Wendy Doniger was speaking at Vassar College in New York last week. Her talk was on why in myth and folklore, and also in popular culture, sex and jewellery are often connected. When she was introduced at Vassar, there was mention made of the fact that her book The Hindus: An Alternative History had met with protests from the Hindu right in India. Doniger happily announced that the book had recently been reissued in India by publishers Speaking Tiger.

Doniger is perhaps the most renowned scholar of Hinduism in the US and perhaps the world. At dinner, while eating our roast chicken, I asked her about the recent controversy around beef. When did this conflict start?

The Cow Protection Society, Doniger said, was started in the late-19th century. After the First War of Independence in 1857, a section of the Hindus wanted to wrest power from the Muslims who, they feared, had gained power under the British. Ever since then, the cow had remained an ideological weapon in the battle to create antagonism between Hindus and Muslims.

Origins of a myth

Mahatma Gandhi revered cows. He supported the Cow Protection Society. Jinnah saw the movement as a means of oppressing Muslims. If Gandhi had not been so reverential toward cows, Doniger said, Partition could have possibly been averted. Millions would not have died.

“The cow is the only animal that you can eat without killing it,” Doniger said. Reaching back to ancient sources, she told me that the cow had been a powerful symbol in Hindu mythology. The first consecrated king Prithu had chased the Earth goddess Prithvi who had taken the form of a cow. When Prithu drew his bow and arrow, the cow said, “If you don’t kill me, I’ll let you milk me.” Doniger said that this was the myth of the origin of non-violence and the cow could be seen as a symbol of compromise between vegetarianism and meat-eating.

Commenting on contemporary practice, Doniger said, “Everybody eats beef, except Brahmins. It is about caste.” She said that people in India would claim that a snake had bitten the cow and then feel free to eat its meat. In nearby Nepal, she said, the claim would be made that the cow had fallen off a mountain. Traditionally a symbol of Brahmin power, the cow had become a symbol of purity, especially female purity, even while the same people were burning women for dowry.

Growing intolerance

Did she have the sense that there was growing intolerance in India? “My God, yes,” she replied quickly. “Not just against minorities but even of Hindus against Hindus. There is intolerance of people holding hands.”
And why is this so?

“It is complicated,” Doniger said. It has to do with the re-emergence of an enforced sense of inferiority imposed by the British. And the desire to violently show that we are not the dark, over-sexed, naked savages that we are taken to be.

I brought up the Bihar elections and Doniger said, “I love Bihar.” She supports a school in Mithila and is very fond of Madhubani paintings. She began telling me of her first trip to India in 1963 as a young student. She spent two years in Shanti Niketan. Doniger learned to play sarod from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. She traveled third class and slept in ladies waiting rooms at the railway stations. The little bit of money that she had she would tie up in her cheap cotton sari. She had first worn American dresses but men she said would look at her legs and, drawing her face close to my jacket, she said that they would stare at her breasts.

Did she eat beef when she was in India, I asked. No, she ate mostly boiled eggs and bananas and sometimes chicken.