Wednesday, July 3, 2013


The glory of gau [cow]  


Shrinivas Tilak

American Sanskritist and Indologist of repute, W. Norman Brown, identified five factors that have contributed to why Hindus sanctify the cow in India: (1) the importance of the cow and its products for the performance of Vedic yajña; (2) the figurative use of words for the cow in Vedic literature and the later understanding of these figurative expressions as indicating literal truth; (3) the prohibitions against the cow slaughter because it belonged to the brāhmaņa; (4) the inclusion of the cow under the general doctrine of ahimsā; (5) the association of the cow with the mother goddess (see Smith 1994).

The glorification of the cow is already discernible in the Rgveda where cows, returning in the evening after a day out on the pastures, are fondly welcomed ‘home’ (7:49.3-4).  The cow figures among the various deities that are praised in one of the sūktas of the eighth Maņḍala (8:10.15-16; also known as ‘Go-sūkta'):  “Welcome the cow as it approaches you,” it says. "Do not kill the innocent cow," it exhorts.

Given such a wealth of lore about the sacredness of the cow, it is not surprising that Hindus equate India with motherland and consider the cow as the bridge between the two because in Sanskrit the word ‘go’(गो)  (cow) also means land (bhūmi) (Smith 1994: 261). The emergence of cow as the integrative symbol in India may be traced to an account in the Mahābhārata which informs us that Nandini (the divine cow of Sage Vasişţha) (1) symbolized the mother earth and (2) the major communities that populate India--the Pallava, Drāvida, Yavana, Pauņdra, Kirāta, Siṁmhala, Pulinda, and Śabara issued out of Nandini (Śalyaparvan 40: 21; Ādiparvan 174: 38-40; Droņaparvan 26: 17) (see Tilak 2009).

India is not a unique land where the cow is respected. In ancient times, adoration of the cow was practiced in many cultures including that of Eire (present-day Ireland). The cows were decorated and were sprinkled with the first water drawn from the sacred well after midnight. This Irish cow festival resembled the Gopāşţamī festival in India (Lal 1968: 127).

Cow was also venerated in ancient Iran. After its Islamization, many Zoroastrians sought refuge in Gujarat on India’s west coast. Jadi Rana, the local ruler asked the priest, who was among the refugees, to explain their religion and customs.  The priest answered in sixteen Sanskrit ślokas, emphasizing those parts of the religion that are akin to Hindu dharma, such as reverence for the cow. Upon hearing this, the ruler allowed the Zoroastrians to settle among his people (they are now known in India as ‘Parsis’)(see Gould 2005: 177).

In modern India, Virgis Kurien (an expert in dairy science and managing director of a modern dairy complex) attributed the origin and phenomenal growth of the Amul complex (engaged in the milk and milk products business in the state of Gujarat) to veneration offered to the cow in Gujarat.


Since the most ancient times, Hindus partake of a small dab of pancagavya, a mixture of five products derived from the cow: milk, curd, ghee, urine, and fecal matter as part of certain rituals. According to Āyurveda, pancagavya promotes health. In a specialized discipline known as Vṛkṣāyurveda (āyurveda for the plants), pancagavya is said to enhance the biological efficiency of crop plants and the quality of fruits and vegetables (Natarajan, 2002).

Until more recent times, Hindus were jeered for engaging in such a "despicable" practice. Guess what! Now modern science is catching up with what may be called ‘faecal therapy.’ Transplanting faeces from a healthy person into the gut of one who is sick, it is now learned, can cure severe intestinal infections caused by a dangerous type of bacteria that antibiotics often cannot control. A new study finds that such transplants cured 15 of 16 people who had recurring infections with Clostridium difficile bacteria, whereas antibiotics cured only 3 of 13 and 4 of 13 patients in two comparison groups. The treatment appears to work by restoring the gut’s normal balance of bacteria, which fight off C. difficile. The treatment may sound appalling, but it works, writes Denise Grady in a report published in the January 16, 2013 issue of the New York Times of (Grady 2013). So, preventive value to maintain healthy intestinal bacterial flora can be attributed to periodic (annual or semiannual) introduction of a very small amount of Panchagavya in the intestinal tract as it is now presumed to have superior medicinal properties even compared to strong antibiotics used to treat certain kinds of intestinal infections.

Cow slaughter: practice and politics

The Qu’rān does not sanction cow slaughter and abstaining from slaughtering a cow on the occasion of a Muslim religious celebration conforms to the Islamic teaching that Muslims must respect religious sentiments of others if an act or practice does not deprive them of their obligatory religious practices (faraiz, wajibat) (see Mahmood 1993: 104). Babar, who established the Mughal dynasty in India, did not practice cow slaughter and Mughal emperors who succeeded him continued the ban on it as the state policy.

The issue of cow slaughter was one among others that provoked the Indian war of independence in 1857. Maulana Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi (1797-1861), a renowned philosopher, poet, and a religious scholar, was one of the main figures of the war of independence who issued a fatwa in favour of jihad against the East India Company in 1857 on behalf of Bahadurshah Zafar II, the last Mughal emperor. Khairabadi also wrote the constitution of the new nation that was expected to emerge after the ‘war of independence.’ As the first provision of the proposed constitution Khairabadi put in a ban on the cow slaughter (kahin bhi gay jabah na ki jay (कहींभी  गाय जबाह ना की जाय) (see Hardikar 2008).

During the struggle for independence, Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi continued to demand for ban on cow slaughter. In independent India, however, the practice has been resumed.


Gould, Ketayun H. 2005. “A Perspective on the Parsis: The Minority-Majority.” In Individuals and Ideas in Traditional India: Ten Interpretive Studies edited by Jagdish P. Sharma, 167-203, Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Grady, Denise. 2013. “When Pills Fail, This, er, Option Provides a Cure.” The New York Times, January 16, 2013.

Hardikar, Anand. 2008. “Gohatya bandiche Musalmani Prayatna.” Sakal, Pune, March 2, 2008.
Lal, Chaman. 1968. India: Mother of us all. Delhi: Modern School.

Mahmood, Tahir. 1993. “Interaction of Islam and Public Law in Independent India. “ In Religion and
Law in Independent India edited by Robert Baird, 93-120, New Delhi: Manohar.

Natarajan, K. 2013. RCAC, R.S. Hospital Complex, Erode, Tamilnadu. accessed on July 3, 2013.

Smith Brian K. 1994. Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tilak, Shrinivas. 2009. Reawakening to a Secular Hindu Nation. Charles

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