Beef Controversy: Origins of beef consumption in India


By Nithin Sridhar

An Analysis of Hindu Symbols and Practices: Part 5

In the previous two parts (here and here), it was established how, contrary to current assertions, cow slaughter was neither widely prevalent among ancient Hindus nor were they practiced for the purpose of consumption. Further, it was shown how cows were held sacred and were declared ‘inviolable’.

So naturally, the next question that arises is: how and when did the consumption of beef originate in India? This is a complicated question which does not have any single definite answer. Yet, we can see how the consumption of beef has risen and fallen among certain sections of the Indian society over the last two millenniums.

Beef consumption and untouchability

In the current discourse of beef consumption, beef is almost always linked with Dalits and Muslims. It is widely held that Dalits have historically consumed beef and even today most of them continue to practice it. Hence, it is argued that any action aimed at protecting the cows is anti-Dalit.

Though it is true that a section of Indian society that includes members of Muslim, Dalit, tribal, and upper caste Hindu communities do consume beef today, the assertion that the majority of Dalits consumes beef and deem it a necessity is mostly hearsay and/or propaganda.

A recent mapping of the food habits of Dalit communities published by Swarajya Magazine clearly shows that though 80% of the Dalit communities are meat eaters, they discourage beef.

It further notes that, in states like Uttar Pradesh, over 75% of Dalit communities discourage beef consumption, though they eat meat. This raises serious questions regarding the portrayal of beef as being an integral part of Dalit life in present society.

But, there is a merit in the argument that beef consumption has been historically associated with Dalit communities. For example, the Mahar community in Maharashtra had an exclusive right over the dead animals including cows.


Tracing the origin of untouchability to the practice of beef consumption, Dr. Ambedkar, in his book “The Untouchables Volume 1” says: “The Brahmins made the cow a sacred animal. This made beef-eating a sacrilege. The Broken Men being guilty of committing sacrilege necessarily became beyond the pale of society.” He then builds up his case about how and when untouchability arose from beef eating.

He says that Untouchability is completely absent in not only Vedas but also in Dharma Sutras and in Manu and other Smritis. He further points out that the first proper account of untouchability was given by Chinese traveler Yuan Chwang who had come to India in 629 AD.

From this, Dr. Ambedkar concludes that Untouchability must have originated between 200 AD (approximate date he fixes for Manu Smriti) and 600 AD. He further traces the roots of the Untouchability to the complete prohibition of cow slaughter and the declaration of Gohatya (killing of the cow) as being equal to Brahmana-Hatya (killing of a Brahmin) during the Gupta rule in the 5th century.

He thus summarizes that, though Vedic Hindus had consumed beef, after the advent of Buddhism, the Brahmins and other upper classes adopted vegetarianism and the cow was made into a sacred animal. This transition was complete by the time of the Guptas, after which, those communities who continued their practices of eating beef were branded untouchables.

Though Dr. Ambedkar is right in his proposition that Untouchability is rooted in beef consumption, he is wrong in his assumption that beef consumption was prevalent in Vedic times and even the Brahmins used to consume beef for the sake of taste.

In the previous two articles, it has been clearly established that the Cow was considered ‘inviolable’ in the Vedas itself and only during Yajnas, Marriage and other such spiritual occasions, were the sacrifice of cows allowed. Even during those occasions, in all probability, the actual quantity of beef consumed as ‘Prasada’ (sacred food) was very small. Further, even Dharma Sutras affirm that sacrifice of cows is permitted only during those spiritual occasions.

Also, contrary to the assertions of Dr. Ambedkar that it was probably in the post-Manu period, especially during the Gupta period that cow slaughtering and beef consumption was made sacrilegious. We find that in Vedas itself, injunctions that say killers of cows must be punished (Rig-Veda– 10.87.16) are present. Manu-Smriti (11.59) also includes killing of cows under “Upapataka” (secondary crime).

It must be noted that the usage of ‘secondary’ to denote killing of the cow does not mean it was insignificant. It only means that crimes, which were of lesser magnitude when compared to the five main sins that were branded as “Mahapataka” were called as ‘Upapataka’. It’s similar to the current practice of listing crimes, according to their severity and magnitude. One such list, for example, may contain rape at the first spot and groping and eve-teasing at the fifth spot, but this will not mean that groping and eve-teasing are acceptable or that they are ‘lesser crimes’ than rape.

Similarly, though it is true that during the rule of the Guptas in the 5th century, the offense of cow killing was raised from being a secondary crime to being equal to the killing of a Brahmin, this in itself does not mean that the cow was considered less sacred before.

Instead, it points towards a possibility that, certain communities who never consumed beef during early Vedic or Smriti period, may have slowly started consuming beef in a large manner. This in turn must have caused the elevation cow-slaughter to the level of ‘Mahapataka’.

Thus, we can safely conclude that the present practice of beef consumption that is observed among certain Dalit communities originated around 5th century during Gupta period and not before it.

Beef Consumption and Islamic Invasion

Another community that is closely associated with beef consumption is the Muslim community. Though, it is often argued that Beef eating is integral to the Islamic way of life and any attempt at banning beef will be an infringement on the freedom of religion of the Muslims, a thorough analysis reveals that this is not the case.

Dr. Ambedkar writes: “Islamic law does not insist upon the slaughter of the cow for sacrificial purposes and no Musalman, when he goes to Haj, sacrifices the cow in Mecca or Medina. But in India they will not be content with the sacrifice of any other animal.” Regarding the killing of cows on Bakrid, an Islamic Scholar says: “It is undoubtedly true that to discharge the qurbani-liability on the Baqrid day, killing a cow is not farz, wajib or even mandub.”

Therefore, it is quite incorrect to assert that killing of cows is integral to the Islamic practice. Yet, what is true is that the origins of beef eating among Muslims can be traced to the Islamic invasions of India.

The practice of beef consumption or the killing of cows during Bakrid was practically absent in Arabian countries. The Muslims in Arabia usually consumed meat of sheep, goat, or camel. But, when the Islamic invaders started entering India around 1000 AD, they adopted the practice of beef consumption to humiliate and insult the religious feelings of Hindus and used it to establish the hegemony of Muslim rule.


While summarizing the attitude of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, the famous Sufi mystic of the 15th century, Yohanan Friedmann writes: “The honor of Islam demands the humiliation of the infidels and their false religion. To achieve this objective, jizyah should be mercilessly levied upon them, and they should be treated like dogs. Cows should be slaughtered to demonstrate the supremacy of Islam. The performance of this rite is, in India, the most important symbol of Islamic domination.” Similarly, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, another famous Sufi mystic who is eulogized for his tolerance today, is said to have slaughtered a cow and cooked a beef kebab at a sacred place surrounded by temples, near the Annasagar Lake at Ajmer.

Taking note of such actions of Islamic rulers, Justice Guman Mal Lodha writes in his report about Cattle in India: “The Islamic rulers, from Central and West Asia were not habituated to beef-eating, as there were no cows in Arabic countries in those days. When the invaders came to India, they started sacrificing cows, especially on the occasion of Bakri-Id. This was done more to humiliate the natives of this country and establish their sovereignty and superiority rather than for food purposes.”

Therefore, the historical practice of beef consumption among Muslims is clearly rooted in the invasion of Islamic rulers and their attempts at humiliating native Hindus whom they considered as Khafirs (non-believers) and not in any Islamic doctrines that make it a religious compulsion.

But, it is interesting to note that, with time, partly owing to the assimilation of Muslims into Indian way of life, and partly owing to the pressure from Hindu subjects, some Muslim rulers like Mughal Emperor Akbar did ban cow-slaughter. But, such a ban was almost always overturned after a duration of time.

But, with the decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the Maratha Empire, the consumption of beef had slowly declined and one can note that only a few instances of cow slaughter have been recorded between 1700 AD and 1800 AD.

In fact, Dharampal writes in his book “The British Origin of Cow-Slaughter in India”: “‘It can be reasonably assumed that there was very little cow killing after about 1700 AD since the domination of Islam waned and converts to Islam did not take to eating of cow flesh.”

Therefore, it is safe to conclude that, whatever beef consumption that was practiced by Muslims during Islamic rule, it got minimized to a great extent by 1700 AD. Thus, the current practice of beef consumption by the community must be traced to post 1800 AD.

Beef Consumption and the British Rule

The arrival of the British brought a new wave of beef eaters into the country. To the British, beef consumption was not only an issue of adhering to their own diet, but also that of fulfilling the food demands of their military as well as the usefulness of the cows in creating tensions among native Hindus and Muslims.


Regarding this, Dharampal writes: “State-sponsored and State-regulated slaughter of cattle would have started, depending on British military requirement, sometime after 1750 AD.”

It must be noted that the strength of British officers and soldiers posted in India was only around 20,000 in 1800. This raised to around 100,000 by the end of the First War of Indian Independence. The total British population in India, including British civilians during the 19th century was around 3-5 lakhs.

This steep increase in the British population (especially of those in the military) in India resulted in many fold increase in cow-slaughtering and beef consumption. Lodha report notes that, in some places, the increase was as high as fourfold. The report further notes that as against 20,000 cows per year that were killed during Islamic rule, around 30,000 cows were killed every year at the height of the British period.

Regarding the British attempts at using the cow-slaughter to revive and strengthen the old differences between Hindus and Muslims, Dharampal writes: “That the Muslims continued to sacrifice the cow at least on festive occasions like Bakri Id and they were made to feel that the job of a butcher was honorable, was also a basic political requirement of the British rule in India.”

This becomes even more clear in the letter written by Queen Victoria to Viceroy Lansdowne, wherein she states: “Though the Muhammadan’s cow-killing is made the pretext for the agitation, it is, in fact, directed against us, who kill far more cows for our army than the Muhammadans.”

It was also a part of British strategy that, along with killing and consuming of cows on a mass scale, they also started condemning Indian cows and Indian ethos that held cows as sacred. Lodha observes: “It was at this juncture that the British started condemning Indian cows. They propagated the notion that India was a land of superstitious people, who had a blind faith in animals, rivers, trees and plants, and that the Indians were weak, unhygienic and inferior, and even their cattle breeds were inferior.”

This condemnation of cows was in sync with British condemnation of other aspects of Indian life. By this strategy, they successfully dismantled Indian institutions and way of life and replaced them with British ethos and world-views.

Therefore, the British rule not only gave rise to the current practice of cow-slaughter and beef consumption (especially among Muslims), but also to the current ethos of celebrating beef consumption as a virtue by the liberal Indians.

More under Beef Controversy:

Part 3: Hinduism and Cow

Part 4: Yajna, Madhuparka, and the use of beef

Part 6: Beef Controversy: Beef parties and the celebration of violence

More under Hindu Symbols and Practices:

Part 1: The practice of Idol Worship

Part 2- Fallacies in Criticism of Idol Worship