Dhenu and Vrishabha as symbols of Dharmic Environmentalism 2
Dhenu and Vrishabha as symbols of Dharmic Environmentalism

Only a Dharmic worldview can truly save us from the impending global environmental crisis. Hence, it is time that we build a new discourse on environmentalism based on the Dharmic principles exemplified by the metaphors of Dhenu and Vrishabha.


“If anthropocentricity with respect to ecological problems is the problem – envisioning the universe as a Dharmic system, in which we are instigated to be unselfish, is the answer” observed Professor Vishwa Adluri in a talk delivered in 2018 titled ‘Unburdening the earth – Hinduism and Modern Ecology’ organized by Think Olio at the famous Strand Bookstore in New York City.

At the moment, the global ecological crisis is perhaps the biggest challenge that humanity as a whole is facing. The destruction of ecology with the advance of technology is so widespread and well known, it is no longer a question of whether environmental crisis is real or imagined. It is perhaps the biggest threat that our future generations would be facing and yet, we continue to pursue a lifestyle that furthers this crisis. While the root-cause of such apathy towards ecological crisis arising out of technological advancement lies in the fact that with the march of technology, there has been a loss of ethics and values in the society. This is only a part of the larger story.

Professor Adluri noted in his lecture that the historical roots of the ecological problem can be traced back to Christian theology that promotes anthropocentrism- a worldview that posits humans as the most important being in the universe. For example, Genesis 1:28-29 states:

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”

Such anthropocentric worldview implies that environmental exploitation is justified using the rational of human needs and the belief in the human dominion over all nature. It is this impulse and the desire to master and dominate nature that resulted in the advance of technology which in-turn lead to the current ecological crisis.

Prof. Adluri further noted how modernity and its reliance on technology is intimately linked to Christian theology including its understanding of time as linear and man as centre of the universe, and how human destiny is that of a future influenced by God with only one modification: God is replaced by Technology.

To move away from this anthropocentric worldview that has caused a violent relationship between man and environment, and hence is at the heart of ecological crises, and instead develop a more harmonious relationship with nature, Prof. Adluri presents a five-fold process of transition:

  1. Moving Forward to the Ancients – Carry ourselves from the brashness of modernity to the time-honoured wisdom of the ancients.
  2. Moving away from the Christian conception of reality to a more wholesome one.
  3. Moving from anthropocentricity to cosmology – to reflect our understanding that man is but a speck in the universe.
  4. Moving from historicity to poetry – the narrative of history is almost tyrannical because there is just one story, one truth. Hence, we should move to poiesis where our thought process is more self-conscious.
  5. From desire to have power over everything to the mastery of the self.

In short, moving away from anthropocentric approach to environment to a Dharmic approach to environment, i.e. developing Dharmic Environmentalism.

While Prof. Adluri suggests Mahabharata as a good guiding text for enabling this transition into Dharmic Environmentalism, in this article, I want to explore Dhenu and Vrishabha- the cow and the bull, which are among the most important and revered animals in Hindu tradition and society- as metaphors for Dharmic Environmentalism.

Importance of Cows and Bulls in Hindu Tradition

Both cows and bulls have occupied an important position in in Indian culture and society since Vedic times. We not only find both of them depicted in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, we also find them extensively mentioned in Vedic and Pauranik texts.

In the Vedas, the Cow is called ‘aghnya’ that which should not be slayed. Shukla Yajur-Veda (13.43) says: “harm not the cow which is pure and illustrious.” The same Veda further says (13.49): “harm not the cow which gives ghee.” Reiterating this, we find in Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 262.47) a verse saying: “The very name of the cow is ‘aghnya’- that which must not be slaughtered. Hence, who can slay them? Those who kill a cow or a bull commit a most heinous crime.” Thus, not only the cows, but even the bulls must be protected.

A cow was not only considered used full in a materialistic sense, but was also considered a mother. Describing the motherly aspect of the cows, Rig-Veda (6.28.1-8) calls them as ‘bringers of fortune’ whose milk can be fed to Gods in sacrifice and also to the guests. The mantras further say that the cows should be kept happy and should be protected from any injury or harassment or theft. At another place, Rig-Veda says: “May the cow eats best of the grass, may she be blessed, and by her may we also be blessed with wealth. O inviolable cow, ever feed on grass, and come back and drink water.” (Verse 1.164.40). Similarly, the Atharva-Veda (11.1.34) calls cows as the home of all bounties. [For more elaborate treatment of Hindu view on Cow, See: Beef Controversy: Hinduism and Cow.]

While the treatment of Cow as personified by Kamadhenu as an abode of various deities and as a wish-fulfilling cow that fulfils provides material prosperity as well as spiritual welfare as well as its association with Lord Krishna who is considered as the protector of cattle is well known, what is less known is Rigveda’s (6.28-1-8) association of cows with Lord Bhaga and Lord Indra. Further, bulls are associated with Lord Shiva, first as Vrishabha, the mount of Lord Shiva and then personified as Nandi, the divine gate-keeper of Kailasha who is also considered as the Guru of Agamic and Tantric systems of Knowledge as well as of the tradition of Kamashastra.

Thus, both cows and bulls occupy a special position in Hindu society and religious practice. While the former is associated with feminine qualities, especially the Sattvik qualities of motherhood, wealth, compassion, love, selflessness, innocence, loyalty, divinity, sacrifice, service, purity, and auspiciousness; the latter is associated with the masculine Rajasic qualities of virility, strength, aggression, fighting power, manliness and mighty strength.

It is this association of Dhenu and Vrishabha with the feminine and masculine aspects of the nature, respectively that the Hindu Puranas build further upon in a meaningful way such that a unique and harmonious perspective on environment and environment protection is arrived at.

The metaphor of Dhenu and Vrishabha in the Purana-s

There are many interesting accounts about Divine cows and bulls in the Puranas, most notably Sri Krishna’s love for the cattle in Srimad Bhagavatham. Among these numerous narratives, two narratives are particularly relevant to understanding cows and bulls as metaphors for Dharmic environmentalism. One is the account of King Prithu which is mentioned in Vishnu Purana and the other is the account of Maharaja Parikshit mentioned in the Srimad Bhagavatham.

In the account of King Prithu, when Prithu’s father, King Vena took to Adharma, the sages became angry and slayed him. Following the death of Vena, anarchy spread everywhere causing further deterioration of the society leading to famine, hunger, and other problems. The Sages then brought out Prithu from the right arm of Vena’s body and made him the new king. The people then approached King Prithu and appealed him to stop the famine and remove their hunger. Since, the famine was caused because the earth no longer yielded any food, King Prithu marched towards earth, the Bhoomi Devi and confronted her. She then assumed a form of cow and hastily fled from King Prithu. He pursued her and when he finally caught up with her and threatened to destroy her, Bhoomi reminded him that if she is slain, everything will come to end and there will be nothing to nurture and support his people. However, Bhoomi in the form of cow then assured King Prithu that she would help the king restore the earth, vegetation, and all the resources, if he can find a calf who can milk her. King Prithu then requested Manu to be the calf and thus, the earth, its vegetation and its resources were all restored. (Vishnu Purana, Chapter 8).

In the account of Maharaja Parikshit, once when he was riding near River Sarasvati, he noticed that someone was beating a cow and a bull with a club. While the cow was very distressed and in tears, the bull having already lost its three legs was standing on only one leg and getting beaten. The account then identifies the cow as Bhoomi, the Bull as Dharma, and the man who was beating them as the personification of Kaliyuga- the epitome of Adharma. Parikshit then saves the Cow-Bull duo and assures them protection. He also banishes Kalipurusha to five places: gambling, drinking, prostitution, animal slaughter, and gold. (Srimad Bhagavatham 1.17)

From the above two accounts, we can make out a clear identification of Dhenu (cow) with Bhoomi (earth) and Vrishabha (bull) with Dharma (Righteousness).

Key ideas for Dharmic environmentalism

The above accounts make a clear case for how it is human duty, especially the duty of rulers and governments to ensure that environment is protected and not exploited. The account of King Prithu beautifully uses the metaphor of cow to explain how earth must be understood as a living mother who nourishes and nurtures all life and not merely as a source of resource for human abuse. It then uses the metaphor of calf and milking to show how environment if protected and allowed to flourish will nourish us by providing us all that we need. It is precisely this association of cow with earth and motherhood, combined with her feminine and sattvik attributes that has made Cow central to Hindu philosophy and practice, and hence, is perhaps the most important metaphor that upholds the importance of environmentalism in the Dharmic framework of life.

Then, in the account of King Parikshit we meet another aspect of Dharmic environmentalism. It connects the disappearance of righteousness and the emergence of unrighteousness with the suffering and deterioration of earth and environment and posits the former as the cause for the latter. The Parikshit account actually notes that the four legs of the Dharma Bull actually represents four Dharmic principles of Tapas (austerity), Shaucha (cleanliness), Daya (mercy) and Satya (truthfulness) and in the Kaliyuga the Bull stands on only one leg of truthfulness.

We must understand that Dharma means ‘that which sustains life’- all life, including the environment around us. Hence, when Maharaj Parikshit enumerates the duties of the king during his conversation with the Dharma bull, he is actually enumerating the human duties towards environmental.

1.17.14: Whoever causes offenseless living beings to suffer must fear me anywhere and everywhere in the world. By curbing dishonest miscreants, one automatically benefits the offenseless.

SB 1.17.15 — An upstart living being who commits offenses by torturing those who are offenseless shall be directly uprooted by me, even though he be a denizen of heaven with armor and decorations.

SB 1.17.16 — The supreme duty of the ruling king is to give all protection to law-abiding persons and to chastise those who stray from the ordinances of the scriptures in ordinary times, when there is no emergency.

More importantly, by using the Bull as the metaphor for Dharma and its legs representing four principles of Dharma, the Puranas are giving us a framework of Dharmic principles using which we can protect our environment and make them a central part of our worldview.

Shaucha, for example, implies keeping the nature clean and healthy without any violation or pollution. Daya implies treating nature with kindness, compassion and love. It includes Ahimsa or non-injury towards environment. Satya implies realizing and centring our life in the realization that we are part of this nature, not its conquerors. Understanding Bhoomi as our mother who nourishes us will lead us to take upon ourselves the duty of protecting her. Likewise, Tapas implies striving hard, giving all our efforts to protect nature as a way of austerity. It involves transcending human greed and selfishness.

Unless and until we give up the self-serving approach to ecological issues of seeing environmentalism as another ‘ism’ for human survival and sustenance and instead adopt a selfless and loving approach of rooting ourselves in the universal vision of environment as Mother Nature and humans as her children who is nurtured by her, there is not much hope for our future generations.

Only such a Dharmic worldview can truly save us from the impending global environmental crisis towards which we are very rapidly proceeding. Hence, it is time that we build a new discourse on environmentalism based on the Dharmic principles exemplified by the metaphors of Dhenu and Vrishabha.

Featured Image: Native Planet

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