The Holy Cow


Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

God’s Creation is wonderful for its variety and vividness. There are winged creatures, horned ones, mammals and non-mammals, huge ones like the elephant and insignificant ones like the earth-worm, intelligent ones like the man and the monkey and dullards like the donkey. There are beautiful specimens like the multi-coloured butterfly, which takes our breath away with the divine design of its wings, and there are grotesque ones like the hippopotamus, with its short, squat and ugly torso. Some are known for their speed, like the panther and the deer, while there is also space in the Creation for extremely slow ones like the proverbial tortoise. Predators like the Lion and Tiger subsist in this universe along with extremely docile creatures like the deer. There are some, which subsist in water like the graceful and luminous fish, some which thrive both on land and water and some, which can survive only in specific climes. The Penguins with their funny walk having the chilling Artic as their home and the Ship of the Desert surviving for days together in the hot sands without a drink of water, are samples of the incredibly wide array of beings we have for company in this universe. Thus, in its sheer variety, range, multiplicity and diversity, the assortment of creatures the Lord has chosen for inhabiting this planet is extremely impressive and imposing. And the beauty of the matter is that each of these animals has its own unique features and often serves a specific purpose ecologically or otherwise—so much so that its absence would make a distinct difference to the environment, which would be that much poorer.

If a survey were to be taken among the 8.4 million varieties of creatures that are supposed to be part of Creation, which would you say would be the most valuable and venerable? “Venerable”? I see eyebrows going up at this unusual word, as applied to animals. Animals could definitely be useful, as the horse and the dog, eminently lovable like the cat and the puppy, valuable like elephants, which, dead or live, fetch quite a handsome fortune as price—but venerable? Man being the Crowning Glory of Creation (as we fondly and falsely imagine ourselves to be), how and why should he venerate an animal, even if one eligible for such reverence were to exist? Continuing with our list of questions, which animal is accorded the exalted position of a Mother, and why? Which four-legged creature is mentioned with appreciation and admiration in the Vedas and which again has the same origins as Sri Mahalakshmi? Which mammal in the Lord’s Creation is considered so pure that even its excretions are held in high esteem?

All of us, at some time or the other in our school days, must have invariably written essays on the Cow. This piece is just an expansion of such scholastic efforts and might well be equally juvenile in composition and content. However, one aspect we would not have dwelt on in our infantile efforts is the Holiness of the Cow. It is ironical that even the English language, the ultimate refuge of all cynics, heretics and non-conformists, glorifies the Cow with the appellation, “Holy”. When anything is considered beyond criticism, attack or tampering, it is usual to enquire, “Is it a Holy Cow?” This is an indeed candid admission of the exalted status accorded to this quadruped, singling it out among the myriad variety of Creation, for veneration and worship. What indeed are the reasons for the high pedestal that this animal is accorded, by even the most egotistic specimen of Creation, viz., Man?

If we acknowledge that the various components of Creation came into being in a particular order, then the Shruti tells us that Cows were one of the very first to emerge from the Cosmic Sacrifice performed by the Celestials, to bring forth Creation in all its wide variety—“GAvO ha jagyirE tasmAt” (Purusha Suktam). And during the exercise of churning the Milky Ocean to obtain the best of each species, among the very first to emerge was the “KAmadhEnu”, the holiest of cows, capable of satisfying each and every desire of all who prayed to it, says the BhAgavata Purana—

“Mamanthu: tarasA Sindhum HavirdhAnI tatObhavat”.

It is noteworthy that it is only after the Surabhi (Holy Cow) that even Sri Mahalakshmi emerged from the Milky Ocean, making the former elder to the latter. It is perhaps out of the affinity of sharing common parentage (the Ocean) that Sri Mahalakshmi resides permanently in the Cow, near the tail part. And when the Lord tells Arjuna that He is the best there is of all components of Creation, He chooses the Divine Cow, KAmadhEnu, and identifies Himself with it—“AyudhAnaAm aham Vajram, DhEnUnAmasmi KAmadhuk”.

While Cows in general are extremely generous creatures, supplying us with vast quantities of Milk, Curds, Butter and Ghee throughout their lifetime, the Celestial Cow KAmadhEnu is portrayed to be one of exceptional powers, capable of granting the prayers of one and all, according to their varied tastes. The prowess of this Divine Creature is described vividly in Srimad Ramayanam, in the context of Sri VisvAmitra desiring possession of the cow owned by Sri VasishttA—

“vidadhE KAmadhuk kAmAn yasya yasya yathA IpsitAn”.

When Rajarshi Visvamitra descends on the unsuspecting Sage Vasishtta along with his huge army and seeks to be fed, it is to this KAmadhEnu that Vasishtta turns for aid and which comes to his assistance by producing in a minute, innumerable food items of such variety, taste and quantity, as were enough and more for the huge entourage of Visvamitra. The glory of this Cow can be understood from VasishttA’s response to Visvamitra’s entreaty to part with the creature, in return for untold riches—

“Etat Eva hi mE ratnam, Etat Eva hi mE dhanam
Etat Eva hi mE sarvasvam Etat Eva hi jeevitam”

Sri Vasishtta spurns Visvamitra’s offer, because he considers the Cow to be his all, more valuable than any amount of gems and riches.

We have always known the Cow to be of extremely docile demeanour, a picture of peace and tranquillity, to which offence or attack is totally alien. However, the Ramayana shows us another aspect of the Cow, that of a ferocious animal that is quite capable of and prepared for not only defending itself but also annihilating opponents. When the insistent request of Visvamitra turns into coercion for parting with the KAmadhEnu and when the former is prepared to capture the latter by force, the Celestial Cow creates a vast army of warriors from its hair nodules, which effectively destroys VisvAmitra’s forces with ease—

“Tasya tat vachanam shrutvA Surabhi: sAsrujat tadA
tasyA hunkAravOtsrishtA: pavA: shatasO nripa!
NAsayanti balam sarvam VisvAmitrasya pasyata:”

As it provides us with milk, which is the life-giving liquid for infants and continues to sustain us in various stages of life with its various products, is it any wonder that the Cow is accorded the exalted status of a mother and called fondly as “GOmAtA”?

DAnam or giving of alms has been extolled in the Shruti to be the highest form of merit—“tasmAt dAnam paramam vadanti”. And what constitutes the best form of offering? Giving away of Cows, or “GOdAnam”, is renowned in the scriptures to be the best of all gifts, adding merit to both the giver and the receiver. We thus hear of Sri Rama giving away billions of cows, to the learned and erudite—“GavAm kOti ayutam dattvA vidvadbhyO vidhi poorvakam”. The latter part of the sloka indicates that this GOdAnam has to be performed according to Shastras, accompanied by the utterance of appropriate mantras and gifted to those eligible for the same—GOdAnam cannot be performed by merely handing over the cow’s nose-string to the receiver.

It is worthwhile to note that one of the rare flashes of humour in the otherwise sober and serious Sri Raghava, occurs in connection with the giving away of cows. Hearing late that Sri Rama was giving away all His riches prior to leaving for the jungle, an impecunious Brahmin belonging to the Garga kulam, by name TrijatA, goes running to the Prince with his request for alms. Looking at the Brahmin’s emaciated body and wanting to fathom the intensity of his desire, Sri Raghava asks him to throw a stick as far as he can, adding that the space between themselves and where the stick fell, would be filled with cows for the Brahmin to take away. The mendicant throws the stick with all his might, bringing every ounce of energy in his spare frame to bear upon the endeavour — “Avidhya dandam chikshEpa sarva prANEna vEgita:” and to Rama’s wonder, the stick crosses the river SarayU and falls beyond. Sri Rama embraces the Brahmin and gives him the vast herd of cows standing between themselves and the SarayU, apart from untold riches.

Giving away cows is all right, but what sort of cows should be gifted? Shastras tell us that healthy, young and lactating animals should be given away to deserving recipients and not old cows, which are past their prime. We thus find young Nachiketas remonstrating with his father, when he finds the latter inadvertently gifting old cows as part of a sacrifice. Another aspect to be taken care of is that the cow should always be gifted along with its calf and should never be separated from the latter.

Vedas tell us that for ten days from calving, the cow should not be milked. During this period, the mother cow’s milk is meant exclusively for the calf—“TasmAt vatsam jAtam dasa rAtrI: na duhanti”.

Further, the calf should not be separated from its mother for the purpose of milking, till the “Sangava kAlam” (roughly 8 a.m.), says the Shruti—“Asangavam mAtrA saha charati”.

As is common to all mothers, the Cow too gives milk plentifully when its young one is near and feeding. Some of us might have seen in our younger days, the unseemly sight of milkmen milking cows with a stuffed calf placed near the cow. As permitting the real calf near the cow would result in loss of yield, unscrupulous and heartless vendors used to resort to this dastardly deception. However, this appears to be not a recent practice, but an age-old one, according to Sri NampiLlai, who adduces this as an example—“tOl kandrAi kAtti mAdu karakkumA pOlE”

It is in Sri Krishnavataram that the Lord’s real love and affinity for Cows is displayed. As an occupation, the Lord prefers tending to Cows more than reigning supreme in His celestial abode, adulated by all and sundry, says Sri Nammazhwar—“divattilum pasu nirai mEyppu uvatti”. Though names He might have more than a thousand, He prefers the name “GOpAla:” (Cowherd) to any other. It is not due to coincidence that Swami Desikan chose this name (“GOpAla Vimsati”) for his stotram on Sri Krishna. His love for cows has conferred on Him another hallowed name, which has been the refuge of the saintly over several millennia—the “GOvinda” nAmam. His love for the docile animals is such that to protect them from the torrential downpour let loose by an enraged Indra, the Lord hoisted the mammoth GOvardhana Giri on His little finger and stood unmoved for seven long days and nights, before the vanquished Indra called off the deluge.

“malayai edutthu kal mAri kAtthu pasu nirai tannai tolaivu tavirttha PirAn – மலையை எடுத்துக்கல் மாரி காத்துப் பசுநிரை தன்னைத் தொலைவு தவிர்த்த பிரான்” is how Sri Nammazhwar enthuses over this episode of the Lord affording protection to the cows of Gokulam.

Displaying a true mother’s concern, Sri Yasoda beseeches Sri Krishna not to go behind cows (“Kandrin pin pOgEl, kOlam seidu ingE iru – கன்றின்பின் போகேல் கோலம்செய் திங்கேயிரு”) for grazing them all over the forest, spoiling His already dark complexion (“kAnagam ellAm tirindu un kariya tirumEni vAda – கானகம் எல்லாம் திரிந்து உன் கரிய திருமேனி வாட”). His ardent admirers among the GOpis too echo this desire for Kannan to relinquish herding cows—“emperumAn pasu mEykka pOgEl – எம்பெருமான் பசு மேய்க்க போகேல்”. More than a concern for Krishna’s complexion, it is the fear of dangers lurking in the forests in the form of KamsA’s minions (sent specifically to do away with Krishna) that prompts the Gopis’ entreaty to Krishna to give up grazing cows. Another and the major factor behind this apparently innocuous appeal to Krishna, is the damsels’ unbearable jealousy of the fortunate cows, in whose company Krishna was spending His entire time, leaving the Gopis pining away for Him —“nin tozhuttanil pasukkaLayE virumbi turandu emmai vittu avai mEykka pOdi”. The young girls of Nandagokulam are thus prompted by a variety of reasons while entreating Krishna to give up going behind cows, captured beautifully by Sri Nammazhwar in all of ten pAsurams beginning with “VEy maru tOLiNai meliyumAlO”.

We have seen that the Lord is enamoured of cows’ company, rather than a residence in His native Paramapadam. We have seen too how He enjoys being with these creatures, during His avataras. It is therefore not at all surprising to find Him keeping the company of cows in the arcchAvatAra too. At several sannidhis, we find the Lord resplendent in bovine company, as at TErazhundUr and MannArkudi. At the former divyadEsam, He sports names, which proudly proclaim His inalienable association with Cows — “Amaruvi appan” and “Gosakhan”. And whichever sannidhi you visit during early morning “Visvaroopam”, you find a cow positioned with its back to the Lord, so that upon the doors being opened, the Lord’s eyes fall first on the cow, as a “mangala vastu”.

It is Cows, which provide eloquent testimony to the Lord’s glorious attributes of Soulabhyam and Souseelyam. There might be any number of acts of the Lord, which highlight His souseelyam or readiness to mix with the lowliest of lowly, living as one among them, sharing their home, hearth and food. However, His tending to cows in the company of the Yadava children appears to be the epitome of accessibility and souseelyam. Just think of it, the omnipotent Paramapurusha, the centre of adulation of celestials in Paradise, who is beyond the faculties of even exalted deities like Brahma and Shiva, the Parabrahmam who is beyond the ken of even Maharshis despite aeons of penance—it was this Lord of matchless magnificence who engaged Himself in the pretty lowly occupation of grazing cattle, in the company of unlettered cowherds (“arivondrum illAda Aykkulam – அறிவொன்றும் இல்லாத ஆய்க்குலம்”). It was this glorious Lord, whom even the venerated Shruti is still in search of, (“nigamAnthai: adhunApi mrigyamANam”) who went behind dumb cows for hours together. The Supreme Being, waited upon hand and foot by His Divine Consorts and the permanent inhabitants of Paramapadam, chose to cater to the requirements of mere cows, grazing them, rubbing them down in the waters of the Yamuna to cool their bovine bodies, herding them to the greenest of pastures for grazing to their hearts’ content, leading them to the nearest mountain spring for an invigorating drink of water (“inidu maritthu neer ootti – இனிது மறித்து நீர் ஓட்டி”) and even entertaining them with fun and frolic by playing with them (“Ittu kondu viLayAda – இட்டு கொண்டு விளையாட”). The Paramapurusha, to whom an entire world of devotees offered arghyam, pAdyam, Achamaneeyam etc., made Himself a mere cowherd, catering to every requirement, expressed and implicit, of dumb cows. Is it any wonder, then, that these cows and buffaloes grew to be giant specimens of their species and yielded milk so generously (“vaLLal perum pasukkaL – வள்ளல் பெரும் பசுக்கள்”) that GopAs’ hands were simply fatigued with milking these animals? However big the size of the vessel held to the udder, the veritable torrents of milk from the cows invariably made the containers overflow (“Ettra kalangal edir pongi meedaLippa – ஏற்ற கலங்கள் எதிர்பொங்கி மீதளிப்ப”). It was this bovine munificence which transformed the entire Nandagokulam into an oasis of plenty and prosperity (“seer malgum Ayppadi — சீர் மல்கும் ஆய்ப்பாடி”).

Looking to the greatness of Cows, the Shruti equates them with Yagyam — “YagyO vai Gou:”. This is no small tribute, considering the other exalted entities, for instance the Lord Himself, with whom Yagyam has been equated. When the Vedas say “YagyO vai Vishnu:” and, in the same breath, “YagyO vai Gou:”, is it not the highest of accolades that can be showered on Cows by the most exalted body of wisdom?

The Cow has been the object of as much veneration as scholarly BrAhmaNAs toiling for the world’s spiritual welfare, and has been placed on the same footing as these seekers after the spirit.

Let me conclude this piece with the Ramayana Parayana sloka, with its prayer for universal well being, according a special place to Cows with an invocation for their welfare—

“Svasti: prajAbhya: paripAlayantAm
NyAyyENa mArgENa mahIm mahIsA:
GO BrAhmaNEbhyO shubham astu nityam
LOkA: samastA: sukhinO bhavantu“

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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  1. Very nice article. No doubt we are indebted to our dear go-maatha for caring us for all our lives. In fact she is a great giver and hence dear to our Lord.
    She consumes a trivial grass and gives us rich milk!!!
    She takes little but gives a lot.
    That is what she teaches us -to be a giver.No matter what u get or dont get in life, But u be a generous giver of good.That quality is what the Lord likes. and wishes in all of us. BE A GIVER!!. The cow represents selflessness and a generous giver, and serves humanity and thus God Himself.
    In fact all that Our dear Lord likes- srigandh, pearls, cows, trees, water, earth, air, -are selfless givers. The oyster gets dust but gives pearl, the sandalwood gives fragrance even when it is being rubbed, the lamp gives light even when it is being burnt, the cow gives milk even if it is fed grass, the trees give us fruits, shade.

    All these creatures are exhibiting the very nature of Perumal Himself who is the GREATEST GIVER!!!


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