When doctrines make news: Why do Hindus believe cows are sacred?

THE QUESTION: What’s the background on Hinduism’s belief in “sacred cows”? (This question was actually posed by The Religion Guy himself -- not a reader -- because the topic is currently in the news.)


Press reports from India say the government in Uttar Pradesh state is waging a campaign against Muslim slaughterhouses accused of processing cows, which is illegal, instead of buffaloes, which is allowed and constitutes a large industry. Muslim butchers deny the accusations. In Gujarat state, meanwhile, the maximum punishment for killing a cow has been increased from seven years to life in prison.

India is offically non-sectarian but has a lopsided Hindu majority, and the current national government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is Hindu nationalist in character. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat till 2014. The BJP recently won a lrge victory in Uttar Pradesh elections and installed strong-willed Hindu sage Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister. In BJP-ruled Rajasthan state, the cabinet includes a minister for cows.

There’ve been some riots and even a vigilante killing over cow issues during recent years. In times past, regimes even executed cow-killers. Since the 19th Century the nation has seen the rise of militant societies and vigilantes devoted to cow protection. Due to this religious heritage, many cattle roam city streets and the countryside unhindered. For some, reverence extends to bulls and oxen.

Though heavily Hindu, India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan. As with states’ “anti-conversion” laws aimed especially at hindering Christians, crackdowns on Muslims over cows reflect popular feeling among Hindus. Religion News Service reports there’s also sporadic persecution against atheists.

A new Pew Research report on 198 countries judges India to be the world’s fourth worst in “social hostilities involving religion,” exceeded only by Syria, Nigeria and Iraq. It also ranks India in the “high” category for “government restrictions” on religion. Click here for more information.

It’s often said Hindus “worship” cows. At the annual cow festival the animals are bathed and offered garlands and treats amid emotional weeping that for outsiders looks for all the world like devotion to divinities. But Hindu authors say cows are merely venerated, not worshiped, and this because of their close association with the gods, especially Shiva, Nandi, Krishna (a cowherd as a youngster), and with goddesses in general because of cows’ maternal attributes.

Unique to the Hindu faith, cow protection is an example of major religious evolution, since historians tell us that thousands of years ago believers ritually sacrificed cows and ate their flesh. But a ban on those practices gradually spread and then became absolute.

Religious historian Bruce Lincoln of the University of Chicago, among other experts, wrote that the roots of cow veneration are “considerably older” than Hinduism’s broad commitment to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) and corresponding regard for all animals.

In the early second millennium B.C.E., hymns collected in the Rig Veda upheld cows as “beings not to be killed.”

Continue reading "Why do Hindus believe cows are sacred?", by Richard Ostling.

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