Historians are, in many ways, myth-busters. D N Jha, who passed away on Thursday aged 81, punctured many myths through his work. Jha saw his vocation as historian and teacher to be a truth-seeking mission, which was not to be swayed by populist beliefs or the demands of power politics. If the truths he found contradicted widely-held social notions, he was willing to risk the ire of the believers.
Jha was teaching and writing at a time when Indian history had turned into a site of political contestation. The Hindu right wanted history-writing to be in sync with its political exigencies and insisted that historians did not refute what it held to be its truths. Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow busted one such “truth” of the Hindu right concerning the place of the cow in Indian society. Just as the campaign against consumption of beef became a powerful political campaign, Jha provided evidence from texts, including the Rig Veda, that animal sacrifice was common in ancient India and the cow was among the animals sacrificed. The sacrificial meat, including beef, was distributed among believers and consumed, he pointed out. And that, contrary to the argument that beef-eating was introduced to India by Muslim rulers, bovine meat was consumed by many communities right from the Vedic age. Not surprisingly, a political attack was launched on the book, first published in 2001, which was then withdrawn from the stores for a while, until an international edition was launched in 2004.
The Myth of the Holy Cow was both the response of a historian sensitive to the sanctity of his discipline and the act of a citizen worried at the assault on India’s plural heritage. Jha saw that as a scholar it was his responsibility to speak up against simplistic readings of the past, and the attempts to cast it as a mirror of the present. History, as his work brought out, can sometimes offer a cure to the blindness of the present. It’s a different matter that the present may turn an unseeing gaze to it.