Mahabharata: The Holy Cow

and Cow-Imagery in Narratives

Cow is holy. However, who or what is the Cow?

Is cow just the cow; or is cow, the cow and something else – the Cow?

Going back to RgVeda, Cow is the quadruped animal cow, and much more …

Cow is the Prthivii (Earth) - Devii Prthivii (Goddess Earth); Cow is Suurya (and her Milk is the Sun Rays); Cow is Vaagdevii – Goddess Vaak (Speech, Words, and Language); Cow is Indra; Cow is Woman; Cow is River – Cow is Sarasvatii …

Yes, that is why, Cow is holy …

The Cow is holy because we cannot survive without the Cow … she is our environment … and the Wise Rshis regarded her holy not to create an Elite Goddess of her, but to emphasize her importance in our Existential Reality.

Problem arises, as always and is usual, when Academic and Political Rulers insist on literal reading of a word, rather than understanding the Bhaava and the import of the word. And we, ordinary people, without knowledge of etymology, context or origin of a word, dance to their tune, and create a Belief System based on our Rulers’ ludicrous interpretations. The “cow”-debate and discourse thus remains as a perpetual nagger in Modern India!

Once some people came to Svaamii Vivekaananda and asked financial help for their noble venture of protecting Mother cows from slaughter. Svaamiijii asked them whether they were doing anything for the poor and famine-struck. They emphatically replied in negative, and said that they were more concerned with Mother Cow. Svaamiijii sighed and replied that he had no doubt that those people were admirable sons of Mother Cow, and none other than Mother Cow could have produced them.

In other words, Human Beings come first than cow, and for that ‘first’ position, Human Beings indeed need the Cow.

My present concern is discussion on Cow-Imagery in Mahabharata-narrative, with the purpose to show how our Ancient Rshis and Vyaasa viewed the Cow, and with the further purpose to show how we have degraded the Cow to cow.

We know, the Mythical Background of Mahabharata is the Bhuubhaaraharana (usually taken to mean “de-burdening the earth from oppressive or tyrant rulers – Kshatriyas)). What is the Bhuu here? Did Vyaasa mean only the Earth?

We know, the background of Bhuubhaaraharana is again Deva-Asura Battle. Who is the Asura? Who is the Deva? Did Vyaasa mean by Asura only the Political Tyrannous Ruler?

We find our answer in Bhiishma's narrative to Yudhishthira/Paandavas.

Bhiishma denounces the category of men who are Ahamkaarii and by decrying the knowledge of others proclaim the superiority of their own knowledge (nindayaa paravidyaanaam svaam vidyaam khyaapayanti ye); who have words for their weapons and words for their arrows and speak as if they have obtained the Milk of result of knowledge (vaagastraa vaakchuriimattvaa dugdhavidyaaphalaa iva). Bhiishma calls them ‘Wordy’ people as ‘traders in learning’ and ‘Raakshasa among men’ (taan vidyaavanijo viddhi raakshasaan iva – 12.140.15) – hinting at Artha-inclined Asurik nature – obviously the double meaning of Artha in play. In short, Asurik people manipulate discourses on Dharma and interpret scriptures to suit their Self-centric needs of Artha, without knowing the true Artha of Artha in Dharma and Purushaarthas. By implication, one who is stuck at the Surface Layer of Words of a Text is Raakshasa or Asurik.

Therefore, one who is stuck at the literal and Surface Layer meaning of “cow” is Asura. And Vyaasa’s Bhuubhaaraharana was aimed to de-burden the earth from literal interpreters of words for the liberation of the Cow. As any right thinking person will agree, our World is in serious need of Bhuubhaaraharana!

Literal interpreters of Words, or those Artha-Centric ones, who are fixated at the Surface Layer Artha of words, are the real slaughterers of Cow.

Cow is Vaac – Goddess Vaak (Speech, Words, and Language)!

Since, another significance of Cow is Poetry – Kaavya – we thus understand why Vyaasa chose to break away from the Vedic Tradition though remaining within the Tradition – and created the immortal Vedaan Pancamaan – the Fifth Veda.

And Kaavya/Mahaakaavya – needless to say – is nothing without Vaac-Sarasvatii.

Mahabharata calls itself Grantha, and Vyaasa did not want us to remain stuck at the Surface Layer of his Grantha-Mahabharata. Thus, we find in Janaka (Karaala) and Vashishthas Narrative (12.291-296), Vashishtha telling Janaka:

“Thou bearest, however, in thy understanding, only the texts of the Vedas and the other scriptures. Thou art not, O monarch, truly conversant with the real meaning of those texts. That person who bears in his understanding merely the texts of the Vedas and the other scriptures without being conversant with the true sense or meaning of those texts, bears them fruitlessly. Indeed, one who holds the contents of a work in memory without comprehending their meaning is said to bear a useless burden. He, however, who is conversant with the true meaning of a treatise, is said to have studied that treatise to purpose. Questioned regarding the meaning of a text, it behoveth one to communicate that meaning which he has comprehended by a careful study. That person of dull intelligence who refuses to expound the meanings of texts in the midst of a conclave of the learned, that person of foolish understanding, never succeeds in expounding the meaning correctly. An ignorant person, going to expound the true meaning of treatises, incurs ridicule. Even those possessed of a knowledge of the Soul have to incur ridicule on such occasions (if what they go to explain has not been acquired by study).” (12.293.23-28)

In Udyoga Parvan, Kunti tells Krishna to convey Yudhishthira her pointing out his lapse that Learning Vedas and understanding Vedas are not same; in fact, a mere reader of Veda is often incapable of comprehending its actual meaning, and affected only by words, views Dharma from a fixed point of view (5.130.6).

While advising Yudhishthira, Bhiishma tells him that his instructions on duty are not based on his Learning (hearing) of Vedas alone, but the result of his Wisdom and Experience gained through Prajnaa - which is like the Madhu that can be gathered by Kavis (12.240.3). Niilakantha finds the imagery of Disease in sambhrtam - and explains sambhrtam roge sancitam madhviva (Madhu collected during calamity of Disease). Madhu applied to Disease is a Spiritual Metaphor in Mahabharata. Shrii Raamakrishna also uses Disease as Metaphor for Attachment for Kaama-Kaancana (Lust and Gold).

Madhu is thus the Metaphor for Wisdom gathered when one has Book-Learning and yet gains Wisdom from Beyond the Books, or is capable of going Beyond the Books. Kavi connotes not only poet and wise, but also skill and cunning. A subtle imagery in the word Madhu is the labour of bees that collect honey, implying Wisdom cannot be accumulated without Manual Labour; that is, Brain (Intellect) and Physical Toil must be in harmony with skill and cunning (Buddhi) to gain Madhu. This harmony is actually the Harmony of Braahmana Guna and Sattva Guna in one’s personality. Such Harmonized or Integrated Personality alone can go Beyond Books.

Vyaasa’s Bhuubhaaraharana was as much Political as Academic and Spiritual… because to go Beyond the Surface Layer is to go to the Hrdaya (Heart) … and to go to the Heart is to reach the Atmaa

Significantly, much later, Anandavardhana would compare Words with the Body, and the Dhvani with Atmaa

Related to Cow-Imagery is the Shepherd or Herdsman Imagery.

Who is the Shepherd/Herdsman? In RgVeda, Indra and Suurya – both are Cow as well as Shepherd; the King is the Shepherd; the Rshi is the Shepherd; and in Gopatha Braahmana, Dharma is Shepherd of Prajaa (dharmo hainam gupto gopaayati) and Dharma here causes “better state, the better fortune or condition” of the Prajaa (GopB 1.2.4j-k). All these clearly presage the Christian Metaphor of Christ as Shepherd.

As a sidelight, that is why Krishna is both Cow and Shepherd. He was brought up in Gokula – that literally means – “a herd of kine” as well as “cow-house or station.” Living in Gokula, Krishna is Cow. Again, by ‘profession,’ he is Shepherd – even more than that – Govinda.

As Cow, Krishna is Vaac-Sarasvatii. Indeed, Sarasvatii is Krshnaa in RgVeda (implied, in comparison to aayasam - Iron or Black-Metal), in Shatapatha Braahmana and in Shaandilya Upanishad.

As Shepherd, Krishna is Indra, Suurya, “King” and Dharma personified.

The etymology of his name Govinda connects with Bhuubhaaraharana, Cow and Vaak (Speech, Words, and Language).

Krishna says: “When in days of yore the Earth became submerged in the waters and lost to the view, I found her out and raised her from the depths of the Ocean. For this reason the deities adore me by the name of Govinda.

nashtaam ca dharaniim puurvam avindam vai guhaagataam /
govinda iti maam devaa vaagbhih samabhitushtuvuh // (12.330.5)

Samjaya says: “He is called Ananta from his eternity, and Govinda from his knowledge of speech of every kind.” Samjaya explains: shaashvatatvaad anantash ca govindo vedanaad gavaam (5.68.13c) - Govinda from his knowledge of speech of every kind; that is, Govinda means ‘one who knows (vid) the Cow (Vaak)’

Now, vedanaad gavaam - means “possessed of knowledge” and “feeling pain for or compassion” for Cows.

In Harivamsha, Indra tells Krishna:

aham kilendro devaanaam tvam gavaam indrataam gatah /
govinda iti lokaas tvaam stoshyanti bhuvi shaashvatam //
HV_62.43 //

Thus, Govinda is Go + Indha (> Indra > Inda: Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad-4.2.2); Govinda is ‘Lord of Cow’ or “Indra of Cow” – both Shepherd and Cow of Cows.

With this brief introduction, let me now note how Vyaasa infuses and permeates his Itihaasa-narrative with Cow-Imagery in re-creating it as Mahaakaavya. (I will note some examples only, keeping the rest for near-future RUMINATION.)

First of all, let us take note of one similarity and one difference between Karna and Arjuna.

Karna as Suurya (Suurya’s son) is Shepherd; just as Arjuna as Indra (Indra’s son) is. If the two are Shepherd, why is it that “never the twain shall meet”?

When Duhshaasana tries to disrobe Draupadii in Dice-Game Sabhaa, she invokes Govinda – Lord of CowsShepherd; she being the Cow(Woman), she thus invokes the Shepherd for protection; but her invocation of Govinda is also invocation of Dharma (as in Gopatha Braahmana); and Dharma indeed supplies her with garment when Duhshaasana (= maladministration) tries to disrobe her.

Draupadii is Vaac-Sarasvatii’s archetype; and like the RgVedic Vaac, she is not only Eloquent Queen, but also beyond such mortal mischief – because like Vaac, she can neither be disrobed nor be enjoyed forcefully.

In insulting her, Duryodhana et al. violate the Cow-Yajna, and are therefore, destined to destruction.

In the RgVedic verse where Suurya is called Herdsman, he “clothed in gathered and diffusive splendour, within the worlds continually travels - sa sadhriiciih sa vishuuciirvasaana aa variivartibhuvaneshvantah // (RV- 10.177.3)

Karna is thus the failed Suurya-Herdsman because instead of clothing Draupadii, he suggests her Vastraharana!

This Rk gains significance in the Viraata-war in Arjuna’s (Dharma-Shepherd) fight against Karna-Suurya-Shepherd. Suurya-Shepherd is clothed, and Arjuna takes away his cloth to give to Uttaraa.

That Karna would turn out to be a poor Shepherd is already presaged by the incident of his accidental killing of a Braahmin’s Cow (though narrated later in SHaanti-Parvan). Karna’s fall is a parallel to Nahusha’s fall owing to similar reasons. Their killing of Cow is symbolically their dispossession of Vaac, or their desertion by Vaac.

Nahusha’s insulting the seven Rshis or his kicking Agastya’s head with his Foot is allegory of his violating the Chandas – the Pada (Foot) going berserk in this case (I will discuss the very related Foot-Imagery in a separate article). That Karna is a cruel speaker is evident in Dice-Game Sabhaa, indicating his siding with Nirrti – the “anti-Vaac”.

Karna calls Draupadii bandhakii and justifies her disrobing. The project is destined to fail because – as I mentioned - Draupadii-Vaac cannot be disrobed. Before that Vikarna respectfully regards Draupadii as Sadhaaranii – an epithet applied to Vaac as well (RV- 1.167.4).

Nahusha and Karna’s case is in stark contrast to Arjuna’s saving a Braahmin’s Cow even at the cost of personal sacrifice of an individual exile. The exile however, proved to be ‘milky’ for Arjuna; he had three marriages (at least), and the final one courtesy Shepherd-Krishna! Arjuna Shepherd gets the Cow-Subhadraa.

Not only that Subhadraa is the name of a mythical cow in Mahabharata, the name literally means “very glorious or splendid or auspicious or fortunate”; and this connects her with Shrii-Lakshmii (like Draupadii) – and thus again with Cow. (In another Mythical Narrative, Shrii dwells in cow-dung and urine of cow).

The Dice-Game episode and the fight over Cow in Viraata Parvan are thus symbolic fights over Vaac and connects with the Bhuubhaaraharana theme of Deva-Asura Battle, because Deva-Asura Battle is not only Physical Battle with Astra, but also Battle of Metres (Chanda) (as in Pancavimsha Braahmana). The Devas possess Vaac, while the Asuras are deprived of Vaac. In rescuing Viraata’s Cows, and keeping hold over them, the ‘Deva’-Paandavas triumph over Kauravas in possessing Vaac.

The cow and the calf are Soma (12.254.41b*704_1). Soma-Cow is particularly identified with Vaac. Thus, the Paandavas’ triumph is also their possession over Soma. Finally, Soma’s son’s incarnate Abhimanyu gets the ‘Cow’-Uttaraa and the Soma Vamsha continues through her. The colour of Soma-Cow is Red-Black – which is also the colour of Nishaada. Indeed, it is all Nishaada-Vyaasa’s triumph.

The Cow has another interesting dimension in Viraata Parvan narrative. When Kiicaka insults Draupadii, she goes to seek Bhiima’s help and wakes him up from sleep; she is compared with Cow in heat – upaatishthata paancaalii vaashiteva mahaavrsham (4.16.6e) [i]. Impliedly, as her protector, Bhiima is the Shepherd (further confirmed in Bhiima’s role in Viraata-Matsya as govikartaa – the Sacrificer priest who has the role of dividing up the sacrificial animal by cutting it asunder for Yajna.). Bhiima as kartaa is the true Kuru – that literally means “to do” or the Doer. Bhiima indeed sacrifices Kiicaka.

That Vyaasa has Vaac in mind in the Kiicaka-vadha episode is further evident from the description of Draupadii's voice – “sweet as the sound of a stringed instrument emitting Gandhara Note (viineva madhuraabhaashaa gaandhaaram saadhu muurcchitaa, 4.16.8a)” – evoking the image of Sarasvatii with her Viinaa. Further, the Shatapatha Braahmana association of Vaac and Viinaa is evoked here. Indeed Draupadii invokes Bhiima with her Vaac-Power to kill Kiicaka.

Bhiima kills Kiicaka and turns his body into a ball of flesh. This limbless footless ball reminds of Vrtra. Vrtra is Footless (RV- 1.32.7; 3.30.8; 5.32.8). Footless – one without Foot is actually one without Pada (Foot) of Vaac-Kaavya. (I will elaborate this in a separate article).

As a sidelight, Duryodhana and his brothers too are born as flesh-ball, suggesting they would be Vrtra to Indra-Paandavas. And the Cow much determines their relationship. When the Paandavas are leaving for Forest Exile, Duhshaasana mocks Bhiima calling him “Cow Cow”. The Cow-mockery backfires not only in Viraata-war, but also later in Kurukshetra War when Bhiima tears open Duhshaasana’s Heart and supposedly drinks his blood (actually smears his face/mouth with Duhshaasana’s blood to send cold shivers down the Kauravas army’s spine).

Bhiima’s vow and his tearing open Duhshaasana’s Heart have significance in terms of Viraat and Vaac and Indra. The Heart is the place of union of Indra and Viraat, and their food is the lump of blood in the Heart (tayor esha samstaavo ya esho 'ntar hrdaya aakaashah | athainayor etad annam ya esho 'ntar hrdaye lohitapindah) (Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad-4.2.3)

Since “Mal-administration”-Duhshaasana is a failure with Vaac, Praana-Bhiima will become the “Eater of Food” – the Blood – and cause disunion of Indra-Viraat in Duhshaasana’s Heart which is unworthy of that union.

There are several other Cow-narratives through which Vyaasa conveys his message.

Drona gifted thousands of cows to Braahmanas (O sweet hyperbole!) when Ashvatthaamaa was born; yet, when he takes entry in Hastinaapura we find a different narrative. According to this: Ashvatthaamaa in his infancy wanted to drink cow-milk and was duped by his friends. This made Drona realize the futility of poverty.

Obviously, this is Drona’s lie to find a sympathetic entry and establishment in Hastinaapura. And Bhiishma indeed becomes a buyer to Drona’s Vaac-‘Milk’.

Drona, despite carrying the blood of the great Bharadvaaja Angiraa thus proves to be a failed Shepherd. His Viraata Parvan failure to rob Viraata’s cows pre-shadows his ultimate failure. And Arjuna takes away his garments too for Uttaraa.

With so much importance of Cow, isn’t it logical that Mahabharata should be the Cow?

Indeed so!

Sauti compares Bhaarata (Mahabharata) with Cow

“As the sea is eminent among receptacles of water, and the cow among quadrupeds; as are these (among the things mentioned) so is the Bharata said to be among histories -

hradaanaam udadhih shreshtho gaur varishthaa catushpadaam /
yathaitaani varishthaani tathaa bhaaratam ucyate // (1.1.202)”

It implies, what is in Mahabharata is Milk.

And who is Vyaasa then? As creator of Cow-Mahabharata, he is Cow; and as Protector/Preserver of Dharma and WisdomPrajnaa, he is Shepherd too. If Vyaasa is both Shepherd and Cow, he is both Fisherman and Fish too!

According to a Mythical Narrative, Vyaasa is Saarasvata’s incarnation Apaantaratamaa’s incarnation. After Brahmaa creates the World (srshtaa imaah prajaah sarvaa brahmanaa parameshthinaa, 12.337.29a), the Earth becomes burdened (vasumatii bhaaraakraantaa tapasvinii, 29a) when Daitya-Daanava-Raakshasa become proud (darpitaih, 31a), and start oppressing the Devas, Rshis, and ascetics (baadhitavyaah suraganaa rshayash ca tapodhanaah, 31c). Then Naaraayana assumes diverse forms to chastise the wicked and uphold the righteous (nigrahena ca paapaanaam saadhuunaam pragrahena ca, 32c) for removing the Earth’s Burden (bhaaraavatarana, 31e). Then Naaraayana utters Bho and “From this syllable of speech (Sarasvatii) arose a Rshi of the name Sarasvat (sarasvatiim uccacaara tatra saarasvato bhavat, 37c). The Rshi, thus born of the Speech of Naaraayana, came to be, also called by the name of Apaantaratamaa (38a).”

As Apaantaratamaa’s incarnation, Vyaasa is thus Vaac. And we know, Vyaasa is also “abode of Sarasvatii (aavaasam ca sarasvatyaah, 7.172.43c).”

Now, as Vyaasa’s bloodline, the Kurus and Paandavas both are Vaac’s bloodline – and consequently both sides are the Cow and Shepherd.

The balance tilts to the Paandavas because three Vaac-characters – three Krishnas – Krshnaa-Draupadii, Krishnadvaipaayana Vyaasa and Govinda-Krishna side with them.

The Kauravas – and particularly Drona and Karna – remain the failed Shepherd without Cow at the end; and the Paandavas emerge the Shepherd in possession of the Cow – and Yudhishthira becomes the Dharma-Indra King – the true Shepherd.

Bhuubhaaraharana is de-burdening the Cow – of the Cow, for the Cow, by the Cow.

(Author’s Note: What I have discussed is one mode of reading Mahabharata as an allegory of Vaac. In another article, I will discuss another significant imagery of Mahabharata – the Foot-Imagery – very much related to Cow-Imagery and Shepherd-Imagery. Readers may read this article with “The Birth of “Mahabharata: The Mahakavya of Krishna-Draupadii” and “Draupadi, the Brhati Shyaamaa, the Lost Sarasvati”).

[i] CE has it upaatishthata paanchalii vaashiteva mahaagajam


More by :  Indrajit Bandyopadhyay

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3491      Comments: 1

Comment Cow is holy to the most of people in India. Do not ask me why. But Bandyopadhyay
does not discuss as to what happens to COW when she gets old and dies. Is cow sold away to butchers or burnt away like we do when human being dies. Let Indrajit give the answer.

pranlal sheth
21-Oct-2015 03:49 AM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.