India is hurting itself with its misguided obsession with rituals

Is this how the holy cow should live?
Is this how the holy cow should live?
Image: AP Photo/David Guttenfelder
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There are two things India is famous for—overwhelming poverty and spirituality.

Of course, these days, it is also famous for Narendra Modi, exporting techies, and being the backyard of the outsourcing industry. But I would rather not talk about those issues, and look at the duality Indians suffer from and how it damages the country.

Take, for example, the recent beef controversy and the ensuing media-generated and real controversies.

The cow is holy in Hinduism and its offshoot religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. People who belong to these religions don’t consume cow meat as a general lifestyle choice, although there are many people who don’t discriminate between different non-vegetarian sources. According to the ancient texts, the cow is divine. Every individual part of the cow is beneficial to humankind if one is aware of the benefits.

People often ridicule this idea—even the urine and the dung of the cow are considered to be beneficial. But the benefits are another story. The neem tree is also beneficial in multiple ways, but it is not as holy as the cow. Something must have happened in the past that elevated the cow to the theological pedestal it seems to enjoy among Hinduism and other related religions.

But how is the cow treated in general?

Apart from the fact that they cause traffic jams and endanger the lives of people, cows can be often found munching garbage on the roadside. You will find them eating papers, rotten food and putrefying vegetables with swaths of flies buzzing around them like an epidemic. Many cows are hit by automobiles, and they are crippled badly.

You will find their legs crushed and broken and simply hanging from their bodies. You will find maggots in their skin diseases and wounds. You will find oxen and bulls mercilessly tethered to the bullock carts with prickly ropes going through their nostrils. The drivers of these bullock carts often hit at these hapless animals’ genitals with a stick to make them run faster while their noses bleed with the friction caused by the rope. And once these animals have grown old or useless due to inhuman exploitation, they are either abandoned or sold to an abattoir. This is cow love for you.

Of course, many people would jump up and say there are many gow-ashrams, where these animals are taken care of with lots of love. But for every 100 cows living in such an ashram, there are millions of cows living a hellish existence. Considering they are holy and we live in a Hindu-majority country (no matter how poverty-ridden we are), shouldn’t it be an exception to see a cow in misery in our country?

We can safely say that India has the most female gods in the world. But how are women treated in our country? Girls are considered a burden and many are killed even before they are born. We consider rivers divine? We have turned most of our holy rivers into sewage canals.

There are some volunteers that are cleaning up the ghats in Varanasi, but before they were cleaned up, you should have seen how unbelievably filthy they were. And this was when Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India. You would even find sometimes a corpse floating in water, while pilgrims took a dip to wash off their sins. Local residents, who should be proud of their city, shit and piss even at holy ghats.

You cannot visit a famous temple without being bullied or getting jostled around. It is a complete, out and out physical experience. Just imagine, you’re going to pay obeisance to your favourite deity or god, and all you are worried about is how to push the person in front of you aside and get ahead. Is this the mentality you are taking to the temple with you? The same happens in gurudwaras, for your information.

And how outrageous it is that in many famous temples the priests won’t even allow you to enter the sanctum sanctorum unless you have paid a hefty sum to the priest.

The same goes for our fellow human beings. How do we treat each other? We’re not even comfortable greeting each other on the road. Just try saying a warm namaste while walking on the pavement (I’m not talking about a small village or a small town, but in a city like Delhi) and just see the sort of looks you get. People have been observed spitting on the rail compartment seats while getting down so that it would be disgusting and uncomfortable for the next passengers. This is how you treat your revered land?

It took a Narendra Modi and more than 65 years after independence for us to realise the importance of public cleanliness. Up till now we were totally fine with heaps of garbage at every turn. We were fine with filth and garbage scattered everywhere—we would just cover our nostrils, turn away and pretend that the filth didn’t exist. This showed what sort of attachment we had for the country.

The least said about the caste system the better it would be. In a supposedly spiritual country, how can you treat one individual less than the other simply because he or she was born in a different caste? Even if the original caste system solved some purpose, right now such categorisation is obsolete and offensive, and a gargantuan human tragedy.

I’m not writing these things as a rant. These are the things we need to work on, on a priority basis, if we want to live in a great nation and don’t always want to move somewhere else. We can create a Europe and an America here in India, without wreaking havoc with the environment and human life the way these countries and regions have done. All we have to do is, follow the spiritual way of life that we are actually supposed to follow, rather than constantly keeping ourselves busy with the rituals. Rituals are a way to reach a stage of spirituality, but somehow, we end up thinking that it’s the rituals we need to perform with utmost severity and the spirituality part can wait for another day. This, we need to change.

If you think cows are holy, then let us collectively work towards improving their lot. It will have a cascading effect. If we treat one animal with respect and care, we will treat all animals with respect and care.

Similarly, if we consider rivers holy, let’s seriously push the government (whichever government is in power in your state or at the centre) to take measures so that all our rivers are clean. Let’s take care of our forests. Let’s give our women—saying respect would be—condescending the place they deserve in the society. Let’s make our temples and gurudwaras accessible to all.

Let us eradicate the caste system and the inequalities associated with it. Let’s keep our immediate neighbourhoods clean and sparkling. Let’s start smiling at each other and greeting each other on the streets. Let us start valuing our fellow countrymen and country women, our monuments, our flora and fauna and our water resources and only then we will have a genuine claim over spirituality.

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