This article appeared in Economic Times, May, 2005

Raw milk for Shiva and butter for Krishna. That is what my mother told me whenever we went to temples. I have come to realize this divine culinary rule is very much the norm across India.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit both Tirupati and Varanasi. At Tirupati, the offering made to the distant and awesome Balaji (a form of Vishnu/Krishna) was food cooked in pure clarified butter. At Varanasi, I poured unboiled milk on the linga of Kashi Vishwanath (a form of Shiva).

Most Hindus follow this practice mechanically. For Hinduism is an orthopraxic religion. Piety is in the doing, not in the understanding. For hundreds of years, millions of devotees have poured raw milk on Shiva’s sacred image and offered butter to Krishna/Vishnu without trying to understand why.

The answer has a logic, a mythical logic, based on faith not reason, offering a window to the Hindu soul.

Shiva is an ascetic god. So withdrawn from all things worldly that he does not have a form. Anyone, men and women of all castes, are allowed to touch his sacred image. His temples – except those in the Brahmanical superstructures of the south – are usually open-air under Banyan or Pipal trees. By contrast, Vishnu participates in worldly life by taking various incarnations. As Krishna, he dances and sings and celebrates all things worldly. His temples are like palaces. He is the king, distant yet loving, reaching out to his devotees who stand for hours seeking an audience and presenting petitions.

If one imagines, milk to be a metaphor of life, then raw milk is life as it comes while butter is what one can make out of life/milk. Raw milk is fit for the ascetic Shiva who does not bother to change the world. Rich creamy butter on the other hand is for the royal Vishnu who changes the world/milk, with effort – churning, struggling, fighting, loving, enjoying. Seen through the language of symbols, the Hindu practice of offering milk to Shiva and butter to Vishnu/Krishna makes sense.

We rarely notice that blood sacrifice is offered primarily to the Goddess, rarely to the Gods. It is always milk and milk products for male deities, blood for female deities. Female deities are also offered lemons and chillies, sour and pungent food. Why? The reason is, in the language of symbols, female forms represent the world around us – external reality. Male forms represent the world within us – the mind, the soul, the consciousness, the inner reality.

The world is everything there is – good and bad, right and wrong. In her benevolent forms, the world/Goddess is associated with sugarcane and milk. In her malevolent forms the world/Goddess is associated with blood and sour/bitter/pungent stuff.

Shiva and Vishnu are forms of consciousness responding to this world. The former prefers her as raw milk and accepts her soaked in blood. The latter prefers her as butter and loves and protects her so she does not cry for blood. Shiva reflects the individual who accepts life as it comes; Vishnu who demands the best of life and is willing to work for it.

These are the language of symbols through which are ancestors are communicating their wisdom to us. You may be relishing your milk and butter. But are you listening to them?