The Cow in History and Hindu Tradition

  • Article tells about nature of cow worship in different civilizations, its reference in our scriptures and why it is revered.

The cow is a living heritage not just of Hindus but of humanity. In the world traditions the cow stands for fertility, prosperity and life, and is often called the mother-ancestor, perhaps for being the first mammal to be domesticated by man. She has an aura of holiness and of mystical power, despite being raised as livestock for meat in present times. A foreign scholar once pointed out that during famine, ‘the cow is far more useful as a creature that can produce limitless amount of milk, than as a dead beast that would provide meat for a limited period only.’ In the Norwegian tradition, Audumla, the primordial milch cow fed the six-headed son of Aurgelmir, the progenitor of Gigantes.


While the Hindus venerate the cow as mother, go-mata, the ancient Greeks regarded the great cow Europa meaning full moon, as the female parent of stars. In the Egyptian mythology, the sky is represented as the divine cow, Ahet, who is   mother of the sun itself - the central body of the solar system. A parallel may be drawn with the Rigvedic verse (X. 85.1) which says that, by Surya are the heavens sustained just as the earth is sustained by Truth.


Another Egyptian goddess, Hathor, who personifies both joy and creation, is likened to the cow, and her image or form used in amulets to ward off evil and bring good luck. In north-east Africa, along the Nile river, the cow used to be adorned and garlanded or led in celebratory processions as they still do elsewhere, viz. during Pongal, a harvest festival, in Tamil Nadu or Gai Jatra, a cow-festival, commemorating the deceased relatives in Nepal.


Just as the Hindus believe that the cow ferries souls of the dead across the frightful Vaitarani river mentioned in the Puranas, and goad a dying person to mentally grasp the tail of the cow to attain salvation, the ancient Egyptians used the cow, specially of black colour, in funerary and other rites. 


Divinity is locked up in the anatomy of cow as she is said to embody the elements of purity, reality and existence. Her face epitomizes innocence - her eyes reflect peace, her horns, royalty and her ears, intelligence. Her udders are the fountain of ambrosia in the form of milk; her tail, a stairway to the higher regions of being.

Says the Atharvaveda (X.10):


‘Worship, O cow to thy tail-hair, and to thy hooves, and to thy form!...

Forth from thy mouth the songs came, from thy neck’s nape sprang strength, O Cow.

Sacrifice from thy flanks was born, and rays of sunlight from thy teats;

From thy fore-quarters and thy thigh’s motion was generated, cow!

Food from thine entails was produced, and from thy belly came the plants……

They call the cow immortal life, pay homage to the cow as Death….

The cow is heaven, the cow is earth, the cow is Vishnu, Lord of life….

She has become the universe: all that the sun surveys is she.’ 

The Vedic Aryans showed great compassion to animals, and chanted prayers so that their tribe may increase. The Rigveda (VIII. 102.15) likens the cow to be the mother of cosmic forces. She is the daughter of cosmic matter, sister of cosmic energy, and so on. The cow is Aditi ‘the boundless’, the embodiment of a goddess who supports the universe; her milk and the products made from it are wholesome and nourishing (Rigveda. VI. 28.5). This reminds one of Al Ghazali (1058-1111), the Muslim theologian and philosopher, who observed that ‘the meat of a cow is disease, its milk health, and its ghee, medicine. 

The hymns of the Atharvaveda (IV. 21.1; 3-7) seek bounties of the cow besides praying for their welfare. One of these verses (IV. 21.5) says:

‘May the cow be our affluence; may the resplendent Lord (Indra) grant us cattle; may the cows yield food (milk and butter) of the first libation (Soma). These cows O men, are sacred as the Lord resplendent Himself; the Lord whose blessings we crave for, with head and heart.’

It is, therefore, not surprising that the word aghanya -not fit to be killed – is used 21 times for the cow in the Rigveda, the earliest scripture known to mankind. The idea has a near parallel in the Biblical Book of Isaiah (66.3) which says: ‘He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man.’


Vedic knowledge is likened to Kamadhenu, a bovine goddess, who yields everything from material wealth to salvation. Yajurveda (XIII,42,48,49) describes the cow as illustrious and inviolable:

‘The effulgence of knowledge can be compared to the sun, the heavens can be compared to the sea, the earth is very vast, yet Indra is vaster than her, but the cow cannot be compared to anything.’


Manu Smriti (XI. 80) admonishes that if one sacrificed one’s life in defense of the learned men and cows, one became free from the gravest sin.

There may be isolated instances when cows and bulls were used in sacrifices but such practices were abhorred or considered sinful in general. Contrary to the perceptions of scholars like Rajendra Lal Mitra ( 1822-1891), P. V. Kane ( 1880-1972) and others who tried to justify the prevalence of beef-eating  in ancient times, some linguists have argued that the word go-medha figuring in the ancient texts does not imply killing or slaughtering (medha) the cow(go) but honouring and preserving its flock.

Each Sanskrit word has a number of connotations. Hence appropriate meaning need to be derived in a contextual framework. The word medha has triple meanings: ‘increasing intelligence; attending and killing’. Likewise, the word ‘go’ can mean both, cow or her products, her hair, her hide, her bone etc. The word mansa, for example, can mean not only meat but also ‘soft, pulpy part of fruit or vegetable.’ The fact is that the cow never lost its unique place among animals, or the consumption of beef made obligatory in Indian history.          


Some Mughal emperors, notably Akbar, are known to have banned cow slaughter. When beef-eating societies were formed in the wake of modernity in mid-19th century India, Syed Nazir Ahmad, a Muslim of Sitapur in U.P., pioneered the cow protection movement by establishing Islami Gorakshan Sabha which became a forerunner of many such Hindu societies.

Kuka-Sikhs sacrificed their lives in the cause of cow protection. When Kuka-crusaders, namely, Behla singh, Fateh Singh, Hakim Singh and Lehna Singh, were to be hanged for attacking the butchers of Amritsar on June 14th-15th June, 1871, one of their last wish was that they should not be hanged with leather strings. The widowed mother of youngest martyr, Hakim singh, remarked: ‘Today, I feel blessed because my son has given his life for the sake of the cow, the poor people and the freedom of the country.’

The Great Uprising of 1857 was sparked off by the rumour that greased cartridges to be used by sepoys in the newly introduced Enfield Rifle, were made up of animal fat of pig or cow. During the course of the freedom struggle, the issue of cow protection sometime got metamorphosed into national sentiment.

Hindus worship the cow due to a number of reasons, religious, socio-economic, medical and scientific. Such is the ardour of reverence for the cow that even her dung is turned into a deity during Govardhan Puja. Pancha-gavya, a mixture of cows milk, curd, ghee, urine and dung, is traditionally consumed during religious rites and also used as medicine to have a cleansing effect on the mind and the body, as advised by Maharishi Charaka (Charaka Samhita,Chikitsasthanam, 17-23), disciple of Agnivesha, and grand disciple of the sage  Atreya Punarvasu, who derived his knowledge directly from the creator Brahma.

The cow’s urine is said to be a panacea for sciatica, dropsy, jaundice, epilepsy, and other diseases, for which it is taken on an empty stomach; her dung has disinfecting properties and is used for plastering the floor in rural areas. Fumes of cow-dung cakes are inhaled in lung-infection, and dung-ash used to cure skin diseases by rubbing. Some Central African tribesmen wash their hands with cow’s urine and rinse the milking vessel with it for purification.

To Mahatma Gandhi the cow was ‘ä poem of pity’, ‘the purest form of sub-human life’, ‘the mother to millions of Indian mankind’. ‘Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God’, he wrote. “I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world.’ (Young India, 6th October 1921; 1st January 1925).

Such being the importance given to the cow, should she acquire national sanctity so that her tribe may increase for socio-economic betterment and cultural enrichment? Our national bird, the peacock is beautiful; our national animal, Royal Bengal tiger, has strength, but both have little utilitarian value. In comparison, the cow is productive in all respects, and can survive as a symbol of millennia old Indian culture, emblematic of truth, beauty and goodness – the traits attributed to the cow by our ancient rishis. 

The cow reminds one of Lord Krishna, also called Govinda and Gopala as he grazed, protected, and nourished cows, of Nachiketa in the Kathopanishad and Prishadhara in the Srimad Bhagavata, of the twelve Alvar saints in Tamil Nadu, of philosophers and mystics like Nimbarakacharya, Madhavacharya, Vallabhacharya and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, of saint-poets like Mira Bai and Surdas and, in recent times, of Maharishi Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Vinoba Bhave and others, who held the cow in great reverence, and professed non-killing, as in the Epistle to Romans( 14.20) : ‘For meat, destroy not the work of God.’

AuthorNoted author, historian and spiritualist, Dr Satish K Kapoor was formerly British Council Scholar, Principal, Lyallpur Khalsa College, Jalandhar and Registrar, DAV University. An associate subject editor of 11-volume, Encyclopedia of Hinduism, he has written seven books and more than five hundred articles. His latest book is Hinduism: The Faith Eternal, published by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata. He has participated in more than 200 programs on Radio and TV, and penned features and documentaries.

This article was first published in the Bhavan Journal published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Mumbai 400 007. Copyright lies with them.  


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