Cattle in religion and mythology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Cattle in religion)
Jump to: navigation, search

Due to the multiple benefits from cattle, there are varying beliefs about cattle in societies and religions. In some regions, especially Nepal and most states of 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 Israel, ancient Rome, and ancient Germany, held similar beliefs.

In Indian religions[edit]


A bull bas relief in Mamallapuram.

The cow has been a symbol of wealth since ancient days. However, they were neither inviolable nor revered in the same way they are today.[1][2]

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).

A cow walking in Delhi.

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.[3]

In South India and some parts of Sri Lanka, a cattle festival called Mattu Pongal is celebrated.

Sanskrit term[edit]

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 called aghnya "that which may not be slaughtered" in Rigveda. Yaska, the early commentator of the Rigveda gives nine names for cow. And the name "aghnya" was the first name he gave for cow.[4][5] Depending on the interpretation of terminology used for a cow, the cow may have been protected.

In the Hindu scriptures[edit]

The calf is compared with the dawn,[citation needed] in Hinduism. Here, with a sadhu.
Rig Veda

Cattle are one of the important animals, and several hymns refer to ten thousand and more cattle.[6] 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.

In the Rig Veda, the cows figure frequently as symbols of wealth and in comparison with river goddesses, e.g., in 3.33.1 cd,

"Like two bright mother cows who lick their young, Vipas and Sutudri speed down their waters."

Atharva Veda

The cow's body is represented by devas and other subjects.[7]


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.[8]


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.[9]

Prithu chasing Prithvi, who is in the form of a cow. Prithu milked the cow to generate crops for humans.

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.[10]

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.[11] All the gods are believed to reside in her body; a form of Kamadhenu often depicted in poster-art.[12][13]

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.[14]

Historical significance[edit]

A pamphlet protesting against the Muslim practice of beef-eating. The demon Kali (far right) attempts to slaughter the sacred cow, represented by "the mother of cows" Kamadhenu in whose body all deities are believed to reside. The colour version ran by the Ravi Varma Press (c. 1912).

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. Because 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.[15]

A historical survey of major communal riots in India between 1717 and 1977, revealed that 22 out of 167 incidents of rioting between Hindus and Muslims were attributable directly to cow slaughter.[16][17]

In Gandhi's teachings[edit]

The cow was venerated by Mahatma Gandhi.[18] 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."[18] 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[18]

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.


Jainism forbids the killing of any animals, whether for consumption or sacrifice.


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.[19] Ahura Mazda tells Zarathustra to protect the cow.[19]

The lands of Zarathustra and the Vedic priests were those of cattle breeders.[20] The 9th chapter of the Vendidad of the Avesta expounds the purificatory power of gōmēz - cow urine.[21] It is declared to be a panacea for all bodily and moral evils,[21] understood as which it features prominently in the 9-night purification ritual Barashnûm.


Cattle at a temple, in Ooty India

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.[22]

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.[23]

Traditional Judaism considers beef kosher and permissible as food,[24] 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.[25]


Islam allows the slaughter of cows and consumption of beef, as long as the cow is slaughtered in a religious ritual called dhabīḥah or zabiha similar to the Jewish shechita.

Although slaughter of cattle plays a role in a major Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, many rulers of the Mughal Empire had imposed a ban on the slaughter of cows owing to the large Hindu and Jain populations living under their rule.[26]

The second and longest surah of the Quran is named Al-Baqara ("The Cow"). Out of the 286 verses of the surah, 7 mention cows. These narrate the tale of Moses telling the Jews to sacrifice a yellow cow. When Moses told them that Allah demanded them to sacrifice a cow, they asked if he was ridiculing them. In return he replied that he had taken refuge in Allah from being an ignorant. The Jews then told him to ask Allah to distinguish the kind of cow to which he replied that the cow was neither too old nor too young but of middle age between it. After that they asked the colour of the cow to which he responded it was yellow and is pleasing to the observer. Then they further asked him to plainly tell the cow's kind so they could be sure about its identity. He then replied that it was neither trained to plow the earth nor to irrigate the field, it was free of any fault and didn't have any spot on her. The Jews then reluctantly proceeded to find such a cow and slaughtered it after finding one.[27][28]

Ancient Egypt[edit]

The ancient Egyptians sacrificed animals but not the cow, because it was sacred to goddess Hathor, and due to the contemporary Greek myth of Io, who had the form of a cow.[29]

In Egyptian mythology, Hesat was the manifestation of Hathor, the divine sky-cow, in earthly form. Like Hathor, she was seen as the wife of Ra. In hieroglyphs she is depicted as a cow with a headdress.

Ancient Europe[edit]

Modern day[edit]

A cow shelter (goshala) at Guntur, India.
A cow resting on a street in Delhi, India, free to wander.

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.[citation needed]

In India[edit]

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.[30] 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.[31] 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. Because 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.[32] This lack of sacredness toward the cows alarms many animal activists and some dedicated Hindus.

In Nepal[edit]

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.[33] Cows are considered like the Goddess Lakshmi (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.

According to a Lodi News-Sentinel news story written in the 1960s, in then contemporary Nepal an individual could serve three months in jail for killing a pedestrian, but one year for injuring a cow, and life imprisonment for killing a cow.[34][better source needed]

Cows roam freely and are sacred. However, buffalo slaughtering is done in Nepal at specific Hindu events, such as at the Gadhimai festival, last held in 2014.[35] In 2009, more than 20,000 buffaloes were sacrificed on the first day.[36]

In Myanmar[edit]

The beef taboo is fairly widespread in Myanmar, particularly in the Buddhist community. In Myanmar, beef is typically obtained from cattle that are slaughtered at the end of their working lives (16 years of age) or from sick animals.[37] Cattle is rarely raised for meat; 58% of cattle in the country is used for draught power.[37] Few people eat beef, and there is a general dislike of beef (especially among the Bamar and Burmese Chinese),[38][39] although it is more commonly eaten in regional cuisines, particularly those of ethnic minorities like the Kachin.[40] Buddhists, when giving up meat during the Buddhist (Vassa) or Uposatha days, will forego beef first.[41] Almost all butchers are Muslim because of the Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa (no harm).[42]

During the country's last dynasty, the Konbaung dynasty, habitual consumption of beef was punishable by public flogging.[43]

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, because 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.[44] 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.[44]

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).[45] 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[edit]

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.[46]


A beef taboo in Ancient China, known as niú jiè (牛戒), was historically a dietary restriction, particularly among the Han Chinese, as oxen and buffalo (bovines) are useful in farming and are respected.[47] During the Zhou Dynasty, they were not often eaten, even by emperors.[48] Some emperors banned killing cows.[49][50] Beef is not recommended in Chinese medicine, as it is considered a hot food and is thought to disrupt the body's internal balance.[51]

In written sources (including anecdotes and Daoist liturgical texts), this taboo first appeared in the 9th to 12th centuries (Tang-Song transition, with the advent of pork meat.[52]) 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.[52] The beef taboo came 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.[52]) In Chinese society, only ethnic and religious groups not fully assimilated (such as the Muslim Huis and the Miao) and foreigners consumed this meat.[52] This taboo, among Han Chinese, led Chinese Muslims to create a niche for themselves as butchers who specialized in slaughtering oxen and buffalo.[53]

Occasionally, some cows seen weeping before slaughter are often released to temples nearby.[54]


Historically, there was a beef taboo in Ancient Japan, as a means of protecting the livestock population and Buddhist influence.[55] Meat-eating had long been taboo in Japan, beginning with a decree in 675 that banned the consumption of cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys, and chickens, influenced by the Buddhist prohibition of killing.[56] In 1612, the shogun declared a decree that specifically banned the killing of cattle.[56]

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.[56] With contact from Europeans, beef increasingly became popular, even though it had previously been considered barbaric.[55]


In Kudus, Indonesia, Muslims still maintain the tradition of not slaughtering or eating cows, out respect for their ancestors, who were Hindus, allegedly imitating Sunan Kudus who also did as such.


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,[57] and a Hindu could avoid cow leather. Many Hindus who are vegetarians will not use any kind of leather.

Judaism forbids the wearing of shoes made with leather on Yom Kippur, Tisha B'Av, and during mourning.[58]

Jainism prohibits the use of leather because it is obtained by killing animals.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jha, Dwijendra Narayan. The Myth of the Holy Cow. London/New York: Verso 2002
  2. ^ (Achaya 2002, pp. 16–17)
  3. ^ Srimad-Bhagavatam: Canto 1:"Creation": SB 1.16: How Pariksit Received the Age of Kali: SB 1.16.20
  4. ^ V.M. Apte, Religion and Philosophy, The Vedic Age
  5. ^ Sri Ramakrishna Vijayam December 2014, page 49
  6. ^ (e.g. RV 1.126.3; 1.164.3; 5.27.1; 8.1.33; 8.2.41; 8.4.20; 8.5.37; 8.6.47; 8.21.18; 9.69.4)
  7. ^ Atharvaveda 9.7
  8. ^ Srimad-Bhagavatam: Canto 2: "The Cosmic Manifestation": SB 2.4: The Process of Creation: SB 2.4.20
  9. ^ (Achaya 2002, p. 55)
  10. ^ "milking of the Earth". Retrieved 13 November 2011. 
  11. ^ Biardeau, Madeleine (1993). "Kamadhenu: The Mythical Cow, Symbol of Prosperity". In Yves Bonnefoy. Asian mythologies. University of Chicago Press. p. 99. ISBN 0-226-06456-5. 
  12. ^ Smith, Frederick M. (2006). The self possessed: Deity and spirit possession in South Asian literature and civilization. Columbia University Press. pp. 404, pp. 402–3 (Plates 5 and 6 for the two representations of Kamadhenu). ISBN 978-0-231-13748-5. 
  13. ^ R. Venugopalam (2003). "Animal Deities". Rituals and Culture of India. B. Jain Publishers. pp. 119–120. ISBN 81-8056-373-1. 
  14. ^ Srimad-Bhagavatam: Canto 1: "Creation": SB 1.17: Punishment and Reward of Kali: SB 1.17.9
  15. ^ W. and R. Chambers (1891). Chambers's Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People. 8. p. 719. 
  16. ^ Banu, Zenab. "Appendix IV". Politics of Communalism. pp. 175–193. 
  17. ^ "Report of the National Commission on Cattle - Chapter II (10 A. Cow Protection in pre-Independence India)". DAHD. Retrieved 2013-11-08.   This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  18. ^ a b c "Compilation of Gandhi's views on Cow Protection". 7 July 1927. Retrieved 13 November 2011. 
  19. ^ a b Clark, P. 13 Zoroastrianism
  20. ^ Vogelsang, P. 63 The Afghans
  21. ^ a b P. 72 Some Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture by D. R. Bhandarkar
  22. ^ Carmichael, Calum (2012). The Book of Numbers: A Critique of Genesis. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 103–121. ISBN 9780300179187. 
  23. ^ "Apocalypse Cow". New York Times. March 30, 1997. Retrieved December 21, 2013. 
  24. ^ Hersh, June (2011). The Kosher Carnivore: The Ultimate Meat and Poultry Cookbook. Macmillan Publishers. pp. 19–21. ISBN 9781429987783. 
  25. ^ Goldman, Ari L. (2007). Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today. Simon & Schuster. p. 234. ISBN 9781416536024. 
  26. ^ Nussbaum, Martha Craven. The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future. p. 224. 
  27. ^ Diane Morgan (2010). "Essential Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Belief and Practice". ABC-CLIO. p. 27. ISBN 9780313360251. 
  28. ^ Thomas Hughes (1995) [first published in 1885]. "Dictionary of Islam". Asian Educational Services. p. 364. ISBN 9788120606722. 
  29. ^ Analysis and summary of Herodotus, with a synchronistical table of principal events; tables of weights, measures, money, and distances; an outline of the history and geography; and the dates completed from Gaisford, Baehr, etc., by J. Talboys Wheeler, p. 57
  30. ^ "ANNEX II (8)". 30 August 1976. Retrieved 13 November 2011. 
  31. ^ Tadeusz, Margul (1968). "Present Day Worship Of The Cow In India". ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Numen. 15 (1): 63–80. 
  32. ^ Agoramoorthy, Govindasamy (2012). "The significance of cows in Indian society between sacredness and economy" (PDF). Anthropological Notebooks. pp. 8–9. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 
  33. ^ 4 held for violating ban on cow slaughter, The Himalayan Times
  34. ^ "Injured cow in Nepal is serious matter". Yahoo! News. Retrieved 19 January 2016. 
  35. ^ Jolly, Joanna (24 November 2009). "Devotees flock to Nepal animal sacrifice festival". BBC. Retrieved 24 November 2009. 
  36. ^ "Over 20,000 buffaloes slaughtered in Gadhimai festival". 25 November 2009. Retrieved 25 November 2009. 
  37. ^ a b Devendra,, C.; Devendra, C.; Thomas, D.; Jabbar, M.A.; Kudo, H.; Thomas, D.; Jabbar, M.A.; Kudo, H. Improvement of livestock production in crop-animal systems in rainfed agro-ecological zones of South-East Asia. ILRI. p. 33. 
  38. ^ Gesteland, Richard R.; Georg F. Seyk (2002). Marketing across cultures in Asia. Copenhagen Business School Press DK. p. 156. ISBN 978-87-630-0094-9. 
  39. ^ U Khin Win (1991). A century of rice improvement in Burma. International Rice Research Institute. pp. 27, 44. ISBN 978-971-22-0024-3. 
  40. ^ Meyer, Arthur L.; Jon M. Vann (2003). The Appetizer Atlas: A World of Small Bites. John Wiley and Sons. p. 276. ISBN 978-0-471-41102-4. 
  41. ^ Simoons, Frederick J. (1994). Eat not this flesh: food avoidances from prehistory to the present. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-299-14254-4. 
  42. ^ Spiro, Melford (1982). Buddhism and society: a great tradition and its Burmese vicissitudes. University of California Press. p. 46. ISBN 0-520-04672-2. 
  43. ^ Hardiman, John Percy (1900). Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. 2. Government of Burma. pp. 93–94. 
  44. ^ a b Charney, Michael (2007). "Demographic Growth, Agricultural Expansion and Livestock in the Lower Chindwin in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries". In Greg Bankoff, P. Boomgaard. A history of natural resources in Asia: the wealth of nature. MacMillan. pp. 236–40. ISBN 978-1-4039-7736-6. 
  45. ^ King, Winston L. (2001). In the hope of Nibbana: the ethics of Theravada Buddhism. 2. Pariyatti. p. 295. ISBN 978-1-928706-08-3. 
  46. ^ Fervour that ended in a fatal fire
  47. ^ Katz, Paul R. (2008). Divine justice: religion and the development of Chinese legal culture. Academia Sinica on East Asia. Taylor & Francis US. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-415-44345-6. 
  48. ^ Classic of Rites
  49. ^ 民間私營養牛業(附私營牧駝業) Archived 13 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  50. ^
  51. ^ Hutton, Wendy (2007). Singapore food. Marshall Cavendish. p. 144. ISBN 978-981-261-321-9. 
  52. ^ a b c d Sterckx, Roel (2005). Of tripod and palate: food, politics and religion in traditional China - Chapter 11, The Beef Taboo and the Sacrificial Structure of Late Imperial Chinese Society, Vincent Goossaert. Macmillan. pp. 237–248. ISBN 978-1-4039-6337-6. 
  53. ^ Elverskog, Johan (2010). Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-8122-4237-9. 
  54. ^ 慈雲閣——看靈牛遊地獄
  55. ^ a b Cwiertka, Katarzyna Joanna (2006). Modern Japanese cuisine: food, power, and national identity. Reaktion Books. ISBN 978-1-86189-298-0. 
  56. ^ a b c Lien, Marianne E.; Brigitte Nerlich (2004). The politics of food. Berg. pp. 125–127. ISBN 978-1-85973-853-5. 
  57. ^ "Global Business Strategies: Text and Cases" by U.C. Mathur, p.219
  58. ^ "Wearing Shoes - Mourning Observances of Shiva and Sheloshim". Retrieved 2009-10-20. 


External links[edit]