After much discussion on this topic, I offer my own interpretation of the holy cows of India. First, though, in response to “when does respect stop and worship begin?” one of my readers commented: Respect is deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities or achievements. Worship is formal expression of reverence, devotion and adoration for deity. Personally I think holy cow is an example of a crossover or an overlap.
Allow me to explain.
The cow is one of the most useful animals to mankind, supplying milk, butter, buttermilk, yogurt, cheese, clarified butter (also known as ghee). In addition, food and sweets are often made out of milk products. Hindus knew it more than 3,000 years ago. They used butter for burning lamps and even dried cow dung for cooking and heat. In short, Indians utilized – or depended – on cows. However, cows are not deities in Hindu religion.
There are references in their epic stories that some holy men, in their need, were sustained by cows. One incarnation used a bullock (Nandi) for transportation. By the way, bullock carts are still used in India today for ploughing the fields and for transportation. Lord Krishna, another incarnation was a cowherd, just like king David, the Shepherd king, who wrote the famous 23rd Psalm. There is a similarity between the cows of Hindus and the sheep of Christianity. Christians picture Jesus as the gentle shepherd.
I believe it was a tactical move to cross over from deep respect to religious respect. It immensely affected the social and economical necessities of life, and rightly so. Without a religious influence, would cows have been protected or unwisely slaughtered just to feed an exploding population? It is not uncommon to see some garland and offer the usual vanakam with folded hands. Indians meet each other with Vanakam, or Namasthe. Handshake is a western import. This does not signify worship!
No matter how I explain this phenomenon of crossing over from respect to devotion, it will not be accepted by all. Christians are no exception. For example, many Christians venerate Mary, the highly favoured, and pray to her to intercede – even calling her the mother of God. When we immigrated to Canada, many of our friends gave us medals (trinkets) of St. Joseph for travelling mercies (I still have them). Don’t Christians travel to Jerusalem and bring back their own trinkets? Just like visits to Mecca, Medina, or Benares? Of course, they omit the word pilgrimage.
On a personal note, cows sustained our family during the lean years of Second World War. Times were tough. I remember walking to the market – Ration Card in hand – for rice and kerosene! Dad lost his job. Mom – mother of 8 – started teaching to make ends meet. During this time, Mr. Israel, my mother’s only brother, (they were orphans and were very close to each other) recognizing the need of our family, BOUGHT A COW FOR HER! This cow Kalyani, then Kannu, and then Ponnu, sustained our family. We had enough milk for the whole family and some for our immediate neighbour (kind of like barter). It was almost like the Menorah! Did we worship our cows? No! We worshipped God Almighty who supplied us the cow. Did we love and respect the cows? Yes, a hundred times over! Besides, they were part of the family!
I did not think about this crossover seriously until an old classmate of mine enquired; does your God need rest like our Gods? Of course, he was referring to Genesis, when God, after creating the world in six days, took rest on the seventh day; referred to again in the Decalogue. This day of rest, called the Sabbath, was absolutely necessary to relax, meditate, play, worship and spend time with the family. Is today’s lack of which the major contributing factor for so-called stress, breakdowns, broken relationships, etc? So who needed rest – God or man? Have you asked this question yourself?
Now why did I choose this subject of Holy Cow particularly in relation to my theme In Search of moderation? How does it relate to the balance of all virtues or excellence? I am learning to cultivate the more excellent way (even in my old age) to be slow in saying or joking or criticizing those of different background, culture, language or religion, before I present the love of God through Jesus Christ. This reminds me of the prophet Ezekiel. You see, he had to proclaim some harsh words and warning to his people. But he was not ready until “he sat where they sat” (Ezekiel 3:15). Is it not similar to the Native American saying “judge not my brother until I walk in his moccasins for a mile”?
This is precisely the reason why Jesus did not want his disciples to go beyond the border of Israel with the gospel. They had their baggage and were not ready yet. They had not “sat where they sat”. They had to wait till the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of love.
God bless, Danny Paul