Holy Cow
Hinduism's Sacred Animal

It’s becoming a routine ritual on the crowded, colorful streets of Delhi, India: A small team of men surrounds a wandering cow, attempting to coax it on to a waiting truck for a trip to a suburban reserve. But the cow catchers need to be careful: To India’s millions of Hindus, the cow is a holy animal that cannot be harmed.

The tender treatment is just one example of our complicated relationship with cows — a historic partnership detailed by NATURE’s Holy Cow. From a source of meat and milk to a provider of labor and religious inspiration, cows often play a central role in modern life.

Few people, however, revere the cow like the world’s 900 million adherents of Hinduism. Since the faith first evolved near Asia’s Indus River more than 3,000 years ago, respect for animal life has been a central theme in Hindu life. While many scholars say early Hindus ate beef, most ultimately came to see the cow as a sacred animal to be esteemed, not eaten. “If someone were to ask me what the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism was, I would suggest that it was the idea of cow protection,” Mahatma Gandhi, India’s legendary nonviolent leader, once wrote.

Although Hindus follow no single set of rules, reverence for cows can be found throughout the religion’s major texts. Some trace the cow’s sacred status back to Lord Krishna, one of the faith’s most important figures. He is said to have appeared 5,000 years ago as a cowherd, and is often described as bala-gopala, “the child who protects the cows.” Another of Krishna’s holy 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.

Today, in heavily Hindu nations like India and Nepal, milk continues to hold a central place in religious rituals. And in honor of their exalted status, cows often roam free. Indeed, in some places, it is considered good luck to give one a snack, a bit of bread, or fruit before breakfast. On the other hand, a citizen can be sent to jail for killing or injuring a cow.


The divine bull, Nandhi, guards Hindu temples.

But as cities have grown more crowded, cow-friendly policies have posed problems. Delhi’s 13 million residents, for instance, share the streets with an estimated 40,000 cows — leading to some complaints. One is that the grazing cows spread trash as they rip open garbage bags in search of tasty morsels. Another is that they dangerously snarl traffic.

“What is the greatest traffic hazard in Delhi today? Cows,” Bibek Debroy, a columnist for India’s Financial Express, wrote in a pointed 2003 essay. “As our national animal, the tiger may be close to extinction. But the cow is very much around and many soon become our new national animal.”

To solve the problem, Debroy offered one tongue-in-cheek solution. “Let them have reflectors and, if not license plates, at least identity cards. Only genuine Delhi cows should be eligible for social security and other benefits.”

City officials, meanwhile, have adopted a different approach: the cow catchers. Under pressure to reduce cow populations, Delhi has hired nearly 100 of the urban cowboys, who are charged with catching and shipping cows outside the city limits, sometimes to special reserves where the animals are cared for.

But the work isn’t easy. And it can be downright dangerous. The cows often sport sharp horns, and life on the street has made them savvy and sometimes ornery. Some can recognize the sound of the transport trucks and perform a kind of bovine ballet to avoid the catchers. Still, city leaders say they won’t give up until the vast majority of the cows have been moved. Skeptics note that some of the animals return to their home turfs within days of being moved.

Meanwhile, some of India’s Hindu politicians are relying on cows to bolster their support. They have proposed new cow-protection ordinances, and vowed to ban butchers from Indian stores. Critics say such proposals go too far, and would violate India’s commitment to religious tolerance — and the nation’s constitution. But if cows could vote, they’d surely be in favor.

  • inna mohi

    Solution is simple: temporarily, sedate the cow, then catch it and transport to cow friendly institutions who can care for these cows and sell milk to pay for expenses.
    hey religious pundits: if you want to be nice to cowns, then remove them from the modern ciites. It is dangerous to leave the cows on the streets, they can get killed by motors, trucks ets.

  • nataki resendiz

    this is a cool page it can help us learn alot about this wonderfull religion i love cows…but i eat them i hope it not bad luck eellaa chingg

  • ernestoo

    i love cows…natali te amoo

  • Barbara Prinz

    Thanks for the interesting details. Here some additional questions: is it true that all gods/goddess in Hinduism have a designated area in a cow and therefore the cow is regarded as the temple of all Hindu gods? And is it furthermore true/believed that Mahalakshmi came latest when ’seats’ where distributed, so the only one left was in the tail of the cow and for that reason people like to touch the tail of a cow?
    I know it sounds odd, but somehow it would explain certain rituals.

  • ramesha bhat

    Iam worshipcow cow is KAMADENU.

  • ravi

    it is right that godess lakshmi came in late,hence she never find place in cow and she decided to stay in cowdung.. so in indian tradition cowdung is somuch precious..

  • ashok gupta

    nice site, i have a blue print , how the cow can change the lifeand economy of individuals, companies, and some third world countries like india etc.

  • Ramesh Shankar

    It’s a belief in India, that before you pray for your wishes with Lord Shiva, you have to secretly say them to Nandhi(Holy Cow)’s ears. In Bragtheeswara Temple in Tanjavur, you can find a huge Holy Cow carved… the Nandhi is 12 feet high, 19.5 feet long and 18.25 feet wide. In Indian villages, the floors of the houses are sprayed with cow dung. Basically I think the dung has natural antibiotic characters. You can find this all the houses in TamilNadu villages.

  • Turkemn Adjdjabar of Kabul

    I love beef

  • Jai Sri Krishna

    I just love cows..They are a genuine part of our rich Indian tradition and heritage. From Mythological era itself, the importance of cows can be seen. Lord Krishna was a cow herder (gopala) and he was also very fond of cows. Morover, Lord Mahadeva’s vahana is a bull named Nandikeshwara or Nandi.There is this divinity among the cows that we Indians tend to worship them.Gomata or Mother cow is a very precious and divine concept.I must say.
    May the Lord protect all the cows in the world.
    Jai Sri Krishna!

  • Kishan Purohit

    I am Proud be a Hindu
    But i am shame for that I am unable to Save my Gao-Mata The Sacred Cow

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  • http://aboutlordkrishna.in Banke Bihari

    Discipline yourself to act in

    harmony with your path of life without confusion in attachments. Do not distinguish success and failure but

    stay centered in their oneness. – Lord Krishna

  • aryan

    The article mentions : ”While many scholars say early Hindus ate beef, most ultimately came to see the cow as a sacred animal to be esteemed, not eaten.”

    This is utter nonsense & lies being spread by so called ’scholars ‘ who are in fact Marxists who are busy Hindu bashing. The Gaumata is mentioned in the oldest scripture on earth- Rg Veda as Aghneya – One who cannot be harmed, nor killed. The Devas too revere this beautiful animal as Kamadhenu. There never has been a time when Hindus ate beef nor any meat. These are alien practices of killing animals for food for Vedic Bharat where its citizens led a pure & simple life. Beef & meat eating came with the ‘etiquettes’ of outsider invaders. get your facts right please.

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