Reading the Mahabharata in search of the sacred cow
Bibek Debroy | 15 Sep, 2016
ANCIENT INDIAN TEXTS are replete with references to cows. There are too many to enumerate, but I will focus on the Mahabharata, its references being reflective of those in other texts as well. They explain the reverence shown to cows. The Mahabharata has sections, known as parvas. There is one particular section known as Anushasana Parva, part of the teachings given to Yudhishthira by Bhishma while he lay on a bed of arrows. Within parvas, there are sub- sections, also known as parvas. This sub-section is known as Dana Dharma Parva—on the dharma of giving gifts or donations. I am going to cite exact quotations as translated from the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata brought out by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune.
Indra went and asked Brahma why cows were held sacred. This was Brahma’s response: “Cows are said to constitute the limbs of a sacrifice. They represent fame. Without resorting to them, sacrifices can never be undertaken. They sustain subjects through their milk and ghee. That apart, their male offspring are yoked for agriculture. That is the way grain and many other kinds of seeds are generated. All the havya (oblations offered to gods) and kavya (oblations offered to ancestors) used in sacrifices flow from them. Milk, curd and ghee are pure. Even when they are hungry, thirsty and afflicted, they bear many kinds of burdens. Through their deeds, they sustain sages and subjects. They do not show any deceit in bearing the burdens. They are the performers of good deeds.”
Daksha had several daughters and some of them were married to the sage Kashyapa. One, named Surabhi, was the mother of all cows. Brahma told Indra of the austerities she had performed. “Devoted to dharma, she did this on the beautiful summit of Kailasa, frequented by the gods and the gandharvas. She stood on one leg and resorted to supreme yoga. She spent eleven thousand years this way. The gods, the rishis and the great serpents were scorched through her austerities.”
Pleased at these austerities, Brahma granted her a special boon, since she didn’t want one for herself. “I am pleased at your lack of desire and auspicious austerities. Since I am pleased with you, I am granting you the boon of immortality. Your abode will always be above the three worlds. Through my favours, this will be famous as Goloka. Your sons will dwell among men and will always perform tasks for the subjects. O, immensely fortunate one! Your daughters will also reside there. All the divine and human objects of pleasure you think of will be yours.” Because of this boon, though cows have a place in Goloka—literally, ‘the world of cows’—Surabhi’s descendants came down to earth.
Here is a bit more about Surabhi. Brahma asked Daksha to create offspring. ‘When beings were created, they began to clamour for a means of subsistence. Thirsty, and seeking a means of subsistence,’ they approached Daksha, who imbibed some amrita (holy fluid). ‘When he was satisfied, a fragrance wafted out and Surabhi (which means ‘fragrant’) was created from this. He saw the cow Surabhi, the daughter who had been born from his mouth. Surabhi had daughters who are known as the mothers of all the worlds. They had complexions like gold and they were kapilas (‘brown’). They were cows that provided a means of subsistence for the subjects. With complexions like that of amrita, they began to flow with milk in all directions. As it flowed, there were waves, and froth was created in the flow that resulted from amrita. Some of this was dislodged from the mouths of calves and fell down on Bhava (Shiva), who was then on earth. When it fell down on his head, the Lord was enraged. With the eye that was in the middle of his forehead, he glanced at the rohinis (‘brown cows’, a term later applied to all cows), as if to burn them down. Like the sun tinging the clouds with many kinds of colour, that energy of Rudra’s created hues in the bodies of the kapilas. Some among them escaped by seeking refuge with Soma (the Moon God). Those which managed to do this retained their own complexions. The others assumed other colours.’
Seeing that Mahadeva was angry, Daksha addressed him: “You have been sprinkled with amrita. This is not a leftover from the cows (after the calves had drunk up the milk). Soma drinks up amrita and showers it down again. In that way, the rohinis shower down milk and it has been created from amrita. The wind, the fire, gold and the ocean are never tainted. That is the way with the amrita from cows, once the calves have drunk amrita. They sustain the world with the milk and ghee. All of us enjoy that prosperity and the auspicious pervasiveness of amrita.”
Brahma saw that cows were engaged in praya (act of fasting to death) near him. The lord gave each of those cows what they desired. Horns were created and they obtained horns. With horns of many colours, they were beautiful
After this, Daksha gave Rudra a bull and cows, and thus pleased his heart. ‘Pleased with this, Mahadeva made the bull his mount and placed it on his standard. Thus he became the one with the bull on his standard. Then the gods made Mahadeva Pashupati (‘lord of animals’). He became the lord of cattle and came to be known as Vrishanka (‘the one with the sign of a bull’). The kapilas are extremely energetic and bear the original complexion. That is the reason why they are thought of first in any act of donation. They are the best among creatures and the means of subsistence of creatures flows from them. They are placid and sacred. They grant life and all the objects of desire.’
WHY IS COW dung held sacred? Bhishma told Yudhishthira the story: “Shri (the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi) assumed a beautiful form and entered amidst cattle. The cows were astounded on seeing her wealth of beauty.” They asked her who she was. Shri answered and wished to always be with cattle. But the cattle refused. The cows replied, “You are temporary and fickle. You dwell with many ordinary people. We do not desire you. Go wherever it pleases you. We think of ourselves as beautiful in every way. Why do we need you now? Go wherever you want.” Shri persisted. The cattle replied, “O goddess! We are not disrespecting you. Nor are we slighting you. You are temporary and fickle. That is the reason we are forsaking you. All of us possess beautiful forms. Why do we need you?” Shri still persisted: “I desire your respect and will always reside with you. I wish to dwell in any of your limbs, irrespective of how ugly it is. Indeed, I do not perceive that any of your limbs is ugly. You are sacred, auspicious and extremely fortunate. Grant me a place. You should indicate one of your limbs where I may dwell.” Driven by compassion, the cattle responded, “It is indeed our task that we should show you respect. Therefore, reside in our urine and dung. Both of these are sacred.”
Vyasa also told his son, Shuka, about cows: “Creatures are established on cattle and cows constitute the refuge. Cows are sacred and purify. They are the dharma that sanctifies. We have heard that, earlier, cows did not have horns. Indeed, for the sake of horns, they worshipped the undecaying lord. Brahma saw that cows were engaged in praya (act of fasting to death) near him. The lord gave each of those cows what they desired. Horns were created and they obtained horns. With horns of many colours, they were beautiful. Having obtained boons from Brahma, they became the auspicious providers of havya and kavya. They are sacred, pure and extremely fortunate. They possess the signs of divine residence. The energy of cows is immensely divine. The gift of cows is praised. Virtuous people who without malice donate them, are spoken of as the doers of virtuous deeds, as if they have given all kinds of gifts. They obtain the sacred Goloka. The trees produce sweet fruits there. The trees yield divine flowers and fruit.”
The donation of cows, thus, is an act that makes for merit. “Cows are superior to all ascetics. That is the reason the God Maheshvara (Shiva) performed austerities in their company. They provide milk, clarified butter, curd, dung, hides, bones, horns and hair. They tolerate cold and heat and always work. They tolerate the difficult hardships of the monsoon season. In ancient times, Rantideva performed a sacrifice where animals were slaughtered. It is because of the hides of cattle that the river formed came to be known as Charmanvati (today’s Chambal). However, animals are no longer slaughtered and are thought of as gifts. The lord of the gods has spoken of the milk of cows as amrita. Therefore, a person who donates a cow, donates amrita. Those who are knowledgeable about the Vedas say that ghee obtained from such milk is the best oblation offered to fire. Therefore, a person who donates a cow, donates oblations. A bull is like the direct manifestation of heaven. A person who donates it to a Brahmin who possesses [good] qualities obtains greatness in heaven. A cow is said to be the breath of life among creatures. Therefore, a person who donates a cow, donates the breath of life. Those who are knowledgeable about the Vedas have said that a cow is the refuge of creatures. Therefore, a person who donates a cow, donates refuge. A cow must not be donated for slaughter, to someone who kills animals, or to a non-believer. A cow must not be given to someone who earns a living from cattle. Learned ones have said that if a man gives a cow to such perpetrators of wicked deeds, he goes to everlasting hell. A cow that is given to a Brahmin should not be lean, barren, diseased, defective in limb, exhausted, or one that does not easily calve. A man who properly donates ten thousand cattle enjoys delight with Shakra (Indra). A man who donates one hundred thousand cattle obtains the eternal worlds.”
Further, “In ancient times, cows were brought before Mandhata and he had doubts about what should be done when the cows were donated. He asked Brihaspati, who replied, ‘On the previous day, the donor should worship Brahmins and determine the appropriate time for making the gift, following the rituals. The cow should be of the Rohini type. The cows to be given should be addressed as ‘samanga’ (‘one with all limbs intact’) and ‘bahula’ (‘large’, but the word also means a cow). Entering amidst the cows, the following words from the sacred texts should be recited: ‘The cow is my mother. The bull is my father. Let them give me heaven and prosperity and status on earth. I seek refuge in the cow.’ One should spend the night amidst cows. Those words spoken by the sages must also be uttered when the cow is given away. The donor must spend the night with the cows, like a friend and following the vows they practice. By reducing himself to their state, he instantly becomes cleansed of sins. When the sun rises, he must give away the cow, with a bull and a calf. When these three are given away, you will obtain benedictions and the objective of prosperity.’”
There is much more in the Mahabharata and in other texts.