- 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. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.