The rural hamlet of Chikka Arasinakere in the South Indian state of Karnataka is run by an ox named Basava. Not exactly landlord or mayor; more like an oracle. All major decisions, public or private, are put to Basava and he handles them so judiciously that his fame has spread throughout South India. Busloads of devotees now arrive from afar to consult the sacred ox.
Judging from the look of the tidy little village - with its few hundred households, its fields of sugar cane and millet, its temple, ritual purification tank and fringe of collectively owned grazing lands - Basava runs Chikka Arasinakere pretty well. No wonder: He's been at it for nearly 800 years over the course of 25 incarnations. Acolytes identify each successive Basava through a system of dreams and portents, a process akin to finding a new Dalai Lama.
Basava gets handsomely paid for his oracular services. Jasmine and marigolds garland his massive neck and hump. A richly ornamented silver bangle bedecks his right front hoof -- the hoof with which he signals his ‘yea' or ‘nay' to any question posed. His 30-inch horns are strung with fat bundles of cash, up to a million rupees' worth (about $21,000) at a time, which are harvested every week or so.
The donors of these rupees get value for money, according to a list of Basava's "miracles" in a pamphlet distributed at his shrine. The ox has been known to cure diseases, dowse wells, find buried treasures, arrange marriages, arbitrate disputes, catch thieves, exorcise demons, render barren couples fertile, ordain priests, survey boundaries, audit financial accounts, convert atheists, purge "witches" and boost exam scores.
It's not as though every bovine in India performs such feats. Nor does every village boast an oracle ox of its own. But cattle, as a species, do provide an array of more modest bounties central to the web of traditional rural life:
- Milk and its myriad by-products, nutritional mainstays for India's vegetarian majority.
- Draught power for tilling fields and transporting produce.
- Cow dung as fertilizer, cooking fuel, and building material.
- Cow urine, a staple in Indian folk medicine.
- Bone and hide for tools and clothing.
A few doors down from the shrine where Basava is so lavishly worshiped, Kalpana Shantakumari rises in the predawn for a homelier rite. First, she coats her front stoop with a thin treacle of cow dung and cow urine - to suppress dust and insects, she explains, but mainly as a substrate for her rangoli, a circular geometric design that she ritually renews each day on her doorstep. Using finely ground rice flour, she draws an intricate pattern of loops and whorls, a sacred diagram, or mandala, which denotes the integrity of a harmonious, self-contained world.
Kalpana's world includes her supportive extended family and her Chikka Arasinakere neighbors; the yearly rotation of seasons and holidays; the well-rehearsed cycle of agrarian chores. And at the hub of the diagram, the axis around which it revolves, is the bovine wealth of the village - Basava, to be sure, but also her domestic cows and oxen. These everyday animals are cherished on multiple levels: as intimate companions, as valuable property, but also as gods.
Bovine iconography is everywhere to be seen in India. No temple to Shiva, Lord of Creative Destruction, would be complete without an idol - sometimes big as a rail car - of his inseparable "vehicle," the holy bull Nandi. More modestly, the All-Providing Cow deity, Kamadhenu, in her little roadside byre of a shrine, is ubiquitously worshiped as a talisman of good luck. Even Vishnu, the Great Preserver in the Hindu trinity, chose to incarnate himself as a cowherd in his most beloved avatar, the irascible and flirtatious Lord Krishna.
Nor is the special veneration of cattle confined to formal religious observances, either. On interstate highways, trucks, buses and limousines back up behind jangling oxcarts. Calcutta night owls crowd around a huge, steaming cauldron of boiling milk for a nightcap of clotted cream. A widow ekes out a living hand-molding cow pies into kitchen-ready stove briquettes. An entrepreneurial Swami launches a line of "health-promoting" cow-piss-based soft drinks. Folk artists in arid Kutch produce magnificent vernacular architecture out of humble cow dung.
"In every village in the land, Cow and her Progeny are at the very heart of our national life and tradition," according to Amrit Lal Doshi of Sarvodaya, a Mumbai-based non-governmental organization that aims to promote the eco-conscious vision of Mahatma Gandhi, the founding sage of independent India.
Doshi grants that each isolated strand of the cows' manifold bounty could be supplanted by one or another blandishment of the ‘modern,' globalized commodity economy. "Sure, we could all eat McNuggets, drive tractors, build with cement, fertilize with nitrates, gobble pharmaceutical pills and dress in nylon. But every one of these ‘solutions' would create a new set of problems."
If India's masses adopted such a lifestyle, he predicts, they'd get so sick they'd need to constantly dose themselves with ever newer wonder drugs. Farmers would run up such debts that "they'd have no choice but to kill themselves." And paving over village commons would eliminate fodder, deplete the water table and speed up soil erosion.
"It's a vicious cycle," Doshi sums up, "and it all costs hard cash, which we haven't got. Whereas cows, we have got - nearly a quarter of a billion of them, the world's largest cattle population."
That's more than enough, he is convinced, to support a sustainable, largely demonetized, virtuous cycle of rural self-sufficiency for the 65% of Indians who remain in villages. Doshi sketches out a circular diagram of how the system works, a kind of Gandhian mandala: cattle provide the fertilizer and draught power to produce their own fodder, as well as crops and milk for the farmer.
"See? Everything gets recycled, reused and we drastically reduce our reliance on outside inputs. We're not talking about something fanciful or utopian," he beams. "This is no superstition, but a time-tested agrarian model with a millennia-long track record. Our earliest Vedic ancestors knew what they were up to when they proclaimed the cow sacred. They understood that the health of a village depends on the health of its cows."
Maybe so, but by making cow protection a matter of religion, they have exposed India to recurrent sorrows. Time and again, such sanctions have sparked bloody clashes with those who don't share the same taboos: Muslims, Christians or even lower-caste Hindus. And a blindly literalistic cow fetish minus its supportive agrarian context guarantees a proliferation of sick and starving cattle in urban slums and rural scrublands.
Nevertheless, Doshi credits cow worship for saving India from the "pitiable" fate of Asian neighbors like Taiwan, Korea or, nowadays, China. Having abandoned their agrarian roots, these countries have ventured irrevocably down the path of urbanization and industrialization.
"When you run into a global meltdown like the present, your unemployed masses have no viable, self-sustaining rural economy to fall back on. Whereas we can always go back to our cows. So why should we trade in our cattle for hamburgers and beef exports and tractors and fertilizers?"
Yet ever since it sloughed off British rule, India has been lurching, sporadically, toward just such a trade-off. Burgeoning population and periodic famines underscored the urgency of boosting farm productivity. And, right around Independence in 1947, the means to do so seemed to present themselves in the form of new high-tech agricultural inputs from the labs and factories of the industrialized world.
Wartime munitions plants were converting from explosives to nitrate-based fertilizers and from chemical weapons to insecticides. Breeders developed new high-yield strains of staple crops and farm animals. Mechanized farming and animal husbandry promised dramatic gains in efficiency.
In Cold War times, aid donors and trade partners vied to supply these "Green Revolution" inputs. And the competition has only increased since the Soviet collapse, as genetic engineering advances upped the ante just as India liberalized its tariff regime and acceded to the WTO in the 1990s. Aggressive multinationals like Cargyl or Montsanto would love to turn a resurgent India into their own Cash Cow.
"I hope they all go bust," Vandana Shiva sweetly smiles -- strong words, coming from an avowedly non-violent "eco-feminist." But when Indian farmers go into hock to fatten up some foreign agribusiness venture's bottom line, she says, the end is all too often tragic. Since 1997, the country has witnessed a spate of farmer suicides --182,936 through 2007, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
One common thread amongst almost all these cases is the crushing debt burden incurred for "Green Revolution" inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, farm machinery and hybrid seeds. The problem has grown so acute that states now feel obliged to offer "compensation" payments of up to Rs 200,000 to the grieving families of farm suicide casualties.
"This is grotesque," Shiva points out, "but it's right in line with the simple-minded input-output model that the ‘Green Revolution' is based on. Agro-bureaucrats treat these suicide bounties as just one more input, like GMO seeds. And they imagine that by continually fiddling with the input mix, they'll someday manage to deliver the promised high-yield output."
Shiva is no Luddite enemy of quantitative, evidence-based agrarian planning. A physicist by training, she won the 1993 "Alternative Nobel Prize" from the Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award Foundation for (among other things) her scientific research into India's rich biodiversity resources. But when it comes to agriculture, she insists, mono-crop yield figures obscure more than they reveal. Any given farm practice can only be meaningfully assessed in the context of its overall social and environmental impact.
For instance, she cites the case of a "high-yield" millet variety whose grain pods were so overweight that stalks buckled under the stress of monsoon rains. The Green Revolution solution: engineer a dwarf strain with stalks short enough to withstand the strain. Result: no more fodder for cattle. Green Rev answer: so sell your cow and buy a tractor.
"Note how, at each stage in this progression, farmers have to buy something new: high-yield seeds, dwarf strains and finally a tractor. And each new purchase drives them deeper and deeper into debt," Shiva says. "No wonder they're driven to suicide.
The core fallacy, she points out, is a kind of "yield fetish" that comes from confusing monoculture crop output with "productivity." A farmer who sticks with legacy seeds might get a lower yield of grain but also gets fodder for cattle, who in turn contribute draught power, fuel, fertilizer, milk and cooking fuel.
"And, after reaping all these boons, the farmer still gets to set aside enough grain to replant the next crop, without having to buy sterile GMO seed from some multinational. So, tell me, which model is more ‘productive' - the tractor-ploughed, debt-ridden, mono-cropped Green Revolution plot, or the well-integrated, cow-centered village?"
And "yield fetishism" is worse, she cautions, when applied to animal husbandry. India hasn't yet gotten around to factory-farming beef cattle, but it is already doing so for chickens and eggs -- in part to feed the burgeoning (but still beef-free) fast-food sector.
Hi-tech dairies are also on the rise, designed solely to maximize milk output without any attempt to integrate cows into village life. Cows are kept calving so as to encourage lactation. As a result, the overall cattle census continues to hold steady, despite the pronounced acceleration in cow slaughter.
The figures eloquently betray India's deep ambivalence about livestock -- and, particularly, cattle -- as an industry. On the one hand, New Delhi technocrats and their international backers (aid donors and trade negotiators) are avid to commercialize the sector for the sake of hard currency earnings and economic growth. This means not just cattle on the hoof but also "dressed" beef and leather.
Meat from India's purportedly "organic" and "vegetarian" cattle currently enjoy a vogue in rich Middle Eastern countries nervous about tainted supplies from Western countries. And communities such as tanners and butchers, long relegated to the lower rungs of India's class hierarchy on account of their vocational involvement with dead animal carcasses, now suddenly find themselves richer than their caste "betters" due to hard currency earnings from meat and leather exports.
Yet, despite the lure of rich profits to be made, Indian legislators cannot afford politically to acknowledge that India's cattle economy could be anything so crass as a straightforward industry governed by ordinary cost-benefit calculations. Cow slaughter is banned in all but two of India's 28 states. Cattle exports are severely curtailed by federal law. Only old or injured cattle are eligible for butchery.
Lax and arbitrary enforcement of such laws, though, can have perverse consequences, prompting unscrupulous cattle dealers to "game" the system in ways that only increase the misery of the hapless animals. Some cattle are deliberately maimed so they can be brought to the knackers. Others are turned over to ad hoc illegal abattoirs that care little for standards of hygiene or animal cruelty.
Many more are sold by cash-strapped farmers to cattle drovers who consolidate them into massive, emaciated herds that are flogged across thousands of miles to one or another of the two Communist-ruled coastal states - West Bengal and Kerala - where cow slaughter is legal. Sometimes the death marches stretch even farther. NGO activist Parasha Barua swears he has eye-witnessed droves of Indian cattle being clandestinely herded across the border into Muslim Bangladesh.
Even well-meaning cattle welfare organizations can get caught up in the national schizophrenia on the subject. Almost every state in the land boasts a scattering of goushalas, a kind of bovine orphanage dedicated to the humane care of abandoned cattle. All kinds of organizations - from the socialistic, secular, eco-conscious Gandhians to the right-wing, Hindu-chauvinist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) - pride themselves on their sponsorship of these institutions.
Many of India's 3,000-odd goushalas are humane and creative in their balance of human and animal needs. Others, though, are crassly profit-oriented, whether as high-end dairy operations or as conduits to the slaughterhouse. And still others are so swamped by the sheer "caseload" that they turn, despite themselves, into grim cattle concentration camps.
Ever since the New Delhi Supreme Court's 1996 order for the capital city, as a public health and safety measure, to clear its 36,000 cattle off the streets, the local gaushala there (capacity 900 cattle) has been so overwhelmed that its cows are dying off at a rate of 10 per day, according to an assay by the international NGO People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And yet the overcrowding continues to worsen as new arrivals outstrip even the horrific attrition rate.
Such ironies would have been unimaginable to Mahatma Gandhi when he declared, back in 1921, "the cow is the personification of innocence... a poem of pity... [whose] protection means brotherhood between man and beast." Yet Vandana Shiva, as a latter-day Gandhian, ventures to hope that the current economic downturn may yet slow down the march of globalized hyper-growth enough for India -- and perhaps the rest of us -- to rediscover the potential synergies in a cow-centered, diversified rural economy.
Shiva acknowledges the potential for abuses, hypocrisy and perversely unintended consequences in the religiously sanctioned protection of cows. "Yet the alternative to the ‘Sacred Cow,'" she maintains, "is the cannibalistic ‘Mad Cow'" -- that contaminated and contaminating artifact of industrial animal husbandry that so decimated Western beef production in recent decades.
"Our best hope must be to sharpen our understanding of what we mean by ‘sacred' - a well-integrated way of living that respects ourselves and other beings as part of Nature."
Trinity County, Calif., native Ted Kaye is a staff photographer at Rhythms Monthly magazine in Taipei. His freelance work has appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Yomiuri Shimbun.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.