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Books and Documents ( 13 Aug 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Myth of the Holy Cow



By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam

Name of the Book: The Myth of the Holy Cow

Author: DN Jha

Publisher: Navayana, New Dehi

Year: 2009

 Pages: 207

 ISBN: 978-8189059163

Price: Rs 200


‘The central fact of Hinduism,’ wrote MK Gandhi ‘is cow protection’. Gandhi was not alone in making such a claim. Like him, most Hindu ideologues insist on the centrality of the cow to Hinduism. For them, the cow is not just a four-legged beast but, rather, the goddess Gau Mata, or even, for some, the repository of all the millions of Hindu deities. Worship of the cow, so it is argued, is a cardinal principal of Hinduism, along with vegetarianism. The supposed holiness of the cow and the Hindu ban on beef-eating, Hindu ideologues claim, go back all the way to the period of the Vedic Aryans. The belief in the sanctity of the cow is routinely marshaled by right-wing Hindus as a symbol to distinguish Hindus from others, particularly Muslims, who are treated with disdain on account of their supposed penchant for beef and their alleged constant readiness to slaughter ‘the mother cow’. In this way, the myth of the holy cow serves as a powerful tool to create and consolidate a powerful sense of Hindu communal identity transcending caste-class divides, which is premised on relentless hostility to the beef-eating Muslim ‘other’.

Not surprisingly, then, Indian history is littered with the memory of scores of deadly communal riots between Muslims and Hindus in the name protecting the cow and its alleged sanctity, in which thousands of people have lost their precious lives. Numerous ‘upper’ caste Hindu revivalists, from the medieval period onwards, sought to stir up Hindu sentiment against Muslims in the name of ‘protecting Brahmins and cows’. Reflecting Hindu pro-cow sentiment, the Indian Constitution made it incumbent on the Indian state to ‘take steps for…prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves’, a demand which right-wing Hindu parties keep raising from time to time, especially when  elections are just round the corner, this being a potent vote-catching gimmick.

This book, a product of intense scholarly research by one of India’s leading historians, reveals that the notion of the cow as a Hindu deity and of the ban on eating beef as being intrinsic to what, for want of a better term, is called ‘Hinduism’, especially to the early Vedic tradition, is completely fallacious. So, too, it argues, is the belief that beef-eating became a practice in India only with the coming of the Muslims and Islam, a belief, the author indicates, which is deployed by contemporary proponents of the myth of the divinity of the cow to demonise Muslims and their faith.  Based on a close and incisive analysis of early Brahminical, Jain and Buddhist scriptures, DN Jha, former Professor of History at Delhi University and one-time General President of the Indian History Congress, argues that the early Hindus, and most definitely the Rig Vedic Aryans, who are regarded as votaries of supposedly ‘pure Hinduism’, were not just non-vegetarians but, in fact, were voracious beef-eaters. Moreover, they routinely killed cows, on a massive scale, in sacrificial rituals in the hope of pleasing their various gods.

The first available textual evidence of cow-slaughter and beef-eating as being an integral part of the Indo-Aryan culinary tradition is present, Jhan informs us, in none less than the Vedas, which modern Hindus regard as containing the essence of ‘Hinduism’. The Vedic religion, Jha writes, was characterized by elaborate sacrifices, conducted in the hope of winning the pleasure of a range of tribal Aryan gods. Various types of food offered to these gods in the course of these sacrifices were supposed to be of their liking, and were also eaten by those who performed the sacrifices, including and especially the Brahmin priests. Many of these Vedic sacrifices entailed slaughter of animals on an enormous scale, including, Jha reveals, of cows.

The centrality of animal, including cow, sacrifice in the religion of the Vedic Aryans must be seen in the context of the economic structure of their society, Jha explains. The Aryans, who invaded India in the middle of the second millennium BC, were nomadic pastoralists, their chief form of wealth being cattle. Even prior to their invasions, the Aryans had practiced cow sacrifice, and this was continued after they settled in the country. Their tribal gods were, as the Rig Veda describes them, particularly fond of meat, and a whole range of animals, including cows, were sacrificed to please them and to feed the Brahmin priests, so Jha tells us.

Jha provides ample evidence to back his claim. The Rig Veda frequently refers to cooking of ox meat to offer the gods, especially the supposedly greatest of them all, Indra, who is invoked as the destroyer of the forts of the enemies of the invading Aryans—the autochthonous Indian people. The Rig Veda has Indra as announcing, ‘They cook for me 15 plus 20 oxen’, while elsewhere in the same book he is said to have eaten the flesh of a bull flesh or a hundred buffaloes. Similarly, the Rig Veda depicts Agni, second in importance to Indra among the Aryan gods, as roasting a thousand buffaloes, and he is described as ‘one whose food is the ox and the barren cow’. A third key Rig Vedic god, Soma, is also recorded as also requiring bloody sacrifice of animals, including cattle.

The later Vedic texts, Jha adds, provide further details of these gory animal sacrifices that formed the core of the Aryan tribal religion, convincingly proving that non-vegetarianism, venerating the cow and proscribing the eating of beef were wholly alien to the formative period of what is today called ‘Hinduism’. These animal sacrifices, geared to providing Brahmins with an enormous and free supply of meat, were devised by the priests in such a way as to convince those who performed them that this was a means to please the blood-thirsty Aryan gods. Thus, the texts speak of different types of cows to be sacrificed to different gods, each god supposedly having his own favourite sort: a bull is to be sacrificed to Indra, a dappled cow to the Maruts, a copper-colored cow to the Asvins, and so on. In most public sacrifices (such as the asvamedha, gomedha, rajasuya and vajapeya), the flesh of animals, especially the cow, ox and bull, was required, so the scriptures laid down. The agnyadheya sacrifice required a cow to be killed and the priest to put four dishfuls of rice on the hide of a bull. In the asvamedha, the most important Vedic sacrifice, more than 600 animals and birds were killed, and this display of gore ended with sacrifice of 21 sterile cows. The gavamayana sacrifice involved the sacrifice of three barren cows offered to Mitravaruna and other deities, while in the grhamedha, a lavish feast, an unspecified number of cows were killed. The gosava or sacrifice of a cow was also an important component of the rajasuya and vajapeya sacrifices and the agnistoma ritual. An element in the pancasaradiyasava ritual was the immolation of seventeen dwarf heifers aged under three years. In the sulagava sacrifice, an ox was killed to please Rudra, its tail and skin thrown into the fire and its blood poured on the grass for the snakes.

Jha argues that beef was considered such a choice dish by the early Aryans, forefathers of today’s Hindus that it was generally offered to special guests. A special rite, mentioned in the Vedic texts, called arghya or madhuparka, which entailed killing a cow, was devised in order to greet honoured guests. The Rig Veda also indicates that cows were slain for other festive occasions like marriage.  In the Vedic period, Jha tells us, ‘cattle, in fact, seem to have been killed even on what would appear to many of us to have been flimsy grounds.’ For instance, some texts recommended that a person who desired a learned son with a long life should eat a stew of meat, including beef if he so chose, along with rice and ghee.

Cow slaughter was also an integral part of the Vedic Aryan cult of the dead, Jha explains. One Rig Vedic passage refers to the use of skin and the fat of a cow to cover the dead body, and the Atharva Veda seems to speak of a bull being burnt along with the dead to supposedly rise within the next world.  The Gryhasutras, Brahminical texts about domestic rituals, mention the slaying of cattle when a death occurs and of distributing different limbs of the animal on those of the corpse. The rules of sraddha, a ritual for the dead, mention that the ancestral spirits or pitrs had to be well-fed with beef, and so, besides other animals, cows and bulls were slain in the sraddha ceremonies. Apparently, different types of animals, if killed, were believed to please the spirits for different periods of time, but, Jha notes, their ‘preference for beef was generally unquestioned […] It was only in the absence of meat that vegetables could be offered to the pitrs.’

Jha indicates that the Vedic texts themselves clearly indicate that the cow was definitely not seen as sacred in both the Vedic period, and that beef eating was common, including and especially among the Brahmins. At the same time, however, the cow, being a symbol of wealth in a pastoral economy, received praise in some texts, and it is this, Jha believes, that might have provided a basis for the later development of the myth of the holy cow, although it was certainly not considered holy in the Vedic period. Yet, even within the Vedas, he writes, there is evidence of a gradual shift in attitudes towards the cow, with the notion that a cow owned by a Brahmin beginning to acquire a degree of inviolability, and with the cow gradually becoming an ideally preferred form of sacrificial fee or dakshina to the Brahmin priest. The post-Vedic texts began to speak of the dire consequences one would face if one injured or stole a cow owned by a Brahmin as well as the supposed benefits one would receive if one donated a cow to a Brahmin—an incentive obviously geared to promote the fortunes of the priestly caste. Yet, Jha insists, this gradually evolving notion of a special importance attached to a Brahmin’s cow cannot be used to argue that Vedic cow was sacred. Indeed, he points out archaeological evidence from various Vedic period sites indicate the slaughter of cows and thus the widespread eating of beef.

Jha opines that the Vedic texts are characterized by a lack of consistency on the issue of the cow. While the Rig Veda unambiguously sanctions cow slaughter for a range of sacrifices, later Vedic texts provide indications of efforts to find substitutes for ritual cattle sacrifice, in the form of offering praise, animal effigies or a fuel stick instead. This tendency towards ritual substitution gained ground from the later Vedic period onwards, and, Jha writes, should be seen against the background of the gradual weakening of Vedic pastoralism, which was giving way to settled agriculture wherein cattle were prized for their usefulness in agricultural operations. This tendency appears in the Upanishads, some of which questioned the efficacy of animal sacrifice, although some of them continued to approve the sacrificial cult. The idea of ritual sacrifice as futile culminated much later in the doctrine of ahimsa, which is the defining trait of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which assertively challenged the worth of the Vedic religion based on animal sacrifice.

Yet, Jha writes, despite this growing stress on non-violence, the ritual and random killing of animals for sacrifice and food continued to enjoy Brahminical and dharmashastric approval, with the Brahminical texts of the post-Mauryan period abounding in contradictions on the issue of meat-eating and killing cows. Thus, the Manusmriti, considered by orthodox Brahmins as the ideal code of personal and social life, the Bible of Brahminism as it were, mentions that porcupines, hedgehogs, iguanas, rhinos, turtles, fish, hares and various domestic animals may be eaten, and also lays down that eating meat on sacrificial occasions is a divine rule but that on other occasions it is demonic. Hence, it ordains, it is not wrong to eat meat while honouring the gods and guests. Intriguingly, Manu exempts the camel from being killed for food, but not the cow. Manu gives lip-sympathy to the doctrine of ahimsa, probably to pre-empt Buddhist criticism, but also claims that killing animals on ritual occasions is actually ‘non-killing’, and injuring them, as enjoined by the Vedas, is actually ‘non-injury’. Further justifying the Vedic practice of animal sacrifice, he argues that cattle and birds killed in sacrifices attain higher levels of existence, adding that the so-called ‘twice-born’ man who knows true meaning of Veda and injures animals for the purposes of hospitality and sacrificing to the gods and ancestors’ spirits causes himself and the animal he slays to go to heaven. If he refuses to eat the consecrated meat, Manu threatens, he will be reborn as a beast for twenty-one existences. He claims that the person who daily devours the animals which are believed to be destined to be his food commits no sin, for the Creator Himself has created both. In this way, Manu removes all restrictions on meat-eating and gives full freedom to all who like to eat it, while rhetorically extolling ahimsa. Jha also notes that Manu permits meat-eating on certain specific ritual occasions like madhuparka and sraddha, on which killing cows was a Vedic practice. Hence, he argues, ‘one may not be far from the truth if one interprets Manu’s injunctions as a justification for ritual cattle slaughter and beef eating […]’

Yajnavalka, another key dharmasastric scholar, echoes Manu’s arguments, clearly indicating that eating meat, even beef, was not yet a taboo at this time. He mentions a number of animals, like deer, sheep, goats, boar, rhinos and partridges, whose meat, he claims, satisfies the spirits of the ancestors, adding that a student, king, teacher, friend and son-in-law should be offered arghya and a priest should be offered madhuparka on all ritual occasions (both of which, according to Vedic practice, entail cow-killing), and that a learned Brahmin should be welcomed with a big ox or goat and delicious food.

Despite vague references to ahimsa, the Upanishads, Jha points out, do not mention killing of kine as a sin, and it was only in the later sutras and sastras that it came to be considered so. Even then, Jha writes, it was regarded as a minor sin or upapataka by most Brahminical law-givers. While, from Manu on, the Brahminical lawgivers are almost unanimous in describing cow killing as a minor sin, they do not lay down a uniform penalty for it. Thus, some consider the appropriate punishment to be feeding Brahmins, while others recommend or fasting for a certain period, shaving one’s head, wearing cow-hide as an upper garment and lying down in a cow-pen. If the cow belonged to a Brahmin, the sin was considered more serious than if it was a non-Brahmin’s, but even here, Jha says, the killing of the cow was not seen as a major sin. Some Brahminical law-givers of this period saw it as no more than a minor indecorous act, which explains why, for example, Atri equates beef-eating with cleaning one’s teeth with one’s fingers and eating only salt.

Eating meat is also amply testified to in the key Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which were finally redacted in the post-Buddhist period, and were probably written with the purpose of defeating Buddhism. Jha writes that the Mahabharata gives ample evidence that non-vegetarianism was the norm, rather than the exception, for many. Thus, Yudhishtra, who is said to abhor violence, regularly hunts deer to feed his brothers, their shared wife Draupadi and the Brahmins living in the forest. In the asvamedha sacrifice that he arranges, a number of animals, including bulls, are killed. Draupadi offers Jayadratha and his companions a meal of fifty deer, promising that Yudhishtra would also provide them with black antelope, spotted antelope, venison, fawn, rabbit, deer, boar, buffalo and several more species. The Mahabharata mentions that two thousand cows were slaughtered every day in kitchen of king Rantideva, who achieved unrivalled fame by distributing beef with food-grains to Brahmins. In the Anusasanaparvan of the Mahabharata, Narad declares that one should present meat, among other things, to  Brahmins, and Bhishma recommends that various foods, including beef, fish, mutton, rabbit, goat, boar, fowl, venison, and the meat of buffaloes, rhinos and red-skinned goats, should be offered to the departed ancestral spirits.

Similarly, Jha notes, Valmiki’s Ramayana contains numerous references to killing animals for sacrifice and food. Ram’s father Dasrath, desirous of progeny, performs a sacrifice in which the ‘sages’ bring forth several animals, including horses, snakes and aquatic animals, permitted by the sastras to be killed in rituals. In the sacrifice, some 300 animals were tied to the sacrificial poles, obviously for ritual slaughter. Valmiki depicts Ram and Laxman as killing game for consumption and sacrifice, and portrays Sita as promising the river Ganga that she would offer it rice cooked with meat and thousands of jars of liquor on her safe return with her husband. Sita’s love for deer meat makes Ram chase and kill Marica, who is disguised as a golden deer, and Ram gives the pregnant Sita different kinds of wine while his servants serve them with meat and fruit. Bharadvaj regales Bharat’s troops with meat and wine and, Jha notes, even slaughters a ‘fatted calf’ to welcome Ram.

Jha also surveys a range of classical Hindu medical texts and other secular literature to show the long persistence of a non-vegetarian culinary tradition, including beef-eating. Thus, Caraka, while extolling ahimsa, recommends the therapeutic use of meat, including beef gravy for intermittent fevers. Similarly, Susruta regards beef as a cure in various diseases and even describes it as ‘holy’. The celebrated Meghaduta by Kalidasa, alluding to a legend in the Mahabharata, has Yaksa asking the cloud-messenger to show respect to Rantideva, who sacrificed numerous cows whose blood flew in the form of river. Bhavabhuti’s Mahaviracarita, in dealing with Ram’s early life, describes a scene wherein Vasistha requests the angry Parasurama to accept king Janaka’s hospitality, which includes the killing of a heifer. In another play, called Uttararamacarita, Vasistha is depicted as feasting on a ‘poor tawny calf’ in Valmiki’s hermitage, and one of the latter’s disciples declares that ‘according to the holy law it is the duty of a householder to offer a heifer or a bull or a goat to a srotriya guest’.

Yet, Jha goes on, by the middle of the first millennium AD the Brahminical texts begin to show disapproval of cow killing, leading finally to a ban, with medieval Brahminical jurists now declaring that a range of earlier customs prevalent in the Vedic period, including cow slaughter, should be given up in the kali age. Thus, by this time, the cow, which formed a central item in the Vedic culinary and religious tradition, was transformed into a sacred object, and new Brahminical scriptures were penned declaring cow-killers as antyajas or untouchables and as destined to hell.  Even then, Jha notes, the texts that forbid cow slaughter recognize it as an earlier practice, and some dissenting voices continue to insist that cow-slaughter and beef-eating are still permissible. Thus, for example, the thirteenth century Narasimha holds it obligatory to eat beef at the madhuparka ceremony. Further, despite the ban on it during kali Yuga, cow-slaughter was not considered serious enough to be classed among the major sins, which including slaying a Brahmin, drinking liquor, and engaging in sexual intercourse with the wife of one’s teacher.

Jha traces the Hindu ban on killing cows in this period to the fact that the transformation in the economy, leading to settled agriculture based on massive land grants to the Brahmins, for whom cattle were now required in large numbers for a range of agricultural operations. The evolution, in this period, of the belief in the sanctity of the cow drew on notions contained in the early Aryan texts about the supposed purificatory role of the cow and its products at the same that these texts also recommended cow-sacrifices. Yet, the later dharmasastras continue to provide evidence to confirm that despite the evolution of belief in the supposed purificatory role of the cow and its products, it was still not considered a deity that ought not to be killed. This is evidenced from the fact of contradictory reports in the shastras about the cow. Thus, Manu states that food smelt by a cow has to be purified by putting earth on it. Yajnavalka contends that food smelt by cow has to be purified, and insists that mouths of horses and goats are pure but not the cow’s. Angirasa claims that bronze vessels smelt by cow or touched by a crow and those in which a Shudra has eaten are to be purified by rubbing them with ashes for ten days, as do Parasara and Vyasya. Vijnanesvara and Mita Misra insist that all eatables smelt by cow need to be purified. There is, Jha remarks, no Brahminical lawgiver who describes the mouth of the cow as pure. (The notion of the supposed impurity of the mouth of the cow, Jha tells us, developed from the post-Vedic period onwards, and is repeated in many the later Brahminical scriptures, echoing the Puranic legend about Vishnu, who cursed the cow Kamadhenu so that her mouth should be impure and her tail holy forever.) Thus, Jha shows, even while belief in the supposed purity of the products of a cow evolved, it went along with belief in the impurity of the animal’s mouth, thus revealing the deeply contradictory position of the overall Brahminical tradition with regard to the animal.

Jha’s masterly survey of the evolution of the myth of the Hindu holy cow clearly indicates the central role it has played over the centuries in fortifying Brahminical supremacy and ritualism. It also indicates the actual nature of the tribal Aryan religion, which, as Jha clearly shows, was based on killing of animals on a vast scale in order to appease tribal deities and was geared to serve the interests of the Brahmins, an image that contrasts sharply with that projected by Brahminical scholars for whom the Vedas are the epitome of divine wisdom. By proving, from the Brahminical texts themselves, that non-vegetarianism and beef-eating were, far from being considered anathema, central to the Aryan religious tradition, Jha brilliantly exposes the politics that have been played—and continue to be—in the name of the cow.

That said, Jha does not provide a detailed explanation as to why the Brahmins raised the cow, from a favourite food item and object of ritual sacrifice to the status of a deity, beyond cursorily mentioning the transformation of the Aryan economy and the influence of the Buddhist and Jain ahimsa doctrine. This issue is, however, dealt with in an article which is appended to the book, penned by Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of the foremost scholars of Brahminism in recent times. The article is a long excerpt from Ambedkar’s classic work The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables?

Ambedkar, echoing Jha, remarks that it is clear that the Rig Vedic and even later Aryans did eat beef. He quotes the Taittiriya Brahmana, a key early-period Brahminical text, as even specifying the types of cows and oxen to be sacrificed to different deities (a dwarf ox to Vishnu, a drooping horned bull with a blaze on forehead to Indra; a black cow to Pushan; and a red cow to Rudra). The same text mentions the panchasaradiya seva sacrifice that entailed the immolation of seventeen five-year old hump-less dwarf bulls and the same number of dwarf heifers under 3 years of age. Besides for ritual purposes, cows were also regularly killed for feeding guests. So extensive was this practice, Ambedkar remarks, that the guest was called go-ghna or ‘the killer of the cow’

Based on ample evidence in the early Brahminical scriptures, Ambedkar maintains that ‘there was a time when the Brahmins were the greatest beef-eaters’. ‘In a period overridden by ritualism’, he continues, ‘there was hardly a day on which there was no cow sacrifice to which the Brahmin was not invited by some non-Brahmin. For the Brahmin every day was a beef-steak day. The Brahmins were therefore the greatest beef-eaters.’ The yajna of the Brahmins, Ambedkar reveals, ‘was nothing but the killing of innocent animals carried on in the name of religion with pomp and ceremony with an attempt to enshroud it in mystery with a view to conceal their appetite for beef’. But even more, Ambedkar contends, the Brahmins ‘were not merely beef-eaters but they were also butchers’.

Why, then, did the Brahmins give up eating beef, and, instead, begin worshipping an animal that was once among their favourite foods and of their gods as well? Ambedkar contends that this was simply a matter of strategy in order to defeat their most powerful opponents, the Buddhists. Given that over time the majority of the non-Brahmins had turned Buddhist, the Brahmins were faced with a grave challenge, for their power rested on the utter subjugation of the former in the name of religion. With many kings adopting Buddhism, the Brahmins also lost patronage in the royal courts. Because Buddhism had made such a deep impression on the non-Brahmins, it was impossible for the Brahmins to counter it directly. Accordingly, they deliberately adopted certain Buddhist practices which the non-Brahmins deeply cherished, in a bid, as it were, to out-Buddhisize the Buddhists. Thus, for instance, in a major departure from Vedic tradition, they began building temples, wherein they installed images of various Hindu gods, with the intention of attracting Buddhists, who prayed in temples that hosted massive Buddha statues.

The Buddha had completely rejected the Brahminical religion, of which animal, including cow, sacrifice, formed a central core. The Buddhist objection to cow sacrifice had, Ambedkar writes, taken a strong hold among the masses, especially since they were now an agricultural people and for them the cow was a very useful animal. It is likely that the Buddhists’ relentless opposition to the Vedic animal sacrifices (besides their opposition to Brahminical hegemony) was one of the major attractions that Buddhism provided for the non-Brahmin majority. Such sacrifices, geared to promote the interests of the Brahmins, were probably a major financial burden on the non-Brahmins. The Brahmins had, so Ambedkar says, probably ‘come to be hated as the killer of cows’, and so they sought to outsmart the Buddhists by completely transforming their religion in order to bring the Buddhist majority into the Brahminical fold and thereby restore the Brahmins’ lost power.

This entailed giving up the sacrifice of the cow, ‘suspending or abrogating,’ Ambedkar argues, ‘a requirement of their Vedic religion in order to overcome the supremacy of the Buddhist Bhikkus.’ The object of the Brahmins in giving up beef and taking to vegetarianism, Ambedkar explains, was to snatch away from the Buddhist Bhikkus the supremacy they had acquired in the eyes of the masses due to their opposition to animal sacrifice, which was the essence of the Vedic religion. But, contrary to common perception, the Bhikkus were not strict vegetarians, and so the doctrine of strict vegetarianism devised at this stage by the Brahmins can be explained, Ambedkar argues, on the grounds that by doing so the Brahmins sought to appear to be even more wedded to ahimsa than the Buddhists, and thus, as it were, on a higher pedestal than the Bhikkus, so as to draw the masses back to the Brahminical fold. The Hindu ban on beef-eating, Ambedkar concludes, is thus a result of the historical struggle between Brahminism and Buddhism and a means by which the Brahmins successfully sought to reimpose their hegemony.

This fascinating book simply cannot afford to be missed by scholars of Hinduism and Indian politics. By bringing to light the reality of the myth of the holy cow, it clearly indicates the consistent history of the manipulation of a key religious symbol for the purpose of promoting Brahminical domination. Given the salience of the cow in Indian politics, the animal being continued to be deployed by right-wing chauvinist Hindu groups in order to stir hatred and violence against Muslims (and others, too, such as Dalits), the contemporary relevance of this historical survey is obvious. It certainly deserves to be translated into a range of Indian languages, possibly in the form of pamphlets summarizing its contents, in order to reach a wider readership.