For a Hindu mind, the world is a manifestation of the divine. Each and every aspect of the creation is sacred. The elements, minerals, plants, animals and humans are all worthy of worship. However, the veneration earned by cow is matchless. She is gō-mātā, the mother. She is a devata (deity)!
Non-Hindus find it difficult to understand and appreciate this unique status of cow in the Sanātana Dharma (Hinduism). They can’t be blamed though, as most Hindus struggle to understand and explain it themselves. The śāstra-s and ācārya-s offer explanations from different perspectives. This article takes up only one of such explanations, strictly from the point of view of the Yajña.
So, why do Hindus worship cow? To answer the question, we need to understand:
- What is Veda?
- The Veda is apauruṣeya. That is, it has no author! The knowledge is revealed to the sādhaka in his/her dhyāna (meditation). Thus, the seekers transform to seers, the ṛṣī-s. Therefore, the words of ṛṣī-s are considered as the Veda Itself! (śabda pramāṇa)
- The Veda is infinite. Meaning, the knowledge/spiritual laws regarding the cosmos is not exhaustive. There is no end to the knowledge. Different ṛṣī-s at different times got different aspects and dimensions of it revealed. For e.g. the Gāyatrī mantra was revealed to ṛṣī Viśvāmitra by Devī Sāvitrī (the feminine aspect of the Sun god). In future too, many ṛṣī-s will be revealed with insights from dimensions unknown.
- The Veda is timeless. It means that the knowledge about the cosmos is born with the cosmos.
- The Veda is eternal. Meaning, the “Truths” stand on their own merit. They don’t cease to exist if humans (or other beings) forget/fail to understand/acknowledgeit.
- TheVeda is śrutī. It means that the truths revealed to the ṛṣi-s are passed down the generations by the word of mouth- from father to son, from Guru to śiṣya.
Therefore, by Veda, Hindus do not mean any book or set of books. It is the sum total of all knowledge, the spiritual laws guiding the cosmos, and its relationship with the life principle.And that being the case the true welfare of the world is possibleonly by knowing and adhering to the Veda!
(However, please note that today when we say Veda, we refer to the knowledge revealed to different ṛṣī-s at various points of time in history, as compiled by Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa into four volumes viz. Ṛk, Yajus, Sāma and Atharva Veda.)
At the heart of the Veda is Yajña!
- What is Yajña?
Yajña is a Vedic rite involving Agni (the sacrificial fire) and the chanting of mantra-s. It is a religious duty to be performed with an explicit objective of the welfare to the world. It must be undertaken with devotion, in a spirit of service and dedication.
Yajña invokes the respective devatas (deities) in charge of various aspects of the world (like Indra, Varuṇa, Vāyu etc), offers their rightful shares (should not be mistaken to be a bribe) to ensure the smooth functioning of the world. The devata-s and the mortals are mutually dependent for their existence. This ensures that all beings are peaceful and progress in their natural pace of (spiritual) evolution.
(It must also be noted that mantra-s are not prayers. They are potent sounds, the repetition of and the meditation on which guides one to the foundations of the cosmos. It also gives the desired results, but most importantly lead one to self-realisation. While it desirable to know the meaning of mantra-s, the Śāstra clearly mentions it works even otherwise.)
- Who is qualified to perform Yajña?
If yajña is for the welfare of the world, anybody who has the right intent should be qualified to perform it. However, it is not as simple as that!
Is there anyone who doesn’t want peace, progress and prosperity in the world? All of us wish well for everyone till such time others’ welfare require a sacrifice of our most cherished desires! In this game of my desires versus your welfare, mine always has the preference. The point is, as long as we have the last trace of selfishness in us, this talk of serving the world/humanity is a joke!
The performer of yajña (yajña-karta) must be absolutely selfless. In the Vedic organisation of the society, the community of people trained to be selfless (through strict physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual disciplines) are called the brāhmaṇa-s. In other words, he alone is a brāhmaṇa who is selfless, and has committed his life for the welfare of the world as prescribed by the Veda. It is therefore prescribed that a brāhmaṇa should take up the study of the Veda and the performance of yajña to the exclusion of everything else. A brāhmaṇa should NOT earn a living, should NOT possess wealth (except the wealth of knowledge) and ALWAYS beg for his food (accepted food as an offering from households adhering to Dharma). He is permitted to marry for the sake of having children, who should be brought up in the same cultural environment, with intense training, so that they become qualified for the performance of yajña.
(Brāhmaṇa is one of the four varṇa-s. Kṣatṛiya, Vaiśya and Śūdra being the other three. Each varṇa has prescribed duties. Varṇa vyavasta should not be confused with the jāti sampradāya.)
- What is offered in Yajña?
This is where the cow comes into picture. The most important offerings in a yajña is sourced from cow. In the absence of cow (its yields) yajña cannot be performed. It will neither be complete nor be fruitful. We saw that the backbone of the Veda is the yajña. It must also be stated that the backbone of the yajña is brāhmaṇa (yajña-karta) and cow!
- What is the status of the cow?
Kāncī Mahā PeriyavāŚrī Candraśekhara Sarasvati Svāmikaḷused to highlight a line from an Upaniṣadśāntiḥ mantra to highlight the status of cow in Sanātana Dharma.
nyāyena mārgeṇa mahīṁ mahīśāḥ
go-brāhmaṇebhyaḥ śubham-astu nityaṁ
lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino-bhavaṁtu
oṃ śāntiḥ śāntiḥśāntiḥ
“May the well-being of all people be protected
May the powerful and mighty leaders administer with law and justice.
May the cows and brāhmaṇa-s remain auspicious always,
May all the world’s beings be free and happy.
Oṃ Peace! Peace! Peace!”
MahāPeriyavā asks us to note the portion that says, “may the cows and brāhmaṇas remain auspicious always.” He highlights that cow is mentioned before brāhmaṇa and explains that it is not just to maintain the meter of the chant but in fact signifies the higher status of cow over brāhmaṇa (yajña-karta)!
Yajña also has a metaphorical meaning. It is used outside the religious context as any co-operative endeavour undertaken selflessly with the highest commitment, dedication and devotion for the collective good of the society. Cow embodies the yajña spirit as everything related to it is beneficial to the world. Milk, curd, ghee, urine, dung, hide (after its natural death) are only a few examples. She is gō-mātā because she lives the ideal of motherhood- nourishing the children even at the expense of oneself.