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Collective “Bovinity” or Bovine-Divinity

Collective “Bovinity” or Bovine-Divinity

It is significant, that cows create community, in particular by way of ritual performance dedicated to cows.

Among nine types of activities practiced and promoted in relation to cows at the Gaudham Mahatirtha Anandvan goshala complex at Pathmeda, three activities stress the importance given to ritual practices in relation to cows. It bears emphasizing that these practices are understood to be essential for affirming the proper place and function of human beings in relation to the cosmic order in the broadest sense. This is the order expressed by the term dharma, which, in turn, is upheld when cows are served and, on occasion, formally honored in a hospitality ritual known as puja. Important to note is that these rituals are most often public events that constitute focal points of spiritual retreats attended by guests—typically urban people who are regular donors and who identify with the mission of the project.  Such a ritual of go-puja—honoring of cows—was underway when I visited there in late 2017. Each of some fifty guests was simultaneously presenting the prescribed auspicious items to a respective cow standing opposite them, while a priest guided them through the actions and chanted the appropriate mantras, all in the duration of well over an hour. As one might expect, the venerated cows showed little interest in the proceedings, except toward the end as they were offered delectable snacks! For us to note is that the event brought the guests together in a common ritual activity, in effect creating a temporary community that had as its identity the veneration of bovines, thereby transforming the cows, for a time, into a sort of collective “bovinity,” or bovine-divinity.

—From the book Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics by Kenneth R. Valpey, Palgrave Macmillan



Changing Taste

A key stanza early in the Bhagavad Gita (2.59) gives a clue about […] a subtle but decisive shift in “taste” (rasa):

Sense objects fade away for the embodied who does not partake of them, except for the taste; for one who has seen the Supreme, even this taste fades.

The word rasa, here translated as “taste,” has a rich constellation of meanings, bringing the physical, sensory experience of tasting into direct application in the sphere of classical Sanskrit aesthetic theory. For us to note here is the link indicated in this stanza between two sorts of perception, namely perception of sense objects, on the one hand, and, on the other, perception of divinity (the latter referred to in this stanza as “seeing”— from the Sanskrit verbal root drish). Bhakti is the means by which the sensate self (atman), ordinarily absorbed in matter, is enabled to experience its counterpart—the trans-temporal higher self (paramatman) in an aesthetically pleasing, or “relishable” relationship. Such a relationship is […] an ever-dynamic sharing (a basic translation of the word bhakti). Such affectionate relationship becomes the basis for molding action according to divine preference.

Bhakti, as presented in authoritative Hindu texts, has both an individual, private dimension and a social, public dimension. Reciprocal affection with the divine cowherd Krishna has practical implications that extend outward into the world to include a positive, care-full (caring) engagement with the environment to the furthest extent of human influence on the environment. Naturally, such careful engagement impacts human political and economic behavior, whereby fresh, feasible ideas for bringing about the good for all can be welcomed and implemented. From “good taste” in spiritual matters, good choices for long-term well-being are made. Good choices include wise—restrained—uses of technology based on a clear sense that human life becomes humane only when there is self-restraint.

For Vaishnava Hindus, in its most aesthetically refined and perfected form, wise engagement inspired by the bhakti paradigm brings about the realization of Vraja-Vrindavan, the land in which bovinity and divinity find their perfection.

[…] Vr.nda ̄vana is the transcendental abode of the Lord. There is no hunger, anger or thirst there. Though naturally inimical, human beings and […] animals live together there in transcendental friendship (CC Madhya 17.39).

[…] As fantastical as it sounds, this vision of divine-human–animal celebratory interaction awakens our imagination to a state where our most fundamental presuppositions about the workings of nature and the necessity of biotic violence are, at least momentarily, suspended. It also points to a particular notion prominent in Hindu aesthetic tradition, namely the experience of wonder (adbhuta- rasa). Wonder can be seen as the seed of humility—the acknowledgment of our smallness, vulnerability, and limited reasoning power, that can open us to the sort of inner transformation—the change of heart—necessary for a truly ethical way of life in relation to all living beings in this world. Out of such humility may come the sort of understanding that could allow us to embrace and live by the implications of Chaitanya’s assertion (which he is said to have spoken to his student Sanatan Goswami, on his return journey to Puri from Vrindavan): “All creatures (jivas ) are eternal servants of the supreme person, Krishna” (CC Madhya 20.108). The simple shift in consciousness from trying to be masters to accepting that we are servants can, according to Vaishnava Hindu understanding, make all the difference for realizing our proper relationship to all beings.

[…] Could it be that what makes us human is quintessentially our capacity for inner reform and transformation, a capacity facilitated and nourished by spiritual wisdom, ethical reasoning, reflection, and conscious choice? This, I would argue, is particularly the view represented in the Bhagavad Gita and in the entire bhakti stream of Hindu tradition. Further, this view is of critical importance for understanding and changing taste, which is so foundational to the existence and changing of eating habits. More on this in a moment, but first some background by way of a short look at general principles espoused in the Bhagavad Gita, linking these to the story of King Yudhishthira and the dog.

We have already considered one key theme of the Bhagavad Gita, namely equal vision (sama-darshana): “A learned brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, or a ‘dog-eater’—a wise person sees [them all] with equal vision” (Gita 5.18). It was such equal vision that enabled King Yudhishthira to insist that his companion dog be admitted with him into heaven; and by this insistence, he exercised his power of choice (iccha). With these two foundational capacities—seeing with equal vision and making a conscious choice based on that vision, the king was empowered to practice nonviolence (ahimsa) and, in the process of doing so, to teach by example (acharya) to the world. To hold fast to this teaching despite all resistance from the world required and enabled him to realize humility (amanitva), which he could experience blossoming into true affection (priti) for fellow beings.

—From the book Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics by Kenneth R. Valpey, Palgrave Macmillan