Ad hoc explanations I: Why do puja to cows?

1. When we provide explanations, we should also look at their contrastive nature: why do puja to cows and not to buffalos? The problem in this case, however, is this: the explanation one gives about a tradition (you will soon see that one of the problems is to identify the explanandum itself) must also incorporate this contrast. Someone like Kanch Ilaiah has answered this question thus: the puja to cows and not to the buffalos expresses racism (that is at the origin of the caste system) because cows are white and buffaloes are always dark. In other words, you cannot simply ask for a contrastive explanation without incorporating it in a ‘bigger’ explanation that explains the explanandum.

2. Now the problem is this. What should we explain: the possible origin of a tradition, or its continuation and reproduction, or both? Ideally, we might want to do both; currently, we cannot do either. Here, there are two kinds of issues: one is that we do not know what kind of explanation we should seek: should we provide ‘good reasons’ (and make unclear assumptions about human rationality and the relation between reasons and actions) or should we look for some or another kind of causal explanation (and make unclear assumptions about the causal impact the world has on human beings and the nature of the beings we are) or some or another kind of plausible explanation (and make unclear assumptions about what ‘plausibility’ is, and the relation between that human reasoning and actions). The second issue is this: it is not at all obvious (unless the explanation explains the how and the what) whether the origin of a tradition and its continuation can both be explained by the same explanans. Assume, for instance, that one ‘explains’ the origin of the puja to cows by looking at the ecological context of some community or another. However, the persistence of that practice cannot anymore be explained by this explanans, when members from that community migrate elsewhere (say, to a city) and the subsequent generations continue the same practice. When one claims that a tradition is not in need of an explanation, refer to this aspect of ‘explaining’ the continuation of a tradition.

3. Of course, these meta-theoretical problems cannot be adequately tackled unless one provides an explanation of, say, doing puja to cows. We have any number of ad hoc explanations of this isolated fact (from the ‘fact’ that we see cows as our mothers through their ‘religious’ significance to racism), but they are really no good as far as explanations go. What we need is a hypothesis, which is capable of tackling several different kinds of problems but one which also solves the problem of doing puja to cows. Only then can we have a satisfactory discussion of the issues involved without having futile polemics.

4. You suggest we need to understand the “mind states” of the farming community. You are, of course, right in identifying several ways of doing it. But it is not clear to me what your demand is, or what you are presupposing. Are you suggesting that we understand the mind state of every individual in a farming community? If so, I believe that this is an impossible demand. Are you suggesting that we look at the entire community as a single organism and formulate a hypothesis about its mind state as though it obeys the patterns of individual psychologies? If yes, why do we need such a hypothesis? (Let us overlook the other problems involved in such a construction.) And then you further to speak about the intensity and depth of their emotional attachment to farming animals. While you are right that such attachment does exist, how do these emotions explain either the origin or the reproduction of a tradition?

5. Having a reason or rationale for a practice (say like doing puja to cows) merely shows that there is a reason or rationale for some action or another. But, without adding other assumptions, it does not explain (see the point in 2) either the practice or its continuation. In fact, it does not even justify the practice, unless you say that some action is justified if and only if some reason or rationale can be given to justify it.

For more on ‘sacred’ cows, check this: Beef Bans, Beef Parties, and Sacred Cows

  • bennedose

    Would it be possible to say that all worship, that is, the worship of anyone or anything by any human is a form of neurosis in which the person gets some comfort by performing a mental or physical act. In other words, worship itself is like double or triple checking that the stove is turned off or that the door is locked before leaving home. The need to worship is a feeling of guilt instilled in infancy and childhood, a type of guilt that can only be assuaged by performing the act. Crossing one’s fingers or touching wood, which both lead to Jerusalem are exactly similar. The only difference is that when I touch wood it is an invocation of God. When you worship a cow it is mindless superstition.