Unsung freedom fighters of South India – Nanditha Krishna — BHARATA BHARATI

How many children or their parents have heard the names of these freedom fighters and their revolt against colonial rule? We do not find their stories in either books of history or literature. But they were great revolutionaries, many of whom set in motion the opposition to British rule in India. – Dr. Nanditha Krishna […]

Unsung freedom fighters of South India – Nanditha Krishna — BHARATA BHARATI

Hinduism and Nature, by Dr. Nanditha Krishna



By Sharon St Joan


Inextricably intertwined with the animals of the forest, with the rivers, the mountains, and the rocks, since time immemorial, has been the spiritual life of India, as Dr. Nanditha Krishna writes in her very beautiful book, Hinduism and Nature. The spiritual traditions of the East tend to have a kind, gentle, and reverent approach to the natural world.


The gods of the Vedas, the earliest books ever written, were all linked to nature. Indra is the god of rains and storms, thunder and lightning. Shiva lives at Mount Kailas, a great mountain in the land of snow and ice. We are all the children of Mother Earth.


God himself comes to earth in the forms of the animals. Lord Vishnu incarnates first as a fish; then as a turtle; then a wild boar; then a half-man, half lion; and only then as a human. Everything in nature is sacred. All animals and all of nature belong to god, all are in fact manifestations of god, and all, ultimately, are a sacred part of god.


Human beings are not given dominion over nature, but rather are expected to protect and care for the natural world, living in harmony with it.


As we struggle today with the reality of climate change, this is a book with many lessons for the times in which we live. Despite the grave concern that so many of us have about our destructive approach to nature – progress in changing human behavior just limps along, and so far, the destruction of the natural world seems to be not just continuing, but by some accounts is winning and gaining momentum.


Unfortunately, we tend to put climate change at the bottom of our collective list of priorities, and when we think of it at all – we think mainly in terms of benefit to humans. How many carbon footprints can we count – how much energy can we get from wind and solar?  Really, this is a far cry from seeing ourselves as a part of nature – we are a long way from worshipping the trees, the mountains and the rivers, as our ancestors once did, even in Europe.


Some of us are appalled at the thought of worshipping anything at all (and this also is a western mindset). Heaven forbid that we should honor the sacredness of animals and plants. Instead, we objectify nature. We remain alienated from the earth and the beauty of all the living beings of the earth. Yet, if the earth is to survive, we will need to make an about-face. We need to acknowledge the intrinsic beauty and value of all life.


The most ancient books of Hinduism were composed in the forests, where sages and wise people lived.


Every village in India once had a sacred forest – maybe two acres, or maybe two hundred. Within the boundaries of this sacred grove, all life was sacred. Within these forests lived the gods that people worshipped. The trees and the animals were not to be harmed for any reason, though, in recent decades, many of these forests have fallen into disrepair. One of Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s foundations, the CPR Environmental Education Centre, has restored 53 of these sacred groves; and their upkeep is now being managed by local villages.


Most of one of the two great epics of India, the Ramayana, takes place inside forests, as the hero Rama travels throughout India traversing all the many different kinds of forest; there are spectacular descriptions of flowering trees and plants, and the graceful beauty of the wild animals.




Every river in India is a goddess – except for two who are male gods. Beautiful stories are told about these river goddesses. Because the river Ganges did not want to fall straight down to the earth out of fear that her great power might destroy the plants and animals below, she sought the help of Shiva. When she fell down from heaven to earth, the water power was caught in Shiva’s hair, in order to break the fall, then it fell gently down, from Shiva’s head, to the earth below. It still does today.


The land of India, north and south, is filled with sacred lakes, and sacred ponds known as “tanks”, which are artificial bodies of water, some created many centuries ago. These sacred bodies of water hold large amounts of rainfall to protect against droughts. Seeping from these ponds and tanks into the surrounding soil, the stored water is available to the plants and trees during times of water scarcity. Many of these tanks were built in times past by kings whose engineers understood the value of conserving water.


Even today, despite the deleterious effects of western influence, which is all too pervasive in India, particularly in the fields of science and education, there is a strong, vibrant love and respect for nature. There remains today, as always in the past, a profound reverence for all life – human, animal, plant, and the features of the landscape – the mighty rivers, mountains, and forests.




There is much that we in the west can learn from this great land, whose wisdom stretches back at least 5,000 years, and probably much, much farther. Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s beautifully written book, Hinduism and Nature, is a very good place to start on this journey to broaden our understanding of the earth and our place in nature.


Photo Credits


Top Photo: Ondrej Zvacek / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikipedia. / Northern side of Mount Kailash


Second photo: Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons / The Ganges falling through Shiva’s hair.


Third photo: Rbsrajput / Wikipedia: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. / The Narmada River.


A much-deserved honor

Nanditha receiving dr. of literature IMG_4954


Many congratulations to Dr. Nanditha Krishna on receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Literature on March 3, 2016 from Vidyasagar University, at Midnapore, West Bengal.


This honor was presented to Dr. Nanditha Krishna (right) by Dr. Ranjan Chakrabarti, Vice Chancellor (left) and by His Excellency Sri. K.N. Tripathi, Chancellor and Governor of West Bengal (center).


As well as being the author of over twenty books and hundreds of articles about Indian culture and traditions, Dr. Nanditha Krishna is the President of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, which is active throughout south India, running schools, museums, the C.P.R. Institute of Indological Research, the C.P. Art Centre, and the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre.


resized Doctorate of literture - threeIMG_1484


The C. P. R. Foundation carries out a vast array of programs and special projects – from the Kindness Kids Project to the restoration of over fifty sacred groves. Some programs further an awareness of Indian art, culture, history, and archeological discoveries. Some provide assistance and encouragement to those who may be less fortunate – people, especially children and women, of many diverse backgrounds and circumstances.


The work of the Foundation casts a light on many thousands of years of the life of India, from great classical art and history to folk art and folk traditions. At the heart of all these traditions and the work of the Foundation lies a deep appreciation of the natural world, animals, the earth, and the environment.


The C.P.R. Foundation was founded in 1966 to continue the work of one of India’s greatest statesmen, C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar.


To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, click here.


“Why do I care?”

*resizedNanditha and Holland edited
French President Francois Hollande, Dr. Nanditha Krishna


“Why do I care?” – Statement made by Dr. Nanditha Krishna at the Summit of Conscience for the Climate (Sommet des Consciences pour le Climat), Paris, July 21, 2015.


The Hindu tradition regards nature and all her aspects as divine: forests, mountains, trees, rivers and water-bodies, animals and seeds are all regarded as sacred. The earth is the Divine Mother who must be treated with respect. The five elements (pancha bhūta) – Earth, Air, Water, Fire (Energy) and Space – are the foundation of the interconnected web of life. Every prayer begins and ends with a prayer for peace in nature. Our environmental actions affect our karma, binding all creation in an eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Dharma – righteousness or duty – includes our responsibility to care for the earth and her resources.


As a child, I spent a lot of time around forests where tigers, leopards, elephants and other wildlife crossed my path. Gradually, the forests were cut down, and the wildlife disappeared. Meanwhile, my lovely city Chennai, better known for its temples and temple bells, classical music and dance, became a hotbed of air and water pollution, and garbage. All over the world, the animals and birds I love are now kept in cages and treated as production machines, and exported to live in horrible conditions. Is it ethical? Is it environmentally sustainable? An insatiable greed for wealth and consumption has gripped all people, at the cost of the environment. This has led to the crisis of global warming and climate change.


Mr. Selvapandian, CPREEC officer; Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Director of CPREEC, visiting Nenmeli, one of the sacred groves restored by CPREEC.


I have spent over three decades writing about sacred groves, plants and animals. When we restored the sacred groves (forests), 52 of them, and water-bodies, I saw the birds and wildlife return. They too want to live well. Ahimsa or non-violence is the greatest Dharma, and it starts with simple and sustainable lifestyles.


Each one of us must make an individual commitment to live sustainably and change one’s own lifestyle. Mahatma Gandhi said “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed,” and “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” These are two excellent dicta that can save the world.


*Nan. outside foundations croppedIMG_8511
Dr. Nanditha Krishna, outside the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and CPREEC (the C.P.R. Centre for Envronmental Education).


Finally, I would like to end with a Vedic prayer for peace which is always recited before and after every ritual and event:


“O Supreme Lord, May there be peace in the sky and in space. May there be peace on land and in the waters. May herbs and vegetation bring us peace. May all personifications of God bring us peace. May the Lord bring us peace. May there be peace throughout the world. May peace be peaceful. May the Lord give me such peace also. Om shanti shanti shanti.”


Top photo: French President Francois Hollande, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, at the Summit of Conscience, Paris, July 21, 2015.


Second photo: Mr. Selvapandian, CPREEC officer, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Director of the C.P.R. Centre for Environmental Education, at one of the 52 sacred groves, Nenmeli, restored by CPREEC.


Third photo:  Dr. Nanditha Krishna, outside the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and CPREEC.

A magical childhood, part two


To read part one first, click here.

C.P. showed her the trees of the shola forests. Shola trees are the natural vegetation of the Nilgiris. Shola is a covering of native trees and grassland, found in the higher hill regions of south India. They were ideally suited to the cooler climate of that region, and to the native animals like the elephants, tigers, leopards and gaur who lived there; at least 25 species of trees were part of this eco-system.

When the British came, lacking any understanding of the native vegetation, they destroyed much of the shola forests, planting foreign trees there instead. “The British cut down a lot of shola forest, and put up tea estates; they planted silver oak, wattle, eucalyptus, pine, cedar, and beech, and a whole lot of temperate plants from England and Australia – because the climate in Ooty was temperate.” From some of these trees, they produced viscose, a semi-synthetic fabric called viscose rayon or rayon.

Cutting down the original forests “was very harmful to the birds and the animals. Shola forests are soft, but the pines had sharp needles which were harmful to the birds and the native mammals. Now the government is pulling down the invasive species – but the native trees take a very long time to grow back.”

Eucalyptus trees, which were commonly planted to replace the original trees, also produce an oil that has antiseptic properties and can be used as an insecticide. Because of these properties, it was toxic to many of the birds, animals, and native insects which had lived there.

This lesson learned in childhood of how native plants and animals are essential to sustaining a thriving eco-system served a valuable purpose later on.  One of the key projects of CPREEC, one of the foundations headed by Dr. Krishna, is reclaiming eco-systems, especially the complete restoration of 53 sacred groves. These are acres of forest land, held by and cared for by local village people, but over the centuries, many have fallen into neglect.


The officers of CPREEC, especially the botanists and other scientists, have brought these 53 sacred groves back to life, ensuring that every tree they plant is originally native to that specific area, and that it will help to bring back the wildlife and animals that used to live in these sacred lands. In restoring eco-systems, just “planting trees” will not do, they must be the specific trees native to that area.

Away from the forest and back in Bombay for the school year, there was not so much of nature. Nanditha’s school, which she attended from kindergarten through the eleventh standard (eleventh grade) before going on to university, was Cathedral and John Connan High School.


When she was in the ninth standard, she and a few of the other girls came upon a fledgling crow – a pied crow, the kind of Indian crow that is pale gray and black.  The young crow had a bit of a crooked beak, was being tormented by the other birds, and was clearly in need of help.  They rescued the crow, calling him “Charlie,” and hid him out of sight in the bathroom on the top floor, since they weren’t allowed to have any pets or other animals at school.

Without any knowledge of exactly what to do, they nevertheless managed to take good care of Charlie. “We knew nothing about how to care for a crow. We just fed him our lunch.” Fortunately, crows are omnivores, who will eat a wide variety of food, and Charlie had no permanently disabling injuries. He had a good appetite and grew stronger.

When they were sure he could fly well, they released him from the top floor. On the ground floor they had a tiny garden – there wasn’t room for a big garden in Bombay. That was where they had lunch, and they all shared part of their lunch with Charlie who would fly down every day to join them. Usually lunch was sandwiches. “He had a lot of sandwiches. I used to come on Sundays.  I’d walk over to the school to give him something to eat.” She also gave food to two rabbits who were there as well. Very sadly, to the horror of the students, the rabbits were sacrificed by the biology teacher to be dissected – the only lessons the students learned from that horrible incident were that human beings can be very cruel and that science is not infallible.

Charlie continued to return daily for lunch while Nanditha was in the ninth, tenth and then the eleventh standard – and perhaps afterwards too. She left to attend college.

editedKumbakonam school IMG_8296

The many enchanted, magical hours that Dr. Krishna spent with her father, her great grandfather, and sometimes her grandparents, roaming through the forests and the wild places of India, experiencing a mystical connection with the wild animals, left an enduring legacy of kindness and of being at one with nature, that she has passed on since to thousands of young people. Through the schools and universities run by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and all the many school programs that CPREEC carries out throughout south India, children come to experience an enduring love and reverence for the natural world.

Top photo: L. Shyamal / cc-by-2.5 / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.” / Exacum bicolor, Shola flower from Talakaveri, Coorg, India.

Second photo: Sharon St Joan /A sacred grove near Arunachala, the first sacred grove restored by the C.P. Ramaswami Foundation; Dr. Nanditha Krishna, and Mr. Selvapandian, who is the CPREEC officer in charge of managing the restoration of the sacred groves.

Third photo: J.M.Garg / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / A pair of Indian pied crows in West Bengal.

Fourth photo: Sharon St Joan / Dr. Nanditha Krishna with one of the children at the Kumbakonam school run by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, following an event at the school.

To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, click here.

To find Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s book Sacred Plants of India on Amazon, click here.

© Sharon St Joan, 2015

A magical childhood, part one


From her earliest childhood, her father and mother used to drive from Bombay to Madras, where they would stay for two or three months in the summer.

They would drive along the back roads and would always stop along the way at a couple of wildlife sanctuaries. They are no longer there now – replaced by factories or businesses.

Nanditha outside FoundationIMG_8511

One of India’s leading environmentalists, Director of CPREEC  (C.P. Ramaswami Environmental Education Centre) and President of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, and author of many books, including most recently Sacred Plants of India, Dr. Nanditha Krishna has always been fascinated by the natural world. She credits her family, especially her father and her great-grandfather for introducing her to the wonders of nature when she was a child.

At the wildlife sanctuaries they visited along the road to Madras, they would see many birds, and lots of leopards, tigers, elephants, deer and gaur. Gaur is the Indian bison; they are not the same as water buffalo. The gaur is the tallest species of wild cattle, and they are still found today in the forests of India.

Dr. Krishna recalls the leopards as being “very curious.”  “The tigers were very shy and would just disappear.” “Spotted deer were dainty and elegant.”  “Sambar deer were big.” There were wild boar and several different species of monkeys – macaques and langurs. There were also Malabar squirrels which are large tree squirrels, called giant squirrels. She saw a black panther once. “It was magical.”


They would go from Bombay to Bangalore – off the main road and off the beaten track. The Dandeli forest is the second largest wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka; the river Kali and its tributaries wander through the forest.  Bandipur National Park is adjacent to Mudumali National Park, with the Moyar River running between them. “We saw so many animals – mongoose, snakes, peacocks. And a huge variety of birds.”

Whenever they drove up to Ooty, a town in the hills of the Nilgiris, leopards and tigers would often cross the road. “When a herd of elephants was on the road, you would have to stop and wait because they could be unpredictable. The gaur were also unpredictable.”

When they saw leopards and tigers, her father and she would get down out of the car and go through the trees to have a look. Her mother, like mothers everywhere, was worried about their safety. “My mother was always shouting at my father, ‘Don’t get down!!’”


Whenever they saw a leopard, her father would say, “Come, let’s go as near as we can.”  They would watch the leopard, and the leopard, equally curious, would watch them too. “Animals don’t attack unless they feel threatened or are hungry. They were just as curious about us as we were about them.”

“In those days, the animals were very curious, but the tigers were so shy.”

After serving for several years as the Dewan (Prime Minister) of the state of Travancore, Dr. Krishna’s great-grandfather, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, who is remembered as one India’s greatest statesman, went to live in Ooty where he spent the summer months and sometimes part of the winter. He lived there from 1948 until he passed away in 1966.

During this time he was the Vice-Chancellor of two Universities. When Nanditha was there as a child, C.P., as he was known to his friends, (she called him Thatha or “Grandfather”) would take her for daily walks into the forests.  This is one of the most beautiful regions of India, with steep green hills, covered in green vegetation, dotted with rocks and boulders.  The road there makes a steep climb, with many hairpin turns, up from the Mudumalai Forest or from Coimbatore. Ooty was popular with the British because of its cool, temperate climate.

cropped,edited CP as young manIMG_8522

On their walks, C.P. showed Nanditha how to find edible berries and which berries were poisonous. Because he had an excellent western education, as well as a profound knowledge of  Indian culture, he would often quote English poetry. If they saw a yellow flower, he would quote from Wordsworth’s poem about the daffodils  –

“I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils; …”

She remembers him fondly, “He understood the beauty and harmony of nature. He knew places in depth…he taught the art of silence.” Often, they would simply “sit and watch a lake or a river.”

To be continued in part two…  

Top photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/96109131@N00/ Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.” / Mudumalai Forest in Tamil Nadu.

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Dr. Nanditha Krishna outside the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation.

Third  photo: Rakesh Kumar Dogra / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.” / A Malabar Giant Squirrel, or Indian Giant Squirrel, in the Mudumalai Forest.

Fourth photo: Yathin S Krishnappa / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / Leopard in the Kabini Forest Reserve, Karnataka, India.

Fifth photo: Courtesy of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation / C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar as a young man, early twentieth century.

To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, click here.

To find Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s book Sacred Plants of India on Amazon, click here.

© Sharon St Joan, 2015

Madras, India: “Stand in the center! You are the king!”






“Stand in the center! You are the king! The king always takes center stage!” Dr. Nanditha Krishna tells the young man, who is playing the king. As she watches the rehearsal for the Grove School’s Annual Day, she provides a few pointers and corrections to the children. The teachers directing and choreographing the performances have already done a brilliant job.


The stories enacted by the children are from India’s ancient traditions – like the Dashavatara…the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu. Rippling blue ribbons of cloth across the floor are waved to portray the waves of the ocean. The first avatar, Matsya, the fish, pulls a boat across the sea, in a re-enactment of the Indian version of the Noah story, the flood story known to every world mythology.




Vishnu’s second avatar, Kurma, the turtle, holds the world on his back during the great churning of the waters, while the gods and demons wage an epic struggle for control of the world.


There are musical interludes, with a haunting melody—essentially Indian, sung by a chorus of children. These melodies are not the sort of happy, meaningless childhood melodies one so often hears, instead they evoke a spiritual dimension; they touch something beyond this world, and even small Indian children make an early acquaintance with the deeper levels of reality.


These children seem extraordinary. Each one is absolutely graceful and brilliant — dancing, singing, or speaking, in Tamil or Sanskrit, moving across the stage, smiling just enough – enchantingly charming. The littlest is five or six, and the older ones are high school age. Where have they found such gifted, talented children?


These are the students of the Grove School, one of the best private schools in Madras – and every child is encouraged to develop a presence on stage and his or her singing and dancing talents. Every child is steeped in the ancient traditions of the oldest stories, which are not only captivating just as stories, but are imbued with the most profound mystical meaning.


Not all the students are Hindu; some are Moslem, and they take part in these performances with equal enthusiasm. No one is required to take part, but all do. Who could resist the beauty of these enchanting tales?


The Grove School is run by the C.P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, which was formed in 1966, following the death of the great statesman, C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, a remarkable individual and visionary, with a very practical nature, who, as diwan (governor) of Travancore brought his state into the modern world with ambitious projects such as the first great hydroelectric power plants in India, while never losing touch with the oldest and most revered traditions, the essential tenets of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) which have inspired and held together Indian civilization for 10,000 years. He was a brilliant speaker and communicator. His great-grandaughter, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, is the Honorary Director of the Foundation.


The first school run by the Foundation was not the Grove School, but the Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre, begun in 1985, in response to a need for special education for Indian children with learning disabilities. The children benefit from an alternate education which includes not only academic studies, but also yoga, art, music, and dance, and which aims to foster in each child their own unique talents and abilities. Saraswathi Kendra is affiliated with the National Institute of Open Schooling, which allows children to graduate and be accepted into universities all over India. Those Saraswathi Kendra children who may come from disadvantaged families do not pay more than they can afford.


If, after a couple of years, at the Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre, a child is able to transfer to a regular school, then that is done. If not, the child continues her education at Saraswathi Kendra.




The Saraswathi Kendra School, in 1985, began with four students, who because of learning disabilities were not able to succeed in the regular school system. In the beginning, there was just one teacher, one table, and four desks.


Since that small beginning, hundreds of children have graduated from Saraswathi Kendra and have gone on to highly successful careers; many as musicians, classical dancers, or sports stars.



Top Photo:  Author: Ramanarayanadatta Astir.  Acquired in 1965.  University of Toronto Book contributor: Robarts – University of Toronto Collection: rob arts: Toronto. This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired. 



Second Photo: Kurma: Date: 1850.  PD-US. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to Australia, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.



Third photo:  Sharon St Joan / A Child in a Tamil Nadu village.

The sacred cow through Indian history

cows resting in the Tamil Nadu countryside

Not surprisingly, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, “Sacred Animals of India” devotes many pages to the cow, since the cow is an especially sacred animal in India, where all animals are sacred.


The cow is a symbol of “dharma.”  Dharma, a very complex Hindu concept, is basically righteousness.  It is the right way and the right path in life.


In difficult times on the earth, it is believed that the earth takes on the form of the cow in order to pray for help from heaven.


From the ancient Indus Valley, one of the earliest carvings is a bas relief of Pashupati, an early form of Shiva.  Pashupati is the God of the animals, and “pashu” is  “cow” in Sanskrit, and by extension, the word applies to all animals.  In the carving, Pashupati is surrounded on all sides by animals.  Another Sanskrit word for cow is “go” or “gau”– from which the English “cow” is derived.


Throughout the early Vedic literature, there are countless references to the cow.  She is associated with the dawn, and with speech itself.  One of the characteristics of Sanskrit literature is that there are so many levels of meaning.


Indo-Iranians also worshipped the cow, and in the Zend-Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians,  the Soul of the Cow is called geuvarsan or goshuran.


The world over, cows have meant wealth, and in early systems of money, the coins sometimes depicted a cow.


In ancient India killing a cow was a particularly despicable crime – equivalent to, or even worse than, murdering a human. It was punishable by death.


According to later mythology, Brahma, God the Creator, ordered that the cow be worshipped, stating that she is the mother of the Gods.


A brown cow near Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu

A great many words and concepts come from the cow.  In India, a person may have several family names, and one of these is called the gotra, which refers to one’s ancient lineage, a bit like a clan name.  Literally, it means cow pen, so there is a connection with the cow.  One cannot marry another person of the same gotra, even though there could be thousands of people all over India who belong to that gotra, because they are all relatives.


In a Brahmin marriage, the entire family history of both the bride and the groom is recited.  This goes back thousands of years and can take several hours. There are any number of other rituals too that have to be performed, so weddings last several days.


A temple gateway is called a gopuram, and some Hindu temples have a number of gopurams, magnificent and beautifully carved.  Gopuram means the cow’s village.


So much of tradition in India relates very directly to the cow.


A black cow near Kanchipuram

During the shraddha ceremony (the rites performed at death), a cow is to be given to a Brahmin.  When the person who has died arrives in heaven, the cow will be there waiting, and will then free the soul from all sin.


Dr. Krishna delves into the question of whether cows were killed and eaten in ancient India, looking into the evidence in literature.  Although, there is some suggestion that certain elements of society may have killed and eaten cows, this was considered abhorrent by most of Indian society, back to the most ancient times.


There are numerous injunctions throughout Hindu scriptures not to kill animals, and especially, not to kill cows and not to eat beef. This has been a strict rule of Santana Dharma (the correct name of Hinduism) for thousands of years.


Ushas, the Goddess of Dawn, rides in a chariot that is drawn by seven cows.


Kamadhenu is the name of the cow who is mother of the Gods.  She grants wishes to those who ask her with reverence and sincerity.


In re-reading this account by Dr. Krishna of the cow’s central place in Indian tradition, it occurred to me that the recognition of the cow as divine throughout the history of India, into the farthest past, may have had a great deal to do with the principle Hindu doctrine of ahimsa or “do no harm,” since the cow is such a gentle creature known for being kind, generous, for nourishing her calves, and giving milk to humans too.  She eats grass and harms no one, giving only good and beneficial gifts.


A civilization that worships the cow is necessarily one of gentleness and compassion, and this is a thread that runs throughout Indian history.  India is a land that is fundamentally kind – not in all ways, at all times, since all that exists on the earth can be subject to cruelty or to being cruel– but there is, all the same, a connection with kindness that is very basic, that is unique, and that lies at the heart of India.


One can see this in Indian history. Great nations have typically become empires, conquering and ruling other peoples. They have launched wars and invasions (even today). India has never done this, and has limited its expansion, which was far-ranging, reaching all over Asia and even far to the west – to trade and to cultural influence – always peaceful and enlightening.  Of how many countries in the world can that truly be said?  There is, in my view, something entirely unique about India – and perhaps this has much to do with the sacred cow.

Photos: Sharon St Joan