The media (and educational material used in schools outside of India) is quick to note that Hindus consider cows as sacred. That is true, but it doesn’t stop there. Hinduism is rich in symbolism, and many things are considered sacred, ranging from all living things, to rivers, hills, space, time, language, mathematics, music, etc. Rituals that celebrate reverence of Nature (or rather the underlying Reality/Essence of all things) are common across many Hindu traditions.
Also, while the cow, like many things in Hinduism, is considered sacred, it is inaccurate to say Hindus are cow worshippers. You hardly see any temples dedicated to a cow nor do you find any cow god /goddess. You are more likely to find a cow idol fixed outside the garbha graha (the center where the temple’s main deity is housed), and looking in the direction of that main deity. In such setting the cow represents the observer and his humility [toward God]. You’ll also see the cow accompanying Krishna, or the bull accompanying Shiva, or the buffalo accompanying the demigod Yama.
This devotee-god relationship representation doesn’t end there. You see it for example, with the bull (Nandi) serving Shiva, or the peacock serving Murugan, or the kite Gurada serving Vishnu, or Ganesha always shown sitting on a mouse, or that Meenakshi is always shown with a parrot, or Shani shown always with a crow, or Bhairavar shown always with dog, or Yama shown always with a buffalo.
Hindu culture believes that god reveals Him/Her/Itself to different people in different ways, by different names and forms (including formless), such as Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Meenakshi, Murugan, Kali, etc. Hindus consider God as immanent and transcendent.
Temples do maintain cows in their temple grounds, as also elephants, peacocks, parrots, monkeys. As also sacred plants like the neem tree, banyan tree, peepal tree, tulsi (Indian basil), turmeric, sandalwood. Among all sacred plants and animals, the cow is the most revered.
Why is it that the cow of all animals gained popularity? How the cow attained special status is because of its domestication (as man’s best friend) and utility in the past (and even today): milk, ghee, yogurt, cow dung (dried cow dung rich is widely used in place of wood burning fuel, producing a blue gas flame, and is widely used as organic fertilizer), for plowing and for transport (of material and people) as bullock carts, hardworking, loyal, and even domesticated.
Also, the cow, at that time in India, was the most visible symbol of compassion in the animal kingdom – that of the nurturing mother (it’s hard to not take notice of how a cow so carefully tenders its calf; and of how the calf stays within close vicinity of its mother).
If one were to consider the dog as man’s best friend, the cow was much more than that to a villager/farmer in India, as it was also a priceless asset to a family or to the village – even more so in a time period a few thousand years ago when the population of India was no more than a few million. In a largely agricultural community (most of India, even more so in the past), it was a matter of survival to own a cow.
Without owning a cow:
- you won’t be able to plow your fields (bullock plows)
- you won’t have a way to transport your harvest (bullock carts)
- you won’t have organic fertilizer (from cow dung)
- you won’t be able to cook or source of heat in colder parts of India (biofuel from dried cow dung)
- you won’t have dairy (you won’t have milk, yogurt, butter, ghee, and sweets),
- you won’t have a number of natural medicine (derived from cows milk and cow urine). You’ll be surprised the number of modern medicine ranging from estrogen supplements to melatonin therapy that uses either cow, horse, or pig urine.
When the pseudo-liberal leftists and Westerners misrepresent and brand Hindus as just “cow worshipers”, probably because they find the cow to be a funny animal and it is easy for them to be immature and it make the butt of one’s jokes…. it just goes to show they don’t care about the importance of the cow to the average farmer (who doesn’t own nor can afford to even rent a tractor to plow his fields, or rent a truck to transport his harvest, or pay for fertilizer, or even pay for natural gas delivery to his modest village home, or afford to buy milk for his entire family).
Such was the day-to-day connection and utility, that the cow was just like a family member, including addressing it by a name. No one would dare even think of eating family member, just as in the USA one wouldn’t think of eating his own dog which he has grow up with all his life (or even any dog in general, as part of the American culture it is what is considered a domestic animal). Meanwhile, in China there are many sub-cultures that have no problem killing and eating a dog. This would seem barbaric to the American. Same way, Hindus see the beef industry and consumption of beef as barbaric. Note that, Hindus have the highest number of vegetarians in the world, by a factor of over 30x that of the non-Hindu vegetarians in the USA.
There is nothing sacred about just cows, but all of existence, the cow being the most representative, because it was the most benign and useful domestic animal in India for several thousand years. So it got elevated into extra sacred, and continues to remain so.