As the cow protection issue spirals, noted Hindi satirist Harishankar Parsai’s stinging piece on cow worship in the time of elections comes to mind. Written years ago, ‘An encounter with a cow worshipper’ is as relevant today, if not more so.
One evening I had the good fortune to meet a Swamiji at the railway station. He was a tall, fair and well-built sadhu. Ruddy faced. Attired in silken ochre, wearing wooden-soled sandals and holding a walking stick with a golden tip. He was accompanied by a pint-sized teenaged sanyasi carrying a transistor in his hand, which was tuned in to the songs of [Mohammad] Rafi for his guru’s benefit.
I asked: Swamiji, where are you headed?
Swamiji replied: Bound for Delhi, child!
I said: Swamiji, I am getting on in years, why are you calling me child?
Swamiji laughed and said: Child, you worldly people address a 60-year-old waiter at a hotel as lad, don’t you? In the same way, we [the royal ‘we’] address you worldly beings as child. This world is a vast eatery in which we are the ones who eat and you are the ones who serve. Therefore, I address you as child. Don’t mind; it’s merely a form of address.
The way Swamiji spoke seemed interesting. I sat down beside him. He too sat cross-legged on the bench, making himself comfortable, and told his apprentice to switch off the transistor.
He started talking: Child, a religious war has broken out. The cow-protection movement has gained momentum. We will perform a satyagraha outside parliament in Delhi.
I said: Swamiji, what is this movement for?
Swamiji replied: You seem to be totally ignorant, child! We have to protect the cow, don’t you see? The cow is our mother. It is being slaughtered.
I asked: Who is slaughtering it?
He replied: Infidel butchers.
I asked: Who sends the cows to them for slaughter? Your co-religionist cow worshippers, right?
Swamiji said: That is so. But what can they do? For one, the cow eats but is of no use; moreover, selling it brings in some money.
I replied: You mean he who has the cow slaughtered for money is the true cow-worshipper!
Swamiji gave me a long look. He said, you reason well, child! But this is an issue based not on logic but on feeling. Of the thousands of cow devotees who have flung themselves into the movement, it is doubtful if any of them rears cows. It is an emotive issue.
The way had been cleared for a discussion with Swamiji. What followed was a no-holds barred debate to delve into all aspects of the issue. For the benefit of those who set much store by getting to the essence of the matter, I am reproducing the conversation.
Conversation between Swamiji and ‘child’
Swamiji, you must be having cow’s milk and nothing else?
No child, we partake of buffalo milk. The cow gives less milk and that too watery. On the other hand, buffalo milk yields thick cream and makes for delicious rabri.
So, do all cow devotees drink buffalo milk?
Yes, child, almost everybody.
In that case, there should be a movement for the buffalo’s protection. They drink buffalo milk but address the cow as mother. Shouldn’t the animal whose milk is consumed be addressed as mother?
You mean, we should consider the buffalo….no child, logic has its place but this has to do with feelings.
Swamiji, why is it that devotion to the cow gathers strength on the eve of every poll? Is there anything special about election season?
Child, every time an election approaches, gau mata visits our leaders in their dreams and says, son, an election is at hand. Now start a movement for my protection. The people of the country are foolish. Run a campaign for my protection and win your election. Child, gau mata ensures votes for some political parties just as oxen secure votes for another party. Which is why political leaders launch a campaign immediately and induct us sadhus into it. We too relish politics. Child, you are asking all the questions. For a change why don’t you tell us where you are going?
Swamiji, I am going to join the human-protection movement.
What is that, child?
Swamiji, just as I am ignorant about cows, you are ignorant about humans.
But who is killing humans?
Drought, famine and inflation are killing the people of this land. The profiteer and black-marketeer are killing them. The corrupt ruling structure is killing them. Moreover, the government has no qualms about getting its police to shoot citizens in any part of this land. In Bihar the people are dying of starvation.
Bihar? Where is the city of Bihar located, child?
Bihar is a region, it is a state.
In our Jambudwipa, right?
Swamiji, in this very country – in India.
You mean Aryavarta?
Yes, you may say so. Swamiji, why don’t you also join the human-protection movement?
No, child, we are righteous people – saints. This will not be possible for us. To begin with, humans are inferior beings in our eyes. They demand that the wealth of temples and maths should be taken away by the government. Child, you let humans die. Protect the cow instead. Any living being is superior to humans. You are not able to see that whenever a fight breaks out during a cow-protection procession, humans alone end up getting killed. One more thing, child! What I can make out from your talk is that protection of humans would involve opposing profiteers and black-marketeers. This we would not be able to do, for these are the very people who fund the cow-protection movement. The dictates of religion have rendered us silent. Religion has made us hold our tongue.
In that case, let’s not talk about humans. Increase my knowledge about cow protection. Imagine that you have wheat drying on your veranda and gau mata ambles across and starts eating the grain. What will you do?
What is this, child? I will hit it with a stick and chase it away.
But Swamiji, isn’t she gau mata? She is worthy of worship and has come to dine at her son’s. Why won’t you welcome her with folded hands and say, Mata, I am blessed. Please make a meal of all the grain.
Child, do you take us for a fool?
No, I took you for a cow worshipper.
That I am, but not so foolish as to let a cow eat the grain.
But Swamiji, what kind of cow worship is this where a cow with a skeletal frame wanders through the neighbourhood foraging paper and cloth, and is beaten in the bargain?
Child, there’s nothing surprising about this. In our land those whom we worship, we reduce to a sorry state. That is true worship. We consider women too as worthy of worship and you know well the abject state we have reduced them to.
Swamiji, in other countries they may not worship cows, but they keep them well, and the animals give abundant milk.
Child, let’s not discuss other countries. We are far superior to them. That is why the gods reincarnate only in our land. In other countries a cow’s usefulness is in the milk it gives; here, its utility lies in stoking clashes and inciting movements. Our cow is very different from other cows.
Swamiji, ignoring all other issues why have you and your associates plunged only into this one campaign?
Everything will be accomplished by this, child. If a law on cow protection is passed, this country will become prosperous by itself. Clouds will bring rain like clockwork, the earth will yield an abundance of grain, and factories will produce goods without operating. You are not familiar with the power and glory of dharma. The sorry state of the country that you can see is the outcome of dishonouring the cow.
Swamiji, westerners don’t worship the cow, but even so they are prosperous.
Their god is different, child. Their god is not bothered about issues like this.
[Erstwhile] socialist countries like Russia also do not worship cows. Even so, they are prosperous.
They don’t have any god, child. Hence, no blame attaches to them.
In other words, having a god spells nothing but trouble. He doles out punishment for everything.
The logic is right, but the feeling is wrong.
Swamiji, as far as I know, at this moment what is uppermost in people’s minds is not cow protection but inflation and economic exploitation. They are determined to protest against inflation. They are intent on striking work to demand a hike in wages and dearness allowance. The people are waging a struggle for economic justice and here you are making a song and dance about the cow-protection movement. Is there any logic to this reasoning?
Child, there is a logic to it. See, the moment people demand economic justice, their minds should be diverted to something else, or else they pose a grave danger. When the people demand an end to inflation and profiteering, a hike in wages and an end to exploitation, we tell them, no, your basic demand is for cow protection. Child, we waylay people marching for economic revolution and tether them to the cow’s post. The purpose of this movement is to keep the people continually distracted.
Swamiji, at whose behest do you keep the people distracted?
At the behest of those who would be affected by the demands of the people. This is dharma. Let me narrate an instance – one day thousands of starving people started marching towards the trader’s godown to loot all his grain. The trader came to us. Please do something, swamiji, he said. These people will loot all my savings. Only you can save me. Whatever sewa you want, I will oblige. That was it, child. We rose, picked up a bone and went and stood on the temple platform. When those thousands of starving people raising slogans about looting the godown came in sight, I showed them the bone and said, somebody has defiled this temple of god. Some sinner threw this bone inside the temple. Infidels are desecrating our temples, destroying our religion. We should be ashamed of ourselves. I am starting a fast this very instant. My fast will end only when the temple is painted anew and consecrated with a havan. The people started fighting among themselves, just like that. I had succeeded in changing their slogan. When they were done with fighting, I said – blessed are the godly people of this country! Blessed is the trader of food grain Akumji! He has promised to foot the entire expense of the temple’s purification. Child, the starving masses began hailing the very man whose godowns they had earlier wanted to loot. Child, this is the power and glory of religion. If we do not yoke them to the cow-protection movement, they will launch movements for the nationalisation of banks, increase in their wages, and they will mount a campaign against profiteers. To keep them tangled thus is dharma, child.
Swamiji, you have really increased my knowledge. Just one more thing – there are cow-protection laws in some states and other states will follow suit. Then this movement will also come to an end. On what issue will you launch a movement then?
Oh child! There are so many issues on which a movement can be built. For instance, the lion is goddess Durga’s vehicle. The circus people keep the lion caged, make it perform tricks. This is adharma – sinful. We will launch a movement against all the circuses in the country and have them shut down. God has another avatar as well – matsyavatar. The fish is a symbol of god. We will launch a movement against the fisher-folk, force the government’s fisheries department to shut down.
Swamiji, the owl is goddess Lakshmi’s vehicle. Something should be done about that too.
We are doing all this for that only, child! In this country the owl has nothing to worry about. It’s having a good time.
Just then the train arrived. Swamiji boarded the train and left. The child stayed where he was.
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.