Cow Veneration among Meo Muslims of Mewat Presents the Complex Nature of Religious Identities

Cows, as a symbol, enforce the notion of peasanthood across the Hindu–Muslim religious divide. The current identification of cows entirely with Hinduism is only representative of colonial and postcolonial politics.  The article looks at the case of cow veneration among the Meo Muslims in the Mewat region to present the complex nature of religious identities.

A dominant aspect of the contemporary imaginaries of the cow reinforces a belief about Muslims being enemies of the cow. Such an ideology strengthens the preconception that Muslims have been destroyers of Indian culture and heritage since the beginnings of Islamic influence in India. Not only this, the ideology gives the impression that cultural practices of Indian Muslim rulers, who were in power for almost 600 years, had little or no tolerance for Hindu religious symbols. The biggest threat of such a perception is the denial of a possibility of human co-existence despite religious difference. 

Contrary to this understanding, irrespective of religious difference, there exist many shared cultural symbols and elements, including religion, that constitute values of active embrace of the religious other in Indian society. These shared cultural symbols exist across religious denominations in almost every region and locality in India. This article attempts to look at the Muslim Meo community in the Mewat region of North India specifically in the context of cow veneration.

Local communities belonging to different religions are often bound into a close-knit network of inter-communal dependence and alliances through a sharing of cultural symbols, ones that enhance, enrich and make cohabitation a historically possible phenomenon. For such local alliances, common cultural practices like languages or dialects, symbols such as the cow, sacred groves, pilgrimage sites, shared saints, and myths/stories, play a vital role in the sustenance of co-existence, irrespective of a religious divide. Each community and caste group, beside their religious loyalties, contribute their own set of values towards making a specific region culturally vibrant and liveable. The religious encounter of Islam with prevailing diverse local traditions such as the Nath Panth, the Bhakti movement, and the Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions in India shaped the cosmopolitan outlook of many castes and communities, allowing them to also eulogise and critique the dominant religions in their own manner. Indian Muslims were deeply embedded in the regional societies and cultures while participating in the cultural world of Islam (Talbot 2009). It could be argued that many castes and groups responded to Islam and Hinduism vigorously out of spiritual-philosophical quests. However, it is obvious that local connections of people and communities were never weakened by an allegiance to Islam (Talbot 2009: 213). What are these connections? Do these connections still survive in India and beyond? For instance, presence of the caste structure among all religions in India is one such element. As Ashis Nandy (2002:123) writes, “castes often cut across religion; they have porous and fuzzy boundaries, complex relationship with each-other, and spill over ethnic boundaries.” If elements like caste can reveal deep-rooted local connections, then the transformation and reflections of other local connections—such as faith in other than one God or belief—into cultural-religious behaviour of a Muslim group is of importance to understand shared religious life. Such cases of social, religious, and cultural commonalities establish religious and cultural intersectionality beyond the binary of “Hindu” or “Muslim.” 

An Idea beyond Religious Boundaries

The term “Indic,” in the context of religion interaction, refers to the fluid orientation of communities in which religious identities were expressed, shared, omitted, and shaped as much by broad cultural patterns, such as diffusion of Islam and emergence of uniform Hinduism, as by local practices, norms, and social structures. Gilmartin and Lawrence (2000: 2–4) who worked on South Asian religions, coined the term “Indic,” taking clues from Hodgson’s use of the neologism “Islamicate”. 

To open up the space between reductive religious orientations and mobile collective identities, one needs a new vocabulary that is not restricted to modern connotations of words such as Muslim and Hindu. It was to remedy the inadequacy of English popular usage that historian Marshall G. S. Hodgson coined the term Islamicate. For Hodgson, the neologism Islamicate allowed students of civilizational change to refer to the broad expanse of Africa and Asia that was influenced by Muslim rulers but not restricted to the practice of Islam as a religion. It is for the same reason, to suggest the breadth of premodern South Asian norms beyond Hindu doctrine or practice, that we employ the term Indic in the essays that follow. Both Islamicate and Indic suggest a repertoire of language and behavior, knowledge and power, that define broad cosmologies of human existence. Neither denotes simply bounded groups self-defined as Muslim or Hindu. Gilmartin and Lawrence (2000: 2–4)

It is a way to understand the diverse and numerous practices marked by shared idioms that cannot be restricted to one religion or another. Indic practices have certain common tropes specific to South Asia, such as the veneration of cows by Muslims or the veneration of Muslim or Christian saints in the form of Hindu gods by Hindus. It refers also to any other particular tradition followed and influenced by more than one religious group which cannot be characterised purely in terms of religious categories.

Presumably hostile characters in Indian history have also acquired a status of veneration. For instance, the cult of Ghazi Miyan, a 11th century Turkic warrior and fictive nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni (often represented as a Muslim iconoclast responsible for smashing Hindu idols), who is a figure of veneration particularly among Hindus and Muslims in parts of North India. Formerly considered an invader and iconoclast, he became a cow saviour warrior saint in the Gangetic folklores and his tomb has become a place of pilgrimage for many Hindus, Muslims, and people of other faiths from Nepal and India.[1] What is important to note here is that religious practices that are deeply entrenched in popular belief systems, symbolisms adopt a tone that is not necessarily either Hindu, or Islamic, and the mode of ritual-religious behaviour evokes a certain idea of localism. The tombs of the Sufi saints, sacred groves, pilgrimage sites as well as sects like the Kabirpanth, and Nath Panth exhibit religious-cultural interactions beyond standard definitions of a single religion. 

Emergence of Cow Veneration

In recent times, the cow has been completely appropriated by the Hindutva agenda mainly to gain political mileage in democratic politics. Extensive use of cow symbolism in nationalist politics served the purpose of the Hindu orthodoxy at the cost of tainted communal relations as early as the 1890s as well.[2] The use of the cow as a mobilisation symbol played a crucial role in construction of Hindu communal-hood.

 “the cow protection movement was indicative to an extent that certain Hindus were identifying themselves with others as Hindu, but regardless of its impact, the identification was inevitably anti-Muslim” (Robb 1986: 292). 

All over the world, the species has been protected, revered, and saved from harms for several reasons. For instance, “in Phrygia, the slaying of an ox was punishable with death, in Egypt, the cow-goddess, Isis-Hathor, was supposed to be incarnate in an actual calf at Memphis, as Apis was in a bull; if any one slew one of these animals deliberately, he was punished by death, in Babylonia the ox was the representative of Ramman, the god of storm and thunder” (Crooke 1912: 275–77). Similarly, people of Mundari tribe still die to save their cows (Page 2016), as do the Kenyahs of Sarawak, and the Herero, Bantu, Damara, and Masai in Africa who have deep love and respect for their cows (Frazer 2010:355, 414; Crooke 1912: 276). 

In India, various Rig Vedic hymns speak about the importance of cows primarily for hunting and gathering mode of resource users who had limited knowledge of animal husbandry. For Vedic society living under under-developed pastoral mode, the cow proved to be a source of sustainable livelihood.[3] In this context, all economic activities were centred around the wise use of cows and other animals for harnessing maximum benefits. Later, the development of agriculture gradually resulted in surplus production, increased the importance of animals in harvesting activities. The use of oxen/bullocks not only facilitated trade and agriculture but also increased mobility of population to an extent. In all these developments, the cows remained the central node of the peasant life and agricultural activities. In fact, till the emergence of technology-dependent agricultural work in the 20th century, they were the backbone of the rural economy in India.  

Cow Among the Meo Muslim Peasants: Socio-economic and Cultural Significance      

The Meo community too, like any other peasant caste, had a similar use of bovines in daily peasant pastoral activities. The Meos are similar to other Hindu peasant pastoral communities such as the Gujjars, Jats, Meenas, and Ahirs with whom they had close inter-caste relations (Mayaram 2004: 4). Between the 10th and 18th centuries, the Meo community went through a “processes of  sedentrisation,  peasantisation, and finally, Islamisation” (Bharadwaj 2012). During this period, they had close associations with both Islam and Hinduism (Mayaram 1997) in the sense that their cultural practices were extensively drawn from both these religious traditions. 

The religious consciousness of the present would not have been same at all times. In the past, many communities and castes were participating in a cultural world where distinction between religions hardly mattered in spiritual quests or materials gains. The antagonism “at least up until the eighteenth century was expressed more in terms of sampradaya (sects) and far less in terms of Hindu-Muslim identities” (Dalmia and Faruqui 2014: xxi).      

Indian society on social parameters has always been a caste society despite distinctive religious associations of the groups. The Meos too used to be the locus of caste society by performing the roles of Jajmans (patrons) for many serving castes in the area.  Brahmans, Jogi, Mirasis (Muslim musicians considered to be in lower rungs of the caste hierarchy), washermen, barbers, etc, actively participated in the Meo agricultural world. A narrative folktale of the two Meo bandit brothers, Ghurchari (literally horse rider) and Meo Khan, can still be heard among the Meo Muslims and presents a typical religious blend.[4] Born to Muslim parents, the younger brother Ghurchari, the hero of the account, receives his name from a Brahmin priest of the village. Such practices are still very common among Hindu peasant communities who invite a Brahmin to name their newborn children. 

Being a Muslim peasant community of a similar status as the Hindu peasant castes (Jats, Ahir, Gujjars, and Meenas), the Muslim Meos too were tied to a peasant world as per the economic necessities of the serving castes, without being aware of a distinct religious consciousness until very recent times.[5] These service castes most often performed ritual and non-ritual duties for their patrons (the peasant communities) and got economic benefits in return on the occasions of marriages, festivals, and special events like birth of a child in the family. It is, however, necessary to understand that this Jajmani system (client–patron system) provides a socio-economic framework through which castes were linked to each other regardless of religious origins. It is in this context of peasant life, importance of cow and its veneration afterwards needed to be analysed. 

Several local sects, cults, and veneration practices such as Tejaji in Rajasthan among Jat peasants, the cowherd god Krishna among the Yadavs/Ahir peasants, Ghazi Miyan among the Ahir and Kurmi peasants in Uttar Pradesh, and Baba Laldas among the Meos in Mewat, evoke the centrality of peasant life in their teachings. Grazing, saving, and taking care of cows was an everyday affair of the peasant life. Both Tejaji and Ghazi Miyan in the respective folklores in Rajasthan and the Gangetic plains, died keeping the pledge of saving cows from perpetrators of violence.[6] In a way, the cow constitutes central plot in the life stories of all these religious figures. Though they attracted people from all castes, including upper caste Brahmins and orthodox Baniyas, the centrality of peasant life advocated by these saints allows one to comprehend what was beyond Hinduism and why the love for cows is seen to be a phenomenon common across these religious communities and caste groups that follow similar stories with the common identical plots. More than anything else, the cow symbolises the collective notion of the peasanthood.  At the same time, the development of cow veneration among peasant castes also served the purpose of reinforcing the idea of a uniform Brahminical Hinduism.

The Meo Muslim Saint Baba Laldas and His Love for Cows 

In the specific case of the Muslim Meos, the story of Baba Laldas is similar to that of other peasant folk deities. Born in a Muslim family in 1540 as Lal Khan Meo, the saint is said to have believed in nirguna bhakti (formless devotion)[7] to the Hindu god Ram while following values of Islam in his personal life. Numerous couplets devoted to Laldas make indirect reference of his equal proximity and distance to both Hinduism and Islam.[8] Among Muslim adherents, he is famously known as Lal Khan Pir or dada Lal Khan, while Hindu and Sikh devotees refer to him  as Baba Laldas or Sant Laldas.[9] 

On the surface, the saint seems to simply be a figure of the Bhakti movement and many scholars of Hindi literature as well as historians tend to portray him as a Hindu saint (Bhojpuri 1990; Gulati 2013; Joshi 1998; Kumar 2000; Shukl 1993; Vansi 2010). Contrary to these scholars’ understanding, archaeological evidence, folk narratives, and rituals and beliefs of people present the saint beyond confinement of Hindu–Muslim categorisation.[10] He did not only blend two religions and symbols but also maintained equidistance from them in order to get a distinct status. For instance, though he was a nirguna Bhakti saint, his shrine is a typical tomb-like structure with his grave and those of his family members inside the main sanctum.[11] The theme of vegetarianism and cow protection is central to the cult of Laldas whose devotees are chiefly Meo Muslims, Hindu Baniyas, and Sikhs who migrated after partition from Pakistan.[12] Writing as early as the 1850s, colonial ethnographer Powlett (1878:53) put Laldas in the categories of “nominal Muslim,” “half Hindu and half Musalman,” and considered him the chief saint of Alwar district. “Laldasis are chiefly Meos (Muslims), Baniyas and Kalals (Hindus) and are most numerous in the eastern portion of the state” (Powlett: 53, 59).

Laldas spent his childhood as a cow herder in the Aravalis on the Haryana–Rajasthan border in the Mewat region. The oral accounts of his life suggest that he had to live in his maternal grandfather’s village, Bamniya Bas, as his father was very poor to sustain the family.[13] He is said to have engaged in tapasya (meditation) of nirguna (formless) Ram while being surrounded by the grazing cows. Some architectural ruins still exist in the place where he is said to have spent his initial years of meditation. A mosque from the same period also exists at a short distance. 

It is also the same place where the Laldas met his future wife, Bhogari, whose father was also a shepherd. One day, in the absence of her father, Bhogari took the cows to the mountainous pastoral fields and this was when the first romantic encounter between her and Laldas happened. Upon inquiring why her father was absent, Laldas learnt that Bhogari’s father had been arrested by the revenue officials of the Mughal state due to non-payment of taxes. To get her father out of prison, Laldas produced a gold coin and gave it to Bhogari on the condition that she would not reveal this to anyone. Bhogari was completely flattered by this gesture and decided to marry him. As soon as her father returned home, she expressed her longing for Laldas who led the life of a meditating householder.                 

Later, with development of his saintly virtues, Laldas advocated not only nirguna Bhakti (formless devotion) but also preached values of cow herding and vegetarianism. His love for cows and his vegetarianism were central to the formation of the cult. He had five main teachings: abstaining from killing animals, not partaking food in one’s daughter’s house, not growing tobacco in the fields, remaining aloof from stealing objects, and focusing on the chanting the name of Ram. It was believed that as long as the five teachings would be followed in the area, the saint’s blessings as a protector would ensure the general well-being of the people. The popular belief is that in case of irregularities in rain, whenever a “yellow” cow was offered as a gift to the saint,  the area witnessed rain in abundance moments after those who had made the offering reached home. The cow would grow up in the vicinity of the shrine and continue to receive the protection of the saint. As a result of the Laldas’ teachings and his veneration among a clan of Meo Muslims of the area, the followers (generally known as Laldasis) do not consume any kind of meat. 

Inside the main shrine of Laldas at Sherpur village in Alwar, a few kilometres far from his maternal village, the walls are full of paintings depicting life stories of the saint. In almost all the images, he is surrounded by cows. His followers visit him in the morning and evening and offer grains to animals and birds. Apart from wheat and millets, the visitors also carry a cane or bottle of oil, incense sticks, and a mix of rice, corn and sugar as offerings. The priest who sits at the shrine is a Muslim Meo[14] who does not fast during the month of Ramadan, and who does not recite lines from the Quran in his day-to-day life.  

Conclusions

This article is intended to serve a reminder of the complex world of religious interactions in India. Often, the symbols such as the cow, considered to belong to one religion, have historically had appeal among followers of other religions too. Colonial knowledge practices and the nationalist struggle as well as post-colonial political arenas have constructed the image of the holy cow, and the use of this image in the present divides communities along religious lines. 

The invention of the cow as a Hindu sacred object only represents the political version of the sacred animal. Historically and anthropologically, the cow has been closely linked to peasanthood and the rustic religiosity of peasant castes in India. In this context, unlike the present time, it symbolised a distinction between peasant and non-peasant world, Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical religiosities, and low and high cultures. Many cults and saints whose life stories hold the cows dear are religious symbols of the peasant castes, and not those of upper caste Hinduism. 

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