Cow Cuddling, Health, And Hindu Civilisation

Aravindan Neelakandan

Jun 15, 2024, 03:31 AM | Updated Jun 15, 2024, 01:45 PM IST

A Pichhwai painting from Rajasthan (National Gallery of Australia)
A Pichhwai painting from Rajasthan (National Gallery of Australia)
  • In the coming years, the West may well be teaching India the virtues of gau seva.
  • On 22 May, the journal Human-Animal Interactions published a study on bovine-assisted therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, which, in plain language, is cow cuddling.

    The authors of the paper are Katherine Compitus and Sonya M Bierbower. Compitus is with the social work wing of New York University, while Bierbower is with the Department of Chemistry and Life Science of the famed United States (US) Military Academy at West Point.

    The research is quite interesting. The animals used in the study have a strong cultural context.

    Holstein bulls that were rescued from a dairy farm when they were each days old were the non-human participants involved in the study. Both steers had been debudded before they arrived at the sanctuary where they are currently located.

    Such 'debudded' male bovines are called steers. In other words, these are animals that have already experienced the not-so-humane human contact very early in their lives.

    The study approaches human-animal interaction through the Human-Animal Interaction Scale (HAIS), which is an "assessment device for measuring those human-animal interactions that play such a critical role in our physical and mental health, personal growth and development and everyday well being."

    One can note here the anthropocentric nature of the scale. This is a scale developed by psychologists Angela Fournier, Elizabeth Letson, and Thomas Berry in 2016. The setting is entirely and essentially Western.

    The study observed that "the steers showed a strong preference for interactions with women when compared to men" and that "women reported stronger attachment behaviours toward the steers."

    The authors are excited by the finding because "it opens up a new area on whether some therapies may be initially stronger based upon gender and not procedure."

    For Hindus, this study should be a wake-up call. Cow care and protection are not mere objects of faith for Hindus, like a belief in a revelation or the messiah.

    In Hindu Dharma, which is qualitatively vaster than a composition of mere faith-based components, an important aspect like cow veneration is not merely a matter of faith but a civilisational statement derived from its basic principles — chiefly, the acceptance of the divine in all existence.

    For Hindus, the presence of the cow permeates their sacred space. It is the case with Krishna, and so it is with Shiva. Throughout India, countless Sthala Puranas speak of the cow spontaneously allowing its milk to fall on a sacred space where later a Shiva Linga would be discovered.

    Such Sthala Puranas convey the message that the cognition of the cow is superior to human awareness in feeling the sacredness of a place. Further, the Shiva Linga, usually a swayambhu (the Hindu term for autopoiesis), indicates a deeper connectivity with the web of existence. All gods and goddesses are made, enshrined in the body of the cow.

    Clearly, veneration of the cow, caring for the cow, and so on are seen as a sadhana in itself.

    Yet, when colonialism came, and with it the colonialism of the mind, cow worship became framed as a religious fetish rather than a great Hindu contribution to humanity in redefining its relationship with the non-human biosphere.

    So, efforts were made to justify cow veneration from a religious and secular point of view — either as a belief of the Hindus or as having a strong economic value.

    Whether Hindu right-wingers like it or not, it was Mahatma Gandhi who clearly restated the sacredness of the cow and the protection of the cow and its progeny as a civilisational grandeur rather than a fetish of Hindu Dharma.

    He described the sacredness of the cow by addressing its psychological, sociological, and sacred dimensions, not just its economic aspects. Meanwhile, Gandhians K M Munshi and Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa highlighted the economic and ecological benefits of cow protection.

    It was Gandhi who strongly brought back the spiritual-civilisational process of cow veneration as not just a Hindu symbol but a Hindu contribution to human civilisation. Naturally, the psychological benefit of cow veneration is a dimension of this civilisational vision.

    Thus, to Gandhi ji, the cow is the spiritual representation of all non-human species in the biocosm (though he calls them a sub-human species).

    The cow seems to communicate through her eyes, telling humanity, 'You are not appointed to kill us, eat our flesh, or mistreat us, but to be our friend and guardian'.

    Gandhi saw beyond the species-centric view of the cow's importance in agriculture and the economy, acknowledging the influence of these factors.

    Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond this species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. Why the cow was selected for apotheosis is obvious to me.
    Mahatma Gandhi

    He wanted Hindus to learn the humane aspects of the biological sciences from the West and turn gau seva into a science. This approach would encourage non-Hindus to participate in gau seva voluntarily, without the need for laws.

    In a way, the research paper and the wave of cow-cuddling therapy in the West prove Gandhi to be a visionary. But what is sad is that in our own country, cow seva and protection became reduced to a mere economic benefit, and the history of cow seva became distorted by Marxist historians like D N Jha, who parroted colonial views about cow veneration by Hindus.

    Fortunately, the civilisational value of the cow in history and its becoming a potent symbol in resistance to colonialism were brought out by the Gandhian historian Dharampal, with support from the then-prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

    Due to the influence of Marxism in social science institutions and the Nehruvian separation of the Indian curriculum from Dharma, similar research could not flourish in other social and psychological sciences in India.

    The West stole a march over India in this realm that is vital to us civilisationally.

    Finally, cow seva and veneration were reduced to fabricated narratives of Brahminical hegemony. The present-day Congress neglected this civilisational aspect of the Gandhian programme, with one of its members publicly butchering a cow to show their opposition to cow protection. The man rose in the party after a brief suspension.

    Thus, as an independent nation, we lost a wonderful opportunity to study cow-human relations in their spiritual and psychological dimensions in a characteristically Hindu way rather than in the anthropocentric way that is currently happening in the West.

    Yet, even the Western approach to cow-human relations is a welcome step, even though it may lead to what Rajiv Malhotra calls the 'U-turn', and then the West may even dictate terms for how humanity should observe cow-human relations.

    If such a situation emerges, then our ignoring of Gandhi's seed thoughts of charting our own path in the inner sciences, ecological sciences, and humanities would be the sole reason for that sorry state of affairs.

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