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The Gift of a Cow



"The gift of a cow is truly regarded as a superior gift.

Cows, by yielding milk, rescue all the worlds from calamity."

Verily, if one gives even one cow and a calf to an appropriate person at the right time,
one is sure to see that cow approach one in heaven in the form of a river of sacred water
capable of granting the fruition of every wish"


– This quote is from the Mahabharata.

It was spoken by Bhishma, as he lay on his bed of arrows at Kurukshetra.



Bhishma had the power to die only when he wanted to and he was waiting

for the sun to begin its auspicious northern journey before he did. 

Consequently, Bhishma lay out on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, 

for many days after the war was over.

Yudhisthira was encouraged by Lord Krishna to go and ask Bhishma questions

about any and everything.

Krishna told Yudhisthira, that such a great being was rare

and the opportunity for listening to his unique and vast Wisdom should not be missed.


Lord Krishna graced Bhishma with relief from any pain and

in an outpouring of Teaching  and consideration of Dharma

that forms a whole book of the Mahabharata (Bhishma Parva),

Bhishma spoke the above selection in answer

to Yudhisthira's questions on the giving of gifts




All the Gods reside within the cow

During the winter of 2004 I lived in Benaras on the banks of the Ganges.
Almost every day I would walk by the river

along the stone ghats that ran for miles.

One day, when I was passing through Dashashvamedha Ghat,
a man suddenly grabbed my arm and started to massage my hand.

Dashasvamedha Ghat

Now, I was used to being sought after as a Westerner.

I was a person of great wealth to most of the people there.
After all, was I not able to give up my daily life in a far away country,

separate myself from any visible life support and travel thousands of miles

to a foreign land
where I would stay in hotels in which a one nights stay

could equal the yearly income of a local person?

But, I was not used to being grabbed. This had never happened before.
Even though it took me by surprise,

I immediately I felt that I was not being threatened in any way,
on the contrary, I felt the warmth and caring touch of a very kindly looking man.

He was about 5’6” tall, had a beautiful face, large soft eyes

and his movements had the fluidity of heavy oil.
His name, as I came later to know it, was Ram.


Usually, I was being sought after for rupees, for money, for help of some sort.
But, this man, who had grabbed my hand, without a word being said,
began to give me a massage that felt so wonderfully good and relaxing,

that I sat down on the steps of the ghat right there,
surrendering myself to his strong sensitive touch and calm relaxing presence.


After a 10 minute massage on the ghats, I asked him if he was a real masseur

and he replied that he was.
He told me his Father had been a masseur and he had learned the skill from him.
I asked him to come to my hotel room the next day to give me massage there.

In my own room, as opposed to the busy ghats with people walking past

and the hot sun beating down,
I thought I could relax and surrender myself to his touch more fully.

Ram arrived in the morning on time and gave me one of the best massages of my life.
It went on for two hours and I paid him well, above what he asked for.

From then on I asked him to come every 3-4 days.


During the massage, we talked very little. Even so, we came to like each other.
Ram was a truly beautiful and humble man with a good heart

and the serious manners of a person of culture.
After several weeks of seeing him regularly, Ram invited me to come and visit where he lived,
in a very small village across the Ganges from Benaras.

I went with him a few days later for lunch.
We were rowed across the river and then walked for about 1/2 hour on sandy dirt roads
to a small gathering of huts out in a field.
This was his home. Each of the huts had a metal or plastic roof, mud walls and a dirt floor.

There was no electricity, plumbing or running water.

Rams house and Village

Ram and his wife

His wife had prepared food for lunch.
I noticed that she sent off a few of the younger children to fetch water

from a well about 200yds away.
They set out with buckets and pails

and returned weighted down with water after about 15 minutes.
After the meal, I saw Ram wash the pots in a hole in the ground

filled with dirty water.

Ram washing pot in hole in the ground filled with water

After lunch, they showed me into an open-air shed

where they had set up a cot where I could rest.
As I lay there on the rope supported cot, a desire arose to give Ram a gift

that would help his whole family.
I thought I would pay for some pipes to be run

from the well to the small gathering of huts.
This way, they did not have to trek to the well every time they needed water.
I said nothing about it at the time.


Over the next several days, as I considered the gift more and more, my mind changed.
I had come up with what I thought was a better gift, a perfect gift. . .

I decided to give Ram a milk cow.
In India, a cow is the symbol of purity, serenity, peace and all Motherly qualities.
When the ocean of milk was churned, the first auspcious gift to arise

was the cow Suarabhi.

It was her milk that
gave rise to the ocean in the first place and she gives milk to all.

It is said that she grants all the desires of living beings.
A cow (Gomata) is a living gift and
it is said that the gift of a cow (Godaana) is one of the very best gifts one can make.

The cow is said to aid in every aspect of a persons life,

even the attainment of heaven.
Even to see a cow in the morning is thought to be auspicious.
A cow is utterly central to the everyday quality of living for a village family.
A cow provides milk, cream, butter, buttermilk, yogurt and ghee for eating, lamps and medicine.

Both cow dung and cow urine are well known for their medical usage in Ayurveda.
The Vedas talk of the great benefits gained from the Vedic fire sacrifice of the Agnihotra.
in which ghee, milk, curds and grains are offered into a fire (Agni) of cow dung (homa).
In addition to such religious applications, cow dung is also used
for the everyday cooking fires and for plastering a house.

Plastering a wall with cow turds

When I told Ram I wanted to gift him a cow he was extremely pleased.

I asked him how much it would be to purchase this cow and he said about $300USD.
I offered to give him the money and then he could purchase the cow himself,

but, he refused, telling me to hold onto the money.
He said that he would find the cow, tell me about it

and then we would go together for the purchase.

He was absolutely thrilled that I was going to do this.


A week later, Ram had found what he desired,

which turned out to be a cow and her calf.

The addition of a calf seemed an even better idea to me.
I later found out that this was the tradition for the gift.

A few days later, we went to the owner of the goshala, (the home for cows) together.
This man had his goshala right off of one of the alleys of Benaras.

I brought the rupees in a large bundle of bills with me.
The cow shed (goshala) was a walled enclosure set back a little from the river.

Courtyard of goshala

The ceremony of how we purchased the cow was very different
from how things are typically 'purchased' in the United States and even in India.
Everything about the process had the form and taste of a 'gift'.
I was fortunate to take part in the exchange.


We entered the goshala though old worn wooden doors that opened directly

onto a stone-paved alleyway about 6 feet wide.
As we stepped in, we found ourselves in a cobblestone courtyard,

filled with cows, buffalo and people.
I believe they were expecting us.

Off of the courtyard was the 'house' where the man lived with his family
as well as a low roofed cowshed filled with about 15 cows, their calves and a few buffalos.

Courtyard of goshala.

The cowherd (govikartaa) is in the foreground in white with green headscarf

When I saw the cow and calf that Ram had selected I was very pleased.
I first thought that the cow was skinny,

but, when I examined the others that were there
I saw that this was the way they all were.

Ram, Cowherd and Peter in cowshed looking at the cows

I petted, stroked and talked to the cows while Ram spoke to the owner.

Peter with the cows

I had pressed the rupees into Ram's hands when we approached the goshala,
but, Ram had now taken out the bundle of rupees and handed them back to me.
After a while, Ram motioned me over and asked me to pay the owner the rupees.

I did so, counting out the money

and placing it in both hands of the man as he held them out to me.
As I mentioned before, Ram had wanted me to literally hold the money

and to actually pay the owner of the cow myself.
I realized that he wanted me to receive the honor, merit and karma

of  'giving the gift of the cow'.
I counted out the rupees and handed them over to the cowherd.

Cowherd after the exchange of money and sweets with his sons

As I counted it all out, the owner of the cows passed it to his son

and he received it with a namaskar.

All of us were smiling.
He had been paid what he asked in full.

Then, Ram then gave me an additional small roll of rupees

and indicated that I was to give this to the man as well.
This unexpected 'extra' was Rams own money.

Finally, Ram brought out a box of Indian sweets, gave them to me and indicated

I should offer them to the man.

The owner of the Goshala took the sweets and we all stood for a while in silence.
As we smiled at each other, a feeling of graciousness spread over our small group.

Ram had freely given more than what was asked for.

He had given a 'gift', a sharing, a demonstration of abundance.
The extra rupees were living proof that this was not all about money.

The box of sweets that Ram gave me to give to the seller

symbolized the 'rasa' or taste of life lived rightly.
The extra offerings were the sweet taste of a life lived in this truth.

The insistence that I would be the one to literally 'hand over' the gifts

was a gift that Ram gave to me.

Ram with baby calf that I bought for him as a gift

I was reminded of how a young child in a Jewish family of a hundred years ago

was first taught his 'ABC's.
The Rabbi brought with him a box of sweets

and upon the correct pronunciation of each letter by the child,

gave him a sweet.

In this way, knowledge is forever associated with sweetness for that child,

(not with gold or money)

Then with the raised, folded hand 'namaskar' of

greetings, goodbyes and mutual acknowledgment of the Divine,

I was handed the halter of the Mother cow,

the calf was picked up and carried on the shoulders of Ram

who walked in front so the Mother could see her calf 

and we all began to go back down the narrow alleyways towards the river.

At last, the area opened up onto the broad steps of Dashashvamedha Ghat.

Ram, Cow and calf at Dashashvamedha Ghat.
One of Ram's sons, Sanjay, has his hand on the forehead of their cow

The Mother cow followed easily wherever her calf was carried

and we were soon down at the river.
I had thought that we were going to rent a big boat to take us all across.
"Certainly," I thought to myself, "they must have some special boat

for taking cows across the river."

However, this was not the case.
We were going to cross the Ganges with a cow and calf and four people

in a regular (small) rowboat.

The boat and boatman that took us all across the Ganges

Ram carried the calf onto the boat and up to the head of the boat.
Then, without any prodding, the cow stepped very carefully onto the boat.

Right away, the Mother cow was a bit off the center of the boat

and I thought that we would tip over,
but, I leaned into her with all my might and shifted her over towards the center.
She had her eyes on her calf and did not move around at all.

As I leaned against the huge animal,

I realized this was going to be a very 'delicate' trip across the Ganges.

We pushed off from the shore and all of us,
the cow, the calf, the boatman, Ram, his two sons, my friend Antoine and I

were rowed across the river.

I was the only one standing, pressed against the cow to keep her from moving
In the middle of the Ganges, the back left foot of the Mother cow

suddenly broke through the floor that is built above the bottom of the boat
(you can see the floorboards in the picture above).
At the moment this happened the cow lurched to the left,

rocking the boat dramatically
and I pressed up against her with all my might

to keep her from going over too far and tipping us all into the river.

Perhaps the cow realized that we had to maintain balance

and she did not move any further.

Finally, we reached the other shore.

We got off our boat stepping onto the sandy beach across the Ganges from Benares.
Looking back at the city from our vantage point across the river

gave one a very dramatic and 'different' view of Benares.

We could see the smoke from the
cremation fires at Manikarnika Ghat, diretly in front of us, rising up to the sky.
We were now standing on the flood plains that went under water every year

and nothing was built upon them.

Looking out across the dunes and across the Ganges to Benares
Smoke is rising from the cremation fires at Manikarnika ghat

As the cow followed her calf

(now carried on the shoulders of Rams son) out of the boat
we saw that she had cut herself slightly on her back leg

when she had fallen through the floorboard.

It was very hot and the sun beat down upon us all with great intensity.

We quickly headed across the 'burning' sandy flats.

Up onto a slight rise towards the fields.

We then crossed open fields and, with welcome relief,

into the shade along sandy, dusty paths in sunken lanes shaded with trees.

These tree covered lanes soon opened up to more fields

where we saw women drying cow turds for use in fires

and finally to a small group of huts.

This was where Ram lived.

As we approached, his whole small community came out

and Rams wife did a small puja on the cow and her calf,
marking them both on the forehead with red kum-kum powder-

indicating and honoring that Lakshmi,
the Goddess of wealth and good fortune had revealed herself;
the embodiment of wealth is a cow and her calf.

After the puja, the cow was led to her first meal

"The gift of a cow is truly regarded as a superior gift.

Cows, by yielding milk,

rescue all the worlds from calamity."

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