Phooka is the practice of blowing air into a cow’s vagina or anus with either a pipe or the mouth in order to induce the milking process. It’s practiced everywhere from India to Africa to Ireland where, in 1608, the Englishman Thomas Dinley observed many a cowherd with a “shitten” nose on emerging from the cow’s hindquarters.

In his autobiography, Gandhi wrote that he was so disgusted by the practice that he developed a lifelong aversion to cow’s milk. Ironically, it was Gandhi, too, who was instrumental in the elevation of the cow to a potent political symbol for the emerging Indian nation.

But such contradictions can be seen throughout India. On one hand, cows are treated pretty shabbily on a day-to-day basis but, on the other, a train driver would rather kill his five hundred passengers than ram into an oblivious bovine chewing her cud on the tracks.

Still, do Indians actually “worship” cows? That is a matter of some controversy. It could be that a rural culture in which the cow was once the primary form of household wealth was, over time, (mis)interpreted by a series of European reporters as one in which the cow was god.

(Even in the West, the word “capital” has the same root as “cattle.” Both are from the Latin “caput” or head. In Roman times, a wealthy man was one who had many heads of cattle.)

It’s Not Just the Hindoos

It’s interesting, though, that many of these European visitors to India came from central Europe, where, according to the writer Florian Werner, the yodeling cowherds were no less enamored of their bovine friends than the ululating Hindoos.

This would certainly appear to be the case if you look at some of the German poetry that Werner quotes in his book, Cow: A Bovine Biography (Barthold Heinrich Brockes: “Watching you, my dearest cow/ Being milked, I wonder how/ It can be that inside you/ Grass can turn, if all well chewed/ Into drink as well as food./ It’s a miracle! You do/ Distill goodness all for free./ Tell me, human, that indeed/ To him who all this has decreed/ Now and always glory be!” Or Justinus Kerner writing of a calf about to face its end: “But with your last breath I can quite clearly see/ Your eyes speaking, shiny and awed:/ ‘I too have a soul that’s alive within me./ I too will be judged by a god.’”).

At an earthier level, the intimate, heartfelt relations between cow and cowherd were captured by the Kuhreihen, the Swiss cow-calling songs. So strong an effect did these songs have on their listener, that they were forbidden to Swiss soldiers stationed overseas, because they caused a terrible, overwhelming homesickness.

Going further west, to the wild, wild West, cowboy and cow shared a similar understanding in the 1925 Buster Keaton film Go West.

A Biological Basis to the Insanity?

Now here’s the kicker. Recent scientific research could prove that there actually is more to the human-bovine relationship than the fervid imaginings of impressionable minds.

Scientists are now considering the revolutionary idea that we are not biological individuals, but exist in long-term partnerships with a host of other species for our survival.

In the early modern era, concepts like the individual and the division of labor in advanced societies were making their way into the public consciousness. These in turn affected the way the early classical biologists conceived of the individual: alone and apart from her surroundings, all her organs working in tandem to ensure her survival.

In fact, there is significant interaction between animals and symbiotic microorganisms (i.e. symbionts) that disrupt the boundaries of the individual. In light of these findings, scientists are now arguing that animals can no longer be considered individuals either by anatomical or physiological criteria, because of the essential role of the symbionts in the life of a cell. In the place of the individual, we now have the holobiont, the multicellular eukaryote plus its colonies of persistent symbionts.1

Studies done in Europe within the past five years have given much credence to a protective dairy farm effect, whereby the microbial diversity that ensues from just three exposures in utero or early life —to cows, straw and unprocessed cow’s milk—can protect a person from asthma and other allergies well into adulthood.

 

This is only the tip of the iceberg. As science makes headway in understanding the composition of the human microbiome and its impact on everything from autoimmune diseases to our mental health, it might become possible to gain a better understanding of whether cows and humans are in actual symbiosis, the two species forming a single ecological unit.

 

After all, the aurochs—the wild ancestors of today’s cows—cleverly got humans to domesticate them to the extent that they now need do nothing to ensure their survival. This is literally the case: many industrialized dairy farms use artificial insemination to propagate the species. And then we have humans murdering each other to protect cows’ lives.

In return, humans get valuable protein in the form of milk, cheese, yoghurt, ghee and beef, and other byproducts such as leather, fertilizer and fuel. Modern science now suggests a new dimension, showing how at a fundamental, molecular level, the presence of cows seems to be essential —in ways not yet understood—to the continued survival of our species.