Marvin Harris, a cultural materialist, on the India Sacred Cow Complex

Aurora: Well, then, what about the “scared cows” of India versus the “holy beef” of North America?

Harris: My interest in this puzzle goes back a long way to about 1964. When I started out, the hypotheses that I offered were considered to be extremely radical. But with the passage of time, my position has become generally accepted, in India at least, as being the best way to understand the prohibition on the slaughter of cattle and consumption of beef in India. Briefly, the argument is that it is inadequate to say that the reason why Hindus don’t consume beef is that their religion prohibits it. This is no explanation, because you have to ask, as well, why Hinduism has this kind of reverence for cattle but Islam, Judaism, and Christianity do not. The answer has to be sought in the material conditions of the production and utilization of cattle in India compared with the production and utilization of cattle in other parts of the world.

In the pre-Hindu period in India, during Vedic times, cattle were slaughtered and consumed; beef was in fact one of the most important foods offered to the gods and consumed by the participants in pre-Hindu rituals. With the passage of time the Brahmans, who were in ancient times the caste responsible for the slaughter of cattle, became the caste responsible for the protection of cattle against slaughter. Cattle occupied an essential position in Indian agriculture as power animals, and a choice had to be made between raising cattle for plowing purposes and raising them for meat production; the Indian ecosystem and production system couldn’t support both functions. With further intensification of plough agriculture and the ever-increasing density of the Indian population, the sacredness of the cow became an important barrier against development of a meat slaughter industry which would threaten the availability of plough animals to poor peasant farmers. The result is that far from being useless, as many people assume, cattle are India’s tractors. As a byproduct, the cows also produce milk; but their most important function is to produce the tractor, that is, the male plow animal. Another benefit that comes from this prohibition on the slaughter of cattle is that it puts a barrier between the farmer and his cattle when there are droughts or other agricultural crises. It is essential that farmers hold on to their plough animals and not give them up for slaughter.

It is also interesting to note recent studies which indicate that in spite of the existence of a prohibition on the slaughter of cattle and the consumption of beef, Indian farmers do manipulate their herds in a way that yields a ratio of male to female cattle which is most functional in a particular zone of production. For example, in southern India, there are more cows than there are male cattle, whereas in northern India there are more male cattle than there are cows. This is related to the different demands made by the regimen of planting wheat in the North versus the regimen of planting rice in the South. When you plant rice, you don’t need large numbers of plough animals, and when you plant wheat, you do. Indian farmers don’t determine the sex ratio of their herds by slaughtering the cattle outright. They do it by differential feeding of the wanted and unwanted sexes. The whole system in larger perspective turns out not to be simply a matter of whim on the part of the theologians who were responsible for elaborating the documents of Hinduism. On the contrary, it turns out that the doctrines of Hinduism reflect the material realities and necessities which the people of the Indian subcontinent face in their struggle to provide sufficient amounts of food for their ever-increasing numbers.

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