South African celebrity chef and restaurateur, Yudhika Sujanani, made headlines when a petition directed allegations of cultural appropriation at one of her restaurants, Holi Cow. The petition was drafted by the SAIR (South African Indians have Rights), to various stakeholders, such as the SAHMS (South African Hindu Maha Sabha) that has been a national representative body of Hindus in South Africa since 1912.

The petition stated that “the company logo is that of a cow head which has markings on its forehead that depict a tilak [a religious mark worn on the forehead] with decoration around the head that closely resemble drawings used within the Hindu faith”. It goes on to assert that the restaurant prepares beef alongside Hindu prayer food (known as Roht), which is viewed as a religious transgression in the Hindu faith. The petition alleges that the establishment commercialises prayer food, considering that that “Roht is not a general treat, it is made very specifically to celebrate very specific deities and it is disrespectful to use it as a mechanism to drive profits”. Following the allegations cited in the petition, representatives from the SAHMS engaged with Sujanani on the matter.

President of the SAHMS, Ashwin Trikamjee, agreed to comment on the issue. The organisation reached out to Sujanani after receiving an official complaint about the restaurant, which coincided with their referral to the petition. Following this, the SAHMS had a telephonic conversation with Sujanani, after which a panel of attorneys investigated the complaint. Upon initial investigation of the matter by the SAHMS legal team, Sujanani questioned why a complaint was laid against her restaurant now, despite her restaurant existing for many years before. As per legal advice, an official letter was issued to Sujanani from the SAHMS. In this letter, she was requested to apologise for commercially exploiting Hindu symbols, change the name of her business and remove all references to the tilak. In a final comment, Trikamjee stated that “it is simply unacceptable to use religion to further interests”.

PDBY reached out to Sujanani for clarity regarding the accusations against her restaurant. Upon reaching out, PDBY was directed by Sujanani to a prior post on her Yudhika & Company Facebook page, dated 2 February, where she addressed the matter. The post said that Sujanani chose to change the name and logo of her restaurant following the petition’s circulation. She stated: “[…] I realised there are more important things than attachment to a brand or a logo. […] there is no name or logo that is worth the ugliness that comes with people insulting each other on this page”. She clarified that “I would also like to state that I have not been bullied into changing my name, I have made the decision to do so” and that “I want to continue cooking and creating and not explaining the name Holi Cow […]”. She further stated that “I have loved creating the brand, Holi Cow, but it has become weighed down by hypocrisy and religious debate”. Sujanani’s post ended with an apology for unintentionally hurting the sentiments of the public.

Sujanani asserted in her post that “the information circulating on social media is incorrect” and affirmed that she refused to sell basic Rhot even when she was asked to do so on several occasions. She clarified that her restaurant sells a Rhot-inspired cake and a banana cake topped with pecan nuts with a “Rhot-like crumble”. She also confirmed that the restaurant serves beef on the premises, stating that the practice was not new in her restaurant.

Sujanani also clarified with PDBY to “kindly take note and understand the connotation of ‘prayer food’. No ‘prayer food’ is sold at the store. The reason that this has become such an issue is the misconception and miscommunication surrounding this”.

PDBY spoke to Professor Maniraj Sukdaven, a senior lecturer from UP’s Faculty of Theology and Religion, for a theological lens on the matter. Prof. Sukdaven’s field of specialisation is inter-religious dialogue with a special focus on understanding different religions and how their intra-beliefs juxtapose other religious traditions. On the significance of the cow as a symbol, he explains that the cow is a symbol for life, as it provides nutritional sustenance to humans. Not only does the milk provide a means for food, but the urine is used for folk medicine and the dung is used as fertiliser, a thermal insulator, fuel for fire, and plastering. Hindu Goddesses in sacred scriptures are also symbolised by the cow. Since these are popular beliefs, Prof Sukdaven holds that eating beef at an establishment that is marketed with images of a cow seems disingenuous and provocative. He states that in Sujanani’s defence, she can rely on freedom of belief as per her own conscious, practice and understanding of Hinduism.

Prof. Sukdaven explains that Hinduism contains a plethora of philosophical belief systems, which is epitomised by the metaphor of all rivers leading to the sea. The sea represents Moksha, the freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. It is the goal of Hinduism to ultimately achieve Moksha, therefore all philosophical beliefs lead to this. He mentions that if Sujanani’s personal philosophical beliefs are in line with the popular system of viewing the cow as sacred, then her marketing holds serious repercussions, as consuming beef means that a cow was slaughtered. Academics refer to Hindu texts, which indicate that Indo-Aryans introduced the sacrificial and ceremonial slaughtering of cows. The generally negative response to Holi Cow’s marketing is the result of a populist opinion that the cow is sacred. Prof. Sukdaven concludes that Sujanani can rely on specific Hindu texts to support her practices.

Mathias Shunmugam, a PhD student majoring in Hinduism at the Faculty of Theology and Religion at UP, and member of the SAHMS Youth League, was consulted for his views on the incident. He states that symbolism is a substantial part of Hinduism as almost everything has a spiritual meaning. The cow is a symbol of life, this is captured in the Vedas (the oldest Hindu text) where the cow is observed as the mother of all gods. He says that “despite the differences in the religious traditions of Hinduism, Hindus strongly agree that the cow is a symbol of life”. He noted that there are Hindus who do consume beef, with India being one of the world’s biggest suppliers of beef. Shunmugam holds that Hinduism should not be seen as one religion, as this means that only one interpretation of it is “correct”, explaining that there are many interpretations of Hinduism.

He cited that some Hindus eat beef while others adhere to vegetarianism, yet each of these belief systems hold different things sacred. Shunmugam states that if Hindus of all beliefs showed cohesion and understanding of one another (as Hinduism promotes), then there would not be a debacle in the first place, as mutual respect for the other’s beliefs is evident. As a member of the SAHMS Youth League, he stated that the organisation has education programmes centred around Hinduism in the pipeline.

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Susanna is currently stu(dying) genetics and joined the PDBY team in 2019. She divides her time between writing and playing with plant disease samples. Her contributions span across Science, politics and all things spicy. If you are or were in the SRC, she’s probably spammed you with messages for a story. She’s got a memory like an elephant – so she probably keeps track of student promises. Picture not to scale.

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