The Sacred Cow

The sacrality of the cow is an ancient, but common custom to most Hindus. The concept of zebu cattle (go) as an important part of society in India has been dated back to the times of the Harappan civilization. During post-Harappan times, the Aryans, who were pastoral cattle herders would also have known of the importance of the cow in a functioning agricultural society. This may be part of the reason why there are frequent references to cows associated with various deities in the Vedas (O’Toole 61). Despite the natural predator-prey relationship that would be expected to form between them, the Hindu people and cattle share a different type of bond. Archaeological evidence suggests that cattle, especially the bull, were elevated to a more prominent status than that of a mere food source. Through numerous representations of seals and figurines depicting domestic zebu cattle, collected over time, one can come to understand the level of significance the cow has played in the history and development of the Hindu religion.

Cow sitting amid the debris of temple flower offerings (Varanasi)

The principle of noninjury to living beings (ahisma), which began to develop near the end of the Vedic period, is heavily applied to cows and bulls in the Hindu religion. Sometimes, this attitude can be taken exceedingly seriously (Korom 188). For instance, an anti-cow-slaughter legislation has been proposed and protected by the constitution of India. The sentiment for cow protection was at a climax during the “Anti-Cow Killing” riot of 1893, where riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out over the public demonization of those who consumed beef (Yang 580). Many Hindus practice vegetarianism, which is encouraged in verses from The Laws of Manu (Buhler 100). Although consumption of beef is considered taboo in orthodox Hinduism, numerous other cow by-products are found useful in everyday life (Rodrigues 117). It is obvious that the issue of cattle treatment is very sensitive to the Hindu people, and if agitated it has the potential to become reason for violence.

Devotion to the cow is displayed in a great deal of the religious, domestic, and social customs of the Hindu people; the use of cow ghee is popular in religious and household practices and for Hindus, it is not unheard of to have a cow inside one’s house (Crooke 277). Vedic literature suggests that the economic aspects of the cow were portrayed as having vital roles in sacrifices (yajna), which were held to maintain the cosmic order (rta). Along with being victims of the sacrifice, the goods produced from cattle were used for oblation (havis) (Korom 187). Cow products, including ghee, milk, urine, and dung are commonly used in many Hindu practices and household rites (grhya). Often, a Hindu may apply a mark to their forehead (tilak) made from a mixture composed of several natural ingredients, including cow dung. Usually, this mark is indicative of sectarian affiliation, but can have different symbolisms as well (Hawley 252). It is clear that for many Hindus, cows can easily be an inherent part of everyday life.

Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas-relief depicting a domestic scene with cows, who are revered in the Hindu tradition; Mahabalipuram, India

Hindu scriptures have been interpreted to describe cow worship and reinforce the concept that cows are a sacred part of the Hindu tradition. Collectively, cattle are depicted more often than any other animals in Vedic literature (Korom 187). The Vedas have equated the cow with the mother of gods, Aditi, the earth (prthivi), cosmic waters, maternity, poetry, and speech (vac) (Jha 38). Vedic myths may also portray cows as the cosmic waters from which the cosmic order (rta) is established. A Rg Veda myth also equates the calf with the sun, as a pregnant cow may be responsible for such aspects of creation as water, heat, and light (Korom 190).  In the Atharva Veda X:10 the cow is praised and its body parts are depicted as giving rise to all aspects of life itself (Embree 40-41). The Rg Veda describes numerous hymns dedicated to the worship of cows, where they often appear as symbols of wealth and rivers (Srinivasan 161). Although expressive of the important role of the cow in Hindu society, Vedic literature possesses little evidence to suggest the concept of non-violence (ahisma) towards cattle was applicable at that time (Korom 187). In more recent literature, ahisma appears to have become more prominent. The term is mentioned several times in the Bhagavad Gita, and presents itself in the closely related religions of Jainism and Buddhism (Korom 188). Also, being a highly influential text, although not divinely perceived (smrti), The Laws of Manu have influenced the customs of many Hindu people by discouraging eating meat, drinking liquor, and carnal intercourse (Buhler 100). The cow has also appeared as a goddess (devi) in Hindu mythology. For example, Kamadhenu, a wish-granting bovine-goddess was believed to have emerged from the churning of the Milk Ocean (Rodrigues 308). Thought to have originated from a similar fashion as Kamadhenu, the Vedic goddess of glory, Sri, was thought to be linked with the fertility of the land and to have had an abode composed of cow dung (Rodrigues 317). The Hindu epics (itihasa), particularly the Mahabharata, and the puranas also serve to provide justification of the orthodoxy of cattle (Korom 189).

Evidently, the sacred cow practice is a vital element of Hindu culture. Since they give seemingly limitless useful products, but take nothing but grass and water, cattle as symbols of benevolence and generosity are frequently recognized and supported by many Hindu texts. The ideal of preserving life has resulted in a widely environmentally friendly approach by much of the Hindu population. The belief in reincarnation after death, and following of the Dharmic ideal has undoubtedly influenced the vegetarian diet practiced by many Hindus. Of course, not all Hindus take part in vegetarianism or cow-worship, but it is safe to assume that the higher status of the cow is accepted as a norm for much of the Hindu culture.

Bibliography

O’Toole, Therese (2003) Secularizing the sacred cow: the relationship between religious reform and Hindu nationalism. New Delhi : Oxford University Press

Korom, Frank J. (2000) Holy Cow! The apotheosis of Zebu, or why the cow is sacred in Hinduism. Asian Folklore Studies 59 (2): 181-203.

W. Crooke (1912) The Veneration of the Cow in India. Folklore 23 (3): 275-306.

Embree, Ainslie T. (1996) The Hindu Tradition: Reading in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc.

Rodrigues (2006) Hinduism – The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Yang, Anand (1980) Sacred Symbol and Sacred Space in Rural India: Community Mobilization in the “Anti-Cow Killing” Riot of 1893. Comparative Studies in Society and History 22 (4): 576-596.

Hawley, John (2006) The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Srinivasan, Doris (1979) Concept of the Cow in the Rigveda. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

Jha, D.N. (2002) The Myth of the Holy Cow. New Dehli: CB Publishers.

Buhler, George (2008) The Laws of Manu. Charleston, South Carolina: Forgotten Books.

Related Research Topics

Ahisma

Aryans

Dharma

Grhya

Kamadhenu

Laws of Manu

Prthivi

Tilak

Rig Veda

Related Websites

http://www.religionfacts.com/hinduism/things/cow.htm

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/manu.htm

http://hinduism.about.com/od/vegetarianism/a/holycows.htm

http://history-of-hinduism.blogspot.com/2008/09/holy-cow.html

Holy Cow: The Holiness of Hindu Herds (reprise)

Article written by Janine Andreas (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

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