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The cow that indeed came home

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav  

What the simple metaphor of Punyakoti, a moral compass and source of ethical clarity, makes you reflect on in these times

Once upon a time, life was simpler than it is today. Children didn’t have to rush through their childhood, and could live in a real world full of myths and magic. They learnt their lessons from animals and plants, trees and birds, caterpillars and butterflies, earth-worms and glow-worms, beetles and dragonflies, and sundry other creatures that peeped through their windows or crawled about in their backyards. Days brimmed over with colour and fun, evenings with stories they heard while being fed by mothers under star-lit skies, till soft lullabies took them to a world of dreams.

Perhaps the most evocative of such stories is that of Punyakoti, the virtuous cow which one day strays a little too far into the jungle, and is confronted by a tiger. The cow convinces the tiger to let her return home one last time to feed her calves and find guardians to take care of them after she is gone, promising to be the tiger’s meal after completing her duties.

Manifold lessons

As incredulous as it may seem, dripping through this simple circumstance are manifold lessons about mother’s love, family values, a society that takes care of the orphaned, abandoned, and vulnerable, staying safe, the importance of truth, honesty, keeping promises and, above all, about the equanimity, balance, and fearlessness with which to approach death — all administered in the most seamless and innocuous fashion imaginable. For generations of Indians, the metaphor of Punyakoti continues to reside in their psyche long after the memories of childhood fade. She is the fount of wisdom that they subconsciously dip into, the paragon of virtue that guides them, the angel of benevolence that gives them hope, the moral compass that makes them pause momentarily before wrong-doing, and the one source of clarity that ignites at an intellectual crossroads.

It is therefore befitting, in this day and age, to see how Punyakoti would respond to its children’s questions.

“Why can’t the tiger graze in the fields, like us, mom?” “If God intended the tiger to graze in the fields, he would not have given it such powerful claws, and such sharp teeth; just like he did not design us to hunt and eat animals.”

“But, mom, there is a difference. The tiger eats living creatures!” “There is no difference. Think of the pain we cause plants?” “Still, it’s not the same! We don’t kill plants.”

“Indeed, that is because they don’t fight back, they can’t run. If plants resisted our plundering, we would kill them. If they tried to run away, we would hunt them. In a way, we earn our food relatively easily. The tiger, on the other hand, has to work hard.”

“But what about hyenas, they do no work; why should they eat meat?” “They do work which no other animal is willing to do. There is no task more unpleasant, and no job nobler than clearing the mortal remains of those who passed on. We will never appreciate this fully unless we do the job ourselves. It is sad that people treat them with such derision, and get ready to skin them alive, if they as much as step on to our fields.”

“But wouldn’t life be a lot simpler if all the animals were vegetarians?”

“If all ate the same food, we would soon be left with nothing. Besides, who are we to tell others what they should, or should not, eat?”

“Haven’t the scriptures ordained that we are sacred?” “My dear child, there is no burden greater than sacredness. We were not born sacred, we did nothing to acquire that tag. Man saw our detached, other-worldly appearance, and our unwillingness to cause harm, and thrust sacredness on us for his own selfish reasons.”

“But mom, we love you, and we don’t want to lose you!” “Dear children, you won’t lose me. I’ll continue to live if you remember that birth and death are the beginning and the end of the same cycle. The tiger feeding on us is an act of nature; just as we feed on plants, which feed on the soil, which feeds on rain, which feeds on the clouds, which feed on the rivers, which feed on the forest cover.”

“Why can’t the tiger and the hyena stay back in their jungle? Why should they prey on us village-folk?”

“They prey on us because someone else is preying on their jungle.”

“Who?” “It’s man who made us sacred, the one you should be wary of when I'm gone.”

(The author, a theoretical physicist, is a vegetarian. srdhrvnnkt@gmail.com)

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 2:31:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/The-cow-that-indeed-came-home/article14571420.ece

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