Holy Cow

Upon my recent return to India I thought I would share some insights on India’s most inter­est­ing animal. One of the most contro­ver­sial and complex elements in Indian culture and religion is, “the sacred cow”. For foreign­ers in India and proba­bly for Indians themselves there are endless questions linger­ing around this notion of the “Holy Cow”. I am not sure that anyone has all of the answers, and I certainly do not claim too. However, I will share a little of what I have learned so far in my years in India.


In India and for Hindus around the world the cow is sacred and god like. The cow is thought to be God’s useful gift to mankind. It is said that the cow is the mother of the world and a symbol of the earth, giving so much and asking nothing in return.


It is believed that the cow was created on the same day as the Brahmins (one of the highest cast of peoples in India) there­fore to kill a cow is equated with killing a Brahmin. One of the most impor­tant Hindu gods, Lord Shiva rode upon a bull and appears as a bull named “Nandi” in his animal form. Hindus began worship­ping the cow as early as 200 AD.

The consump­tion of beef or veal is consid­ered sacri­le­gious for many Indian people. In fact it is against the law to actively kill or to injure a cow in most parts of India. Since these gentle giants are not killed for human consump­tion there is a large popula­tion of un-owned street cows, slowly making their way through city centers and small villages. The multi­tude of cows on the streets of India is one of the elements that make this country so inter­est­ing and unique.

Through the streets of India people of all ages and social stand­ings can be seen putting food out for the cows, patiently holding traffic for them, and gently stroking their heads as they walk by.

The idea of the sacred cow is a beauti­ful one. Consid­er­ing an animal sacred, and putting it in a class among gods is absolute music to my ears. This concept is one of the many things that fasci­nate me about this country. But I am afraid that the reality for the Indian cow is nothing like the fantasy that is portrayed and believed by so many. Unfor­tu­nately no matter how holy they may be, animals will always be exploited and will suffer if money is to be made from them.

If the cow is so holy how can it be that that India is the largest producer of leather in the world? And the largest milk-producing country in the world?

Although most Hindus will never eat the flesh of a cow it is next to impos­si­ble to find one that does not have leather shoes on their feet. Nor take a chai (tea) without having it half full of cow’s milk.

I visited an ashram/school a while back that keeps its own cows. They had about 30 to 40 cows onsite to provide milk for the students and teach­ers that live there. All of the cows were female. When I asked about the male cows the headmaster/guru of the place answered that they didn’t keep the boys. They don’t produce milk. This man was as holy as they come, one who swears silly at the impor­tance and the absolute sacred­ness of the cow. He told me that the baby bulls go to nearby villages to work the fields. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the numbers just don’t add up. It would only take one bull to plow several fields every few months. The demand for bulls doesn’t even regis­ter in compar­i­son to the demand for females for their milk.

In a search to find actual numbers of the cows in India I could only find some statis­tics from 2003. A little outdated but the numbers still work to show the extreme lopsid­ed­ness. Accord­ing to the Animal Husbandry Depart­ment of the Govern­ment of India in 2003, the number of female cows within the country (working to produce milk) was 56.1 million. At the same time the number of male bulls in India was recorded at 4.8 million. Since this infor­ma­tion was published the numbers of bulls has declined and numbers of females has risen.

So what REALLY happens to the baby bulls of India?

Most Indians believe that the bulls are being used by farmers in the country­side, or they are somewhere peace­fully living in a sanctu­ary or at a temple.

Sadly these fantasies are far from the reality. Since “actively killing” a cow is against Hindu religion and Indian law, baby bulls are taken from their mother and tied up just out of reach. Left to starve to death as the mother watches. There is a great demand world­wide for the fine leather and suede that comes from the skin of these babies. So without using their bodies for meat, and without “actively killing” them, there is still money to be made.

Others choose to abandon these baby bulls to the street. Although these boys may be luckier than the others, their lives are challeng­ing, living off of garbage, handouts, and dogging traffic. Eventu­ally all of these males will end up being picked up by a thug and turned into jacket.

And all of the cows that I am speak­ing of are coming from the small family run farms. I am not even touch­ing on the huge milk produc­ing mega giant farms, which house most of the cows in India.

Please don’t think that I am trying to attack Hindus or Indians. I believe that most people here just do not realize the conse­quences for these animals.

I also have for many years consid­ered cows sacred. But not because of religion. As a child my neigh­bour had cows that he would let roam in the valley that separated our houses. I would spend my summer days feeding them crab apples and lying in the grass at their feet. They were my friends.

Later in life I find myself again surrounded by cows. Here in India, at Animal Aid (www.animalaidunlimited.com) injured and sick cows come in daily for emergency treat­ment. Once again I am in awe of these gentle and patient holy creatures.

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