What is your religious belief of not eating beef?

Alright. Don’t come at me for this article after what I’ve written. It’s a truth that is being hidden from all of us, or rather, not hidden. We just don’t take the effort to find out.

So why can’t I try a piece of steak?

The most common reasons I’ve heard from all my Hindu friends, relatives and the parental unit was, “it is a religious belief”. I questioned, “what exactly does it mean?” My mother told me once that because milk was very valuable for Indians – we drink lots of tea, Hindus bathe the statues of the Gods and Goddess with milk, milk is used to clean the resting place of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Golden Temple – it is therefore important to respect the cow for offering us this “blessing”. That didn’t seem to be a “religious” oriented belief. It seemed practical. It seemed rational. Save the cows. Get your milk.

This brings to light what I learnt in one of my Sociology modules: Rationalisation.

Coined by Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher and political economist, the term “rationalisation” basically means that people make decisions, or act in a particular manner, because it proves as a calculative benefit. It’s just like how you make a decision of staying in a Hall instead of travelling two hours because it makes sense to save time travelling for something useful such as catching up on readings or even sleep. Not so much for “Hall spirit” or “independent experience”, though the latter could be rationalised if you do plan to live your life independently, for example, overseas.

So right here, I see my mother’s point being a rationalised one, where, you save your cows so that you get a good supply of milk every day. I bet she didn’t realise how practical she sounded, but I don’t blame her.

None of these struck me until I read one of my assigned readings for class. In the fifth edition of Empirical Approaches to Sociology: A Collection of Classic and Contemporary Readings compiled by Gregg Lee Carter, there is a chapter titled “India’s Sacred Cows” written by Marvin Harris. He mentions that:

“The easy explanation for India’s devotion to the cow, the ones most Westerners and Indians would offer, is that cow worship is an integral part of Hinduism. Religion is somehow good for the soul, even if it sometimes fails the body. Religion orders the cosmos and explains our place in the universe. Religious beliefs, many would claim, have existed for thousands of years and have a life of their own. They are not understandable in scientific terms.”

He doesn’t stop there. He added, “But all this ignores history.”

What did they do back then?

I think it is very important to understand that what we are today, who we are today or how we live today is a result of the evolution of history. Buddhism wouldn’t have come about if Siddartha Gautama didn’t leave his luxurious life of a Prince for a life of a monk. I wouldn’t have been in Singapore if my grandfathers didn’t think of stepping into this Lion City plenty of years back. Singapore would not have been industrialised if Sir Stamford Raffles didn’t smuggle Tengku Hussein (older brother of Tengku Abdul Rahman, the Sultan of Johor) to recognise him as the rightful Sultan of Johor for a healthy barter between a yearly payment to the Sultan and the right for the British East India Company to establish a trading post in Singapore.

Harris exposes the use of cows in the history of India. I used ‘expose’ here to add to the dramatic effect of how I felt when I realised what a disbelief we were living with.

He revealed that the earliest Hindu sacred texts (vedas) in the second millennium BC “do not prohibit the slaughter of the cattle”. It was officially made use of as sacrificial rites. Hindus ate cows and bulls back at that time, as part of ceremonial feasts “presided over Brahman priests”. Only later in 200 AD, other Brahman priests added more writings to the vedas, prohibiting the slaughter of these animals. By 1000 AD, beef eating was forbidden, using the spiritual justification of the “Hindu belief in the unity of life”, making it a religious taboo and thus this has been adopted in modern India. The Islamic invasion in the eighth century AD added on to the weight of the taboo as Muslims were beefeaters afterall.

So here we see that the pioneers of Hinduism were beefeaters but because of a manmade ideal of “unity of life”, meat was forbidden (probably explains why Indians are commonly vegetarians). What Harris reveals more, however, is the use of cows (and oxens and bulls) in agriculture.

No cow, no bull, no oxen, no food

In the past, farming was the most common occupation. People farmed, sold harvest (or cooked it), received money (or food) and survived. It was a balanced way of life, with no greed of luxuries. They fulfilled the needs, not the wants. Harris noted the “practical role of the cow”, like I mentioned earlier, was to give milk. He argued that cows don’t provide at least half of the milk produced in India. An Indian farmer would rather resort to a water buffalo for high-quality milk due to its “higher butterfat content”. Cows are, therefore, not dairy breeds. He reveals, however, that the male calves the cows provide are what is important to the farmer. Male calves can turn from bulls to oxen, “the mainstay of the Indian agricultural system”. Here is a paragraph on their importance:

“Small, fast oxen drag wooden plows through late-spring fields when monsoons have dampened the dry, cracked earth. After harvest, the oxen break the grain from the stalk by stomping through mounds of cut wheat and rice. For rice cultivation in irrigated fields, the male water buffalo is preferred (it pulls better in deep mud), but for most other crops, including rainfall rice, wheat sorghum, and millet, and for transporting goods and people to and from town, a team of oxen is preferred. The ox is the Indian peasant’s tractor, thresher, and family car combined; the cow is the factory that produces the ox.”

That being said, the cow produces the bulls and oxen, the essentials for agriculture in India. Very often, however, the bulls and oxen are more well-fed compared to the cows but the latter are never left to die. Farmers, of course, cannot let their “factory” be destroyed, for who will replenish their stock of bulls and oxen? It is usually quite devastating for a cow to die for the farmer has to buy a cow in order to maintain the sustainability of his farm. Where will he get the money to buy a new cow, a robust fertile?

The religious belief has also turned itself into a religious law in India, where certain parts of the country forbids the slaughtering of the cow (save for tourist cities like Delhi and Mumbai where there a slaughterhouses for restaurants that sell beef). This religious law, in fact, acts as a “disaster insurance” for the country. It ensures the “recovery of the agricultural system”, especially during dry Indian winter and droughts. We could probably argue how the law is economically driven.

Can you grasp the rationality of preserving cows?

More practical reasons

Another point to add is the use of cow dung. It burns slowly, perfect for wives to cook while completing their household chores at the same time. Back in those days, stoves were not prevalent. My mother recalls in her one year impromptu stint as a housewife in India, she had cooked over a dung stove.

Harris also mentioned about what happens after the death of the cow. As you can see, the idea of this religious belief has been passed on for many generations and has been accepted vigorously. Most will regard eating beef a sin. A dead cow would be deemed polluting, especially for the higher castes. This is because, dead cows are used for purposes many Hindus would not want to acknowledge.

Those from the lower castes are tasked to handle the dead cow, who will skin the cow and send it to the leather factory (or tan them themselves). Secretly, they cook the beef at home and eat it. Looking at the rationality of the situation here, the lower castes are those who are deprived of food. Thus, as Harris puts it, the prohibition of beef eating among the higher castes “helps distribute animal protein” to the lower or poorer factions of the country.

What is your religious belief?

I must mentioned what we discussed in class, about religion. Religion, is not only about the spiritual aspects of life. Other fragments of life can be considered as a religion because there is a belief in a religion that one follows. Here are some definitions for ‘religion’ according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

Screen shot 2014-09-08 at AM 01.27.33

Therefore, science can be a religion because people follow the notion of scientific beliefs because that is important to scientists. Education can be a religion, on the notion of academic belief, or the belief of being educated for the betterment of the future according to students or even parents. Similarly, what would categorise the religious belief of forbidding beef eating is the farmer’s interest in and belief of the livelihood of the agriculture system. The country, or the farmers per se depend on the successful harvest of their farms. This can only be achieved with the use of bulls and oxen, derived from the cow.

The idea of beef-eating a sin, as mentioned earlier, has been deeply rooted in many Hindus in modern India and this serves as a deeper meaning for preserving the cow. The shallow meaning, thus, gears towards the practicality of cows, in terms of milk source, alternative cooking stove or simply an agriculture maintenance. This, however, does not mean that these deep and shallow meanings are irreplaceable. Just as there are different religions and the beliefs within, even for practical purposes, deep and shallow meanings can also have practical connotations. How could we slot “an agriculture tool” and “detest for beef taste” here?

Before I end, it is crucial to note that I am not a Hindu. I am a Sikh. Sikhism was born from Hinduism. The argument of whether a Sikh can eat beef or not, I shall save it for another post. Nevertheless, on the notion of what was shared, my eating beef or not, depends on my own religious belief. This is, however, tough to adjust because I too am an individual, born in a social structure where eating beef is only associated with one type of religious belief – the supposedly spiritual one. Trying to rationalise this won’t be easy for I come from a family of strong supporters of this belief, and they aren’t studying Sociology for that matter. My brother might be an exception. *wink*


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