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home > News/Analysis  > Archive: Selected Analytical Articles  > Pissed Off With Cows

Pissed Off With Cows
By Mukul Dube

[Originally published in Milli Gazette, issue dated 1-15 April 2003, p.25]

    All mammals – humans, cows, leopards, rats, pigs, whales, kangaroos, koala bears, marmosets – have fundamentally the same kind of digestive system. Ingested material is broken down by acids and enzymes into components which can be absorbed into and circulated by the blood. There are anatomical and physiological differences between herbivorous species and carnivorous ones such that both are able to digest their different diets, but the principle is the same. Indeed, the general principle can be extended also to birds and fishes and amphibians, and possibly to insects and worms too: it is just that the commonalities among mammals are greater.

    Some part of the material ingested is digested and absorbed by the body to be used for different purposes. What cannot be used by the body is thrown away as waste, which takes the form of faeces or urine, though probably sweat and its salts can also be included. Strictly speaking, the water in urine and sweat is not waste but a carrier for various dissolved solids, and sweat has the additional function of maintaining a desirable body temperature.

    Human dung and cow´s dung are both, in biological terms, waste. Specifically, both are shit. However, one is considered dirty – and, for much of India´s people, highly polluting – while the other is thought clean and pure and so on, even to point of being considered edible.

    Human urine and cow´s urine are both, in biological terms, waste. Specifically, both are piss. Here the parallel with shit ends or, more accurately, splits. It is not only in India that human urine is drunk by humans: the auto-urine therapy made famous by a former Prime Minister of ours is also part of certain other systems of alternative medicine. But India is one of the few places in the world where cow´s urine is thought fit for human consumption (I am not considering here the hormones extracted from it by the pharmaceutical industry).

    I recall that at school forty and more years ago, my class-mates and I were made to write essays on the cow. We wrote how cattle gave milk and how they provided the muscle for agricultural and other operations. We wrote of the uses of their hides, their horns, their hoofs. No doubt owing to an insufficiency of Hindutva, however, we did not wax eloquent on the purity of their excreta.

    It should be remembered that India is by no means alone in using cattle as draught animals and as milch animals. Except in deserts of both the hot and the cold kinds, all over the globe cattle play precisely the same roles and have precisely the same economic value as they do in India. India – specifically, Hinduism – is unique in according to cattle a semi-divine and ritually important place. Here the economic value of cattle has nothing to do with their veneration.

    That the odour of cowdung is relatively mild and can be tolerated does not make it in any way a good substance as compared with, for example, dog´s turds. To a great degree these things are culturally defined. We use cowdung as fuel and for plastering our floors and walls. We smell it from early childhood and for that reason do not find it offensive. There are many cultures in the world who would not dream of using it thus, for they treat it just like any other shit. It is over three decades since I studied anthropology, but I dare say there exist communities in our world who shampoo their hair with monkey shit. That is something I would not do – nor, I suspect, would most of my readers – but it is not wrong in any moral sense.

    It is strange that the water buffalo, which gives us milk like the cow does and whose males are used for the same purpose as are bullocks, does not have maternal status. It would be fair, I think, to call it at the very least a mausi.

    Human beings are an omnivorous species. In biological terms, we are closer to canines than we are to bovines: that is, the cow is a much more distant relation of ours than is the bitch. For this reason it might make more sense for us to call bitches our mothers, drink their milk, plaster our walls with their droppings, and drink their urine as medicine. This would be no more illogical than the present scheme of things.

    There is also a definite gender bias in operation, of which the very words “cowdung” and “bullshit” are representative. We venerate the cow but treat the bull with scant respect. Considering that the poor fellow comes from the same genetic pool as the females with whom he mates, should not his semen be consumed as medicine? Who knows, if the stuff should turn out to have aphrodisiac properties, we could conquer the New Millennium by marketing it as Vedic Viagra.

    It happens that I went to the same school as Digvijay Singh, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. He was my senior by two or perhaps three years. He was the squash champion and beat me regularly, though it is a fondly held illusion that he had to work to win. I remember him as well mannered, sartorially elegant, and not at all a bully – which last endeared him to the younger boys. He was a decent enough role model. So much to establish that I have nothing against the man personally.

    Digvijay Singh is today the head of a large province. That M.P. is run by the Congress makes him an anti-ruling party figure of prominence. His public statements must be seen against this backdrop.

    If, in the privacy of his home, Digvijay Singh chooses to worship termites and drink the sweat of bandicoots, I can have no objection: that is, I could not care less. But when in his role of Chief Minister and opposition leader he makes a public statement that the slaughter of cows should be banned throughout India and that he personally values cow's urine, he is well outside his own home.

    No Chief Minister has any business to declare what is good for provinces other than his own. By doing that, he meddles in their affairs and challenges their right to decide their own policies. He interferes with my right to eat what I wish to eat, and to me that is a pretty serious matter.

    Second, when the country is ruled by obscurantist forces which claim to be Hindu, any attempt by an opposition figure to portray himself as more Hindu than them is suspect. When such an attempt is made by a leader of a party which claims to be secular, it is a great deal worse than merely mendacious.

    Clearly the man wants to retain the constituency he holds as a "secular" leader and at the same time to win back the decidedly un-secular voters who have been lured away by the Hindutva band-wagon. By mincing his words, he hopes to attract a group which is fundamentally opposed to the one he is pledged to lead and defend.

    I see in this a gaoler who with one hand fetters a captive and with the other, pretends to offer to the poor wretch the wide expanse of blue sky.

    Many secular and Muslim people and organisations have benefited from the munificence of Digvijay Singh's secular persona. But in his pronouncements relating to bovines, I see only a shabby cheat playing a filthy game. Doing some good does not license a person to do bad things as well. This is not a matter of summing positive and negative values to arrive at a balance of zero.

    The worst of it is the level to which our political debate has fallen. Shri Vajpayee´s diet is of no interest to me. His love of prawns and kachauris, if ever it is written about, should go on the cookery and society pages. To treat his diet as something more important even than personal honesty is the ultimate absurdity.

    It happens that I have always been partial to gulab jamuns, but I´m damned if I shall vote for a political party or an individual whose ideology is based solely on that luscious sweet. I make passably decent kababs now and then, but there is no way I am going to launch an All India Kabab Party – no, not even to oppose the Akhil Bharatiya Arhar Dal Dal which these jokers are surely about to float.

    I am, however, seriously considering setting up a country-wide chain of something akin to beer bars, cosy comfortable places which will serve chilled gomutra in earthenware goblets. Millionaire status is guaranteed.