Don't Pet the Sacred Cows

It's estimated that India has over 200 million cows. Some work hauling carts, and many roam freely along the streets and alleys of every city and village helping to recycle the huge amounts of garbage.

Nearly everything in India is sacred. There are sacred sites, rivers, mountains, forests, sacred people, sacred parts of the body, sacred times of the moon.

But for us Westerners, the most strange thing to have to deal with is that which is sacred on the hoof, the cow. It is so sacred that the newly opened and hugely successful McDonalds in Bombay ("We serve over 10,000 happy people a day on the weekend," the manager proudly told me) has plastered all over its menu board, "No beef products served here."

On our second night in India I went for a walk along the dark, broken, chaotic streets of the village north of Bombay where we stayed. I passed by three pale gray, humped and horned cows rooting around in a large pile of garbage, and of course I paid my respects, "Good evening," I said. The larger cow, I guessed it to be the Alpha cow, looked up from his dining and grunted a reply which I took to mean, "And good evening to you, kind sir."

I passed on by and found my way down the road to a stall where I bought biscuits. Making my way back the way I'd come I met the contended diners once again, and since we had already been formally introduced and I had to squeeze by the Alpha cow and a steady stream of oncoming rickshaws, I reached out and petted him between the horns and said, "Hey bro, how's it hang."

I thought it'd be cute even if no one else was around to enjoy the humor. But the Alpha cow had another idea. I had apparently defiled a sacred site of India, and for this transgression I was to be murdered right there on the streets of Bombay. The cow was enraged, although in cow terms rage is played out in slow motion.

He grunted, lowered his head and drove his lead horn (his Alpha horn?) straight at me. Surprised, and not at all operating in slow motion, I stepped back and tried to reason with him. But not even an Alpha cow, not even a Sacred Alpha cow with a belly full of fresh garbage can be reasoned with. He ducked and aimed a second time, this time sweeping his horn upward where he thought I should be in a clear gesture of unfriendly disemboweling (in case there are other kinds).

I continued to step backwards, laughing at the silliness of the whole scene, shouting "no" and offering to share my biscuits or write to the Indian bureaucracy of Sacred Cows and offer my apologies. Again he drove forward, his dim-witted eyes focused on me.

By this time our antics had drawn the attentions of my fellow bipeds along the street, and they gathered around as if this were a sporting event--yea, matador George and the Taj Toro!. In between the bull's parries and my deft side steps, I'd look up smiling and laughing and saying perfectly ridiculous things, only to see their human faces stretched in horror and disgust. Since these are people who have always lived around sacred cows and even enraged sacred Alpha cows, maybe they knew more about the gravity of the situation than I did. Maybe it was time for me to worry also, as I slid out of the way of yet another pointed thrust with the grace of an overweight toredor in a Helly Hanson cloak.

There was a sudden break in the oncoming traffic and I lost no time in feigning right and cutting left. But since cows, even furious ones, operate at a much slower pace he didn't see my fake, the result of years of basketball training. In fact, he didn't even see me go by as he prepared for yet another killer grunting thrust at where he thought I should be standing.

I stepped lightly past a group of Indian men standing and gawking at me. I shrugged and laughed and said something completely foreign to them and the occasion. They said nothing, just continued to stare, either at the really dumb, really tall foreigner, or the really dumb, really tall survivor. I'm not sure which.

The next day as Salli recounted this episode to our guide and friend, Joe, he kept saying "no problem, really, it's no problem. You can touch the cow any time." And then when Salli explained that I had patted the cow between the horns, Joe's expression went into shock. "Oh no, this is not wise. One should never touch the cow on the head. This can be dangerous."

So let this be a lesson to you all, when you're caught between a rickshaw and a hard herd, Don't take the bull by the horns! Just do like the Indian people do, slide around giving wide berth and go on your merry way.

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