The Symbolism of the Cow in Hindu Culture

Hindus venerate the cow.
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Cows play an important symbolic role in Hinduism, which can be traced back to the significance of dairy cows to early Indo-European pastoral communities in India around 4,000 years ago. Today, cows are a regular sight in the towns and cities of countries with significant Hindu populations. In India, where 80.5 percent of the population are Hindus, cows are protected and anyone hitting a cow or pedestrian in a traffic accident is likely to be attacked and have their car burned, warns the State Department.

1 Ahimsa Principle

Hindus see cows as representing the ahimsa principle, one of the key elements in Hindu beliefs. Ahimsa teaches Hindus that they should do no injury to another living being. The gentle, docile nature of cows is seen as a representation of ahimsa, and as a result, for Hindus, venerating the cow “instills the virtues of gentleness, receptivity and connectedness with nature,” says “Hinduism Today.”

2 Cow as Provider

Hindus view the cow as a provider and nourisher. The cow takes nothing apart from water and food, but in return provides dairy products through its milk, meat through its body and clothing through its skin. Although the ahimsa principle means that the vast majority of Hindus are vegetarian and do not eat beef, cow’s milk and other dairy products remain an important part of the daily diet, while cow dung and urine are used for fuel, for building purposes and play a role in rituals.

3 Cow as Deity

Kamadhenu is a Hindu deity in the form of a cow, who possesses the ability to grant wishes. Her name is a combination of the Sanskrit words “kama,” meaning desire or wish, and “dhenu,” which means milk cow. Kamadhenu is seen as the mother of all cows and is a goddess of plenty, providing the milk, butter and ghee used in religious ceremonies. Cows also hold associations with other Hindu deities, including Krishna, an incarnation of the lord Vishnu, often represented in his childhood role as a cowherd.

4 Praise for Cows

Cows are represented in the Vedas, the ancient religious texts of Hinduism, where they appear in the Rigveda, the oldest text that praises deities. The Rigveda describes how “The cows have come and have brought us good fortune,” and expresses the hope that they will stay and live productive lives in the community: “May they bring forth calves for us, many-colored, giving milk for Indra each day.” The text also praises the cow: “You make, O cows, the thin man sleek; to the unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing.”

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.