Hinduism, which is the predominant Indian religion, considers many animals as sacred and the cow tops the list. The cow is considered as a gentle animal and cow meat or beef is never consumed by the Hindu community. However this was not always the case. It is believed that in earlier times, Hindus consumed beef and also offered the best bulls as sacrifice to deities. It was only when Jainism and Buddhism, two other religions propagated in India, began taking roots with emphasis on vegetarianism that a huge transition began and Hindus stopped eating beef and began protecting the cow.
The elated status cows in India enjoy is the reason why they are allowed to graze and roam freely all over the country. Anyone who harms or injures a wandering cow accidentally or otherwise is heavily penalized. Some devout Hindus even believe that feeding the animal brings luck and nurture stray cows.
Even cow dung and urine are considered useful and sacred. Dried dung is used as fuel even now in Indian households and it is not uncommon to spot rural women collecting dung which is later shaped into cakes and dried. Cow dung is also a natural disinfectant and diluted dung is sprinkled on the floors to clean and sanitize the home.
With such significance given to the cow, it is not surprising that Hindus have a special festival, Gopashtami to honor the animal. This festival is celebrated elaborately in rural India where the cow is held in higher respect than urban cities. Cows are bathed, decorated with clothes, jewelry and garlands and have their horns painted with turmeric and their foreheads adorned with sindhur. Offering special food and grass to cows is part of the rituals of the day.
Ironically not all cows in the country get to enjoy special privileges. Skinny, weak cows can be found throughout the country grazing in garbage dumps, taking refuge on the roads and living a miserable life. Some religious units have care homes for such animals but these facilities seem to be inadequate to meet the needs of all stray cows.
The superior position retained by cows in Hinduism has led to the introduction of two phrases in the English language. One is ‘sacred cow’ which denotes anything that is beyond criticism. This phrase evolved in the 18th century and is now commonly associated with any flawless activity, project or commodity. The other phrase, ‘holy cow’ is used as a swear word by teenagers to express surprise and has been used since the early 19th century.