Friday, Jul 01, 2022
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A Brahmin's Cow Tales

Beef—it's the oldest shibboleth in the Indian mind. It is with textual evidence from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain canons that historian D.N. Jha takes on the sacred cow.

A Brahmin's Cow Tales T.Narayan

For over a month, the mild, balding professor of history, Dwijendra Narayan Jha, has been shuffling to his classroom in Delhi University escorted by a police constable. Teaching ancient history does not usually endanger one's health, but ever since Jha went public with the best-kept secret in Indian history—the beef-eating habits of ancient Hindus, Buddhists and even early Jains in a book titled Holy Cow—Beef in Indian Dietary Conditions—his phone hasn't stopped ringing. "The calls are usually abusive," says Jha, "but sometimes they demand to know what evidence I have, and one day late in July it was an anonymous caller threatening dire consequences if I ever brought out my book."

The calls had two effects on the 61-year-old historian: he called the police and braced himself for battle. "There is a cultural war going on and academics have a role to play," Jha says calmly. But it's not the kind of war that he had anticipated. Even before his book could hit the stands, the vhp exhorted its cadre to confiscate and burn copies. The bjp followed suit: one of its MPs, R.S. Rawat, wrote to the Union home minister demanding not only a ban on the book but also the arrest and prosecution of its author and CB Publishers. 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. Anticipating controversy and debate, Jha meticulously scoured ancient texts, culling material from original sources for over two years. "If they want to ban my book, then they will have to ban the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sutras and the epics. Where will they stop? I have given evidence, if they have counter-evidence, why don't they come forward with it? But they are so illiterate, they haven't even heard of those texts, let alone read them. I have texts and they go by blind faith," he says. "That is what a historian can and should do: counter faith with facts," he adds.

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