Cattle in religion
Due to the multiple benefits from cattle, there are varying beliefs about cattle in societies and religions. In some regions, especially Nepal and some states in India, the slaughter of cattle is prohibited and their meat may be taboo. Cattle are considered sacred in world religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and others. Religions in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Palestine and Ancient Rome held similar beliefs.
- 1 In Hinduism
- 2 Zoroastrianism
- 3 Judaism
- 4 Islam
- 5 Jainism
- 6 Ancient Egypt
- 7 Ancient Europe
- 8 Modern day
- 9 Leather
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 External links
The cow was possibly revered because Hindus relied heavily on it for dairy products and for tilling the fields, and on cow dung as a source of fuel and fertilizer. Thus, the cow’s status as a 'caretaker' led to identifying it as an almost maternal figure (hence the term gau mata).
Hinduism is based on the concept of omnipresence of the Divine and the presence of a soul in all creatures, including bovines. Thus, by that definition, killing any animal would be a sin: One would be obstructing the natural cycle of birth and death of that creature, and the creature would have to be reborn in that same form because of its unnatural death. Krishna, one of the avatars of god himself, tended cows. The cow and bull represent the symbol of Dharma. Reverence for cows and bulls is in the major texts of the Vedic religion.
In South India and some parts of Sri Lanka, a cattle festival called Mattu Pongal is celebrated.
The most common word for cow is go, cognate with the English cow and Latin bos, all from Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) cognates *gwous. The Sanskrit word for cattle is paśu, from PIE *peḱu-. Other terms are dhenu cow and uks ox.
Milk cows are also called aghnya "that which may not be slaughtered". Depending on the interpretation of terminology used for a cow, the cow may have been protected.
In the Hindu scriptures
- Rig Veda
Cattle are one of the important animals, and several hymns refer to ten thousand and more cattle. Rig Veda 7.95.2. and other verses (e.g., 8.21.18) also mention that the Sarasvati region poured milk and clarified butter (ghee), indicating that cattle were herded in this region. RV 6.28 is called Cows. Text 3 speaks about safety of cows.
- Atharva Veda
In the Brahma-saṁhitā it is said that the Lord, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, in His transcendental abode Goloka Vṛndāvana, is accustomed to herding the surabhi cows.
The Harivamsha depicts Krishna as a cowherd. He is often described as Bala Gopala, "the child who protects the cows." Another of Krishna's names, Govinda, means "one who brings satisfaction to the cows." Other scriptures identify the cow as the "mother" of all civilization, its milk nurturing the population. The gift of a cow is applauded as the highest kind of gift.
The cow's milk is believed to promote Sattvic (purifying) qualities. The ghee (clarified butter) from the milk of a cow is used in ceremonies and in preparing religious food. Cow dung is used as fertilizer, as a fuel and as a disinfectant in homes. Its urine is used for religious rituals as well as medicinal purposes. The supreme purificatory material, panchagavya, was a mixture of five products of the cow: milk, curds, ghee, urine and dung. The interdiction of the meat of the bounteous cow as food was regarded as the first step to total vegetarianism.
The earth-goddess Prithvi was, in the form of a cow, successively milked of beneficent substances for the benefit of humans, by deities starting with the first sovereign: Prithu milked the cow to generate crops for humans to end a famine.
Kamadhenu, the miraculous "cow of plenty" and the "mother of cows" in Hindu mythology is believed to represent the generic sacred cow, regarded as the source of all prosperity. All the gods are believed to reside in her body; a form of Kamadhenu often depicted in poster-art.
In the Bhagavata Purana, Surabhi is the name of the cows which exist in the spiritual planets and are especially reared by Kṛṣṇa. As men are made after the form and features of the Supreme Lord, so the cows are made after the form and features of the surabhi cows in the spiritual kingdom.
The reverence for the cow played a role in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British East India Company. Hindu and Muslim sepoys in the army of the East India Company came to believe that their paper cartridges, which held a measured amount of gunpowder, were greased with cow and pig fat. The consumption of swine is forbidden in Islam. Since loading the gun required biting off the end of the paper cartridge, they concluded that the British were forcing them to break edicts of their religion.
In Gandhi's teachings
The cow was venerated by Mahatma Gandhi. He said: "I worship it and I shall defend its worship against the whole world," and that, "The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection." He regarded the cow as better than the earthly mother and called her "the mother to millions of Indian mankind."
Our mother, when she dies, means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when she is alive. We can make use of every part of her body — her flesh, her bones, her intestines, her horns and her skin.—Gandhi
For Gandhi, the cow is a "poem of mercy", and protection of the cow is the gift of Hinduism to the world, because to protect Mother Cow means protecting all weak lives in this world.
The term geush urva means "the spirit of the cow" and is interpreted as the soul of the earth. In the Ahunavaiti Gatha, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) accuses some of his co-religionists of abusing the cow. Ahura Mazda tells Zarathustra to protect the cow.
The lands of Zarathustra and the Vedic priests were those of cattle breeders. The 9th chapter of the Vendidad of the Avesta expounds the purificatory power of cow urine. It is declared to be a panacea for all bodily and moral evils.
According to the Hebrew Bible, an unblemished red cow was an important part of ancient Jewish rituals. The cow was sacrificed and burned in a precise ritual, and the ashes were added to water used in the ritual purification of a person who had come in to contact with a human corpse. The ritual is described in the Book of Numbers in Chapter 19, verses 1-14. Observant Jews study this passage every year in early summer as part of the weekly Torah portion called Chukat. A contemporary Jewish organization called the Temple Institute is trying to revive this ancient religious observance.
Traditional Judaism considers beef kosher and permissible as food, as long as the cow is slaughtered in a religious ritual called shechita, and the meat is not served in a meal that includes any dairy foods.
Jainism forbids the killing of any animals, whether for consumption or sacrifice.
- In Celtic mythology, the principal gods were sometimes considered to take the form of a bull and cow during a rite at the spring equinox. The cattle goddess was known as Damona in Celtic Gaul and Boann in Celtic Ireland.
- In Greek mythology, the Cattle of Helios pastured on the island of Thrinacia, which is believed to be modern Sicily. Helios, the sun god, is said to have had seven herds of oxen and seven flocks of sheep, each numbering fifty head. A hecatomb was a sacrifice to the gods Apollo, Athena, and Hera, of 100 cattle (hekaton = one hundred).
- In Norse mythology, the primeval cow Auðumbla suckled the ancestor of the Frost Giants, Ymir, and licked Odin's grandfather, Búri, out of the ice.
- Among the Visigoths, the oxen pulling the wagon with the corpse of Saint Emilian lead to the correct burial site (San Millán de la Cogolla, La Rioja).
Today, in Hindu-majority countries like India and Nepal, bovine milk holds a key part of religious rituals. For some, it is customary to boil milk on a stove or lead a cow through the house as part of a housewarming ceremony. In honor of their exalted status, cows often roam free, even along (and in) busy streets in major cities such as Delhi. In some places, it is considered good luck to give one a snack or fruit before breakfast.
In India, the slaughter of cattle is allowed with restrictions (like a 'fit-for-slaughter' certificate which may be issued depending on factors like age and gender of cattle, continued economic viability, etc.), but only for bulls and buffaloes and not cows in fourteen states; it is completely banned in six states with pending litigation in the supreme court to overturn the ban; while there is no restriction in many states. This has created communal disharmony in India and frequently leads to unwanted incidents.
Gopastami, a holiday celebrated by the Hindus once a year, is one of the few instances where cows receive prayers and sacrifices in modern day India. While the cow is still respected and honored by most of the Indian population, there has been controversy over the treatment of the cows during the holiday. Part of the holiday includes sacrificing the cow to symbolize the continuation of life. Since cow slaughtering is only legal in two Indian states, cows must be transported around the country in rather poor conditions, usually train or by foot. This lack of sacredness toward the cows alarms many animal activists and some dedicated Hindus.
In Nepal, the cow is the national animal. Cows give milk from which the people produce dahi (yogurt), ghee, butter, etc. In Nepal, a Hindu-majority country, slaughtering of cows and bulls is completely banned. Cows are considered like the Goddess Laxmi (goddess of wealth and prosperity). The Nepalese have a festival called Tihar (Diwali) during which, on one day called Gaipuja, they perform prayers for cows.
Cows roam freely and are sacred. However, buffalo slaughtering is done in Nepal for religious purposes.
The beef taboo is fairly widespread in Burma, particularly in the Buddhist community. In Burma, beef is typically obtained from cattle that are slaughtered at the end of their working lives (16 years of age) or from sick animals. Cattle is rarely raised for meat; 58% of cattle in the country is used for draught power. Few people eat beef, and there is a general dislike of beef (especially among the Bamar and Burmese Chinese), although it is more commonly eaten in regional cuisines, particularly those of ethnic minorities like the Kachin. Buddhists, when giving up meat during the Buddhist (Vassa) or Uposatha days, will forego beef first. Almost all butchers are Muslim because of the Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa (no harm).
In 1885, Ledi Sayadaw, a prominent Buddhist monk wrote the Nwa-myitta-sa (နွားမေတ္တာစာ), a poetic prose letter that argued that Burmese Buddhists should not kill cattle and eat beef, since Burmese farmers depended on them as beasts of burden to maintain their livelihoods, that the marketing of beef for human consumption threatened the extinction of buffalo and cattle and that the practice and was ecologically unsound. He subsequently led successful beef boycotts during the colonial era, despite the presence of beef eating among locals and influenced a generation of Burmese nationalists in adopting this stance.
On 29 August 1961, the Burmese Parliament passed the State Religion Promotion Act of 1961, which explicitly banned the slaughtering of cattle nationwide (beef became known as todo tha (တိုးတိုးသား); lit. hush hush meat). Religious groups, such as Muslims, were required to apply for exemption licences to slaughter cattle on religious holidays. This ban was repealed a year later, after Ne Win led a coup d'état and declared martial law in the country.
In Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, in May 2013, 30-year-old Buddhist monk Bowatte Indrarathana Thera of the Sri Sugatha Purana Vihara self immolated to protest the government allowing religious minorities to slaughter cows. 
The beef taboo, known as niú jiè (牛戒), has historically been an important dietary restriction in Ancient China, particularly among the Han Chinese, as oxen and buffalo (bovines) are useful in farming and are respected. During the Zhou Dynasty, they were not often eaten, even by emperors. Some emperors banned killing cows. Beef is not recommended in Chinese medicine, as it is considered a hot food and is thought to disrupt the body's internal balance.
In written sources (including anectodes and Daoist liturgical texts), this taboo first appeared in the 9th to 12th centuries (Tang-Song transition, with the advent of pork meat.) By the 16th to 17th centuries, the beef taboo had become well accepted in the framework of Chinese morality and was found in morality books (善書), with several books dedicated exclusively to this taboo. The beef taboo comes from a Chinese perspective that relates the respect for animal life and vegetarianism (ideas shared by Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, and state protection for draught animals.) In Chinese society, only ethnic and religious groups not fully assimilated (such as the Muslim Huis and the Miao) and foreigners consumed this meat. This taboo, among Han Chinese, led Chinese Muslims to create a niche for themselves as butchers who specialized in slaughtering oxen and buffalo.
Historically, there was a beef taboo in Ancient Japan, as a means of protecting the livestock population and Buddhist influence. Meat-eating had long been taboo in Japan, beginning with a decree in 675 that banned the consumption of cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys and chicken, influenced by the Buddhist prohibition of killing. In 1612, the shogun declared a decree that specifically banned the killing of cattle. This official prohibition was in place until 1872, when it was officially proclaimed that Emperor Meiji consumed beef and mutton, which transformed the country's dietary considerations as a means of modernizing the country, particularly with regard to consumption of beef. With contact from Europeans, beef increasingly became popular, even though it had previously been considered barbaric.
In religiously diverse countries, leather vendors are typically careful to clarify the kinds of leather used in their products. For example, leather shoes will bear a label identifying the animal from which the leather was taken. In this way, a Muslim would not accidentally purchase pigskin leather, and a Hindu could avoid cow leather. Many Hindus who are vegetarians will not use any kind of leather.
Jainism prohibits the use of leather since it is obtained by killing animals.
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