The Holy Cow
The cow is sacred to the Hindus, a fact that puzzles the foreigner who finds numerous animals wandering the streets of the towns and cities, muzzling at fruit and vegetable stalls and sometimes obstructing traffic. The sacred ness of the cow is a central and crucial clement in Hindu belief. The cow is supposed to be the living symbol of Mother Earth. For the early migrants the cow was an indispensable member of the family. As agriculture was the occupation of the migrants, the cow provided them with milk and its byproducts and also necessities of life such as fuel, manure for the farm, etc. During this time the Aryans prayed to their numerous gods through ‘yagna’ (from ‘yaj’, to worship). This was initially a simple way of private worship but became public in character and consisted of invoking the fire-god, ‘Agni’, by ritually kindling sacred wood on an altar, and keeping the fire alive by constantly feeding it with melted butter. It was through the instrumentality of ‘Agni’ (fire) that the offering of milk-pudding and a drink of milk, curds and honey (madhupeya) was conveyed to one’s chosen gods. Thus the cow supplied the major requirements of the yagna and this association soon made it sacred.
Later on animal sacrifices waned as gradually the Hindus veered towards vegetarianism due to the influence of early Jainism and Buddhism, specially on the Brabmins and Vaishyas. Gradually the cow came to be known as ‘Gaumata’ (cow the Mother) and ‘Aditi’ (mother of gods). The rise of Vaishnavism amongst the prosperous middle and lower castes (expressed in the figure of the cowherd god Krishna) helped consolidate the importance and the religious glorification of the cow. Some of the other factors which resulted in its sanctity were; its figurative usage in Vedic literature which later was taken literally; prohibitions against killing a Brahmin’s (priest’s) cow and lastly, the symbol of cow protection as an affirmation of religious solidarity against Muslim invaders.