In literature and art from over 100 years ago, images of the cow as mother

Back in the day, even bhajans fiercely associated a Hindu’s manhood to his strength in defending the cow.

Written by Radhika Iyengar | Updated: April 5, 2017 8:52 am

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The first known cow protection movement began in the 1800s when Hindus were rallied in hordes to stop the slaughter of cattle. Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati emerged as an early proponent of cow protection, who first published Gokarun·aˉnidhi (, a pamphlet in 1881, which circulated his concerns against cattle slaughter. In it, Saraswati stated the ‘economic’ favourability of cow protection, arguing that a cow was more beneficial to people alive, as opposed to it being dead, since it gave milk and eased agricultural labour. Saraswati later on went to establish a committee for the protection of cows called Gaurakshini Sabha in 1882.

While Saraswati had given economic reasons to support his demand for cow protection, over the years, the cow gained political-religious popularity and prominence. In context to religion, the cow was looked upon as a mother – gau-mata – for she performed the role of a foster mother, feeding milk to each Hindu. Thus, the Hindu nationalists used the “maternal metaphor” to sculpt a strong Hindu identity, similar to the one evoked through the image of the country as a maternal figure, that is, ‘Bharat Mata’ or ‘Motherland’. It was the job of a Hindu man therefore, to defend his mother – in this case, the cow. The strength of a Hindu man therefore, became inextricably linked to his ability to protect the body of his nurturing mother goddess from non-Hindus.

Of course, the image of a cow as mother then was not useful independently. The image would only be considered functional when it worked towards rallying Hindu men to converge into an army of strong men – vigilantes – who could defend their gau-mata and their country. In fact, bhajans back in the day fiercely associated a Hindu’s manhood to his strength in defending the cow. Historian Charu Gupta observed in her paper titled, The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: Bharat Mata, Matri Bhasha and Gau Mata, that bhajans like those by Swami Alaram Sanyasi, fiercely associated a Hindu’s manhood to his strength in defending the cow. The lyrics stated, “Mard unhi ko janen hum jo rakshak hain gau mata ke” (We consider as men only those who are the protectors of mother cow).

Even today, there are several bhajans that associate absolute male strength, bravery and vigour with protecting cows. A bhajan sung by Bajrangi Sonji goes like this: “Veer-Pandavo kisantano phir maidano mein aao, gau-mata ke praan bacaho inn paapi gadhaaro se. (Children of Veer and Pandavas, return to the arena and protect our mother cow from these treacherous traitors!)”

Dutch historian Peter van der Veer explored this relationship drawn between the image of cow and Hindu manliness and authority, in his book Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India. He wrote, the image of the cow as a mother, “is a crucial image, since as a mother the cow signifies the family and the community at large. She depends on the authority and protection of the male of the family. While mother cow refers to family and nation alike, her protection refers to patriarchal authority and to the Hindu state, the rightful kingdom of Rama. It is within the logic of religious discourse that the protection of the cow become the foremost symbol of the Hindu nation-state.”

In the late 1800s, the accessibility of the press, too, assisted in the proliferation of the pro-cow-anti-Muslim ideology. The cow-protection propaganda gained momentum, primarily distancing the Muslims from the Hindus. At that time, handbills and pamphlets began being distributed advocating cow protection, which also pushed Hindus to boycott products sold by Muslims. A 1933 handbill, Charu Gupta noted, which was circulated at the time stated: “Gaumata ka Sandesh: Gauraksharth Harek Vastu Hinduon se hi Kharid”, which translates to, “Message from Mother-Cow: For the Protection of the Cow, Buy Every Item from Hindus Alone”.

In addition to the handbills and pamphlets that were widely circulated, newspapers such as Gausewak (in Varanasi) that were sold at railway stations and on the streets, fiercely advocated cow protection, along with bhajans like the Bhajan Gauraksha Gopal Darpan and Bhajan Gauraksha Updesh Manjari (1892), which were written to mobilise Hindu solidarity through the symbolic cow.

While the rift between Hindus and Muslims grew wider, violent riots broke out between the communities regarding cow slaughter. In response, Mahatma Gandhi pointed out the hypocrisy Hindus carried in his piece titled, Let Hindus Beware (dated 1921) where he wrote, “To attempt cow protection by violence is to reduce Hinduism to Satanism, and to prostitute to a base end the grand significance of cow protection.” In the same piece he said that Hindus were responsible for causing more harm to cows than Muslims, since it were the Hindus who first sheltered their cows and then sold them for export.

Along with the texts, visual images were used to ingrain Hindu fanaticism with relation to the cow. In her paper, Charu Gupta writes that during the period between 1893-1894, apart from handbills and pamphlets, “pictures of the cow were also circulated and exhibited at many meetings. One depicted a cow in the act of being slaughtered by three Muslim butchers, and was headed ‘The present state’. Another exhibited a cow, in every part of whose body groups of Hindu deities and holy persons were shown. A calf was at her udder, and there was a woman sitting before the calf holding a bowl waiting for her turn. The woman was labelled ‘The Hindu’. Behind the cow was a representation of Krishna labelled ‘Dharmraj’. In front, a monster was assailing the cow with a drawn sword entitled ‘Kaliyug’, but which was largely understood as typifying the Muslim community.”

Around the late 1800s, calendar art gained prominence as well. Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was one of the first to put the image of a cow on a calendar, painted to work in tandem with the cow protection movement. According to historian Christopher Pinney (who wrote in his book, Photos of the Gods: the Printed images and Political struggles in India) the riots of 1893 between Hindus and Muslims, which stemmed from anti-cow slaughter movement, “assumed an overtly communal flavour.” That reflected in the way the Hindu cow was depicted in calendars.

In a calendar that carried a painting titled Chaurasi Devata Auvali Gay (The Cow with Eighty Four Deities, 1912), for example, Hindu gods were shown to be residing within a hapless mother cow, which was being attacked by a toothed, demonic cow-slayer – this “monstrous ‘matricidal’ figure, captioned ‘Kaliyug’ (the demon Kali, personifying evil) in the Varma print, is readily identifiable with the Muslim community (Pinney 1997); or more broadly, with Muslim, Christian and Hindu low-caste beef eaters,” observed historian Dilip M. Menon in Cultural History of Modern India. With reference to the same image, Pinney wrote: “In the use of these images, a more discriminatory message was stressed in which the cow came to represent a Hindu identity and nationality that required the protection from non-Hindus.”

It’s important to note how images and text played a significant role in building the narrative of the cow as a mother whose protection by Hindu male was imperative. He was the assigned ‘protector’. In the same context, the narrative of the ‘other’ with regard to the Muslims and Christians, was woven in. This, of course, is not an extensive collection of examples, but it is sufficient to offer a crucial insight.

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