”Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions,” is a dry work of historiography buttressed by a 24-page bibliography and hundreds of footnotes citing ancient Sanskrit texts. It’s the sort of book, in other words, that typically is read by a handful of specialists and winds up forgotten on a library shelf.
But when its author, Dwijendra Narayan Jha, a historian at the University of Delhi, tried to publish the book in India a year ago, he unleashed a furor of a kind not seen there since 1989, when the release of ”Satanic Verses,” Salman Rushdie’s novel satirizing Islam, provoked rioting and earned him a fatwa from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
As Mr. Jha’s book was going to press last August, excerpts were posted on the Internet and picked up by newspapers. Within days the book had been canceled by Mr. Jha’s academic publisher, burned outside his home by religious activists and — after a second publisher tried to print it — banned by a Hyderabad civil court. A spokesman for the World Hindu Council called it ”sheer blasphemy.” A former member of Parliament petitioned the government for Mr. Jha’s arrest. Anonymous callers made death threats. And for 10 months Mr. Jha was obliged to travel to and from campus under police escort.
After months of legal wrangling, Mr. Jha’s lawyers succeeded in having the ban lifted this spring. And now his book has been published in Britain and the United States by Verso, with a new preface and a more provocative title: ”The Myth of the Holy Cow.” But though copies have been shipped to India, few bookstores there are likely to stock it.
His offense? To say what scholars have long known to be true: early Hindus ate beef.
Mr. Jha says his book has become a casualty of the culture wars that have plagued India since the hard-line Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took office five years ago. ”The battle lines are drawn very clearly,” he said. ”On one side of the barricade are the ideas of cultural pluralism, rationality and democratic values. On the other side are Hindu fundamentalism and cultural nationalism.”
Under this government, scholars and journalists say, history books have been rewritten and occasionally censored. Two years ago, for example, a multivolume project on the history of Indian independence sponsored by the Indian Council of Historical Research was scuttled by government officials who apparently deemed its scope too liberal.
In a telephone interview from his home in New Delhi, Mr. Jha said, ”The prohibition on beef-eating has been made a mark of Hindu identity, but this is historically not true.”
Anyone who has tried to navigate India’s cow-choked streets knows the special status conferred on the beast by Hindus, who make up more than 80 percent of the population. Gandhi referred to the cow as ”our mother,” calling cattle protection ”the central fact of Hinduism.” And in several Indian states killing a cow is against the law.
But while cow veneration and vegetarianism may be the hallmarks of Hinduism today, Mr. Jha compiles copious evidence that this has hardly always been the case. Citing sources ranging from the ancient sacred scriptures, the Vedas (circa 1000 B.C.), to Sanskrit epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (200 B.C to A.D. 200) as well as data from archaeological digs, Mr. Jha contends that ”the ‘holiness’ of the cow is a myth and that its flesh was very much a part of the early Indian nonvegetarian food regimen and dietary traditions.”
Not only were oxen and other animals offered as sacrifices to the Vedic gods, he writes, they were routinely eaten by mere mortals as well.
One religious text declares meat to be quite simply ”the best kind of food,” while another captures Yajnavalkya, a revered Vedic sage who lived around 500 B.C., confessing to a particular weakness for beef. ”Some people do not eat cow meat,” he is quoted as saying. ”I do so, provided it’s tender.”
Meanwhile, the Mahabharata recounts the story of King Rantiveda, who earned his renown by slaughtering 2,000 cows a day in his royal kitchens and distributing beef along with grain to apparently grateful Brahmins, the Hindu priests.
Even the Buddha, on record as opposing animal killing for either food or sacrifice, was apparently not above the occasional carnivorous nibble. Mr. Jha cites passages from early Buddhist texts suggesting not only that the Buddha ate meat but that a meal of contaminated pork may ultimately have been what did him in. (Mr. Jha dismisses a dissenting interpretation that the offending food was not pork but mushroom.)
None of this, scholars say, is news. In a recent review in The Times Literary Supplement, Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, called Mr. Jha’s book ”a dry, straight academic survey . . . proving what every scholar of India has known for well over a century.”
”This is not ‘Satanic Verses,’ ” Ms. Doniger added in a telephone interview. ”This is just a relatively intelligent, academic book. It doesn’t depict Hindus as horrible people.”
Indeed, until the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, said Michael Witzel, a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, much of the history Mr. Jha records was taught in Indian schools.