Shambo: the right to save or the right to slaughter

As the saga unfolded, what was often overlooked is that there is more than one point-of-view. For an

Shambo may have been the most famous bull that lived on the planet in recent times, but his short life and famous death have raised a divergence of ethical questions and a plethora of communal passions. Opinion in the Hindu community was clearly split between slaughtering, not slaughtering, and apathy. By the same token, many farmers, who have had thousands of their own livestock slaughtered, had approached the temple to say that they did not support the slaughter.

The interesting part of the Shambo saga is that it provided an ethical dilemma for many of the stakeholders involved. It seemed right not to slaughter Shambo from a certain Hindu point of view. From the viewpoint of some farmers, it seemed right to slaughter the bull.

The Bhagavad-gita, one of the sacred books of Hindus, deals with such ethical and moral dilemmas known as "dvivida" - when two moral courses of action are open, and we can only choose one or the other.

The Gita describes how Arjuna, the warrior king, felt torn between two courses of action, both of which felt right. Should he fight an invading army and perform his duty to save his country? Or should he renounce his claim over his kingdom, retire to the forest, and thereby save thousands of soldiers, including members of his own family from certain death? The entire discourse by Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita begins with such an ethical dilemma, when one is torn between two "rights". Lord Krishna's teachings centre around the universality of god and thus the sacredness of all life.

At the core of the issue is the place accorded to the cow and the bull in the Hindu tradition. Often, people of other traditions believe that Hindus, who give such a sacred and important place to the cow and bull, are "animal worshippers".

Nothing could be further from the truth. The sacred place given to the cow and the bull is an act of respect, more than of worship. The cow provides milk and offers nourishment, much as a mother does to her baby. The bull tills the land in agrarian India and provides grains and food.

Therefore, in the Hindu tradition, the cow is respected like the mother and the bull like the father. Most Hindus consider bovicide to be equal to matricide and refrain from eating beef. Cow-protection, or go-raksha, is therefore considered an important part of the faith.

To many Hindus, animal life, and especially those of cows, has the same value as human life. To many others who were accustomed to seeing cows and bulls as food, this was not the case. Therefore, putting down a human who posed a risk of spreading infection in the name of ‘the greater good’ would be unthinkable. Similarly, many Hindus who award motherhood to cows would not be able to stomach the thought of killing for 'the greater good'.

But it was the overwhelming support for the campaign to save Shambo from millions of Hindus from around the world that underlined the passions and aspirations of the community. National Hindu organisations in the UK, Australia, Canada, America, Europe and other parts of the world joined to voice their vociferous protest. Over 20,000 Hindus signed an online petition without any active campaign by any organisation to seek signatures. Thousands of letters were written to DEFRA and the Welsh assembly.

The support from the community was quite visible when the so-called education expert of the Hindu Council UK stated that the campaign to save Shambo was all wrong. The amusing part was that the secretary of his own organisation rushed to issue a statement saying that his education expert did not represent the views of the Hindu Council UK, and followed that up with a press release in full support of the Shambo campaign. Two days later, all references to the Hindu Council UK mysteriously disappeared from the story about the so-called expert that had appeared on the BBC website.

Critics could not understand that the farmers' views were best for them, and the views of Hindus who campaigned for Shambo were best for them. Instead they pronounced that the only right way was that of the farmers. Not what you expect from a society that purports to be pluralistic.

Ramesh Kallidai is the Secretary General of the Hindu Forum of Britain and serves as Vice-Chair of Hindu Aid, an organisation that provides Development Education courses and coordinates the aid work of Hindu organisations in the UK.