The Gentle Cow


Painting by Jamini Roy

Nov 16, INDIA (SUN) — The sanctity of the cow is perhaps the foremost sentiment of Hindus for whom this sacred animal has far deeper nuances in Indian culture and ethos than is generally understood. For instance, in Sanskrit, the vocabulary used to mention the cow is indeed staggering, revealing the extraordinary importance that was once attached to it.

Indian scriptures tell us that the cow is a gift of the gods to the human race. It is a celestial being born of the churning of the cosmic ocean. Guias the cow is called in Hindi, is symbolic of Earth itself (similar to Gaia,the Greek goddess of earth). It follows that the cow represents the Divine Mother that sustains all human beings and brings them up as her very own offspring. Much as a mother shows the highest mark of affection for her young, the passion of the cow for her calf is just as legendary and often referred to in Indian literature. The ancient texts describe how the gods run to the succour of a devotee like a cow hastening to feed her calf. In fact, the cow is even more than a mother in the sense that it fulfills all the needs of her children as well. It is in this conception that the cow is understood as Kakadhenu, the wish filling mythical cow, abode of the 330 million Indian gods and goddesses.

But in Indian legend, it is with the cult of Krishna that the cow is closely connected. Among other deeds, Krishna is said to have lifted mount Govardhan to protect his group of cows, cowboys and milkmaids. In popular imagination it is Lord Krishna who symbolized the relationship man should have for the cow. Hence to take care of this innocent and self-sacrificing animal is a matter of virtue for Hindus who identify the act ad dharmaor moral duty

Considerations of conscience aside, it was natural that in a predominantly agricultural and pastoral country like India, cows were and to some extent still are, considered to be the real wealth of the people. After all it is the cow that gives birth to the bulls, bulls that are harnessed to plough the fields and to provide transportation. And then of course, there is the mild--milk that is cultured to become yoghurt--yoghurt which is churned to produce butter--butter which is converted into gheeor clarified butter that in India is used as cooking medium. In addition to this, there is paneeror cottage cheese and buttermilk. Indians cannot forget khoyaand mana--the other milk derivatives used in preparation of sweets. No wonder the cow is considered the backbone of rural society.

Paeans of praise is reserved for cow's milk and gheewhich is considered to be an elixir. Dr. D. Bhandari, the former Director of Animal Husbandry in Rajasthan said, "You see it is the wonderful bacterial flora of the cow's stomach that imparts this matchless quality to its milk ideally balanced for humans. Buffalo milk may be richer but it is the cow's milk that sharpens intellect, gives swiftness of body, stability of emotions and a serene nature to the one who drinks it."

Also taken, but in measured quantities, is cow urine or gau mutrawhich has a unique place in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine. Commenting on the chemistry of gau mutra,Dr. C.H.S. Sastry, Director of the National Institute of Ayurveda said, "Cow urine is used to produce a whole range of ayurvedic drugs, especially to treat skin diseases like eczema." Besides, gau mutrais a well known disinfectant. Anti-septic property is also the attribute of cow dung or gobarwhich is mixed with clay to form a plastering medium for mud huts. It is a proven fact that mud huts plastered with gobarkeeps insects and reptiles away. This is the reason why people in the countryside still store grain in huge earthen pots plastered with gobarand gau mutrato keep it free from insect manifestations.

Gobarand gau mutrais also mixed with mud and straw to make dried cakes that fuel kitchen fires. Traditional wisdom says that in burning these cow dung cakes, the temperature never rises beyond a certain point, ensuring the nutrients in the food are not destroyed by overheating. Besides, the smoke of gobarclears the air of germs. Gobarhas also been successfully used to produce bio-gas and generate electricity for consumer use. Scientific studies show that gobarhas been found to be resistant to solar radiation. And of course, gobarmixed with gau mutramakes for excellent manure and a natural pesticide. Modern day ecologists are saying that as compared to chemical fertilizer which damages the land in the long run, gobaractually improves the health of the soil. It isn't hard to see why Indian mythology says that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, resides in cow's gobar.

Usefulness of the cow forms the subject matter of an essay every child in India gets to write in primary school. The children are told that even in dying, the cow gives us its hide which is prized for its softness. Besides the leather, the cow also gives its horns and bones and other parts of the body like intestines which have various uses. However, there are other benefits of the cow which are beyond the purvey of scientific scrutiny. Sages tell us that no matter how advanced instrumentation may become, man will never be able to unravel the subtlety of the cow's qualities which are sung in the scriptures.

It isn't surprising that the cow is then actually worshipped. Big and small, there are many festivals all over India which are dedicated to the worship of the cow but none is as important as the Gopashtami celebrated with great fanfare especially in rural India. Besides the festivals there are also fairs all over the Indian countryside where along with milch cows, colorful cow jewelry and clothing is also sold. I watched a farmer at Nagaur fair (in Rajasthan) buy a pair of silver horn jewelry for his cow with as much care and affection as was probably reserved for his wife!

But the romance of the cow is at dusk or what Indians call the hour of Gaudhuli--literally "cow dust." There is a mystique in the tinkling of cow bells as herds return from the days foraging, kicking up a clouds of dust just when the sun is going down. This is a special time, considered auspicious especially for marriages. So intimate is the cow's association with the lives of Hindus that in all the rites of passage of life, almost from conception to cremation, the cow is connected to ceremony and ritual.

Perhaps the most significant tribute to the cow is paid duringhavanor the formal fire ritual conducted by a priest. No havanis said to be complete without the presence of panchgavyaor the five gifts of the cow, namely milk, yoghurt, ghee, gohar,and gau mutra. In the Hindu world view, to give cow clarity or gau daanis considered the highest act of piety.

But if you cannot afford to give a cow in charity, you can certainly feed one. At an individual level, people routinely feed the cows--especially the wandering ones in the streets. But what is unique to India are several institutions that look after the cow, chief among them is the Gaushalaor "House of the Cow." Conceptually different from the dairy, the gaushalas,the gau sadaus,the the pinjara polsetc, maintain even the non-milking, old and sick cows along with those that are physically handicapped and heed human care and attention for survival. Mr. Ramavtar Aggarwal, Office Secretary of the All India Gaushala Federation said that there are more than 3000 Gaushalas in India which are charitable trusts managed by public funds.

There are many other institutions that also look after the interests of the cow. So one really wonders how come cows are still on the streets? Talking to a wide cross section of people including bureaucrats, politicians, social workers, and those involved with the welfare of the cow, I found the answer as complex as the problem. In the final analysis, it is best to say that there is no will to act either by the people or by the State. Maintaining status quo is the most expedient option. Summing up pithily, a government official said, "One should understand and accept the cows in the street as yet another paradox of contemporary India."

Perhaps this is the bane of modern times where ancient Indian values seem to be out of place in an industrial society. Traditionalists lament the apathy of educated urban Indians who are ambivalent in their feelings for the cow which seems to have become just another animal. They say that for a country known for its principles of vegetarianism and non-violence, it is a shame that not only is the cow treated so badly but also cow slaughter is still permitted in India.

Gandhi, the father of the nation made a passionate appeal to ban cow slaughter in India. He wrote with great depth of feeling for the cow and called it a "poem of compassion". He said that the cow is the representative of the mute world of animals. With the language of its eyes the cow seems to be saying to Man that "God has not made you our master so that you could kill or eat or mistreat us. Instead He made you to be our friend and protector". Such a fine thought can only emerge from this land where the cow is a symbol of its civilization. The songs of glory of the cow is a priceless gift of India to the rest of the world.

Nihal Mathur writes for the Insight India program


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