Rammohan Roy Would Have Demolished the Sacred Cow Myth
(This story was first published on 22 May 2015. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Ram Mohan Roy’s birth anniversary.)
A few years before leaving Indian shores for England in 1830, Raja Rammohan Roy, who was born this day 243 years ago, published a tract titled ‘Hindu Authorities in Favour of Slaying the Cow and Eating its Flesh.’
The essay was written in defence of beef eating. How would the high priests of Hindutva who have militantly defended cow slaughter and more recently legislated to ban the butchering of cows, bulls and oxen reacted to the Raja’s position on beef-eating were he in our midst today?
Countered The Hindu Right
The man, who is often described as the “father of modern India” and who was neither entirely Hindu nor exclusively a Christian or a Muslim, but something larger and nobler than the three, would have certainly been crucified. Trident-brandishing raucous crowds would probably have gathered outside his pleasant garden house in Maniktala in the leafy suburbs of old Calcutta and vilified him. The self-appointed protectors of the Hindu faith would have demanded that he be banished to Pakistan.
He would have been distressed, but would have smiled at the hostility and proceeded to counter the attack with reason, claiming that everything that had come down from the past was not ideal and that a living society stood in constant readjustment to varying circumstances. And he would probably have employed a Sanskrit (although he had complete mastery over Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English) expression – goghna – to tell the Hindu right that it means a “guest for whose meal a cow is killed.”
At a time when the ‘sacred’ cow is being identified as a symbol of the Hindus’ community identity and has become a political instrument in the hands of the Sangh Parivar’s constituent elements, Rammohan would have leafed through and quoted from ancient Indian scriptures and the religious text Rigveda (supposedly of divine origin) and asserted that the sacrifice of the cow (gomedha) or the horse (ashvamedha) was common in the earliest periods of the Hindu ritual.
“The Greatest Syncretist”
Fifty-eight years after Rammohan’s death in Bristol, England, one of the most significant scholarly publications that “convincingly” argued that beef eating prevailed among Indo-Aryans was an article by Rajendra Lal Mitra (a product of the Bengal renaissance) that appeared in the revered Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1891.
The monumental five-volume work published in the 1940s, History of Dharmashastra, made references to some Vedic and Dharmashastric passages that speak of cow slaughter and beef eating.
Equally well-versed in Hindu, Christian and Mohammedan theology, Rammohan could, single-handed, hold his own against pandits, missionaries and maulvies. In his zealous pursuit of social and religious reforms, Rammohan fended off determined opposition from Hindus and Christians alike. During his residence in Calcutta, he was often compelled to move in his horse-drawn carriage with its windows shut for fear of being stoned. But he would stand firm against all violence.
Generations of Indians generally think of Rammohan Roy as an intellectual giant, a great theologian and social reformer. But he was not more intellectual than devout and emotional. He was not a mere dry Vedantist either. In him there was a combination of the intellectual, emotional and even the practical aspects of religion.
Arnold Toynbee has called Rammohan “the greatest syncretist” and it is for this reason that he would have been anathema to both the Hindu right or fundamentalist Islam which carry a heavy burden of “civilizational illiteracy.” The contest between Rammohan’s ideals and avowed objectives and those of Hindutva would have been a throwback to the early 19th century. Any guesses on who the winner would have been?