There really is no equivalent in western countries to the cow situation here in India. I knew that cows were sacred here before arriving, and I knew that they more or less roamed free. I did not anticipate the sheer number of cows, however, and I definitely did not anticipate how moody they can be.
My first real face-to-face interaction with a cow happened a few weeks ago in Ravandur. Our host had a small garden in which a few neighboring farmers let their cows wander. I had gone out to the garden to walk around for bit, when there blocking the path was a big white cow, the horns having been freshly dyed green and purple for Diwali. The cow was munching some grass, so I figured I could just walk by undisturbed. The cow had other plans.
He raised his head and trampled towards me with surprising speed. Luckily his tether was only long enough for his dyed horns to tickle my chest, but he was giving it everything he had, tether be damned.
His owner came stumping along and halooed at the beast, who lowered and returned to munching the grass. The owner patted the cow affectionately on the rump and gave me a nonchalant grin that said “Cows. What can you do?”
Despite every conventional law of nature I have seen more cows here in the city of Varanasi than in the rural village of Ravandur. They just traipse around here. They apathetically stand in front of traffic, eat garbage, although when they can get away with it they eat fruit from fruit stands, which never fails to cause a scene as everyone stops what they’re doing to shout and slap the cow. I imagine the cow is thinking “Yeah yeah I’m going, just one more apple. What are you going to do about it?” And most importantly, after your foot slides through something oddly mud-like, you remember that cows take un-holy dumps, whatever their spiritual status may be.
On our way back from a night out in the city we asked out tuk tuk driver about the cows. “They belong to Shiva,” he said. This makes complete sense. Shiva is one of the three principal Hindu gods, and is responsible for destruction. Shiva is perhaps the most worshipped god in Varanasi. The Ganges runs through Varanasi, and, according to Hindu mythology, the river itself lives in Shiva’s dreads. Yes, Shiva has dreads, and given how dirty the Ganges and dreadlocks are in general, I’m willing to admit that this bit of fantasy might actually be reality.
Shiva isn’t just about destruction in the classic sense of breaking things. Shiva is also considered the god of change, like winter becoming spring, or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Somehow, though, I feel like Shiva is much happier when his hoards of cows upturn fruit stands and charge unsuspecting passersby than when the leaves turn in the fall.
There’s no equivalent for the cows back home, though. It would be as if we decided alpacas were sacred and instructed every farmer with alpacas to turn them loose on the general public. Alpaca milling about in front of your place of business? Just shoo him away! Alpaca poking around the supermarket? Give him a stiff slap on the ass! But don’t hurt him—he’s sacred after all.
India is considered one of the most spiritual places in the world, and perhaps that is why we have no equivalent in the west to so many things that occur here. Honestly, our lack of roaming cows could be because there are not as many Shiva worshipers in the west as there are here. Less worship equals less power, so in the west Shiva doesn’t have the power to set his lumbering army against us.
After all the things that I’ve seen in India this explanation seems just as reasonable as a more scientific one that correlates poverty with cows per square inch. I would be the last person to know if such a study has already been conducted, but I have my doubts. That brave researcher would be up against a bovine force of seemingly immeasurable numbers, and the even greater number of cow pies they leave in their path of destruction.