How modern veneration of cow underlines ancient caste hierarchy

The significance of this transition of the cow to a creature both animal and divine, needing protection and veneration, was explored by the sociologist Louis Dumont in his seminal work, Homo Hierarchicus

Written by Aakash Joshi | Published:May 1, 2017 12:06 am
Cows with tags at a Cow Shed in Mohali. Express photo

No other non-human vertebrate has, at least in recent history, enjoyed the symbolic, legal and moral stature currently accorded to the cow in India. Its slaughter is punishable by life imprisonment in Gujarat, and carries severe jail terms in other states, notably Haryana and Rajasthan, that are often akin to the sentences for culpable homicide. Gau rakshaks have assaulted and murdered in the pursuit of bovine protection. In many of these cases, the police have filed cases against the victims as well as the accused. Most recently, there has been a move towards documenting and tracking cows and their progeny through an Aadhaar-like system.

The tiger — India’s national animal — is conserved but not venerated, and while its slaughter is punishable by law, it isn’t a cause for moral and political outrage. The symbolic status of the cow has few parallels, except, perhaps, with royalty. When rulers existed by divine right, an attack on their body was considered an assault on the state as well as society.

Historically, as D N Jha pointed out in The Myth of the Holy Cow, there is substantial evidence that beef was consumed, across classes and castes, during the Vedic period (c. 1500-500 BC). As with many pastoral societies, milch and draught animals — in this case the cow — were part of both rituals and diets. It was not until centuries later that the “sacredness” of the bovine was established in a form that would be familiar to us today. It began only with the emergence of post-Vedic Brahminism, well after the birth of Christ. The idea of cow protection, Jha and others have argued, did not gain widespread appeal until the 19th century, when Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj began to use it as a tool for political mobilisation.

The significance of this transition of the cow to a creature both animal and divine, needing protection and veneration, was explored by the sociologist Louis Dumont in his seminal work, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (1981). A system of inequality as complex and enduring as the caste system requires a symbolic and ritual buttressing, and constant reinforcement. The veneration and subsequent “protection” of the bovine was essential to the movement of caste “from a system to a structure”, Dumont argued — it was through their relationship to the cow, and each other, that the two poles of the caste system, Brahmin and Dalit, were imagined and their positions cemented.

“It is clear,” wrote Dumont, “that the impurity of the untouchable is conceptually inseparable from the purity of the Brahmin… It is remarkable that the essential development of pure and impure in this connection bears on the cow.” The killing of the cow, even involuntarily, is a crime and “the murder of a cow is assimilated into the murder of a Brahmin”.

Cows are a form of wealth as well as a way to measure “dakshina” to priests. On the other hand, almost parallely, the status of the Dalit too is determined by the cow. They had/have the job (in the caste system) of disposing dead cattle and treating and working with their skins. Dumont pointed out that among the most numerically preponderant Dalit castes in the Gangetic plain are the Jatavs, and even in Tamil Nadu “those of the drum” — made from animal skin — once had a low ritual status.

The cow then, like the Brahmin of yore, is “half-animal and half-divine” and “effectively divides the “highest from the lowest”. Dumont recalled that scriptural and mythical sources equate the murders of the cow and the Brahmin, and that panchgavya — dung, milk, urine, curd, ghee — derived from the cow is used in “purification” rituals when caste taboos are transgressed, and in the thread ceremony for upper caste males.

Theoretically, through the setting up of the poles and, therefore, the basis of the caste hierarchy, cow veneration and protection became one of the underpinnings of what B R Ambedkar called “graded inequality”. Simply put, in the unique form of discrimination prevalent in the subcontinent, there isn’t a clear distinction between haves and have-nots — instead, in nearly all cases, there is someone above you as well as someone you are above. This ranking of castes and sub-castes is made logically possible by placing the cow — and by extension, the Brahmin — at the top of the ritual hierarchy, and those that deal with its carcass, at the bottom. It is through the animal that the two ends of the inequality meet, and the system comes full circle. The cow as a “pure”, “divine” animal, therefore, is also about maintaining the privileges that accrue from being at the top of the caste hierarchy.

In practical terms, this symbolism plays out in violence and discrimination — the flogging of Dalits in Una in July last year was a case in point. Many of those who work in industries and professions associated with the skin, remains and meat of the cow and other animals are Dalits and Muslims — two communities who are, not coincidentally, also among the poorest in the country.

The current drive towards “cow protection” has, going by Dumont’s work, a dimension that goes beyond its justification in the Constitution of India. Article 48, a Directive Principle of State Policy, reads: “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

The discourse and practice around the anti-cow slaughter movement is amenable to more than just economic analysis. The ideas of purity and pollution stemming from the animal, and its metaphorical association with the top of the caste hierarchy open up the systemic motivations behind its “protection” to a new set of questions.

aakash.joshi@expressindia.com

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  1. D
    Dravidian
    May 7, 2017 at 8:15 am
    This country that took birth in 1947 though disparate was held togther by the equal sattus to all communities, sattes, religions, castes, tribes, ethnicity. YOu RSS are hitting at that very foundation. We South idnains have notjhing in common with you, nor do we need a burden like you backward states. So think beofre you pursue this agenda.
    Reply
    1. A
      Ali
      May 2, 2017 at 2:46 am
      In Christian Bible Deuteronomy chapter 7 the christain God tells the Israelites that there are other ethnic groups living in the promised land. Does their christian God tell them to live in peace and harmony with them, with everyone respecting each others’ differences? No he tells them “to smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them nor shew mercy unto them. Neither shalt thou make marriages with them.” (This isn’t the only time the Israelites exterminated others, see here) Christian God commands the Israelites to exterminate another people, not for any crime but merely because they are a different ethnic group with a different religion. This exceeds even the Ku Klux Klan level of racism.
      Reply
      1. A
        Arvind
        May 1, 2017 at 6:17 pm
        If you wish to understand Maths you need to seek guidance of Maths books, drawing through drawing books, music through music books, and so on. If you really wish to understand why ancient Indians revered cow as 'mother' you would have to seek guidance through the books they followed i.e. Vedic Scriptures. Learning it through a modern sociologist like Dumont would only deceive you. Remember, it is easy to speak your mind's 'unmindful' thoughts; however, it takes a lot, to form knowledge based 'valuable' thoughts in your mind.
        Reply
        1. M
          MyTake
          May 1, 2017 at 3:36 pm
          Another Nehruvian Pandit cant wait to let others know about the sacred "wisdom"! Many countries have different animals not allowed to be slaughtered for different reasons and thete is nothing wrong if India wants to ban killing of cows for cultural reason to solve an age-old Hindu Muslim problem. It is better to solve a problem and move forward instead of standing the "ground" and spill the blood! Otherwise one has to ask: Who then is the cow!
          Reply
          1. T
            Tushar
            May 1, 2017 at 2:27 pm
            Manu Burnt a s s e s are. Commenting below ... They don't understand the. Hypocracy shown by the government ..by forcing people to stop eating beef they are really promoting the need export .... And Important thing what we have to notice always is .Those who eat doesn't eat cow ..they use bull and Buffalo as beef.. Since the holy thing is only cow y this lynching is going on .. Secondly ..most of the GCC countries and it's people are stated quiting using beef exported from India .as a protest against governments hypocracy ... When such things keep happening they will gradually start quiting all products from India .Thus the economy will start declining .. Being so called patriots do u people really been bothered about that ? So let the things what had been practiced continue .. We have many more important things to talk and discuss about .. Bann liquor ,cigaretes , many more similar things causing problem to the human health more than this beef is doing ..
            Reply
            1. S
              Sheeple
              May 1, 2017 at 2:10 pm
              Amazed how this journalist fails to find a single environmental repercussion of non-vegetarianism. There are multiple studies (UN) showing how meat farming has a direct and irreversible impact on global warming and climate change. All he shows is some 40 year old ideological study by a foreigner who probably never travelled to India and understood its culture. Why did Ashoka, the first Buddhist king ban the slaughter of all animals? Why did Akbar ban the slaughter of cows? Why don't Jains eat any meat? No answer from the stupid Dumont....ancient Indians lived in harmony with the environment. Don't use ideology to paint everything.
              Reply
              1. N
                Nagar
                May 1, 2017 at 1:29 pm
                India is now run & controlled by (1) Tobacco Mafia (2) Liquor Mafia (3) Meat Mafia (4) Fertilizer Mafia (5) Narcotics Mafia. This PRESS UTE author is propped up by either the Meat Mafia or the Fertilizer Mafia or by both. If our DESI COWS & BULLS are protected from slaughter both the CHEMICAL FERTILIZER INDUSTRY & MEAT INDUSTRY will be devastated.
                Reply
                1. T
                  Tushar
                  May 1, 2017 at 2:11 pm
                  Man the beef mafia is supported by the government and they do all the help to these so called mafia to grow to a unimaginable financial tombs .. So when u simply criticize the media u must look into the hypocracy by the government regarding this matter
                  Reply
                2. L
                  lakshmi das
                  May 1, 2017 at 1:27 pm
                  haaaaaaaaaa--cow my mother----matha ji good morning ji Namaste. let us extend this privilege to cows in Europe Americas Asian countries and Australia. give notice to coutries set a date to those pople after a certain date,no mor killing of cows will be tolerated. does bjp really want to come back to rule us again?how did they get elected at all? because of the failure of congress that ran out of ideas........ what a shame....
                  Reply
                  1. T
                    TECHNICAL
                    May 1, 2017 at 1:18 pm
                    {A Kolkata based company runs buses on COW based METHANE @ 1 Rupee for 15 KM.} [5 million liters of Ur()ine of certified DESI COWS & BULLS are exported daily to US, Europe @ 100 Rupees per liter] (MANURE CAKES made from the Go()bar of our DESI COWS & BULLS are exported to Europe daily @ 160 Rupees per Kg) {It is time Center & state Governments realize that our animals are more valuable than MEAT & put them to proper utilization}
                    Reply
                    1. X
                      Xavier Safety
                      May 1, 2017 at 1:11 pm
                      A 'living animal' is 1000 times more profitable & beneficial than a 'slaughtered animal' - If all the animals are treated humanely & utilized judiciously: (1) India need not import LPG for Cooking (2) CNG for Power Generation (3) Expensive & poisonous Chemical Fertilizers & pesticides for Agriculture - Center & State Governments should initiate steps to utilize the animals for GOBAR GAS production for 'cooking', 'power generation' & preparation of ORGANIC MANURE
                      Reply
                      1. T
                        Tushar
                        May 1, 2017 at 2:13 pm
                        Bu L L s h I t. ....what u re speaking and wot u hve n ur head as well lol... An unproductive cow produces very dangerous chemical to inhale through its dung
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                      2. C
                        cbonf
                        May 1, 2017 at 1:06 pm
                        [Ban CHEMICAL FARMING & implement COW BASED ORGANIC FARMING like Sikkim] [This will automatically protect DESI COWS & BULLS from slaughter]
                        Reply
                        1. D
                          deepak sankhla
                          May 1, 2017 at 12:46 pm
                          Factually incorrect paid article written with malafide intentions! Perhaps Ashish is not aware about Guru Gorakhnath's legend. Also, there is centuries old tradition in Rajasthan (even before Mugal period) to save cattle and cow from marauding hordes by valerous heros like folk hero Veer Tejaji who gave his life to protect cows from cattle smugglers.
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                          1. K
                            Kamal Pasha
                            May 1, 2017 at 12:33 pm
                            Mad laws by BJP have made every Indian mad and laughing stock of the world, whereas many Hindua eat cow meat in the the Middle East.
                            Reply
                            1. T
                              TECHNICAL
                              May 1, 2017 at 1:22 pm
                              I am working in the Middle East for the last 15 years. Daily I come across hundreds of people here suffering cancer, heart problems, diabetes, skin diseases & stroke. The general advice doctors give first is to desist from MEAT.
                              Reply
                              1. T
                                Tushar
                                May 1, 2017 at 2:17 pm
                                U stop eating meat and get rid of. Cancers .what right u have to force others .. How much important is leafs and plants for u veg terians ..that much important is meat for non veg ...it's been a used habit for the past 100/ of centuries .... Doctors instruct to stop eating red meat to a cancer patient..But they never say red meat causes cancer ...u must note that point .Even I have done the research on it as my mom had to go through the situation .. And Why the goveren ment who force peoe.to stop eating this is promoting beef export
                            2. A
                              Ashu
                              May 1, 2017 at 12:17 pm
                              Very intense. I wish the article is translated to English too.
                              Reply
                              1. S
                                Shiva
                                May 1, 2017 at 12:15 pm
                                I am from so called lower caste. Even I feel this article has too far fetched. Does the author think, if cow slaughter is allowed, caste system will be eliminated ? In consumerism world today, money is the king. With good nutrition, better access to education and better economic opportunities, the lower castes are catching up with the IQ and economic quotient, once held exclusively by brahmins. Brahmins are a minority now, their ideas of caste superio y is drastically coming down in this age of globalization. They are not so much of a threat. Thw worst threat is, The leftists opposing everything Indian and Hindu, like yoga, cows, nationalism and the concept of India itself by labelling it as brahmanical. Only losers in that case will be India, Indians and Indianess.
                                Reply
                                1. S
                                  sapan
                                  May 1, 2017 at 11:55 am
                                  It's a misfortune of India that we have such degenerate, unintelligent and utterly stupid journalists without any roots or pride in Indian culture and only like to lick western backsides. Shame on this virus of India!
                                  Reply
                                  1. p
                                    p.s.swami
                                    May 1, 2017 at 11:46 am
                                    The more you fools continue to dish out garbage from a white christian colonial culture, the more you polarize the society - remember the concept of social sciences is a curse in India, it simply regurgitates judeo-christian purva pkasha of the other as sacrosanct truth and uses brown sahebs to perpetuate what overt colonialsm could do. This Joshi is one confused puppy!
                                    Reply
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