Sacred cows: Philadelphia Inquirer delves into a Hindu man's love for his 'ragtag herd of cows'

“Can being nice to cows save the world?” the Philadelphia Inquirer asks. “A Hindu man in the Poconos would like to believe so.”

On one level, the Inquirer’s feature on Sankar Sastri is simply an interesting read — a human- interest feature about a man with a unusual approach to life.

On another level, it’s a religion story.

The piece excels more at the former than the latter, although it’s not entirely devoid of doctrine.

The lede certainly paints a revealing portrait, albeit one with, um, some smelly stuff on the profile subject’s footwear:

STROUDSBURG, Pa. — Every day, a joyful man in dung-covered boots tries to balance the world's karma by dishing out love, compassion, and the occasional fried Indian delight to his ragtag herd of cows.

Sankar Sastri loves Sri, the shaggy Scottish highlander with eyes like jewels, and adores Lakshmi, a little black Brahman with horns pointing north and south. The mighty Krishna, a tall and hefty Angus, appears to be a favorite, but Sastri said each of his 23 cows is equally beloved at his Poconos sanctuary.

"Ah, Krishna, look at how big you are. You are the boss, Krishna," Sastri said to the cow on a recent cold November morning.

Sastri, 78, is wiry, bespectacled, and constantly smiling, and wears a blazer over his farm clothes while he walks around his 90-acre Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary in Monroe County. Sastri still resembles a college professor, albeit one who fell in mud. He grew up in Chidambaram, by the Bay of Bengal in Southern India, moved to the United States in 1964 for grad school, and spent 28 years teaching engineering  at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn.

The Inquirer goes on to explain:

As the millennium approached, however, Sastri, a devout Hindu, began to ponder his next life and wonder if he'd done enough good deeds. He wasn't just thinking about a life after retirement.

"The Hindu philosophy says whatever karma you have done in the past, in this life, follows you," he explained. "You and I, this is not the first time we are meeting. We have met many times in trillions of years in this universe."

What exactly makes one a “devout” Hindu? The story gives an inkling of this but never really elaborates.

Where precisely do cows fit into Hinduism? That, too, is left relatively vague. The piece says only:

Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, not a food source. 

For readers wanting more information on the subject, the Religion News Association stylebook has this entry:

cow

In Hinduism, the cow represents values of selfless service, strength, dignity and ahimsa (nonviolence). Hindus respect and honor the cow but do not worship it in the same sense they worship a deity. Also, the avatar Lord Krishna was a cowherd and protected cows. For these reasons, Hindus traditionally respect and honor the cow and abstain from eating beef. Since Hindus understand God to exist in all, animals are deserving of respect and compassion.

And GetReligion’s own Richard Ostling wrote a post last year on why Hindus believe cows are sacred.

Among the insight shared by Ostling:

It’s often said Hindus “worship” cows. At the annual cow festival the animals are bathed and offered garlands and treats amid emotional weeping that for outsiders looks for all the world like devotion to divinities. But Hindu authors say cows are merely venerated, not worshiped, and this because of their close association with the gods, especially Shiva, Nandi, Krishna (a cowherd as a youngster), and with goddesses in general because of cows’ maternal attributes.

Unique to the Hindu faith, cow protection is an example of major religious evolution, since historians tell us that thousands of years ago believers ritually sacrificed cows and ate their flesh. But a ban on those practices gradually spread and then became absolute.

Religious historian Bruce Lincoln of the University of Chicago, among other experts, wrote that the roots of cow veneration are “considerably older” than Hinduism’s broad commitment to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) and corresponding regard for all animals.

In the early second millennium B.C.E., hymns collected in the Rig Veda upheld cows as “beings not to be killed.”

Bottom line: This seems like a case where a Godbeat pro might have added more depth to the doctrinal side of the Inquirer’s otherwise compelling profile.

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