Mahatma Gandhi

The Cow is a Poem of Pity

Young India, 6-10-1921


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VOL. 24 : 22 JULY, 1921 - 25 OCTOBER, 1921



In dealing with the problem of untouchability during the

Madras tour, I have asserted my claim to being a sanatani Hindu with

greater emphasis than hitherto, and yet there are things which are

commonly done in the name of Hinduism, which I disregard. I have

no desire to be called a sanatani Hindu or any other if I am not such.

And I have certainly no desire to steal in a reform or an abuse under

cover of a great faith.


It is therefore necessary for me once for all distinctly to give my

meaning of sanatana Hinduism. The word sanatana I use in its

natural sense.


I call myself a sanatani Hindu, because,

1. I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all

that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures, and therefore in avatars

and rebirth,

2. I believe in the varnashrama dharma in a sense in my

opinion strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense,

3. I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense

than the popular,

4. I do not disbelieve in idol-worship.


The reader will note that I have purposely refrained from using

the word divine origin in reference to the Vedas or any other

scriptures. For I do not believe in the exclusive divinity of the Vedas. I

believe the Bible, the Koran, and the Zend-Avesta to be as much

divinely inspired as the Vedas. My belief in the Hindu scriptures does

not require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely

inspired. Nor do I claim to have any first-hand knowledge of these

wonderful books. But I do claim to know and feel the truths of the

essential teaching of the scriptures. I decline to be bound by any

interpretation, however learned it may be, if it is repugnant to reason

or moral sense. I do most emphatically repudiate the claim (if they

advance any such) of the present Shankaracharyas and shastris to give

a correct interpretation of the Hindu scriptures. On the contrary I

believe, that our present knowledge of these books is in a most chaotic



I believe implicitly in the Hindu aphorism, that no one truly

knows the Shastras who has not attained perfection in innocence

(ahimsa), truth (satya) and self-control (brahmacharya) and who has

not renounced all acquisition or possession of wealth. I believe in the

institution of gurus, but in this age millions must go without a guru,

because it is a rare thing to find a combination of perfect purity and

perfect learning. But one need not despair of ever knowing the truth

of one’s religion, because the fundamentals of Hinduism as of every

great religion are unchangeable, and easily understood. Every Hindu

believes in God and his oneness, in rebirth and salvation. But that

which distinguishes Hinduism from every other religion is its

cow-protection, more than its varnashrama.


Varnashrama is, in my opinion, inherent in human nature, and

Hinduism has simply reduced it to a science. It does attach to birth. A

man cannot change his varna by choice. Not to abide by one’s varna

is to disregard the law of heredity. The division, however, into

innumerable castes is an unwarranted liberty taken with the doctrine.

The four divisions are all-sufficing.

I do not believe, that inter-dining or even inter-marriage

necessarily deprives a man of his status that his birth has given him.

The four divisions define a man’s calling, they do not restrict or

regulate social intercourse. The divisions define duties, they confer no

privileges. It is, I hold, against the genius of Hinduism to arrogate to

oneself a higher status or assign to another a lower. All are born to

serve God’s creation, a Brahmin with his knowledge, a Kshatriya with

his power of protection, a Vaisya with his commercial ability and a

Sudra with his bodily labour. This however does not mean that a

Brahmin for instance is absolved from bodily labour, or the duty of

protecting himself and others. His birth makes a Brahmin

predominantly a man of knowledge, the fittest by heredity and

training to impart it to others. There nothing, again, to prevent the

Sudra from acquiring all the knowledge he wishes. Only, he will best

serve with his body and need not envy others their special qualities for

service. But a Brahmin who claims superiority by right of knowledge

falls and has no knowledge. And so with the others who pride

themselves their special qualities. Varnashrama is self-restraint and

conservation and economy of energy.

Though therefore varnashrama is not affected by inter-dining

or inter-marriage, Hinduism does most emphatically discourage

inter-dining and inter-marriage between divisions. Hinduism reached

the highest limit of self-restraint. It is undoubtedly a religion of

renunciation of tile flesh so that the spirit may be set free. It is no part

of a Hindu’s duty to dine with his son. And by restricting his choice

of a bride to a particular group, he exercises rare self-restraint.

Hinduism does not regard a married state as by any means essential

for salvation. Marriage is a “fall” even as birth is a “fall”. Salvation

is freedom from birth and hence death also. Prohibition against

inter-marriage and inter-dining is essential for a rapid evolution of the

soul. But this self-denial is no test of varna. A Brahmin may remain a

Brahmin, though he may dine with his Sudra brother, if he has not left

off his duty of service by knowledge. It follows from what I have said

above, that restraint in matters of marriage and dining is not based

upon notions of superiority. A Hindu who refuses to dine with

another from a sense of superiority misrepresents his dharma.


Unfortunately, today Hinduism seems to consist merely in

eating and not-eating. Once I horrified a pious Hindu by taking toast

at a Mussulman’s house. I saw, that he was pained to see me pouring

milk into a cup handed by a Mussulman friend, but his anguish knew

no bounds when he saw me taking toast at the Mussulman’s hands.

Hinduism is in danger of losing its substance if it resolves itself into a

matter of elaborate rules as to what and with whom to eat.


Abstemiousness from intoxicating drinks and drugs, and from all

kinds of foods, especially meat, is undoubtedly a great aid to the

evolution of the spirit, but it is by no means an end in itself. Many a

man eating meat and with everybody but living in the fear of God is

nearer his freedom than a man religiously abstaining from meat and

many other things, but blaspheming God in every one of his acts.


The central fact of Hinduism however is cow-protection.

Cow-protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in

human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The

cow to me means the entire sub-human 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 of pity.

One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother to 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 all the more

forcible because it is speechless. Cow-protection is the gift of

Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live so long as there are

Hindus to protect the cow.


The way to protect is to die for her. It is a denial of Hinduism in

and ahimsa to kill a human being to protect a cow. Hindus are

enjoined to protect the cow by their tapasya, by self-purification,

by self-sacrifice. The present-day cow-protection has degenerated into a

perpetual feud with the Mussulmans, whereas cow-protection means

conquering Mussulmans by our love.


A Mussulman friend sent me

some time ago a book detailing the inhumanities practised by us on

the cow and her progeny. How we bleed her to take the last drop of

milk from her, how we starve her to emaciation, how we ill-treat the

calves, how we deprive them of their portion of milk, how cruelly we

treat the oxen, how we castrate them, how we beat them, how we

overload them.


If they had speech, they would bear witness to our

crimes against them which would stagger the world. By every act of

cruelty to our cattle, we disown God and Hinduism. I do not know that

the condition of the cattle in any other part of the world is so bad as in

unhappy India. We may not blame the Englishman for this. We

maynot plead poverty in our defence. Criminal negligence is the only

cause of the miserable condition of our cattle. Our pinjrapoles,

though they are an answer to our instinct of mercy, are a clumsy

demonstration of its execution. Instead of being model dairy farms

and great profitable national institutions, they are merely depots for

receiving decrepit cattle.


Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct

chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most

punctilious observance of caste rules but by their ability to protect the

cow. Whilst professing the religion of cow-protection, we have

enslaved the cow and her progeny, and have become slaves ourselves.

It will now be understood why I consider myself a sanatani

Hindu. I yield to none in my regard for the cow. I have made the

Khilafat cause my own, because I see that through its preservation full

protection can be secured for the cow. I do not ask my Mussulman

friends to save the cow in consideration of my service. My prayer

ascends daily to God Almighty, that my service of a cause I hold to be

just may appear so pleasing to Him, that He may change the hearts of

the Mussulmans, and fill them with pity for their Hindu neighbours

and make them save the animal the latter hold dear as life itself.


I can no more describe my feeling for Hinduism than for my

own wife. She moves me as no other woman in the world can. Not that

she has no faults. I dare say she has many more than I see myself. But

the feeling of an indissoluble bond is there. Even so I feel for and

about Hinduism with all its faults and limitations. Nothing elates me so

much as the music of the Gita or the Ramayana by Tulsidas, the only

two books in Hinduism I may be said to know. When I fancied I was

taking my last breath, the Gita was my solace. I know the vice that is

going on today in all the great Hindu shrines, but I love them in spite

of their unspeakable failings. There is an interest which I take in them

and which I take in no other. I am a reformer through and through.

But my zeal never takes me to the rejection of any of the essential

things of Hinduism. I have said I do not disbelieve in idol-worship.

An idol does not excite any feeling of veneration in me. But I think

that idol-worship is part of human nature. We hanker after symbolism.

Why should one be more composed in a church than elsewhere?

Images are an aid to worship. No Hindu considers an image to he

God. I do not consider idol-worship a sin.


It is clear from the foregoing, that Hinduism is not an exclusive

religion. In it there is room for the worship of all the prophets of the

world. It is not a missionary religion in the ordinary sense of the term.

It has no doubt absorbed many tribes in its fold, but this absorption

has been of an evolutionary imperceptible character. Hinduism tells

everyone to worship God according to his own faith or dharma, and

so it lives at peace with all the religions.


That being my conception of Hinduism, I have never been able

to reconcile myself to untouchability. I have always regarded it as an

excrescence. It is true that it has been handed down to us from

generations, but so are many evil practices even to this day. I should

be ashamed to think that dedication of girls to virtual prostitution was

a part of Hinduism. Yet it is practised by Hindus in many parts of

India. I consider it positive irreligion to sacrifice goats to Kali and do

not consider it a part of Hinduism. Hinduism is a growth of ages. The

very name, Hinduism, was given to the religion of the people of

Hindustan by foreigners. There was no doubt at one time sacrifice of

animals offered in the name of religion. But it is not religion, much

less is it Hindu religion.


And so also it seems to me, that when

cow-protection became an article of faith with our ancestors, those

who persisted in eating beef were excommunicated. The civil strife

must have been fierce. Social boycott was applied not only to the

recalcitrants, but their sins were visited upon their children also. The

practice which had probably its origin in good intentions hardened

into usage, and even verses crept in our sacred books giving the

practice a permanence wholly undeserved and still less justified.

Whether my theory is correct or not, untouchability is repugnant to

reason and to the instinct of mercy, pity or love.


A religion that

establishes the worship of the cow cannot possibly countenance or

warrant a cruel and inhuman boycott of human beings. And I should

be content to be torn to pieces rather than disown the suppressed

classes. Hindus will certainly never deserve freedom, nor get it if they

allow their noble religion to be disgraced by the retention of the taint

of untouchability. And as I love Hinduism dearer than life itself, the

taint has become for me an intolerable burden. Let us not deny God

by denying to a fifth of our race the right of association on an equal


M. K. Gandhi, Young India, 6-10-1921

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