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On Religion and Cattle

July 8, 2009

Please excuse the rather long quotation that follows, but it is too good for me to pass up. Here Bruce Lincoln is talking about a (semi-)pivotal moment when he began changing his view the nature of religion and religious studies. He went from respecting the Rig Veda as a great spiritual work to seeing it as relatively provincial.

rigvedaInsofar as there was any early decisive moment, it came in the summer of 1973 or 1974 (I forget which), when I was trying to make use of my newly acquired and still limited knowledge of Sanskrit. I had been studying the language, like most of my fellow students, because India was then construed as the privileged site of religiosity. And once my gaze was directed spatially eastward, scholarly and indigenous testimony deflected it temporally toward the most ancient, insofar as all subsequent Indic texts and traditions rested their authority on the Rg Veda: oldest of the old, holiest of the holy, and most prestigious of the lot. So, in my infinite presumption, I decided to read through the 1028 hymns of the Rg Veda, alternating between Ralph T.H. Griffiths’ (terrible) English translation, Karl Friedrich Geldner’s infinitely superior German (the standard scholarly edition), Louis Renou’s unfinished French version, and consulting the Sanskrit when major discrepancies emerged, which was far too often.

I won’t trouble you with all I learned about language, translation, and the management of both frustration and confusion from this arrogant schoolboy’s exercise, but suffice it to say it was useful. After awhile, however, an unexpected issue of content emerged and held my attention thereafter. Although my prior reading had led me to expect this hoary text would contain the most exquisite spiritual wisdom, a disproportionately large number of the hymns seemed unduly concerned with the pedestrian subject of cattle. Sacrificial patrons were always giving cattle to the gods and asking for more cattle in return. Priests were always being paid in cattle and boasting (or complaining) about how many. Meanwhile, kings and others prayed for success in cattle raids they conducted against enemies, while denouncing said enemies as cattle thieves. Mythic discourse offered no relief from this bovine obsession, endlessly describing how demons stole cattle from the gods and how the gods liberated vast herds from the demons.


Indigenous commentaries interpreted these myths in allegorical fashion, construing the cattle in question as rays of the sun liberated at dawn, rains liberated by the monsoon, or inspired thoughts liberated by meditation. All of this seemed wonderfully ingenious, but none of it terribly convincing. Only when I realized that Vedic India was a pastoral, premonetary society, where cattle represented the means of production, means of exchange, measure of prestige, also the crucial instrument for social reproduction (via bridewealth and wergeld) did any of it begin to make sense. The religion preserved in the Rg Veda was not timeless wisdom, but a human product, rooted in a very specific social, material, and historic context. When its hymns were read in other contexts—as a result of having been textualized, canonized, and transmitted over vast distances of time and space—priestly and scholarly interpreters invested those texts with novel sense via creative hermeneutics. In addition to the allegorizing techniques Indian sages developed, Europeans produced highly selective anthologies that foregrounded the relatively few hymns of “philosophical” content, while erasing many, many more that manifested a disquieting preoccupation with cattle. (emphasis mine)

This is about how I feel when I read the Lotus Sutra or the Bible.

The quotation is from Lincoln’s response to criticisms of his work in the special issue of Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 17/1 (2005).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Vidya permalink
    July 8, 2009 11:57 am

    That pretty much sums up my feelings about the Rg Veda, and I’m Hindu.
    I’d caution, though, that perhaps imposing contemporary Western distinctions on the texts do them an injustice — there’s no inherent reason that a text becomes any less ‘religious’ because it pertains to a particular time and place, or because it deals with ‘mundane’ matters. Is God not also fully present in our everyday experiences and encounters in the lifeworld?

  2. Jonathan permalink
    July 8, 2009 12:59 pm

    I think Bruce could have sped up some of his young academic efforts by first reading Harris’ “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches.”

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 9, 2009 8:49 am

    Vidya, I’m going to reply to your question in my next post.

    Jim (Jonathan=Jim West, right?), I’m not familiar with that book. Is it any good? What’s it about?


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