The cow is sacred in Hinduism, so modern Hindus do not eat beef. There is debate over whether ancient Hindus in the Indus River Valley refused to eat beef. As the Vedas, the ancient Hindu holy texts, honor the cow, some scholars argue that the refusal to harm cows extends back to the advent of the Vedas nearly 4,000 years. Other scholars claim that the strict beef taboo was developed as a way to further differentiate Hindus from Muslims after Islam arrived in India in the early eighth century AD. Regardless of how the cow taboo began, it has become deeply entrenched in Indian culture.
Well over 1 billion people live in India today, and roughly 80 percent of the subcontinent’s population is Hindu. This massive religious majority has influenced the creation of laws that prohibit the harm or slaughter of cows. In India, a person can be jailed for harming a cow, and cows can be seen wandering around freely even in large cities. The complications caused by mixing herds of cows with automobiles, bikes and buses have caused some Indians to push back against the laws that allow cows to roam through cities. Other Indians continue to support the practice of free-roaming cows, however, and the law has stood.
The oldest known mention of the religious importance of the cow is found in the Vedas. The oldest Veda, the Rig Veda, associates the cow with wealth and joyous earthly life. One verse says “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-colored, giving milk for Indra [one of the ancient Hindu gods] each day. You make, O cows, the thin man sleek; to the unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing. In our assemblies we laud your vigor.” Verses such as these lend credence to the claim that the importance of the cow was ingrained in Hindu culture nearly 2,000 years before Muhammad was ever born and that the beef taboo was not a Hindu reaction to the arrival of Islam.
The ancient Vedas also correlate the cow with the earth itself. The cow is honored as “the nourisher,” the “ever-giving and undemanding provider.” Such descriptions of the cow’s willingly provided bounty are likely due to the number of cow products that were used by the ancient Hindus and still continue to be used by modern Indians today. Cow dung is a readily available fuel source, and dairy products form the base of many Indian meals. Yogurt is used in many Indian recipes as is milk. Milk, buttermilk and ghee, clarified butter, are also considered to make up three of the seven oceans that surround the universe in Hindu cosmology. Furthermore, milk and ghee are essential to Hindu worship. They are offered to deities as sacrifices, used as part of Hindu penance and in rites of passage, such as Hindu weddings.
The cow is also seen as more than merely a symbol of good things. In addition to viewing the cow as a symbol of life, the Vedas mention two goddesses who take the form of a cow. Mother Earth is sometimes a cow as is the goddess Kamadhenu. Kamadhenu is perhaps best known for her appearance in a Hindu myth where she appears as the “wish-granting cow.” In this myth, she provides her owner with whatever he desires. Kamadhenu, however, is not just a granter of wishes. She is considered to be the mother of the eleven Rudras, the Vedic gods of storms and tempests. It is believed that she emerged from the ocean when the first gods and demons churned it to create amrita, the nectar of immortality, and later became the mother of all cows.
The popular god Shiva is also associated with cows. Shiva’s steed, Nandi, is a bull, and Nandi is worshipped in his own right as the bearer of truth and righteousness. Statutes of Nandi are common in temples that are Shaiva, or dedicated primarily to the worship of Shiva, but some Nandi statues are found outside of Shaiva temples for worship only of Nandi. Krishna is another extremely popular god that is tied to cows. Hindu mythology holds that Krishna grew up as a cow-herder, and one of Krishna’s epithets is bala-gopala, the child who protects the cows.
Vaishnavas believe that Vishnu is the Supreme Being and worship Krishna as the eighth of Vishnu’s ten avataras, or incarnations. In addition to Vaishnava Hindus, there are also Hindus who worship Krishna as the Supreme Being in his own right. Almost half of India’s massive population is Vaishnava, and a further 25 percent of Hindus are Shaiva and believe that Shiva is the Supreme Being.
In addition to their close association with the divine, the docile nature of cows is said to exemplify the Hindu virtue ahimsa, “noninjury.” Cows can also be seen as symbolizing Hinduism itself as every part of a cow has a religious parallel. The four legs of the cow are seen as symbolizing the four Vedas, and the length of a cow’s legs is associated with the Himalayan Mountains. The four teats of a cow’s udder correspond to the four purusharthas, or life goals of Hinduism.A cow’s eyes represent the deities of the sun and moon, and a cow’s horns symbolize the three gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. In some traditions, these three gods are seen as being part of the Hindu triumvirate that reflects the cycle of existence. Brahma creates life, Vishnu sustains it and Shiva destroys the world so that it can begin anew. Not all Hindu’s believe in these limited roles for each god. The majority of Hindus actually hold that either Shiva or Vishnu is the Supreme Being who created the world in the past. The Supreme Being will later destroy the world and build a new world from the ashes of the old. In Hinduism, even the universe goes through the reincarnation cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Regardless of which deity a Hindu believes is the Supreme Being, Brahma is associated with the tip of a cow’s horns, Vishnu is the center of the horns and Shiva is the base of the horns. The final part of the cow, the shoulders, are associated with ancient Vedic gods. One shoulder represents the fire god Agni and the other stands for the wind god Vayu.
From the ancient Vedas to everyday worship, respecting the humble cow is an essential part of Hindu life. Cow statues are visible in temples, and many people own images that emphasize the religious importance of cows. Cows freely roam the cities of India, and there is no doubt that the cow will continue to be honored by Hindus for centuries to come. This humble animal has been at or near the center of Hinduism for over 4,000 years, and the cow will not be giving up its high status anytime soon regardless of how many times its herds block city traffic.