(Song of the cow)

Background Introduction by Dr. Shantinath

In the region of Karnataka with fifty six counties, there lived with inexplicable splendor, a cowherd by the name of Kaalinga.

In the direction of the rising sun that illuminates the mountain peaks with reddish glow of dawn, there is a wonderful forest.

There are seven eastern mountains with a lush forest extending over twelve yojanas (one yojana is 12 miles). The forest is very dense with trees like Champak, mango, Jamun (wood apple), teak, rosewood, jakaranda, tamarind, bilva trees, banians, ficus, bamboo, kapok, sandalwood and various other trees in great many numbers.

There are myriads of flowers like Jasmine, champak, suragi, ketaki and many other kinds. Also, there are many fruit trees like Jack fruit, mangoes, jamun, plaintains, areca, coconut and many others. The forest is filled with abundant fruits and emblazoned with flowers.

Deep in the forest live many wild animals. Wild boar, wild buffalo, bison, bears, tigers, leopards, spotted deer, elephants, wolves, jackals, rabbits, wild cats, monkeys and snakes inhabit the forest. Tigresses and lionesses roam the forest with their cubs.

Birds like parrots, cuckoos, peacocks, pigeons, wild hens, kites, eagles, vultures, swans, ducks, geese and weaver birds impart great beauty to the forest.

From these mountain peaks, arise many streams filled with pure water and merge in the holy rivers flowing into the ocean.

Amidst the mountains, in the forest, the cowherd Kaalinga hada cattle pound. The cattle grazed in the mountain slopes and drank from the streams. In the evening, the cows would rush back to the pound remembering their young ones. On seeing their mothers, the calves delightedly romped around and suckled happily.

One beautiful morning, as usual, the cowherd woke up early in the morning, bathed in the river, placed the fragrant dark musk tilak (auspicious mark) on the forehead and tied his hair into a handsome knot. He wore a brief, covering it with a loin cloth and adorned himself with jewelry. He wore a red coral necklace with pendants and medallions, slipped on the emerald wrist band, armlets, anklets and a sapphire signet ring. He wore the epaulets with pale saffron coloured garments, put on a blue turban and wrapped himself in a white silken cloak.

Thus adorned, he sat under a mango tree and started playing his silver flute. He beckoned his cows by playing the flute. The music that emanated sounded like he was calling each cow by it's name, "Oh, Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Manikya (ruby) youall come", "Devi, Nirmala, Dharmavati, you too come", "Oh, Ganga, Gowri, Thungabhadra, Bhrungakuntala, you come", "Punyakoti, Kamadhenu, Punya vahini, Bhagya lakshmi.... all of you come". The cows on hearing his loving, affectionate, happy and melodious call, came and surrounded him and let their milk flow into the pots.

When the pots were filled with milk, the cowherd guided the cows towards the forest invoking the name of Govinda. The herd travelled slowly towards the forest. There were many animals in the herd; there were gentle cows, there were naughty cows, there were young bulls and there were rogue bulls. The herd passed slowly like a big dark water bearing cloud from the ocean going towards the land. They feasted on the tender green grass and had their fill of sweet water until they became satiated. After they fed and rested, the cowherd called them back and all the animals started going back to the pound, keeping steps with the tinkling bells around their necks.

In the midst of the sprawling mountain range, by the foot hill in a cavern, lived a magnificent tiger by the name of Adbhutaor wonderful. Not having had a meal the whole of the previous week, he was very hungry. Hiding at the entrance of the cave, he was, with rapt attention listening to the sounds from outside the cave. He heard the tinkling of the bells and smelling food, charged at the cows with lightning speed letting out a thunderous roar.

The frightened cows ran pell-mell scattering in each and every direction and got away from the reach of the tiger. The tiger, enraged at the site of the prey escaping , looked around and gazed at a lone cow walking slowly quite unaware of the tiger. The tiger, having found another prey, stood in the path of the cow and blocked the passage of the cow Punyakoti. The tiger said unto himself, "verily, I found my food today".

The tiger confronted Punyakoti and roared, "Hey, you cow, you eat up crops in the fields and destroy the fields, providence has sent you to me, I will make a meal of you today".

Punyakoti replied, "Oh, great tiger, I do not lay the land waste, I do not eat up the crops, I graze on the grass in the forest and drink from the streams, I provide milk for the children and help the mankind, I only follow my master's orders. Please let me pass".

The ferocious tiger thundered, "you are my prey, I will break your neck, bite your head off and suck your blood".

Punyakoti entreated the tiger, "Lord tiger, I have a child at home, let me go and suckle him. I shall return to you after seeing him".

"I have found my prey when I am hungry. If I let you slip away, you wont come back" said the tiger.

Punyakoti answered "Truth is my mother, truth is my father, truth is my friend, truth is my relative, if my action is contrary to my promise, it will not please my God Sri Hari".

"You are a female not worth believing. Even Pandavas' wife( Draupadi) did not keep up her promise" said Adbhuta the tiger. "Once you escape, will you really come back? I shall not let you go".

The cow replied, "how can I assure you that I will come back soon? Oh tiger, I do not covet dishonour in this world by uttering untruth". "I shall make an extraordinary promise". "Listen ye tiger, I swear in the names of Trimurtis, (Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer and Shiva the destroyer), I swear in the names of the Sun, the Moon and mother earth, I swear in the names of the gods of the eight directions". "The nine planets and stars as my witnesses, the great serpent Adiseshaas my witness, the four Veda scriptures as my witnesses and the boundless sky as my witness, I shall tell you the truth about me". "The holy Vedas are my breath, the sun and the moon are my eyes, the virtue of goodness is my body, the four directions are my legs, the rays of light that reach the earth and beyond are my hair, the world is my udder, four nipples are four states of exaltation, my milk is the nectar of immortality, my hump is the holy mount Meru, my progeny is the Yagnyas and Tapas (penance) and Salvation is my name".

"I seek approval and blessings of the Trimurtis, all the gods, the Gandharvas (celestial beings), the Garudas, the Yakshas, the Sidhas and other great divinities".

"This body of mine is perishable and I shall not desecrate myself by deviating from the path of Dharma (righteousness) for the sake of this mortal body. This life of mine is short lived like an air bubble on the surface of water, but my actions of righteousness and truth are eternal and that is what I shall do".

The tiger acquiesced to the supplication of Punyakoti and allowed her to go to visit her calf. The cow hurried to the pound and all the members of the herd received her with great rejoice.

Punyakoti told the calf, "come my child, drink from my breast for the last time". "I was attacked by a wicked tiger who wants to eat me. He gave me reprieve that I may feed you and bid farewell. I have promised to return to him". "My son, never go alone near that craggy mountain, the tiger will kill you".

The calf asked the mother, "Oh mother, why do you not stay here like others? Why is it that you have to die?". Overwhelmed with grief, the calf could talk no more.

The cow replied, "You are destined to live long and live well". "I cannot break my promise. I will definitely go back to the tiger. Lord Sri Hari does not approve of my being untrue".

"Mother, who will take care of me? By whose side shall I sleep at night? Whose breast will I suckle?" asked the calf.

Punyakoti addressed the other cows, "my sisters and my aunts, please care for my orphan child as your own". "Neither admonish and gore him if he comes in front of you nor kick him if he is behind you, treat the orphan with kindness".

The cows said, "why do you go back to the tiger, Punyakoti?" "Why do you have to die?" "We all will come with you if you go".

Punyakoti replied, "it is not proper that you should come with me". "This is the result of my past karmas (deeds) and I cannot escape from that". The other cows assured Punyakoti that they will take care of her son as their own child.

"My son, you are an orphan now. I shall be devoured by the tiger. This day, our relationship will end and the bond between us will be broken". So saying, Punyakoti embraced her child.

"Do not grieve for me, live on this earth according to Dharma" (righteousness) were the words of wisdom she offered. With a heavy heart, Punyakoti went to the river to take the purifying sacrificial bath.

At the river, Punyakoti invoked the spirits of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Thungabhadra, Kaveri and other rivers and completed the ablutions. Remembering the name of Lord Sri Krishna, praying for salvation, she walked calmly towards the cave and called out the tiger.

"Oh tiger, here I am as I promised. I have incurred sin for having kept you hungry and waiting. Delay no more, your food is here. Warm blood is flowing through my heart and there is plenty of meat. Dine on this to your hearts content. May you live long".

On hearing these words of Punyakoti, a great transformation came upon the tiger. He became filled with remorse and said, "you area divine being". "I cannot and will not kill and eat you. Now, you are like my elder sister. It is fit and proper that I offer my life at your feet. I am a sinner who has done great injustice to many. I have killed hundreds of animals. This kind of life must end now" and fell at the feet of Punyakoti.

Said Punyakoti to the tiger, "You do not have to give up your life, eat me and satisfy your hunger". "Lord Shivawill bless me for my sacrifice."

The tiger shed tears profusely and was very sorry for the cruel deeds of his in the past. He prayed to the Trimurtis for moksha (salvation), bowed to the gods of eight directions and hurled himself down from the mountain cliff and breathed his last.

The goddess of the forest (vanadevi) was happy that there would be no more killing, the Trimurtis approved of the tiger's repentance and gods in the sky caused a shower of flowers on earth. The soul of the tiger attained presence of Brahma, Lord Shiva accepted the tiger skin and Lord Vishnu blessed the cow.

Punyakoti slowly walked back to the great happiness and joy of the herd. They crowded around Punyakoti, eager to know what transpired. Punyakoti told them that Lord Shiva granted moksha to the tiger and she came back. All the cows jumped with joy marveling at the turn of events and offered prayers to their lord, Sri Krishna.

Kaalinga the cowherd prostrated at the feet of Punyakoti and said that he was blessed for having such a great and divine being amidst them.

Punyakoti proclaimed that her progeny and Kaalingas descendents should worship Lord Krishna at the time of winter solstice forever and ever. Lord Sri Krishna will grant all favours to those who listen to the story of Punyakoti with reverence.

Background Introduction:

Govina Haadu (Song of the Cow)
Govina kathe (Story of the Cow)


Govina Haadu is the same poem known by the above names. In southern Karnataka, the first name is used and in northern Karnataka, the second name is used.

This explanation is meant for those who are not familiar with the Indian mythological stories. The original story appears in Mahabharata epic in the section of Shanti Parva or "chapter of Peace". At the end of Mahabharata war, Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five Pandavas, asks the Grand sire, Bhishma for advise. Bhishma, laying down on death bed, comprised of arrows and awaiting an auspicious time to die, advises Yudhishthira on matters spiritual and worldly. During this discourse, Bhishma talks about truth as an integral part of righteous living and illustrates how even non human beings are bound by the laws of truth. Based on present archeological evidence available, scholars have determined that Mahabharata war took place not later than2500 B.C. In the original epic of Mahabharata, this story of the cow is mentioned as to have taken place in Karnataka (which was also known as Chappannaru Desha, meaning comprising of 56 counties or human habitations). There are minor descriptions of vegetation and animals of Karnataka. This story of the truthful cow was later, the subject of a poem known as "Govina Haadu" or the "Song of the Cow" in Kannada language. The author of "Govina Haadu" and his time are unknown. Based on the description of the land, certain flowers and animals, it appears the location of this story is around Neelagiri mountains. Although present day language in that area is Tamil, it was previously a Kannada area and was a part of "Chappanaru Desha", or "Karnata Desha" or "Karnataka" as it was variously called.

This poem is widely known in Karnataka with minor variations of certain words. In one version, the word "Karnata Desha" is used as told in the original story contained in Mahabharata. Another version states "Aivattaru Desha" (means 56 countries, most probably human habitations or towns) which was also another name of Karnataka. This is probably a later version. There are minor variations in the language of these two versions although the verses are the same. From these variations, it appears that the older version was prevalent in the areas of Southern parts of Karnataka and the later version appears to be more prevalent around Northern Karnataka. However, this story is known from antiquity.

In this story, animals are capable of talking, thinking and discriminating between righteous and wrong actions. They are like human beings in every way except their bodily forms. Just like the goal of humans is to achieve salvation, the animals' goal is also salvation and joining god or the supreme being in the end.

The characters in the story, all the animals, cows, the tiger and the cowherd have got names. The cows are named Ganga, Gowri, Thungabhadra, Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati,. Kamadhenu, Bhagyalakshmi ... and many others. One of the cows in the herd is PunyaKoti. These are all the names of rivers and goddesses given to cows. The name Punya Koti is formed by two words, Punya and Koti.Punya means holy, sacred, good, meritorious, virtuous, pious, auspicious, propitious etc. Koti means ten million, millionaire, group or class. Another meaning is, the highest point, extremity etc. The name Punya Koti applies to an extremely pious and virtuous being. It is a very apt name for this cow.

The tiger has a name too. His name is Adbhuta which means wonder, wondrous, marvelous, miracle, surprise, astonishment, like of which did not take place before, etc. This Felix Tigris extraordinaire deserves the name Adbhuta.

The name of the cowherd is Kaalinga. Kaalinga is a black cobra. When one is given this name, it is a shortened form of Kaalingamardana, he who has vanquished the great serpent Kaalinga, a name of Lord Sri Krishna who tended cows or was a cowherd in his childhood.

The names of all characters here reflect their spiritual aspects. It is not that only humans have souls and aspiration of salvation, but the animals also have souls and similar aspirations. This is in conformity with the idea of all forms of life are different manifestations of the same supreme being.

With special thanks to Dr. Shantinath ( for translation from the original Kannada text. Please drop Dr. Shantinath (and me) a note if you enjoyed this poem. We are interested in hearing/knowing who and how many are sharing in his work.