Cow Protection of Mahatma Gandhi – Appeasing Muslims and Bullying Dalits

The cow protection of Mahatma Gandhi is in fact a precursor of today’s cynical politics that is devoid of any values save, and except for, aligning with the existing hierarchy of power structure.

Controversies about cow protection frequently emerge in Indian polity, and every time it does, the proponents and opponents of cow protection seek to bolster their respective cases by selectively quoting Mohandas Gandhi. The proponents frequently refer to the multitude of the platitudes Gandhi bestowed on the cow. The opponents cite how Gandhi sought to respect the sentiments of the section of the populace, namely the Muslims, who indulge in cow-slaughter and consumption of beef. Curiously enough, even when the controversies on cow-protection centre around Dalits, neither the proponents nor the opponents invoke Gandhi on Dalits pertaining to the cow. It turns out that Gandhi’s stance on the practices adopted vis a vis the cow by the Dalits provide the important missing link that explains the apparent contradiction between 1) how Gandhi characterized the obligation of every Hindu towards the cow and 2) his advocacy for eschewing interference on cow slaughter by Muslims. As it also happens, that the narrative that this missing link provides negates how both the proponents and the opponents of cow-protection represent Gandhi on the issue.

Our analysis reveals that the cow protection of Mahatma Gandhi is in fact a precursor of today’s cynical politics that is devoid of any values save, and except for, aligning with the existing hierarchy of power structure. In Gandhi’s worldview, there seems to have been a strict hierarchy among Muslims, caste-Hindus (upper and middle castes) and Dalits or `Harijans’ in his parlance, with Europeans and Muslims on the top and the Dalits at the bottom of the pile. This likely emerged from 1) the historical legacy of Muslims having had ruled large parts of India for about a thousand years, the rule ending less than a century before Gandhi’s birth, and 2) the then contemporary politics where the Muslims served as an important power bloc, often in collusion with the British rulers, and wielded significant monetary power. Gandhi’s first foray into politics in both South Africa and India was in close alliance with Muslim merchants hailing from the Bombay Presidency as also fundamentalist Islamist politicians like the Ali brothers and Abdul Bari. Wealthy caste-Hindus on the other hand, particularly the Gujarati and Marwari merchants, constituted Gandhi’s money-base, and cow protection was their cherished cause (like that of many other Hindu communities particularly of the Hindi belt). For most of Gandhi’s lifetime, the Dalits had neither money, nor organizational power, and have been considered socially inferior to both the caste-Hindus and the wealthy upper-class (Ashraf) Muslims (many of whom either had Arabic, Persian or Afghan origin or were converts from upper caste Hindus). The Ashrafs dominated the leadership of the Muslim community, which often times acted as a bloc. (The power equations between Dalits and caste-Hindus, at least the upper caste ones, have of course changed drastically in the last thirty years due to organized Dalit politics, but the reality was quite different in Gandhi’s India). Gandhi’s cow protection catered exactly to his contemporary power equation.

Gandhi accommodated the caste-Hindus through verbal symbolisms on cow protection, repeatedly proclaiming it to be the most sacred duty of the Hindus (Section A). But, in terms of concrete actions, he catered to the bloc that appears to be higher in his power hierarchy – the Muslims – by ensuring the status quo on their behalf. Specifically, he insisted that Hindus only supplicate to the Muslims to stop cow slaughter, and neither bargain nor use force to ensure protection of cows; he ruled out legislative bans on cow protection, even where Hindus were in the majority, without the consent of the Muslims. He held a largely similar attitude vis a vis the British (Europeans) with respect to the cow, which is expected given that as the ruling power, they had approximately the same stature in Gandhi’s power equation as the Muslims (Section B). Lest this be interpreted as Gandhi’s commitment to liberalism and plurality, which precludes impinging on customs of different groups and dietary preferences of individuals, he did not accord the same consideration for the Dalits, apparently the lowest in his power hierarchy. Going by his statements, Dalits consumed beef and carrion. But, guided solely by the practices of caste-Hindus, despite coming across Sanskrit scriptures that suggested that Brahmins consumed beef in ancient India and the mention of beef in Ramayana, he proclaimed that consumption of beef as a sine qua non for a Hindu (note that in this context it is Gandhi’s knowledge of the scriptures that counts more than the veracity of his claim pertaining to the existence of such scriptures). As a logical corollary, he insisted that Dalits give up beef, and made their participation in non-cooperation contingent on their conformance; perhaps out of utmost generosity, he advised the caste-Hindus to wean the Dalits of their evil habit through rewards (Section C). Thus, unlike the Muslims, Gandhi’s Harijans, were not entitled to their customs nor food habits. The word Harijan literally means the Godly people, but perhaps figuratively, it stood for the children of a lesser God in the Mahatma’s psyche.

The case for cow protection that relies on Gandhi’s platitudes, stands weakened, if it is known that he had repeatedly admitted that Dalits consumed beef and carrion. The case against cow protection that takes cover under the Mahatma’s supposed liberal values that ensured status quo on behalf of Muslims, stands weakened again, if his trampling of the same set of liberal values pertaining to Dalits is established. This perhaps explains why the link has been missed thus far. Truth as usual is the first casualty in the politics over history. We proceed to present the complete story, establishing our contentions through a series of expansive quotes from Mohandas Gandhi (refer to [26] for additional quotes of Gandhi on the same topic).

Section A: How cow protection relates to Hinduism in Gandhi’s worldview?

Starting from May 1913 to November 1947, Gandhi has repeatedly posited that the cow is more of a mother than the biological human mother, her protection 1) constitutes the supreme duty of a Hindu, 2) is the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism, 3) it is a defining attribute of Hinduism, a distinctive feature, 4) it is `purification’, it is self-suffering, 5) the dearest possession of Hindu heart, 6) of greater import than Swaraj itself, 7) it is in fact the very essence of Hinduism to the extent that there is not a single Hindu anywhere in India, who does not cherish the dream of abolishing cow-slaughter there, and no one, who eats beef, or refuses to sacrifice his life to save the cow may claim to be a Hindu. He also equates cow-slaughter to man-slaughter. We reproduce his statements below:

  1. “If we are attacked by a cow, it must be because we fear cows and other creatures and so the fault is ours. All fear is of the nature of a moral weakness and, so long as we are subject to it, we shall always have to face such misfortunes. While we fear cows, we should take care not to stand in the way of any. If accidentally we find ourselves doing so, we should put up with the injuries. By hitting the cow, we shall do no service to ourselves or to her’’ 30/05/1913, [3]
  2. “But there is not a Hindu throughout the length and breadth of India who does not expect one day to free his land from cow slaughter.’’ 16/01/1918, [4]
  3. “Cow-protection is the outward form of Hinduism. I refuse to call anyone a Hindu if he is not willing to lay down his life in this cause. It is dearer to me than my very life.’’ 08/12/1920, [5]
  4. “According to my belief, a Hindu is anyone who, born in a Hindu family in India, accepts the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas as the holy books; who has faith in the five yamas of truth, non-violence, etc., and practices them to the best of his ability; who believes in the existence of the atman and the paramatan, and, believes, further, that the atman is never born and never dies but, through incarnation in body passes from existence to existence and is capable of attaining moksha; who believes that moksha is the supreme end of human striving and believes in varnashrama and cow-protection….I believe that the most important outward form of Hinduism is cow-protection.’’ 06/02/1921, p. 312,  [6]
  5. “I would not kill a human being for protecting a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious… Hindus do not fulfill their trust so long as they do not possess the ability to protect the cow.’’ 18/05/1921, p. 163, [7]
  6. “Cow-protection is the dearest possession of the Hindu heart. It is the one concrete belief common to all Hindus. No one who does not believe in cow-protection can possibly be a Hindu. It is a noble belief. ….Cow-worship means to me worship of innocence. For me the cow is the personification of innocence. Cow-protection means the protection of the weak and the helpless….. cow-protection means brotherhood between man and beast. It is a noble sentiment that must grow by patient toil and tapasya.’’ 08/06/1921, p. 251, [8]
  7. “Protection of the cow is the nearest to the Hindu heart. …. Cow-protection is a process of purification. It is tapasya, i.e., self-suffering. When we suffer voluntarily and, therefore, without expectation of reward, the cry of suffering (one might say) literally ascends to heaven and God above hears it and responds. That is the path of religion, and it has answered even if one man has adopted it in its entirety. I make bold to assert without fear of contradiction that it is not Hinduism to kill a fellowman even to save the cow. Hinduism requires its votaries to immolate themselves for the sake of their religion, i.e., for the sake of saving the cow.’’ 28/07/1921, [9]
  8. “I call myself a sanatani Hindu, because, 1) I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures, and therefore in avatars and rebirth, 2) I believe in the varnashrama dharma in a sense in my opinion strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense, 3) I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense than the popular, 4) I do not disbelieve in idol-worship….. But that which distinguishes Hinduism from every other religion is its cow-protection, more than its varnashrama. The central fact of Hinduism however is cow-protection. …..Cow-protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow. The way to protect is to die for her. It is a denial of Hinduism in and ahimsa to kill a human being to protect a cow. Hindus are enjoined to protect the cow by their tapasya , by self-purification, by self-sacrifice….Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observance of caste rules but by their ability to protect the cow. ….It will now be understood why I consider myself a sanatani Hindu. I yield to none in my regard for the cow.’’ , 06/10/1921, [10]
  9. “I hold the question of cow-protection to be not less momentous but in certain respects even of far greater moment than that of swaraj. ….the term “swaraj” would be devoid of all meaning so long as we have not found out a way of saving the cow, for that is the touchstone on which Hinduism must be tested and proved before there can be any real swaraj in India.’’ 18/12/1924, [11]
  10. Cow-slaughter and man-slaughter are in my opinion the two sides of the same coin.’’, 28/12/1924, p. 23 [29]
  11. “It (cow protection) is bigger than perhaps the struggle for swaraj in as much as it is of an entirely religious character.’’ , 28/04/1925, [12]
  12. “For the Hindus, however, rule of dharma is impossible as long as they do not attend also to the dharma of protecting cows.’’ 04/10/1925, [13]
  13. “In a concrete manner he is a Hindu who believes in God, immortality of the soul, transmigration, the law of Karma and moksha, and who tries to practise truth and ahimsa in daily life, and therefore practises cow-protection in its widest sense and understands and tries to act according to the law of varnashrama.’’ 14/10/1926, [14]
  14. “Truth, exclusive devotion to non-violence and cow-protection are the chief points of Hinduism. One who neglects them is no more a Hindu.’’, 09/01/1933, [15]
  15. INTERVIEWER: Well, leaving aside the subject of message, may I ask you whether you would like, after all these years, to revise any of your views on goseva expressed earlier? What you had said was: ‘(I) goseva alone will bring swaraj nearer. (2) As long as cows are being slaughtered, I feel myself being slaughtered. My efforts to save cows are going on uninterruptedly. All my efforts are directed to stopping cow-slaughter. Anyone who is not ready to give his life to save the cow is not a Hindu. (3) My deepest aspirations are, eradication of untouchability and service of the cow. We shall achieve swaraj only when we succeed in these two tasks. I see moksha lies in their achievement.’

Gandhi: I wish to make no change in this statement of my views.’’, 08/09/1933, [16]

  1. “So far as possible, we should avoid eating meat. Beef should be totally shunned. Cow-protection occupies a very prominent place in our religion. In accordance with clause 19, all living creatures are our brothers and sisters. Hence, our rishis and munis taught us that we should regard the cow as our mother and should develop friendly relations towards all living beings including non-human creatures. It is in the fitness of things to regard the cow as our mother as she, like the mother, gives us milk. One who gets milk does not require fish or meat. Moreover, the cow provides us with bullocks and even after death gives us leather, manure, fat for carts, etc., and such other things. Hence, we should never kill a cow. And if we may not kill a cow, how can we eat her flesh after her death? No sensible people in the world eat carrion.’’, 27/12/1936, [17]
  2. “Our religion exhorts us first to protect the cow and then the Brahmin. Cow-protection is an inseparable part of our religion. ….We should lay down our lives for the sake of the cow.’’, 20/04/1937, [18]
  3. “Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve for when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill. Hers is an unbroken record of service which does not end with her death. Our mother when she dies means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when she is alive. We can make use of every part of her body, her flesh, her bones, her intestines, her horns and her skin. Well, I say this not to disparage the mother who gives us birth but in order to show you the substantial reasons for my worshipping the cow.’’ , 15/09/1940, [19]
  4. “Today the cow is on the brink of extinction, and I am not sure that our efforts will ultimately succeed. But if she dies, we also die along with her—we, i.e., our civilization. I mean our essentially non-violent and rural civilization…. Our rishis showed us the sovereign remedy. ‘Protect the cow,’ they said, ‘and you protect all.’’ 01/02/1942, [20]
  5. I have stated in plain words that the task of preservation and increasing the cattle wealth of India and taking proper care of the cow and calf is much more difficult than attaining political freedom.’’, 20/11/1947, [21]

Section B: How should Hindus go about protecting the cow given that Muslims practice cow slaughter in large scale?

We next seek to understand how Gandhi advises Hindus to protect the cow given that it is in his view central to their religion. During his times, cow-slaughter was widely practiced by the Muslims. Gandhi is quite clear that Hindus can only supplicate to the Muslims to give up cow-slaughter. Moreover, he put the onus of cow-protection solely on Hindus blaming them for stiffening the attitude of the Muslims through their intransigence. He considered that those who resort to violence for protecting the cow, reduce Hinduism to Satanism and were in reality the enemies of the cow and of Hinduism. He expressed largely similar views with respect to the Europeans (equivalently, Englishmen, Christians in his parlance) pertaining to the cow.

We reproduce his views below:

  • In his Hind Swaraj, where he expounded the Gandhian vision for the country and the people, he clearly says (Editor is Gandhi himself): “READER: Now I would like to know your views about cow-protection. EDITOR: …just as I respect the cow, so do I respect my fellow-men. A man is just as useful as a cow no matter whether he be a Mahomedan or a Hindu. Am I, then, to fight with or kill a Mahomedan in order to save a cow? In doing so, I would become an enemy of the Mahomedan as well as of the cow. Therefore, the only method I know of protecting the cow is that I should approach my Mahomedan brother and urge him for the sake of the country to join me in protecting her. If he would not listen to me I should let the cow go for the simple reason that the matter is beyond my ability. If I were overfull of pity for the cow, I should sacrifice my life to save her but not take my brother’s. This, I hold, is the law of our religion. When men become obstinate, it is a difficult thing. If I pull one way, my Moslem brother will pull another. If I put on superior airs, he will return the compliment. If I bow to him gently, he will do it much more so; and if he does not, I shall not be considered to have done wrong in having bowed. When the Hindus became insistent, the killing of cows increased. …..What am I to do when a blood-brother is on the point of killing a cow? Am I to kill him, or to fall down at his feet and implore him? If you admit that I should adopt the latter course, I must do the same to my Moslem brother. Who protects the cow from destruction by Hindus when they cruelly ill-treat her? Whoever reasons with the Hindus when they mercilessly belabour the progeny of the cow with their sticks? But this has not prevented us from remaining one nation. Lastly, if it be true that the Hindus believe in the doctrine of non-killing and the Mahomedans do not, what, pray, is the duty of the former? It is not written that a follower of the religion of Ahimsa (nonkilling) may kill a fellow-man. For him the way is straight. In order to save one being, he may not kill another. He can only plead— therein lies his sole duty. ’’ 11/12/1909, [22].
  • “I suggested that the first step towards procuring full protection for cows was to put their own house in order by securing absolute immunity from ill-treatment of their cattle by Hindus themselves, and then to appeal to the Europeans to abstain from beef eating whilst resident in India, or at least to procure beef from outside India. I added that in no case could the cow-protection propaganda, if it was to be based upon religious conviction, tolerate a sacrifice of Mahomedans for the sake of saving cows, that the religious method of securing protection from Christians and Mahomedans alike was for Hindus to offer themselves a willing sacrifice of sufficient magnitude to draw out the merciful nature of Christians and Mahomedans.’’ 16/01/1918, [4]
  • If cow-slaughter were for the Muslims a religious duty, like saying namaz, I would have had to tell them that I must fight against them. But it is not a religious duty for them. We have made it one by our attitude to them.’’ 08/12/1920, [5] (the first sentence here is sometimes quoted in isolation to suggest that Gandhi was willing to oppose Muslims on the issue of cow-protection).
  • “You cannot save the cow by killing Muslims or Englishmen; you can save her only by offering your own dear neck. If you offer your neck in saving the cow, Yamaraj will not call you to account for doing so but will offer you a seat on his own throne. If, on the other hand, you kill another person for saving a cow, he will positively ask you to justify your action, for you are a man and so was the other one [whom you killed]. We are not God so that we may kill another person in order to save a cow. Hinduism, however, imposes an obligation on me to offer my neck for the sake of the cow. How many Hindus have acted thus? How many of them have offered their lives unconditionally for the sake of Muslims? The cow cannot be protected with the calculating virtues of a Vanik’’, 19/01/1921, [23]
  • “As long as the Hindus in India show no kindness to the cow, as long as they themselves torture cattle in many ways, as long as they have not succeeded in winning the regard of Muslims and persuading them to stop, out of their regard, the slaughter of cows and as long as they tolerate the killing of cows by the English and salute the British flag, I shall believe that the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas spirit has vanished from Hinduism.’’, 06/02/1921, p. 312, [6]
  • Hindus may not compel Mussulmans to abstain from meat or even beef-eating…….To attempt cow-protection by violence is to reduce Hinduism to Satanism and to prostitute to a base end the grand significance of cow-protection….. The only chance Hindus have, of saving the cow in India from the butcher’s knife, is by trying to save Islam from the impending peril and trusting their Mussulman countrymen to return nobility, i.e., voluntarily to protect the cow out of regard for their Hindu countrymen. The Hindus must scrupulously refrain from using any violence against Mussulmans. Suffering and trust are attributes of soul-force. I have heard that, at big fairs, if a Mussulman is found in possession of cows or even goats, he is at time forcibly dispossessed. Those, who, claiming to be Hindus, thus resort to violence are enemies of the cow and of Hinduism. The best and the only way to save the cow is to save the Khilafat.’’ 18/05/1921, pp. 163-164, [7]
  • It must be an article of faith for every Hindu that the cow can only be saved by Mussulman friendship. Let us recognize frankly that complete protection of the cow depends purely upon Mussulman goodwill.’’ 08/06/1921, p. 250, [8]
  • “Though I regard cow-protection as the central fact of Hinduism, central because it is common to classes as well as masses, I have never been able to understand the antipathy towards the Mussalmans on that score. ….. They (Hindus) commit no sin, if they cannot prevent cow-slaughter at the hands of Mussalmans, and they do sin grievously when, in order to save the cow, they quarrel with the Mussalmans.’’ 29/05/1924, [24]
  • “I hold that it is no part of Hinduism to defend the cow against the whole world or against Mussalmans. If the Hindu attempted any such thing, he would be guilty of forcible conversion. His duty ends with his tender care of the cow. This duty, let me incidentally observe, he signally fails to discharge.’’ 18/12/1924, [25]

Gandhi stopped the Hindus from bargaining with Muslims on cow-protection, even while mobilizing Hindus towards supporting their Khilafat agitation, which upheld a trans-national pan-Islamic identity. In particular, even while important Muslim leaders proposed to discuss voluntary ban on cow-slaughter on their part in exchange of Hindu support for Khilafat, Gandhi opposed such discussions. We quote from his autobiography:

“The Congress inquiry into Dyerism in the Punjab had just commenced, when I received a letter of invitation to be present at a joint conference of Hindus and Musalmans that was to meet at Delhi to deliberate on the Khilafat question. ….The Conference was to deliberate on the situation arising out of the Khilafat betrayal, and on the question as to whether the Hindus and Musalmans should take any part in the peace celebrations. The letter of invitation went on to say, among other things, that not only the Khilafat question but the question of cow protection as well would be discussed at the conference, and it would, therefore, afford a golden opportunity for a settlement of the question. I did not like this reference to the cow question. In my letter in reply to the invitation, therefore, whilst promising to do my best to attend, I suggested that the two questions should not be mixed up together or considered in the spirit of a bargain, but should be decided on their own merits and treated separately.

With these thoughts filling my mind, I went to the conference. …Before the conference I contended that, if the Khilafat question had a just and legitimate basis, as I believe it had, and if the Government had really committed a gross injustice, the Hindus were bound to stand by the Musalmans in their demand for the redress of the Khilafat wrong. It would ill become them to bring in the cow question in this connection, or to use the occasion to make terms with the Musalmans, just as it would ill become the Musalmans to offer to stop cow slaughter as a price for the Hindus’ support on the Khilafat question. But it would be another matter and quite graceful, and reflect great credit on them, if the Musalmans of their own free will stopped cow slaughter out of regard for the religious sentiments of the Hindus, and from a sense of duty towards them as neighbours and children of the same soil. To take up such an independent attitude was, I contended, their duty, and would enhance the dignity of their conduct. But if the Musalmans considered it as their neighbourly duty to stop cow slaughter, they should do so regardless of whether the Hindus helped them in the Khilafat or not. ‘That being so,’ I argued, ‘the two questions should be discussed independently of each other, and the deliberations of the conference should be confined to the question of the Khilafat only.’ My argument appealed to those present and, as a result, the question of cow protection was not discussed at this conference.

But in spite of my warning Maulana Abdul Bari Saheb said: ‘No matter whether the Hindus help us or not, the Musalmans ought, as the countrymen of the Hindus, out of regard for the latter’s susceptibilities, to give up cow slaughter.’ And at one time it almost looked as if they would really put an end to it.” [2]

Gandhi also opposed any legislative ban on cow-slaughter, unless the majority of the Muslims consented to the ban [27]

Thus, Gandhi proclaims the cow to be more of a mother to a Hindu than his biological mother, that cow-slaughter is equivalent to man-slaughter, yet he wants the Hindu to merely supplicate to save the mother-cow from slaughter. This, then, was the essence of his Ahimsa – enervating of the Hindus. The absurdity of the Gandhian Ahimsa, or any other form of ahimsa taken to an extreme, has been best articulated by Lala Lajpat Rai, who had himself hailed from a Jain family (Jainism upheld Ahimsa as its very essence):

“There is no religion higher than truth, nor a course of conduct nobler than Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah. Rightly understood and rightly applied to life, the latter makes a man a saint and a hero. Misunderstood and misapplied, it makes a man cowardly and craven, base and stupid. There was a time when the Indians understood it rightly and made only the proper use of it and they were a race of truthful, noble and brave people. Then came a time when some good people, thoroughly well-intentioned and otherwise saintly, made a fad of it, placed it not only at the top of all other virtues, but made it the sole test of a good life. They overdid it not only in their own lives but converted it into a supreme national virtue at the cost of everything else. All other virtues which ennoble men and nations were thrown into the background and subordinated to this, according to them, the supreme test of goodness, courage, bravery, heroism, all lapsed. Honour and self-respect were thrown into the shade. Patriotism, love of country, love of family, honour of the race were all extinguished. It was this perverted use or misuse of ahimsa (non-killing), or its exaggerated importance at the cost of everything else, that brought about the social, political and moral downfall of the Hindus. They forgot that manliness was as good a virtue as ahimsa. In fact the former was in no way inconsistent with the latter, if rightly applied. They overlooked the fact that individual as well as national interests made it incumbent that the weak should be protected against the strong, and that the aggressor and the usurper, the thief and the scoundrel, the lustful villain and the infamous violator of women’s chastity, the ruffian and the cheat, should be prevented from inflicting injustice and doing harm. They ignored the fact that humanity required that the fear of righteous indignation and of the consequences that flow therefrom, should deter the soul of the evilly disposed people from harming innocence, violating purity and depriving others of their just rights. They failed to realize the importance and the sublimity of the truth that whosoever allows or tolerates forceful dominance of evil or tyranny and oppression, in a way abets and encourages it and is partly responsible for the prosperity and strength of the evil-doer. Ahimsa overdone and misapplied is a gangrene that poisons the system, enervates the faculties and converts men and women into half-lunatic, hysterical, unnerved creatures, good for nothing that requires the energetic pursuits of noble ends and noble virtues. It converts men into monomaniacs and cowards. …There is no country on the face of the globe which contains so many and such profound ahimsa-ists as India does and which she has been having for centuries. Yet there is no country on the face of the globe which is so downtrodden, so bereft of manly virtues, as India of today is or as India of the last fifteen hundred years has been. Some people may say that it was not the practice of ahimsa that brought about this fall but the desertion of other virtues. I am, however, inclined to insist that the perversion of this truth was at least one of those causes that resulted in India’s forsaking the path of honour, manliness and virtue. The worst is that people who profess an absolute faith in the doctrine, prove by their own practice that a perverted use of such a truth necessarily leads to a life of hypocrisy, unmanliness and cruelty. I was born in a Jain family. My grandfather had an all-covering faith in ahimsa. He would rather be bitten by a snake than kill it. He would not harm even a vermin. He spent hours in religious exercise. To all appearances, he was a very virtuous person, who held a high position in his fraternity and commanded great respect. ……He believed in ahimsa, that perverted ahimsa which forbids the taking of any life under any circumstances whatsoever, but he considered all kinds of trickeries in his trade and profession as not only valid but good. They were permissible according to the ethics of his business. I have known many persons of that faith who would deprive the minor and the widow of their last morsel of food in dealings with them but who would spend thousands in saving lice or birds or other animals standing in danger of being killed. I do not mean to say that the Jains of India are in any way more immoral than the rest of the Hindus or that ahimsa leads to immorality of that kind. ……….What I mean is that the practice of ahimsa in its extreme form has in no way made them better than or morally superior to the other communities. In fact, they are the people who pre-eminently suffer from hooliganism and other manifestations of force, because they are more helpless than others, on account of their inherited fear and dislike of force. They cannot defend themselves, nor the honour of those dear and near to them. But we cannot afford to be taught that it is sinful to use legitimate force for purposes of self-defence or for the protection of our honour and the honour of our wives, sisters, daughters and mothers. Such a teaching is unnatural and pernicious. We condemn illegal or unlawful force in the attainment of a lawful object, but we cannot afford to sit silent when a great and a respected man tells our young men that we can only “guard the honour of those who are under our charge by delivering ourselves into the hands of the men who would commit the sacrilege” and that this requires “far great physical and mental courage than delivering blows”. Suppose a ruffian assaults our daughter. Mr. Gandhi says that according to his conception of ahimsa, the only way to protect the honour of our daughter is to stand between her and her assailant. But what becomes of the daughter if her assailant fells us and then completes his diabolical intention? According to Mr. Gandhi, it requires greater mental and physical courage to stand still and let him do his worst than to try to stop him by matching our force against his. With great respect for Mr. Gandhi, this has no meaning.’’ [28]

Section C: Gandhi’s imposition on practices of the lower caste Hindus

We first note that Gandhi bases his convictions on the centrality of cow-protection accorded by Hinduism not on any Hindu scripture, but on common Hindu practices. He in fact writes that he has read in his Sanskrit textbook that Brahmins of the yore used to eat beef and that beef has been mentioned in the Ramayana:

  • “Pretty long while ago, I once wrote in Young India an article on Hinduism, 1 which I consider to be one of my most thoughtful writings on the subject. The definition of Hinduism which I gave in it is probably the clearest that I have ever given. After defining a Hindu as one who believed in the Vedas and Upanishads, recited the Gayatri and subscribed to the doctrine of rebirth and transmigration, etc., I added that so far as the popular notion of Hinduism was concerned, its distinguishing feature was belief in cow-protection and reverence for the cow. I do not grant to be told as to what Hindus ten thousand years ago did. I know there are scholars who tell us that cow-sacrifice is mentioned in the Vedas. I remember when I was a high school student we read a sentence in our Sanskrit text-book to the effect that the Brahmins of old used to eat beef. That exercised my mind greatly and I used to wonder and ask myself whether what was written could be after all true. But as I grew up the conviction slowly forced itself upon me that even if the text on which these statements were based was actually part of the Vedas, the interpretation put upon it could not be correct. I had conceived of another way out of the difficulty. This was purely for personal satisfaction.“If the Vedic text under reference was incapable of bearing any other interpretation than the literal”, I said to myself, “the Brahmins who there alleged to be eating beef had the power to bring the slaughtered animals back to life again.” But that is neither here nor there. The speculation does not concern the general mass of the Hindus. I do not claim to be a Vedic scholar. I have read Sanskrit scriptures largely in translation. A layman like myself, therefore, can hardly have any locus standi in a controversy like this. But l have confidence in myself. Therefore I do not hesitate to freely express to others my opinions based on my inner experience. ….Go to any Hindu child and he would tell you that cow-protection is the supreme duty of every Hindu and that anyone who does not believe in it hardly deserves the name of a Hindu… In Bhagavata, in one place the illustrious author describes the various things which have been the cause of India’s downfall. One of the causes mentioned is that we have given up cow-protection. …..Cow-slaughter and man-slaughter are in my opinion the two sides of the same coin.’’ 28/12/1924, pp. 19-20, 22, 23 [29]
  • “Just because we find mention of beef in the Ramayana or of animal sacrifice in the Vedas, we will not start eating beef or slaughtering animals. Principles remain the same in all ages, but the practices based vary with times and circumstances.’’, 27/12/1926, [30]

Gandhi’s derivation of Hindu principles from Hindu practices is in itself unexceptionable as Hinduism is not a religion of the book, it is a civilizational framework that consists of an aggregation of practices, which are at times local to specific regions and therefore contradict each other, and which certainly evolve with the needs of the time. But, then the definition through practice demands that distinctions between practices of different communities be respected and the practices of some communities not be imposed on others. Gandhi egregiously fails in this test of consistency and egalitarianism:

We first observe that Gandhi states that the untouchables and the Adi Karnatakas consume beef and carrion:

  • “But I want to speak to you, the representatives or members of the Adi Karnataka community here. Wherever I go I have seen them in the grip of very bad habits, as eating the flesh of cow and mutton. They must know they belong to the great Hindu fold and that they must not eat cow’s flesh.’’, 14/07/1927, [33]
  • Gandhi provided the above as a condensed extract from a long letter from the Secretary of the Andhra Provincial Ryots’ Association: “The untouchables not only sacrifice animals in public but eat the beef. They also eat carrion. ….I would request you, therefore, to advise the untouchables to give up this sacrifice and carrion-eating. The latter is responsible for their physical degeneration.’’ and went on to suggest that “There is no doubt that this habit of carrion-eating, and especially beef-eating, has a great deal to do with the prevalent prejudice’’, the implication being that he agrees with the content 18/03/1933, [31]
  • Cow-preservation is an article of faith in Hinduism. No Harijan worth his salt will kill cattle for good. But, having become untouchable, he has learnt the evil habit of eating carrion. He will not kill a cow but will eat with the greatest relish the flesh of a dead cow. It may be physiologically harmless. But psychologically there is nothing, perhaps, so repulsive as carrion eating. And yet, when a dead cow is brought to a Harijan tanner’s house, it is a day of rejoicing for the whole household. Children dance round the carcass, and as the animal is flayed, they take hold of bones or pieces of flesh and throw them at one another. As a tanner, who is living at the Harijan Ashram, describing the scenes at his own now forsaken home, tells me, the whole family is drunk with joy at the sight of the dead animal. I know how hard I have found it working among Harijans to wean them from the soul-destroying habit of eating carrion. ‘’, 07/09/1934, [32] (one wonders why, when some Dalits were publicly lynched, recently, for the offense of skinning dead cows, Gandhi was not quoted in this regard by either proponents or opponents of cow-protection)

Clearly, Gandhi insists that the untouchables and the Adi Karnatakas (and Adi Dravidas as well, as we see next) need to stop consuming beef; we next observe that he makes his case purely on the ground that beef and carrion eating is prohibited in Hinduism, and although Hinduism is a tolerant religion, it is intolerant of consumption of beef by its practitioners. It therefore becomes clear that when Gandhi defines Hinduism by practices, he refers to the practices only of the caste-Hindus of the parts of India he is familiar with (Gandhi was probably not aware of the fact that Hindus of Kerala consume beef across multiple castes, for example), while ignoring the practices of the lower-caste Hindus. Without any hesitation, despite scriptural evidence to his knowledge of consumption of beef by Hindus in ancient times, he would not hesitate to impose the practices of one set (possibly larger) of the Hindus on the other. We quote him:

  • “If I am not mistaken Adi Dravidas are also given to beef-eating. Hinduism is a tolerant religion. But tolerant though it is, it is intolerant of beef-eating on the part of its devotees. You must therefore agitate and agitate till every Adi Dravida has given up beef-eating and the slaughter of cows.’’ 11/09/1927, [38]
  • “Every Harijan knows that one of the essential conditions of being a good Hindu is to abstain from taking beef or carrion. Therefore my formula is that those Harijans who are in the habit of taking beef or carrion should be induced to give it up, irrespective of whether the temples are opened to them or not, purely on the ground that beef and carrion-eating is prohibited in Hinduism.’’ 19/12/1932, [34]
  • “But I should also tell you (untouchable), as a Harijan by choice, that you should give up your evil habits, especially carrion and beef– eating. The whole world looks upon carrion with abhorrence. And beef–eating should be given up because that is a sine qua non for a Hindu. The cow is the giver of plenty, and by killing her we kill ourselves.’’, 01/12/1933, [35]
  • “But, one word to Harijan brothers and sisters. You cannot be free from this self-purification. You too have to make your sacrifices at the common altar. And that consists in the strict observance of sanitation, internal and external. Secondly, in giving up carrion and beef-eating wherever that habit still persists. In every part of the civilized world, carrion is abhorred with detestation. It is considered unfit for human consumption. And no one can call himself a Hindu and partake of beef. The sacredness of the cow and her worship is an integral part of Hinduism.’’ 08/01/1934, [36]
  • “If they are given to carrion-eating, they should give it up. In no part of the civilized world is carrion ever eaten, and so far as my knowledge of all the other races of the earth is concerned, there are very few races outside India who are given to carrion-eating. And since Harijans consider themselves to be Hindus, it is necessary for them to give up beef-eating, if they are given to beef-eating. ‘’ 18/02/1934, [37]

Rather patronisingly, Gandhi suggests that the caste-Hindus wean off the so-called untouchables from beef consumption by “quickening their intellects” and through rewards, although the caste-Hindus should feel free to take a bath after contacting them (he also compares the Dalits with menstruating women, imputing impurity on both). Thus, the implicit assumption here is that the Dalits choose their customs and food-habits due to limitation of intellect, and would relinquish them in lieu of incentives. In contrast, Gandhi wouldn’t even ask the Muslims to stop slaughtering cows in exchange for supporting the Khilafat agitation, that is, no bargain on their customs or food-habits, whatsoever. Not so gently, he added that the participation of the Dalits in the non-cooperation agitation was contingent on their giving up beef and cow-slaughter. He was obviously far from imposing such condition on the Muslims knowing well that they were at least as much responsible for cow-slaughter. In fact, Gandhian policy harangues the far fewer beef eating Dalits to give up eating beef, but only appeases and supplicates before Muslims. While gratuitously urging the Hindus to die for the cow, Gandhi consistently fought vigorously to protect Muslim beef eating, and neither did he himself die for the cow. We urge the reader to read him in his own words:

  • “If the Antyajas want to employ non-co-operation, they should give up drinking and eating beef or, at any rate, killing cows.’’ 25/12/1920, [39].
  • “So long as you believe that physical contact with anyone whom you regard as an untouchable is a sin, you may, if you wish, take a bath after such contact, but my request to you is that just as you do not hold in disregard a mother who is in her period of menstruation, but serve her instead, so should you serve Antyajas, instead of despising them. Dig wells for them, build schools for them, arrange for vaids to visit them, make their suffering your own and so earn their heartfelt blessings. See to it that they have their homes in good areas. Pay them well, respect them, educate them, look upon them as your younger brothers and persuade them to give up drinking, beef-eating, etc. Reward those who do these things. If you act in this way, you will come to see that the idea of untouchability is [as the poet says] a superfluous limb. Some of you have refused to contribute to the Tilak Swaraj Fund simply because of my views regarding Antyajas. This is my appeal to you, however: contribute money for the reform of untouchables; you can certainly do so, even if you do not abandon the practice of untouchability.’’ 03/07/1921, [40]
  • “Boycott of beef-eaters may have been proper in the past. It is improper and impossible today. If you want the so-called untouchables to give up beef you can do only by means of love, only by quickening their intellects, not by despising them.’’ 08/04/1926, [41]

Section D: Conclusion

Having rendered the Cow Protection Movement toothless and ineffective to serve the purpose it was created for – saving the cow and forming the basis of a national cause – Gandhi ensured that he not only controlled the Cow Protection Movement, but also defended castiest and Muslim interests by instituting a de facto status quo. So obsessed was Gandhi with defending cow slaughter for Muslims that he objected to the Maharaja of Mysore legislating against cow slaughter, even when the Muslims of Mysore did not [27], all the while haranguing the few beef eating Dalits of Mysore for eating beef. Gandhian cow protection can therefore be termed as bullying of the weak and appeasing the powerful vested interests.  Indeed, Gandhi’s cow-protection was about a strict hierarchy, where the Muslims superseded the caste-Hindus, who would in turn supersede the beef consuming untouchables. It is perhaps not a mere coincidence that he believed in the hereditary aspects of the Varnashrama (restrictions on professions, inter-dining, and inter-marriage based on birth), which by his time had degenerated to rank ordering of social positions by birth, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra, exactly in that order:

  • “Let us now examine Varnashrama. …..I believe that one acquires one’s caste by birth. One who is born in a Brahmin family dies a Brahmin. If he becomes a non-Brahmin through his qualities of character, his Brahmin body does not cease to be such. A Brahmin who does not follow the Brahmin’s dharma may be born, according to his deserts, as a Sudra, or even as an animal. A Vaisya like me who follows the dharma of a Brahmin and of a Kshatriya, if he has to be born again, may well be a Brahmins or a Kshatriyas in the next birth. So far as this life is concerned, he will remain but a Vaisya, and rightly so. …Varnashrama is a law. …The rules which people observe in regard to food, water and marriage are not essential features of Hinduism but, because self-control has been given special importance in Hinduism, restrictions have been laid down, even to the smallest detail in regard to these matters. I do not think that they deserve to be condemned, but, at the same time, I would not regard a person who does not observe them as having transgressed dharma. Not to have water or food or enter into matrimonial alliance anywhere and everywhere, I regard as civilized behaviour. This ensures preservation of health and purity. But I believe that not accepting food or water at anybody’s place through contempt is opposed to Hinduism. It is my view, based on experience, that the prohibition as to dining with or marrying a person of another varna or another religion is an essential protective fence for its culture put up by Hinduism.’’ 06/02/1921, pp. 314-315, [6]
  • “The law of varna prescribes that a person should, for his living, follow the lawful occupation of his forefathers. I hold this to be a universal law governing the human family. Its breach entails, as it has entailed, serious consequence for us. But the vast majority of men unwittingly follow the hereditary occupation of their fathers. Hinduism rendered a great service to mankind by the discovery of and conscious obedience to this law. If man’s, as distinguished from lower animal’s, function is to know God, it follows that he must not devote the chief part of his life to making experiments in finding out what occupation will best suit him for earning his livelihood. On the contrary, he will recognize that it is best for him to follow his father’s occupation, and devote his spare time and talent to qualifying himself for the task to which mankind is called…. For no one is precluded from rendering multitudinous acts of voluntary service and qualifying oneself for it. Thus Sjt. Nadkarni born of Brahmin parents and I born of Vaisya parents may consistently with the law of varna certainly serve as honorary national volunteers or as honorary nurses or honorary scavengers in times of need, though in obedience to that law he as a Brahmin would depend for his bread on the charity of his neighbours and I as a Vaisya would be earning my bread by selling drugs or groceries. Everyone is free to render any useful service so long as he does not claim reward for it…. Let it not be said against this law of varna that it makes life dull and robs it of all ambition. In my opinion that law of varna alone makes life livable by all and restores the only object worthy of it, namely, self-realization. Today we seem to think of and strive for material pursuits which are in their very nature transitory, and we do this almost to the exclusion of the one thing needful.’’ 17/11/1927, [1].

According a pre-eminent position to an invader would perhaps not constitute a natural order for a man who considers himself born-free – free of colonization, of birth-based restrictions on social interactions, such as professions, dining, marriage, etc. But, one who is encumbered with the prejudices of his times, and in particular holds a birth-based hierarchical order as an article of faith, can relatively easily insert, based on his perception of powers of the different communities, a few categories (the Muslims and the British) above the traditional highest, the caste-Hindus. This perhaps best explains the hierarchy that Gandhi deferred to in his cow-protection.


[1] “Varnasharma and its Distortion’’, Young India, 17/11/1927, pp. 384-385, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,

[2] MK Gandhi, “My Experiments with Truth’’, Ch. 160,


[3] “Letter to Jamandas Gandhi’’ Vaishakh Vad 10, 30/05/1913, p. 153, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[4] “Letter to `The Statesman’’’, Motihari, 16/01/1918, p. 209, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[5] “Speech at Bettiah Goshala’’, 08/12/1920, p. 74, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[6] “Who is a `Sanatani’ Hindu?’’ Navajivan, 06/02/1921, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[7] “Let Hindus Beware’’, Young India, 18/05/1921, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[8] “Save the Cow’’, Young India, 08/06/1921, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[9] “Hindu Muslim Unity’’, Young India, 28/07/1921, pp. 19-20, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[10] “Hinduism’’, 06/10/1921, Young India, pp.370-371, 373, 374, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[11] “Presidential address at the Cow Protection Conference’’, Belgaum, 18/12/1924, Reported in Young India 29/10/1925, p. 19, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[12] “Speech at All-India Cow-Protection Conference’’, Bombay, 28/04/1925, pp. 211-212, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[13] “To my Brothers and Sisters of Kutch’’, Navajivan, 04/10/1925, p. 55, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[14] “A Catechism’’, Young India, 14/10/1926, p. 399, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[15] “Letter to a Sanatani’’, 09/01/1933, p. 414, Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[16] “Interview on Goseva’’, 08/09/1933, pp. 372-373, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[17] “Hindu Code of Conduct,’’ [From Gujarati] Harijanbandhu, 27/12/1936, p. 228, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[18] “Speech at Gandhi Seva Sangh Meeting’’, Hudli-IV Hudli, 20/04/1937, p. 184, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[19] “Advice to Prabhakar’’, [Before September 9, 1940] Harijan, 15/09/1940, p. 195, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[20] “Speech at All-India Goseva Sangh Conference’’, Wardha, 01/02/1942, p. 483, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[21] “Speech at Prayer Meeting’’, 20/11/1947, p. 358, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[22] “Hind Swaraj’’, 11/12/1909, pp. 271-272, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[23] “ Speech at Public Meeting’’, Vadtal, 19/01/1921 Reported in Navajivan 27/01/1921, pp. 236-237, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[24] “Hindu-Muslim Tension: its Cause and Cure’’, Young India, 29/05/1924, pp. 58-59, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[25] “Notes’’, Young India, 18/12/1924, p. 454, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,



[27] Saswati Sarkar, Shanmukh and Dikgaj, “Why Gandhi opposed Legislative Ban on Cow Slaughter’’, DailyO, 08/08/2016


[28] Lala Lajpat Rai, “Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah: Truth or Fad’’, The Modern Review, July, 1916, pp. 19-21 (quoted in pp. 516-518


[29] “Presidential Address at Cow-Protection Conference’’, Belgaum, [28/12/1924] , Young India, 29/01/1925, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[30] “Excess of Loyalty,’’ Navjivan 27/12/1926 p. 357


[31] “Notes: Evils a Result’’, Harijan, 18/03/1933, p. 69, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[32] “Village Tanning and its Possibilities’’, Harijan, 07/09/1934, p. 408, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[33] “Speech at Tumkur’’, 14/07/1927, p. 231, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[34] “Letter to RB Talegaonkar’’, 19/12/1932, p. 237, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[35] “Extracts from Speeches’’, Harijan, 01/12/1933, p. 214, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[36] “Speech at Public Meeting’’, Bangalore, 08/01/1934, p. 398, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[37] “Speech at Christkula Ashram’’, Tirupattur, 18/02/1934, p. 177, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[38] “Speech to Adi Dravidas’’, 11/09/1927, Chidambaram, reported in The Hindu, 12/09/1927, p. 82, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[39] “Speech at `Antyaj’ Conference’’, Nagpur, 25/12/1920 Navajivan, 02/01/1921, p. 133, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[40] “To `Vaishnavas’’’, Navajivan, 03/07/1921, p. 378, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi,


[41] “Hinduism of Today”, Young India, 08/04/1926, p. 448,

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