Of sacred cows and profane men

By L K Sharma, June 9, 2017

A decorated cow

A decorated cow

In India today, the national discourse is dominated by the cow. The cow has highlighted religious, regional, social and cultural differences. Some humans have been killed in the name of the cow.

On landing in any country with his notebook and pen, V. S. Naipaul wants to know what the people are talking about. If he were to come to India today, he would find the national discourse dominated by the cow.

Many people demand that the cow be declared the “national animal”. Many more publicly address the cow as mother (Gau Mata) and deliver fiery speeches against those who do not consider themselves to be the cow’s children. Vigilante groups roam the street attacking those suspected of butchering the cow or eating beef. Transporting cows in trucks has become hazardous. A social media army has gone to war against cow slaughter and beef consumption.

The docile cow is credited with divine powers. It has beaten Trump in its polarising power. The cow has highlighted religious, regional, social and cultural differences. It has brought the issues of human rights and democracy to the fore. Some humans have been killed in the name of the cow.

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From the author’s portfolio, a cow sighted in Brighton, England.

The violence by cow-protection vigilantes against the butchers and beef-eaters has caused the fear of creeping Fascism, since these groups decide what the people should not eat. Beef is part of the daily diet of many sections and of the majority in some regions. The beef-eaters are hitting back by organising “beef festivals” and inviting attacks by the cow-protectors.

With a Hindu nationalist party ruling, the cow worshippers are asserting their faith in public, at times violently. In the words of writer Mukul Kesavan, the vigilantes bend the system to their will and take the law in their hands with the tacit or explicit blessings of the State and in the name of the virtuous nation.

The fault line is widening between those who worship cows and those who use “cow belt” as a term of denigration; between those who relish beef and those who do not want a beef-eater to be their tenant, neighbour or a fellow-citizen.

The virtuous nation
The cow has thrown up issues related to governance, law and order, justice and relations between the Union Government and the States. The New Delhi-sponsored cattle trade regulations have caused friction between some states and New Delhi. The former are resisting what they see as an unconstitutional dilution of their powers. Some states are refusing to implement the New Delhi’s fiat.

A regional leader says under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the states have been reduced to municipalities. The Central notification on the cattle trade will keep the High Courts and the Supreme Court busy for some time.

No area of human endeavour or discipline of study is left untouched by the cow discourse. Politics (cow veneration gets more Hindu votes, and an anti-cow-slaughter agitation can be used to harm an elected Government), economics (massive beef exports, the livelihood of butchers, dairy farmers and cattle traders and the leather industry) sociology (eating habits), history (did the Hindus eat beef in the ancient India?), cultural studies (the cow’s status in popular imagination) and arts (the depiction of cow and its symbolism – a hybrid of the cow and woman painted by an eminent artist).

There are more areas such as faith (cow as mother – Gau Mata), piety (cow as an instrument of charity and penitence) mythology (cow and Lord Krishna or Kamadhenu — incarnation of wish fulfilment in Puranic literature), science (cow as manufacturer of medicinal products), traditional knowledge (the benefits of keeping cows), linguistics (the Sanskrit word for the cow means the earth).

Watch on the YouTube a phonetically-driven English teacher telling students that the word ‘go’ in the sentence ‘go down…’ means cow! A cartoon shows a live cow tied to the turret of a Pakistani tank that would rumble on to an easy victory in India because no Indian tank would counter attack!

The recent months have again seen the cow being used as a weapon for disturbing social harmony and widening the inter-religious divide (butchers are mostly Muslims while beef exporters may be Hindus also).

Author’s portfolio.

Illegal activity and sinful lives

The cow is of great interest to those indulging in illegal activity because of the ban on cow slaughter in some states. Cow meat is disguised as buffalo meat till it reaches the foreign destination. There are more than 100,000 illegal slaughter houses.

The veneration of the cow is seen in millions of images of a Hindu holy man worshipping a cow after bathing in a holy river or women garlanding a cow. The camera also exposes hypocrisy through the images of hungry cows swallowing plastic bags dotting the roadside rubbish piles. Many cows that stop giving milk are just abandoned.

PETA, the people for the ethical treatment of animals, also exposes hypocrisy by pointing out that cows are confined to tiny stalls, crudely inseminated and forced to stand on piles of their own faeces. They are injected with the drug oxytocin that gives them stomach cramps. It is done to increase the milk yield. Recently, several cows died in a badly-managed official cow shelter in Rajasthan.

Millions of Indians believe in traditional knowledge about the medicinal properties of cow’s urine and shit. The Modi Government, whose leaders frequently enlighten the scientific community about the technological feats of the ancient India, set up a national steering committee to validate the properties of Panchagavya, a traditional concoction of cow dung, urine, milk and clarified butter.

The Department of Science and Technology is coordinating this programme while the steering committee is guiding research. Delhi’s prestigious IIT earlier organised a national brainstorming-cum-consultative workshop on Scientific Validation and Research on Panchagavya. Science means not disbelieving anything that has not been proved to be false. Thus research to validate these claims is fully justified.

However, no committee of scientists has been asked to examine the claim aired on the TV that drinking cow’s urine will “wash away the sins of the past life”. This is a nation whose Constitution seeks to inculcate the “scientific temper” and whose first Prime Minister used to talk of science and technology in his mass rallies.

The first sight that hits a foreign visitor in India is that of a stray cow sitting or ambling on a busy road. The less faithful are convinced that the cow is slowing down not just the road traffic but India’s march towards modernity, even the South Asian modernity!

“the most superior animal”
The faith-based adulation of the cow has touched even those whose professions are based on reason and a spirit of inquiry. They kept their views private earlier but now they join the chorus coming from the ruling establishment. They are keen to tell the Government that they are with it and not against it. The cow thus figures prominently in the hyperactive display of religiosity.

A High Court judge said in a 139-page order that the cow should be declared the “national animal” and cow slaughter should warrant a life sentence. He cited the Vedas as saying that “those who kill cows should be massacred”.

He described the cow as the “world’s mother who appeared on the earth along with Goddess Lakshmi during the churning of the ocean”! It contains millions of Hindu Gods in its body. He claimed that the cow is the only animal that exhales oxygen!

The High Court judge called the cow “the most superior animal”. Of course, among the humans, Lord Curzon had a long time ago appropriated the status of being “a most superior person”.

The judge quoted a German scientist who found out that cow has “cosmic energy” between its horns! A Russian scientist, he said, found that cow dung has the property of protecting humans from “radioactive waves”.

National Bird of India
Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma later made some more statements before the media that led to a hilarious public discourse on the sex life of the peacock, the National Bird of India that lit the Buckingham Palace facade at the inauguration of the UK-India Year of Culture.

The Indian National Science Academy did not comment on the judge’s claim that the peacock abstains from having sex and remains a life-long celibate, Brhamachari. The judge elaborated on the rare immaculate conception in the kingdom of the peahen who gets pregnant by merely drinking the tears of the peacock.

Whether the peahen swallows the tears flowing from more than two eyes, the judge did not say. Perhaps out of fear that a new vigilante group may subject Mrs National Bird to character-assassination.

Indian scientists, in the current ethos, may not like to contradict a judge and invite the hostile attention of the cow protection vigilantes. It wasn’t always like this. Years ago when newspapers reported a holy man’s claim to turn base metal into gold, an eminent scientist contacted this reporter and gave a statement ridiculing the man.

The Royal Society must join the fray since the High Court judge has cited one Dr Hamilton of Britain who says that cow urine cures heart disease. Culture includes science and thus to strengthen the Anglo-Indian relations, the British Council should trace this Dr Hamilton and send him on a lecture tour of India. India’s traditional knowledge desperately needs to be consecrated by Britain.

A businessman of Brighton has done his bit by placing a colourful Indian cow at the entrance of his restaurant. This cow has surely brought him more Hindu and Indophile customers. He deserves to be blessed by the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to his restaurant. The British Hindoos may have thought of the fanfare for that event.


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L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul.

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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