Who would have ever thought that a seemingly harmless animal like cow will one day be the cause of a tumultuous upheaval in Indian politics? But what was a far-fetched idea till a week ago has turned into reality with the government’s move to regulate cattle markets. A regular policy decision took a dangerous religious undertone when a concerted effort was made to tear apart the secular fabric of the nation.

Contrary to the popular debate, the decision to ban the sale of animals for slaughter in open markets should never have been equated with the propagation of a larger Hindu ideology. Those who have done so have revealed how little they understand Hinduism and the philosophies that have guided India as a nation.

Among the earliest references to cow found in the Vedas is with reference to Prithu, the first consecrated King from whom earth derives its name, Pritvi. According to Bhagavata Purana and Vishnu Purana, Prithu emerged from the ashes of King Vena who neglected the Vedic rituals and was responsible for a severe famine. Prithu, in order to end the misery chased the earth (Pritvi) who fled as a cow. With the promise that he will protect the earth, he milked her and brought back the vegetation and ensured the welfare of his subjects. It is easy to dismiss this story when seen from a purely literal sense. The imagery of earth taking the form of a cow defies all logic that the modern education system has brought with it. But to do so, will be nothing but bigotry. For, Hinduism is a philosophy that has used powerful symbolism to explain profound truths that would have been unfathomable otherwise.

The representation of earth as a cow points to the role that nature plays in the prosperity of mankind. From a hunter-gatherer community, it is when humans learnt to domesticate cows that they turned into agriculturalists and that gave way to the formation of civilizations. The cow was venerated as mother as the economic activities centred on her. In Rig Veda, the cow is referred to as Aghyna which means ‘one that yields milk and therefore doesn’t deserve to be killed’.

A counter argument to the status of the cow in Vedas is that the scriptures allowed the consumption of the meat of a cow. The often cited verses are that of Atharva Veda- which permits cow slaughter; Satapatha Brahmana which only prohibits excesses of cow killing and Ramayana of Valmiki which has references to cow sacrifices. The fact that is clearly overlooked in all the cases is that Yajur Veda has clearly denounced violence against all animals and has categorically stated that every living being has a soul of its own and shall not be harmed. As has been argued by many scholars, the confusion here arises from the literal interpretation of verses. There is a probability that the word ‘Gau’ was meant to depict earth and ‘Mansa’ only meant something pulpy, not necessarily meat. 

Even if one is to dismiss this theory, it still reveals the lack of understanding of Hinduism as a school of thought. It is perhaps the only religion in the world that accepts even atheists into the fold. This is because the word Hindu has always denoted a geographical identity than a religious one. The scriptures should not be seen as anything more than a guiding light to live a meaningful life. Moreover, Hinduism as a philosophy is known for its dynamism and its ability to absorb changes. So it can well be argued that it is the economic importance of cow that made it a cultural symbol. This holds true even in the present scenario. At a time, when the harmful effects of pesticides, machinery and hybrid varieties of cows have come to light, it makes sense to go back to the old way of life. Even in the Western school of thought it is now widely accepted that “living with a cow is living on nature’s income instead of squandering her capital”. A cow not only provides milk but it has been scientifically established that its other products like ghee, urine and dung can purify the environment, generate power and have anti-cancer and anti-oxidant properties. 

Another important fact that is ignored in the hullabaloo surrounding the new Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules 2017 is that it was formulated on the directions of the Supreme Court. The court was responding to a petition that court to curb the illegal transportation of cattle from India to Nepal for the ritualistic sacrifice at the Gadhimai festival held every year in the village of Bariyapur. Because of this, a specific clause has been included which states that “no animal market shall be organised in a place situated 25 kilometre from a state border or which is within 50 kilometre from an international border.” And the legislation has ensured that it is not just the cow but all bovine animals including bulls, buffalos, steers, heifers, calves and camels are well protected.

A legislation that essentially sought to address the untold miseries that cattle go through on their way to slaughter houses has been given a religious colour.  The debate should have been on the right to life and mindless killing of animals to satisfy the never ending human greed. The law has not banned slaughter as such; it has only banned illegal slaughter. It is time for all those who have been recklessly opposing the law to understand that the false propaganda should stop in the interests of both man and animal. The issue here is not beef, pork or mutton but cow, pig and goat. Living beings that should be accorded dignity even if it is in death.