All About the Holy Cow in India

by Sharell शारेल on January 20, 2010

in Culture Shock in India, Daily Life in India

Post image for All About the Holy Cow in India

The infamous “holy cow” in India. These fearless creatures freely meander along the streets and beaches of India, getting in the way and sometimes causing accidents.

Most foreigners are familiar with the concept of sacred cows in India. Indeed, spotting a cow on the road is like a right of passage for visitors to India. I still remember the excitement of seeing my first cow — at two in the morning on a dark Delhi street.

What many people don’t understand, however, is why cows are sacred in India. And why are they left to roam all over the place, and starve to death.

I’m very grateful to Ravi, one of the readers of this blog, for providing detailed answers to these questions.

1) Why are cows sacred in India?

In order to understand this, one needs to understand a little about Hinduism. Dharma is considered to have four pillars, like how a cow has four legs. Although many animals have four legs, it is a cow’s four legs that the four pillars of dharma are compared with. What is the reason? From the ancient age in India, people have been drinking cow’s milk, rather than the milk of other animals. Scientifically, it has been proven that cow’s milk can provide us with the greatest amount of health. For example, buffalo milk has a lot of fat and calories. Now, we consider the cow as mother who suckles milk, whether or not she has given birth to that which has her milk. This places the cow in the equivalent position of a mother, as it has been nourishing us with its milk from ancient times in India.

If we peruse the Upanishads or various Puranas (Hindu mythological texts), then we will find that mother earth has been represented as cow or Gau mata/mother cow. When the earth was polluted by the demons in the ancient time, and it became intolerable for the humans to continue their existence, mother earth represented herself as cow and went to the supreme lord and sought help, to save her and her sons and daughters. So, this is another reason for considering cows as sacred.

2) If cows are so sacred in India, why are they left to roam all over the place, and starve to death?

In answering this question, it’s necessary to keep in mind the socio-economic conditions of Indians. With the passing of time, the values and scriptural mandates have started to gather rust. As a result, they have started to fade away from our day-to-day lifestyle. Cows are holy, but nowadays only few people will come forward to provide them with shelter. People in the cities have no time and space for them. They don’t even have time and space for their old parents, and so thinking about cows would be utter foolishness.

In rural India, you will still find the flavour of ancient India, as cows are still used for agriculture. Certain Hindu religious organizations are also playing an active role in providing safe shelter for them. But still, very little has been done for these holy animals.

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{ 87 comments… read them below or add one }

Amit Desai January 25, 2010 at 1:24 am

“Germany wasn’t even a civilization.”

True, just like my own culture/province, Gujarati is one of newest languages/cultures of India and has many distinct characteristics as culture. Does it mean that we have no connection with Vedic culture or any other ancient Indian cultures? Nonetheless, linguistics lack empirical evidence, the evidence which is lost with those dead. And assumptions can be made either way.

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Indian American January 25, 2010 at 1:50 am

Gujarati was formed out of sanskrit. Gujarat has connections with Vedic culture as well as the Indus Valley Civilization. Lothal in Gujarat was one of the major towns of the civilization. They say Indus valley civilization and vedic culture has no relationship but its false, both are related to each other by culture as well as by language.

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Amit Desai January 25, 2010 at 2:22 am

IA, “They say Indus valley civilization and vedic culture has no relationship…”

This is because the Indus script is not decipherable and hence it has been concluded that it can not have any connection with Brahmi/Devanagari scripts which have been deciphered and found similar to European scripts/languages.

“but its false, both are related to each other by culture as well as by language.”

In terms of culture, yes true to an extent. In terms of language, false (we need more evidence to prove it true). The obvious conclusion remains same more or less, “the superior culture (Aryans) influencing the interior(people of Lothal) one”.

“How come they dont accept the fact that numbers were invented by the Indians?”

Because, by 10th century, the Roman numerals were replaced by Arabic numerals and Europeans always thought that these new numerals were invented by Arabs. The fact that, Arab borrowed them from Indians and modified them. One evidence is the book of an Italian mathematician, who translated one or more mathematical books from India and clearly mentioned about the superior numerical knowledge of Indian mathematicians/astrologers.
Yet, other cultures too have good idea about numerals which make the situation complicated.
One thing is sure though, the numbers were invented in Asia for sure, if not in India. This is where the West sucks and will remain a sucker. :lol:

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Indian American January 25, 2010 at 7:52 am

‘This is because the Indus script is not decipherable and hence it has been concluded that it can not have any connection with Brahmi/Devanagari scripts which have been deciphered and found similar to European scripts/languages. ‘

Cuneiform was deciphered along with Hieroglyphics but the Indus Script for some reason isn’t that easy to decipher. Maybe somebody smart will decipher it in the future and bring it to light the secrets of those stone tablets. The superior intelligence of the people who built the civilization has been shown on the stone tablets. They created it in such a way that people in the future would have a hard time knowing whats written on it.

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Amit Desai January 25, 2010 at 8:45 am

IA, “Cuneiform was deciphered along with Hieroglyphics…”

True. Since we understand everything with regards to a particular context, we always need the relative information in order to understand anything. With out you talking or writing, I can never understand anything about you (what about behavior and body language, eh?). Cuneiform was deciphered with respect to other relevant info. For Indus script, we have no relative information that is useful. (Plus, government is not so much interested in attracting the talented youth in archeology).

“…but the Indus Script for some reason isn’t that easy to decipher.”

Aha…Indus Script is orchestrated by Gods themselves. ;) Sharell would believe it. :lol:

“Maybe somebody smart will decipher it in the future and bring it to light the secrets of those stone tablets.”

Smartness is a very loose idea and very relative. So everyone is dumb in one or more ways (surprisingly, me too :lol: )

“They created it in such a way that people in the future would have a hard time knowing whats written on it.”

I have hard time believing your statement. :lol:

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Indian American January 25, 2010 at 9:46 am

“. For Indus script, we have no relative information that is useful. (Plus, government is not so much interested in attracting the talented youth in archeology). ”

Many other ancient scripts have gone undeciphered. People didn’t put much emphasis on trying to decipher it. I am sure with the latest technology, somebody would be able to decipher the scripts. Its only a matter of time and interest.

“I have hard time believing your statement.”

I was trying to some emphasis on their smartness.

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Abdullah K. January 25, 2010 at 11:07 am

@ Indian American – “Germanic Aryans were an idea formed by Hitler who didn’t know the true meaning of that word.”

True. For propaganda reasons, Hitler didn’t actually care who are the real Aryans and who are not. He decided for himself who’d be Aryans and who won’t.
 

@ Indian American – “Cars were invented in the West, obviously.”

The car is an Eastern invention. The first automobile was built in 1672 by Ferdinand Verbiest in China, during the reign of the Qing dynasty.
 

@ Indian American – “I haven’t looked into it much as I know Europeans will never accept whatever you say. And that’s what reflected in books so far.”

Depends on what Europeans you’re talking about. Continental Europeans (French, Spanish, etc.) have a much more open minded and realistic grasp of history than the Anglo Saxons.
 

@ Indian American – “I’d call that a joke of many milleniums.”

Who knows? If you were not of Indian origin, you’d probably have been rubbishing any arguments to the contrary.
 

@ Indian American – “How come they dont accept the fact that numbers were invented by the Indians?”

Because it was the Arabs who codified the decimal number systems and sold the idea to the rest of the world. Since the Arabs were pioneers of science and technology during that era, no one really doubted that it wasn’t one of their own inventions.

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Amit Desai January 25, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Abdullah K: “Depends on what Europeans you’re talking about. Continental Europeans (French, Spanish, etc.) have a much more open minded and realistic grasp of history than the Anglo Saxons.”

From a few computer science and mathematics books I have gone through so far, the Americans authors mostly agree that numerals were invented by Indians and then were coded by Arabs. These authors call it “Hindu-Arabic numerals”. In India, I learned that only zero was invented by India, not the whole number system.

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Amit Desai January 25, 2010 at 2:27 pm

IA, “Many other ancient scripts have gone undeciphered.”

World, for the most part, is still a mystery and so many facts have been lost or unknown to us, yet today in the 21st century.

“People didn’t put much emphasis on trying to decipher it. I am sure with the latest technology, somebody would be able to decipher the scripts. Its only a matter of time and interest.”

Certainly, You have lots of faith in “technology” and “somebody”. I do like confident persons like you. :lol:

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Abdullah K. January 25, 2010 at 3:34 pm

@ Indian American – “Aren’t Germans mostly Anglo Saxon?”

Germans are Saxons. As they are not Anglophones (English-speaking), they are not Anglo-Saxons.
 

@ Indian American – “Even if I wasn’t an Indian, archeological evidence shows that Indus Valley Culture was created by Indians who lived in Sindh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab…..Utter rubbish.”

Because you are aware of it. What if you weren’t? Not very long ago, you were subscribing to the American belief that it was Americans who saved Europe from the Nazis. Or that it was Americans who have been saving the world from ‘evil empires’. (I have brought your comment here since I made the other post by mistake.)
 

@ Indian American – “From a few computer science and mathematics books I have gone through so far, the Americans authors mostly agree that numerals were invented by Indians and then were coded by Arabs.”

Try the mathematics books of the early 90s and past. There is no reference to “Hindu” or “India” there. It is just “Arabic numerals”.

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Amit Desai January 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Abdullah K:”Try the mathematics books of the early 90s and past. There is no reference to “Hindu” or “India” there. It is just “Arabic numerals”.”

Of course, that was my point as well. In fact, even today, you will find many books where it’s just “Arabic numerals”. This is the reason I said that this fact is not widely believed.

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aham January 26, 2010 at 2:48 pm

@Amit

“If animals roaming on the street is disturbance to many people, one possible solution is to eat them, and that way we satisfy our hunger and clean streets at the same time. ;)”

a brilliant idea, but one minor problem, nobody can kill a species human which itself is called a ‘social animal’ to eat humans, see it would fit your idea of cleaning the streets and the hunger part too, the world is over-populated, so eating humans might well be a solution as per your own logic, oh no wait a min, we can kill humans to eat?? awwww we are so important, a cow or a any other animal isnt so right? well thats what i expect from us humans.

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Amit Desai January 27, 2010 at 1:02 am

Aham (pride-ego, eh!), “…nobody can kill a species human which itself is called a ’social animal’ to eat humans…”

First, anybody can kill humans, (just don’t get caught). Eating humans can certainly be the last option if we have nothing else to eat or some humans are too useless to be used for anything.

“…the world is over-populated, so eating humans might well be a solution as per your own logic…”

It depends on the situation and priority. If the poorest-weakest humans can be used for slavery, why kill them for food? Plus, it’s just intuitive for any animal not to eat the same animals.

“…awwww we are so important…”

True. But it’s not always about this. I can sense you as a potential misanthropic (I am not too far from you either ;) ). So, try to think from a higher level of consciousness. Why are we so important??

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Dave January 27, 2010 at 6:56 am

My impression of the cow’s role, coming from a social/economic analysis, is that the cow is holy because everything it does is for the benefit of the people: as anyone who has driven around U.P knows, even its waste is precious — which is why they build those structures to keep it dry from the rains. Such an amazing animal needs to be protected by religious decree.

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aham January 27, 2010 at 7:42 pm

@Amit

You can say I am a misanthrope though not completely, I dont agree that we can do whatever we want on earth, some people treat anything other than themselves has to be enjoyed and that they can behave anyway they want, I agree cows should not be let to roam on the streets as its dangerous to them as well as everyone else, but what about the people who eat them and act like they care about cows on the streets.The bottom line is humans need nature not the other way around.

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Amit Desai January 28, 2010 at 1:25 am

Aham, “You can say I am a misanthrope though not completely…”

Have you read about Friedrich Nietzsche – a German philosopher. Reading one of his book may help you become a complete misanthrope. ;)
I can suggest many other readings as well if you like. :lol:

“I dont agree that we can do whatever we want on earth…”

Who’s gonna stop “us”?

“The bottom line is humans need nature not the other way around…”

I appreciate the environmentalists for their resistance, yet I don’t agree with them. Because the nature is nothing but an idea of human mind. Humans believe in “give and take”, “need and responsibility” and so on…But nature does not (it does in a higher sense only). The nature, world and universe are nothing but ‘a constant transformation’. Humans/animals are just small part of this huge transformation and they are gonna live and die infinitely. Killing nature will not kill nature, rather, transform “us” into a new entity and thereby transforming the nature, once more.

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thequark February 3, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Its all related to agriculture and many cultural practices are rooted in agriculture. There are multiple factors involved in any cultural phenomenon in India. This is so for any culture across globe but an evolutionary vs revolutionary trend has ensured influences can be traced back from thousands of years.

So cows are revered because they were deeply embedded in agricultural process and economy. You can use your cow’s milk for your own home, sell surplus, use cow dung for manure, energy source and home cooling. I have seen even cow urine being used for easing pregnancy pains!

However as you correctly pointed out cities have a neglect for status of cows as they are there only for their milk and there is no other cultural, economic space in which they are embedded.

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thequark February 3, 2010 at 4:22 pm

It is always interesting to read people talking about Indo-Aryan theories, Indo-Germainic languages, scriptures and esp. Dharma

A non-codified set of beliefs and practices backed by oral culture which has not given itself the name which is used to attribute it and where most traditions are not scripture based ensures mind boggling experience for rational mind (which many a times happen to be Western). Let me explain:

Non-codified: There are scriptures which act as code of conduct but there are often exceptions more than rules. Everything is context dependent. Many scriptures would be antithetical to each other. Many scriptures which are called “Shrutis” are time specific, they are relevant for their own time and have to reinterpreted in each era

Oral culture: Vedas, Upanishads and lot of “texts” were not written and have been orally passed down by generations, open to revisions.

Nomenclature: In most of the classical scriptures there is no mention of the word Hindu, it is the invaders who named it after people who live across the river Indu (Indu-> Sindhu -> Hindu)

Non-scripture based practices: Vedas don’t have most of deities worshiped in India. Most of religious ceremonies are based on Puranas and not Vedas.

By these points how can a rational mind come to terms with Hinduism as a “religion”. It is not, it is more of a fractal social setup with influences from invaders to ancient culture to the West.

Meat eating part: There are MANY Hindus and tribal cultures which traditionally eat meat.

To understand better I would suggest anyone here to read MN Srinivas’ the remembered village, it is a anecdotal light, insightful read of his anthropological study in 1948 in village of Rampura in South India

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Vikas December 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm

The thing about Hinduism is that nothing is written down as final unlike in Abrahamic religions.It is a way of questioning and answer.Hinduism allows greater reasoning.If tomorrow you come with a better idea then it stands but it is still open to questioning and it becomes bettered with another idea day after tomorrow !

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lovefrom1stbite February 10, 2010 at 10:51 pm

That means that Hindus dont eat beef, I suppose. Right? If they don’t, then I guess they shouldn’t be drinking the milk from the cow either..

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Sharell February 11, 2010 at 8:20 am

Hi lovefrom1stbite, this is an interesting point you’ve raised. I think they view the milk as nourishment provided by the cow, and therefore okay to drink. I always get confused when I go to a pure veg restaurant though — eggs are considered as “non veg” and aren’t served. However, milk is “veg” and it’s readily available!

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Amit Rohit December 17, 2013 at 4:21 pm

hello, your blog is very interesting. First of all hindu was never a religion… it was a name given to the people living near and around the river ‘indus’ as known to western people of the world and river ‘indu’ by the middle asian . By the way you may have figured out that “hindu” and indu are very matching and this is where the name came. the people living by the river indus never called themselves hindu… it was a name given by the middle asian people who came there for trade or whatever the reason is.. in a nutshell it was the name through which people living by the river indu were reffered…. the religion in india can not be defined by any name in short… though many hardliners(people who have extrimist type thinking) call it by the name hindu. The indian mythological and religious is said to be teachings of lord Krishna to his deciples Arjun. He never said that a person can be categorized by any thing else but except for his karma(i.e., his work or deeds). I think Hindu is more of a culture then religion and if it is considered as a religion then it has changed so much from the past that it can not be said as the same thing as it was 2000 years before. people may think that why i am comparing it with the time 2000 years back but isn’t this is a fact that hinduism is even more older then that and if someone calls himself a hindu then he must be true to what were its teaching back them must be same now. But it is not the same, then how can people call that they are hindu when they are not following its teaching. Also, they want people to follow the way of hinduism which they know and are ready to kill on the name of religion(The point is the culture has absorbed so much from the past that most people dont know what hinduism is and are ready to give a piece of their mind if someone talks about this religion because it doesn’t matches to the same concept of hinduism in which he believes even though even if the person giving a piece of his mind is wrong in his concept.).

and for lovefrom1stbite… you are putting a logic then let me put a logic and please don’t take it as an offence… when a child is infant he drinks milk from his mother’s breast does this gives the infant the right to kill her mother one day and eat her flesh?
i am waiting for a reply.

we respect cow as a mother .. you may have caught the sentiments from my above question why they are treated by the hindus.

anyway Sharell… you are a good writer no doubt about it
have a good day.

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Amit Rohit December 17, 2013 at 4:25 pm

sorry i missed to write the name of the mythological book… its Bhagwat Gita… It contains the teachings of lord Krishna to Arjun.

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Amit Desai February 11, 2010 at 11:26 am

“…If they don’t, then I guess they shouldn’t be drinking the milk from the cow either…”

Please don’t confuse ‘Hinduism’ it with ‘vegan-ism’. As Sharell pointed out, milk is considered ‘okay’ as human babies drink milk from their mothers. Besides, milk is more like vegetables, ‘not living organs’ like animals.

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Amit Desai February 11, 2010 at 11:29 am

“…eggs are considered as “non veg” and aren’t served…”

Natural eggs are ‘near living organs’, and therefore, considered non-veg. As a side not, how many of you support (or not) the idea of abortion? Hindus had applied a similar logic to ‘eggs’.

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Abdullah K. February 11, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Fertilised eggs are considered ‘non-veg’ as they have the potential to hatch and hence, are considered ‘living’. By the way, there are a lot of Hindu-centric cultures which are traditionally meat eating (Eg, the Bengalis).

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Auroracoda February 12, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Because I know you’ve been waiting for me to come and say it….

“LOOK Sharell!!!! A COW!” :D hehe

Excellent and informative post by the way and thanks for sharing!

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Amit Desai February 13, 2010 at 9:38 am

“…By the way, there are a lot of Hindu-centric cultures which are traditionally meat eating (Eg, the Bengalis)…”

Hinduism is not about ‘vegetarianism’ as whole. Only Hindu-Brahmins tend to have more inclination towards ‘pure vegetarianism’, yet, there are many exception to this as well. Vedas had often alluded towards ‘cow-eating’ as some of early the Aryan tribes may have been meat-eaters. There may have been a few tribes in India who later embraced Hinduism and became Brahmins. As the myth goes in southern Gujarat, people of my caste are often considered ’2nd rate Brahmins’ (Brahmins by conversion) who also may have been meat-eaters.

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Eduard Khil May 25, 2011 at 7:53 am

a good site

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Anuj May 25, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Sharell, I find it surprising that you have lived in india for so many years but have still not understood the reason why indians do not eat beef.

Hindus do not eat “cow” for the same reason why americans do not eat a “dog” or a “horse”.

It is a moral thing. It is a societal norm.

A horse is regarded as a “companion”
A dog is regarded as a “man’s best friend”
A cat too has some attachment with the human psyche

Similarly, a cow is regarded as a “mother” by the hindus. This attributed personification carries a little more weight and can ignite emotional reactions among the hindus.

So while the west considers eating a horse or a dog as morally incorrect, the hindus consider eating cows as “adharmic” or “against core morals”.

Questions like the following are an indirect borderline attempt to know whether you are an “immoral” person.
*Are you a muslim?
*Are you a christian?

The argument about the whites goes like this…
If you are white, then you must be a christian and you must eat beef. How can you people kill the mother which fed you milk as an infant? How can you consume the mothers body? You must be immoral people. You build huge buildings but you are intellectually zero. You do things that make you happy but you do not follow moral codes.

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Anand August 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Well, Cow sacredness is symbolic. Cow symbolise Holy Mother. The Milk mother gives is knowledge. we can compare with Egyptian goddess Isis and Horus… (depicted as isis feeding horus)If we see these things in dreams (cow or milk) represents these things.

Cheers
Anand

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Sajjan Pillai December 29, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Hi Sharell,

First of all no intention to hurt anyone intentions, Cow is regarded as all giving, the milk transforms into butter then clarified butter then so on so forth but in return it does not asks for anything its all giving, hence Aryans as so called Hindus termed as mother she is not jealous, without expectations and all emotions involved like a mother. whereas a dog is territorial it has its own space doesn’t like intruders can become jealous hence all emotions involved like a insecure entity hence looked down upon as in the from p.o.v of the scripture.
Hence there is nothing to ponder to eat beef or not or if milk is veg or non veg it all depends on the point of view rather looking beyond the apparent people are trying to justify or argue which point of view works in consensus with our own beliefs

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Lauren January 11, 2014 at 2:47 pm

I think the roaming cows are one of my most favourite parts of India!
Really informative post! :D

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aobe amber January 13, 2014 at 4:31 pm

You still can see roaming cows in our villages, but recently less because it became very expensive to feed a cow for the family.

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