The cultural significance of cows in India

Woman feeding cow in India

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Cows and India go hand in hand – wander through an Indian city, and don’t be surprised if a cow casually crosses your path.

Traveler Arcita Stone shares her firsthand experience and observations of the unique bond between India and its cows and explores why these gentle giants are more than just farm animals in this part of the world.

Cows hold a unique and revered position in the cultural and spiritual landscape of India.

These gentle creatures have been intertwined with the nation’s history, traditions, and religious practices for many centuries.

India’s intense and inspirational worship of the cow is evident the moment you step foot in the country.

But their reverence for cows goes way beyond mere admiration.

It’s a reflection of the nation’s deep-seated values of respect, non-violence, and harmony with nature.

Cows in India have never been ‘just cows’

I discovered this immense love first-hand when I spent a year in Vrindavan, India, on a spiritual journey.

I decided to stay there because I fell in love with the culture, as well as the beautiful animals.

Mainly, the cows.

India’s bond with cows goes all the way back to ancient Indian scriptures.

Cows have never been considered just animals; they were symbols of prosperity and purity.

They provided milk, helped in farming, and were a symbol of peace; their calm demeanor made them poster animals for non-violence.

Arcita feeding a cow on the streets in India
Arcita feeding a cow on the streets in India (credit: supplied)

In many places throughout Vrindavan the needs of the cow are put before that of humans.

For example, cows are fed in the morning prior to their carers breaking fast.

If a cow stops in the middle of the road, there is no objection to having to swerve or turn around.

Or if a cow feels like some afternoon shopping and would like to enter a market stall to request food or attention, then the other shoppers need to make room for her.

Cows in Diwali festivals and other cultural celebrations

Indian celebrates cows in Diwali festivals, along with other cultural traditions and festivities.

As the festival of lights brightens the streets of India, there’s an equally illuminating aspect of Diwali that often goes unnoticed – the sacred status of cows.

In a land where these gentle creatures are revered, Diwali offers a unique lens to view this deep-rooted veneration.

We explore how different forms of cow worship developed in India.

Krsna is also known as Govinda; He who protects the cows.

There is even a day allocated to cow worship, called Gau Puja, where the cows are decorated, worshipped and fed.

The Gau Puja festival is a celebration where cows are showered with love and respect.

It’s such an amazing event to witness.

Seeing these magnificent creatures, who are slaughtered daily for food throughout the rest of the world, being treated with such love and respect, is nothing short of inspirational.

The cows roam the streets freely, approaching the homes of people they know and knock on the doors with their horns for food.

They will regularly enter temples or homes and lay down in front of sacred deities in what some would say is the cow offering worship.

It’s a beautiful testament to India’s deep-rooted affection for these gentle giants.

Throughout the festival, cows are led in procession before being bathed, painted and adorned with flowers while being worshipped.

The festival also involves music and people dancing in the streets.

But it’s not just about the rituals; it’s a reflection of the special place cows hold in the hearts of many Indians.

Cows are cared for and protected in India
Cows are free to roam the streets (credit: Unsplash)

Interesting facts about cows in India

  • Hindu mythology is filled with tales where cows play a starring role.
  • Lord Krishna, a major deity, is often depicted playing a flute among cows.
  • Cow dung is prized for its antiseptic properties; it’s so potent that it will fertilise fields to grow crops and provide fuel for fire.
  • Cows often roam freely in cities, symbolising India’s harmonious coexistence with nature.
  • Many Indians refrain from eating beef out of respect for the cow’s sacred status.

The modern-day cow dilemma

How does a country hold onto traditions while ensuring these animals get the care they deserve?

While cows are revered, there’s a growing debate about their treatment and wellbeing in modern India.

Urbanisation means less open space, so some argue for better living conditions and protection for these animals.

The age-old scene of cows on streets has sparked debates about their welfare.

Cow protection groups are raising awareness of the cow and bull’s position within society.

These groups are using educational programs to demonstrate the proper care of cows and bulls.

They’re showing the country how to foster good relationships with them.

Is India a leader in animal-friendly travel ?

The global shift towards animal-friendly travel means more folks are keen to understand the cultural nuances around animals.

Elephants in Thailand, kangaroos in Australia, and yes, cows in India– they’re all part of a bigger conversation about travel and respect for local customs.

India is offering the world an example of how we can strive to live side-by-side with our animal friends and share a respect and understanding of one another.

I feel fortunate to have been able to live there; spending time with these magnificent animals during my stay in India had the deepest impact on me.


/ BY Arcita Ashlie Stone

Arcita Ashlie Stone is a teacher of Vedic Philosophy.