A friend of mine asked me about the importance of cows in India. He's Swedish and doesn't have to negotiate around these natural traffic barriers in his country. Is it true, he inquired, that they are sacred? Not in my sacred garden, they're not, I told him, they get whacked right on their sacred rumps if they venture anywhere even near!
It is true though that cows are revered in India. It is an all purpose animal after all - providing milk for food, dung for plastering floors and walls and for fuel - and all all-purpose things achieve a godly status sooner or later. Except the poor pig, I suppose. It will be a long time before 'You Pig!' is taken as a compliment. Come to think of it though, nobody will be smiling happily either to be addressed as 'You Cow', all purpose or not.
Oh, well, at least its status in the Hindu religion is not likely to get challenged.
On many Hindu religious occasions you will find something or the other to do with the cow. I remember ducking during several such ceremonies to avoid being sprinkled with cow urine - unfortunately the Priests always seem to have a very deadly aim at such events. It is an old tradition and is considered auspicious. The cow's urine is supposed to have medicinal properties and some people actually drink it. Once I was standing at the bus-stop when a nearby cow chose to urinate and along came a gentleman who bent right over and opened his mouth to catch the stream. I swear I'm not making it up. With mine own two eyes I saw the Sacred Cow thus revered - and I shuddered irreverently for the next two hours.
But to practical matters. If you want to have a religious moment and you don't have your own cow, you have to go buy the dung and urine. Some of the cow owners can be pretty troublesome about that. They don't want to part with the treasures out of sheer mean-mindedness.
An aunt of mine went to fetch some one-time and returned empty-handed and annoyed. The cussed cow owning woman wouldn't give her anything, she said, because - so the cussed cow owning woman said - her cussed cows hadn't done anything for the past five days. What nonsense, stormed my aunt, NOBODY has that much cussed self-control!
"Auntie," I said, deciding this was the moment to clear some questions on the subject. "Why use Cow dung? Why not the dung of any other animal? Why not horse dung or donkey dung or dog dung?"
"Don't ask stupid questions - we use Cow dung because we have always used Cow dung!"
"Oh. Always? You mean even if the cow has diarrhea?"
Ask and you shall learn. Such was, I think, the experience of Socrates. Didn't happen in my case.
"You cussed girl," said my aunt. "Shut up."
Sometime after that, someone from the Western Hemisphere (not the lovely Swedish chap) got really mad at me (it seems to be an epidemic) and snapped something on the lines of, "All you Indians are fakirs meditating naked next to your sacred cows!"
It was one of those things that you learn in the primary school yard and never quite out-grow. You know, you're having a fight over something and can't come up with an appropriate response, so you change gears and attack with something that has nothing to do with the matter in hand - one of my friends used to go, "We may be poor, but we are not living off YOUR charity!" every time you caught her cheating in hide-and-seek - it used to quite shut us up.
This time, being all grown up, I didn't shut up. I explained to the fellow that, yes, a certain percentage of the Indian population were fakirs, and yes, some of them did have a penchant for meditating naked, but I didn't know for sure if they liked to do it right next to a cow. Personally speaking, I wouldn't. Apart from the fact that I was a very private person and didn't want Western photojournalists descending to capture me on film in my birthday suit - at every Kumbh Mela (a religious fair that takes place every twelve years or so) they seem to unerringly head straight for the naked and the unclothed - I didn't think cows were at all good for meditating people - one roaring, insistent HAM-MAAAA in your ear would drive the zero-level concentration straight out. It didn't sound very sacred, you know?
"You cussed Indian," said the chap. "Shut up."