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Mahabharata: The Preeminence of Cows

In the Anushasana par­va of the Mahab­hara­ta1, Yud­hishthi­ra ques­tions Bheesh­ma on the sub­ject of cows. Using numer­ous accounts of past events and con­ver­sa­tions with rishis of great knowl­edge and tapasya, Bheesh­ma then dis­cuss­es the spir­i­tu­al sig­nif­i­cance of cows and the pun­ya (karmic mer­it) that one gains in serv­ing them and in giv­ing them as daana.

He says that just as Ma Gan­ga is the fore­most of all rivers, even so is a Kapi­la cow the fore­most of all cows. For which Yud­hishthi­ra asks, “Why is the gift of a Kapi­la cow con­sid­ered more mer­i­to­ri­ous when all good cows that are giv­en away as daana are equal?”

The sto­ry of Mahade­va and cows

Brah­ma, the cre­ator of the uni­verse, com­mand­ed Dak­sha pra­jap­ati to cre­ate liv­ing crea­tures. Dak­sha pro­ceed­ed to do so and as soon as the crea­tures were born, they began to cry aloud for food and approached their father. For the sus­te­nance and well-being of all his chil­dren, Dak­sha drank a quan­ti­ty of divine nec­tar which caused him to belch and bring forth a cow named Surab­hi. Surab­hi brought forth a num­ber of daugh­ters who came to be regard­ed as the moth­ers or the world, since they were the means of sus­te­nance for all crea­tures. They were all Kapi­la cows and they had a gold­en com­plex­ion. These Kapi­la cows began to pro­duce milk in copi­ous amounts. Some of the milk fell, from the mouths of the calves that were suck­ing, upon the head of Shi­va, who was sit­ting on the Earth. Shi­va got enraged and with this third eye, seemed to burn those cows as he looked at them. Like the sun who makes mass­es of clouds iri­des­cent with diverse colours, the ener­gy that issued from the third eye of Mahade­va pro­duced diverse com­plex­ions in those cows. Only those cows that escaped from this glance remained in their orig­i­nal colour. See­ing Shi­va very angry, Dak­sha explains that the milk that these cows yield, being born of divine nec­tar, is nev­er con­sid­ered impure and is in fact the means of sus­te­nance and wealth enjoyed by all crea­tures. Dak­sha then makes a present of a bull and Kapi­la cows to Shi­va, who, now grat­i­fied, makes the bull his vehi­cle. On that same occa­sion, the celes­tial beings unit­ed togeth­er and made Mahade­va the lord of ani­mals and the mas­ter of cows. Hence, says Bheesh­ma, the Kapi­la cow of unchanged gold­en com­plex­ion is con­sid­ered fore­most among cows, and so is the gift of giv­ing a gold­en Kapi­la cow in daana, for they have Shi­va for their mas­ter.

Even today, the Kapi­la cow, a native breed of South­ern Kar­nata­ka, is con­sid­ered as the best cow breed. It is the most revered cow for wor­ship and it is raised spe­cial­ly for using its prod­ucts in poo­jas and yaj­nas. There is a pop­u­lar view that Kapi­la cows are wise in eat­ing and have the abil­i­ty to dis­tin­guish unhealthy sub­stances among plants or plant prod­ucts. The milk from a Kapi­la cow is of very high qual­i­ty and in Ayurve­da, the Indi­an sci­ence of health, it is known to have high ther­a­peu­tic val­ue2,3.

Surabhi’s tapasya

Bheesh­ma also nar­rates to Yud­hishthi­ra the sto­ry of how the cows attained to a state of pre­em­i­nence. In a con­ver­sa­tion between Indra and Brah­ma, the lat­ter desires to know why Golo­ka, the region of the cows, is high­er than the region of the devas them­selves who are the lords of all the worlds. Brah­ma then explains that in the Tre­ta yuga, Adi­ti, the wife of Kashya­pa Mahar­ishi and the moth­er of the devas, under­took severe aus­ter­i­ties to have as her son Vish­nu, who took the Vamana avatara. See­ing her penance, Surab­hi under­took sim­i­lar aus­ter­i­ties. She went to Kailasha and stood upon one leg for 11,000 years. Pleased with her penance, Brah­ma appeared and asked her what boon she desired, for which she replied that she had no need of boons for she con­sid­ered his grat­i­fi­ca­tion itself as a great boon. See­ing that she was free from the least desire, so hard to over­come, he became extreme­ly pleased and grant­ed her the boon of immor­tal­i­ty. He blessed her that she would dwell in a region that is high­er than deval­o­ka, and the region would be known as Golo­ka. It would be a beau­ti­ful and delight­ful place, endued with the means for the ful­fill­ment of every wish and nei­ther death, decrepi­tude nor fire could over­come its inhab­i­tants. The daugh­ters of Surab­hi, ever engaged in good acts, would reside in Bhu­lo­ka, the world of humans. It is only through the prac­tice of a life of brah­macharya, truth, self-restraint, tapasya, dhar­ma and daana that one can attain to Golo­ka.

Abode of Sri Lak­sh­mi

It is a com­mon Hin­du say­ing that the dung of a native cow is endued with Sri Lak­sh­mi. Yud­hishthi­ra ques­tions Bheesh­ma on how this hap­pened, for which he nar­rates the sto­ry. Once, Sri Lak­sh­mi, the God­dess of wealth and pros­per­i­ty, assum­ing a very beau­ti­ful form, enters a herd of kine and intro­duces her­self to them, as the being by whose grace alone dhar­ma, artha and kama become sources of hap­pi­ness. It is by her ener­gy that rishis and devas have suc­cess in their actions. They who for­sake her will meet with destruc­tion, just as the Daityas (asur­as) lost their posi­tion. Know­ing cows to be the givers of hap­pi­ness, she express­es her wish to reside in every one of them. She says,”O sin­less ones, there is no part of your body that is repul­sive for you are sacred, sanc­ti­fy­ing and high­ly blessed. In which part of your bod­ies shall I take up my res­i­dence?”

The cows dis­cuss among them­selves and say to her,”O aus­pi­cious God­dess, both our dung and urine are sacred, you may live in them.”

Feel­ing hon­ored and filled with hap­pi­ness, Maha­lak­sh­mi assumes an invis­i­ble form to ful­fill her wish.

Cows — the root of yaj­nas and the sup­port of all beings

The Vedic tra­di­tion rec­og­nizes the inter­de­pen­dence of all beings, and yaj­nas or rit­u­al offer­ings to the devas and pitris (ances­tors) are cen­tral to liv­ing a life of har­mo­ny with the nat­ur­al forces. The devas depend on these yaj­nas for their sus­te­nance and they in turn har­mo­nize the nat­ur­al forces for pros­per­i­ty on earth. In a yaj­na, obla­tions of ghee are offered to the fire along with the chant­i­ng of spe­cif­ic mantras.

In this con­text, Bheesh­ma tells Yud­hishthi­ra that no yaj­na can be per­formed with­out the aid of curds and ghee. Hence ghee, or, the cow from which it is pro­duced is regard­ed as the very root of yaj­na. With their milk and ghee, which forms the havi (obla­tion), cows uphold all crea­tures in the uni­verse. He fur­ther affirms that of all kinds of daana, the daana of cows is applaud­ed as the high­est. Cows are high­ly sacred and are the best of cleansers and sanc­ti­fiers. To enjoy pros­per­i­ty and peace, peo­ple should serve and cher­ish cows.

Cows — givers of pros­per­i­ty and free­dom

Bheesh­ma also recounts a con­ver­sa­tion between King Saudasa of the solar dynasty and his kula guru, Vasish­ta Mahar­ishi, on the exalt­ed nature of cows. Vasish­ta says that those who make gifts of cows tran­scend all sins which they may have com­mit­ted. The reg­u­lar recita­tion of the names of cows and rev­er­ence of cows has tremen­dous pow­er and leads one to great pros­per­i­ty and lib­er­ates one from fear. Even in the case of psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions such as evil dreams, recita­tion of the names of cows helps one over­come them. One ought to always bathe, using cow dung at the time and one ought to sit on dried cow dung.

Vasish­ta also explains the back­ground sto­ry of why cows are con­sid­ered to be exalt­ed. The cows of a for­mer yuga prac­ticed the aus­ter­est penances for a 100,000 years with the desire of attain­ing to a posi­tion of great pre­em­i­nence. They desired to be the sup­port of the whole uni­verse and the best form of dak­shi­na in yaj­nas. And by bathing in water mixed with their dung, peo­ple would become sanc­ti­fied. Devas and humans would use their dung for the pur­pose of puri­fy­ing all crea­tures, mobile and immo­bile. And they who give them away in daana would attain the same loka as them and enjoy hap­pi­ness. With such a desire, they prac­tised their aus­ter­i­ties. At the end of their penance, Brah­ma appeared before them, pleased. He grant­ed them their desired boon that they would be high­ly blessed and become the refuge of the world.

Cows — granters of all wish­es (Gomati mantra)

Bheesh­ma fur­ther nar­rates a dia­logue between Suka and his father, Krish­na Dwai­payana Vyasa, where­in the lat­ter dis­cuss­es the pow­er of the Gomati mantra, a mantra for obtain­ing bless­ings from cows. Liv­ing in a pure state in the midst of cows, one ought to men­tal­ly chant the sacred Gomati mantra, which puri­fies and cleans­es one of all sins. He goes on to describe the man­ner in which brah­manas of Vedic learn­ing may impart the knowl­edge of the Gomati mantra to their dis­ci­ples. A man who desires to have a son, a woman who desires to have a good hus­band, and even one who desires wealth may have their wish­es ful­filled through wor­ship and chant­i­ng of this mantra. In fact, one may obtain the fruition of every wish by ador­ing the sacred Gomati mantras. When cows are pleased with the ser­vice one ren­ders them, they are, with­out doubt, capa­ble of grant­i­ng the fruition of every wish.

Imbib­ing Bheeshma’s words deep with­in him­self, Yud­hishthi­ra per­formed many yaj­nas and gave away hun­dreds of thou­sands of cows to brah­manas.





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