“The devas reside in the body of a cow and all the holy places exist in cow’s feet. Goddess Laxmi resides in the private parts of a cow. A person who adorns his forehead with the mud sticking to the feet of a cow, attains the piety akin to bathing in a holy shrine…..success for such a person is guaranteed at every step.”
– Yajurveda 23.46
(photo courtesy: Rebecca Marr)
Check out a cow at close quarters and her eyes will blow you away, so beautiful are they – large, with long eyelashes, trusting, serene, all comprehending – as if she is saying to you, “I know you need me, my body, for your daily nourishment, your survival. Don’t harbor any guilt that you treat me so – I completely understand….”
Just thank your lucky stars you were not born as one. We literally plunder its resources and it rolls over and lets us suck it dry. No other animal is stripped literally to the bone – no, that isn’t accurate, even the bones of a cow find some use. We as a race might have gone extinct without the nourishment that the cow provides us. Therefore the least that a cow would expect is to be treated humanely.
But pray to it? A cow? To anybody but a Hindu that will seem loony and it is just that – stark raving loony. But that is what faith does to you. The blue-skinned Hindu God, Krishna, is supposed to have been a cowherd as a boy and that is where the Hindus’ extreme devotion to cows comes from. If Krishna had collected mice and raced them on those tiny treadmills on weekends as a side hobby, Hindus would be praying to mice too.
Once, I had blundered into a ‘Geeta path’ session (formal group chant of the scriptures) that was being held in honor of a visiting holy man, a special breed of homo sapiens that abound the earth in the thousands like a virus. There was a Q&A session right after and I asked the guy why we Hindus make such a big deal about cows and he held forth like I had just touched a powder keg with a match.
He was unstoppable. “The cow is a giver,” he said. “It gives, expecting nothing in return. There is no other animal that we humans consume so completely, not leaving even its hooves behind. The cow exudes a kind of dignified acceptance of the fact that it has been created for us to exploit, showing neither sorrow nor happiness at its role in the world. In that essence, without even knowing it, cows are way ahead of us in ‘Godliness’ and that is why we Hindus have put them on a pedestal.”
I was impressed but puzzled, “Without knowing it? If you don’t know you’re doing good, then what good is it to your spirituality. Isn’t the conscious decision to do good what counts? Besides, how could any creature have been created by God for our exclusive consumption? And what about say, chicken, sheep, goats, partridge, turkey, pigs? We consume them too, don’t we? Why don’t we pray to them?”
By now he was beginning not to like me and I got swept away in the surge of devotees – schmucks like me who had questions.
India takes cow devotion to absurd extremes. If you’re visiting the state of Maharashtra in India, chances are good you’ll bump into a Hindu fanatic or two, pretty quick. If you happen to utter the word ‘cow’ in a derogatory sense, a gorakshak (‘cow security official’, in Hindi) will grab you, beat you black and blue, snatch your smartphone and your wallet, empty your pockets, appropriate your vehicle and kick you into the gutter – everything transpiring in full view of the friendly neighborhood…..let’s play that word game we played in Part-1…. what’s the good word for a cowardly corrupt son of a bitch who won’t lift a finger to save you even though that is essentially what he gets paid for?
You’re awesome, you did it again – ‘Indian street cop’.
There, you learned another word about the world’s largest, greatest, most peace-loving, most welcoming, most hospitable, most humble, most vegetarian, most awesome democracy. Hindu nationalists love to throw around adjectives such as the above and the gorakshaks are their foot soldiers.
India has strict laws on cows. Except for the North-Eastern state of West Bengal and Kerala in the south, cow slaughter is banned. Cows are sacred. You pray to cows over there, not kill them.
For beef eaters though, there is a silver lining – remember the buffaloes I wrote about in Part-1? The killing of buffaloes is legal in India, though there are caveats – you can only kill buffaloes that fulfill certain conditions – they have to have reached menopause (ie: be older than 15) and no longer be able to reproduce and/or are too old to act as beasts of burden. And then, in order to kill an ‘eligible’ buffalo, you have to get some paperwork done which certifies all that.
India has a full-fledged bureaucracy meant just to handle the bovine paperwork, that is responsible for all cow related matters, like issuing cow birth certificates, special abattoir permits for slaughter and the oversight required to ensure the humane treatment of cows in accordance with Hindu norms.
That is the mark of an intrinsically corrupt society – every institution is in its place, set to perform, to protect and safeguard, but…….
Cow slaughter may be banned in India, but like the Chicago mobster, Al Capone, once said about the smuggling of bootleg whisky during the 1920s prohibition era in America – ‘if there are folks who want to get drunk, there is no way you can prevent moonshine from being sold’. That holds for beef too. Given the 250 million-strong beef eating Christian, Muslim and Dalit Indians in the population, the demand within India is huge.
All that seeming reverence and the protection regime masks a trade in cows and cow products which is unparalleled in its barbarity. Much of the abuse stems from the fact that the slaughter of cows is almost entirely clandestine. Members of the very bureaucracy that is charged with stopping it are routinely bribed to let it continue, making a mockery of the government oversight of the business.
While the abattoirs in West Bengal and Kerala can slaughter cows legally, elsewhere in India where it is banned, it goes on unchecked – buried deep inside Muslim quarters in the inner cities across India, where hole-in-the-wall abattoirs try to shove under the carpet an appalling picture of cruelty.
It begins with the journey. The law says you cannot transport more than four cows per lorry but this is India. The sight of lorries jammed with up to twenty cows is a common sight. When they are transported by train, in rail cars illegally chartered through under-the-table transactions, each wagon is crammed with upto a hundred of the wretched animals. Most times, after travelling days without water or hay, they arrive at their destination – often a remote rail siding outside a major city – with 20 to 30 of them already dead.
Every palm is greased. In West Bengal, an illegal organisation called the Howrah Cattle Association fakes permits which confirm that the cattle being transported are meant for agricultural purposes, for ploughing fields or for milk. The stationmaster at the point of embarkation gets an equivalent of $200 for a car-load of cows. The rail superintendent at the point of exit pockets a similar amount. Everybody, except the miserable cows themselves, is happy.
Kerala’s slaughter houses are on the border with Karnataka and Maharashtra. The trafficking to Kerala is on foot and all that walking causes the cows to lose weight. That is not good for business, since the contracted rates are based on weight. The traffickers have that figured out too. At the border, they force the cows to drink water laced with copper sulphate, which destroys their kidneys and makes it impossible for them to pass the water – so when they are weighed they have upwards of 15 kilograms of water inside them, besides being in extreme agony.
The journey to Kerala is hideous – one that would make the Nazi death marches seem like a walk in the park. To keep them moving, the herders beat the cows across their hip bones with wooden paddles and on spots where there is no fat to cushion the blows, till the white of the bones emerge through the broken skin. Not allowed to rest or drink, many of the animals sink to their knees. The herders then beat them mercilessly, twisting and tugging at their battered tails, to force them to rise. If that doesn’t work, the depraved sadism goes up a few notches – they rub hot chilli peppers and tobacco into the eyes of the hapless animals.
When they finally make it to the slaughterhouses that stand on the Kerala border, the end these hapless creatures confront is far from the reverence and deification that Indian scriptures tout. The abattoirs in Kerala have a unique way of killing them, one that even Heinrich Himmler would pause before considering.
The slaughter is carried out in a ritualistic sequence of steps that the men in the business believe produces meat that is tastier and more nutritious than simply slashing its jugular vein at the outset and letting the animal bleed to death, a process that is swift and painless.
Instead, step-1 is to smash the cow on the forehead, right between the passive, trusting eyes, repeatedly with 30lb hammers. Go ahead, take a look at the video in the link. It is a surreptitiously shot film of cows being killed at a Kerala abattoir. Just make sure you haven’t had breakfast yet. Step-2, the unconscious cow is hung upside down still alive, so the blood drains down to the head. Step-3, the cow is skinned, still alive. Step-4 is the coup-de-grace: while it is hanging upside down, still breathing, the jugular vein is slashed with a sharp blade and the cow finally bleeds to death.
Through the process, the cow often regains consciousness, its eyes wide open and uncomprehending. If, as that holy man dude in the earlier para said, cows are a deliberate creation of God for the sole purpose of human consumption, it is an irony that that process of consumption is so barbaric.
The other part of India that tries to match the brutality of slaughter, is the business of producing milk.
Around 1998, India surpassed the US as the world’s top milk producing nation, a position that it still holds as on date. India is home to the largest cattle herd in the world – one cow for every three Indians.
Turns out, actually that is not something to be proud of, if you are someone who believes in animal rights. It isn’t good news if you look at it from the point of view of a cow definitely. The image of worship, tenderness and devotion that Hinduism attempts to present, is a myth.
In reality, the life of an Indian cow is a horror film on continuous play. The business of producing milk in India is a process of unrelenting cruelty toward cattle, from birth till death, with little letup. Cruelty, compounded by poorly defined, poorly implemented methods and gross violations.
The moment a cow reaches puberty, she is impregnated through artificial insemination and if all goes well and the cow doesn’t develop an infection and is cast aside, soon a calf is born. An Indian cow is kept pregnant 300 days of the year, in a form of milk production known as ‘intensive dairy farming’. While the the female calf is nurtured for milk production, the male is more often left to die of starvation. Since technically that is not slaughter, the consumption of the meat is considered legally acceptable.
The saddest part is that while the cow is seen by Indians as a metaphor for motherhood, she is rarely given a chance to experience the joys that go with it for very long. Calves are separated from their mothers soon after they are born so they won’t drink up all the milk.
Let’s begin to imagine what the separation must do to both, the mother and her calf, docile beings who didn’t do us any harm. Veal is in high demand for export and therefore, on the very second day after birth, the calf is separated from the mother and placed in a separate pen – only yards away – in plain view of the mother. The mother cow can see her infant, smell him, hear him, but she can’t touch him, comfort him, or nurse him. The heartrending bellows that she pours forth minute after minute, hour after hour for a week, would be excruciating to listen to, if the dairy farmer had a heart.
If three out of four Indians are Hindus then it is realistic to assume that all that cruelty cannot be going on without the awareness and even active participation of the Hindu establishment. Animals are processed for slaughter in the west maybe just as brutally, but there is a difference – the west does not wrap itself in holier-than-thou sanctimony. The west does not keep on and on like a broken record, about how the respect and reverence for all life is fundamental to Hinduism, enshrined in the Gandhian word ahimsa (non-violence).
There is an argument that had it not been for humans, cows would have long gone extinct, since their passive nature would render them vulnerable to predatory carnivores. Instead, the argument goes, humans have helped cows exist and at least in the west, they live in the relative comfort of well-run dairy farms, up until they have to be killed for consumption.
If cows could talk and were asked which life they would have preferred – the freedom in the wild with the constant threat from predators, or a life of comfort in a farm, even though there was an abattoir waiting for them, sometime in the future, I wonder what the overwhelming opinion of the bovine world would be.
But of one bovine response (or the lack of it) I am sure – the cow doesn’t give a flying f—k about being deified and garlanded and if it could talk, it would say,” Cut the reverence crap, okay?”
The ultimate analysis
Someone once suggested that it is okay to kill any living being that does not have the capacity to see a future. For example, a gazelle doesn’t give a crap about what it wants to do tomorrow. It lives for the moment. Therefore, the argument goes, killing that gazelle wouldn’t rob it off any aspirations that it might have had, since it did not have any aspirations to begin with.
But the gazelle would be scared and try to flee, if confronted by an external threat, such as a hunter with a gun. That would mean that the gazelle has an inborn desire to survive, to continue living. So, killing the gazelle could be considered an unfair and ultimately unethical act.
That could apply to cow slaughter as well.
Ultimately Hinduism has to look at cow slaughter as an ethical issue. The question should be this – Is it ethical to kill another living being?
The question should not be this – Is it right to kill a cow just because one of the chief Gods of Hinduism happens to be a cowherd?