Why do Indians worship cows?
Jayne Brown, my good friend, and a blessed native English writer in the UK asked me a question: “Hello Udaylal Pai my friend, I wanted to ask why is the cow, in particular, a sacred animal in Hinduism? I know many Indians are vegetarian due to respecting animals. I just wondered what is the story/mythology behind this particular tradition ? I know if anybody will know, it is you. Thanks”
Another friend, New Delhi-based Silky Kapoor also wants to know it. (As required I am tagging both in FB, usually, I don’t)
In Western culture, you don’t see dog meat, cat meat, or even horse meat. Why? These are the animals people have in their homes and form a special bonding with.
People in the Vedic period – that’s 7000 years ago – were primarily pastoral. Since then many Indians have relied on cows as a source of milk, yogurt, butter, and ghee (that is also used in Vedic rituals). Its milk is fed to infants and adults. Cow dung is used as fertilizer and fuel. Male progeny was vital for agricultural traction. It became a favorite and revered domesticated animal- a valued part of the family.
Anyone familiar with the mutual interdependence of environment, and ecology, and all other forms of life, will understand it easier. A cow gives all but does not take. It supports life. Despite its big size, a cow is a calm animal and non-threatening. In the agriculture-dependent ancient India, the gentle and milk-yielding cow acquired a ‘Maternal’ image and importance.
And millions started revering (not worshipping) the cow almost like their mother as her milk is considered nearest to the human mother. The characteristics and quality of the cow and the human mother are very close to each other.
Incidentally, the mother has first place, higher than God, in Hinduism. A Sanskrit proverb says: “Matha Pitha Guru Deivam” = Mother, Father, Teacher (don’t mistake with today’s supermarket Gurus) and then God. God is only in fourth place. Any logical thinking humanist would understand the importance of this hierarchy in a civilized and scientifically advanced culture.
Ancients also believed that respect and reverence given to the female in the family brings blessings and prosperity. The ancient most legal text in the world ‘Manusmriti’ instructs to revere the female (Nari). The cow was also considered a female family member. If you see old family photos, you would know that the cows are included as family members till recently!
So by cultural affinity and close association, the cow thus came to be the Gau-Mata (mother-cow) and some people even start to worship as a mother-goddess figure. Hindus also refer to Earth as Mother-Earth (Dharti Mata)! Even their country is a mother for them – Bharat Mata!
So no sane human had the heart to kill the cow. It was like killing mother to them. Vedas mentions animal (Pasu) sacrifice, but it clearly says a cow (Gau or Dhenu) shouldn’t be harmed. “If cows keep healthy and happy, men and women shall also keep disease free and prosperous,” says Vedas. It is more like looking at the cow as God’s special blessing and gift to the society which must be protected and cherished.
A related question from the WhatsApp Broadcast list reader: “Why do Hindus worship the cow?”
This question arises from the Ignorance of two facts. (1) The meaning of the word worship is totally different in Dharmic religion and Semitic religions.
The majority of the world follows Semitic religions. Most of the Semitic cults only worship ONE entity who they believe is omnipotent or creator. This worship is out of fear of retribution. The worshippers believe they must hate everything else to show their allegiance to their single God by being intolerant and offensive towards any other form or manifestation of God. That’s how belief-based religions condition their followers.
On the other hand, in Dharma-based religions like Hinduism, worship is an act of appreciation, respect, love, or gratefulness. Hindus find God’s presence in every animate and inanimate. Life energy (Brahmam) is living all around. Everything is the manifestation of God. They worship God in many forms, they worship their parents, they worship the greatness of the universe, knowledge, beauty (physical and mental), happiness, existence, birds, animals – because God is in all things. When you recite Lalitha Sahasranamam (in Brahmanda Purana) even hairs in the belly of the Goddess is worshipped! The supreme God Vishnu has taken 24 avatar that includes animals and aquatic creatures. In short, a Hindu sees divinity in each and everything. Hence the cow worship, if any, cannot be equated to that of a Semitic form of worship.
(2) You can’t say just Hindus. The Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists also revere cows. So, broadly you can say Indians revere cows. All Hindus do not worship cows. But all sensible Hindus respect, honor and adore the cow. By honoring this gentle animal, who gives more than she takes, we honor all creatures – that’s the concept. However, some sects also worship cow as Goddess ‘Kamadhenu’, a miraculous, sacred wish-cow that grants all your wishes and desires.
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