The Spirit of Shambo (2007) Lives on: The Bull about Beef and a Metaphor for Dharmic Ethics

(Some events within this piece are a flashback – they occurred in July 2007.  They are a TRUE dialogue based exclusively on an e-mail conversation between two friends, VC = a dear friend, Vijay a lifelong Vegetarian and JJ= me, a non Veggie)

But, first, a sense of the present: A lot of hot air is being expelled in the aftermath of the Dadri incident in UP. A local fracas which led to the tragic death of one man, and which would not make news if the man were a Hindu has been globalized to epic proportions.

As usual, the self declared defenders of the freedom to propagate anti-Hindu, anti-India invective, and to continue a vitriolic assault on Narendra Modi as the personification of the devil incarnate are busy at work. Saturday’s BBC Radio 4 programme was no exception – Sanjoy Majumder, like an ideological descendent of Macaulay, displaying his acquiescence in all its glory, parroted the usual BBC tripe. Isn’t is funny how low  some folk will sink to keep themselves in their pathetic servile jobs in a putrid, ossified, so called News organisation rotten from the core?


Totally in keeping with the standard template, the unwashed, unreconstructed, uncouth chatterati  that make up the bulk of western arbiters of other cultures  employs the usual tactics. The Beeb hammers the “fundamentalist” Hindu Nationalist agenda, which might suggest that many Hindus and also other non-Hindu Indians are not nationalist, or possibly that these non-nationalist Indians of the Beeb’s imagination pine for the return of the munificent British Empire, or maybe, even a not so benevolent Ghaznavi or a composit-multi-culti Mughal? They make out that this “nouveau Hinduism” is a radical, terroristic front against “minorities” and goes counter to the alleged age old Hindu traditions of polytheistic beef eating?


Back to 2007….

Shambo, the bull at Skanda Vale Temple in Wales grabbed the headlines in the UK media for several weeks in the summer of 2007. His plight raised some key questions about ethical values and humanity and how diversely people perceive them as well as the reactions these compass points elicit. Here’s the email conversation between friends.

VR: What the bull***t is all this about? Why have Hindus in general and the Hindu Forum got involved in this? Surely, this is a diseased animal and needs to be despatched to meet its maker?

 JJ: I think you are missing several points.

  • A Hindu temple is a place which respects the sanctity of all life, including a bull and an ant, the same as a man. This “animal” is the Temple bull which holds a special place in a special place. It is part of the sanctum community of the temple. It is not to be confused with an ordinary head of dairy of beef cattle that has a price of £1000 or so.
  • At this point, the bull is merely suspected of Bovine TB, nothing conclusive yet. When and if the TB is proven, then it is possible that it can be cared for and cured, and remember, there is no question that this would be paid for by DEFRA (UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).
  • Recall the recent Bernard Matthews Company episode. It turned out that there was no “proof” that the poultry disease had been brought into Norfolk by the company transporting livestock from Hungary. As a result, not only were no charges of danger to public health brought, but the company actually received compensation to the tune of £600,000 from public funds for loss of business due to the allegations.
  • The price of bull***t may be cheap, but the sentiments of people’s philosophy are priceless especially in an age of psychological mind games and intimidation in the name of exclusive religions, violence, greed, “me, me”, “rights” and so forth.

We need more people who care about a tree, a bull, a child, and not merely look at their economic value. Surely, by their calm, assured, and non violent, philosophic approach, the campaigners for Shambu have shown that there is indeed a different way than brandishing threatening banners and flags, masking faces and shouting “death” to anyone who insults this or that?

VR: We are just proving that we are just a bunch of ignorant and superstitious animists. Would the same hue and cry been raised about a goat? I think not. We are just leaving ourselves open to being classified as cow worshippers.

There are more important things in life than preservation of a single cow. If Hindus or Hindu Forum of Britain (HFB) feel so deeply about this issue then how about trying to save all cows in the UK? We are happy to live amongst a community of cow eaters and suddenly we get an attack of religious sentimentality about one bull being slaughtered? Are these the sentiments of a “religious minority”? Hmmm, where have I heard this before? Let’s take a leaf out of others book, we have now also become the victims, eh?

Are you going to form this ring of chain round this cow to save it from being slaughtered? Oh yeah, Gandhi must be kicking his heels in the proverbial grave.  The world has gone mad. Stop the world, let me get outta here!

JJ: Animist?? I’d rather be an animist than a sanctimonious believer in an exclusivist “true” god, whatever that is.  It seems that such labels as “cow worshipper” and “animist” affect you and get under your skin. By the way, when are you planning to eat meat or have you now started?

As to animal slaughter in general, this is not the issue at stake here. This is about one animal in one place which by circumstance happens to be a temple that eschews violence of all forms.

I commend to you a 2 hour documentary called“Holy Cow” – catch it on NG channel when it comes round again. You will be surprised and educated. The cow holds a special place across so many cultures. The Masai were so affected by the events of 9/11 that they gifted cows to New York as a solace and a mark of their way of saying “we are thinking of you”.

The relationship between humans and the cow is so ancient it goes back to before when man first settled down to an agrarian lifestyle. The ancients around all the river civilisations held cattle in high esteem not just economically but spiritually. Note the presence of the cow or the bull in the iconography of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, and the Indians and also of the rock paintings in Europe and Africa. Even today, the pastoralists generally do not kill their cows in the same way as the mass market for meat consumption.

VR: That’s a lame comeback!! I really do not know what significance me eating meat has to the story of a diseased bull? I could ask you the same question? Seeing you are so concerned about the welfare of animals, when are you going to stop turning your stomach into a graveyard of animals and stop eating meat?

I have a great regard for all living species not just cows. And yes, I am aware that cows are and have always had a special place in Hinduism but that’s not to say we have to worship the animals. By all means, let’s make a concerted attempt at reducing the pain suffered by the animals and HFB would be making a worthwhile contribution if it added its voice to various other animal rights organisations.

This bull has tested positive for TB and I ain’t going to sign an online petition to save it…

JJ: No, you are totally mistaken – this is NOT a case of Hindus worshiping cows! Just because some ignorant sorts seem to think so does not make it true.

Yes, the Hindu Forum and others in the community do need to take up causes against animal cruelty much more than they do at the moment. However the kind of mindless campaigning that some of these organisations conduct is itself dangerous and destructive – you know of incidents of such people terrorising Oxford scientists who use around 100 primates every year in their groundbreaking medical research all for the good of humanity yet, these animal lovers will but do nothing about the inhumane conditions of millions of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. The same was the case with the politicised move to ban fox hunting.

Yes, eating meat has little relevance to the plight of this bull. And yes, abstaining from meat is something that I do aspire to. For this, I applaud your retort to what you refer to as my lame comeback.

No, this bull is not confirmed as diseased, it is only suspected of being diseased. Also, take a note of the report today, Monday 14 May. It is evident that culling animals does not stop bovine TB. In their quest to control the disease, Ireland has virtually eliminated their badger population but yet the incidence of bovine TB is unabated. When are scientists going to be listened to? How will killing this bull, which is isolated, save other cattle from the disease?

We ought to step away from the narrow definition of “I am a Hindu and that person over there is not a Hindu”. Instead we should see this bull as a metaphor for the ethics of life in general and not something that is specific to the “sentiments” of Hindus or whoever. In this regard, the Skanda Vale temple seems to fit the bill perfectly – it is called the “Many names of God” and you will see that it has the insignia of all the major faiths.  Looking at it this way, we can overcome prejudices, some foisted on us and many self inflicted, and focus on mutual education and not get too worried about ignorant comments about animism and cow worship.

I am appalled that unproductive cattle are so badly treated in India. It seems that Hindu society cannot reconcile as to what is worse, killing them or letting them go hungry and scavenging? That has to change. But before that can happen, Indians have to free themselves from the shackles of slavery that has held them back for a millennia.

As it turned out, Shambo was put to sleep without a murmur from the Hindu community. No burnt effigies, no threats, no damage to property or to life or limb. Life carried on….

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Back to October 2015..

The metaphor of Shambo still persists; Hindus continue to advance in presenting an alternative world view , but the global calumny against Hindu Dharma continues unabated. Even Animal Lovers and Animal Rights activists have shied away or remain ignorant of the debate. But for a few honourable exceptions from the West like Francois Gautier and an increasing array of indigenous Indic commentators, (see for example the wonderful item in this electronic journal by the erudite Ashish Dhar), there is still much inhumane, unadulterated racist anti-India filth being passed off as reportage. Equally, there are has-hardly-beens like Nayantara Sehgal who make flatulent gestures whilst either remaining spineless in the face of, or worse, actually siding with the real rabid fascist ideologues of exclusivist but conflict riddled politics and monotheisms.

People power is increasingly showing itself on social media, Dharmic awareness rises by the day and that the presstitutes are not easily allowed to pass of their lies as gospel. It is right that despite a centuries long slumber, Hindus still hold their Dharmic values dear within their DNA and are not adopting the tactics honed by others in socially disruptive or even violent protests against gun control, police brutality, cartoons or  an assortment of other  grievances.

The Hindu is not some dirty creature to be shunned; he/she is just like the millions in the west, east, north and south, be they members of vegetarian societies, peaceful activists for the environment and for animals, Yoga practitioners or just conscientious humane individuals, who are fed up with the polarisation of right-left divisions and the my-god-is-right rivalries and are seeking alternative solutions to global problems.

More active engagement, mutually educating and making common cause with the silent millions around the world who do not profess to be Hindu, but who are a massive yet hitherto a dormant force and potential alliance base, and using this to crystallise, promote and share the universal applicability of Dharma in preserving of our little planet’s diversity has to be the vision for the Hindu. Now that would be proper Dharma-Raksha in practice!

Shambo’s Atman would find Shanti in that.

Jay Jina is a UK-based third generation NRI. Besides pursuing a professional career as a European IT Director with a multinational and a part time university academic, Jay’s interests span history, current affairs, the Indian Diaspora and the history and politcs of Science.


The Hindu View on Food and Drink

Shatavadhani Ganesh

Further, there are more vegetarians in India than the rest of the world combined (we can get a sense from this list). There is a widespread notion thatsuch a high level of vegetarianism is due to Hinduism. While it is true that many Hindus are vegetarians, it is incorrect to say that Hinduism forbids meat-eating.

In the large body of the fundamental works of Hinduism, there are several rules and prescriptions (quite often contradictory in letter though not in spirit) with respect to food and drink. We can find quite a few of these rules in the four Vedas but most of them are found in the Smṛti texts (like Manusmṛti), the Dharmasūtras (like Āpastamba Dharmasūtra), and the Gṛhyasūtras (like Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra).We can glean several interesting details from our traditional works.

For example, we learn that food was eaten while being seated (Rigveda Saṃhitā 4.30.3), food was eaten only twice a day (Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa 1.4.9), and that talking was kept to a minimum while eating (Baudhayana Dharmasūtra 2.7.2). In times of emergencies, there were absolutely no restrictions on food (Brahma Sūtra 3.4.29-31). We are asked to greet our food, honour it, rejoice upon seeing it, and pray that we may always obtain it (Manusmṛti 2.54-55).

There are many references to meat-eating in our scriptures. In the oldest composition of them all, the Rigveda Saṃhitā, we see that our ancients cooked the flesh of oxen and offered it to the gods, especially Indra (see RVS 10.86.14 or 10.27.2, for example). Horses, bulls, oxen, barren cows, and rams were sacrificed for Agni (RVS 10.91.14). Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa says that sage Yājñavalkya would eat the meat of cows and oxen, provided it was tender. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.18 says that if a couple wants to beget a son who will grow up to be a great scholar, they have to eat rice cooked with beef, along with ghee. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa goes on to say that meat is the best kind of food!

But even in the early texts, we can see the compassion of our ancient people. In RVS 8.43.11, Agni is hailed as one whose food is the ox and the barren cow. Often in the Rigveda Saṃhitā (see 1.164.27, 1.164.40, 4.1.6, and 5.83.8, for example), the cow is calledaghnyā, ‘one who doesn’t deserve to be killed.’ Therefore, it seems that only barren cows were killed. How else do we account for the lavish praise showered on cows (RVS 6.23.1-8 and 8.101.15-16)? One verse (RVS 8.101.16), which hails the cow as devī, ‘goddess.’

Although animal sacrifices were prevalent in the Vedic period, there were already some attempts to reduce this. They came up with the idea that instead of killing an animal, one could offer heartfelt praise to the gods or a fuel-stick or cooked food (see RVS 8.19.5 and 8.24.20 for example).

In later times, they even developed an ingenious theory that a person who eats meat will—in his next birth—become the meat eaten by that animal(Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa

In the Mahābhārata (Droṇa Parva / Book 3, Chapter 199), sage Mārkāṇḍeya tells Yudhiṣṭhira the story of a hunter and a priest. When the priest accuses the hunter of violence, the latter narrates the story of King Rantideva: “In Rantideva’s kitchen, two thousand animals were killed every day as were two thousand cows. Rantideva became famous because he fed meat to all his people.”

Kālidāsa (5th century CE) says in Meghadūta 1.45 that River Charmanvati (modern-day Chambal) arose from the glory of King Rantideva who sacrificed thousands of cows. Mallinātha (13th century CE) says in his commentary on the Meghadūta that Charmanvati originated with the constant washing of cow hide and the flowing of the blood of cows.

But over the years, meat-eating reduced in India. This was due to a combination of socio-religious, geographical, and cultural factors. However, we observe that meat (including beef) was still consumed as part of rituals and special occasions. For example, during śrāddha, a ritual in memory of dead parents and other ancestors (Āpastamba Dharmasūtra; while preparing a meal for a distinguished guest as part of madhuparka (Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra 1.24.22-26, Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra 4.8); or in the śūlagava ritual in which a bull is killed (Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra 4.9.10).

In fact, to put to rest arguments of those days, a text no less than the Brahma Sūtra (3.1.25) says that the scriptures don’t have a problem with killing animals for a specified ritual. Even the Manusmṛti, a text that is rather partial to vegetarianism, says that meat-eating is fine under specific circumstances like during a calamity or as part of a ritual (MS 5.27, 5.32).

Madhuparka is the practice of offering honey to honour a distinguished guest. According to Yājñavalkyasmṛti 1.110, six kinds of people are offeredmadhuparka – a priest (ṛtvik), a teacher (ācārya), bridegroom, king, graduate(snātaka), and someone dear to the host.

The Baudhāyana Gṛhyasūtra 1.2.65 adds ‘guest’ (atithi) to this list. As part ofmadhuparka, honey, curds, ghee, water, and grains were offered while meat was optional (See Āśvalāyāna Gṛhyasūtra 1.22.5-26 for more details).

In the prelude to Act IV of Bhavabhūti’s play,Uttararāmacarita (8th century CE), there is a delightful dialogue between two ascetics, Saudhātaki and Daṇḍāyana. Saudhātaki is curious about the guest who is visiting their āśrama and learns that it is Vasiṣṭha. He tells Daṇḍāyana, “I thought it was a tiger or a wolf. My poor calf was terrified since his arrival.”

“When a great scholar visits us, we should offer the madhuparka with beef or mutton, as it is said in the dharmasūtras!”

Saudhātaki says, “You contradict yourself. A calf was sacrificed for Vasiṣṭha but when King Janaka came, he was offered just milk and curds. The calf was set free.”

“What the dharmasūtras say in this matter applies to those who have not given up meat. King Janaka is a vegetarian.

All these examples – of Kālidāsa, Bhavabhūti, and Mallinātha – serve to shed light on how meat-eating was perceived in the first millennium CE in India.

Jainism was the first (and perhaps only) religion whose adherents were strictly vegetarian. Buddhism did not forbid meat-eating per se but they were against animal sacrifice. People were weaned away from eating meat due to the influence of these two religions and also with the rise of the Vaiṣṇava faith, which used Bhāgavata Purāṇa 7.15.7-8 as their reference for wholly avoiding meat.


As for consuming alcohol, many texts prescribe abstinence while some others prohibit consumption for some groups of people. However, in the Vedas, we find many instances of the consumption of the juice from the soma creeper (possiblyCannabis sativa) as an immediate reward after conducting yajña and the consumption of surā (alcohol made from fermented barley or wild paddy) for pleasure (for example, see RVS 1.116.7, 8.2.12, or 10.131.4-5).

While the drinking of soma was commended, drinking surā was condemned. Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā 12.12 puts it eloquently when it says that one should keep away from alcohol in order that a person may avoid committing a sinful act, in speech or in deed.

There is a verse in the Rigveda Saṃhitā (10.5.6) that lists the seven rules of conduct for men; anyone who violates even one of these is a sinner. We know from Yāska’s Nirukta (6.27) that drinking alcohol is one of the seven transgressions.

Manusmṛti 11.55 lists the five terrible sins (pañcamahāpātaka) among which we find alcohol consumption. According to Manu, it is especially forbidden for a brāhmaṇa to drink alcohol and he even prescribes a harsh punishment for it (MS 11.91).

It is interesting to note that there are references for both Rāma and Kṛṣṇa partaking alcohol and/or meat. Rāma offers meat to Sītā and coaxes her to try it out since it is well-cooked (Ayodhyākāṇḍa / Book 2, 96.1-2). When Hanuman meets Sītā in the Aśoka-vātikā, he tells her that Rāma has been pining for her, and afflicted by sorrow, he has turned vegetarian and a teetotaller (Sundarakāṇḍa / Book 5, 36.41). Later, there is another section where Rāma feeds Sītā with wine, meat, and fruits (Uttarakāṇḍa / Book 7, 42.18-20).

Similarly, there is a segment where Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna get totally drunk in a party along with Draupadi and Satyabhāma (Udyoga Parva / Book 5, 58.5).

That said, there is no need for devout Hindus to get upset by this or for Hindu critics to get take their usual perverse delight. These incidents don’t affect the personalities of great heroes like Rāma and Kṛṣṇa; at any rate, one need not judge others by their personal habits.


The texts of Āyurveda tell us that in terms of health and wellness, a purely vegetarian diet is not superior to a healthy mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods. In fact, some kinds of meat have been recommended for staple use.

Further, Āyurveda does not emphasise vegetarianism even in its code of ethics; it is not a prerequisite for high culture. This is in sharp contrast to its take on alcoholic drinks, which though regarded healthy in moderation, has been despised in the code.

To get an overall picture about food and drink, we need to look no further than the Bhagavad-Gītā, the greatest summary of Hindu thought. Krishna (BG 3.13) gives us an idea of how we should approach food and drink in general:

The wise ones eat the food that remains

after being offered to yajña;

thus, they are released from all evils.

The wicked ones prepare food for their own sake

and indeed live on sin alone.

In the act of obtaining food, we cause some harm to the natural environment. Sowe should eat our food with a sense of gratitude, which is what Krishna refers to as ‘offering to yajña.’ We should never feel entitled to our food; ‘living on sin’ refers to this.

Later, in Bhagavad-Gītā 17.7-10, Krishna speaks about the nature of people and the food that they enjoy but he never prescribes a particular type of food that one should eat.

It is impossible for us to survive without inflicting some degree of violence to the world around us. Manusmṛti (3.68-71) mentions the five places in a house (pañcasūnā) where living beings may be accidentally killed – the fire-place, grinding slab, pestle and mortar, places swept with a broom, and the water pot.

To absolve themselves of this sin, householders are expected to perform the five great worships (pañcamahāyajña) every day: prayers to the gods, homage to ancestors, respect to the wise and the pursuit of knowledge, service to fellow beings, and worship of forces of nature.

Attitude Towards Food and Drink

We cannot altogether be non-violent but to the extent possible we should avoid violence. It is noteworthy that Manu prohibits any form of killing for pleasure (MS 5.45) and declares that a person who does not injure any living being attains the highest bliss (MS 5.46-47).

Therefore, when it comes to food habits, being a vegetarian is preferred – with sustainability in view – but not imposed. Keeping this in mind, it will be better if meat-eaters respect their vegetarian (and vegan) brethren rather than look upon them with disdain. On the other hand, the vegetarians (and vegans) need not look at meat-eaters with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude because it is only natural for humans to eat meat.

A commonly used word for food in Sanskrit and other Indian languages is āhāra. The etymology of the word – āhriyate iti āhāraḥ, ‘āhāra is that which is taken in’ – suggests that it refers to anything that we consume, not just food.

If we truly want sustainability of the planet and all the living beings in it, then we have to look at our intake not just from the point of view of food.

Just as a start, think about how our food is produced, processed, and shipped. If we learn more about food procurement, then we can make more informed choices of what foods to avoid and how we can help sustainability in the large sense.

Whatever positive ecological effects one might have by being vegetarian might be cancelled out by a bad choice in what kind of foods we pick (heavily processed food, genetically modified food, etc.) Similarly, the negative effects of meat-eating can be tempered by making better choices in how the meat is procured.

Finally, there can be no universal dictum about the food that we can eat or should not eat. Let us try our best to behave in a way that is sustainable for the world. Let us develop the right attitude towards our food – that of gratitude and joy. And let us remember the wise words of Manu (MS 5.56) lest we beat ourselves about it:

Meat-eating, drinking, and sex –

can you call these faults?

It is but natural for people to engage in it,

however, it’s a great thing if one stays away from it!

(Additional input thanks: Dr. G. L. Krishna and Dr. Koti Sreekrishna)


§ Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam by Vāgbhaṭa, Sūtrasthānam, Chapters 2, 5, 6 and 8

§ Bhavabhūti’s Uttararāmacarita. Bombay: Nirṇayasāgara Press, 1949. pp. 103-5

§ Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta. Bombay: Nirṇayasāgara Press, 1915. pp. 37

§ Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśātra. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941. Vol. II, Part II. pp. 542-49 (Chapter X. Madhuparka and Other Usages) and pp. 757-800 (Chapter XXII. Bhojana)

§ Mahabharata, Book 3, Chapter 199

§ Mahābhārata: Text as Constituted in its Critical Edition. Vol. 2. Udyoga-, Bhīṣma- and Droṇa-Parvans. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1972

§ Prakash, Om. Food and Drink in Ancient India. New Delhi: Munshi Ram Manohar Lal, 1961

§ Sreekrishna, Koti and Ravikumar, Hari. Tastarians. 1 Jul. 2015

§ Sreekrishna, Koti and Ravikumar, Hari. The New Bhagavad-Gita. Mason: W.I.S.E. Words Inc., 2011. pp. 84, 243

§ Śrīmadvālmīkirāmāyaṇam (Mūlamantram). Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1963

§ Swamy, B. G. L. The Rg Vedic Soma Plant. Indian Journal of History of Science (1976)