The cow appeared in the earliest Indian scriptures, the Vedas, and was depicted evocatively as a goddess, Prithivi Mata, the Mother Earth. In later Hindu texts, there are also some instances of the cow being described as a goddess – in particular Kamadhenu, the divine bovine-goddess and the fulfiller of wishes, who makes numerous appearances.
On certain days in rural areas the cow is honoured, for example during the Divali Festival of Lights or Sankranti, the farmers’ harvest festival. They are cleaned, decorated and are given special food.
In the Hindu tradition cows are not slaughtered, and the consumption of meat is taboo.
In the past, cows that no longer produced milk were fed until their natural death.
Hindus today describe the cow as a mother that gives the people everything they need for life, thus justifying her special status. To them, the cow is a symbol of welfare and prosperity. In the Atharvaveda (one of the four Vedas), the cow is associated with the god Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna grew up among cows and was nurtured and protected by them. The feeding of a cow is today still considered a ritual to celebrate the god Krishna.
In the past in Hinduism, the cow, like Vishnu, actually had the function of the sustainer; the survival of humans depended on her considerably. She not only produced food, but also valuable fertiliser, habitation, medicine and labour. Even today the ox (the male cow) is the only draught animal for many poor farmers, and therefore the linchpin of agriculture. For millions living in towns and villages the dung is the primary fuel for cooking, and it is depended on for the construction of houses in the villages. It can also be mixed with water and used for cleaning around the house and yard, and the area used for religious services. The cleaning takes place not only on a material level, but also on a spiritual one, according to devout Hindus. The dung has a further use as an effective pesticide. Today various products are manufactured from it commercially. Traditional Indian medicine Ayurveda also uses cow dung and urine to treat various illnesses.
We work together with the Maharshi Goshala Charitable Trust to run weekly workshops in which they demonstrate how to manufacture this medicine.
A mixture of dung, urine, milk, Ghee and Yoghurt, called Panchagavya (roughly translated from Sanskrit: “five products from the cow”) has uses as an organic fertiliser, in Ayurvedic medicine, and as sacrificial food, prasāda in Temple ceremonies.
From an article by Deutschlandfunk Kultur in German, 21/5/2015: Sanjay Bashyam runs a Goshala (cow sanctuary) in the state of Rajasthan. Here he and his staff look after about one hundred cows. Most of the animals have been disowned as they are ill, infertile, old or disabled. Sanjar Bashyam’s guru repeatedly advocated his followers to devote themselves to the welfare of the cow, a species that is considered mother of the universe and of the people, and whose significance is portrayed in various Vedic creation myths.
“Our guru said:
‘If you’re seeking tranquillity and peace on this earth, devote yourselves to the cows. Look after them, treat them with love.’
We’ve taken that to heart. We strive to provide a refuge where we can take care of every cow in our cities.”
The manager of the Goshala emphasises that the cow is the most useful creature in the world and repays the respect that devotees bestow upon it.
“The cow gives us five gifts: Urine, which is used in traditional medicine, amongst other things. The dung, which is one of the most important fuels in the whole of India. And the milk, which provides us with yoghurt and butter. The five sacred products from the cow provide us with health! Unfortunately this kind of knowledge has somewhat faded over the last three to four thousand years. But anyone who embraces it all, and devotes themselves extensively to it can enter into the seven galaxies of consciousness!”
In rural areas where the farmers are under great financial pressure, they might let an old animal die in an “accident”, or sell it for a small amount of money. Many farmers set their cows free when they no longer produce milk, and they end up looking for waste to eat.
In India a lot of cows lie, stand or sit on the streets, and don’t think about getting out of the way of cars or people. It’s not that cows in India aren’t considered sacred – quite clearly the cow IS sacred – a Hindu would not lay a finger on one.
Europeans may find it amusing to see cows wondering around the streets and regard it as typical for India, but unfortunately there is a dark side. The emaciated cows that stand around on the streets like living traffic islands have to rummage around in the garbage to find anything edible. In an effort to survive, they eat plastic bags with left-over food in them. This can have fatal consequences as the bags expand in the stomach, and the cows suffer unspeakable pain as a result.
In some areas of India there are so-called Goshalas (animal sanctuaries), where old or ill cows are fed until the end of their lives. Wealthy individuals or temple institutions support these shelters with donations, as is the case with our Indian partner organisation in Warangal.
Here is a link to another video featuring Mr Ramesh, president of the Maharshi Goshala Charitable Trust, Warangal. The Importance of the Indian Cow (1:58 Min)