It’s no secret that cows are considered as sacred animals in India. In fact, killing a cow (Gau-hatya) is considered a sin. They serve as a symbol of wealth, strength, and abundance, and were the favorite animal of Lord Krishna.
Celebration of cows
There is a common misconception that Hindus consider the cow to be a god and worship it. That is incorrect. While the cow is considered sacred, it is definitely not idolized as a God. In the Vedas, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, the cow is associated with the mother of all gods (Aditi). Hindu imagery often pictures a pretty cow — usually white — garlanded with flowers as a sign of the faith’s special reverence.
India even has a “cow holiday” called Gopastami, when all cows — even the ones left to wander through busy streets and rural villages — are washed and dressed with flowers. To harm a cow or kill a cow — especially for food — is considered taboo by most Hindus.
Why are cows considered so sacred?
This is a story my grandmother would tell when I asked her this question. Long time ago, in ancient India, an untimely famine devastated crops and the population nearly starved to death. The situation became so acute that was little holding them back from killing livestock such as cows and goats for meat. The kings tried to enforce restrictions on killing cows in an attempt to preserve a vital source of food (cow’s milk) for the youngest and helpless members of the population such as babies and toddlers.
But this had little effect on the starving population who felt that fines and punishments were preferable to death by starvation. The king then asked the priestly class (a.k.a the Brahmins) to designate cows as sacred animals in the scriptures, highlighting that killing them was a sin.
This was woven in with several stories of Krishna who was a cow-herder. To kill a cow was likened to killing your mother — a big taboo (since mothers and cows both nourish us with their life-giving milk). This had the desired effect, and since then cows have been revered to be holy animals in India.
Often in India, you will find cows sitting right in the middle of the road. Most drivers will simply change lanes and pass through.
FUN FACT: — Hindus associate several animals with different gods and consider them sacred, including the monkey (Hanuman), the elephant (Ganesh), the tiger (Durga’s ride) and even the rat (Mushika, Ganesha’s vehicle). But none is as revered as the cow.
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