Mahatma Gandhi's views on Cow
- Dr Ram Ponnu*
I do not want swaraj in India where the cow is being killed. - M.K. Gandhi
In Indian tradition cow occupies a unique place. Cow is an especially revered animal and a symbol of motherhood and fertility. Cow calendars, carvings and posters attest to its symbolic representation of health and abundance. Today the cow has almost become a symbol of Hinduism. “The nation seems very rich because there are many cows” says Panini, an ancient Indian Sanskrit grammarian. As the backbone of the traditional Indian economy, cow became the cornerstone of planning, food, agricultural operations, irrigation, transport, building materials, fuel etc. The popular saying “who dies if cow lives who lives if cow dies?” clearly explains the enviable position of cow in the Indian society. “The cow is to us an economic boon not a drag on our income. If the cow is annihilated, our economy will dwindle with her and our non-violent agricultural and village founded culture will perish. The cow and men in India either live together or die together”. As an integral part of Indian society, the cow is of immense use to every Indians in one way or other. By her docile, tolerant nature, the cow exemplifies the cardinal virtue of Hinduism, ahimsa. As an embodiment of merit, the cow becomes high and most efficacious cleanser and sacrifice of all. She is believed to be a symbol of the earth because it gives so much yet asks nothing in return. As the chief source of nourishment, she gives more than she takes. She represents the giving nature of life to man. She is a symbol of dignity, strength, endurance, maternity, selfless service, grace and abundance. Her five products, pancagavya viz., the milk, curd, butter, urine and dung are all of great purifying potency. The Hindu scriptures identify the cow as the "mother" of all civilizations, her milk nurturing the population. Cow milk is considered more sacred than the purifying bath after a sacrifice. Milk products are essential for all the obligatory rites and ceremonies. The gift of a cow is applauded as the highest kind of gift. It is generally believed that cows are holy and respectful and destroyer of all sins. If anyone gives daily grass to cow, it is believed that he can easily attain salvation. To the Hindus, the cow is sacred because it represents life and fertility. On account of the manifold usefulness of the cow, India has conferred a religious role upon the cow, having raised her to the status of a goddess, mother to one and all and an object of worship. In the appellation gho-mata, mata (mother) is more attached to cow than any other goddess in Indian mythology.1
The origin of the respect for the cow is not traced exactly. It seems to have begun inherited by the Indians from pre-historic times.2 In the Indus civilization the bull, not the cow had an important place among the objects of veneration.3 The cow could be seen as a "cultural link" between the ancient Harappans of Indus valley civilization and modern Hindus, because the cow was economically important for them. It had also a religious importance in post-Vedic Hinduism.4 The veneration of the cow took place when the fortunes of the pastoral Indo-European people migrating on to the sub-continent depended on the vitality of their herds. Pre-Aryan cow cult was developed by the Rig-Vedic Aryans who bestowed special esteem to the cow for she gave milk and produced more bulls for the labour in the fields. The sages (sadhus) of ancient India proclaimed the cow sacred so as to save from slaughter in times of famine the herds on which their peoples’ existence depended.5 Abbe J.A. Dubois, a French cleric and scholar of Sanskrit who journeyed to and around India as a missionary in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in his Hindu Customs, Manners and Ceremonies, views that the worship of cow was invented by the Brahmins.6 Yeats says that “the cow is as much revered with the lightest tincture of Brahminism as in those more affected, which may be taken to indicate that reverence for the cow in India is older than the Vedic religion”. According to William Crooke, cow worship is closely connected with Krishna in his forms as the "herdsman god"- Govinda and Gopala. The worship may have been due to the absorption of the animal as a tribal totem of the races who venerated these two divinities.7
The pastoral Vedic people relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertilizer that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as an almost maternal figure. Rig Veda mentions that the Saraswathi region poured milk and "fatness" (ghee), indicating that cattle were herded in this region.8 The cows’ figure became symbols of wealth, and were compared with river goddesses.9 In the early Vedic period the cow, less often the bull is referred to as aghnya, “not to be killed”, the mother of Rudras, the daughter of Vasus and sister of Adityas. As the cow was the only source of milk and ghee which serve as nectar, the wise asserted that the cow should be sloughed because it serves humanity.10 The Rig Veda prescribes severe punishment for the person who kills a cow.11 and advocates expulsion from the kingdom.12 The warm milk flowing from her full udder at the sight of her calf was more sacred than the avabhrutasnana, the purificatory bath after a sacrifice. The dust raised by her hoofs was as purifying as a bath in a holy river or lake.13 The Atharvana Veda recommends beheading for such a crime.14 The later Vedic texts speak of the cow as the symbol of creation. Yajur-Veda portrays Indra and Varuna as the principal recipients of sacrificed cattle. As soon as Brahma swallowed the quantity of nectar and assumed the form of the cow, a large quantity of foam was formed in his mouth and it began to fall on a Sivalinga. As the foam was nothing else but nectar, Siva was highly pleased. From that time forward it was ordained that the foam in the mouth of a cow should be considered as sacred as nectar itself. The sin of pollution attached itself to the foam in the mouth of any other animal, but that in the mouth of a cow is to be considered holy, and consequently it is as free from pollution as fire, wind, gold are said to be.15
Yajur-Veda extols cow: “The effulgence of knowledge can be compared to the sea, the earth is very vast, yet Indra is vaster than her, but the cow can’t be compared to anything’’.16 It also adds: “May the cows, which should never be killed, be healthy and strong. For the attainment of prosperity and wealth, may be cows be full of calves, free from consumption and other diseases".17 In the Vedic period the word cow was used to denote earth, heaven, rays of light, speech and singer. Its white milk is “the seed of Agni.”18 Cow, a mere source of milk, as she is, if properly kept and looked after, the wishful filling heavenly cow herself.19 The king on earth could do no better than follow the cow, for protecting her, as she was the means of proper performance of the ceremonies, pertaining to the gods, manes and guests.20 The cow was as it was the secret of success in ancient India. For all the obligatory rites and ceremonies, milk products were essential, and the cow that gave them was indeed most gratefully worshipped. A human's bodily waste can only cause harm, whereas a cow's bodily waste can heal! A cow's bodily waste in the form of urine and dung are used in Siddha and Ayurveda medicinal systems to create drugs. Cow dung is used in haven, homas and other ceremonies. Thus a cow's bodily waste can contribute to the spiritual uplift of humans.
By the epic period to kill a cow was worse than murder excusable only when to do so was to obey a higher law.21 However, the veneration of cow had its in the time of the later Brahmanas, when although the cow was sacrificed, it was sacred just as totems are.22 In Mahabharatha the giving of cows and the merit acquired by it, contain much curious information about the religious ideas regarding the cow, which became deeply engrained in the Hindu mind through the veneration of the cow. It says: "All that kill, eat and permit the slaughter of cows, rot in hell for as many years as there are hairs on the body of the cow so slain”.23 Lord Krishna is associated with a pastoral background and with the cows and gopis (milkmaids) and his paradise is called ghokula, ‘cow-place’. In Harivamsha Krishna is depicted as a cowherd and often described as Bala Gopala, "the child who protects the cows." Govinda, another name of Krishna means "one who brings satisfaction to the cows." The Bhagavatha Purana depicts the youth of the god Krishna as a cow-herd, living the pastoral life among the other herdsmen and herd-maidens in Brindavan. In a story of Vishnu Purana the earth assumes the form of a cow in order to escape Prithu, the monarch of all. She was finally caught and persuaded to nourish the earth with her milk. Then Prithu milked the earth into his own hand, and corn and vegetables grew up for man’s food.24 Cows constitute the stay of all creatures. They are the refuge of all creatures and the embodiment of merit. They are sacred and blessed and are sanctifiers of all. They are endued with the elements of strength and energetic exertion. They have in them the elements of wisdom. They are the source of that immortality which sacrifice achieves. They are the refuge of all energy. They are the steps by which earthly prosperity is won. They constitute the eternal course of the universe. They lead to the extension of one's race. He who kills a cow and or a bull, commits a great sin.25 Agni Purana says that the cow is a pure, auspicious animal. Looking after a cow, bathing it and making it eat and drink are commendable acts. In the Markandeya Purana it is explained that the welfare of the world depends upon the cow. Varaha Purana also speaks a lot in the praise of the cow. According to it, a cow is a divine animal. In all parts of her body reside all the gods. She eats petty ordinary things but converts them into nectar and distributes it among the human beings. She is holier than the holiest place of pilgrimage, sacred among the most sacred things and nourisher of all In Raghuvamsa, Kalidasa appealed the people not to consider the gods who purchased soma by exchanging her [the cow] Mahanagni as she is… they employ the cow that has not been ‘seeded’ [by the bull].26
Hindu tradition says “as soon as men came into existence, they felt the waste of tissues in their body and did not know how to recoup it. They approached Brahma. He thought that the celestial nectar would be too strong for men who were mere children when compared to the devas - to digest, and consequently took a quantity of it himself, specialized it in his body and reduced it to a form in which men can with safety take it. He then took a form of a cow and made the nectar specialized flow from her udders to feed his children – the human beings. Hence the cow is considered as father and mother in one and consequently one becomes patricide, a matricide, and the slayer of Brahma if he kills a cow.27 To kill a cow, according to the principles of Hindu law is not only a crime, but an awful sacrilege, a deicide, which can only be expiated by the death of the offender; while to eat of the flesh of a cow is a defilement which cannot be purified.28 On account of reverence for the cow and possibly on account of economic causes also there arose before the end of this age a prejudice against eating beef which has gathered volume through the ages and is now became one of the characteristic marks of the members of the four Hindu castes.29
Cow typifies the all yielding earth. There are typical ‘cow of plenty’, Kamadhenu and her daughter Surabhi which are supposed to yield all desired objects. Their images are commonly sold in the bazaars, and bought as objects of reverence; and the letting loose of bull [vrishotsarga]- properly stamped with the symbol of Siva – in sacred cities like Banaras and Gaya, that it may be tended and reverenced by pious persons, is a highly meritorious act.30 It is believed that offering prayers to Goddess Kamadhenu is equivalent to worshipping our ancestors and hence it is considered to be auspicious to feed the cows on a new moon day. Veneration of the cow instills in Hindus the virtues of gentleness, receptivity and connectedness with nature. The cow is worshipped every day and has a very major significance in family rituals. In ancient India the cow was designated as the appropriate gift to the Brahmans and it was soon said that to kill a cow is equal to killing a Brahman.31 Cow worship instills in Hindus the virtues of gentleness, respectability and connectedness with nature.
On 7 August 1980, Tutu and a delegation of church leaders and the SACC met with Prime Minister PW Botha and his Cabinet delegation. It was a historic meeting in that it was the first time a Black leader, outside the system, talked with a White government leader. However, nothing came of this meeting as the Government maintained its intransigent position. He earned the wrath of White South Africa when he said that there would be a Black Prime Minister within the next five to ten years. In 1981, Tutu became the Rector of St Augustine’s Church in Orlando West, Soweto. As early as 1982 he wrote to the Prime Minster of Israel appealing to him to stop bombing Beirut; while at the same time he wrote to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, calling on him to exercise ‘a greater realism regarding Israel’s existence’.9
Akbar, the Mughal Emperor said: “It is clear as daylight that the entire human and animal world is supported and upheld by the family of the cow. Owing to it, it is the indictment of our highest bravery and cleanest intentions that the habit of killing the cow should not exist at all throughout our kingdom”. When Europeans arrived in India, they, too, sometimes ran afoul of Indian feelings about the cow. In 1670, for example, a bulldog kept at a European trading establishment at Honavar on India’s west coast killed a cow, and an enraged mob responded by killing every European there.32
The reverence for the cow played a prominent role in the Revolt of 1857 against the British. Hindu sepoys in the army of East India Company came to believe that the new bullets were greased with cow fat. Since gun loading required biting the bullet, they believed that the British were forcing them to break their religion. Swami Dayananda, the founder of Arya Samaj and his followers travelled across India which led to the establishment of cow protection societies in various regions of India starting at 1882. The movement spread rapidly all over North India and to Bengal, Bombay, Madras and other central provinces. The organization rescued wandering cows and reclaimed them to groom them in places called gaushalas (cow refuges). Charitable networks developed all through North India to collect rice from individuals, pool the contributions, and re-sell them to fund the gaushalas. Signatures, up to 350,000 in some places, were collected to demand a ban on cow sacrifice.33
The cow represents Hindu values of selfless service, strength, dignity, and ahimsa, or non-violence. While possessing a beautiful spiritual symbolism and deep universal significance, cow worship might seem like a strange notion for those not raised in the Indian culture. But, as with most things spiritual, one must sincerely attempt to peel back the protective skin if one wants to get to the sweet fruit inside.34 To Gandhi the cow embodied the virtues of his constructive programmes; and since India was an agricultural country, the cow was an economic tool in the welfare and economy of the country.35 To him, ‘the cow transcends the mother image by embodying the personification of innocence’.36 He said:”Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill. Here is an unbroken record of service which does not end with her death. Our mother, when she dies, means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when she is alive. We can make use of every part of her body-her flesh, her bones, her intestines, her horns and her skin. Well, I say this not to disparage the mother who gives us birth, but in order to show you the substantial reasons for my worshipping the cow”.37
Gandhi called the cow “a poem of pity” and regarded her as a symbol of Indian culture, expressing the "grand truth" that human beings and non-human beings are fellow creatures. He said: ‘The cow is the purest type of sub-human life. She pleads before us on behalf of the whole of the sub-human species for justice to it at the hands of man, the first among all that lives. She seems to speak to us through her eyes: 'you are not appointed over us to kill us and eat our flesh or otherwise ill-treat us, but to be our friend and guardian'.38
The concept of non-violence had to include every sentient creature. Gandhi even stopped drinking milk after learning of the cruel practices used to make cows yield more milk. Gandhi decided not to consume cow's milk after he came to know about the cruel process of "phooka" or "doom dev" to increase the production of milk in cows. "Phooka" or "doom dev" includes any process of introducing air or any substance into the female organ of a milch animal with the object of drawing off from the animal any secretion of milk. He had conceived a strong disgust for milk. Moreover, he had always held that milk is not the natural diet of man. He had therefore abjured its use altogether.
The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection which is passion with Gandhi. To him it is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. Cow protection is the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond this species. He said: ‘Why the cow was selected for apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow was in India the best companion. She was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible… I would not kill a human being for protection of a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious’.39
Cow protection has become a symbol of national patriotism. Still the cow stirs in the hearts of many an emotion of almost religious devotion. He wrote: ‘Hinduism believes in the oneness not merely of all human life, but in the oneness of all that lives. Its worship of the cow is, in my opinion, its unique contribution to the evolution of humanitarianism. It is a practical application of the belief in the oneness and, therefore, sacredness of all life. The great belief in transmigration is a direct consequence of that belief’. Gandhi said: ‘My ambition is no less than to see the principle of cow protection established throughout the world. But that requires that I should set my own house thoroughly in order first’.40
Gandhi expressed the deepest sentiments of the Hindus thus: ‘Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live as live as there are Hindus to protect the cow… Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observances of caste rules, but their ability to protect the cow.41 He said: ‘One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. The cow means the entire subhuman world.’42 He also added: ‘If someone were to ask me what the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism was, I would suggest that it was the idea of cow protection’. He considers the cow-protection as an article of faith in Hinduism. Apart from its religious sanctity, it is an ennobling creed.43 As Professor Vaswani remarks, “Cow protection means brotherhood between man and beast”. It is a noble sentiment that must grow by patient toil and tapasya. It can’t be imposed upon any one. One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind. As Gandhi realized it, protection of the cow, the "purest type of sub-human life", meant protection of the whole dumb creation of God. The ancient seer, whoever he was, began with the cow. The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forcible because it is speechless.44 He openly declared that “I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world”.45
He openly confirmed: “My religion teaches me that I should by personal conduct instill into the minds of those who might hold different views, the conviction that cow-killing is a sin and that, therefore, it ought to be abandoned.46 But let me reiterate that legislative prohibition is the smallest part of any programme of cow protection. People seem to think that, when a law is passed against any evil, it will die without any further effort. There never was a grosser self-deception. Legislation is intended and is effective against an ignorant or a small, evil-minded minority; but no legislation which is opposed by an intelligent and organized public opinion, or under cover of religion by a fanatical minority, can ever succeed. The more I study the question of cow protection, the stronger the conviction grows upon me that protection of the cow and her progeny can be attained only if there is continuous and sustained constructive effort along the lines suggested by me.47 Preservation of cattle is a vital part of Gho-seva. It is a vital question for India… There is urgent need for deep study and the spirit of sacrifice. To amass money and dole out charity does not connote real business capacity. To know how to preserve cattle, to impart this knowledge to the millions, to live up to the ideal oneself, and to spend money on this endeavor is real business.48 It is a practical application of the belief in oneness and, therefore, sacredness of all life and my meaning of cow includes the protection and service of both man and bird and beast. Cow slaughter can never be stopped by law. Knowledge, education, and the spirit of kindliness towards her alone can put an end to it. It will not be possible to save those animals that are a burden on the land or, perhaps, even man if he is a burden.49
Then, how can the cow be save without having to kill her off when she ceases to give the economic quantity of milk or when one becomes otherwise an uneconomic burden? The answer to the question can be summed up as follows:
Agriculture is still the mainstay of India's economy of which cows form a foundation with cow breeding and cow preservation being integral parts of it. 75 per cent of Indians live in villages and derive huge benefits from cows and bullocks. Despite the compulsions of modernism, tractors are not suitable for Indian land holdings unlike the West. In US, the land available to each person is around 14 acres, whereas in India it’s around 0.70 acre. A tractor consumes diesel, pollutes, doesn't eat grass nor produces dung for manure, unlike traditional ploughing, which becomes ideal for Indian conditions. Albert Einstein, in a letter to Sir CV Raman, gave a strong and effective message: "Tell the people of India, that if they want to survive and show the world path to survive, then they should forget about tractors and preserve their ancient tradition of ploughing."
Gandhi emphasizes one thing and that is ahimsa, otherwise known as universal compassion.51 To Gandhi ahimsa precludes not only the act of inflicting a physical injury, but also mental states like evil thoughts and hatred, unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence incompatible with ahimsa.52 To one who follows this doctrine, there are no enemies. A man who believes in the efficacy of this doctrine finds in the ultimate stage, when he is about to reach the goal, the whole world at his feet. If you express your love- Ahimsa-in such a manner that it impresses itself indelibly upon your so called enemy, he must return that love. This doctrine tells us that we may guard the honor of those under our charge by delivering our own lives into the hands of the man who would commit the sacrilege. And that requires far greater courage than delivering of blows. Where there is ahimsa, there is infinite patience, inner calm, self-sacrifice and true knowledge. In the agrarian and rural Indian society almost all the household members take good care of cows. In fact cow worship may be considered as a perfect blend of science and spirituality. There is enough evidence to show that cow-dung coated walls prevent nuclear radiation. The Indian Government recognizing this included an Article 48 in the Indian Constitution which states: "The State shall endeavor or organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle". Veneration of cow develops the attitude for peace and non-violence in the extremists and terrorists ridden world. It is an expression of brotherhood between men and beasts. Despite their sacred status, cows don't seem appreciated enough in India. Jawaharlal Nehru himself said: "The West does not worship the cow but takes care of it. We worship it but do not take care of it". “Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives” and the veneration of cow eulogizes the potent symbol of Indian tradition. Gandhi championed for the cause of cow, a symbol of ahimsa. Cow demonstrates the principle of Gandhi viz., non violence but the selfish and violent men failed to understand the reality. To conclude with the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "the earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs but not every man's greed."
* Dr Ram Ponnu is a Pricipal(Retd), Govt.Arts College, Surandai, Tirunelveli Dist., Tamilnadu. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org