India Debunked #11: Holy Cow

If you’ve ever been to India, you would have seen cows, pigs and stray dogs running wild on the street.

Would it surprise you to know that these seemingly unchecked, freewheeling (free walking, rather) animals have owners? Someone definitely owns the cows, the pigs are owned by ‘low caste people’ (someone else’s words, not mine. I was horrified.) and some stray dogs are ‘owned’. The lucky ones sit outside people’s homes and get fed daily and as such they return to the same place outside those homes, thus bestowing ownership on those who feed them. Some desi* dogs are even lucky enough to be properly adopted, given a loving home and even relocated overseas with their foreigner owners. Sadly though, this doesn’t apply to all dogs and many are left tortured, diseased, hungry and dying. I’ve been told that the seemingly stray pigs are owned by someone but I’ve only ever seen them rooting and rutting around rubbish heaps, of which there are plenty (another post for another day). I haven’t been able to verify this. Perhaps some of my enlightened readers can in turn enlighten us in the comments section.

Dogs and pigs aside, this country’s obsession really is with cows. The holy cow.

Cow worship is, by many accounts, a relatively new development in India, one that has transformed with the Hindu religion. The Vedic texts from the 1st millennium BC contain references to ritual slaughter of cows but also conflicting edicts against beef consumption. The rise of the Brahmin priesthood from 200AD led to the exaltation of the cow and planted it firmly in the minds and hearts of Hindus as a holy beast. This common belief also helped unify a people against Muslim invaders in later centuries. Later the utilitarian value of the cow as a harbinger of wealth and a giver of food and nutrition helped cement its prime position in an agrarian society. I won’t go into too much detail on the history of the cow holiness but this article sets things out nicely.

At present there is a cow slaughter ban of some sort in 23 out of 29 states in India. People have been killed for suspected beef consumption. Recently a group of lower-caste men were publicly flogged for skinning a cow. Ironically, the cow was already dead, their jobs were to skin dead animals and the caste they were born into dictated that they be relegated to that profession. Slaughtering a cow can get you up to 10 years in prison if caught and convicted. That’s less than the 6 months you could get for drink driving which probably kills more people than is officially reported. There are cow vigilante militias, gau rakshaks, that go around protecting cows and hunting down cow killers (i.e. other fellow humans). The government and the authorities have been ineffectual at bringing these criminal vigilantes to justice.

For all this cow worship, the cows I see on the road don’t look very healthy. The cows and their masters seem to think it is perfectly okay for them to roam the streets all day long. There is no concern for their safety, in fact there is no need really, as cars stop and swerve to avoid them. Imagine how this adds to the chaos already on the streets. On extreme summer days, we have seen cow carcasses by the national highway. An undignified way for a holy beast to go, abandoned by the side of the road, dying slowly from thirst.

Despite all this, reports show that India remains one of the top beef exporters in the world and this is expected to grow. Many argue that buffalo is in those exports but who really knows whether it really is. Frighteningly, cattle has a bigger impact on climate change than the vehicle pollution choking Delhi and this might be why. Studies show that India’s livestock annually produces 14 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, or 15 per cent of the global total!! So perhaps being a big beef exporter has something to do with it. Add the stray cows to that.

Spare the cow. Punish the beefeaters. Kill the planet. That will be the ultimate sacrifice. And how much holier can it get?


*An Indianism derived from Hindi meaning something from India