Kembavi Bhogayya, a worshipper of Shiva, was once visited by the god himself, but in the guise of a stranger carrying a dead calf. The stranger requested Bhogayya to cook the meat of the calf and he complied. Preparing several delicious dishes out of it, Bhogayya served them to the stranger.

But the Brahmins in Bhogayya’s village gathered and condemned him for cooking beef. They attacked his house with sticks and threatened him to leave the village immediately. Hearing the commotion, the stranger disappeared and Bhogayya left the village angrily.

The story (which shares many similarities with the spate of mob lynchings in India currently) is part of the Basava Purana, written in the 13th century CE by Palkuriki Somanatha. The epic is the primary text of the Lingayats, who worship Shiva in the form of a linga (phallus).

Unlike the gory turn to the recent episodes of mob violence in India, this story had a happy end. Bhogayya’s exit from the village was followed by the exit of all the lingas, leaving death and penury behind. Realising their folly, the Brahmins apologised to Bhogayya. His homecoming was followed by the return of the lingas and prosperity to the village.

Meat matters

Another aspect of Bhogayya’s tale also stands in contrast to the story in India today.

Last week, several publications reported that the government in Uttar Pradesh had banned the sale of meat and eggs in Dadri. This was done to facilitate the Kanwar Yatra, an annual march to the Ganges in Haridwar, where devotees collect water from the holy river in pots that is then offered to Shiva. The pilgrimage is undertaken during the month of Shravan (which falls in July-August), dedicated to Shiva.

The ban is ironical, given Shiva’s penchant for meat (as the above story shows) and highlights how Hindutva’s forced vegetarianism runs contrary to the beliefs and practices of several Indic sects.

Shiva, a Puranic god, started small as Rudra (meaning savage or wild) in the Rig Veda. A minor god, with only two and a half hymns dedicated to him, Rudra is attractive, with a tawny complexion and matted hair. A forest dweller and an ace archer, he hunts and eats his prey. Rudra gains prominence in the Yajur Veda (particularly the Krishna Yajur Veda, one of the two sections the text is grouped into) where he acquires several names, including Shiva, and many traits perceived as sinister. Much like how Krishna was transformed from a tribal deity to a supreme god in the Puranic tradition, here Rudra is merged with a non-Aryan mountain deity.

Thus, from being a well-built muscular god, he becomes an old and poor dwarf with disheveled hair. Interestingly, he also starts displaying opposing characteristics such as being the protector of cattle (pashupati) as well as the slaughterer of cattle (pashughna), traits that signify and embody in Shiva the duality of the world.

In the Atharva Veda, the gruesome associations multiply. Rudra is said to delight in the offering of certain body parts, such as the liver of sacrificial victims. He is also hailed as the god of thieves and cheats and the lord of demons.

His role as a destroyer becomes more prominent in Puranic literature. The supreme being of fierce wrath, Rudra-Shiva now holds a trident, is dressed in tiger skin and sits next to his powerful consort, Shakti (known variously as Parvati and Uma). His macabre traits are heightened in the Mahabharata, with references to him being “extremely violent in temper, fully armed…greedy of cooked meat and rice…quarrel maker…hungry for foetus-flesh like a jackal”. In another episode, Bhishma explains the function of Shiva as one who would end the world by “devouring the creation”. Shiva’s fondness for meat is further emphasised when Jarasandha, a devotee of Shiva, keeps kings as captives only to kill them and offer their flesh to Shiva.

Shiva’s meat-eating habits find a clear voice in the Vedas as well as the Puranas, but his association with wine-drinking seems a later appendage. Although Shiva lives in Mount Mujavat, which is also the place where the intoxicating Soma plant grows, he is not described as consuming the Soma drink in the Puranic literature.

In post-Puranic literature, Shiva not only consumes intoxicating drinks but also smokes marijuana. Furthermore, his consort, Shakti, complements Shiva’s preference for meat by consuming the flesh of humans and animals alike.

Taming of the deity

The transformation of the northern half of the subcontinent from a pastoral (12th century BCE) to an agricultural (6th century BCE) economy is reflected in the changing food habits of the gods. Whereas meat was an important offering for the pastoral Vedic gods, the sedentary Puranic gods were largely vegetarian. It is interesting to note that such a change is not reflected in Shiva’s personality. Shiva’s meat eating habits become more defined in the early Puranic literature. Therefore, it is unclear as to when the vegetarianism acquired by Brahmins and other upper castes tamed the wild Shiva.

By the time later Puranas were written (8th century CE) the change was complete. For the high tradition, defined by Brahmins, Shiva became a vegetarian god. The sects offering meat to Shiva as a prayer ritual, such as the Kaula Kapalikas and the Kalamukhas, were declared heretical according to the Skanda Purana. Not only did the Kapalikas drink wine and eat meat out of human skulls, they also indulged in sexual practices prohibited by Brahmanism. Similarly, philosopher Abhinavagupta’s Kashmir Shaivism required the consumption of wine and meat to perform Kula yoga to please Shiva. Bhogayya and his tradition of Virashaivism were also heretical for this reason.

The community of Kanphata Jogis that Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh – where restrictions on food stalls along the Kanwar Yatra route have been imposed – belongs to also has a history of eating meat and drinking wine as part of the ritual worship to Shiva.

Despite the enforced vegetarianism, Shiva’s association with meat has persisted. A devotee of Shiva himself, perhaps Adityanath could learn much from Tamil poet and saint Appar, one of three famous Nayanars (Shaivites), who in the sixth century penned:

“Why roam in forest and town?
Why practice extreme penance?
Why give up meat, why stare into space?
The Lord’s blessing is yours only if you say,
He is wise.”

Ruchika Sharma is pursuing a doctorate in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University.