When you first arrive in Mumbai, you’ll notice a lot of things that seem a touch odd. The absolute lack of beef on restaurant menus, the occasional mound of dung lining the footpaths, and particularly the hoards of cows freely roaming the inner-city streets.
In Hinduism, cows are honoured and worshiped. There is a great deal of touching symbolism behind this — the cow is selfless, representing one who provides instead of takes, gives instead of leaches, and sustains instead of drains. While the cow only takes grass and water from the earth for its own survival, it endlessly gives life to all humanity through the milk it provides, like a mother.
It is important to note that cows are not seen as gods in the Hindu religion — but they certainly are worshipped and revered. They are decorated with bright and beautiful garlands, honoured during Hindu temple services, and even given special worship festivals all around the nation.
Cows are so honoured in the Hindu religion that Mahatma Gandhi himself lobbied hard for greater protection for India’s cows.
"Cow protection is the dearest possession of the Hindu heart. No one who does not believe in cow protection can possibly be a Hindu. It is a noble belief. Cow worship means to me worship of innocence. For me, the cow is the personification of innocence. Cow protection means the protection of the weak and the helpless." Mahatma Gandi, 1921.
Mohan Vedi is the local guru at a temple in Navi Mumbai. In Hinduism, the guru’s role is to act as a spiritual guide and teacher to his students and lead them through the challenges of both spiritual and material life.
But in a quickly modernising India, Mohan worries that the cow is losing the respect it has always traditionally garnered.
While gurus like Mohan are worrying that the traditional appreciation of India’s cows is on the decline, cow culture seems to be experiencing a revival where you’d least expect it — amongst the city’s up and coming hip-hop dancers.
At the Saroj Khan Dance Academy, instructors and students alike swear by a specially made protein drink designed to enhance their physical performance.
Dance instructor Neel Deshmukh swears by the small milk capsule, saying he feels more energetic and mentally concentrated each time he drinks it.
Here, the lines between faith and fact seem to be less defined than usual. Neel believes that even standing next to a cow will transfer it’s great powers to you, but swears that Academy’s protein drink has been scientifically proven to work both in India and abroad.
In present day India, the cow seems to be causing more controversy than ever before. While other areas of the nation’s religion and culture seem to be modernising, cow culture very much refuses.
Although a substantial 20% of India’s population do not identify as Hindu, cow slaughter is still illegal in the vast majority of Indian states. If you assume that this legislation is old or outdated, you’d be wrong.
Here, in Maharashtra, cow slaughter laws were updated only last year, resulting in much stricter beef consumption laws for Mumbaikars. Now, the maximum penalty for the slaughter or consumption of a cow, bull, or bullock has been raised to 5 years imprisonment. In fact, the only legal way to possess beef in Maharashtra is if it has been imported from another state.
Traditional beliefs about cows are not only causing controversy in legislation. Beef consumption laws have also seen tensions brew between India’s Hindu and Muslim populations, the latter of which makes up for 138 million people.
Only last year, a Muslim man was beaten to death by a mob of angry Hindus after they discovered that beef was being kept and consumed inside his family home.
This incident took place in a remote village in north-east India, but it is by no means a problem confined to the country. Last September, on the outskirts of New Delhi, another Muslim man was also killed in a mob lynching by a group of Hindus who accused him of possessing and eating beef. After forensic testing, it later surfaced that the meat stored in his home was in fact not beef at all — it was goat.
Amidst all the violence surrounding modern India’s cow controversy, it is easy for an outsider to sit back and ask: if the cow is revered for its peacefulness, for its insistence on providence instead of greed, or for the innocence that Gandhi so vehemently argued it represented, then is it not contradictory to kill in its name?