A video just went viral in India in the last few days: that of a Hindu university professor teaching Hindu students how to make “cow dung cakes.”
The Free Press Journal reports:
The renowned Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi and the Lok Sabha constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recently organised a workshop in which the dean of the social science faculty Prof Kaushal Kishore Mishra taught the students how to make ‘upala’ (cow dung cakes).
A video that went viral on social media, showed Prof Mishra imparting training to the students in making dung cakes. Mishra could be seen surrounded by some students, who could also be seen making dung cakes.
Two things to note: this teacher is in fact the dean of the social sciences faculty, which is quite the position, and the BHU was precisely founded in 1916 by Hindu nationalists such as Madan Mohan Malaviya so Hindus could have an institution of higher education catering to their religious needs…
So, is making cow dung cakes representative of traditional Hinduism? Let’s see.
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Cow Dung As Ritual Purification
Even those with literally no knowledge of Hinduism at least know that Hindus consider the cow to be a sacred animal.
D. N. Jha, who passed away at the beginning of 2021, was an Indian historian who came under fire of his controversial 2009-book Myth of the Holy Cow.
Here, he tries to show that, if the cow has become central to Hindu religion, it wasn’t always the case, and in the Vedic period the Hindu “deities” used to slaughtered it for fun.
Obviously we’re not interested in these intra-Hindu debates about the sacredness of the cow, but let’s quote Jha on how traditional Hinduism did end up worshiping the cow.
More specifically, let’s see at how they treated the “products” of the cow.
He writes in p. 130 (every sentence is referenced with Hindu texts but we won’t reproduce the sources here, to make it more reader-friendly):
As early as the Rgveda, cow’s milk and milk products appear to have been used in rituals and ceremonies and the use of the term kamadugha for cow in the sense of ‘milking desires’ or ‘yielding objects of desire like milk’ or ‘yielding what one wishes’ in the Atharvaveda, Taittiriya Samhita, and Satapatha Brdhmana may imply a tendency to look upon the animal as a giver of plenty.
Although the cow of plenty had not achieved the sanctity assigned to it in modem times, the literature of the post-Vedic period provides clearer indications of the purificatory role of the products of the cow. Apart from textual references to the ritual use of cow’s milk and milk products, we now come across the use of other derivatives either for purification or for the expiation of a sin.
For instance, cow dung was smeared on the sacrificial altar and ghee was used to purify men. According to Baudhayana, the land becomes pure when cows walk on it and drinking gruel of barley that has passed through a cow is a meritorious act. Baudhayana treats cowpens as sacred places and cow dung as effective in removing defilement. A mere touch of cow dung, he tells us, cleanses a man and metal objects can be cleaned by smearing with cow dung or by immersing in cow’s urine.
The dung and urine of the cow along with milk, curds and clarified butter, which seem to have acquired significance from the Vedic period onwards owing to their use in rituals and sacrifice, figure as pancagavya (five products of the cow) first in the Dharmasutra of Baudhayana and continue to find mention in subsequent legal texts in various contexts. References to the purifying abilities of the cow and its derivatives, however, multiply in subsequent times.
Basically, if the cow didn’t have the role it later had, even in the Vedic period it was considered holy enough for its panchagavya or “five products” to be sacred.
These “five products” include cow dung (and also cow urine, but that’s another debate).
In other words: ancient Hindus have been using cow dung for thousands of years in their rituals.
Cow dung is part and parcel of Hindu culture.
For instance, you have whole villages celebrating the end of Diwali by throwing cow dung at each other.
You even have Hindus who make idols such as their “god” Ganesha (that elephant creature) with cow dung… eco-friendly shirk!
Lt Cdr K.V. Singh basically resumes what the average Hindu thinks of the wonders of cow dung in his 2015-book Hindu Rites and Rituals, at the end of chapter 53 (“Rishis” and “munis” are ancient Indian sages while Ayurveda is traditional Hindu medicine):
Ancient Indian society was purely pastoral and domesticated several animals. The cow was the most favoured. Rishis and munis found that cow dung was a wonder substance, the most wondrous fact about cow dung being that it is a non-conductor of electricity. If lightning strikes a heap of cow dung, it absorbs the electrical energy instantly and does not allow it to enter the earth.
In Ayurveda, cow dung is widely used in the treatment of leprosy and monkey bite. In the case of the latter, it gives instant relief to the victim. Likewise, cow dung is useful in treating skin disorders like pimples and it also purifies blood. Soaps made of cow dung are now available in the market and those suffering from skin problems claim to have benefitted from them.
Biogas plants are more eco-friendly in comparison to other gases. The smoke emitted from burning cow dung cakes controls pollution and kills harmful insects. Experts also opine that rubbing cow dung ash on our body regulates and controls blood pressure. It is somewhat unfortunate that in modern society, cow dung has little place in our lifestyle.
…But What About the Food?
We talked about the rituals here… but Hindus don’t eat cow dung, right?
Well, it’s complicated.
Swami Vivekananda, the most famed of the modern Hindus gurus, somehow complained that cow dung is so present in Hindu culture, including as fuel for cooking, that they basically do end up eating it.
He wrote in his 1909-book The East and the West contrasting it with Western hygiene:
Observe ours on the other hand. Our Brahmin cook has first purified himself with a bath, and then cooked the dinner in thoroughly cleansed utensils, but he serves it to you on a plate on the bare floor which has been pasted over with earth and cow-dung; and his cloth, albeit daily washed, is so dirty that it looks as if it were never washed. And if the plantain-leaf, which sometimes serves the purpose of a plate, is torn, there is a good chance of the soup getting mixed up with the moist floor and cow-dung paste and giving rise to a wonderful taste!
Wonderful taste indeed.
Hindu nationalists have often militated against Halal food. Perhaps it’s because they’d prefer some cow dung in their biryani instead.