Holy Cow!

Quick guide to a compassionate community of people involved in nurturing cows

Any conversation around cows these days is rarely not politically and/or religiously charged. Gau Rakshaks, Secular, Liberal, Bhakt are some terms that are difficult to avoid. However, in entire narrative being built up, what is lost is an objective focus on what most of us aren’t aware of — socio-economic importance cows and the ecosystem around them.

In our series Holy Cow! we have explored the issue from different angles, bringing back the focus on where it should be.

Most of us who respect cows and our own culture, as well as most opponents of cow protection, seem to lump all the above words above into ONE system. Not that they are totally wrong, but there are shades of nuanced differences amongst these different activists, along with an overlap in purport.

In this article, we’d tell you about 8 professions involved in the entire ecosystem of nurturing cows. 

1. Gau Paalak / गो–पालक (Cow Keeper)

These are the people that keep and look after cows (and bulls), either as farmers or as gaushala folks.

India is a country of farmers and villages, due to which agriculture is the backbone of India’s economy. Farmers need both the bulls and the cows.

Cattle are the soul of India’s agriculture, providing sources of fertility (dung, urine), food (milk and milk products) and labor for plowing, transport, etc.

Basic livelihood for villagers and not profiteering but conservation is the motivating factor that makes many people keep cows. However, all cow-keeping is not yet commercialized. Farmers in India still treat the cow as a member of their own family.

Cows today are also kept by ashrams and other Hindu Dharmic institutions.As modern economic and social policies have resulted in centralization instead of decentralization, there is a loss of rural ways of life in favor of urbanization, causing loss of sentience towards animal life and awareness about the value of cattle in India’s economy and ecology.

While there are left-liberal Hindus today who support beef, there are some exceptional Muslims who are involved in keeping and saving cattle as well as propagating saving the cattle breeds of India. Talking of one such Muslim family — the Pathans, in Indapur, Pune, Maharashtra — has been rearing and preserving cattle for three generations, even saving them from slaughter.

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2. Gau Poojak / गो–पूजक (Cow Worshipper) and the Gau Bhakta / गो–भक्त (Cow Devotee)

These are people who worship the cow as a ritual, treating the cow as a deity or sacred version of the Mother Goddess. These people need not be involved in the day-to-day rearing of cows at all, but do come forward to worship the cow as devotees and ritual worshippers, and that is part of their Dharma.

Eg. There are plenty of Hindus who go to worship the cow as the mother on various occasions; there are gaushala who protect cows and call themselves Gau Teertha.

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Worship of Desi Cow’s dung as a symbol of Lakshmi, worship of the bull and worship of the habitat of cows, is part of the same milieu.

It is a logical derivation that different elements of the environment have been linked to religious sentiments, protecting which, we eventually protect and nurture the environment.

3. Gau Prati Paalak / गो–प्रतिपालक (Cow-Keeper’s Patron)

This is a word for the sovereign administration, rule or system of governance that takes care of cows, their progeny and the associated religious, economic and agro-ecological system based on cows as a political duty (Raaja Dharma).

Since India, as an ancient vast country from Afghanistan to Arakan and from Ladakh to Sri Lanka is agro-ecologically, climatically and geologically diverse, there are many breeds of the Zebu, and more breeds have been continuously formed, even in the last 200 years, including in what is now the leftover India. Producing a breed involved crossing with only desi breeds, and characteristics desired were eventually achieved — yield of milk /fat percentage, disease resistance, the robustness of bulls for work in both fields and for pulling carts, etc. Each breed had its own track where the breed flourished. Just as the cow was found desirable in some tracks, so were the Bulls.The latest example of Patron’s influence is how the princely State of Sangli (Maharashtra), the Patwardhans, created the breed of cow called the Krishna valley breed from other desi breeds (Andhrraa’s Ongole, Maaharashtra’s local cattle — notably Khillar; and Gujarat’s Gir and Kankrej); the name “Krishna” in “Krishna Valley” is derived from the river Krishna which very much nourishes Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur districts, but the same river passes through Karnataka and joins the sea at Andhra Pradesh where there is a Krishna district by name; and populations of Krishna Valley cattle are found in both Sangli and Andhra, though endangered. Ever since the Patrons’ influence of a Princely State was lost, the cattle are susceptible to crossbreeding.

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4. Gau Rakshak / गो-रक्षक (Cow Protector)

These are the people who protect cows not just against neglect and disease but also from slaughter.

Eg. There is a whole caste called Gorkha in Nepal, a community of cow protector Hindus; they use the kookri as their weapon. Gaurakshanath was one of the Nine Naaths.

Sardar Ram Singh Kooka and his followers and associates, in 19th century British-colonised Punjab, were fierce cow protectors who resisted anyone, including the British to protect the cow.

These this term is confused for cow vigilantes, who may or may not use violence for different reasons than just protecting the cows.

5. Gau Samvardhak/ गो–संवर्धक (Cow Conservationist)

This person is the one who takes care of the breeds of cows and protects them from dangers, including their species being endangered by crossbreeding and slaughter.

Eg. Specific gaushalas have dedicated themselves to the protection of breeds. Three of many notable examples are the Kaneri Mutt (almost 26 distinct breeds) in Kolhapur, Varanasi gaushala dedicated to preserving the Gangatiri breed of desi cows or UP, and the Kamdhenu gaushala of Nurmahal, Ludhiana, Punjab. Pathmeda (Jalor, Rajasthan) is the largest gaushala in the world.

The Kamdhenu Gaushala has an integrated plan and has done fine work in conserving cow breeds.

It is interesting to note that, because the Green Revolution brought in foreign and hybrid seeds, we now have only 1800 varieties of indigenous rice instead of the original 1,50,000 indigenous varieties before the Green Revolution. The White Revolution brought in imported cows and semen of bulls whereby we now have reduced our desi cow varieties from 1200 to just 40, while also reducing absolute numbers of our cows per breed. The Green Revolution was launched in Punjab, the White Revolution in Gujarat, respective states with the prototype crop farming and cattle rearing cultures of Indian village life.

6. Gau Sewak / गो–सेवक (Cow Servant)

This person devotes his / her energy not just in milking the cow, but also in looking after the cow: cleaning her / her calf, cleaning her stable, removing dung and urine run-off, feeding the cow, protecting cows from pests and attacks, checking her emotional and medical well-being, helping in her nursing / treatment and taking her for walks and baths.

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Eg. The not-so-educated men and women who take care of the needs of India’s cows are the most important instrument which tends to injured cows, abandoned cows, etc.

Nandi Sevaks also contribute to improving the germ plasm of the country’s desi breeds, by taking care of bulls.The whole program of cow protection would derail if there are no gau sewaks.

7. GauVind / गो–विंद Cow Co-dweller / Cow-Herd

Shree Krishna is always depicted with cows and amongst cows; being with cows has the most calming effect on the human mind, besides agro-ecological and medicinal benefits.

A ‘GoVind’ likes to spend his time sitting amongst cows, moving around with foraging cows and being in their company (saannidhyaa) in general. By default, many in ancient or pre-colonial India were Govind. That automatically associated the farmer and cow reader with Shree Krishna or Shiva. Reciprocally, worshipping Shiva with Nandi or worshipping Krishna reinforced respect for the cow and rearing of cows. Interestingly, Balarama, brother of Krishna, holds a plow and is hence called HalaDhar or Plough-bearer, reinforcing farming as an activity endorsed by Divinity.

Even today, cattle are housed inside a house, as members of the family. The family is then a GoVind family!

8. Gau Swami (Goswami)/ Gau Sain (Gussain) / Gau Saavi गोस्वामी / गोसैन / गोसावी

This person was a religious head of a sect or community amongst Hindus who did many of the above, but who also institutionalized Cow Conservation along with a math (mutt) / temple as one sacred activity of his follower-ship.

The term is used as surnames in different communities, which indicates that cow conservation was an institutionalized activity, a part of village milieu and one mechanism of popular agroecological resilience: India always had a critical stock of cows, bulls, and calves, when faced with calamities both political and natural.

What about Bulls? 

In the course of cow protection, it is rather strange that gaurakshaks disregard bulls. But this is unnatural; let us see some clear examples of equal importance given to both sexes in the context of religion and cattle.

There are gender sensitizations lessons to be learned for cow worshippers here. It is unnatural to have the protection of only one gender, namely, only the cows, in cattle protection; bulls need to be protected for their own sake as a generation is a function of traits from both parents. How active have cow worshippers and Hindus in general been in protecting the bull?

The downgrading of our agriculture speeded up when the semen of imported bulls was used indiscriminately in the name of crossbreeding. The male is half our germ plasm, the future of rejuvenation of half of our endangered cow breeds and the seed of the cow’s race. The bull is the indicator of progeny excellence and the conduit for traits we need to carry forward genetically.

Along with gaushala, to protect our cattle asset, we also need nandishalas. Notable as an example, the Nurmahal (village name) Kamdhenu Gaushala in Ludhiana, Punjab, employs two sewaks (nandisewaks rather than gausewaks) per bull.

The State government of Madhya Pradesh has set up a bull and semen bank center at Jabalpur under its livestock department, providing the semen of graded bulls of Gir, Malvi, Tharparkar, Haryana and Sahiwal breeds.

Note: Holy Cow! is a campaign sponsored by VHS, an independent organization that works with grassroots communities to promote sustainable dairy ecosystem. Chaaipani has full editorial discretion on the content and has no political association.

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Profile photo of Dr. Aditya Dhopatkar

Dr. Aditya Dhopatkar

Agroecologist, Veterinarian, Blogger

Profile photo of Dr. Aditya Dhopatkar
About the Author

Dr. Aditya Dhopatkar

Agroecologist, Veterinarian, Blogger

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