Why are cows sacred to Hindus?

Posted by Alina Prax

Profile Picture of Alina Prax

Alina has been an avid yogi for over 20 years. After completing her Sanskrit studies at the University of Texas-Austin, she traveled to northern India on a pilgrimage to various holy sites to celebrate. She holds a 300-hour yoga teacher certificate from Dharma Yoga, a Buddhist-based asana practice. Over the years, she has had the honor of studying with some inspiring teachers such as Richard Freeman, Shannon Gannon and the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She is thrilled to be part of the Yogapedia editorial team, helping to craft beautiful and meaningful articles about yoga and the spiritual path.

Full Bio
Q:

Why are cows sacred to Hindus?

A:

In India, the cow is considered a sacred animal. She is revered, honored and respected. Here are five reasons cows are considered holy.

#1 Mother of All

Most Hindus are vegetarian and a great deal of Indian cuisine revolves around dairy products. Yogurt, milk, curd, butter and ghee are all mainstays of Indian cooking. In India, when a baby has stopped nursing he/she goes on to be nourished by cow's milk and so the cow is venerated as a mother. In fact, she is seen as a mother to all beings - gentle, kind and nurturing. Many Hindus see killing a cow as equivalent to killing one's own mother. It is considered a cardinal sin and is punishable by law in most Indian states. (Learn more in How a Plant-Based Diet Makes Better Yogis.)

#2 Milk and Ghee

The Vedas describe cow’s milk as ambrosial, akin to divine nectar. It is considered to be a sattvic food in Ayurveda and is said to improve meditation practice due to it’s calming effect. Warm milk contains the amino acid, tryptophan, which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which is responsible for feelings of serenity and well-being.

Vedic rituals prescribe the use of ghee as a libation in sacred rituals such as the Yagna and Homa. These fire rituals are central to Hindu worship and are performed at all important life stages: marriage, the birth of a child, during funeral rites, as well as a part of daily worship. Like milk, ghee is also considered to be a sattvic food. It promotes intellectual acuity and is thought to have invigorating properties. It is commonly used to treat pitta dosha imbalances. (Read more in Golden Milk: A Yogi's Drink.)

#3 Ahimsa (Non-violence)

The gentle nature of cows, with their large dark eyes and soft muzzles, evokes a natural sense of calm. Hindus view this kind disposition to be symbolic of ahimsa, or compassionate non-violence. Ahimsa is one of Hinduism’s main tenets and Hindus see cows as a natural embodiment of this virtue. Many gods and goddesses are associated with the cow. The earth goddess, Bhumi, is often depicted as a cow and Lord Krishna is known as Govinda, the protector of cows. Cows represent the dharma and the "Rig Veda" sings her praises, instructing all to keep her safe. (Learn more in Ahimsa: A Self Practice.)

#4 Kamadhenu

The bovine goddess, Khamadhenu, also known as Surabhi, is believed to be the mother of all cows. She is abundance incarnate, fulfilling the wishes of her owner, bringing wealth and good fortune. Kamadhenu is also the embodiment of generosity and selflessness. Surabhi is a Sanskrit word that means "the fragrant one”; this is thought to be because of the distinctive sweet smell that cows have. In fact, cow dung is considered pure and is commonly used as fuel and for purification in households across India.

#5 Luck

Cows are considered to be auspicious and are said to bring blessings and happiness to those who honor them. You will often see cows with garlands of fragrant marigold flowers and fine stone necklaces. On special occasions their faces and bodies are painted in bright colors and their backs draped with richly embroidered blankets.

Many references to cows and their sacred nature exist in the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. (Read more in Yogapedia's Interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita.) Even with just these few examples it’s possible to understand a little bit about the rich history and cultural importance cows have in India.

Have a question? Ask Alina here.

View all questions from Alina.

Related Articles