Dr. Boonda Singh
The sanctity of the cow is of paramount importance in Hinduism. Its significance can be gauged from the fact that some of the holiest places of Hindu pilgrimage prohibit entry to people from other religions especially those belonging to the Abrahamic origin for whom eating beef is allowed such as Christians, Muslims, and Jews as a mark of respect for the Hindu deities, but with no ill intentions towards followers of the Abrahamic religions. For instance, when the Ex-Prime Minister of India late Mrs. Indira Gandhi visited Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha, even she was denied entry into the temple premises despite her importance as being the Prime Minister. Reason being that she was married to Feroze Gandhi, who was a Parsi.
So, how do Sikhs fare in this situation, as they have deep roots of Hindu origin? The members of the Sikh community are welcomed with open arms by the Hindu Brahmin Pandas and Pujaris in Puri. They love them.
And the reason behind this affection for Sikhs is that not only have the Pandas of Puri considered Sikhs to be an integral part and an offshoot of Hinduism, but also as a mark of respect and a display of gratitude for a community who have sacrificed the most to safeguard the Hindu Dharma when the latter was facing its darkest times in history and at risk of extinction under the Mughals, especially Aurangzeb. The inception, as well as sustenance of Sikhism, was derived from Hindus itself, and Sikhs have never adopted eating habits dissimilar to their parent religion.
Therefore, Sikhs have never been known to be beef eaters, at least not in India.
Of the many Sikhs living in the West, many are immigrants from East Africa, whose parents had left India long before the partition of India during British Colonialism. Many of them have never set their foot on Indian soil except for an occasional trip and have never had an opportunity to relate themselves with the rest of India, its culture, or Hinduism. Many other overseas Sikh diaspora includes Sikhs affected during the political turmoil in the 1980s, the blue star operation, or the 1984 Sikh genocide who found political asylum in the US, Canada Europe, and the UK, and they have, understandably, not much poetry left for India or Hindus because of their grievances which remained unaddressed. Their deeply hurt psyche served as a catalyst to create a psychological divide and uproot of Sikhs from their Hindu roots and this was cemented and perpetuated by the often-repeated stories of treachery by Chandu or Gangu who have became as if symbolic and representative of a Hindu or a Brahmin in India.
This separation continued in the west with a systematic dismantling of cultural common grounds such as:
1. Diwali celebrations got wholly replaced by Bandi Chhor Diwas
2. Holi was replaced entirely by Hola Mohalla
3. ‘De shiva var mohe’ written by Guru Gobind Singh was attempted to be read as ‘Desh vah var mohe’.
These changes were artificially imposed on other Sikhs and encouraged and driven by strong incentives to sever off every vestige of bonding linking them to their Hindu ancestry with a possessive vigor especially in the west by Sikhs who were prosperous and had the wherewithal to influence and embed such changes in Sikh practices, albeit with an inner sadness.
The systematic distancing of cultural, historic commonality between Hindu-Sikhs was also extended to their eating habits, which have become westernized too, and some non-vegetarian Sikhs in the west have no scruples of conscience in eating beef. To an extent, the travails of time and western peer group influence have also been responsible for the cultural dilution affecting Indian communities in a generalized manner with some Hindu families living in the west who too have no problems with the consumption of beef.
The following incidents in history about the Sikh perception of consuming beef, and are seen to be prohibited:
1. When Guru Arjan Dev was tortured by Jahangir by making him sit on a hot pan, and hot sand was poured over him, Guru ji had not flinched an iota and continued to face the torture in silence and peaceful composure. But when Jahangir decided to take the torture to another level and ordered that Guru Arjan Dev ji be wrapped by a freshly slaughtered cowhide, Guruji requested Jahangir to allow him a bath first. Jahangir relented to the request. Guruji entered the river Ravi, and never came out of it by merging with the Almighty. It was obvious that Guruji preferred to merge with the Almighty rather than face the humiliation of being wrapped with a slaughtered cowhide, and this incident depicts how a cow was held in great sanctity by Guruji during his times.
2. When Sri Guru Gobind Singh was escaping from the jungles of Machhiwara, a massive manhunt was launched for him which was combing the forests. When the Guru ji was escaping in the guise of a Muslim Pir, their contingent was stopped and they were asked to taste beef to be allowed to leave. But Guruji avoided the situation by asking his followers to mention to the Mughal guards that he was observing a Muslim fast as he was going to Haj. And the contingent was allowed to move on. This is yet another example of the steady belief of Sikh Gurus who held the sanctity of cow in their thoughts and did not support eating beef.
3. In the subsequent years following the assassination of Banda Singh Bahadur, when Abdali was angered at the massacre of his troops by Sikhs, in retribution he attacked Sri Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar and blew it with gunpowder. And he desecrated the holy Sarovar with slaughtered cow carcasses. Later, Massa Rangar committed a similar sacrilege, and apart from the desecration of the holy Sarovar with slaughtered cows, he also made sex workers dance and sing in the premises of Sri Harmandir Sahib. However, this time, he was duly punished by Mahtab Singh and Sukha Singh, who swiftly beheaded Massa Rangar in Sri Harmandir Sahib.
4. Maharaja Ranjit Singh has been an exemplar of the zenith of the Sikh empire that broke off the shackles of slavery of North Indian Hindu-Sikhs from the Afghans and Mughals, who were bent on establishing Islam in India to replace Hinduism. And during the rule of the Maharaja, beef eating and cow slaughter were prohibited. This was although the population of the areas ruled by the Maharaja included a Muslim population over 55%. And this was because even though Sikhism had adopted a distinct identity as a nascent religion, it had not severed its roots and connections with Hinduism from whom its cultural and religious values were resourced, including the newly baptized Sikhs who were drawn exclusively from Hindu families, especially when they raised their eldest son as a Sikh. And many North Indian families were seen to have both Sikh and Hindu members within the same family, and intermarriages were considered as an accepted and unquestionable norm and conducted with no objections or afterthought as these 2 were inherently intertwined and inseparable. Therefore, the eating habits remained the same for both, as it would be unusual for separate dinner plates for 2 brothers of the same family.
Therefore, it was at least obvious to the Mughals of those times that the massacre of cows would seriously hurt the sentiments of Sikhs, and that beef would not be accepted as food.
Sadly, this knowledge is lost to some Sikhs of modern days living in the West or being deliberately ignored by them because of the aforementioned reasons.
With time and attrition, and political blunders, the bonds of Sikhism as well as the commonality of Gods and concepts with Hinduism were lost and replaced with less accurate ones, fanned by unscrupulous politicians in India who couldn’t care less, and a lack of effective leadership among Sikhs and Hindus who could and should have united the 2 brothers that were gradually drifting away from each other culturally.
The opinion of whether Sikhism mandates a vegetarian or non-vegetarian diet remains divided, as is exemplified by the differing beliefs, and could well be explained because of the diverse culinary preferences in Hindus in India who have been their natural ancestors. However, beef has never been on the menu of either of these communities. The Sikhs living in India are never seen or known to consume beef. And therefore, to reaffirm again, yes, the cow is as sacred for Sikhs as it is for their Hindu brothers, beyond any doubt.
The author is a Sikh doctor and is an earnest researcher of the history of India, especially Punjab. He lives in Delhi.
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