Why do Hindus Regard the Cow as Sacred ?

Why Eating Beef or Killing Cows is Highly Disapproved in India

Why do Hindus Regard the Cow as Sacred ?
Image Source - Wikimedia Common (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACow_in_Mathura.jpg)
Most Indians, particularly Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, do not eat beef. For many, cow is considered a sacred animal, and its killing is prohibited in certain Hindu scriptures or religious tales. The origin and reasons for this lie in the special status of cows and bulls in the average household in Indian villages, where they were treated like pets, and essentially acquired a character of a member of the household or the family.

Hindus do not eat beef. Even those who eat non vegetarian food like mutton and chicken do not eat it.  Not only that, they can often be very passionate about killing of cows, something that has even resulted in protests and riots in the past. This trait, which often appears irrational to foreigners, is a result of the log agrarian nature of Indian rural societies, where cow and bulls were a part of agricultural household, and were treated in the same way as we treat our pets … a part and parcel of our family and household.

It is an often repeated statement that cow is a sacred animal for the Hindus. However, to understand what that statement actually means, one needs to transcend the boundaries of religion, time and political borders, and view the animal from the eyes of an average Indian farming household, as it used to be for most of the past, and where the cow and the oxen were more than just another animal in flesh and blood.

Cows and Bulls in Rural Indian Households

To understand the status of cow in Indian society, one needs to understand certain characteristic features of the typical households in Indian villages.

First, India is a land of villages. Till 1947, when it became independent, over 85% of its population lived in villages, where the primary occupation of people was agriculture. An Indian rural household was typically a joint family consisting of many couples and children belonging to several generations living together.

Over the ages that have lasted for several thousand years, they have worked together on their farms, using bulls to plough the land, carry the harvest, extract oil from seeds and other similar chores. Given their role in the agricultural processes, bulls were a precious possession for a rural family, and their loss could become a major setback for the household.

Second, while the men folk concentrated on the crops and the harvest, women and children did their bit at home, where cows were one of the major assets of the household and milk one of the major sources of nutrition. For an Indian, milk is a source for many delicacies, which are a part of a common Indian's daily diet, including yogurt, butter, cream and milk concentrate for sweets.

Third, in most Indian families, there are only one or two cows. The cows and the bulls actually continue to stay with the same family, sometimes over a period of several generations. Thus, they tend to become an essential part of the rural Indian household, and are taken care of with a lot of affection, just like other members of the household. Often, the children grow up playing with these animals. Each of these pets is fondly given a name, they are regularly washed, and sometimes even decorated as part of some festivals.

Fourth, the mother, who feeds the baby with her milk, has a very special status in the Indian society. Since the whole family drinks cow's milk, the animal is treated with a reverence.  A healthy animal is a matter of pride for the family, and can be the envy of the neighbors.

The net result of all these factors is that in a rural Indian household, cow is not just another animal. It is much more than that, almost like a four legged family member with two horns and a tail, whose existence and presence is an assurance for the family's welfare. It is a matter of no surprise then that the thought of killing the animal and eating it would be unthinkable for members of that family.

Of course, no one eats his own pet. But what about others ?

Banning Cow Slaughter as a Means for Social Cohesion

Cows offer good amount of meat, and they also need to be let free sometimes, to roam around in the village, have their munch of grass and leaves, along with some exercise. Now, since farming was the common enterprise of almost every family, and since almost every well off family had a cow, it could give rise to a very big social problem, if one person killed another's tool of livelihood. Thus, to make sure that the social cohesion of the village is not disturbed, the simplest solution consisted of placing a social ban on the killing of cows, as it would solve the whole problem.

This is where religion became very handy.

Role of Religious Dictates in Making Cow a Sacred Animal

In the Indian society, and with the legacies of Buddhism and Jainism, which stoutly advocated non-violence and vegetarianism as a rule, it was not difficult to develop a religious sanction for the prohibition on killing a cow or eating it.

Another aspect of Indian society also helped. Ancient India followed a VARNA SYSTEM, wherein the society was divided into four classes - BRAHMINS, the scholars or priests, KSHATRIYAS, the soldiers and the Kings, VAISHYAS, the traders and business people and the SHUDRAS, those earning their living by other means. Among them, the highest status was given to Brahmins, who were supposed to lead a simple life, abstain from luxuries or possessions or making profits, desist from violence and eat only vegetarian food.

With their exalted status in society, and their pious life style, Brahmins, who were the moral preachers of the society, became the perfect instrument for making cows a sacred animal. The religious legends, in which cows were portrayed as sacred, and even depicted as a favorite of certain deities like Lord Krishna, also became a handy tool for this purpose. Similarly, the bull named NANDI which is the pet of Lord SHIVA also added to the respect that was given to the animal in the Indian society

A Healthy Legacy of Ages Gone By

The fact that cow is a sacred animal in India is just the tip of the iceberg. It is not just because of some religious dictate. There is a very long legacy behind this social perception, which is as much a religious phenomenon as it was a social necessity over the ages, of a rural society where cow was much more than merely another animal, and protecting them was a pre-requisite to maintain social harmony.

One must also appreciate that the religious philosophies that have originated in India, like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikkhism are in the nature of Dharma, literally meaning duty of the individual. Every individual is expected to follow his dharma in various capacities. Respecting the cows and bulls that were part and parcel of his neighboring households came almost naturally!

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