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Cattle are considered sacred in various world religions, most notably Hinduism, but also Zoroastrianism and the religions of ancient Egypt and Greece. In some regions, especially India, the slaughter of cattle may be prohibited and their meat may be taboo.

In Hinduism


The cow has been a symbol of wealth since ancient Vedic times. However, they were neither inviolable nor revered in the same way they are today. Some scholars have argued, citing early Hindu scriptures and archaeological evidence, that the cow has not always been sacred and that cows, oxen and bulls were both sacrificed and eaten in Vedic times and to some extent even later.[1][2]

The cow was possibly revered because the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations relied heavily on it for dairy products and for tilling the fields, and on cow dung as a source of fuel, fertilizer and psilocybin mushrooms which naturally grow out of the animal's own excrement. Universally, Hindus still use cow dung for various purposes; the burning of cow dung creates an insecticide to repel mosquitoes, and ash formed from cow dung is used as a fertilizer. Thus, the cow's status as a 'caretaker' led to identifying it as an almost maternal figure (hence the term gau mata). According to Buddhist texts, there was a Hindu sect taught to imitate a cow's acts for reincarnation as deva.[3]

Hinduism is based on the concept of omnipresence of the Divine, and the presence of a soul in all creatures, including bovines. Thus, by that definition, killing any animal would be a sin: one would be obstructing the natural cycle of birth and death of that creature, and the creature would have to be reborn in that same form because of its unnatural death. Historically, even Krishna, one of the most revered forms of the Divine (Avatar), tended cows.

Despite the differences of opinion regarding the origins of the cow's elevated status, reverence for cows appears throughout the major texts of the Hindu religion.

Sanskrit term

The most common word for cow is go, cognate with the English cow and Latin bos, all from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) cognates *gwous. The Sanskrit word for cattle is paśu, from PIE *peḱu-. Other terms are dhenu cow and uks an ox.

Milk cows are also called aghnya "that which may not be slaughtered".[4] Depending on the interpretation of terminology used for a cow, the cow may have been protected.

The cow in the Hindu scriptures

Rig Veda

Cattle were important to the Rigvedic people, and several hymns refer to ten thousand and more cattle.[5] Rig Veda 7.95.2. and other verses (e.g. 8.21.18) also mention that the Sarasvati region poured milk and "fatness" (ghee), indicating that cattle were herded in this region.

In the Rig Veda, the cows figure frequently as symbols of wealth, and also in comparison with river goddesses, e.g. in 3.33.1 cd,

Like two bright mother cows who lick their young, Vipas and Sutudri speed down their waters.

According to Aurobindo, in the Rig Veda the cows sometimes symbolize "light" and "rays".[6] Aurobindo wrote that Aditi (the supreme Prakriti/Nature force) is described as a cow, and the Deva or Purusha (the supreme being/soul) as a bull.[7]

The Vedic god Indra is often compared to a bull.[7]

Rivers are often likened to cows in the Rigveda, Vyasa said:

Cows are sacred. They are embodiments of merit. They are high and most efficacious cleansers of all.

Atharva Veda

A cow's body is represented by various devas and other subjects.[8]


The Harivamsha depicts Krishna as a cowherd. He is often described as Bala Gopala, "the child who protects the cows." Another of Krishna's names, Govinda, means "one who brings satisfaction to the cows." Other scriptures identify the cow as the "mother" of all civilization, its milk nurturing the population. The gift of a cow is applauded as the highest kind of gift.

The milk of a cow is believed to promote Sattvic (purifying) qualities. The ghee (clarified butter) from the milk of a cow is used in ceremonies and in preparing religious food. Cow dung is used as fertilizer, as a fuel and as a disinfectant in homes. Modern science acknowledges that the smoke from cow dung is a powerful disinfectant and an anti-pollutant. Its urine is also used for religious rituals as well as medicinal purposes. The supreme purificatory material, panchagavya, was a mixture of five products of the cow, namely milk, curds, ghee, urine and dung. The interdiction of the meat of the bounteous cow as food was regarded as the first step to total vegetarianism.[9]


The earth-goddess Prithvi was, in the form of a cow, successively milked of various beneficent substances for the benefit of humans, by various deities.[10]

Krishna proclaims: "The piety that comes from bathing at holy places, the piety that comes from feeding brahmins, the piety that comes from giving generous charity, the piety that comes from serving Lord Hari, and the piety that comes from all vows and fasts, all austerities, circumambulating the earth, and speaking truthfully, as well as all the devas, always stay in the bodies of the cows. The holy places always stay in the cows' hooves. O father, Goddess Lakshmi always stays in the cows' hearts. A person that wears tilaka of mud that touched a cow's hoof attains the result of bathing in a holy place. He is fearless at every step. A place where cows stay is holy. One who dies there is at once liberated. One who harms a brahmin or a cow is the lowest of men. He commits a great sin, as if he had killed a brahmin. Of this there is no doubt. A person who harms the cows or the brahmins, who are the limbs of Lord Narayana, goes to hell for as long as the sun and moon shine in the sky."[11]

Historical significance

The reverence for the cow played a role in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British East India Company. As per history, Hindu and Muslim sepoys in the army of the East India Company came to believe that their oiled paper cartridges, which held a measured amount of gunpowder, were greased with cow and pig fat. The consumption of swine is forbidden in Islam. Since loading the gun required biting off the end of the paper cartridge, they believed that the British were forcing them to break edicts of their religion.

In Gandhi's teachings

The cow was also venerated by Gandhi.[12] He said: "I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world," and that, "The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection."[12] He called her "the mother to millions of Indian mankind" and explained that she was better than a human mother thus:

Our mother, when she dies, means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when she is alive. We can make use of every part of her body - her flesh, her bones, her intestines, her horns and her skin.[12]

Modern day

Today, in Hindu majority nations like India and Nepal, bovine milk continues to hold a central place in religious rituals. In honor of their exalted status, cows often roam free, even along (and in) busy streets in major cities such as Delhi. In some places, it is considered good luck to give one a snack, or fruit before breakfast. In places where there is a ban on cow slaughter, a citizen can be sent to jail for killing or injuring a cow.

It is a common misconception throughout the Western world that the cow is seen as a god or deity within the Hindu religion. This is used to explain the banning of the slaughter of cows in India. This is not the case, for the reasons discussed above.

With injunctions against eating the cow, a system evolved where only the pariah fed on dead cows and treated their leather

In 2001, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its offshoots – which include the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party – began promoting cow urine as a cure for ailments ranging from liver disease to obesity and even cancer. Cow dung is traditionally used as a fuel and disinfectant in villages, while cow urine and dung are often consumed in rituals to "purify" those on the bottom rungs of the Hindu caste system.[13]

Some Hindus consider cow urine to have medicinal properties and in some isolated cases it is drunk in religious festivals.

The law in India

Cow slaughter is banned except in two states: the states of West Bengal and Kerala.[14] Cows are routinely shipped to these states for slaughter, even though it is illegal to transport cows for slaughter across provincial borders.[14] However, many illegal private slaughterhouses also operate in big cities such as Mumbai. While there are approximately 3,600 slaughterhouses operating legally in India, there are estimated to be over 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses.[15] The efforts to close them down have so far been largely unsuccessful.

In Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is a religion related historically and religiously with Hinduism.

The term "geush urva" means the spirit of the cow and is interpreted as the soul of the earth. In the Ahunavaiti Gatha, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) accuses some of his co-religionists of abusing the cow.[16] Ahura Mazda tells Zarathustra to protect the cow.[16]

The lands of both Zarathustra and the Vedic priests were those of cattle breeders.[17]

The 9th chapter of the Vendidad of the Avesta expounds the purificatory power of cow urine.[18] It is declared to be a panacea for all bodily and moral evils.[18]

In East Asia

In East Asia, cattle are useful in farming and are respected. During China's Zhou Dynasty, they were not often eaten, even by emperors.[19] Today, beef is not recommended in Chinese Medicine, as it is considered an unhealthy dry food. People sworn to Guan Yin do not eat beef. In 1983, a cow waiting to be slaughtered at a Cheung Sha Wan slaughterhouse was seen to shed tears and was released to a temple.[20]

In Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians sacrificed animals, but not the cow because it was sacred to goddess Hathor, and also due to the contemporary Greek myth of Io, who had the form of a cow.[21]

Metaphorical sacred cows

The term sacred cow has passed into the English language to mean an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so.[22][23] The term is based on the popular understanding of the place of cows in Indian religions as objects that have to be treated with respect, no matter how inconvenient.

See also


  1. Jha, Dwijendra Narayan, The Myth of the Holy Cow London/New York: Verso 2002
  2. (Achaya 2002, p. 16-17)
  3. 牛戒-戒律
  4. V.M. Apte, Religion and Philosophy, The Vedic Age
  5. (e.g. RV 8.1.33; 8.2.41; 8.4.20; 8.5.37; 8.6.47; 8.21.18; 5.27.1; 1.126.3)
  6. (RV 1.92.4; 4.52.5; 7.79.2), Aurobindo: The Secret of the Veda; Sethna 1992
  7. 7.0 7.1 Sethna 1992:42
  8. Atharvaveda 9.7
  9. (Achaya 2002, p. 55)
  10. milking of the Earth
  11. Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa 4.21.91-97
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Compilation of Gandhi's views on Cow Protection
  13. 'India to launch cow urine as soft drink'
  14. 14.0 14.1 Rahman, Maseeh (2000-05-29). "Is Nothing Sacred?". Time Asia. Retrieved 2008-02-25. 
  15. "Sacred No Longer". Advocates for Animals. Summer 2004. Retrieved 2008-02-25. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Clark, P. 13 Zoroastrianism
  17. Vogelsang, P. 63 The Afghans
  18. 18.0 18.1 P. 72 Some Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture By D. R. Bhandarkar
  19. Classic of Rites
  20. 慈雲閣——看靈牛遊地獄
  21. P. 57 Analysis and summary of Herodotus, with a synchronistical table of principal events; tables of weights, measures, money, and distances; an outline of the history and geography; and the dates completed from Gaisford, Baehr, etc., by J. Talboys Wheeler By James Talboys Wheeler
  22. sacred cow - Definitions from
  23. Sacred cow


  • Achaya, K. T. (2002), A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-565868-X.
  • K. D. Sethna, The Problem of Aryan Origins 1980, 1992; ISBN 81-85179-67-0
  • Shaffer, Jim G. (1995). Cultural tradition and Palaeoethnicity in South Asian Archaeology. In: Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia. Ed. George Erdosy. ISBN 3-11-014447-6
  • Shaffer, Jim G. (1999). Migration, Philology and South Asian Archaeology. In: Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia. Ed. Bronkhorst and Deshpande. ISBN 1-888789-04-2.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Cattle in religion. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.