“Holy Cow.” Perhaps the most common title to any blog entry/article/book chapter regarding Hindustan (India), it’s certainly with merit and is equally applicable to India’s northern neighbor. To be honest, I haven’t actually seen all that many cows since I’ve been here – water buffaloes seem to be much more prevalent in both my training village and here at permanent post – but the Cow’s significance is certainly still felt. Their biggest impact: dung. That’s right – fresh cow pies, dried patties, manure mix, or cow dung in any other form is considered pure and plays a central role in many religious ceremonies and daily rituals. During the Teej festival in September (a three day event celebrating women and love), one could find many a leaf bowl filled with a little cow-dung volcano, sprinkled with flowers and tika powder (the red stuff used on everyone’s foreheads) left on the street or near a temple. Many devotees use fresh dung to “purify” their front porches each morning: they mix it with red mud and then spread it around like a fresh coat of paint. The pots used to prepare food offerings for the gods are coated with dung, dried cow patties are used to fuel the fire. And – I’m pretty sure the dried-mud looking clumps stuck above our doorways is actually dried dung. The stuff’s simply everywhere.
Everyone knows cows are “holy” in the Hindu religion. But I found myself asking – why?
During training I decided to investigate this holy-cow business. Lucky for me, I had a more-than willing guide under my roof: my 13-yr old, english-speaking host-brother (Sujendra-baai). One afternoon we made a trek up the hillside to his “grandmother’s” house (figuring out precise family trees is nearly impossible in this country) just to collect some fresh cow dung. From there, I posed a few questions:
Me: What makes the cow holy? What role do cows play in the Hindu religion?
Sujendra-baai: ”Because it is said that the cow is goddess Lakshmi [pronounced 'Lak-smee']. And we worship in tihar (a big Nepali holiday) and in tihar we but doro (bracelet) on cows tail, and when we put doro in cows tail it is said that all saddness will be removed from our daily life.”
Ok, you’re talking about ritual. But why the cow?
Sujendra-baai: ”Because it is another face of Goddess Lakshmi.”
Tell me more about Goddess Lakshmi.
Sujendra-baai: “Lakshmi is the god of money and of property and people worship Laxmi to get more property and to be happy all the time.”
Why is cow dung holy?
Sujendra-baai: “The cow dung is holy because it makes our home pabitra – pabitra means good, it removes all sadness, like that. Pure! And when people die and in some where and they are going to put in land we must paint with cow dung and red mud – the place where we put the person. And it is said when we paint with cow dung and red mud it will be pure and the ghost of that person will not go here and there, and they will not tarsanu (haunt).”
What else do you (or others) do with cow dung?
Sujendra-baai: “We paint the house. We mix it in red mud and we paint the house. And the house we paint it will be pure by cow dung.”
That was about the extent of information I could pull from my baai. Not too shabby for 13. I learned that the cow is worshipped as a representation of the Goddess Lakshmi, who represents prosperity, affluence, and purity, and that cow dung is holy and pure by association. This left me with two new questions: Why does the cow represent Goddess Lakshmi? And – how on earth can dung be considered holy and pure? So I did what any educated young American would do: I googled it.
And – I found a whole lot of mixed information from all sorts of sources. First, I found out that not all Hindu’s consider cows a representation of Goddess Lakshmi. In fact, I had a very hard time finding any decisive information linking the two. But – I did discover that the cow, a large animal that provides many useful products for people, became associated with wealth many centuries ago and thus became a symbol of wealth. Indeed, even today I have observed that only wealthy Nepali families own cows. And so the step from “a symbol of wealth” to: “a representation of the Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi” is fairly easy to see.
Further sources based the cow’s “holiness” on practicality. The cow is an animal that requires little care, but provides many products and services to humans, such as milk (and thus ghee, or butter), urine (as a nitrogen fertilizer source, and dung (another fertilizer and fuel source). And so it is easy to understand the practical reasons for protecting and worshiping these gentile creatures.
However, after much searching and questioning, the sh*t question remains unresolved. I mean – I understand holiness by association, but – it remains challenging for me to get past the fact that it’s animal excrement. Whatever misgivings my western-mind may have, it’s certainly clear that in Hinduism, not all sh*t is created equal.