The Cow is a Poem of Pity
Young India, 6-10-1921
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VOL. 24 : 22 JULY, 1921 - 25 OCTOBER, 1921 371
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
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
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
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