Essay: Sacred Cows

Oct 12, 2018

Just before our plane landed in Kathmandu, Nepal, we filled out a questionnaire about the purpose of our visit. I checked the box next to “Trekking” but I wanted to check “Pilgrimage.”

Exploring the city the next day, I noticed bales of hay on the street corners. Then I saw the cows for whom the hay had been provided. They wandered around at will, poking their heads into shops and disrupting traffic.

As a Westerner, I had heard about the Hindu belief in “sacred cows” and thought the whole idea rather strange and certainly unhygienic. Now I was sharing a sidewalk with them. Now I was watching a lovely woman in a lavender sari touch the side of a cow and touch her forehead in reverence. I could feel something shift in the baggage of my assumptions.

Growing up a Christian, I was taught to look for holy things in church, not roaming my neighborhood on four legs. But suddenly it began to make sense that the divine should appear as an ordinary beast—everywhere present and accessible, to be touched and tended. Not one incarnation many years ago, but thousands of them, here and now.

A pilgrimage was a journey to a sacred place—to this dusty, crowded place where the local people greeted us by bowing their heads, hands in prayer, saying, “Namaste.”

Our guide translated: “I salute the god in you.”

I had come to Nepal hoping to glimpse a spiritual tradition outside my own—and here it was. The divine within reach, within me.