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Historians did 'dig out' ancient Hindus, Buddhists ate beef. But early Jains? Well, well

By Rajiv Shah/ I was greatly amused the other day when I found a Facebook friend, Rajiv Tyagi, a former Indian Air Force squadron, sharing a post which quotes historian DN Jha to say that “beef-eating habits of ancient Hindus, Buddhists and even early Jains.” This, the post said, finds reflected in the book titled “Holy Cow – Beef in Indian Dietary Conditions.”
I know, several historians have earlier said that ancient Hindus and Buddhists would eat beef. But Jains? I got interested in it, and sent a message to Tyagi, wondering if I could be turn this into a news for Counterview. He said, yet I could, but he had taken his post from somewhere else, probably an interview, and he didn’t have the exact URL.
Hence, I decided to search the web to find out whether this was true. The article quoting Jha was first published in the “Outlook” magazine, way back in 2001. While “Outlook” has kept the article “locked” – which you can readd only if you offer a subscription rate – it has been republished in “Though and Action”, in the site run by Maharashtra Andhrashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, an anti-superstition body.
Authored by Sheela Reddy, I found, the very same article has found its way as part of several other articles under the header “Beef Eating in Ancient India” in archive.org, which is perhaps one of the best repositories of anything that may have been published so far, often offering publications in text format. The motto of archive.org is, information should be freely accessible.
Be that as it may, even as the book was published in 2001, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad exhorted its cadre to confiscate and burn its copies. BJP followed suit, with one of its MPs, RS Rawat, writing to the Union home minister (I think he was LK Advani) demanding not only a ban on the book but also the arrest and prosecution of its author and CB Publishers.
And, to quote from the Facebook post, “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.”
The post (a copy paste, surely) says, “Jha's interest in dietary history began a few years ago after reading French historian Fernand Braudel's history of early modern European diet. But he soon became intrigued by the beef-eating habits of Indians which existed in Rig Vedic times and continued till the 19th century and after, despite repeated Brahminical injunctions against cow-killing.”
It continues, “That ancient Hindus, including Brahmins, were beef-eaters, willing to incur the minor penalty that an agrarian society began imposing on cow-killers, and that this fondness for cattle meat had nothing to do with Islam or Christianity came neither as a shock nor surprise to this unconventional Brahmin, whose first name Dwijendra means ‘the holiest of Brahmins’.”
"No serious historian, not even 'Hindu' ones like RC Majumdar or KM Munshi, has ever disputed that ancient Hindus ate beef," Jha is quoted as saying. The pontinues, “However, convinced that repeated Brahminical injunctions not to kill cows reflected a popular proclivity for beef, Jha went further and unearthed irrefutable evidence of cow slaughter and consumption by Hindus of all classes, including Brahmins, until as late as the 19th century.”
According to the post, “The cow as a sacred animal, Jha believes, did not really gain currency until Dayanand Saraswati's cow protection movement in the 19th century. The cow became a tool of mass political mobilisation with the organised cow-protection movement, the historian points out. The killing of cows stopped gradually with the agrarian society and caste rigidity.
The post continues: Buddhists, Jha claims, citing canonical texts like Mahaparinibbana Sutta and Anguttara Nikaya, also ate beef and other meat. "In fact, the Buddha died after eating a meal of pork," he says. "Vegetarianism was not a viable option for Buddhist monks in a society that loved meat of all kinds – pig, rhinoceros, cow, buffalo, fish, snake, birds, including crows and peacocks. Only camel and dog meat was taboo in India."
“Similarly”, the post says “With the early Jains... Citing the Bhagavatisutra, Jha points out that Mahavira once ate a chicken meal to gain strength for a yogic battle with an adversary. "His only condition was to ask the woman who cooked the meal to find a chicken already killed by a cat instead of slaughtering a fresh one," says Jha. "This has upset the Jains, but why are they not upset with the texts that carry these stories? I found these in bookstores run by devout Jain booksellers like Motilal Banarsidass and Sohanlal Jain Dharam Pracharak Samiti."

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