The relationship between human society and animals is composed of vast and inter-related examples scattered over every continent, which take on a multitude of different forms, some cohesive and some antagonistic. One such case, which highlights the mutual dependence between animal and human, is the case of cows in India. This essay will look to explore the various forms that the cow-human relationship has taken in India and show how each species has affected the other. In order to achieve this, Beatson’s classificatory system of human-animal relationships will be outlined in relation to cows in India, and then analysed through a structural-functionalist model, which will highlight several of the key reasons for the usefulness of this relationship. By providing an overview of the cow-human relationship in this light, it is hoped that a holistic understanding is reached on why cows are an integral part of the Indian society.
In order to understand and make sense of the various ways that humans and animals interact, Beatson has outlined an analytical framework, whereby classifying seven different spheres of human-animal relationship (Beatson, 2012). These categories are; Nature, population, economy, politics, community, welfare, and culture. Throughout these seven spheres there is an interaction, which is based on reciprocal process of conditioning. In plain terms, there is an inherent two-way relationship between humans and animals, and while it can be argued that humans have greater impacts on the animal kingdom, there are times when the role is reversed and human life is somewhat dictated by the animals that surround them. Five of these spheres will now be elaborated on below, with each having examples pertaining specifically to the cow-human relationship in India.
The nature sphere is fundamentally defined by the boundary between human society, or civilization, and the wilderness (Beatson, 2012). To make it plain, it is the difference between the areas of land humans inhabit and call home and the areas that animals inhabit and call home. In most cases, those animals that are called wild typically live in the wilderness and those animals called domestic live within the confines of human society. In saying that, it should be mentioned that there is a divide between urban and rural areas and the types of animals that inhabit both. In the case of India, 72 percent of the population live in a rural environment (Turner, 1978). This means that the majority of interactions between cows and humans will occur in this setting. The main point of interest is that, unlike many farms in Western societies where cows are contained in paddocks, a large amount of cows in India roam free amongst the people. The significance of this is that the definition of what is a natural environment for a cow has progressed along a different path in India as compared with most other cultures, and because of this, the relationship between humans and cows has taken on a unique connection.
The population sphere encompasses six factors pertaining to human and cow statistical information; birth, death, migration, size, composition, and distribution (Beatson, 2012). Beatson also adds that there are four forms in which human demography has taken on animals; these are fatal contact, domestication, selective breeding and population explosion. In relation to this topic, domestication and population explosion are the most relevant. The domestication of cows is believed to have occurred approximately 8000-10,000 years ago, originating in the Indian and Middle East continents (Loftus et al, 1994). It is not surprising then that 30 percent of the earth’s cow population lives in India, with a variety of different ‘populations’ of cows living in different areas. Turner notes that there are “city cows, country cows, coastal cows, high-altitude cows, trash-collector cows, Buddhist cows, Hindu cows, homeless cows, village cows, dancing cows, and licence-carrying cows”, to name just a few (Turner, 2012, p. 10). Cows have been domesticated so much into Indian society that they take on a multitude of different roles.
In terms of the human population, India contains approximately a sixth of the world’s population, at just over 1.2 billion people (World Bank, 2012). In many urban and semi urban areas there is overcrowding and a scarcity of land in rural areas (Singh & Singh, 1999). In conjunction with many rural people owning cows and the lack of land to raise them on, the expanding human population has encroached on the traditional living space of cows. In turn, the growing cow population has also affected the human population through the fact that cows are permitted to freely wander through cities and towns, defecating where they please and blocking railways and roads (Brym & Lie, 2007).
The economy sphere revolves around the production, exchange, and distribution of goods, alongside ownership and use values of cows and cow-related products (Beatson, 2012). As a large part of India is rural, there is a considerable dependency on livestock and a subsistence mode of living. Because of this, cows are intimately tied to the Indian economy on both macro and micro levels. For instance, since cows are able to reproduce and thus create more capital, as opposed to bulls and oxen, there is an economical benefit in keeping them alive, rather than slaughtering them for food (Harris, 1978). This example can be enlarged on the macro level as there is a large difference in the use of land and cost of production depending of the use of the cow (Harris, 1978). For instance, in America a large part of agricultural land is used to grow crops to feed livestock, which in turn feed humans. The cost of this economically, in terms on food product, fossil fuels, and labour, far exceeds the cost cows place on the India system, where cows graze on the remains of subsistence crops, and are not reared in order to be fat, plump, products of consumption. In addition, cows actually contribute to the economy by being a source of manual labour, having their manure used a fuel for cooking and as fertilizer, which saves on expensive commercial products (Bhasin, 2011).