sacred cow
   The English idiom sacred cow was coined with ref-erence to the veneration of cows that is common in India, but it reflects a degree of misunderstand-ing. Hindus do venerate and respect cows, but they do not regularly worship them; nor do they consider them in the category of icons or sacred objects. Bulls do have some sanctity, as a bull is the iconic vehicle of Lord SHIVA.
   The weight of academic evidence shows that in VEDIC times (c. 1500–800 B.C.E.) bulls and barren cows were sacrificed by BRAHMINS, who then ate the animals. Other Indians also regularly ate beef. It was the Jains, and to some extent the Buddhists, who impressed Indian tradition with the notion of AHIMSA, the avoidance of harm to any being. Only gradually did society, led by the orthodox Brahmins, embrace VEGETARIANISM as the ideal diet and abandon the eating of meat almost completely.
   The only Hindus who still regularly eat beef are the Dalit (UNTOUCHABLE) carrion gatherers. As ahimsa became the ideal the cow began to assume an iconic role and could not be killed. Since ancient times cow’s milk has been a food staple; cow’s milk and clarified butter are still used in ritual worship.
   A sadhu and a sacred cow dressed for a festival in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh (Gustasp Irani)
   The mythological wish-giving cow Surabhi is an indication of the magic inherent in the species. A late Atharva Vedic hymn (c. 300 B.C.E.) does treat the cow as holy, proclaiming it the universe itself—the Sun, the Moon, the rain. The imagery recalls the first verses of the BRIHADARANYAKA UPA-NISHAD, which gives sacred, cosmological meaning to the HORSE SACRIFICE as an object of MEDITATION.
   No one knows exactly how the cow gained its special status in India, but it is believed that the development of ahimsa combined with the near-totemic status of the cow made the animal inviola-ble. Cows are often allowed to wander the streets to forage. Extreme consequences occur when a cow is struck by a vehicle (the driver might be physically attacked), so cows are scrupulously given the right of way on the somewhat anarchic Indian roadways. Even ownerless bulls are given similar deference.
   India, because of its monsoon climate, pos-sesses no pastureland to compare with that of North America, Europe, Argentina, or Australia. As a result, the raising of beef is not economi-cal (although many ecologists claim that feeding grain directly to people is more efficient anywhere than converting it to beef). Therefore, the preser-vation of all cows for the dairy industry (and for their dung) has local economic logic. When cattle die they are considered carrion and may be taken away and eaten by Dalits (untouchables), who may be desperately poor, lack other food sources and process the skin for leather.
   Further reading: M. K. Gandhi, How to Serve the Cow (Ahmedabad: Navjivan, 1954); Alan Heston, “An Approach to the Sacred Cow of India.” Current Anthro-pology, 12 (1971): 191–210; D. N. Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow (London: Verso, 2002); Brian K. Smith, “Eat-ers, Food and Social Hierarchy in Ancient India,” Journal of the Academy of Religion 58, 2 (1990): 177–205.

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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  • sacred cow — {n.} A person or thing that is never criticized, laughed at, or insulted even if it deserves such treatment. * /Motherhood is a sacred cow to most politicians./ * /The bold young governor had no respect for the state s sacred cows./ * /Television …   Dictionary of American idioms

  • sacred cow — {n.} A person or thing that is never criticized, laughed at, or insulted even if it deserves such treatment. * /Motherhood is a sacred cow to most politicians./ * /The bold young governor had no respect for the state s sacred cows./ * /Television …   Dictionary of American idioms

  • sacred cow — sacred cows N COUNT (disapproval) If you describe a belief, custom, or institution as a sacred cow, you disapprove of people treating it with too much respect and being afraid to criticize or question it. ...the sacred cow of monetarism …   English dictionary

  • sacred cow — Something that is a sacred cow is held in such respect that it cannot be criticised or attacked …   The small dictionary of idiomes

  • sacred cow — ► NOUN ▪ an idea, custom, or institution held to be above criticism (with reference to the respect of Hindus for the cow as a sacred animal) …   English terms dictionary

  • sacred cow — n a belief, custom, system etc that is so important to some people that they will not let anyone criticize it ▪ In New York s show business scene, money, fame and power are sacred cows …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • sacred cow — noun count something that many people think is too important to change, question, or criticize …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • sacred cow — ☆ sacred cow n. any person or thing regarded as above criticism or attack …   English World dictionary

  • Sacred cow — The term sacred cow has passed into the English language to mean an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so. [ [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sacred%20cow sacred cow Definitions from… …   Wikipedia

  • sacred cow — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms sacred cow : singular sacred cow plural sacred cows something that many people think is too important to change, question, or criticize …   English dictionary

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