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Why the holy cow?

By Kumkum Bhatia


Hindus regard all living creatures as special. Each god or goddess is associated with an animal or bird to indicate a reverence for all life, and in that, the cow holds a special place.

In the Hindu tradition, the cow is honoured, garlanded and given special feedings at festivals all over India. She remains a protected animal and the majority of Hindus do not eat beef. There are many reasons for revering the cow.


In all agrarian societies, cattle have been a symbol of wealth since ancient days. Initially, the cow was possibly revered because people relied heavily on her for her products and for tilling the fields. The five products of the cow — milk, curds, ghee butter, urine and dung — are all used in religious rites and worship.

Cattle being limited and rare in ancient India, cows enjoyed the status that gold or money enjoys today.

The milk of the family cow provides vital nourishment for all, especially growing children, giving her the status of a ‘caretaker’ and an almost maternal figure (hence the term gau mata). Cow dung is saved and used for fuel, as it is high in methane, and can generate heat and electricity.

Many village homes are plastered with a mud/cow dung mixture, which insulates the walls and floors from extreme temperatures. Cow dung is also rich in minerals, and makes an excellent fertilizer. There is a big organic farming movement in India to return to ancient methods of utilizing cow dung to re-mineralize the depleted soil.

Today, many rural Indian families have at least one dairy cow that is often treated as a family member, and as a pet by children.

Vedic literature

In ancient India, oxen and bulls were sacrificed to the gods, and their meat was eaten. Even when meat-eating was permitted, Vedic scriptures encouraged vegetarianism. One scripture says, “There is no sin in eating meat… but abstention brings great rewards.” (The Laws of Manu, V/56)

However, the slaughter of milk-producing cows was prohibited. Rig Veda 10.87.16 states: “The fiend who consumes flesh of cattle,…who slaughters the milk producing cow, O Agni, tear off the heads of such with fiery fury”. The milk-giving cow here is described as “Aghnya” which means “that what is not to be sacrificed”.

In the Vedas, cows represented wealth and a joyous earthly life. From the Rig Veda (4.28.1:6) we read: “The cows have come and have brought us good fortune. In our stalls, contented, may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us, many-coloured, giving milk for Indra each day.”

Throughout the Vedic scriptures there are verses which emphasize that the cow must be protected and cared for. This was mostly for practical, as well as spiritual reasons. It was expensive to slaughter an animal for religious rituals or for a guest, and the cow provided an abundance of important products, including milk, browned butter for lamps and fuel from dried dung.

Lord Krishna is often depicted playing His flute amongst cows. He grew up as a cow herder. Sri Krishna also goes by the names Govinda and Gopala, which literally mean “friend and protector of cows.” In most Hindu homes, the first roti of the day was and is still reserved for cows.


Ayurveda is a big proponent of the sattvic qualities of milk and dairy products. That is why most Hindus are vegetarian, but not vegan. Fresh, organic milk, yogurt, buttermilk, paneer (homemade cheese) and ghee, are all considered highly nutritious, and an important part of the diet. Not only do these dairy products provide important protein and calcium for our tissues, but also are sources of Ojas, which gives strength and immunity to the body.

Scientific research has found that burning cow dung and ghee as fuel actually purifies the air, and has anti-pollutant and anti-radiation qualities in the environment.

A Sattwic Symbol

Vedanta states that all Prakriti – nature – the entire universe is made up of the three gunassattwic, rajasic and tamasic. In all plants, animals and human beings, we see a predominance of one of them. For example, there are sattwic plants and foods (lotus, nuts and tulsi are sattwic, chilies and garlic and rajasic). Similarly in the animal kingdom, the tiger, lion and fox are rajasic, vultures and hyenas are tamasic and elephants, dolphins and cows are sattwic.

The cow is an apt symbol for all sattwic creatures. She represents the sustenance of life; she represents Mother Earth – the nourisher, the ever-giving and undemanding provider. In Vedic scriptures, whenever the earth has been subjected to intolerable afflictions by the demons, she is seen approaching the Creator in the form of a cow.

The cow takes nothing but water, grass and grain and gives an abundance of milk. By her docile and tolerant nature, she is a symbol of ahimsa, dignity, endurance, grace and selfless service. We honour her because she gives much more than she takes – a lesson for all of us on how to live in the world!

Original image here

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