How did people in India decide that cows were sacred?

The sight of cows, however emaciated, lumbering through the sultry and congested streets of Calcutta, is a peculiar one to the western eye, and many deride the ban on killing cattle in a country where millions go hungry. But what appears an arbitrary and irrational practice arose not only from religious beliefs, but from the pragmatic necessity of protecting a vital source of food.

In the 2nd millennium B.C. the Aryans came to India, bringing with them their own cattle, but because of the harsh climate these soon were replaced by the native breed.

Dairy products became very popular with the peoples of India, and the Aryans recognized the need to protect their limited source. The text of the Rig-Veda, which dates from the Aryans’ first period in India, designates all goats, horses, sheep, and buffalo as proper food, but only barren cows. The milk, butter, and cheese gained from a single cow could sustain far more people for a longer period of time than could its meat.

This practical regard for the cow added to an already existing, very ancient religious esteem. South Asian artifacts that predate the Indus Valley cities (c. 2500-1500 B.C.) by some millennia display a religious veneration of the humped bull. So the later waves of Indo-Iranian speakers were adding another dimension to an indigenous symbol.

In 1000 B.C. a strict religious code, recorded in the Atharva-Veda, prohibited all eating of meat. Barren cows were then turned over to mendicant Brahmins, the Aryan priests. Over a period of 300 years this stricture was relaxed and gradually it became the custom to kill cattle to sacrifice to the gods, or to meet the demands of hospitality.

The Brahmin priests of 700 B.C. began abusing this freedom, however, sapping the country’s wealth by demanding ever more cattle for ritual sacrifice. There arose in opposition two new religious leaders: the Buddha and Mahavira.

Both denounced violence, the Aryan caste system, and the slaughter of animals. The followers of Buddha would not permit animals to be killed for them. The Jains, or disciples of Mahavira, were far more stringent, scrutinizing even fruits and vegetables before eating them to avoid killing insects. Their fanaticism stemmed not from love of the fruit fly, however, but from a belief in transmigration of the soul, whereby even an insect might incorporate a human soul—though undoubtedly one that had not behaved too admirably in a former life.

By 100 B.C. the influences of Buddhism and Jainism had made their mark. The Brahmin priests of the Vedic faith were now performing rituals without animal sacrifice. The old ban on killing cows was resurrected.

Vegetarianism increased throughout the country, particularly in the south under the control of the orthodox priests. Some communities continued to eat goat and chicken, but the cow was protected. Scarcity of supply complemented the religious code. Even in the cities the wealthy refrained from eating beef; milk and yogurt were important ingredients of Indian cooking, and the greenish milk of the buffalo offered a poor substitute.

The inviolability of the cow was emphasized during the territorial expansion of the 5th century A. D. , when settlers had little but a few cattle and rudimentary agricultural knowledge. Their Brahmin advisers strictly forbade killing the cows.

Hindus believe the cow, as provider of milk, symbolizes motherhood and that this is the basis and origin of its veneration. An ancient legend tells that the cow Surabhi, mother of all cows, was one of the treasures churned from the cosmic ocean. The “five products of the cow”, milk, curd, butter, urine, and dung, all embody great purifying potency and must be protected and sustained. All five have practical value as well: dung is burned for fuel, particularly where wood is limited, and urine is occasionally used for its medicinal and cleansing properties. Since no goddess represents the cow, the live animal itself is revered. Slaughter is equivalent to genocide.

Several incidents in more recent times point to the seriousness with which many Indians maintain their reverence for the cow.

In 1857 the British introduced the Enfield rifle, whose cartridges had to be bitten open before loading. These cartridges were covered with grease and at one point rumors burned through the ranks of Indian sepoys that the grease was either beef or pork fat. This outraged both Hindus and Muslims in a single blow, for the former committed the gravest sin in eating beef, and the latter became polluted by the fat of an unclean pig. Thus the sanctity of the cow helped fuel the Indian Mutiny against the British.

Even with the best intentions, it is sometimes impossible to uphold one’s most sacred beliefs. The unfortunate Maharaja Sindhia of Gwalior was driving a train along a newly built railroad when a cow suddenly leaped onto the tracks and was struck dead.

Years later the prince confided to a friend, “I think I shall never finish paying for that disaster, in penances and purifications, and in gifts to the Brahmins.”