I remember having a strange conversation with Vijay, the second-hand book merchant on the central drag of the main bazaar in Delhi. We stood next to the piles of books that comprised the front of his shop and, whilst I choked on the fumes of a passing rickshaw, Vijay clung stubbornly to his point of view that the Muslims were a murderous race of barbarians. Surprised and alarmed by this unexpected fundamentalist streak in my friend, generally a thoughtful, intelligent man, I pressed Vijay to explain himself.
He sighed as though it was a self-evident truth and then gestured at a passing cow that had just paused to consecrate the street with a jet of urine.
“They are a cruel people because they kill and eat the cow!” He explained, “And she is such a kind animal!”
For a moment I thought his eyes were gong to fill with tears. I struggled to find some objection to his hatred for his neighbours but was struck dumb by this quintessentially Indian quantum leap of logic. I just counted myself lucky that Vijay didn’t ask me if I’d ever eaten beef myself. I’m not a good liar.
People who know nothing about India like to raise the subject of the holy cow as an example of the mysterious and inexplicable ways of the Mystic East. In America and Europe cows are seen as little more than milk factories and soon-to-be-steak-dinners; how typically superstitious for a country suffering from malnutrition and famine to prohibit the consumption of such an obvious food source!
The belief in reincarnation perhaps goes some way to explain the general vegetarianism of the Hindu (after all one could be eating one’s own grandparents born again further down the food chain) but the real answer is far more practical: The cow is the only available animal to pull the plough in the countryside. To eat it would be suicide. Without the cow the field cannot be ploughed, nothing will then be able to be planted and the family loses its only source of income. Unless there be a passing purveyor of spare kidneys.
Most anthropologists now accept that most myth has its birth in a cradle of practicality. As such the vital role of the cow was elevated to the status of sacred. Drape a few garlands of marigolds around her neck and writer her into a few adventures of the gods and Abracadabra – You’ve got a holy cow.
But logic never seems to get more than a few steps down the road in India before it stumbles into a pothole. While Vijay was happy enough to write off hundreds of millions of Muslims as sadists, he didn’t seem to care enough to lift one finger to help the cow standing in front of us. She was busy spoiling potential clown acts by eating all the dropped banana skins on the street. But then while Vijay pontificated, she began to apply herself to the consumption of a plastic bag that had been dumped in the gutter.
For some time the cows in Delhi and other Indian cities were found dead without any apparent cause of death. Upon investigative surgery it was found that their digestive systems had been clogged up with up to thirty kilos of plastic. Tens of thousands years of evolution never required the cow to understand the difference between cabbage leaves and polythene. Until now.
But few Indians see the incongruity of venerating the cow as the Holy Giver of Life and yet allowing her to die in pain by the roadside. Such a step would involve taking responsibility for the world around them. Perhaps it would even involve getting their hands dirty in work suitable only for the lower castes.
Vijay’s response was a gem of disinterested Indian fatalism. “The council must be taking care of all waste disposal of course – but they are all corrupt!” He told me with a flick of the hand that shooed the problem far away and out of sight.
Run over a cow in a jeep and you may well find yourself surrounded by an outraged and bloodthirsty mob demanding vast recompense or else retribution. Many Hindu-Muslim riots have been sparked by a surreptitious slaughter of the sacred beast. But none of those righteous Hindus would think twice about letting fall a plastic bag. Their responsibility ends in the moment they forget about it.
There are many holy cows in India. Any Indian will vehemently defend the honour and reputation of his sister or daughter. But this doesn’t stop the guys on the street to leer and make lewd approaches to any unaccompanied woman he sees on the street.
Or in a brilliant ruse to enroll the support of the uneducated millions, prime minister Vajpayee announced on the radio that the nuclear bomb was just like when Lord Krishna revealed his Divine Nature in the holy books, saying ‘I have become death, the destroyer of worlds’. No one considers that toxic waste and mutual annihilation with Pakistan are not the most sacred of prospects. And heaven forbid that anyone could have seen the virtue in spending the money instead on providing clean drinking water to the 200 million Indians who lack it.
But everything in Hinduism is holy anyway. Even disease and death and destruction. The popular elephant god Ganesh rides upon a rat. Shiva destroys everything in sight to make way for new Creation. And if everything is really going to hell then one can always say, ah, it’s all just maya anyway. The dance of illusion.
But maybe part of the appeal and beauty of Hinduism is its pick and choose nature. It’s not too difficult to find two Hindus who share hardly one belief in common. It’s a religion that is forever changing, evolving and slipping its skin, much like India itself. However, I doubt that butchers or leather workers will rise off the floor of the social order inside the next millennium or so.
However skeptical I sound on this subject, three years of living in India have instilled within me something of the country’s essential ambiguity too. I berate the destruction of the planet by the powers that be but I don’t lift a finger to stop it. I believe in God(s) and trust in the universe yet also wake up terrified each day about the future. I’m sure that love is the only medicine for our lives and I spend a large part of my time attacking all that I see.
And then there’s the cow. I only got through my three months of selling jewellery in Tokyo by going to Yoshinoya each day to eat beef and rice. Yet in India I never miss an opportunity to slap a Holy Cow on the side for good luck and love to feed them bananas when I meet them on the street. I wear leather shoes but nothing touches me more than to watch a holy cow hold up traffic on the street; a hundred horns blaze and drivers shout every curse imaginable but they hold their ground, chewing a plastic bag, more composed than any saint you’ll ever see in meditation.
I guess some cows are holier than others.