Interpreting the symbolism of the cow in the contemporary Hindu worldview with the help of the Samkhya philosophy leads to interesting insights about the recent political outcry around the government regulations concerning cattle trade.
Ashish Dhar is the co-founder of Pragyata and Upword Foundation and the Director of Operations at The Indic Collective Trust. He writes on History, Kashmir, Culture and Religion.
“We do not live in the past but the past in us.” - Ulrich Bonnell Phillips
Why are Indians so rude to each other? Why is there so much corruption in the public sector? Why are our rivers so dirty and our cities so polluted? Why do we wilfully defy traffic rules?
There are countless such questions we ask ourselves every other day but if we go looking for answers, we hit a blind alley. If we’ve been exposed to fancy terms of social
sciences studies, we’re likely to place the blame on patriarchy, caste system, class oppression or a similar ill-fitting concept borrowed from the academia and if we’re fortunate to have dodged such indoctrination, we simply struggle for words. But the experiences from which these questions arise cast long and dark shadows on our day to day lives.
There is also the mind-boggling contrast between our individual and collective interactions. It is well acknowledged that the Indian family is an exceptionally resilient unit but it becomes difficult to tell why the cohesiveness within a family fails to evolve into a well-functioning society that keeps in check the evils of corruption, pollution, crime and poverty. Although there are no simplistic solutions to such all-pervasive problems, it is worth an effort to find out if there are any clues available in history and how it has shaped our present culture.
Modes of Thinking
We can hum a song and we can solve trigonometric equations. We can watch a romantic comedy and we can read a book on quantum physics. We can tweet haphazardly and we can write sublime poetry. As Daniel Kahneman would put it, we can think fast and we can think slow and might I add, we choose the mode that suits the situation we encounter and according to our individual predisposition toward taking on a higher cognitive load.
While it would be nice to think through each and every puzzle that life throws at us, the endeavour would only make us dysfunctional. Imagine having to meditate on the sanitary benefits of throwing waste in a dustbin every time you ate a banana. We would have to compare and contrast the two scenarios, one in which we flung the peel straight out of the window and the other, wherein we disposed it off in a more civic manner. We would have to draw a mental map of the possible consequences of our imagined action over an extended period of time and then take the final call. Instead, we just throw the peel in the dustbin out of sheer habit. It is an efficient yet deliberate choice.
Of course, many of us unthinkingly roll down the car window and dispatch that banana peel or a chocolate wrapper right onto the road without a care in the world. It is also a choice, efficient but perhaps not intentional. For when someone questions us, we can wax eloquent about all the reasons why we should have overcome our natural instinct and waited for the inevitable garbage bin to present itself on our way. Without a doubt, we can, and often do, act contrary to what our rational mind tells us, purely due to our inertia or tamas.
According to the illuminating vision of the Samkhya philosophy (darshana), Prakriti is everything that is manifest in the Universe and the three gunas, namely Tamas, Rajas and Sattva, permeate all of prakriti. The gunas are characterized as follows:
- Tamas – inertia, sloth;
- Rajas – dynamism, activity;
- Sattva – equilibrium, poise, joy;
The world around us is essentially the interplay of the three gunas. In the simplest of terms, when the activity of Rajas acts on the inertia of Tamas, the equilibrium of Sattva is achieved. Now, tamasik thinking is sloppy and habitual; rajasik thinking is slow, deliberate and algorithmic; and sattvik thought is creative but efficient, as it is rendered heuristically. Thus, a careful reflection on the existing mechanical patterns of the mind yields creative insights that become the new automated pattern. In this way, our thinking evolves by creating ever new patterns in the ocean of the mind.
But gunas, being universal, are not just restricted to a person’s thoughts, and qualify everything instead, including a whole society’s habits, attitudes, actions, policies etc. and in this way, go on to shape the culture itself. Rajas, the transformative potential of Mother Nature, is not cheaply available and is distributed unequally in humans. Accordingly, there are only a handful of people that lead the rest of the humankind to newer heights in their respective fields. Similarly, when a society makes moral progress, it is only because a minuscule minority of men and women win the battle against existing prejudices and establish a new order for the whole society to follow. It is not that each and every individual undergoes a painful churning of their conscience to arrive at the new understanding. Rather, most people conveniently recalibrate their moral compass to align with the new norm defined by the thought leaders of their era. This new norm has a name, like slavery abolition, gay rights, feminism or cow protection. In reality, it is just a symbol, inert and tamasik and needs numerous social institutions to help preserve and propagate it.
Power of symbols
Symbols come in the form of flags, emblems, colours, uniforms, and hairstyles. One can’t help but point out that beliefs are also symbols, albeit mental as opposed to visual symbols. It is almost tragic that in putting up their religious beliefs up on a pedestal, all that the ‘people of the book’, including their atheistic variety, really managed to do was to replace visual icons with mental ones, all the while naively celebrating their arrogant iconoclasm.
Symbols, being tamasik in nature, appeal to the most primitive part of the brain – the part that responds to tamasik stimuli. They make us coalesce into groups and they divide us into nationalities, religions, sports teams, cults and races. When under duress, symbols provide us with a sense of security. As Jonathan Haidt, a leading moral psychologist of our times, describes his own state of mind in his book, 'The Righteous Mind':
In the terrible days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I felt an urge so primitive I was embarrassed to admit it to my friends: I wanted to put an American flag decal on my car. The urge seemed to come out of nowhere, with no connection to anything I’d ever done. It was as if there was an ancient alarm box in the back of my brain with a sign on it that said, “In case of foreign attack, break glass and push button.” I hadn’t known the alarm box was there, but when those four planes broke the glass and pushed the button I had an overwhelming sense of being an American. I wanted to do something, anything, to support my team. Like so many others, I gave blood and donated money to the Red Cross. I was more open and helpful to strangers. And I wanted to display my team membership by showing the flag in some way.
The cow as a symbol
Many people, even those who endorse identity politics in the name of Hindu nationalism, are bewildered by the fact that the stream of murders of RSS activists in Kerala by communists did not generate a fraction of the outrage that the slaughter of a calf by Congress workers did and so, there is a general tendency to explain it away disdainfully as a collective moral failing of the Hindus. But there is a crucial difference in how the two events are perceived. The murder of a Sangh activist is viewed as an attack on an individual while the slaughter of a cow in the middle of a road is obviously an attack on an icon. If we factor in the detail that the cow is a powerful cultural symbol for the Hindus, it is only natural for them to get emotionally triggered, just as Saïd and Chérif Kouachi were impelled to launch a fatal attack on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who drew a derogatory image of their prophet. It is to their credit that the extremist Hindu groups have not retaliated with street violence and haven’t even issued death threats despite the massive emotional pressure that the recent events presumably put them under.
Each symbol tells its own story and those who are tuned to its frequency can hear it loud and clear. The cow is no exception. In fact, it is exceptional in the sense that it is heavily infused with cultural symbolism from at least seven thousand years ago. It is a vital part of India’s cultural memory, of which the last one thousand years have been rather traumatic. The cow, as an icon, has faithfully followed the contours of India’s Dharmic civilization’s own fortunes. For thousands of years, the cow was worshipped by the native before it got slaughtered by the barbaric invader. The pattern repeats, in the clash of the civilizations, to this day.
[Video: Asiya Andrabi, a Muslim woman leader from Kashmir, slaughtering a cow as a symbol of defiance, September 2015]
It is hardly surprising that the beginning of the rise in insurgency in the Kashmir valley coincided with a hugely symbolic act by an Islamic cleric called Qazi Nisar. On the occasion of Janamashtami (Krishna’s birth anniversary), he slaughtered a cow in the main chowk of the town of Anantanag (now popularly referred to as Islamabad). Incidentally, Krishna is also called Gopal, the protector of cows.
Dealing with the symbol of cow
As I mentioned earlier, the emergence of new symbols from old is a natural outcome of the play of the three gunas. Every symbol is subject to the laws of death and rebirth. In other words, any icon or belief has a shelf life in accordance with which it may still have the vitality of sattva in its current avatar or it may need rajasik energy to help it emerge into a new form, failing which it will slowly wither away into insignificance under the weight of its own tamas. But the descent into tamasik oblivion is not a straightforward process and a symbol that is predominantly tamasik, is ever the more likely to become, under perceived threat, an alarm box that Haidt describes in the passage above.
The symbol of the cow has three interdependent constituents:
- Economic / Ecological
While the sacredness of the cow is beyond the scope of this piece and has been dealt with elsewhere, it is important to understand how we must approach the question of cow slaughter in India from the other two perspectives. Much has been written about the beef industry’s enormous contribution to the environmental crisis that the world faces today. Elsewhere, people have analyzed the ills of the dairy industry, commenting on how the Indian obsession for milk products makes cow slaughter an economic imperative. There are still others who say that the poor milk yields from the cow are mainly responsible for the above economic justification of slaughter and that we must, at least, first reach the higher yield levels of the previous centuries before we opt for culling. The jury is still out on this one but the intellectual debate is proceeding in the right direction. Rajasik intellectual dynamism is working hard to displace the tamasik status quo in the hope of gaining a sattvik resolution to the issue.
But when it comes to the historical baggage of the cow, the situation is not so bright. As the video embedded above demonstrates, the aggression of Jihadi terrorists, communist goons, and opportunist politicians is making it hard for the symbol to lose the tag of victimhood.
When the Central Government of India recently introduced a new notification banning the sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter, all it was doing was following the directives of the Supreme Court in response to a petition that sought to ensure food traceability, in accordance with the mandate of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The shocking tribalistic response of a certain section of the polity in a couple of southern states was quintessentially tamasik and therefore, inimical to any effort for reconciliation.
When we look at events around us in terms of the interaction of the three gunas, we get a glimpse of the very functioning of the Universe on the material plane. Such a view is largely free of any moral and ideological baggage. From this standpoint, one can reasonably predict the future trajectory of events after ascertaining which of the three gunas dominates the symbols that help people make sense of the world around them. Every coin has two sides and there is merit to be found in all sides of an argument. But the recent turn of events in Kerala and Tamil Nadu has managed to reinforce the imagery of oppression of Hindus at the hands of expansionist and aggressive ideologies and thus, the people behind the unnecessary controversy have actively fuelled the ‘under siege’ mentality of a large section of the majority community. This is not good news for any minority group but it is not too late to correct the course. The government must book criminal cases against those who politicized the matter, allowing the law of the land to take its own course and send out a strong message of deterrence for any such future attempts. While there may be endless debates about trivialities such as the right to eat a particular kind of meat, the state has a more urgent responsibility of protecting lives at hand. It must rise above ideological skirmishes to a universal ground for action, recognizing that the dance of the three gunas does not obey the diktats of man-made ideals.