Q: Why are cows sacred?
A: In the chatrooms and message boards of the Internet, there are often bitter disputes between Indians and Pakistanis, which usually deteriorate into vulgar abuse. I have noticed that one of the most common forms of hitting out at Hindus is that they worship the cow.
This might as well be cleared up now. The Hindu does not worship the cow, has never worshipped the cow, and is not likely to ever worship the cow. To continue to propagate this delusion is only indicative of ignorance and laziness, but the Hindu has nothing to do with it. The cow is not even sacred, in the way it has been misunderstood by Europeans. The cow is literally taboo, a very different animal indeed from the sacred cow of popular delusion. Taboos in sociological terms are both positive and negative, as in taboos that must be respected and deferred to, as well as taboos that deal with what is abhorrent.
The cow is Aghanya--that which may not be slaughtered. It is true that later sects began to call the cow "the mother" and even wrote some dubious scripture to support this, but it was a rather childish transference of reverence from the mother to the cow because both provide milk! The "milk-debt" was culturally a very strong more, and it was felt that it would not be fair to leave the cow out of its share of respect for contributing to your health. Nevertheless, the cow was originally only Aghanya.
This set of circumstances arose for many reasons. Strange as it may seem, the Vedic age was a beef-eating one, and animals were constantly being slaughtered. The reaction against flesh foods set in with the advent of Jainism and Buddhism, and a remarkable cultural revolution took place, in that, a predominantly flesh-eating country became a predominantly vegetarian one. The many pastoral tribes that inhabited India could not afford to sacrifice their cow wealth for meat. In fact, that is the real reason it became Aghanya. The norms of the time dictated that you sacrifice your best animal, usually the stud bull, for the feast when a distinguished visitor came by. As these worthies multiplied in numbers, the quality of the herds began to decline. You could not escape this obligation, as substitution of another animal would be regarded as a deadly insult. To save animals thus marked out, as well as in deference to the new trends, the inviolability of the cow came into being.
The scriptural reason for this obsession with cows and their protection is even stranger. Vedic Sanskrit is not the classical Sanskrit that exists today. It is an older, more difficult form of the language and one of the words for "light" that is used there is "Go." Now Go primarily meant "light," but it also meant "cows." In classical Sanskrit, the word means only the bovine friend. Thus, on the basis of a forgotten meaning of a word, Indian culture has wrapped itself round the protection of the cow and rendered it a sacred taboo. "Protector of the Go," in the Vedas meant the keeper of the light--not a cowherd! And all the admonitions about protecting the Go mean something else altogether, and makes a great deal more sense, too. However, it was too late, and the word came to mean, with all its nuances, cow protection and cow reverence! A change in language renders a single word archaic, but the impact on a society is amazing.
A more environmentally friendly reason has in recent times been proposed for this cow respect. The cow represents the entire animal kingdom and is man's link to the dumb animals of Creation. In respecting the cow, we are showing respect for all living things, a notion that ties in deftly with ahinsa and vegetarianism. This point of view was propagated by Gandhi.
Whatever be the reasons that appeal to you, at least it should be clear that there is no such thing as cow worship in the Hindu faith.