In times of nation-wide debate on cow-protection and beef eating; it is a matter of enquiry as to how the third largest religion of India, Sikhism has dealt with the issue in the past.
It seems that Sikhism in 17th, 18th and 19th century at many times condemned all meat eating as per the interpretations of many Sikh scholars. Damdami Taksal in fact, the body set by Guru Gobind Singh as a repository and propagator of Sikh thought, still adheres to the concept of vegetarianism, there is no way they would allow eating or slaughter of cows.
I am not a theological scholar, but I came across this verse in the Guru Granth Sahib, where cow slaughter is mentioned; one can draw their own inferences here, if cow slaughter was especially decried or not.
Brehaman Kailee Ghaath Kannjakaa Anachaaree Kaa Dhhaan ||
(If a Brahmin kills a cow or a female infant, and accepts the offerings of an evil person,);
Fittak Fittakaa Korr Badheeaa Sadhaa Sadhaa Abhimaan ||
(He is cursed with the leprosy of curses and criticism; he is forever and ever filled with egotistical pride.)
Salok Vaaraan and Vadheek Guru Amar Das; Ang 1413
Oogardanti Baani of Guru Gobind Singh, as included in the Dasam Granth, speaks of cow killing as a sin. Guru Gobind Singh has written that:
“Give me this command that I may grab Turks and destroy them. The great evil of cow-killing may I stop in this world. The throne of the Mughals may I destroy”
“Fulfil this desire of mine. May suffering of cows stop. May the victory of the true Guru resound through out the world.
However, it may be reasoned that the name ‘cow’ used by Guru Gobind Singh is a reference to the weak, as cows, a defenseless and peaceful beast. Whilst the regime, at the time, is referred to as the cow-killer – “gau ghaat” …
Whatever be the interpretations, it seems that men are conditioned to understand only the physical interpretations rather than the metaphors. In line with this literal philosophy, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia took up arms to kill cow butchers several times, Giani Gian Singh speaks of the actions of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia as:
“Though, he was very against killing of cows. To stop this, he attacked many times Lahore and Kasur, and slayed the cow butchers.”
Twarikh Guru Khalsa, Giani Gian Singh (1894), Pa 734
It was a common practice during Mughal rule for a Hindu/Sikh forcibly converted to Islam to be fed with cow meat to ensure that his break with his parent tradition was complete.
The reason Guru Arjan Dev’s body was wrapped by Jahangir in cow’s skin was to cause maximum offence to Sikhs. In fact, Jahangir’s memoirs especially mention it.
Cow slaughter was used in 1762 by Afghan invader, Ahmed Shah Durrani to desecrate the Harmandir Sahib Sarovar, and was historically and theologically seen as anti-Sikh too. The slaughtered cows were dumped there to make the sacrilege complete and to cause maximum possible offence to Sikhs. Baba Deep Singh later led a Sikh army to save the Golden Temple. In the ensuing battle the Muslims were defeated and Baba Deep Singh could cleanse the temple of the dead cows. During this time the Sikh and Hindu beliefs on cow slaughter seem to have synchronized together, which was carried forward into the Khalsa Raj era.
Don’t forget that cow slaughter was banned in Khalsa Raj of Ranjit Singh’s kingdom too. He even objected to cow slaughter inside the British camp during joint operations in northwestern region of South Asia. During the Sikh reign, cow slaughter was a capital offence, for which perpetrators were even executed. It may be noted that Maharaja Ranjit Singh had abolished capital punishment for all crimes in the Sikh kingdom, save for cow slaughter. Whichever area that Sikhs conquered during Ranjit Singh’s time had the order of ban on cow slaughter. Example is Hari Singh Nalwa’s conquest of Kashmir. Anyway, the fact remains that many Muslims were beheaded during the reign of Maharajah Ranjit Singh for killing cows.
Later when British reintroduced cow slaughter in Punjab, Namdhari Sikhs went on war with government on the issue and managed to get cow slaughter banned in holy town of Amritsar. The Namdhari’s notorious zeal for the protection of the cow brought them into direct conflict with the British government. Four butchers were killed by Namdharis. As a result eight of them were captured and sentenced to death. Such incidents were not one-off and in 1872 forty-nine Namdharis were killed by the British and sixteen more later.
Through such protests and campaigns the Namdharis initiated the fight for the collapse of the British government. However before the end of the 19th century the Namdharis discarded their militancy to return to simple piety. They consider themselves the initiators of India’s Civil Disobedience for freedom since they boycotted British education, law courts, railways and post office services.
To imagine that India’s independence struggle started in Namdhari revolt with cow-protection (yet again after Mangal Pandey) seems discordant in these times when cow-protection is a dirty infringement on our fundamental rights.
The jury is out, and we are not judges. We are open to read, to know and make our own inferences. To beef or not to beef! To let live or let beef.