The literary journal Granta recently published an essay entitled “The Cult of the Hindu Cowboy” that attempts to take readers into the world of a cow-protection organization in Haryana. The author, Snigdha Poonam, basically argues that the cow-protection vigilantes are ignorant religious fanatics driven by a bevy of “beliefs”:
"The cowboy believes everything that comes from a cow – milk, curd, ghee, urine and dung – is packed with magical powers. He believes stroking a cow’s hump can send a surge of strength through his muscles. The cowboy believes, most of all, in holy war against everyone whose culture approves the killing of the blessed bovine – Muslims, Christians, Hindu outcastes. The cow is for him a symbol not just of Hinduism, but of India itself. He believes the time has come to cleanse the country of cow-eaters." (emphasis added)
Not killing cows is not about life or livelihood in her view, but only about belief in magic, playing out in the modern world as ethnocentricity and intolerance.
The mythology continues. Poonam cannot refrain from taking a shot at how uneducated these Hindus are. This is how she views the ignorant Hindus who don’t even know their own scriptures:
As the motto of India’s fiercest band of cowboys puts it, ‘To protect our culture and our civilization, we must do as the Vedas say. And the Vedas tell us this – if an infidel kills a cow, we are to pump his body with bullets.’ The ancient texts are unlikely to have issued an order involving the use of guns. What they repeatedly do is rate the flesh of the cow as the best meat known to mankind and mandate its offering to gods and guests alike. But one can either read a multivolume Sanskrit text or put together an army; apparently one can’t do both.
All this is standard academic prep on cows, Hindus and India. According to this curriculum the Vedas are all about the joys of cow meat. The anti-beef Hindus, like the “cowboys” described in this essay, are deluded if they think the Vedas were about revering cows. It is all part of the package of religious fundamentalism. They are ignorant about their own heritage. They are intolerant of other heritages. They are about machismo. They are about young men who impose dairy-eating on their wives and don’t even take them out to the movies (this stuff is there, in Granta, and the author even asks one gau rakshak why he is doing this instead of, you know,dating a girl or hanging out in a bar?)
India has witnessed its “let them eat beef,” tweets and op-eds these last few years. Poonam is saying what many South Asian commentators of a supposedly well-meaning ideological disposition seem to be thinking these days: we are liberal, highly-educated, properly-informed modern Hindus who know that our ancient scriptures were cool about eating cows, and know that all this cow-protection stuff in India is simply Hindutva religious fundamentalism and ignorance, and as liberal, educated, modern Hindus, we must naturally, know better than the crazies who fight for the cow merely in order to “uphold the traditional caste system” driven by silly beliefs like how the cow is the “personal vehicle” of the God Shiva (this too, in Granta, home of fine reportage, not the bull, which every child in India knows, but a cow).
Unfortunately, knowingness, as an attitude, predisposition, badge of belonging, can only get you so far as the truth is concerned.
And the truth is that no matter how good you think your intentions are and how right you think your “facts” are, the reality of the poor and desperate (and often lower caste) peasants who even die trying to save their cows is an issue of physical survival and economic sovereignty for human beings rather than a mere superstition about Shiva’s “personal vehicle” or a misreading of the Vedas in order to practice some inexplicable hate against minorities.
Here’s one way to understand the whole “holy cow” issue without the propaganda and conceit.
I am sure Poonam has seen those posters that adorn the corridors of social justice and progressive-thought departments in American university campuses that talk about how merely giving a poor man a fish as charity isn’t enough (or is just capitalist noblesse oblige and highly inadequate to campus ideals); what our striving must be directed towards, the poster tells us, is to revolutionize the means of production, letting the man catch his own fish.
Now, let’s say, for thousands of years, millions of people, despite whatever environmental uncertainties and premodern social and political inequities they faced, held tightly on to one source of economic sovereignty and freedom more than any other? What if they knew, very simply, that if you kept your cows alive rather than killed them every time you were hungry, you could live off them for a very long time, for generations even? What if, to use another proverbial comparison, they decided to nurture the goose that laid the golden egg rather than slaughter it like the greedy goose-glutton in the story who lost it all?
And what if, just to stay on the example, a crazed army of greedy golden goose-gluttons who ate off all their geese and were starving now landed up at the doorstep of those who knew better? What if they wanted to conquer, colonize and enslave them, either because they wanted their bodies for physical labor on their plantations, or worse, because they wanted something they called their “souls” in order to feed their imaginary cult founders’ ravenous appetites for the said “souls”? What could they do to destroy their victims? Well, they might try persuading them that they were being very foolish indeed by not killing the goose that laid the golden egg once or twice a year. Once they fell for it, you had them where you wanted them.
Now, the age of colonialism has officially ended in India. The British with all their theories about diet and evolutionary and racial superiority are gone, and Indians are supposedly in charge of their own democracy. The makers of the Indian constitution, that most enlightened, reasoned and modern of documents, understood the facts about cows and the lives of India’s rural masses enough to even enshrine the safeguarding of cows as a directive principle of state policy. Several states, most of them not even under the allegedly cow-worshipping/minority-hunting Hindutva parties, have legislated against cow slaughter long before the present government came to power at the center.
Cow-protection might also be a cultural, sentimental, moral, or “religious” issue. But whether seen through the frame of sanctity or not, the cow is where the life of India and its people has always been fought for and fought over. And for every instance of abuse, such as the incident at Dadri or in Gujarat, where neighbors turned on each other over real or imagined cow and beef concerns, there still remains the fact that a vast history of sustained assault on the sovereignty and freedom of a sustainable civilization is being suppressed in every clichéd and sensationalistic media account of “Hindu cowboys” and their quaint urine-sipping obsession with mother cow.
To put it in comparative context with another civilization, the continuing and relentless centuries-old assault on cow-sustainable ways of living in India is quite frankly no different from the assault that took place by the beef trusts and cowboys on the native inhabitants of North and South America (see Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef for more on this).
“Eat your cow, Hindoo,” is, to put it very plainly, no different from “take this blanket, heathen,” heard in another vile and dark time.
Now I have no differences with anyone who is driven to comment on this issue by pain and revulsion at the abuses that are done against one another in the name of cow protection. Prime Minister Modi himself condemned the ugly spectacle of a group of cow vigilantes beating a group of alleged cow poachers (an important point that an article on this topic seems to have suddenly forgotten to mention). But if you realize that your condemnation of abuses in the name of cows needn’t stop your thinking brain from operating any further, you might actually see that what is at work in Granta is a classic case of media orientalism, a very deliberate and selective framing of a phenomenon within very narrow terms consistent with a very narrow-hearted vision of the planet and its inhabitants, animal and human.
Consider the trope of “holy war” and religious violence that permeates the article. There is little mention of the violence that cattle-thieves might indulge in, nor of the fact that sometimes (as was reportedly the case according to some accounts in one infamous incident), the supposedly “anti-beef” intolerance might really be about property theft rather than dietary policing. What we see is a lot of words about the “arms and ammunitions” being stockpiled by the gau rakshaks (though in one event they are waiting with rocks in their palms rather than any real guns). We are also told that that the website of the cow protection organization she highlights has drawings of Ak-47s on it. Guns in the service of cows and Hindu holy war is the claim here, and there is not much to dispute about the AK 47 pictures on the website at least.
And yet, what the Western-oriental voyeur/reader will not stop to think when he or she sees this seemingly frightening and weaponized iconology of secular-breakdown in India in favor of that vile cow-defending Hindutva people is the continuity of landscape and context all forgotten conveniently. The same people in the cosmopolis who read Granta and sweat about the Hindoos with AK-47 pictures on their website are in all likelihood also celebrating the same thing and worse when they watch movies like Gangs of Wasseypur or Bandit Queen that present the same regions and realities but in an identity-package more palatable to their tastes.
Vigilantism, violence, cow theft, attacks in the name of cow defense, the general problem of lawlessness, all these are realities and must be addressed as truth demands we address them. I agree. These are law and order issues, not a debate on the existential validity of Hinduism, Hindus, or the Vedas.
But if we do want to honestly recognize the history of religious fundamentalism in the global landscape of violence today, we might start, since we are talking about cows, nature, and sustainable human economies, of the endless proselytizing that is going on to this day for a misguided and deadly superstition that the world will end soon after its run of four thousand odd years so we might as well eat all life on earth all the way to our graves with gusto and there sit and await our saving.
That is the real religious fundamentalism that has caused the destruction of life, human, and other. And despite much posturing, it has not gone away but only repackaged itself into its new fashionably and yet so superficially secular guise.
Finally, it may also be relevant to the discussion at hand that the cow protection organization mocked and caricatured in Granta appears to be one run by a follower of Swami Dayananda Saraswati (the Arya Samaj tradition). Gokarunanidhi, the Arya Samaji manifesto on cow-protection, which is what presumably what guides the movement, is a brilliant document that anyone can read and see for themselves just how much “holy war” rhetoric or superstition actually guides those who risk their lives for cows in this tradition.
Written in 1881, Gokakurunanidhi (Ocean of Mercy for the Cow) outlines Swami Dayananda’s arguments for ensuring the lives of cows, and the lives, equally importantly, of the millions who survive monsoon failures, cruel landlords, any insanity the world throws at them, with the gentle beings they call “mother” and feeds them amidst any storm. It is a rational, factual, economic argument more than anything else--and modern vegans can also respect the fact that it is not a blind call to exploit the cow either (three udders for the calf, only one for the human, he says).
In a section presciently like Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Swami Dayananda Saraswati presents a dialogue between a “slayer” and a “protectionist,” addressing virtually every argument animal-killing zealots have presented in both pseudo-scientific and openly superstitious idioms. And contrary to the shallow and clichéd academic buzz about Swami Dayananda Saraswati being the founder of modern anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism and the like, anyone can read this text for themselves and see his deep Hindu universalism even in his critiques of violent agendas being imposed on India at that time. A Hindu does not quarrel with Muslims or Christians about religious difference since he believes God is one. If there is a quarrel, it is often only in the context of the reality of global imperialisms that have denied Hindus the courtesy they gave others, theologically, culturally, and most of all, existentially.
It must be noted in this context that Gokarunanidhi is not merely a utilitarian argument (and I am surprised that few environmentalists and historians today discuss this seriously), but also reflects Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s deep study of the Vedas. He was quite aware of the insidious propaganda that religiously-motivated colonizers and their dumb Indian elite collaborators were concocting, and made the supreme effort to establish a programmatic study of Indian scriptures.
Modern Hindus, and our critics, may not agree with all his positions, but writers who presume to scoff about their superior knowledge of the Vedas and their alleged cow-dish praises should know that sometimes, one knows very little. Jha, Doniger, and others who cite each other and a bunch of 19th century agenda-driven colonial Europeans are not the only “scholars” out there. The Arya Samaji position on the Vedas and cows is based on lifetimes of study of primary sources in Sanskrit, and at the very least this debate should be acknowledged openly and humbly (also see my piece in The Hoot on this issue, here).
Yes, it is possible apparently to read multivolume Sanskrit texts in the original form, and to put together a grassroots movement too.
If India and the world are to survive the bio-holocaust that is unfolding every day, then surely we deserve to understand the truth better than what Granta seems to be putting out. The cow may not have magical properties. But it’s better alive than dead, and so are all of us, I think. Please, don’t tell us there’s a better afterlife somewhere so a little dying is okay any more. We are tired of your ignorance, and your violence.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.