Beef Controversy: Hinduism and Cow


By Nithin Sridhar

An Analysis of Hindu Symbols and Practices: Part 3

India has witnessed a continued controversy over ‘beef’ and ‘cow-slaughter’ in the last few months. The latest incident that added to the controversy was the Delhi Police inspection of the Kerala House in Delhi after receiving complaints about beef being served there. Many Kerala MPs and political workers protested against this inspection terming it as “an attack on the federal structure of Indian constitution.

Few days back, an Independent lawmaker of Jammu & Kashmir, Engineer Rashid was attacked with ink for hosting beef party in protest of the beef ban in the state. The ghastly Dadri lynching happened over rumors about killing and consumption of cow. Previously, there was a great uproar over meat ban in Maharashtra during the Jain festival of Paryushana.

In each of these incidents, there has been a massive outrage that not only spoke about the rights of people to have freedom to decide what to eat (which is absolutely right), but also in a sense celebrated the people’s right to kill animals in general, and cows in particular.

The discourse that has been created around the controversy of beef tries to uphold beef consumption as a virtue, and the concerns for cow protection as vice and communal; the celebration of violence as virtue, and adherence to ahimsa as vice.

Further, there have been attempts to justify beef consumption and hence the massive cow slaughter (much of it illegal) that is being carried out, by claiming how beef-consumption was extensively practiced by Hindu ancestors and hence current opposition to beef consumption amounts to hypocrisy.

Therefore, it becomes vital to not only counter the narrative of violence that is being promoted in the name of ‘rights’, but also to set the record straight regarding the status of the cow in Hindu religion and history.

Hence, let us first take up the issue of the position of cows in Hinduism.

It has been argued by various scholars that the cow was not considered ‘holy’ in the Vedic period and they were frequently sacrificed and consumed during those periods. They point towards various verses present in Veda Samhitas, Brahmanas, Manu Smriti and other Dharma-Shastras to paint the Hindu ancestors as beef and meat consumers who upheld and celebrated beef consumption.

At the same time, they tend to either ignore or brush aside those references in the Hindu scriptures that speak about Ahimsa and cow protection. They further try to portray cow-slaughter and beef consumption as a central philosophy and practice of Hinduism.

Before proceeding to examine some of the major arguments given in support of prevalence of massive beef consumption, let us first briefly deal with the Hindu view of cow.

Hindu view of Cow

To properly understand the Hindu perception of Cow, one should first understand how Hindus perceive the environment. The Isha Upanishad (verse 1) considers the entire universe with all its objects as being inhabited by God. Similarly, Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita (10.20) says, that he is seated in the hearts of all creatures. Thus, Hindus do not view environment as consisting lifeless objects and inferior life forms that exist so that humans can conquer and exploit them.

Instead, the Hindu view of environment is “deeply rooted in the understanding that the trees, the animals, the air, the water, the land and every other object in nature are permeated by divinity, and hence they are all worthy of our love, respect, and preservation.”

Thus, we call earth as ‘Mother earth’; we believe that Lord Vishnu manifested as fish, tortoise, or as a boar; and our Gods are always associated with animals which serve as their vahanas (vehicles). Among all the animals, cows hold a special place in the heart and psyche of Hindus.

A cow is not only perceived as an animal that is extremely useful from economic perspective, it is also considered as a mother who loves and nourishes the entire family with whom she lives.

This sentiment has been beautifully brought out in the words of Mahatma Gandhi who says: “Mother Cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill.”

Though it is true that the Cow was central to agricultural society, and hence she was given high place, but this in itself does not capture the entire understanding of the Hindus.

Hindus recognize the Cow as the most Sattvic (pure/innocent) of all animals. She is particularly loved and respected for her attitude of love, selflessness, innocence, and loyalty. For this reason, Atharva-Veda (3.30.1) says that people should love one another as cow loves its calf. The popular story of the Punyakoti further brings out all these characteristics of a cow in a beautiful manner.


Cow in Hindu scriptures

While describing the motherly aspect of the cows, Rig-Veda (6.28.1-8) calls them as ‘bringers of fortune’ whose milk can be fed to Gods in sacrifice and also to the guests. The mantras further say that the cows should be kept happy and should be protected from any injury or harassment or theft.

At another place, Rig-Veda says: “May the cow eats best of the grass, may she be blessed, and by her may we also be blessed with wealth. O inviolable cow, ever feed on grass, and come back and drink water.” (Verse 1.164.40)

These verses reveal that the cows are to be treated with love and respect and they must be provided with freedom and protection from harm. People should make attempts at giving happiness to the cows, in the same way in which cows provide happiness and wealth to us.

In the Itihasas and the Puranas, Kamadhenu– the divine cow is portrayed as an abode of various Gods and as a wish-fulfilling cow. The name ‘wish-fulfilling’ not only points towards how nourishing cows resulted in economic prosperity, but it also points towards how nourishing them was considered a Dharmic act leading to Dharmic wealth as well. Hence, the cows which are earthly manifestations of the Divine Kamadhenu are all considered as the abode of material and spiritual prosperity. Thus, the Atharva-Veda (11.1.34) calls cows as the home of all bounties.

Further, Lord Krishna in Bhagavad-Gita (10.28) says that, among the cows he is the Kamadhenu. Similarly, Rigveda (6.28-1-8) equates cows with Lord Bhaga and Lord Indra.

These clearly establishes the sacredness of the cow. Therefore, contrary to the claims of certain scholars, cows are indeed considered as holy and as manifestations of divine, which are worthy of love, reverence, and worship in Hinduism.

It is this sacredness of the cow and its ability to grant prosperity to the people that has made Vedas to refer to cow as ‘aghnya’– one which should not be killed. The Vedic lexicon Nighantu further gives two synonyms for cow- ‘ahi’ and ‘aditi’ that means ‘not to be killed’ and ‘not to be cut into pieces’ respectively.

Regarding, why cow is called ‘aghnya’ that which should not be slayed, Shukla Yajur-Veda (13.43) says: “harm not the cow which is pure and illustrious.” The same Veda further says (13.49): “harm not the cow which gives ghee.” Reiterating this, we find Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 262.47) as saying: “The very name of the cow is ‘aghnya’- that which must not be slaughtered. Hence, who can slay them? Those who kill a cow or a bull commit a most heinous crime.”

We find further references in the Vedas themselves, wherein it is explicitly stated that cows and bulls are not to be slayed (Rig-Veda -8.101.15) or that those who harm cows must be punished (Rig-Veda– 10.87.16). Manu Smriti (4.162) reiterates such instructions as well.

Thus, it is clear that in the Hindu world view, cows are sacred, pure, and manifestations of divine.

But, their Sattva has also made them defenseless. Therefore, to provide protection for such innocent defenseless animals, the Hindu scriptures have not only instructed people to not cause harm to them, but also to protect them. This can be understood as the ultimate expression of Ahimsa (non-injury).

With this background, let us try to understand how this fits with assertions of use of cow meat during Yajnas, Shraddhas and Madhuparkas that can be seen in some Hindu scriptures in the next part.

More under Beef Controversy:

Part 4: Yajna, Madhuparka, and the use of beef

Part 5: Origins of beef consumption in India

Part 6: Beef Controversy: Beef parties and the celebration of violence

More under Hindu Symbols and Practices:

Part 1: The practice of Idol Worship

Part 2- Fallacies in Criticism of Idol Worship