Monday, March 16, 2015
Some not-so-holy thoughts about the cow
The cow is in the news again. Both the Maharashtra and the Haryana governments want cow slaughter to be a punishable offence: if the punishment is imprisonment for five years in Maharashtra, it is likely to be ten years in Haryana. BJP leaders like Subramaniam Swamy want a Central law against cow slaughter, and newspapers say that the Prime Minister’s Office itself has asked for the Law Ministry's opinion on whether the Centre could circulate the laws on cow slaughter, as enacted by some states, including Gujarat, as a model bill among the other states for their consideration for similar legislations there.
I was at a Rama temple in my neighbourhood this morning. The temple has recently acquired a cow. For ten long years, I have worshipped peacefully at this temple, but I find myself unable to do so any longer. She – I mean, the cow – distracts me: she makes me think. She makes me think of a former prime minister of this country who, even after crossing the biblical mark of three score and ten, persisted with his love for non-vegetarian food but felt outraged at the very suggestion that he ate beef. She makes me think of the entire politics surrounding her, the move to ban cow slaughter, in particular.
One of my thoughts, as I stand with folded hands before the image of my favourite god at the temple is about the common misconception that Muslims slaughter cows that are sacred to Hindus. Some of my Muslim friends tell me that they are not particularly fond of beef. ‘Beef,’ says Akhthar Pasha, a former colleague at Andhra Loyola College, ‘is as good as any other non-vegetarian food item.’ An orthodox Muslim and an authority on the Koran, Pasha tells me that Muslims do not have any religious obligation to eat beef. ‘There are no references to beef-eating at all in our scriptures,’ he asserts.
I wonder if we can say the same thing about Hindus. Our Aryan ancestors, the people who gave us the four Vedas, were beef-eaters. But, unlike the modern Hindus, they made no bones about their eating beef. A Brahmin of those days, said Swami Vivekananda in one of his lectures, would not be able to remain a Brahmin without eating beef. The Rig Veda says that even the gods, especially Indra and Agni, are fond of beef: uksnó hí me páncadasha sakám pácanti vimshatím, utáhám admi píva íd ubhá kuksí prnanti me v’shvasmad índra úttarah (Rig Veda, 10.86.14). For more interesting information on the cow, one can read D N Jha’s book, The Myth of the Holy Cow, published by Verso in 2002. Even in modern India, the majority of the beef-eaters must be Hindus, considering that beef-eating is common among the Dalits and tribals who constitute a large section of the Hindu community.
As I walk round the sanctum, I have several thoughts which it would be imprudent on my part to share with you: the cow, as you know, is a touchy subject in India. I will, however, mention just one of those thoughts which concern our ambivalent attitude towards the poor animal. We – I mean, Hindus – worship the cow. But that doesn't prevent us from letting our cows stray in the streets where they pick up all kinds of rubbish and eat them. We often read about cows being choked to death on account of their chewing and swallowing plastic bags. (Interestingly, there is a ban on plastic bags also at least in some states in this country.) A few years ago, I read about the death of some stray cows, caused by their eating trash and left-over food that had turned poisonous. This ambivalent attitude never troubles us. After all, we have always had our feet in both camps and never felt uncomfortable.
I come out of the temple, still chewing the cud of the politics centring on the cow. I stand in front of the gau mata in the shed and offer her a banana. She nonchalantly pulls it into her mouth, along with a bunch of hay she has already picked up, and chews it up.