By Alysia Radder (Ali Krishna dd), University of Florida
Amidst rush-hour traffic, in a city boosting over 19 million people, a large cow and her companion cross the street with reckless abandon. Brakes squealing, horns honking, heads and clenched fists asserting themselves out of car windows in protest- thousands of cars are forced to maneuver and heed the right of way to that divine couple who have now decided to take their morning nap in the middle of Mumbai’s busiest highway intersection. Thus, the phenomenon of the “sacred cow” within India is directly observed.
An impassioned controversy has been stirring for over 50 years in the great struggle to uncover the origin of the cow’s rise to sacred status in India. The debate has been led by the arguments of Marvin Harris, a renowned cultural materialist, who reduces the Hindu ban on cow slaughter as a factor of ecological pressures. He argues that religious sanctity has been mistakenly given to a phenomenon that can best be explained by socio-political factors. However, Harris’s theory has met with great criticism. Frederick Simoons, a cultural geographer and contemporary of Harris, suggests that beef was not simply tabooed on environmental grounds but on religious factors as well. In this paper, I will prove that Harris’s functionalist approach is incomplete having not sufficiently addressed religious claims. While Simoons suggests a broader “positive” and “negative-functioned” theory, I will present how Geertz’s method of thick description reveals many discrepancies in Simoons observations. Thus, in compliance with Geertz’s interpretive model, I will conclude that in order to further determine the origins of the sacred cow in India, we must understand basic philosophical points of Hinduism concerning the nature of the soul, the laws of karma, and reincarnation.
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