Clarifying Gandhi # 9: Cow Protection

The newly elected government ruling now in India, BJP, the Bharata Janata Party (Indian People’s party)i, rose to power appealing to an India with a post-colonial British ‘hangover’.  At present, education for youth still carries its imported colonial legacy, now preparing youth for a global corporate Raj, rather than that of just the English empire. Education in India still does not answer nor meet the glaring needs and realities that Gandhi strove mightily to make it address.

In Gandhi’s time, the population of all India was under 400 million. Now, the educated elite, number in the 100’s of millions, and are demanding development towards a modern industrial and technologically inclined society with economic opportunities in a new global Raj. Conservative outlooks, also in the 100’s of millions, are demanding maintenance of traditions that provide group identity, stable social lives, found in less wealthy sections of society – the vast Hindu majority. Add to this, sections that adhere to traditions and cultural norms without understanding the ideals for their basis, sometimes to the point of superstitiousness, feudal mind-sets and fanaticism.

Since its election, the Government has called for the States in India to ban the eating of beef. The reasoning given is that to the Hindu, the cow is sacred, worshiped as holy, and that the religious sentiments of the people are hurt by the slaughter of cows for consumption. The principle behind the protection of cows seems to have been put aside.

Abandoned cows wander freely on the streets of urban India, and other life moves around them.

While free cows are less visible now on streets, still, the general level of societal respect accorded to animals to have their life and freedom within the same environments as human activity, inspires visitors to India. It seems like a philosophical sanity that has its voice heard. Cows, dogs, cats, many animals are free, and use the roads alongside people and vehicles.

Live and Let Live.

The effect of the ban where states have adopted it, has been scary, seen from the outside, through media reports. Keeping in mind that we do not actually know the truth of what is going on in India, from media outpourings we hear of vigilante gangs, in the name of the holy cow, murdering a Moslem man on the rumour that he was eating beef in his home. Tales of police more concerned with whether the murdered man was eating beef or mutton than the fact that he was killed for no good reason. Of trucks being stopped, searched…

Yet there are many incongruous facts which don’t add up to any common sense here: many Hindus do eat beef, in fact, dead cows sustain many who belong to the so called ‘lower castes’, who far out-number the ‘upper’ castes; there are numerous other beef eating faiths in secular India, historically, a spiritual refuge for people of all faiths.

In fact, India is the world’s largest exporter (and thereby, killer) of beef, TIME Magazine reported:

India has been the largest exporter of beef in the world since last year,[2014] and has further widened its lead over second-ranked Brazil with a projected total of 2.4 million tons exported in 2015 against Brazil’s 2 million…

Beef has also overtaken basmati rice as India’s largest agricultural food export in terms of value, according to data from the country’s Agricultural and Processed Food Products’ Export Development Authority, cited by the Economic Times newspaper.ii

While there is an understood definition of slaughtered and exported beef as belonging to water buffaloes, also called carabeef, there is recognition, that cows are also being killed and exported. An official with the Government Dept of Animal Husbandry was interviewed by the Indian Express newspaper:

“Officially, the slaughter of cows is banned and beef production is actually buffalo meat. Here too, the slaughter is restricted to males and unproductive females,’’ explains the Department of Animal Husbandry official….But he accepts that there are instances of cow meat being labeled buffalo meat only to be renamed once it reaches its destination.’’iii

Why is the cow so special in India? I remember as a child, tucked in bed at night, listening to stories of my mother’s rural village life, that one night, she gave me this explanation: ‘The cow is a very useful animal. Every part of it is useful when living. It gives milk for many months after giving birth to nourish people. Her male offspring can become oxen and help in farm work. Her dung is useful for many purposes: cooking, floor finishing, even healing cuts. Urine also has purposes. By walking about, she keeps the soils more tender and healthy. When she has lived a long and useful life, the hide makes leather for shoes, the bones and hooves make glue.’

She concluded with, ‘It may be that millenniums ago, there was a famine in India, and people began to devour their cows. Seeing that total starvation would be the result, governance or norm makers decided to make the cow holy, seeing and saving her necessary usefulness for the people.’

For many Hindus, the cow is an embodiment of innumerable aspects of the God-head, a blessing for mankind.

Whether my mother’s practical theory was correct or not, Gandhi saw the Hindu piety towards the cow, and the call for cow protection to be symbolic of the need for human beings to serve as protectors of the entire ‘dumb’ creation, not only the cow, but for all Nature. To move from Lords with birthrights to kill and destroy, towards evolving into nurturers and fellow companions in the Garden.

Gandhi saw the natural Creation as the visible manifestation of the infinite form of God. He said:

“This world is pervaded by God. Wherever we look there is only God. That which has name and form is an incarnation of God; so much should be clear to the eyes of all.”iv

“God is pure consciousness that pervades this world and without which not a single business of the world can go on for a single moment.”v

For Gandhi, to realize his essential unity with all of the Creation was the purpose of his life:

My religion and my patriotism derived from my religion embrace all life. I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things as crawl upon the Earth…because we claim descent from the same God, and that being so, all life in whatever form it appears must be essentially one.”vi

This psychological philosophy spawns a live and let live way of being. Gandhi saw the honouring of all life, part and parcel of ahimsa (harmless, abiding love), as the greatest contribution of Hinduism in awakening conscience to ethical dialogue:

Gandhi being shown a new ashram calf.

The central fact of Hinduism, however, is cow protection. Cow protection, to me, is one of the most wonderful phenomenon in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow, to me, means the entire subhuman world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. Why the cow was selected for apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow was, in India, the best companion. She was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk but she also made agriculture possible. The cow is a poem on pity. One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother of millions of Indian mankind. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb-Creation of God. The ancient seer, whoever he was, began with the cow. The appeal of the lower order of Creation is the gift of Hinduism to the world.vii

In the ashram communities that Gandhi formed, the principle of ahimsa met practice. His ashrams had tanneries, and processed cow hides for sale, as well as made sandals from the leather. Through his newspapers, he encouraged the use of cow-horn for buttons, and cow-suet for machine grease. On occasion he had to oversee the killing of sick cows. He had to deal with bands of destructive monkeys, rabid dogs, and more. This created a furor in the public mind where practicality and ideal did not mesh. Through consequent discourse and discussion, Gandhi was able to elucidate the nuances of ahimsa in practice. Among many points, he stated:

My Ahimsa is my own. I am not able to accept in its entirety the doctrine of non-killing of animals. I have no feeling in me to save the lives of animals which devour or cause hurt to man. I consider it wrong to help in the increase of their progeny. Therefore, I will not feed ants, monkeys or dogs. I will never sacrifice a man’s life in order to save theirs.viii

Animal protection in India has a history from time immemorial. Numerous are the kings who, inspired by compassion and morality, royally sanctioned animal protection, animal hospitals, watering and feeding places in their lands. Among the famous of these are Emperor Ashok (268–226 BC) who ruled over most of India, and the Moghul Emperor, Akbar (1542–1605). Emperor Ashok was a skilled military conqueror, until after one bloody conquest that left him feeling mentally, emotionally and morally sick, he became an ardent Buddhist. Erecting pillars throughout India he inscribed them with edicts of the compassionate teachings of Lord Buddha, for all to see. Some of these pillars are still in existence today. The teachings of Mahavira and Buddha, (both circa 600 – 800 BC) stressing harmlessness and lovingness towards all of Creation have greatly impacted the Indian consciousness for milleniums.

The creation of consumer demands and driving economic forces appear to be significantly altering this ethos:

“The rapid expansion of the sector [beef export], rising prices and demand have encouraged cattle smuggling, animal activists and officials say…

“Abandoned animals are picked up from the streets for slaughter. No one is bothered because everyone, including the police, get their share from the agents,” says Arvind Shah, a founder of Karuna, a charity for animal welfare in the city of Mumbai.ix

India has always stymied expectations. It remains to be seen if the principle behind cow protection, the necessity of human evolution to protect Nature, will be recognized and acted upon by her youth. For the present, confusion and chaos reign.


iThe BJP is one of the two major political parties in India, the other is the Congress Party, now a coalition of parties called the UPA – United Progressive Alliance. Congress was associated originally with Gandhi and later with Indira Gandhi (no relation to M.K. Gandhi). The BJP is seen as ‘right wing’. Courtesy Wikipedia: As seen Dec. 27, 2015.

BJP. The current ruling party of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in front.

iiIyengar, R. (April 23, 2015). India Stays World’s Top Beef Exporter Despite New Bans on Slaughtering Cows.

Time Magazine, thtp:// As seen December 27, 2015.

iiiPaul, C. (Feb. 9, 2014). UPA’s Pink Revolution Makes India World’s Biggest Beef Exporter. New Indian Express, As seen December 27, 2015.

iv Gandhi, M.K., Swaminathan, K. (Ed.) (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. 100 Vols. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. April 21, 1933. Age 64. To Harijan Sevak: 54: 472.

v Gandhi, M.K., Swaminathan, K. (Ed.)(1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. 100 Vols. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. June 2, 1928. Age 59. To Tarabehn Jasani: 91: 465.

viGandhi, M.K., Swaminathan, K. (Ed.)(1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. 100 Vols. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. April 4, 1929. Age 59. To Young India.

vii Radhakrishnan, S.(2005). Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections. Jaico, Mumbai: 477.

viiiGandhi, M.K., Swaminathan, K. (Ed.). (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. 100 Vols. Navajivan: Ahmedabad. May 5, 1946. Age 76. Harijan. 84: 63.

ix Winterbottom, J. & Sharma, M. Reuters. (December12, 2013). SPECIAL REPORT – In the land of the holy cow, fury over beef exports. Reuters. As seen December 28, 2015

PK Willey

PK Willey, Ph.D., is an American, a Gandhian scholar, author and entrepreneur, who has delved deeply into Gandhi's Earth Ethics. Willey seeks to enhance philosophical discourse around the world where globalization has altered ethical values, particularly in the USA. Willey finds Gandhi's ideas, thoughts, and example, to be invaluable in this effort. Currently, besides numerous articles and book projects,Willey is developing a new framework for qualitative research that employs Earth Ethics, guided by a Gandhian compass and Weibust's Transformative Paradigm.

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