Dr Ambedkar: Satapatha Brahmana and Apastamba Dharma Sutra merely exhorted against excesses of cow killing

ambedkarApart from being a relentless campaigner against casteism and untouchability, Dr BR Ambedkar was also a great researcher. Below we reproduce one of his brilliant essays, ‘Did the Hindus Never Eat Beef?’* to show how deeply he understood the ancient Indian texts in order to point towards the fact that Hindus indeed ate beef. Not only does he quote from the Vedas and the Brahmanas but also from the Buddhist Sutras to say that the “scale on which the slaughter of cows and animals took place was colossal”.  

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; V11.69. 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 V1.28.1.8. 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). Reliance is also placed on certain passages in the Brahmanas and Sutras.

There are two passages in the Satapatha Brahmana which relate to animal sacrifice and beef-eating. One is at 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 spoke, ‘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 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 veneration 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” (Dharma Shastra Vichar in Marathi, p. 180).

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 is 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 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 hump-less, dwarf bulls, and as many dwarf heifers under three year old.

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 15, 14, 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 description 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.l3 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.L, 12, 10-12 gives 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), Saurnya (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.l.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 cow’s flesh.

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 Ashvateyana 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 says (Kane’s vol. II, Part I, p. 545.):

  1. He should then put the following (sacrificial) implements (on the dead body)
  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 laddles called Sruvas.
  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) are put.
  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.
  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 Veda, X. 16.8).
  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 burned.

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 (111,1-9) 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 also beef.

*B. R. Ambedkar, ‘Did the Hindus never eat beef?’ in “The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?” in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol 7, (Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1990, first edition 1948) pp 323-328. Source: countercurrents.org


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