The sacred cow through Indian history

Not surprisingly, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, “Sacred Animals of India” devotes many pages to the cow, since the cow is an especially sacred animal in India, where all animals are sacred.


The cow is a symbol of “dharma.”  Dharma, a very complex Hindu concept, is basically righteousness.  It is the right way and the right path in life.


In difficult times on the earth, it is believed that the earth takes on the form of the cow in order to pray for help from heaven.


From the ancient Indus Valley, one of the earliest carvings is a bas relief of Pashupati, an early form of Shiva.  Pashupati is the God of the animals, and “pashu” is  “cow” in Sanskrit, and by extension, the word applies to all animals.  In the carving, Pashupati is surrounded on all sides by animals.  Another Sanskrit word for cow is “go” or “gau”– from which the English “cow” is derived.


Throughout the early Vedic literature, there are countless references to the cow.  She is associated with the dawn, and with speech itself.  One of the characteristics of Sanskrit literature is that there are so many levels of meaning.


Indo-Iranians also worshipped the cow, and in the Zend-Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians,  the Soul of the Cow is called geuvarsan or goshuran.


The world over, cows have meant wealth, and in early systems of money, the coins sometimes depicted a cow.


In ancient India killing a cow was a particularly despicable crime – equivalent to, or even worse than, murdering a human. It was punishable by death.


According to later mythology, Brahma, God the Creator, ordered that the cow be worshipped, stating that she is the mother of the Gods.


A great many words and concepts come from the cow.  In India, a person may have several family names, and one of these is called the gotra, which refers to one’s ancient lineage, a bit like a clan name.  Literally, it means cow pen, so there is a connection with the cow.  One cannot marry another person of the same gotra, even though there could be thousands of people all over India who belong to that gotra, because they are all relatives.


In a Brahmin marriage, the entire family history of both the bride and the groom is recited.  This goes back thousands of years and can take several hours. There are any number of other rituals too that have to be performed, so weddings last several days.


Gopuram (being renovated) at Brihadeswara Temple

A temple gateway is called a gopuram, and some Hindu temples have a number of gopurams, magnificent and beautifully carved.  Gopuram means the cow’s village.


So much of tradition in India relates very directly to the cow.


During the shraddha ceremony (the rites performed at death), a cow is to be given to a Brahmin.  When the person who has died arrives in heaven, the cow will be there waiting, and will then free the soul from all sin.


Dr. Krishna delves into the question of whether cows were killed and eaten in ancient India, looking into the evidence in literature.  Although, there is some suggestion that certain elements of society may have killed and eaten cows, this was considered abhorrent by most of Indian society, back to the most ancient times.


There are numerous injunctions throughout Hindu scriptures not to kill animals, and especially, not to kill cows and not to eat beef. This has been a strict rule of Santana Dharma (the correct name of Hinduism) for thousands of years.


Ushas, the Goddess of Dawn, rides in a chariot that is drawn by seven cows.


Kamadhenu is the name of the cow who is mother of the Gods.  She grants wishes to those who ask her with reverence and sincerity.


Village cows resting, in Tamil Nadu

In re-reading this account by Dr. Krishna of the cow’s central place in Indian tradition, it occurred to me that the recognition of the cow as divine throughout the history of India, into the farthest past, may have had a great deal to do with the principle Hindu doctrine of ahimsa or “do no harm,” since the cow is such a gentle creature known for being kind, generous, for nourishing her calves, and giving milk to humans too.  She eats grass and harms no one, giving only good and beneficial gifts.


A civilization that worships the cow is necessarily one of gentleness and compassion, and this is a thread that runs throughout Indian history.  India is a land that is fundamentally kind – not in all ways, at all times, since all that exists on the earth can be subject to cruelty or to being cruel– but there is, all the same, a connection with kindness that is very basic, that is unique, and that lies at the heart of India.


One can see this in Indian history. Great nations have typically become empires, conquering and ruling other peoples. They have launched wars and invasions (even today). India has never done this, and has limited its expansion, which was far-ranging, reaching all over Asia and even far to the west – to trade and to cultural influence – always peaceful and enlightening.  Of how many countries in the world can that truly be said?  There is, in my view, something entirely unique about India – and perhaps this has much to do with the sacred cow.

Top photo: Copyrighted to Himalayan Academy Publications, Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii. Licensed for Wikipedia under Creative Commons


Second photo: Sharon St. Joan


Third photo: Sharon St. Joan 



6 thoughts on “The sacred cow through Indian history

  1. so india has never invaded anyone or fought wars then? is that why they are having a tough time dealing with islamic people bombing and pushing them back and all? I have seen some videos of how they worship all kinds of animals, while I love animals too. I would never worship them, neither would I condone allowing people to starve to death or kill a human for killing a cow not saying they do that now, especially for food. do they milk the cows and make cheeses and stuff? can you tell me how they are different then eygptians, assyrians and babylonians who worshipped animals too? one thing I have learned from studying history, religion etc is that false worship always leads to violence of various kinds, so I am guessing that worshipping animals like they do is leading to all kinds of problems we are unaware of, or maybe some are don’t know never been there, they do have beautiful clothing and all. violence is not always outright warfare, it can entail various forms of oppression.

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