Holy Cow! Part I

We welcome Surabhi, the new cow who has come to the ashram to make her home.  May she bring blessings to all!

Surabhi: Another name for Kamadhenu, the divine, wish-fulfilling cow in Hindu mythology. Surabhi also means “fragrance”; “fragrant thing” and “perfume”.

The Story of Vasishtha and Vishvamitra

(From Valmiki Ramayana Book One)

Our yearly enactments of the Ramlila at the ashram have made many devotees here in Taos familiar with the famous sages of the Ramayana-Vasishtha and Vishvamitra.  But did you know that these two powerful sages were once great enemies?  Read on to find out what role the wish-fulfilling cow, here called Shabala, played in setting these two great beings at odds…

Mighty Vishvamitra once ruled the earth, reigning as a king for many thousands of years.  But one time that mighty man assembled his forces and, surrounded by a full army, wandered over the earth…The king at length came to Vasishtha’s ashram…which was like a second world of Brahma…It was filled with seers and ascetics-self-controlled men who had conquered their anger and subdued their senses-men who lived only on fruits and roots and who were given over entirely to prayer and sacrifice.

Mighty Vishvamitra was delighted to see Vasishtha, foremost in Vedic recitation, and bowed to him in humility…Vasishtha, smiling slightly, said these words to Vishvamitra, “Mighty and unfathomable man, I wish to offer my hospitality as befits your rank to you and your troops.  Please accept this from me…”  Vasishtha called to his brindled cow, “Come, come quickly, Shabala, and hear my words.  I have decided to prepare a hospitable welcome, replete with sumptuous foods, for the royal seer and his troops.  See to it for me.  For my sake, heavenly wish-fulfilling cow, you must pour forth anything these men desire-as much as they want, using all the six flavors.  Hurry Shabala, for you must make a huge amount of food…”

Addressed in this way by Vasishtha, the wish fulfilling cow produced as much as anyone desired.  She made sugarcane and sweets, parched grain and wines, excellent liquors, costly beverages and all sorts of food.  She produced mountainous heaps of steaming rice, savory food, soups and rivers of curds.  There were thousands of silver platters, filled with various delicious confections.  Fed to satiation, the army was full of happy and well-fed people.  The honor shown Vishvamitra and his ministers and counsellors filled him with great joy, and he addressed Vasishtha, “Brahman, you who are yourself worthy of honor have cordially received me and shown me great honor.  But listen, eloquent sage, for I have something to say.  Please give me Shabala in exchange for a hundred thousand cows, for, holy man, she is truly a gem, and all gems belong to the king.  Therefore, Brahman, you must give me Shabala.  By rights she is mine.”

Addressed in this fashion by Vishvamitra, the eminent, righteous and holy sage Vasishtha replied to that lord of the earth, “I would not give you Shabala, your majesty, for a hundred thousand or even a thousand million cows-not even for masses of silver.  For she is as inseparable from me as is good repute from a man of self-control.  Foe-conquering hero, Shabala is not deserving of abandonment.  For upon her depend my offerings to the gods and the offerings to my departed ancestors, as well as our bodily sustenance-so do the burnt offerings, the bali and the homa offerings.  So too the ritual utterances svahaa and vashant, and the various branches of learning-all this depends upon her, royal seer.  Of this there can be no doubt.  Truly, she is everything to me, always gratifying me.  Your majesty, there are many reasons why I cannot give you Shabala.”

Now being spoken to in this fashion by Vasishtha only made the eloquent Vishvamitra still more determined, and he said these words, “I will give you fourteen thousand elephants with golden chains for girth and neck, equipped with goads of gold.  And I will give you eight hundred golden four-yoked chariots, adorned with bells and drawn by white horses.  Sage firm in your vows, I will give you, in addition, one thousand and ten powerful horses, foaled in good regions and born of noble stock.  And to this I will add ten million young cows, each distinguished by a different coloring.   Now give me Shabala.”

Addressed in this fashion by wise Vishvamitra, the holy man replied, “I would not give up Shabala for anything, your majesty.  For she alone is my jewel.  She alone is my wealth.  She alone is everything to me, my very life…But what is the use of all this idle chatter?  I will not give up the wish-fulfilling cow.”

Now, when the sage Vasishtha would not give up Shabala, the wish-fulfilling cow, Vishvamitra had her dragged away from him by force.  As the great king had Shabala led away, she was overwhelmed with grief and began to think: “Has the great Vasishtha abandoned me, that the king’s servants are taking me away, even though I am despondent and so terribly unhappy?  What wrong have I done the great contemplative seer that this righteous man should abandon me, his favorite, when I am innocent and devoted to him?”  Reflecting thus, she sighed repeatedly and then ran quickly to the incomparably powerful Vasishtha.  Shaking off servants by the hundred, she ran with the speed of the wind to the great man’s feet.  Standing before Vasishtha, Shabala lowed like thunder.  Weeping and crying out, she spoke: “Holy son of Brahma, have you abandoned me, that the king’s men are taking me away from you?”

Addressed in this fashion, the brahman seer spoke these words, as though to an unhappy sister whose heart was consumed with grief.  “I have not abandoned you, Shabala, nor have you wronged me.  This mighty king is taking you from me by force.  My power is not equal to the king’s.  For he is a mighty Kshatriya monarch, the lord of the earth.  There is his full army with hosts of horses and chariots, bristling with elephants and banners.  By virtue of this, he is stronger than I.”

Address in this fashion by Vasishtha and skilled in speech, she humbly spoke these words in reply to the immeasurably splendid brahman seer: “They say that a Kshatriya has no real power, and that a brahman is, in fact, more powerful.  Brahman, the power of a brahman is divine and much greater than that of the Kshatriyas.  Your power is immeasurable.  Vishvamitra is very powerful, but he is not mightier than you.  Your power is unassailable.  Just give the order, mighty man, and, filled with the power of the brahmans, I will crush the might and pride of this wicked man.”

When she addressed him in this fashion, the greatly renowned Vasishtha said, “Create an army to destroy the armies of my enemy.”  Then she gave a roar, “humbha,” from which were born hundreds and hundreds of Pahlavas who destroyed Vishvamitra’s army before his very eyes…

Seeing his sons and his army destroyed, the renowned Vishvamitra was ashamed and sank into gloomy thought.  Like the ocean becalmed or a snake whose fangs are broken, like the sun in eclipse, he was suddenly deprived of his splendor…So, making his one surviving son king, he entered the forest without delay.  He went to the slopes of the Himalayas and there performed austerities to gain the favor of the great god Shiva…

After some time, that lord of gods revealed himself to the great sage Vishvamitra.  Vishvamitra prostrated himself and said these words: “If you are satisfied with me, then please teach me the science of arms…grant me knowledge of whatever weapons are known among the gods…”

But the mighty royal seer, already proud, was filled with still greater pride upon receiving those weapons.  Swelling with might like the ocean on the full-moon day, he reckoned the eminent seer Vasishtha as good as dead.  Returning to the sage’s ashram, the king fired his weapons, whereupon the entire ascetics’ grove was burnt up by their power.  When the sages saw the weapons discharged by wise Vishwamitra, they were frightened and fled by the hundred in all directions.  Even Vasishthas’s disciples and the beasts and birds were frightened of the danger and fled by the thousands in all directions.  In what seemed but a moment, great Vasishtha’s ashram was as empty and silent as a desert, despite Vasishtha’s repeated cries of “Don’t be frightened.  I shall destroy the son of Gadhi as the sun destroys the mist.”

When he had spoken in this fashion, the mighty Vasishta, foremost reciter of the Vedas, spoke these words in wrath to Vishvamitra: “Fool, since your conduct is so depraved that you would wreck an ashram that has so long flourished, you shall die…” Enraged, the son of Gadhi then fired a whole host of weapons at Vasishta.  But a wondrous thing occurred: the son of Brahma engulfed them all with his staff.

Vishvamitra, humiliated, sighed and said: “The power of the Kshatriyas is no power at all.  Only the power of a brahman’s energy is power indeed.  All my weapons have been destroyed by a single brahman’s staff.  Therefore, when I have reflected on this and calmed my mind and senses, I shall undertake great austerities, for this alone will make me a brahman.”

This is the way in which the mighty ascetic Vishvamitra began his feud with the great Vasishtha.

“I am Kamadhuk-the wish fulfilling cow.” 

-Lord Krishna, Bhagavad Gita

Who is the wish-fulfilling cow?

Kamadhenu (Sanskrit: कामधेनु, [kaːməˈd̪ʱeːnʊ], Kāmadhenu), also known as Surabhi (सुरभि, Surabhī), is a divine bovine-goddess described in Hinduism as the mother of all cows. She is a miraculous “cow of plenty” who provides her owner whatever he desires and is often portrayed as the mother of other cattle as well as the eleven Rudras. In iconography, she is generally depicted as a white cow with a female head and breasts or as a white cow containing various deities within her body. All cows are venerated in Hinduism as the earthly embodiment of the Kamadhenu. As such, Kamadhenu is not worshipped independently as a goddess, and temples are not dedicated to her honor alone; rather, she is honored by the veneration of cows in general.

Hindu scriptures provide diverse accounts of the birth of Kamadhenu. While some narrate that she emerged from the churning of the cosmic ocean, others describe her as the daughter of the creator god Daksha, and as the wife of the sage Kashyapa. Still other scriptures narrate that Kamadhenu was in the possession of either Jamadagni or Vashista (both ancient sages).  In addition to dwelling in the sage’s hermitage, she is also described as dwelling in Goloka – the realm of the cows – and Patala, the netherworld.

Kamadhenu is often addressed by the proper name Surabhi, which is also used as a synonym for an ordinary cow. Professor Jacobi considers the name Surabhi—”the fragrant one”—to have originated from the peculiar smell of cows. According to the Monier Williams Sanskrit–English Dictionary (1899), Surabhi means fragrant, charming, pleasing, as well as cow and earth. It can specifically refer to the divine cow Kamadhenu, the mother of cattle who is also sometimes described as a Matrika (“mother”) goddess. Other proper names attributed to Kamadhenu are Sabala (“the spotted one”) and Kapila (“the red one”).

The epithets “Kamadhenu”, “Kamaduh” (कामदुह्) and “Kamaduha” (कामदुहा) literally mean the cow “from whom all that is desired is drawn”—”the cow of plenty”.

According to Indologist Madeleine Biardeau, Kamadhenu or Kamaduh is the generic name of the sacred cow, who is regarded as the source of all prosperity in Hinduism. Kamadhenu is regarded as a form of Devi (the Hindu Divine Mother) and is closely related to the fertile Mother Earth (Prithvi), who is often described as a cow in Sanskrit. The sacred cow denotes “purity and non-erotic fertility, … sacrificing and motherly nature, [and] sustenance of human life”.

Frederick M. Smith describes Kamadhenu as a “popular and enduring image in Indian art” All the gods are believed to reside in the body of Kamadhenu—the generic cow. Her four legs are the scriptural Vedas; her horns are the triune gods Brahma (tip), Vishnu (middle) and Shiva (base); her eyes are the sun and moon gods, her shoulders the fire-god Agni and the wind-god Vayu and her legs the Himalayas. Kamadhenu is often depicted in this form in poster art. Another representation of Kamadhenu shows her with the body of a white Zebu cow, crowned woman’s head, colorful eagle wings and a peacock’s tail. According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this form is influenced by the iconography of the Islamic Buraq, who is portrayed with a horse’s body, wings, and a woman’s face. Contemporary poster art also portrays Kamadhenu in this form.

The Mahabharata (Adi Parva book) records that Kamadhenu-Surabhi rose from the churning of the cosmic ocean (Samudra manthan) by the gods and demons to acquire Amrita (ambrosia, elixir of life). As such, she is regarded the offspring of the gods and demons, created when they churned the cosmic milk ocean and then given to the Saptarishi, the seven great seers. She was ordered by the creator-god Brahma to give milk, and supply it and ghee (“clarified butter”) for ritual fire-sacrifices.

The Anushasana Parva book of the epic narrates that Surabhi was born from the belch of “the creator” (Prajapati) Daksha after he drank the Amrita that rose from the Samudra manthan. Further, Surabhi gave birth to many golden cows called Kapila cows, who were called the mothers of the world.

According to the Ramayana, Surabhi is the daughter of sage Kashyapa and his wife Krodhavasha, the daughter of Daksha. Her daughters Rohini and Gandharvi are the mothers of cattle and horses respectively. Still, it is Surabhi who is described as the mother of all cows in the text. However, in the Puranas, such as Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana, Surabhi is described as the daughter of Daksha and the wife of Kashyapa, as well as the mother of cows and buffaloes.

The Matsya Purana notes two conflicting descriptions of Surabhi. In one chapter, it describes Surabhi as the consort of Brahma and their union produced the cow Yogishvari, the eleven Rudras, “lower animals”, goats, swans and “high class drugs”. She is then described as the mother of cows and quadrupeds. In another instance, she is described as a daughter of Daksha, wife of Kashyapa and the mother of cows. The Harivamsa, an appendix of the Mahabharata, calls Surabhi the mother of Amrita (ambrosia), Brahmins, cows and Rudras.

The Devi Bhagavata Purana narrates that Krishna and his lover Radha were enjoying dalliance when they thirsted for milk. So Krishna created a cow called Surabhi and a calf called Manoratha from the left side of his body, and milked the cow. When drinking the milk, the milk pot fell on the ground and broke, spilling the milk, which became the Kshirasagara, the cosmic milk ocean. Numerous cows then emerged from the pores of Surabhi’s skin and were presented to the cowherd-companions (Gopas) of Krishna by him. Then Krishna worshipped Surabhi and decreed that she—a cow, the giver of milk and prosperity—be worshipped at Diwali on Bali Pratipada day.

In the Ramayana, Surabhi is described to be distressed by the treatment of her sons—the oxen—in fields. Her tears are considered a bad omen for the gods by Indra, the god-king of heaven.  The Vana Parva book of the Mahabharata also narrates a similar instance: Surabhi cries about the plight of her son—a bullock, who is overworked and beaten by his peasant-master. Indra, moved by Surabhi’s tears, rains to stop the ploughing of the tormented bullock.

In the Hindu religion, Kamadhenu is often associated with the Brahmin (“priest class” including sages), whose wealth she symbolizes. Cow’s milk and its derivatives such as ghee (clarified butter) are integral parts of Vedic fire sacrifices, which are conducted by Brahmin priests; thus the ancient Kamadhenu is sometimes also referred to as the Homadhenu—the cow from whom oblations are drawn. Moreover, the cow also offers the Brahmin—who is prohibited to fight—protection against abusive kings who try to harm him. As a goddess, she becomes a warrior, creating armies to protect her master and herself.

Kamadhenu-Surabhi’s residence varies depending on different scriptures. The Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata tells how she was given the ownership of Goloka, the cow-heaven located above the three worlds (heaven, earth and netherworld): the daughter of Daksha, Surabhi went to Mount Kailash and worshipped Brahma for 10,000 years. The pleased god conferred goddess-hood on the cow and decreed that all people would worship her and her children – cows. He also gave her a world called Goloka, while her daughters would reside on earth among humans.

In one instance in the Ramayana, Surabhi is described to live in the city of Varuna – the Lord of oceans – which is situated below the earth in Patala (the netherworld). Her flowing sweet milk is said to form Kshiroda or the Kshirasagara, the cosmic milk ocean. In the Udyoga Parva book of the Mahabharata, this milk is said to be of six flavours and to have the essence of all the best things of the earth. The Udyoga Parva specifies that Surabhi inhabits the lowest realm of Patala, known as Rasatala, and has for daughters the Dikpalis – the guardian cow goddesses of the heavenly quarters: Saurabhi in the east, Harhsika in the south, Subhadra in the west and Dhenu in the north.

The Bhagavad Gita, a discourse by the god Krishna in the Mahabharata, twice refers to Kamadhenu as Kamadhuk. In verse 3.10, Krishna makes a reference to Kamadhuk while conveying that for doing one’s duty, one would get the milk of one’s desires. In verse 10.28, when Krishna declares himself to be the source of the universe, he proclaims that among cows, he is Kamadhuk.

Some temples and houses have images of Kamadhenu, which are worshipped. However, she has never had a worship cult dedicated to her and does not have any temples where she is worshipped as the chief deity.  In Monier-Williams’s words: “It is rather the living animal [the cow] which is the perpetual object of adoration”. Cows are often fed outside temples and worshipped regularly on all Fridays and on special occasions. Every cow is regarded as an Avatar (earthly embodiment) of the divine Kamadhenu.

“It is by sacrifice that Soma (nectar) is got. Sacrifice has been established upon cows. (for without ghee or clarified butter, which is produced from milk, there can be no sacrifice). The gods become gratified through sacrifices. It is from the cows that the means have flowed for the sustenance of all the worlds. They yield Soma (nectar) in the form of milk. Cows are auspicious and sacred, the grantors of every wish and the givers of life.”

-Bhishma, Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva