Gopal Mani Maharaj, 69, is on a mission. The self-titled 'gau kathavachak’ or cow storyteller wants to have the bovine officially declared as ‘India’s national mother’. And to get there, the seer-turned-politician is contesting the ongoing general election as an independent candidate from Uttarakhand’s Tehri constituency in northern India.
While elevating the status of the cow serves as Mani’s primary agenda, the other, smaller demands in his manifesto include a massive spike in prices for cow dung and urine (because apparently, this should solve India’s economic debt problem), making “everything free” for the residents of his hilly state (as he thinks “they give so much to the rest of the nation” without specifying what that “so much” really was), and weaning the youth off drugs by making them drink, well, cow milk.
And it seems that Mani’s bizarre ideas have earned him quite a herd. His videos that see him reciting mythological stories about the divine greatness of cows have got him more than a million followers on Facebook and virality on YouTube. In his sermons and videos, you will find Mani urging his devotees to keep cows at their home, treat them like one would treat parents (ie with immense respect and devotion), and talk about ‘gau’ (cow) and ‘Ganga’ (the river) as the ‘two foundations of Indian culture’.
While Mani has been a spiritual figure for more than three decades, he is now banking on his popularity to win him a seat. “Once I win, I will meet each and every lawmaker personally and convince them to support me in a national resolution to make the cow our rashtramata (national mother),” he tells VICE. “I am sure they’d agree.”
Cows have a complicated relationship with Indian politics, leading to researchers calling it as a ‘political animal’. According to the Human Rights Watch, at least 44 people—most of them Muslims—have been killed under the pretext of cow protection between May 2015 and December 2018. The animal has also been widely used by leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to instigate a violent vigilante campaign against beef consumption and those who work in the cattle trade. Several BJP leaders have publicly justified the beef-related attacks and mob lynchings, while cops have been accused of stalling prosecutions and in some cases, investigating victims.
Mani, who claims is campaigning for his cause in around 600 districts in almost all the Indian states, was born in a gaushala (cow shelter) in the Chaupad village in Uttarkashi district “drinking cow milk and playing on the banks of Ganga.” After his schooling in a gururkul (traditional school), spending a year as a shepherd and then training to be a cop, he went on to become a Sanskrit teacher in a school in Chandigarh, before leaving it all to become a full-time cow storyteller in his late twenties. He is now on a mission to use his bhakti (devotion) to take India back to “its cow loving ancient roots”. According to him, issues like terrorism, the question on Ram Mandir, the general lack of cleanliness and the complicated Kashmir issue can be solved in a matter of days—all by being nice to cows. The analogies, as explained by Mani, belong to a universe that I didn’t know existed. “Terrorism happens because so much cow blood is shed on our nation’s soil, slowly turning it into a cruel place. Bovines are made to suffer and are killed grotesquely in slaughterhouses. When they are later reincarcated as humans, is it a surprise that they become cruel men and terrorists?” Huh? What just happened?
Mani’s interpretations of history also centre around, you guessed it, cows. He believes that when Mughals in India began killing cows, the gau bhakti (cow worship) was kept alive by saints like Namdev, Tulsidas and Surdas, who “shut the mouth of the Mughals”. “In fact, Babar, the first Mughal ruler, wrote to his son Humayun, that if he wants to rule India, he shouldn’t meddle with cows,” says Mani, a claim for which there is, of course, no evidence. To solve the Kashmir issue, he calls for removal of Article 370 which gives the troubled state a special status. In fact, he thinks it’s his home state of Uttarakhand that deserves this status as 'it’s the land of the gods'.
Some of Mani’s “achievements” include fasting for 11 months while standing in the Ganga and drinking only half a glass of cow’s milk once a day. He was 25 then. He also went on a maun vrat (the vow of silence) in 2010-2011, not speaking to anyone for a year. In 2008, he wrote an entire religious text dedicated to cows: Dhenu Manas. He currently runs two organisations to work for cows, and keeps popping up on religious TV channels. One organisation, Gopal Golok Dham, cares for abandoned cows and promotes the message of its divinity, while another, Gau Kranti Manch, wants to bring about a revolution to give cows its rightful place in the Indian Constitution and to set up a separate ministry for cow welfare.
Mani has a cow-centric explanation for even more. He is of the view that Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Campaign) is failing because it’s not factoring in the holy sanctity. “Our homes were traditionally clean because our grandmothers used to purify them each morning by sprinkling cow urine on the floor and applying cow dung on the walls. It’s laughable how people who live in concrete homes think their houses are clean,” he says.
When I ask him who he considers his rivals, he tells me that “enmity and love is done with people of the same stature.” According to him, the only Indian Prime Minister who had the compassion and politeness suited to the nature of the land was Lal Bahadur Shastri. “If our present ruler really had a big chest, why has he still not got back the holy Kailash Mansarovar from China? They are all liars.” He also has issues with the country being called ‘India’. “These asurs (devils) have turned our Bharat into India. It’s time to reclaim it.”
On local issues, Mani promises due compensation to the people who were displaced due to Tehri dam, including a government job to one individual in each family. He plans to install giant pumping sets to replenish dried-up lakes in higher hilly areas, and beautify the river ghats (stairs) with grass and boundaries. However, he is opposed to tourism for places other than pilgrimage sites. “People should just go to select places. In fact, nobody from the outside should be allowed to settle here because here is something too nice, pure and divine.”
At the heart of it, Mani just wants to have this generation understand the importance of cows. “In Mahabharata, Bhishma Pitamah told Duryodhan that Bharat can’t exist without dharma (religion) and dharma can’t exist without cow. There is a saying that all Upanishads (religious texts) are in cows.” He thinks that those who eat beef wouldn’t have done so if they were “raised properly, with cows in their homes”. “Not everything is for consumption. Even poison can be consumed.”
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