Thursday, April 28, 2011

Holy Cow, Holy Misconception

By Staff Blogger Rema Nair

"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," Mahatma Gandhi, India's most respected and celebrated leader, once wrote. I could not agree more.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked about the “Holy Cow”. The most common question is, “why do you guys worship the cow?” Well, the answer is that few people, the world over, revere and respect the cow like the world's 900 million followers of Hinduism. The reason for this is that the cow, in Hindu society, is traditionally identified as a motherly figure, and as a symbol of unselfish giving. Reverence for cows can be found throughout the major religious texts. In Hindu mythology stories, cows also feature as the primary vehicles or principal gana (follower) of the manifestations of Hindu Gods…. examples include Shiva, and Krishna.

In India, among Hindu community members, cows often command the highest respect among all living creatures, roaming free without worry of being preyed on by either beast or man. Another belief that flourishes is that since the cow acts as a surrogate mother by sharing her milk with human beings, and in some cases even other animals for their whole life, the cow is truly the mother of the world. A person can be sent to jail for killing or injuring a cow because cow slaughter is legally banned in most of the states in India. This action is just one example of the Hindu’s intricate relationship with cows. In respecting the cow, Hinduism teaches Hindus to show respect for all living things - a belief that brings and binds together other beliefs the religion advocates, such as ahimsa (non violence), vegetarianism, cycle of birth and death (karma), sin, etc.

As the cat was to ancient Egyptian religion, the cow is to Hinduism. It is believed that the cow became important in India first in the Vedic period, and today has almost become a living, breathing symbol of Hinduism. No one knows for sure exactly what factors are responsible for cows to occupy such esteemed position, but some experts suggest that it may be due to their economic value in a predominantly agricultural economy of ancient India, representing capital investment. There is also some debate as to whether Buddhism and Jainism, with their ideology that all life forms are sacred and hence must be respected and treated well, influenced Hinduism to revere the cow.

Cows form the core of religious sacrifices, for without ghee (clarified butter), which is produced from cow's milk, no sacrifice can be performed. Ancient Hindu scriptures have it that nothing is more pious than the gift of cows, and of all gifts, the cow is still considered the highest gift in rural India and among the Brahmin caste. Cows are also thought to be purifiers, cleansers and sanctifiers, and cow dung is used as an effective sanitizer and as a fuel instead of firewood. Cow manure is also used as a high-quality fertilizer, and burnt cow dung is used as a tilak (a ritual mark) on the forehead. Most Hindus do not share the western contempt and disgust at cow fecal matter because they are conditioned from infancy not too, but instead regard it as a beneficial and useful organic product. Cow urine is also thought to be so pure that it is considered as one of the five amrit (nectar), and is often used in religious ceremonies, especially as purifiers. For many centuries in India, cow urine was also used in the preparation of extremely traditional medicines, since it is also believed to cure major diseases. Interesting to note here, is that many hard-core Hindus, even today, use leather products that are made only from hides of naturally deceased cows.

Milk from a cow also holds a key part in religious rituals; for example, it is customary to boil milk on a stove or even to lead a cow through the house as part of a housewarming ceremony. Since the cow is thought to be God's useful gift to mankind, consuming beef is considered sacrilegious to Hindus. On Gopastami – a Hindu religious observance day - cows are washed and decorated in the temple and given offerings in the hope that her gifts of life will continue. While there are no temples that exclusively worship the cow as its main deity, there are at least about 8 famous temples that I know house huge idols of cows within their premises that are revered by the temple devotees.

Reverence for cows, however, is not restricted to Hinduism, and can also be traced to other religions such as Zoroastrianism, where the Avesta (the holy book) expounds the cleansing power of cow urine declaring it to be a solution for all physical and moral evils. Although the ancient Egyptians sacrificed animals to obtain favors from gods, they did not sacrifice the cow because it was sacred to goddess Hathor, who had the form of a cow.

Whatever the rationality behind the importance for the cow and the use of its products, there is no mistaking that the cow has been and will continue to be an integral part of both religion and the society in both ancient and modern India.

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