India’s spiritual love of cows

“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.”

India. A country full of opposites; extreme temperatures, food to appeal to every taste, and a variety of entertainment from the ever-popular Bollywood to the classical Bharatanatyam. So many aspects to be explored among its 1.3 billion people, all of who take shelter within a country clouded by a type of mysticism.

The heightened level of spirituality throughout India forms the basis of its culture, tracing back to time immemorial. The spiritual worship can be found just about everywhere; within the millions of temples that are scattered throughout the country, in homes, under sacred trees, street corners, alongside rivers, and even within motor vehicles!

One thing that is evident the minute you step foot on to this country, is India’s intense and inspirational worship of the cow.

I discovered this immense love first-hand when I spent a year in India on a spiritual and medical journey. For a few months I lived on a farm in Vrindavan, a holy town in Uttar Pradesh, northern India, while studying Vedic Philosophy and undergoing an Ayurvedic health treatment.

Once both my studies and treatment finished I decided to stay living there because I fell in love with the culture as well as the beautiful animals I came to spend my days with. Mainly, the cows.

 

Arcita befriends a local cow during her travels

It is widely believed in India that cows have special healing properties. I certainly felt it. The more time I spent with the cows the faster I was healing. This could have been psychosomatic as I found myself feeling a deep sense of love the more time I spent with the cows and of course this love made me feel good which positively impacted my perception of the healing process. But I wasn’t sure. Therefore, my curiosity sparked a desire to learn more about these magnificent animals and their spiritual history within India. I will share a little of what I encountered as I am forever a student and still now the lessons of the cow are unfolding.

Cow worship is embedded within the Indian culture. It’s believed that 330 million demigods reside within the cow. My Scientific mind would question, ‘How is this even physically possible?’ Like most things in mystical India, there is no simple explanation that will satisfy the laymen’s mind.

What I did come to understand within the Vedic Hindu belief system is that the woman, or more so the Mother, is considered a type of Goddess due to her capacity to create life, selflessly nurture not just her own children, but also of her extended family unit. I also came to learn that the cow is esteemed as a topmost maternal figure due to her capacity to give so much while receiving very little. Therefore, she is worshipped as a supreme mother of all.

Should you spend any amount of time in India, it will become clear just how intense and magical cow worship is.

As previously mentioned, the cow’s nature is extremely nurturing; she will support her calf while also nourishing and caring for her human companions. The cow requires only grass and water to survive, yet she will provide milk in return. To be able to afford pure cow’s milk is a sign of wealth. Milk is considered a highly precious substance that nourishes a growing calf, as well as the humans who care for the cow herd. Vedic philosophers state that in order for humans to develop fine brain tissue, cows milk is required. Milk also holds a central place in religious rituals as it is churned in to Ghee for fuelling fire sacrifices to the Gods. Cow dung, another substance prized for it’s antiseptic properties, is so potent that it will fertilise fields to grow crops and provide fuel for fire. There are even some who will use cow urine for medicinal purposes, praising it for the vitamins and minerals contained within. I may or may not have partaken in such.

So, in this way, the cow is considered a selfless provider, just like a mother.

In Vrindavan the cow is especially worshipped. Vrindavan was home to Sri Krsna over 5000 years ago; a personality who is still revered as God throughout India and parts of the world today.

Cows are highly respected and even welcomed into temples

Krsna is also known as Govinda; He who gives pleasure to the cows, or He who protects the cows. Krsna partly appeared as a cow herd boy, teaching that cow protection is of utmost importance. He went on to demonstrate how cow protection and worship is the central element of any successful society. Within Vedic culture, there is even a day allocated to cow worship, called Gau Puja, where the cows are decorated, worshipped and fed.

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.

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 decides to stop in the middle of the road, and take a mid-morning rest, well then there is no objection to having to swerve around her or travel a different direction. If a cow feels like some afternoon shopping and would like to enter a market stall to request food or attention, then some positions within the stall may have to be relinquished to make room for her.

Some locals in Vrindavan will say that each cow has a personality, that they have preferences, and a certain mood. The cows (and bulls might I add) roam the streets freely, approaching the homes of people they know and, using their horns, knock on the doors 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. Some cows like to stay in homes where they have a close relationship with one carer. Other cows prefer large communities and will place themselves in herds along river banks or in a Goshala; Sanskrit for “cow shelter”.

 

The bull is also worshiped, but in a different manner. In the Vedic texts the bull is described as the representative of moral principles, namely; truthfulness, cleanliness, austerity, and compassion. It is believed that if these qualities are upheld, then all success will be bestowed upon society.

The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Damodardas Modi, has recently brought attention to this Vedic philosophy, which originated from Vrindavan over 5000 years ago, and he has subsequently banned cow slaughter or meat eating in parts of India, including Vrindavan.

Unfortunately, some people don’t wish to honour this history nor the teachings found within it and therefore cows and bulls are still being captured and sold for slaughter. There are also instances of cows being exploited for milk, while keeping them in poor conditions surrounded by faeces and tied up with only a meter of rope. The bulls are sometimes starved as the food is rationed to the cows to ensure milk is produced, which sometimes results in the bull being abandoned on the streets having to fend for himself. Disturbing sounds and sights of hungry bull calves calling out for their mother can be heard as they roam the streets. I witnessed this multiple times, and it is truly heart breaking.

However, there has been a positive outcome of this suffering. The emergence of cow protection groups, along with Prime Minister Modi’s endeavours, 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, and how to foster good relationships with them. There is also the radical emergence of vigilante groups taking the law in to their own hands, but sadly they have been known to use violence when dealing with individuals found mistreating cows or bulls.

The journey to balancing the needs of an ever-developing India with the honouring of its sacred history is a long one. Yet we see in towns like Vrindavan, where history has been revived and laws have been put in place, that the locals are beginning to transform their behaviours. Mindsets are developing that include cows and bulls as members of the family unit; respecting the cow as a mother-figure and the bull as the upholder of righteous principles.

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.

Personally, I feel so fortunate to have been able to live there; spending time with these magnificent animals during my treatment and stay in India had the deepest impact on my healing and understanding of the self. I left the country and returned home to Australia having developed a sincere love for cows, while holding a special place in my heart – friendships even – for the few who I became quite close to. I look forward to when I can return and reignite my relationship with them, while also wishing for you to venture to Vrindavan one day to spark your own love for cows.

/ BY Arcita Ashlie Stone

Arcita Ashlie Stone is a teacher of Vedic Philosophy.