A case for the Cow

The Cow is the matter of discussion, hype and myth prevails around it drowning any rational thinking. I recently got an email extolling the scientific reasons for not eating the cow. The reasons are quoted as scientific ones which could be true if applied to to other animals also. Consider the goodness of milk and all its derived products, the anti-septic properties of urine, the dung as a fertiliser and fuel and environmental benefits of not farming animals for meat.

The last of the reasons makes the most sense in an era of global warming.

However what is apparent is that the cow and buffalo being larger animals produce more milk than goats, sheep or pigs. They, the cows, also contribute almost 80% to the greenhouse effect in global warming. Activists and scientists have found a direct relationship between the meat industry and its massive contribution to global warming. Cows that are reared and farmed for meat have contributed to deforestation in places like the Amazon. A larger tract of land is needed to sustain a cow when compared to sheep and pigs. Thus the carbon footprint of burgers is much more than cars that run on fossil fuel. That is a sound reason not to eat a cow or rear it for the meat industry in the current climes.

I doubt if the ancient Hindus of the vedic times knew of it as such!

Hinduism and the cow

Beef eating is not alien to Hindus. If one were to visit Kamakshidevi Temple in Guwahati, there is a buffalo, also a part of the bovine family, that is sacrificed weekly and the meat distributed to the tribal population. Likewise meat is an offering to the Gods in some places such as Kashmir. Animal sacrifice is still a very much practiced event. So what is special about the Cow?

Here are some logical reasons why the Cow was not eaten.

A single cow that easily weighs half a ton would have given a lot of meat. In the days when there was no refrigeration the meat would have putrefied fast. Hindu communities were not a homogenous class and there was a caste system that made very small groups,  not big enough to consume the meat before it putrefies. The pyramidal caste system did have a larger population of lower class/caste, who could have been consuming any meat that was available. Owning a cow was an economic difficulty for lower classes that had to depend on the land owning upper castes, who found cow eating an impractical idea, being a smaller population class.  The practice got hardwired into religion.

Hinduism, is based on individualism and not collective socialism like Islam or even Sikhism.  There is good reason why it did not spread like other religions. Every time a fundamentalist approach was taken, making prescriptions for the adherents, there was a religious movement that created a sub sect or a new religion. Offshoots of Hinduism are a plenty and Buddhism which came out of such approaches, spread simply because it sat well over Daoism and was seen to be more tolerant. Also there were no congregations and even lower castes were forbidden to enter temples.  Whereas all other religions congregate and form a community of sorts that shared camels, cows and sheep.

This was so even during the Raj, when the British faced a similar problem of consuming beef in India. They were a numerically small section of society. Usually a message would go around to the local community of expats announcing there will be a cow slaughtered on a particular date at a venue… and everyone would assemble to have a ‘cow’ party. They did not have sufficient numbers to consume a cow in one go. Even the non-Hindus in medieval India would have consumed beef only on occasion.

The upholders of the religion perhaps preferred not to mix with the other castes and classes just to consume meat. The concept of achut (untouchability) was basically around those who ate and those who did not eat meat, which divided people based on their exposure to food that decomposes at different rates, and the possibility of attracting diseases. The idea was also around that what one consumes should have a lesser chance of being contaminated. The segregation in the past had a trade-based and biological relevance and was not seen as discrimination. Labelling classes and castes is of more recent origin, which has led to a misunderstanding of the caste system. All around the world, class systems exist. Democracy and voting, alas, is influenced by this system in the sub continent.

Urbanisation and eating of meat

The way our urban centres developed is also a point in view. It is known that meat consumption and demand increases with urbanisation. It was observed in ancient Rome and many other civilisations. In the case of Indian cities meat eating was generally shunned, because we had a clear concept of Patnawasi (town dwellers) and Adivasi or Vanavasi (those who lived in forests and outside urban areas). The centres of learning were in the ‘Patnas’ and they dictated the codes for Hinduism, the Adivasi and Vanvasi’s were not obliged to follow these dictates. Thus beef was eaten in many tribal areas, (who have Gods akin to Hindu ones), simply because they had the required numbers to consume a whole carcass and could afford it occasionally.

The same argument cannot be applied to other countries and regions, perhaps because they were not fragmented by socio-religious class.

Not eating the Cow therefore may have started as an economic argument and greater benefits were derived from the milk than the meat. Also the relative non-violent ways of life had lesser need for protein and muscle, which didn’t find much use for the cow as meat, as nutrient needs were available adequately from milk. Practically, beef is a very good protein source and perhaps the lowest in purine amongst the red meats. Also a good source for mass consumption, alas at an environmental cost.

Another argument is that cows and bulls were beasts of burden in India. The horse was unknown in ancient India which I think was added to modern day myth. It was an animal of invasion. The horse came much later with invasions. The horse is mentioned in ancient Hindu thought, only when it speaks of the Yuga of Kalki which is symbolised by half man-half horse with weapons of mass destruction. That is the next Yuga after the current Kali Yuga as per Dashaavatar.

The cow therefore had more use than mere meat in Vedic times.

The Hindus are the only people in the world that do not eat cows, but don’t mind other meats. Also Hindus have a geographical boundary making India and within which the Hindus as the non-beef eating people of the world. It is an exception not a rule and may find convenient justification in scientific analysis overshadowing social ones. There could be motivations and reasons for such justifications.

One eats as per local availability, or as per socio-religious norms. There is no controversy around sheep or fish … mainly because it is available everywhere.

As regards scientific reasons, arguably goat’s milk is more suitable for human consumption especially in old age. Gandhi was a known consumer. Alas, goats cannot meet the demand like the cow can. All urine, including the human one could be anti-septic in nature. Auto urine therapy is known and Morarji Desai followed it. It is not popular though, for social reasons.

Ghee was a way of preserving butter. Even the Egyptians used to preserve in a similar manner. Using it in hawans is basically showing the onlookers some affluence, as much as cremation in sandalwood and throwing whole spices in biryani.

Also how else would Brahmins make a living? As per Brahma, Brahmins were not to receive wages, only dakshina (a donation for services offered). So they devised events to get some dakhshina. Also a Brahman had to beg for his food. It was an act of humility and not entirely poverty driven. There was only one area where the Brahman could charge for his services, that was in astrology. In temples, any dakshina given on the aarti plate goes to the Brahman, anything in the donation box goes to a committee. Donation box is a new invention. In some ideal world giving the Brahman became a noble deed.

There was a system of Go Dan which meant donating of cows. The act of donating a cow was considered an utmost form of charity. A cow was an animal only the affluent could afford indicating to some extent the giving away of something of value.

Ghee is tasty and who doesn’t like it! No one knew of cholesterol in ancient India!

For whatever reason, even odd ones, it is a good idea not to eat the cow for preserving the planet. The world struggles with the idea and there is a huge industry that will suffer if the world stops eating beef. Argentina and many Latin American countries run their economy on the beef industry. MacDonald’s will close down, Japan will lose its Kobe Beef industry!

Holy cow will save the planet!


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