Beef Controversy: Yajna, Madhuparka, and the use of beef


By Nithin Sridhar

An Analysis of Hindu Symbols and Practices: Part 4

The current controversy over beef consumption has again provided an opportunity for the ‘seculars’ and ‘liberals’ to mount their attack on the cow and its relevance in Hinduism. The ‘liberals’ make two major assertions regarding the issue:

  1. Cow is not considered sacred or holy in ancient Hindu scriptures.
  2. Beef consumption was widely practiced by ancient Hindus.

In the previous article, it has been shown how the assertion that the cow was not considered as sacred in ancient times is incorrect. The Hindu scriptures not only speak about cow as a mother, a bringer of fortune, and a provider of nutrition, but also perceived the cow as the very manifestation of the Divine. The cow was considered worthy of people’s love, respect, and worship due to her purity and was called as Aghnya– one who should not be killed.

Now, let’s take up the second assertion. It is often portrayed that hordes and hordes of cows were slaughtered every day for the purpose of consumption in the Vedic as well as post Vedic period.

To illustrate this, the examples of slaughter and consumption of cows during Vedic Yajnas (fire worship), in rituals related to pitrs (the spirit of ancestors) like Shraddha, in Madhuparka (the ritual feeding of the guests), and certain other rituals like marriage and cremation are quoted. It is insinuated that the sacrifice of cows in all these religious rituals and ceremonies were done for the sake of consuming beef.

Thus, it is pointed out that Ahimsa as a tenet was only in theory and not in practice, as a cow despite of being called “inviolable” was mercilessly slayed. Further, these examples are also used to justify the current practices of beef consumption by showing how they are in sync with ancient practice.

Let us now briefly examine each of these illustrations.

Meat Consumption during Yajnas

It is often alleged that thousands of animals including horses, cows, and bulls were regularly sacrificed during Yajnas and then their meat was used for consumption. It is further asserted by some modern scholars that the Yajnas were only a pretext for consuming meat. There are serious issues with these assertions.

One, most of the Yajnas were optional and were rarely performed by people. For example, out of 400 Yajnas mentioned in Vedas, only 21 Yajnas are enjoined to be performed regularly and the rest are to be performed only for fulfilling specific desires like Putrakameshti for having a child or Ashwamedha for establishing an empire.

Second, even among the 21 Yajnas prescribed to be performed regularly, none of the Yajnas that are to be performed daily, fortnightly or even once every four months contain animal sacrifices. Only seven Somayajnas (Yajnas in which Soma juice is given as oblation) and 2 Haviryajnas (Yajnas in which mainly ghee is used) include performing animal sacrifice. These Yajnas though preferably must be performed once a year, it was considered enough if one is able to arrange the enormous resources required and perform it just once in a lifetime. Hence, most people never managed to perform these Yajnas more than a few times in their entire life.


Third, there was no sacrifice of hordes and hordes of animals in these Yajnas. For example, in Pashubanda, which is a Haviyyajna, only one animal is sacrificed. In Vajapeya, which is the highest type of Yajna performed by a Brahmin, only 23 animals are sacrificed. In Ashwamedha Yajna, which was an optional Yajna performed only by few Kings, around 100 animals are sacrificed. There is no Yajna which is bigger than this.

Fourth, not everyone was entitled to perform all Yajnas. Only Aupassana was prescribed to be performed by everyone irrespective of their Varna and it did not contain animal sacrifice. Also, though the Brahmins, Kshtriyas, and Vaishyas were enjoined to perform 21 sacrifices, in practice it was only the Brahmin families that implemented.

Therefore, it is clear that most of the Yajnas were optional and were rarely ever performed, and among those that were compulsory, only in a handful of them, very few animals were sacrificed. Hence, the assertion that thousands of animals were sacrificed regularly in the Yajnas has no basis.

Cow sacrifice during Madhuparka

Madhuparka which means ‘a mixture of honey’ is a religiously prescribed procedure of receiving and honoring the guests. It is alleged that large scale cow-slaughter and subsequent beef consumption was practiced in the honor of the guests.

According to various Grihya Sutras, during the ritual of Madhuparka, the host must offer the guest following things: a seat, water to wash feet, water for Argya (as an offering) and water for Acamana (to sip). This is followed by an offering of Madhuparka (a mixture of honey and other items like curd etc.) to the guest.

After this, a cow is brought near the guest and he is asked to choose whether to sacrifice it or free it. According to some scholars, this offering of the cow is not for sacrifice, but only for giving away as a gift. This is backed by few references (for example, Apasthamba Dharma Sutras Prashna 2 Patala 4 Khanda 8.5) about the gifting of cow, which is present in scriptures itself. The gifting of cow during Madhuparka is also attested in Ramayana (Ayodhya Khanda 54.17) and Mahabharata (Udyoga Parva 89.19). In any case, the guest decides upon the fate of the cow. Considering the central role played by the cows both in the economy and religion, only few cows are likely to have been sacrificed.

It is important to note that neither is the Madhuparka offered to every guest, nor is it offered at every instance. The Madhuparka was offered only to six specific people that too, if they arrived only once in a year. The six people are: teacher, king, an officiating priest, father-in-law, friend, and a Snataka (a student who just returned from Gurukula and is ready to be married).

Therefore, it is clear that, the slaughter of cows, if they were performed during Madhuparka, was conducted only occasionally and with respect to only a few specific persons that too only when the guests explicitly chose to sacrifice the cow instead of setting it free or taking it as gift.

The case of King Rantideva and the cow slaughter

Some scholars point out that it is mentioned in the Mahabharata, that King Rantideva used to slaughter 2000 cows daily to prepare feasts for his guests. Apart from the fact that slaughtering of such a huge number of cows every day is quite impractical, if one were to study the context as well as complete details available about King Rantideva, it becomes clear that the assertions are incorrect and a result of improper translation.

The book “A review of Beef in Ancient India” published by Gita Press, which makes a detailed analysis of the issue, states that the assertion that 2000 cows were killed daily is faulty and a result of improper translation of a verse from Mahabharata that contains the words ‘Vadhyate’ and ‘Mamsa’. Though, usually these are translated as ‘were killed’ and ‘meat’ respectively, in the context they mean ‘were tied’ and ‘a liquid sweet preparation (Payasam)’ respectively.

The book concludes: “The 2000 cows were actually tied to the pegs at the kitchen of King Rantideva, so that milk from them could be used to prepare food for the guests. This is supplemented by the fact that Mahabharata itself lists King Rantideva among those who are not addicted to meat-eating.”

Thus, it is quite clear that King Rantideva never slaughtered cows to feed guests, but only used their milk for the purpose. Even if we were to accept that he indeed slaughtered cows, then we must accept that the actual number of cows killed would have been only a handful as 2000 dead cows a day adds up to 7,30,000 dead cows a year, which is highly impractical.

Cow sacrifice during Shraddha and Vivaha

Cows are also said to have been sacrificed during Shraddha ceremony wherein the spirits of ancestors are satiated and during marriage. There is a difference in opinion among scholars regarding whether there was any real sacrifice of animals or only a metaphoric mention about them in the scriptures. Also, there is a mention of gifting of cows during marriages just like Madhuparka (Apathamba Grihya Sutra 1.3).

Even if we were to assume that the cows were indeed sacrificed during such ceremonies, it is quite obvious that no person performed these ceremonies every other day.

Therefore, it is quite clear that neither the rituals and ceremonies like Yajnas (had involved the sacrifice of animals including cow and bull), Madhuparka, Shraddha, or marriages were performed at quick intervals, nor were hordes and hordes of cows and bulls slaughtered in them.

Was Beef consumption sole purpose behind cow-sacrifice in various rituals?

It has been alleged that Hindu ancestors used various Yajnas and other rituals as a pretext for consuming beef. It is further stated that, the priests, etc. enjoyed a full feast of beef after sacrificing the cows and bulls in the Yajnas, etc.

Photo: The Hindu
Photo: The Hindu

This assertion is nothing but turning a blind eye towards the plain fact that each Hindu ritual has a specific purpose and end goal that is clearly made known at the beginning of the ritual itself. The Yajnas serve the purpose of harmonizing various cosmic forces. It further helps a person to worship various deities, ancestors, and other forces of nature. The performance of Yajnas not only bring wealth and spiritual merit to the performer, but also causes welfare of the society. Further, various Yajnas have specific purposes as well. For example, Pakayajnas are exclusively related to family, Putrakameshti helps to conceive a child, etc.

Similarly, if one examines the mantras associated with Madhuparka ceremony, one realizes that it is built around the concept of Atithi devo bhava– the guests are God. The offering of seats, water, a mixture of honey, and even sacrifices of cow runs parallel to the offerings given in a Yajna. The primary purpose here is serving the guests as God itself. On the other hand, Shraddhas are the ceremonies performed for the well being and satiation of the Pitrs– the spirits of our forefathers.

This clearly establishes that the sole purpose of these rituals was religious upliftment and spiritual welfare and they had nothing to do with beef consumption.

This is further augmented by the fact that, the cow meat consumed as Prasada (consecrated food left after offering in a ritual) during such rituals is of very small quantity and they are eaten without a care for the taste. This is especially true in the case of Yajnas.

Regarding this, Kanchi Shankaracharya, late Sri Chandrashekarendra Saraswati, writes: It is totally false to state that Brahmins performed sacrifices only to satisfy their appetite for meat and that the talk of pleasing the deities was only a pretext. There are rules regarding the meat to be carved out from a sacrificial animal, the part of the body from which it is to be taken and the quantity each rtvik can partake of as prasada (idavatarana). This is not more than the size of a pigeon-pea and it is to be swallowed without anything added to taste.”

Another point that must be noted, is we find explicit instructions in the scriptures regarding what occasions the animals including cows can be sacrificed. Manu Smriti (5.41) says that animals can be killed only for the purpose of Madhuparka, in Yajnas, and in rituals related to ancestors, and in no other occasion and for no other reason. Apathamba Grihya Sutra (1.3.9) says that cows can be sacrificed only for the sake of guests (i.e. Madhuparka), for ancestors, and in marriages.

These clearly establish that cows were not to be sacrificed for any other purpose, especially not for the sake of satiating one’s taste.

In fact, Manu Smriti (Chapter 5, Verses 33, 34, 35, 38, 48, and 51) goes to the extent of saying that those who sacrifice animals for purely satiating their lust for the flesh or for any purpose other than the rituals prescribed in the scriptures, will incur great sin and undergo great suffering.

Ahimsa and use of cows in Yajna

If it be asked, how to reconcile between cows being branded as ‘inviolable’, which is an ultimate expression of Ahimsa and cows being sacrificed during Yajnas, etc.?

The answer lies in the fact that Ahimsa does not mean pacifism purely in the physical sense. Violence happens at various levels- physical, verbal, mental, and spiritual. The sacrifice of animals in Yajnas, etc. is not considered an injury because the animals derive great benefit out of it. The ritual helps them to attain heaven or get higher birth in the future (Manu Smriti 5.40, 41). Therefore, considering the spiritual benefit that far outweighs the physical injury that an animal face, the sacrifice of animals during Yajnas is not considered violence.

Even if one were to reject these spiritual benefits as metaphors and superstitions, even then it is easy to see that conducting Yajnas are not contradictory to practicing Ahimsa. Ahimsa is an ideal, but except for renunciates, no person even nears ninety percent adherence to it.

Every human action is accompanied by one or other form of violence, be it cooking food, or walking on the road, or speaking ill behind someone’s back. The scriptures have given an ideal and has created a framework wherein people slowly work towards attaining the ideal. Thus the instructions given in the scriptures take one from Himsa (injury) to Ahimsa (non-injury), from ignorance to knowledge.

This is further corroborated by the fact that though scriptures upheld Vegetarianism as an ideal, they do allow the eating of meat of certain specific animals under certain circumstances; and though Sannyasa (renunciation) is the ideal, it makes provision for Grihasta (marriage). Similarly, Yajnas are also allowed for the welfare of society. Manu Smriti (5.53) says that one who renounces consumption of meat attains spiritual benefit equal to that attained after conducting 100 Ashwamedha Yajnas.

This shows that, Ahimsa is the ideal and everyone must slowly implement this ideal in all aspects of life. But, meanwhile, one should involve in other Dharmic activities including Yajnas etc. prescribed by the scriptures even though they may involve Himsa.

Therefore, cows were indeed widely revered and were held as ‘inviolable’ by the ancient Hindus, though their sacrifice was permitted during some rituals for material and spiritual welfare of society. But, these rituals involving animal sacrifice were infrequent and hordes and hordes of cows were definitely not slaughtered, neither for rituals, nor for beef. Thus the assertion that beef consumption was widely practiced has no standing.

More under Beef Controversy:

Part 3: Hinduism and Cow

Part 5: Origins of beef consumption in India

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


  • Rugved Reddy

    I would like to know where actually it is written that during Madhuparka the guest had an option to actually sacrifice the cow ?