Why is the Cow considered sacred in India?
The cow is sacred to the Hindus, a fact that puzzles the foreigner who finds
numerous animals wandering the streets of the towns and cities, muzzling at fruit
and vegetable stalls and often obstructing traffic. The sacredness of the cow
is a central and crucial element in Hindu belief. The cow is supposed to be the
living symbol of Mother Earth. For the early migrants the cow was an indispensable
member of the family. As agriculture was the occupation of the migrants, the
cow provided them with milk and its byproducts and also necessities of life such
as fuel, manure for the farm, etc. During this time the Aryans prayed to their
numerous gods through 'yagna' (from 'yaj', to worship). This was initially a
simple way of private worship but became public in character and consisted of
invoking the fire-god, Agni, by ritually kindling sacred wood on an altar, and
keeping the fire alive by constantly feeding it with melted butter. It was through
the instrumentality of Agni (fire) that the offering of milk pudding and a drink
of milk, curds and honey (madhupeya) were conveyed to one's chosen gods. Thus
the cow supplied the major requirements of the yagna and this association soon
made it sacred.
Later on animal sacrifices waned as gradually, the Hindus veered towards vegetarianism
due to the influence of early Jainism and Buddhism, especially on the Brahmins
and Vaishyas. Gradually the cow came to be known as 'Gaumata' (cow, the Mother)
and 'Aditi' (mother of gods). The rise of Vaishnavism amongst the prosperous
middle and lower castes (expressed in the figure of the cowherd god Krishna)
helped consolidate the importance and the religious glorification of the cow.
Some of the other factors which resulted in its sanctity were; its figurative
usage in Vedic literature which later was taken literally; prohibitions against
killing a Brahmin's (priest's) cow and lastly, the symbol of cow protection as
an affirmation of religious solidarity against Muslim invaders.