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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.


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  1. D
    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.
    1. A
      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.
      1. A
        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.
        1. M
          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!
          1. Satish Chandra Varma
            Aug 2, 2017 at 8:38 pm
            Milk is the lactating secretion for a mammal's infant thus the nutritional value is formulated for the growth of that particular infant. The milk of the cow has large amounts of calcium so necessary for the growth of the calf's development but deficient in nutrition essential for human brain growth. So milk should be given only in small quan ies to a child. 75 of the world's population are lactose intolerant or have lactase deficiency. As a species we are not meant to drink milk beyond a certain age. The cow generates milk for its young and not for humans who simply snatch it from the calf. To call the cow a mother for the milk that you have deprived a calf of, is shameful hypocrisy. Coming back to the article, it is a historical fact that vedic Indians ate beef, much as one would like to deny it.
          2. T
            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 ..
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