By Anindita Mukhopadhyay
The year 2017 can be marked as a crash course in all aspects pertaining to our revered mother cow, with the knowledge imparted by our erudite ministers and politicians. Rajasthan’s education minister Vasudev Devnani pronounced, “The holy cow is the only animal that inhales as well as exhales oxygen,” stressing on the need to understand the scientific significance of the cow.
Holy cow for a reason
The minister added that diseases such as cold and cough are healed if one goes near a cow, going on to claim that cow dung can soak up radioactivity owing to an ample quantity of vitamin B. Moreover, an animal rights activist, Chetan Sharma, stated, “Cow is also the reason for global warming. When she is slaughtered, something called EPW is released, which is directly responsible for global warming. It’s what is called emotional pain waves.” With the upsurge in such factoids, it is hardly a surprise that the year witnessed a recorded death toll of 11, with 37 reported incidents of hate crimes linked to cows, according to an Indiaspend database recording the rise in such crimes.
Cows in Hinduism
It is often supposed that cow worship is a principle tenet of Hinduism. However, historians have clarified that cows were not actually worshiped, but were merely considered sacred owing to their close association with deities. The cow has been likened to a goddess for her maternal attributes and all that she provides. Despite this veneration, Hinduism has never vehemently opposed the consumption of cow meat.
The present cow protection movement is an outcome of major religious evolution. Historians have remarked that thousands of years ago Hindu believers ritually sacrificed cattle, and consumed their flesh. In fact, one of the oldest religious texts, the Rig Veda, contains contradictory passages on the subject, some referring to ritual slaughter, and others to a strict taboo on beef consumption, as cows were upheld as ‘beings not to be killed’. Ancient ritual texts called the ‘Shatpatha Brahmanas’ prescribed specific cattle sacrifice as offerings to deities. The cow was regarded as sacred in the Vedic times, and this purity and sacredness ordained its consumption.
Soon after, under the influence of Buddhist teachings, the Brahmin priests urged the population to worship the cow and forbade them to consume its meat. Ritual slaughter was banned and meat consumption became restricted to the royalty. The Islamic invasion in 8th century A.D. brought about the complete prohibition of beef consumption for all Hindus. This was in part a political move on the part of the Hindus to establish their ethnic solidarity and identity against the beef-eating Islamic invaders and prevent the slaughter of the sacred cow. The Hindu principle of ahimsa (non-violence), and a corresponding regard for all animals was the spiritual justification for this restriction.
Utilitarian value of the cow
The ‘Oxford Dictionary of World Religions’ notes that the cow’s five products — milk, curd, ghee (clarified butter), dung, and urine, are all utilised in various religious rituals as well as fulfilling requirements of food, fuel and fertilizer. The common saying is that in providing these five gifts the gentle and benevolent cow offers much and asks for nothing. Her calm, patient and non-threatening countenance have been likened to a mother and ‘life-giver’, which adds to her revered status. Nonetheless, it is apparent that cow dung used as fuel and fertilizer can be replaced by any other excrement, for the same purposes. In addition, the significance of cow urine has been mentioned in the ‘Upanishads’. “Cow urine, one glass every morning, is supposed to cleanse the body of all hard minerals. The urine also acts as a spermicide if the woman washes her womb with it after intercourse.” ‘Gomutra’ consumption is recommended for men, for 60 days before intercourse to bear a male child. There may be some speck of truth to the claim, but it is inherently contradictory as the conception of any child is unlikely, if the male is fed ‘spermicidal cow-urine’. The stress on the utilitarian values of the cow actually stems from her holiness, which presumes that every aspect of the cow’s divine body and all that she provides is sacred.
The single valid argument for cow protection is based on environmental sustainability and is applicable for cattle as a whole. Long-standing research has indicated that vegetarian diets are far more environment-friendly as compared to meat-based ones. This is primarily due to cattle and the entire meat industry which are a huge consumer of resources, as well as emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. However, this research advocates a reduction in the numbers of cattle, for consumption and otherwise, as their upkeep is environmentally expensive.
The polarising cow
The prohibition on the consumption of beef had casteist implications. As historian Romila Thapar explains, “Eating beef was a ‘matter of status’ – the higher the caste, the greater the restrictions on food, but only amongst the upper castes.” This served to form a divide amongst the lower castes who were primarily poor and hence could only afford inexpensive meat like beef. Sociologist M. N. Srinivas pointed out that the lower castes gave up beef when they wanted to move up the social ladder. The cow protection movement arose in the 19th century with the first ‘Gaurakhshini sabha’ in Punjab, gaining support from Arya Samaj founder Dayanand Saraswati’s ‘Gokuranidhi’. These cow protection societies were initially not overtly anti-Muslim, but gradually they became a source of communal tension.
The father of the nation – Gandhi, was a major advocate of cow protection and vegetarianism in the 20th century. His attitude towards cows was largely in accordance with his principle of non-violence. He wrote that “Cow protection is to me one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man, through the cow is enjoined to realise his identity with all that lives… She is the mother to millions.” In fact, he attempted to make vegetarianism, and the beef taboo, a central tenet of Hinduism. However, despite having such staunch beliefs, even Gandhi never out rightly banned the consumption of beef. He recognised the diversity of the Indian state, “How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.”
Considering the economic aspects of banning cow slaughter and beef consumption, Ravi Srivastava, an economics professor at JNU comments, “You are turning an asset into a liability.” He adds, “If farmers are not able to sell their redundant cattle, the cost per unit of milk would have to go up horrendously for the rest of the dairy economy to be viable.”
Bearing in mind the recent ban on cow slaughter (and its rollback), followed by widespread violence by gaurakshaks or cow vigilantes, the BJP and the Modi government must realise that the 1.2 billion people of our country are not all Hindus.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
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