Why do Hindus believe cows are sacred?

Why do Hindus believe cows are sacred? April 17, 2017

THE QUESTION:  What’s the background on Hinduism’s belief in “sacred cows”? (Posed by The Religion Guy himself, not a reader, because the topic is in the news.)


Press reports from India say street vigilantes and the government in Uttar Pradesh state are campaigning against Muslim slaughterhouses accused of processing cows, which is illegal, instead of buffaloes, which is allowed and constitutes a large industry. Though Muslims deny the charge, Reuters reports that thousands of butcher shops have been shut. In Gujarat state, meanwhile, the maximum punishment for killing a cow has been increased from seven years to life in prison.

India is offically non-sectarian but has a lopsided Hindu majority, and the current national government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is Hindu nationalist in character. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat till 2014. The BJP recently won a lrge victory in Uttar Pradesh elections and installed strong-willed Hindu sage Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister. In BJP-ruled Rajasthan state, the cabinet includes a minister for cows.

There’ve been some riots and even a lynching over cow issues during recent years. In times past, regimes even executed cow-killers. Since the 19th Century the nation has seen the rise of militant societies devoted to cow protection. Due to this religious heritage, many cattle roam city streets and the countryside unhindered. For some, reverence extends to bulls and oxen.

Though heavily Hindu, India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan. As with states’ “anti-conversion” laws aimed especially at hindering Christians, crackdowns on Muslims over cows reflect popular feeling among Hindus. Religion News Service reports there’s also sporadic persecution against atheists.

A new Pew Research report on 198 countries judges India to be the world’s fourth worst in “social hostilities involving religion,” exceeded only by Syria, Nigeria, and Iraq. It also ranks India in the “high” category for “government restrictions” on religion. See http://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/11/global-restrictions-on-religion-rise-modestly-in-2015-reversing-downward-trend.

It’s often said Hindus “worship” cows. At the annual cow festival the animals are bathed and offered garlands and treats amid emotional weeping that for outsiders looks for all the world like devotion to divinities. But Hindu authors say cows are merely venerated, not worshiped, and this because of their close association with the gods, especially Shiva, Nandi, Krishna (a cowherd as a youngster), and with goddesses in general because of cows’ maternal attributes.

Unique to the Hindu faith, cow protection is an example of major religious evolution, since historians tell us that thousands of years ago believers ritually sacrificed cows and ate their flesh. But a ban on those practices gradually spread and then became absolute.

Religious historian Bruce Lincoln of the University of Chicago, among other experts, wrote that the roots of cow veneration are “considerably older” than Hinduism’s broad commitment to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) and corresponding regard for all animals.

In the early second millennium B.C.E., hymns collected in the Rig Veda upheld cows as “beings not to be killed.” Lincoln considered it likely that cow protection was formulated out of “the symbolic, sentimental, and socio-economic importance of the cow as the source of both milk and new bovine life.” Only later did the cow also emerge as “the foremost example” of observing ahimsa.

A revered ancient sage, Vasishtha, said “cows are the mothers of both the past and the future. Cows have become the refuge of the world. It is for this that cows are said to be highly blessed, sacred, and the foremost of all things” as well as “productive of blessing and destruction of misery of every kind.” He advocated that believers bow with reverence to cows each morning, and bathe in water mixed with cow dung to achieve sanctification.

Centuries ago, cow veneration became a source of Hindus’ ethnic solidarity and identity over against Muslim invaders, laying the basis for 21st Century enmity. Mohandas Gandhi, the inspiration of India’s 20th Century independence, wrote that “cow protection is to me one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. . . She is the mother to millions.”

Western observers often cite India’s sacred cows as an example of a religious tenet that is irrational and counter-productive in economic terms. However, Columbia University anthropologist Marvin Harris contended that the cow ban is rational and productive, since the animals provide hauling power, dung for fuel, and milk and milk products that are central to the national diet.

In addition, “The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions” notes that the cow’s five products — milk, curds, ghee (clarified butter), dung, and urine — are all used in various worship rites. The common saying is that in providing these five gifts the gentle and benevolent cow offers much and asks for nothing.


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