--Halsey Hall, baseball announcer
Tomorrow marks the beginning of Diwali, the five-day Festival of Lights, an important harvest and religious festival in the Hindu, Jain, and Sikh traditions. Hindus on the first day of Diwali celebrate Vasu Baras-- literally, “Cow Day,” a time to remember the blessings of cattle. To honor these divine bovines, I have whipped up an aggregate virtue just for this occasion, which I hereby dub the Virtue of “Cow-abundance.”
Diwali celebrations mainly occur in countries with large Hindu populations: India and Nepal, of course, but also parts of southeast Asia, Pacific Islands, and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. In the past decade, Diwali has had a higher profile in Western countries, too. Former President George Bush hosted the first White House mela (festival) for Diwali in 2003, and Congress recognized the holiday in 2007. Given our focus on Vasu Baras today, I find it fitting that last year the largest Diwali festival in the U.S., attracting over 100,000 people, took place in Cowboys Stadium.
So, how now, the virtues of cows? For Americans, who eat about 70 pounds of beef each year, if they ruminate on these ruminants at all, they may think of virtues like Juiciness or Tastiness. (Much as the Vampires must regard the values of human beings). If we think of the heroic qualities of these animals at all, we do so with our tongues firmly in cheek:
For less technological cultures with a strong ethic of vegetarianism, on the other hand, cows for centuries fulfilled the same vital role as do cars for Americans. (And, let’s face it, Americans have a well-known love affair with their autos... A subject for a future stop on the TTV journey, I promise.) Hindus would no more take a bite out of Bossy than you would your Buick.
Pilgrims from Jewish, Christian, or Muslim traditions might recall the story in Exodus 32 and repeated in the Qu’ran, in which the Israelites build and then worship a Golden Calf. Moses becomes so angry at the sight of this he throws down the tablets upon which God wrote the Ten Commandments, shattering them.
So, another apparent juicy paradox: Cow as Saint, or Cow as Sinner? Does the Sacred Cow carry us along further onto our path, or dangerously distract us? Is the Exodus story a warning against polytheism? Against animism? Against the false gods of power and money? (The calf was made of gold, after all?) Against idolatry and the perils of trying to capture the Divine in visual forms, which may distract attention away from the Divine?
For myself, a nice resolution comes from taking the Middle Way. Buddhism encompasses polytheisms (Tibet), monotheisms (viz., Zen Catholics), and atheism (e.g. Sam Harris). Rather than debating issues of theisms, Buddhism puts first attention on our own lack of compassion and wisdom, and our work developing these Virtues. Thus, while we associate reverence for cows mainly with Hindu tradition, I found the most interesting discussion in a reference to the Suttanipāta (vv.284-315), a Buddhist scripture:
Draught animals, such as cows and buffalos, are likened to the parents of human beings. Because they give service to mankind, they resemble man’s mother and father... The Buddha declares them to be man’s own relatives... When respect is paid to these life-giving animals as parents and relatives, all the good deities look after human beings. The deities... protect them from disease, danger, and calamity. They also protect the cows and buffalos from these dangers.
The author goes on to say: “Human beings depend on the labour of cows and buffalos for food. With the service of these animals man sustains his life. Since agricultural work is done by them they give Life, Beauty, Happiness, and Strength to human beings every day. With four great benefits for human beings, their help is inestimable, the Buddha declares.” To the four main ingredients of Cow-abundance, I might add the virtues of Innocence and Presence--virtues seen in most animals.
So, even if your tradition has a beef with the spiritual implications of venerable cows, perhaps we can all agree on this: As living creatures, cows give human beings many gifts, even to the point of their own bodies being sacrificed to nourish and clothe us. Indeed, as a Catholic altar boy, I attended the Blessing of the Animals that was held every October 4th, the feast day of famed animal lover, St. Francis of Assisi, who wrote: ““All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” Francis clearly saw no heresy in expressing Gratitude for the ways that animals enrich our lives. (And that includes cows, although I admit I never saw any in line at A Very Special Mister Christopher Parish.1 Plenty of hamsters, cats, and dogs, though.)
And who is to say that the animals do not reciprocate our blessings? Kevin Nelson, a brain researcher, points out that since animals have brain structures analogous to the ones in human beings that host spiritual thoughts, animals may have a spiritual life. (Many of us pet owners already believed this.) Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, lays out his case in an upcoming book, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain.
So: Take a moment for Gratitude as you consider how the lives of cows have enriched your own life, and wish them well. Maybe they will return the favor. You may find the experience moooooo-ving. ;-) (I have heard that people who attain an ecstatic level of Cow-abundance occasionally faint away, a condition known as "Cattle-plexy." Ho, ho... Don't sue me if you snort milk up your nose...)
May we see the gates of Cow-abundance, and perhaps make a home there. Cowabunga!
1 I will explain the origin of our parish's name someday, promise.