Q: “Can we get diamond crystals if a lightning bolt strikes cow dung?”
A: “My mom and Hindu religion say ‘Yes’.
The only species in the world whose members can tell flat out lies to consciously deceive others for selfish motives, humans can nevertheless be really lousy lie detectors. Whether or not we actively lie, all of us have at some point lied. In a post-truth world, however, no truth is sacrosanct. Nothing is known or unknown. Like Schrodinger’s cat, things in 2023 both exist and don’t exist, depending on whom you ask. Much of the truth today is what one wants to believe.
In India, we want to believe in WhatsApp University and the ‘myth of the holy cow’. We want to believe in the healing powers of the cow and hail it as the supreme answer to all our problems. This wishfulness is evident from the increasingly insane string of cow prescriptions that are today available on the internet for a variety of human conditions:
Have cancer? Drink some cow urine.
Want smart babies? Drink cow urine when pregnant.
Need money? Cow urine/milk/dung contains 24 carat gold.
Feeling stressed? Burn a cow dung incense stick to kill negative aura and release mental stress.
Need to cool your car in the heat wave? Cover it in cow dung.
Want to become fair? Cow dung cream is the secret to eternal youth.
These are just a few of the myths, half truths and outright lies that do the rounds on family WhatsApp groups in India these days.
With 1.5 billion users worldwide, the seemingly innocuous and silly WhatsApp forwards that peddle high volumes of fake news and manipulate media on a daily basis actually have dangerous consequences. Not just WhatsApp, most
social media platforms are storehouses of confusing and contradictory pieces of (mis)information masquerading as “fact”, or worse, “the truth”. The question is, how many WhatsApp forwards does it take to turn a lie into a truth?
A complex ecosystem
Rohit Chopra, associate professor at the Department of Communication in Santa Clara University, says that one way of understanding the online ecosystem is to think of it is a unit made of many smaller circuits of information that are entangled with each other in complex ways. These circuits, like a WhatsApp group of anywhere from 50 to five lakh members, or a Facebook group, will typically centre on a theme, set of topics, interests and beliefs shared by the members.There’s a good bit of research that demonstrates how these kinds of groups amplify existing beliefs, whether it is about the miraculous properties of products related to cows or misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine or a historical event.
For political parties, such ecosystems can be a goldmine in terms of exposure and reach and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was perhaps one of the first parties in the country that started mining the potential of such spaces. Chopra, who runs an anonymous parody account on the microblogging site Twitter with over 66,000 followers, has been tracking online misinformation campaigns and trolling from the inside for years, right from the time when the right-wing propaganda machinery first began flirting with alternate digital platforms such as Reddiff and Myspace way back in the 1990s. He claims that the fascination with the cow is not new.
“In the current political project to reimagine and reinvent India as a Hindu rashtra, the cow is a particularly powerful symbol and you have a ready audience for such information.” Chopra tells Outlook. He states that there is a “large market of gullible people” in the country who will buy cow-related products to which magical properties are ascribed. “All of this ensures a constant stream of myths on the subject.”
But why does the holy cow continues to endure as a nationalist symbol? To understand, one must look at history (not the one preached by WhatsApp University but real, textual evidence) and track the trajectory of the cow from a milch cattle that was eaten and sacrificed to a divine and ‘unslayable’ entity, likened to a ‘mother’.
The ‘myth of the holy cow’ that sustains
The idea of the cow as a symbol of Hindu political identity, and Indian national identity by extension, has been around since at the least the 19th century when the Arya Samaj started cow protection initiatives. Cows have been the cause of several riots and massacres across India both before and after Independence. There are historical records to show that cows were a frequent cause of tension between Hindus and Muslims even before the British came to India.
Contrary to the narrative that the Muslim rulers brought the culture of meat eating, particularly the consumption of beef, and animal slaughter to India, a large body of textual and archaeological evidence suggests that animal sacrifice has long been part of India’s Vedic ritual practices and that cattle, including oxen, bulls and cows have long been part of the Hindu cuisine before the Muslims arrived.
In a 1957 paper titled “The Sanctity of the Cow in Hinduism” published in Journal of the Madras University, American Indologist and Sanskritist William Norman Brown, known for establishing the first academic department of South Asian Studies in North America, wrote about the cow as an illustriously featured animal in Vedic literature and that its usefulness as a giver of by-products like milk was as important as the usefulness of its flesh, which was not only consumed but was also as ritualistically important as it was sacrificial offering. “Animal sacrifice is a well-established feature of the Vedic religion; it included both oxen and cows; and the priests ate the flesh after it had been offered,” Brown notes. Brown also writes that “at the close of the Vedic period, the cow was still an article of food and was appreciated for that reason, as well as for its other economic values. The doctrine of the cow’s sanctity does not appear at all in Vedic literature”.
In Myth of the Holy Cow, a seminal book on the history of cows in India, historian D.N. Jha also quotes various historical sources that describe beef-eating practices in India. The Rig Veda (c 1500 BC) outlines how Vedic people, much like other pastoralist societies, based on rearing cattle, ate castrated steeds and also consumed the meat of female cattle, including cows on ritualistic occasions.
Killing and/or eating bulls and cows as a way to honour the arrival of guests has been laid out in the ritual texts known as the Brahmanas that date back to 900 BC. Even when the Shatapatha Brahmana proscribes the eating of ‘cow, bull or ox’ meat, Yajnavalkya, the venerated Hindu sage of Mithila, contradicts it, stating that he will eat the meat of both cow and bull “as long as it is tender”.
Historians like Jha and Brown and others like Hinduism expert Wendy Doniger note that ‘sanctification’ of the cow can be seen emerging in conjunction with the adoption of the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) as a central theme in Hinduism. While ahimsa started to appear at the end of the Vedic literature, the transformation of cow as an animal of sanctity begins in the Indic age and the coming of Upanishadic scriptures. But Indians continued to eat meat for centuries after that, supported by both textual evidence and archeological remnants of animal bones found across digs in India that correlate with the carnivorous eating habits of the people existing in the different eras.
The laws of Manu reveal the contradictions that meat-eating Hindus of the time lived with, in the rules that lay out how consecrated meat could be eaten while non-consecrated meat could not. There were also strict punishments for citizens who harmed or ate a Brahmin’s ‘gift cow’. Rules for slaughter and records of butchers and meat-eating exist even in texts like the Bhagwad Gita and the Arthashastra.
There are several explanations that historians have given for the shift to vegetarianism with Jha arguing that the shift was part of the Hindu religion’s need to establish itself as the more ‘peaceful’ and ‘non-violent’ religion to compete with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which espoused the philosophy of non-violence as a central tenet. And as with myths perpetuated in social media today, convincing people to shift to vegetarianism required its own myths.
Doniger points out in a 2017 essay titled “Hinduism and Its Complicated History with Cows (and People Who Eat Them)”, published in The Conversation, that the transition of Indians from a cow-eating to a non-cow-eating nation is contained in a myth that featured in the Mahabharata. Composed in the era between 300 BC and 300 AD, the epic poem tells the tale of a ‘great famine’, when “King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”
This and many other myths ensure the sanctification of the cow as holy. Academics like Doniger have pointed out that this very ‘sanctity’ of the holy cow is being exploited for furthering political motives and disenfranchising minorities. Miraculous cow prescriptions fit snugly in the ecosystem of cow protectionism and cow vigilantism like a neat little buffer, a bumper sticker to captivate the ‘attention economy’, while hiding the hate that it engenders. The cow is a political animal, as Jha says, and in India it has time and again been milked for votes.
The cow’s importance as a political actor in the current era can be seen in the rise of agencies and state-sponsored research in traditional remedies involving bovine byproducts and a formidable interest in ‘cow science’. The Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA), which was established in 2019, conducts free cow exams now for all those interested. In 2021, it was panned for a 54 page report on ‘cow science’ that was pitched as study material for the exam. Available briefly on the Ayog’s website before the report was pulled down following social media outrage and ridicule, the document contained several bizarre claims like cow slaughter could cause earthquakes. And that milk from Indian cows contained traces of gold.
In 2019, the RKA, which works with the Ministry of AYUSH to produce panchgavya drug (a miracle drug made of cow excreta and by-products, including urine, dung and ghee), claimed that the medicine would help pregnant women give birth to ‘smart kids’ who would grow up to be ‘highly intellectual’.
This vast ecosystem of pseudoscience and beliefs is sustained by a flurry of irresponsible and often deliberately misinformative statements made by politicians. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many politicians claimed that drinking cow urine could protect people from the virus. Parliamentarians like Oscar Fernandes have claimed that they have been cured of cancer by drinking cow urine. Others like Sadhvi Pragya claimed that drinking cow urine helped can cure Covid-19.
In October 2016, Gujarat government’s Gauseva and Gauchar Vikas Board issued an advisory claiming that applying cow dung and urine on face can unlock secrets of eternal beauty and youth. It prescribed the use of panchgavya to get eternal youth.
All these seem like an effort to legitimise a non-existing ‘science’ around cows and can be read as an attempt to fossilise the myth of the ‘holy cow,’ of the cow as sacred to Hindus and thus those eating meat as against Hinduism. Viral cow prescriptions and WhatsApp trivia venerating the cow as the spiritual fountainhead of Hindu culture feed into the same ecosystem that harbours online cow vigilantism targeting minorities.
Chopra differentiates between two types of cow-related content online—one that perpetuates ancient myths or their disambiguations as a way of ‘preserving’ ancient Hindu culture and science. Burning cowdung sticks to purify the air, for instance, is the same as ‘spiritual’ westerners today burning ‘sage’ to get rid of a bad aura or the belief in tarot. Some who circulate misinformation about the medicinal powers of cow urine may genuinely believe this to be the case and there may be no overarching grand conspiracy behind all the misinformation.
But when even seemingly harmless misinformation contributes to a climate that enables violence against those not subscribing to the views of the dominant ecosystem, then it becomes a problem. Claiming that cow’s urine has healing powers extends a sanctity or holiness to the cow itself, thereby creating a dangerous environment for those who consume cows or whose lives are dependent on cow slaughter or use/sale of cow by-products, like its hide.
“While some people spread rumours or misinformation about cows because they believe it or simply to assert their so-called duty as Hindus to protect cows, there are many who spread rumours—of say, cow slaughter— for clearly malicious reasons,” Chopra avers. “The supposedly magical properties of the cow are linked to its sacred status for Hindus and a suggestion of cow slaughter or theft can spark an attack on an innocent person. We have seen this happen tragically several times in Haryana and UP,” he adds.
Cow-vigilante outfits are known to maintain multiple WhatsApp groups, where “enthused Hindu men are exhorted to converge on particular locations on interstate highways to catch alleged cow smugglers”, writes Rahul Mukherjee, assistant professor of Television and New Media and assistant professor of English at University of Pennsylvania, in his paper “Mobile Witnessing on WhatsApp: Vigilante Virality and the Anatomy of Mob Lynching”. Filming such acts of cow vigilantism and sharing them on social media platforms like WhatsApp have become a form of ritualised expression of masculine religious identity, readily available for ‘mobile witnessing’.
Mukherjee notes that these acts are crucial for furthering the aspirations of “majoritarian Hindutva boys today” who record and circulate these videos in the hopes that the acts would be recognised and even rewarded, and they would “gain stature within their communities”.
Lying in a post-truth world
Post-truth refers to an era when objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. While in Western nations like the UK and US, the discourse around fake news is centred on the audience’s refusal to believe factual news (perhaps due to disbelief in capitalist media mechanisms or inaccurate digital reporting), in India, both news producers and consumers have been known to get easily influenced by the narratives of post-truth politicians.
In a paper titled “Contextualizing Fake News in Post-truth Era: Journalism Education in India”, researchers Harikrishnan Bhaskaran, Harsh Mishra and Pradeep Nair note that the present ruling party’s political communication strategy “has been heavily focused on connecting to people emotionally, by cherry-picking facts and presenting half-truths, even lying to sustain popularity”.
The tactics work to a large extent due to the low levels of digital media literacy among Indian news consumers who traditionally consumed news from legacy platforms like broadcast channels, newspapers or weeklies and were wired according to associated notions of credibility that come with ‘news’. Today, many social media ‘content creators’ with microphones and cameras masquerade as journalists and ‘experts’ with their unlicensed ‘news channels’ on YouTube, attracting thousands of followers.
Tragically, the ‘holy’ cow remains abused, fed on garbage and mistreated and misused in reality. Thousands languish in shelters and more roam the roads, bellies full of plastic, telling a different story.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Myth of The Holy Cow")