Thanks to Anoop Prabhu for this post.
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From: Internet: "Anoop Rajan"
Subject: Sacred Cow
Interesting article on Indian Cows.
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The world over, the term "sacred cow" has come to mean any stubborn loyalty
to a long-standing institution which impedes natural progress. The term
originates in India, where the cow is said to be literally worshiped, while
thousands of humans suffer from undernourishment. The common, popular view
of India in the West is that of an underdeveloped nation steeped in
superstition. Overpopulated, overcrowded, undereducated, and bereft of most
modern amenities, India is seen to be a backward nation in many respects by
"progressive" Western civilization. "If only India would abandon her
religious superstitions and kill and eat the cow!" Over several decades many
attempts have been made by the "compassionate" West to alleviate unfortunate
India's burden of poor logic, and to replace her superstitions with rational
Much of the religious West finds common ground with the rationalists, with
whom they otherwise are usually at odds, on the issue of India's "sacred
cow." Indeed, worshiping God is one thing, but to worship the cow while at
the same time dying of starvation is a theological outlook much in need of
reevaluation. Man is said to have dominion over the animals, but it would
appear that the Indians have it backwards.
Popular opinion is not always the most informed opinion; in fact, this is
usually the case. The many attempts to wean India from the nipple of her
outdated pastoral culture have all failed. After 200 years of foreign
occupation by the British, and after many subsequent but less overt
imperialistic attempts, we find that although India has changed, the sacred
cow remains as sacred as ever. In all but two Indian states, cow slaughter
is strictly prohibited. If legislation were passed today to change that
ruling, there would be rioting all over India. In spite of considerable
exposure to Western ideas, one late Indian statesman said, when asked what
he thought of Western civilization, "I think it is a good idea. When will
An unbiased look at perhaps the longest-standing culture of the world, its
roots and philosophy, may help us to see things a little more as they are —
even about our own way of life. Sometimes we have to stand back to get the
full picture. It is a natural tendency to consider one's own way the best,
but such bull-headedness may cause us to miss seeing our own shortcomings.
An honest look at the headlines of our home town newspaper may inspire us to
question exactly what it is we are so eager to propound.
Perhaps the most appalling aspect of the Western technological influence on
India is found in the country's few "modern" cities. Bombay, Calcutta,
Delhi, and other cities can be most frustrating to the average Westerner.
Crude attempts at modernization can be worse than none at all. Although
India's technology lacks the polish and sophistication of the West, its
employment in crude fashion nonetheless brings all of the adverse effects of
a sophisticated form of the same amenities.
Real India is rural India. Village life accounts for the bulk of India's
population of 700 million, and best illustrates the nation's ancient
culture. The simplicity of India is often mistaken for ignorance, and her
peacefulness mistaken for complacency. The serenity of Indian village life
is overlooked or mislabeled by those who in the name of progress may really
only be operating under the axiom of "misery loves company." Perhaps the
people of India live as they do for a good reason: much of what goes along
with Western "progress"—the mental anguish which causes us to do the most
bizarre things that make many cities living hells—is relatively absent in
India's rural lifestyle.
It is particularly difficult for Westerners to appreciate India's worship of
the cow. After all, we live in the land of the hamburger. The "American"
restaurant abroad is McDonald's. "Ole McDonald had a farm /Did it ever
grow!" Western economists often contend that beef alone can solve India's
food problems and lay a foundation for a lucrative export trade. This has
caused cow worship and cow protection to come under attack for centuries.
Cow protection has been called a "lunatic obstacle" to sensible farm
India's cow is called the zebu, and an investigation of the controversy
surrounding her brings us to the heart of village life in India. The average
landholder in India farms approximately one acre. This is nowhere near
enough land to warrant the purchase of a tractor. Even if the size of the
land plots were increased to make the purchase of machinery cost-effective,
the unique weather, a five-season year including the monsoon, would quickly
render the tractor useless. After the monsoons, the soil is too soft for
planting and must be quickly and efficiently prepared before the
soon-to-follow intense heat brings an end to the very short growing season.
The loss of even one day will considerably affect the overall yield. The
zebu bullocks are ideal in this connection for they can easily plow the soft
earth without overly compacting the soil as would heavy machinery.
Farming in India is a family affair, and the labor-intensive approach to
cultivation involves everyone. This helps to sustain the family unit, which
is sometimes considered to be the wealth of a nation. The staples of the
diet are grains: wheat and rice. Most of India is vegetarian. While the bull
plows the field, helping to provide the grains, the cow supplies milk from
which many dairy products are produced. Day to day, year after year, the cow
and bull are the center of rural Indian life.
According to Frances Moore Lappe in her best-seller, Diet for a Small
Planet, "For every sixteen pounds of grain and soy fed to beef cattle in the
United States, we only get one pound back in meat on our plates. The other
fifteen pounds are inaccessible to us, either used by the animal to produce
energy or to make some part of its own body that we do not eat (like hair or
bones), or excreted. Milk production is more efficient, with less than one
pound of grain fed for every pint of milk produced. (This is partly because
we don't have to grow a new cow every time we milk one.)" If India, with its
already strained resources, were to allocate so much more acreage for the
production of beef, it would be disastrous. Advocates of modernization
maintain that with the application of the latest farming techniques, the
yield per acre would gradually increase, thus making it possible for beef to
be introduced over a period of time. Such advocates contend that with the
introduction of beef into the Indian diet, the population's health would
increase, thus furthering productivity. However, it is interesting to note
that although India is far from being free of disease, its principal health
problems are a result of urban overcrowding and inadequate sanitation and
medical facilities. Whereas high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis,
and cancer constitute the greatest health threats in the West, the Indian
people are practically free from these afflictions. So the "fact" that
India's health would increase with the introduction of beef into the diet is
not likely to overcome the "superstition" of the people's religious beliefs
which prohibit them from eating meat.
The religious "superstitions" of India are based on the Vedas, which
constitute the most voluminous body of literature in the world. The Vedas
and their corollaries deal elaborately with theism, describing many
gradations of the theistic idea. The idea that one should not eat meat,
although central to Hindu philosophy, is only a secondary theme. To a large
extent it amounts only to common sense and sensitivity. It is from this
basis of sensitivity, an indicator of healthy consciousness, that higher
spiritual principles can be appreciated. Actually, the Vedas agree with the
West's contention that man has dominion over the animals; however, the
West's way of dealing with its dependents is revolting to Indians. After
all, we have dominion over our children and ofttimes elders as well, but
would we be justified in slaughtering them for food? We become incensed if
someone even abuses our dog!
The Vedas do not teach that the cow is superior to the human form of life
and therefore worshipable. Rather, the she gives so much practical help to
human society that she should be protected. Her assistance frees mankind
from much of the struggle of life, thereby providing us with more time for
spiritual pursuits. Although modern technology may be said to do the same,
the fact is that it actually complicates man's life more and more and
distracts him from more simple living and high spiritual thinking. We may
become so mechanistic that we can fool ourselves into believing that cows or
pets have no feelings.
For India, the cow represents the sacred principle of motherhood. She
symbolizes charity and generosity because of the way she distributes her
milk, which is essential for the nourishment of the young.
India's critics have pointed out that although Indian village life may be
simple, it is a marginal existence; it is a life of little surplus. If a
farmer's cow turns barren, he has lost his only chance of replacing the work
team. And if she goes dry, the family loses its milk and butter. However the
situation is not as bad as the technologically advanced may think. In
village life, people are more interdependent. Helping one's neighbor is also
considered sacred. Sharing is commonplace. All of the father's male friends
are affectionately referred to by the sons and daughters as "uncle", while
all of the village women are seen as mother. Often the responsibility of
caring for and nursing the young is shared by several mothers.
Perhaps the heaviest criticism of the pastoral culture of India is directed
at the insistence of the farmers on protecting even sick and aged cows.
Westerners find this to be the height of absurdity. At least they could be
killed and eaten or sold. But no. Animal hospitals or nursing homes called
goshallas, provided by government agencies or wealthy individuals in search
of piety, offer shelter for old and infirm cows. This is thought to be a
luxury that India cannot really afford, as these "useless" cows are seen to
be but competitors for the already limited croplands and precious
foodstuffs. The fact is, however, that India actually spends a great deal
less on their aging cattle than Americans spend on their cats and dogs. And
India's cattle population is six times that of the American pet population.
The Indian farmer sees his cattle like members of the family. Since the
farmers depend on the cattle for their own livelihood, it makes perfect
sense both economically and emotionally to see to their well-being. In
between harvests, the cattle are bathed and spruced up much like the average
American polishes his automobile. Twice during the year, special festivals
are held in honor of the cows. These rituals are similar to the American
idea of Thanksgiving. Although in principle the same, there is a basic
difference in the details of how we treat the turkey and how the more
"primitive" Indians treat their cows.
India cares for over 200 million zebus. This accounts for one-fifth of the
world's cattle population. Critics say that if India does not eat her cows,
the cows will eat India. Exasperated critics feel that even the cow is
underfed. However, in more recent years, India's critics have come to agree
that she is essential to India's economy. Cattle are India's greatest
natural resource. They eat only grass --which grows everywhere--and
generates more power than all of India's generating plants. They also
produce fuel, fertilizer, and nutrition in abundance. India runs on bullock
power. Some 15 million bullock carts move approximately 15 billion tons of
goods across the nation. Newer studies in energetics have shown that
bullocks do two-thirds of the work on the average farm. Electricity and
fossil fuels account for only 10%. Bullocks not only pull heavy loads, but
also grind the sugarcane and turn the linseed oil presses. Converting from
bullocks to machinery would cost an estimated $30 billion plus maintenance
and replacement costs.
The biggest energy contribution from cows and bulls is their dung. India's
cattle produce 800 million tons of manure every year. The Vedas explain that
dung from cows is different from all other forms of excrement. Indian
culture insists that if one comes in contact with the stool of any other
animal, they must immediately take a bath. Even after passing stool oneself,
bathing is necessary. But the cow's dung, far from being contaminating,
instead possesses antiseptic qualities. This has been verified by modern
science. Not only is it free from bacteria, but it also does a good job of
killing them. Believe it or not, it is every bit as good an antiseptic as
Lysol or Mr. Clean.
Most of the dung is used for fertilizer at no cost to the farmer or to the
world's fossil fuel reserves. The remainder is used for fuel. It is odorless
and burns without scorching, giving a slow, even heat. A housewife can count
on leaving her pots unattended all day or return any time to a preheated
griddle for short-order cooking. To replace dung with coal would cost India
$1.5 billion per year.
Dung is also used for both heating and cooling. Packed on the outside walls
of a house, in winter it keeps in the heat, and in summer produces a cooling
effect. Also, unlike the stool of humans, it keeps flies away , and when
burned, its smoke acts as a repellent for mosquitoes.
When technocrats were unable to come up with a workable alternative, they
came up with a new argument for modernization. They suggested that the
cattle culture be maintained, but that it should be done in a more efficient
manner. Several ambitious programs were initiated using pedigree bulls and
artificial insemination. But the new hybrids were not cheap nor were they
able to keep up the pace with the zebus. The intense heat of India retired
many of them well before old age. Although they produced more milk, this
also created more problems, because there was no efficient system for
distributing the surplus of milk throughout India's widespread population.
India's system of distribution is highly decentralized. Although the
solution seemed simple, modernization again met its shortcomings. With
bottling plants, pasteurization, and other sophisticated Western methods of
distribution, it was thought that all of India could have fresh, pure milk.
Behind the automats set up for the distribution of powdered milk, milk, and
cream was the expectation that in time, people would begin to appreciate the
abundant rewards bestowed by these new modern deities of technology, and
worship of cows would gradually disappear. But in the end it was
modernization that failed to prove its value.
Pasteurization proved to be a waste of time and money for Indians, who
generally drink their milk hot, and thus boil it before drinking. With the
absence of modern highways and the cost of milking machines and other
necessities of factory dairy farming, it was seen to be impractical to
impose the Western dairy system on India; the cost of refrigeration alone
would make the price of milk too expensive for 95% of India's population.
Eventually, after repeated attempts to modernize India's approach to
farming—and in particular its attitude toward its beloved zebus—it became
clear that these technological upgrades were not very well thought out. They
were not to replace a system that had endured for thousands of years; a
system not only economically wise, but one that was part of a spiritually
rich heritage. On the contrary, it may well be time to export the spiritual
heritage of India to the West, where technology continues to threaten the
tangible progress of humanity in its search for the deeper meaning of life.