestant ideal - that decrees the protection of life and ideas of non-violence as a fundamentalist, and irrational, creed.

Whether or not one considers the killing of a cow (or another animal which loves, feeds and grieves for its young in much the same way that humans do) as abhorrent, and even if our stake in this debate is completely selfish, based only on the survival and welfare of our own species, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that a meat and dairy-based diet for the current human population is environmentally catastrophic. See collated figures for animal husbandry here (


In a world that is richer than ever, with a smaller proportion of its population living in poverty than ever before, consumption based on economic restriction and access, which capitalism has trained us to see as natural and fair, is increasingly unsustainable. Our very success as a species means that we may need to revert to an updated Hobbesian social contract, which involves individuals giving up certain freedoms in order to live in a sustainable community.

If the prophecy of Thor’s Oak is not to come to pass, we, and our governments, must collectively bear the burden of being a species that is seven billion strong.

Meat eating at excessive and unsustainable levels of today will need to be tackled in the near future by governments. The state will indeed need to monitor our plate, just as it monitors our consumption of drugs, stimulants and intoxicants, and the enforcement of its laws. This rationing, or taxation, will be an unpopular decision, and will be opposed by the shrill voices of those who seek to disguise their personal hedonism as the politics of individual liberty.

Driven by the proven health and environmental benefits of a reduced meat diet, even predominantly meat-eating countries like the UAE and Japan, and many developed countries, have begun to engagewith social media initiatives to reduce meat consumption (see

That these initiatives should have no voice in the beef debate in India is telling. Also telling is that the eating of beef should be publicised as a ritual act of protest against the criminals who commit murder on those suspected of killing cows.

Can Hindu ideas regarding a cow-based economy be transported wholesale into an overpopulated, resource scarce world? No. Breeding cattle for milk is almost as harmful to the environment as breeding them for meat, and without the designated common pasture for grazing in the past, is cruel for cattle who must either lead lives bound to a stake or foraging in dirty urban environments. A sustainable and ethical future, therefore, will need a phasing out of animal husbandry, and the designation of animal products as luxuries rather than staples, reflecting their true environmental cost, so that, unlike today, milk is not available at the same price as bottled water.

But can Indic ideas regarding universal compassion and a non-homocentric cosmology be used to formulate a plan for a new world? Absolutely, yes.

India’s leadership, rather than pitching for a beef ban merely as a salve to religious sentiment, should pitch it instead as a practical solution to pressing current problems. It is true that India does not have a wholly vegetarian population, but it is equally true that it does have a large population which is. The government needs to draw upon the country’s past and the empirical evidence of large populations that have lived and flourished on a meat-free diet for centuries, and the rich plant-based cuisine and lifestyle generated by this precedence. In this, India may indeed be a jagat guru, and provide a way forward where the world can follow.

Those that seek to reduce vegetarianism to an upper class Dharmic ideal are invested in an old social order. Those that make them refuse to accept the possibility of change - the poster Dalit who eats the occasional chicken today “”as a cheap source of protein” is, to them, a perpetual pauvre from a Marxist visioning of an unchangeable India. This visioning is intentupon keeping the poor forever poor and marginalised, and thus in perpetual need of the social activist interlocutor - the modern priesthood, which, like its religious counterparts, serves no cause except its own.

These are people whose position is most challenged by a changing political regime, and it is they who will dig their heels in the hardest to avoid change and to keep their priestly powers intact.

The author is a Hindu vegan

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