The Cattle Conundrum


Bishwarup Paul

Source: VectorStock; Caption: A satirical cartoon depicting the Indian cow as a superhero, having the cure to all problems.

  This article explores the rise of the ‘holy cow’ into a discordant subject in the Indian socio-political scenario and its role in the spread of pseudoscientific ideas, violence and public health hazards.

   India is one of the largest exporters of beef1 in the global market and yet, is ironically witnessing an increasing trend of bans on cow slaughter, beef consumption and sale by state governments2. Cows in India have become a divisive topic in recent times and with the bans came a rise in “cow vigilantism” – whereby self-proclaimed ‘cow protection’ groups thrashed and even killed several people for procurement and/or consumption of beef3,4. Despite there being evidence of cows being sacrificed for deities and human consumption in ancient5, in present times, the consensus among most practicing Hindus is that the cow is ‘holy’.

   The irony of the situation screams out loud upon considering the brutal and inhuman methods used for cattle farming6,7 in the flourishing dairy and livestock industries of the country. Cows are thrown out when they stop being productive and, in many cases, meet fatal accidents on the streets8. The image of the “holy cow” of India and the societal crises it generates has been a widely discussed and debated of the past decade, and continues to be so. This article tries to shed light on a new artefact stemming from the same source – the pseudoscience that is being propagated with the cows at the centre.

   American cows were imported during the White Revolution in India, due to their higher productivity (in terms of milk produced and the longer duration of life for which they remained productive). Still, due to religious beliefs, people are only keen to take care of Indian cows. In recent times, these beliefs have been fuelled by unsubstantiated claims of organisations such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Gau Sanwardhan unit9 and others with similar agenda.

   Earlier this year, the chairman of the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA), Vallabhbhai Kathiria, announced an exam on ‘cow-science’ (Kamdhenu Gau Vigyan Prachar Prasar Exam /Pratiyogita), stating the economic importance of cows in India. The reference material for the exam included claims of Indian cows being superior over foreign breeds and to have the capability of showing emotions, the hump on the back of Indian breeds having the potential to absorb solar energy, the protective role of cow dung against the impact of Bhopal gas tragedy and how earthquakes are generated by ‘Einsteinian pain waves’ released during cow slaughter. After an uproar against the superstitious and unscientific information, the reference material was removed from the website. The exam was cancelled after the sudden exit of Kathiria from the post of chairman10-12.

   However, individuals in official capacities with influential positions have been making similar unsubstantiated claims since well before this incident and the reference material for the cow-science exam was only one such source. In 2019, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, Trivendra Singh Rawat, stated that the cow is the only animal that exhales 80% oxygen13,14. The animal husbandry minister of Uttarakhand Rekha Arya, the education minister of Rajasthan Vasudev Devnani, and the Rajasthan High Court judge Justice Mahendra Chandra Sharma, all made the same claim earlier15-17. CM Rawat did not stop there and went on to claim that research confirms that cow milk contains gold and cow excreta has antibacterial properties effective only against disease-causing bacteria, cow urine has anti-cancer properties and enhances immunity. He also claimed that massaging a cow and living in its close proximity can cure breathing problems13,14. The high court judge of Rajasthan, Justice Sharma, went on to add some more outlandish statements. He claimed that cow urine helps keep the liver, heart and mind healthy and slows down ageing. He also claimed that cow dung can absorb radiation and can kill cholera germs and that the ‘holy cow’ can absorb cosmic energy through its horns, and its mooing can kill airborne pathogens17. Member of Parliament from Madhya Pradesh, Pragya Singh Thakur, claimed that the consumption of cow urine and panchgavya, a mixture of five cow products, helped cure her breast cancer. She also stated that massaging a cow can help in keeping one’s blood pressure in control18. None of them could provide proper scientific proof or refer to scientific studies that could substantiate their claims. Still, these statements were used to pass the resolution to declare cow as “mother of the nation” in the assemblies of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh19,20.

   The spread of disinformation took a disastrous form during the COVID-19 pandemic. The belief that cow excreta has the potential to prevent COVID-19 infection became widespread21. BJP MLA from Uttar Pradesh, Surendra Singh, appealed to people to drink cow urine regularly and demonstrated the same in a video22. Making the same claim, MP Pragya Thakur stated that cow urine has kept her safe from COVID-19 despite her not taking any medication23. A group of Hindu monks in Gujarat were seen visiting shelters every week to cover themselves in cow dung. It was even stated that smoke from burning cow dung was able to prevent the infection24. Swami Chakrapani, the chief of Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, hosted a ‘gaumutra party’ (cow urine drinking party) in March 2020, right when the number of infected people was rising rapidly and a nationwide lockdown was on the cards. The chief blamed non-vegetarians for starting the pandemic, saying that killing innocent animals creates destructive energy, and offered cow urine as a drink to everyone25 claiming it to be the cure.

   Such disinformation made the uphill battle that the medical community was facing during the pandemic even worse. With no scientific evidence backing the outlandish claims, and people choosing to believe their ‘leaders’ in such critical times, many exposed themselves to health risks involved with the consumption of dung and urine26. Several zoonotic diseases can spread from the excreta of the animals to humans, such as leptospirosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, listeriosis, cryptosporidiosis, and infections with pathogenic Escherichia coli and Mycobacterium paratuberculosis27. Though the Indian Medical Association tried to warn against these health risks, their words were no match for the viral videos and text forwards in circulation over social media.

   Irrespective of the pandemic, the spread of misleading information is extremely harmful, especially when there are political and religious undertones to them. In this day and age, when people believe in viral videos and WhatsApp forwards more than science, we need to be really careful and make people around us aware of the perils of ignorance.


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Dr. Bishwarup Paul is a Research Associate in IISER Kolkata, working on the Behavioural Ecology of ants. He spends his leisure time learning to code, making digital art and sharing knowledge through his blog.

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