Indians and Cows: A Complicated Bond

Taming aurochs and transforming them into companionable domestic animals must have been a long, unimaginably challenging process.

Published: 11th July 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th July 2021 12:17 PM   |  A+A-

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For representational purposes (Photo | PTI)

Two million years ago, large, fierce mammals known as aurochs originated in India and spread westwards.

They were massive, often reaching 1,500 kg, had huge curved horns, were extremely aggressive and fought regularly. Julius Caesar, who encountered them in Gaul during the Gallic wars (58-50 BCE), said, "Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied."

Later, the Jaktorow forests of Poland bore traces of fights to the death between hostile aurochs. Now picture an entirely different sort of animal: the mild-mannered, slow-moving cow.

Incredibly, geneticists found that our peace-loving cows descended directly from these wild, out-of-control aurochs. A 2010 paper established that zebu cattle - the Indian subspecies of modern cattle - resulted from the domestication of Indian aurochs in northwest India 9,000 years ago.

Taming aurochs - seen earlier as wild beasts to be either avoided or hunted - and transforming them into companionable domestic animals must have been a long, unimaginably challenging process.

Instead of seeing aurochs as yet another wild mammalian species to be hunted, our Indian ancestors began wanting to preserve their lives, and to train and breed them selectively, trying to form a bond with them and accustom them to living with humans. It is likely that during this herculean venture, our ancestors developed protective instincts towards the animal they were trying to domesticate.

Recent scientific studies show that human owners of domesticated animals experience surges of oxytocin in the presence of animals they have domesticated. Oxytocin is associated with an evolutionarily old part of the brain.

A related concept is the "collective unconscious" in Jungian psychology. This refers to the idea that a portion of our deepest unconscious minds - which determines our instincts, strong emotions and fears - is genetically inherited based on collective memories that our ancestors shared.

This suggests that if our ancestors experienced protective emotions and deep bonding with the aurochs whom they successfully domesticated and raised as cattle, we would have inherited the same unconscious attitudes towards cows. This would happen even if today we know nothing about aurochs, or domestication and neither raise nor keep cows ourselves.

Our ancestors' bonds with cows deepened during famines and crises. Regular milk from a cow could mean the difference between survival and death for children and adults during a famine. These times of shared adversity led to associating cows with mothers - the primary givers of affection and sustenance.

Gradually, the descendants of the people who had undertaken the daunting task of domesticating the untameable auroch became increasingly reluctant to slaughter them - irrespective of their religion. As 80 percent of Indians are Hindus, people sometimes confuse cow protectors solely as being Hindu.

However, Dharampal and Mukundan's 2002 book, The British Origin of Cow Slaughter in India, contains many instances of prominent Muslims, Parsis, and Sikhs advocating cow protection and opposing cow slaughter.

Many of these communities may have had the same ancestors ten thousand years ago as Indian Hindus, and therefore inherited attitudes and memories - conscious and subconscious - based on the shared history of auroch domestication; a history predating organised religion.

One need not delve far into the past for instances of non-Hindus saving cows: recent news describes a Muslim jumping into a 60-foot well to rescue a trapped cow, while the BBC featured another Muslim who regularly volunteers in cow shelters and formed an organisation of Muslims to protect cows. Literature also reflects these social values.

Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya's short story, 'Mahesh', is about the deep affection between a poor Muslim peasant and his bull, Mahesh. The peasant would go hungry to feed the bull, nourish him with thatch from the roof of their ramshackle hut, and refuse to sell him even in dire need. 

Indeed, the Indian attachment to cows and aversion to beef have obvious Western parallels: the British have an even stronger passion for dogs and a similar horror at the very idea of eating them - though they lack the bond produced by being the first people to domesticate 'man's best friend'.

This article is not about whether beef should be banned. Instead, we argue that the affection and protective instincts which large segments of Indians have developed about cows are not really a matter of religion.

They are much more complex, and originate from a collective subconscious memory of initial domestication of a wild, fierce species, cemented by centuries of shared adversity and mutual support.

(While Brishti Guha is associate Professor of Economics at JNU and can be reached on Twitter: @BrishtiGuha, Indrani is a psychotherapist)


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