Recently I became disgusted with the frequency and extent to which I encountered violent abuse of women even among those who we suppose also try to practice bhakti-yoga. Since I live in relative isolation from the English-speaking world, Facebook (for better or worse) is something of an outlet for me. So I made a Facebook post expressing my opinion that “A man who hits a woman is far, far worse than a man who slaughters a cow. I can think of no man more unmanly and disgusting than he who, under any but the most dire circumstances, hits a woman.”
Someone asked: “Is this something from sastra [sacred wisdom], or more your personal perspective?” The same person expressed an opinion that, “I appreciate your passionate stance against abusing women, but I’m concerned it’s at the expense of minimizing the horror of cow slaughter.”
This deserves a thorough reply.
My statement is my personal conviction, but I do not cherish personal convictions which I deem to contradict śāstra. Therefore although it is not a direct quote or paraphrase from śāstra I believe that it is “śāstric” – in that it expresses śāstric principles. I will try to explain why I feel this way.
Those who Must not be Punished
Bhāgavatam 1.14.41 is an example of śāstra stating that harmless, defenseless, non-agressive creatures must be nourished and protected, not harmed or punished. Here Emperor Yuddhiṣṭhira – son of the god of morality, Dharma – identifies those beings who fall into the category of “harmless, defenseless, and non-agressive”:
- brāhmaṇa — Those who pursue education and are self-governing
- bālaṁ — Children
- gāṁ — The BBT translation says this refers to “Cows” – let’s examine that later.
- vṛddhaṁ — The elderly
- rogiṇaṁ — The diseased (physical or mental)
- striyam — Women
- śaraṇopasṛtaṁ sattvaṁ — Any creature who needs protection
Cows Epitomize (Not Superceede) All Animals
Gām, the word translated as “cows” in the BBT edition, literally means “things that move.” The BBT Bhāgavatam translates it in various ways in the various contexts in which it appears as a noun. These translations range from “planets” to “the earth” to “the ocean.” All these are appropriate in context because gāṁ literally just means, “things that move.”
“Things that move” contrasts “things that don’t move” as a way to divide the animal kingdom from the plant kingdom. We see this concept used constantly throughout śāstra in statements like carācara (“Moving and non-moving entities”). In the current context, since Yuddhiṣṭhira is talking about entities who deserve protection, gām especially denotes the non-agressive, herbivorous animals like horses, goats, sheep, deer and cows. Of these herbivores, cows are particularly defenseless and also particularly important to agrarian society. Therefore Śrīla Prabhupāda cast the word gām as “cows” in this instance. We should understand that the cow stands for all non-agressive animals, as their epitome – not that the importance of protecting the cow excludes the importance of protecting all other herbivores or animals in general.
Indeed, to insure that we do not interpret any of the beings on this list in an exclusive manner, Yuddhiṣṭhira concludes the list by including śaraṇopasṛtaṁ sattvaṁ — any and all creatures who need or request protection.
Similarly, the concept that cows are divine shouldn’t have an exclusive tense: “Only cows are divine,” implying that other animals are not. The tense should be inclusive: “Especially cows are divine,” implying that all things are divine, especially living things, and especially cows.
Dear to Krishna
Krishna surrounds himself with cows and dwells in “go-loka” (a world of cows). Why is the cow dear to Krishna? Perhaps because she epitomizes non-agression, affection, and motherly love; she is the most feminine of all animals. But whatever the reason Krishna is so affectionate with cows, the fact is that he surrounded even more densely by something even more feminine than cows: beautiful young women, the gopī-lakṣṁīs. Indeed Krishna primarily dwells in this “go-loka” (a world of gopīs)!
One can examine the sequence in Śrī Brahma-saḿhitā 5.29 to verify the above.
cintāmaṇi-prakara-sadmasu – First he is surrounded by a land of conscious substance “cintāmaṇi.”
kalpa-vṛkṣa-lakṣāvṛteṣu – Within that, he is surrounded by a forest of conscious trees.
surabhir abhipālayantam – Within that forest, he is surrounded by a heard of fully-conscious divine cows.
lakṣmī-sahasra-śata-sambhrama-sevyamānaḿ – But at the center of it all he is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of lakṣmī-gopīs (women) who fulfill all his desires with utmost affectionate super-consciousness.
On this basis it is safe to conclude that divine cows are near and dear to Krishna, but divine women are even nearer and dearer. If it is reasonable to say that cows are sacred because they are dear to Krishna, then it is equally reasonable to say that women are even more sacred because the are even nearer and dearer to Krishna.
If one protests that Krishna is known as go-brāhmaṇa-hitāya (benefactor of cows and Brāhmaṇas) but not as strī-brāhmaṇa-hitāya (benefactor of women and Brāhmaṇas), I will point out that if we interpret go-brāhmaṇa-hitya exclusively (He is the benefactor only of cows and brāhmaṇas) then any ordinary Kṣatriya would be a better shelter and refuge than Krishna (since ordinary Kṣatrīyas are the benefactors of seven beings, including cows, brāhmaṇas and women). Next I would point out that the word go refers to many things besides cows. The most important meanings are cows, senses, and mothers (the connection is that senses and mothers bring us into the world – “gam” – and cows are like our mothers because they nourish us with milk). Therefore women (especially mothers) are included in the concept of go-hitya.
The hermeneutic of comparison should also be borne in mind, please. When we say, for example, “John is taller than Joe” have we said that Joe is short? No. We haven’t actually said anything about Joe’s height. Whatever Joe’s height might be, we are saying that John is taller.
Actually, since the statement is about height, it tends to imply that Joe is fairly tall, but John is even taller.
I said that hitting a woman is worse than killing a cow. Does this mean that killing a cow is not so bad? No. In fact, since the statement is about bad things, it implies that killing a cow is very bad and beating a woman is even worse.
Gradations of Violence
Yeah, but how much worse? Is just hitting a woman worse than slaughtering a cow?
I am not sure how to weigh such things down to the milligram, but even if the recipe given in my choice of words gives too little weight to the cows, hyperbole (exaggeration) is a valid hermeneutic. To make a dramatic point, one can use hyperbole – expecting the thoughtful audience to understand, and the simple audience to be adequately impressed of the point.
If śāstra is allowed to make statements like “eating grain on ekādaśī is worse than killing a brāhmaṇa,” then I do not hesitate to also employ hyperbole. But, maybe I went overboard in my original wording, so I subsequently edited my statement to read like this, “A man who beats a woman is as foul as a man who slaughters a cow. I can think of no man more unmanly and disgusting than he who, under any but the most dire circumstances, beats a woman.”
Killing is worse than beating, but women are more important than cows. Therefore there is equivalence. “A man who beats a woman is as foul as a man who slaughters a cow.”
Are women really more important than cows? I shudder to think that this might be a real question.
Humans are a more evolved expression of conscious life than animals. Therefore they are more important. The cow is a special animal, yes, but the woman is a special human – especially in a domestic context where the woman is also a mother. All proponents of ahiṁsa and all lawmakers from Manu to modern day admit that violence to more evolved life-forms is worse than violence to less evolved life-forms. Worse than picking a fruit, leaf, seed or nut is killing the whole plant. Worse than killing the plant is killing an animal. Worse than killing an aggressive animal is killing a helpless, harmless animal. Worse than killing animals is killing humans. Worst of all is killing a helpless, harmless human. Utterly worst of all is killing a beneficial human (like a brahmaṇa or guru).
And the Point is…
The point, dear friends, is that anyone who violates a woman is a most reprehensible, foul, disgusting and unmanly excuse for a creature. Even subtle abuse and exploitation is an abomination. If we commit these horrible sins, we must immediately stop, and figure out how to make amends for the incredible mountains of pain that now hover karmicly above our heads with razor sharp edges.
Vraja Kishor dās