world over, the term "sacred cow"
has come to mean any stubborn loyalty to a
long-standing institution which impedes natural
progress. The term originates in India, where
the cow is said to be literally worshiped,
while thousands of humans suffer from undernourishment.
The common, popular view of India in the West
is that of an underdeveloped nation steeped
in superstition. Overpopulated, overcrowded,
undereducated, and bereft of most modern amenities,
India is seen to be a backward nation in many
respects by "progressive" Western
civilization. "If only India would abandon
her religious superstitions and kill and eat
the cow!" Over several decades many attempts
have been made by the "compassionate"
West to alleviate unfortunate India's burden
of poor logic, and to replace her superstitions
with rational thinking.
Much of the religious West finds common ground
with the rationalists, with whom they otherwise
are usually at odds, on the issue of India's
"sacred cow." Indeed, worshiping
God is one thing, but to worship the cow while
at the same time dying of starvation is a
theological outlook much in need of reevaluation.
Man is said to have dominion over the animals,
but it would appear that the Indians have
Popular opinion is not always the most informed
opinion; in fact, this is usually the case.
The many attempts to wean India from the nipple
of her outdated pastoral culture have all
failed. After 200 years of foreign occupation
by the British, and after many subsequent
but less overt imperialistic attempts, we
find that although India has changed, the
sacred cow remains as sacred as ever. In all
but two Indian states, cow slaughter is strictly
prohibited. If legislation were passed today
to change that ruling, there would be rioting
all over India. In spite of considerable exposure
to Western ideas, one late Indian statesman
said, when asked what he thought of Western
civilization, "I think it is a good idea.
When will they begin?"
An unbiased look at perhaps the longest-standing
culture of the world, its roots and philosophy,
may help us to see things a little more as
they are — even about our own way of
life. Sometimes we have to stand back to get
the full picture. It is a natural tendency
to consider one's own way the best, but such
bull-headedness may cause us to miss seeing
our own shortcomings. An honest look at the
headlines of our home town newspaper may inspire
us to question exactly what it is we are so
eager to propound.
Perhaps the most appalling aspect of the Western
technological influence on India is found
in the country's few "modern" cities.
Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, and other cities
can be most frustrating to the average Westerner.
Crude attempts at modernization can be worse
than none at all. Although India's technology
lacks the polish and sophistication of the
West, its employment in crude fashion nonetheless
brings all of the adverse effects of a sophisticated
form of the same amenities.
Real India is rural India. Village life accounts
for the bulk of India's population of 700
million, and best illustrates the nation's
ancient culture. The simplicity of India is
often mistaken for ignorance, and her peacefulness
mistaken for complacency. The serenity of
Indian village life is overlooked or mislabeled
by those who in the name of progress may really
only be operating under the axiom of "misery
loves company." Perhaps the people of
India live as they do for a good reason: much
of what goes along with Western "progress"—the
mental anguish which causes us to do the most
bizarre things that make many cities living
hells—is relatively absent in India's
It is particularly difficult for Westerners
to appreciate India's worship of the cow.
After all, we live in the land of the hamburger.
The "American" restaurant abroad
is McDonald's. "Ole McDonald had a farm
/Did it ever grow!" Western economists
often contend that beef alone can solve India's
food problems and lay a foundation for a lucrative
export trade. This has caused cow worship
and cow protection to come under attack for
centuries. Cow protection has been called
a "lunatic obstacle" to sensible
India's cow is called the zebu, and an investigation
of the controversy surrounding her brings
us to the heart of village life in India.
The average landholder in India farms approximately
one acre. This is nowhere near enough land
to warrant the purchase of a tractor. Even
if the size of the land plots were increased
to make the purchase of machinery cost-effective,
the unique weather, a five-season year including
the monsoon, would quickly render the tractor
useless. After the monsoons, the soil is too
soft for planting and must be quickly and
efficiently prepared before the soon-to-follow
intense heat brings an end to the very short
growing season. The loss of even one day will
considerably affect the overall yield. The
zebu bullocks are ideal in this connection
for they can easily plow the soft earth without
overly compacting the soil as would heavy
Farming in India is a family affair, and the
labor-intensive approach to cultivation involves
everyone. This helps to sustain the family
unit, which is sometimes considered to be
the wealth of a nation. The staples of the
diet are grains: wheat and rice. Most of India
is vegetarian. While the bull plows the field,
helping to provide the grains, the cow supplies
milk from which many dairy products are produced.
Day to day, year after year, the cow and bull
are the center of rural Indian life.
According to Frances Moore Lappe in her best-seller,
Diet for a Small Planet, "For
every sixteen pounds of grain and soy fed
to beef cattle in the United States, we only
get one pound back in meat on our plates.
The other fifteen pounds are inaccessible
to us, either used by the animal to produce
energy or to make some part of its own body
that we do not eat (like hair or bones), or
excreted. Milk production is more efficient,
with less than one pound of grain fed for
every pint of milk produced. (This is partly
because we don't have to grow a new cow every
time we milk one.)" If India, with its
already strained resources, were to allocate
so much more acreage for the production of
beef, it would be disastrous. Advocates of
modernization maintain that with the application
of the latest farming techniques, the yield
per acre would gradually increase, thus making
it possible for beef to be introduced over
a period of time. Such advocates contend that
with the introduction of beef into the Indian
diet, the population's health would increase,
thus furthering productivity. However, it
is interesting to note that although India
is far from being free of disease, its principal
health problems are a result of urban overcrowding
and inadequate sanitation and medical facilities.
Whereas high blood pressure, heart disease,
arthritis, and cancer constitute the greatest
health threats in the West, the Indian people
are practically free from these afflictions.
So the "fact" that India's health
would increase with the introduction of beef
into the diet is not likely to overcome the
"superstition" of the people's religious
beliefs which prohibit them from eating meat.
The religious "superstitions" of
India are based on the Vedas, which constitute
the most voluminous body of literature in
the world. The Vedas and their corollaries
deal elaborately with theism, describing many
gradations of the theistic idea. The idea
that one should not eat meat, although central
to Hindu philosophy, is only a secondary theme.
To a large extent it amounts only to common
sense and sensitivity. It is from this basis
of sensitivity, an indicator of healthy consciousness,
that higher spiritual principles can be appreciated.
Actually, the Vedas agree with the West's
contention that man has dominion over the
animals; however, the West's way of dealing
with its dependents is revolting to Indians.
After all, we have dominion over our children
and ofttimes elders as well, but would we
be justified in slaughtering them for food?
We become incensed if someone even abuses
The Vedas do not teach that the cow is superior
to the human form of life and therefore worshipable.
Rather, the she gives so much practical help
to human society that she should be protected.
Her assistance frees mankind from much of
the struggle of life, thereby providing us
with more time for spiritual pursuits. Although
modern technology may be said to do the same,
the fact is that it actually complicates man's
life more and more and distracts him from
more simple living and high spiritual thinking.
We may become so mechanistic that we can fool
ourselves into believing that cows or pets
have no feelings.
For India, the cow represents the sacred principle
of motherhood. She symbolizes charity and
generosity because of the way she distributes
her milk, which is essential for the nourishment
of the young.
India's critics have pointed out that although
Indian village life may be simple, it is a
marginal existence; it is a life of little
surplus. If a farmer's cow turns barren, he
has lost his only chance of replacing the
work team. And if she goes dry, the family
loses its milk and butter. However the situation
is not as bad as the technologically advanced
may think. In village life, people are more
interdependent. Helping one's neighbor is
also considered sacred. Sharing is commonplace.
All of the father's male friends are affectionately
referred to by the sons and daughters as "uncle",
while all of the village women are seen as
mother. Often the responsibility of caring
for and nursing the young is shared by several
Perhaps the heaviest criticism of the pastoral
culture of India is directed at the insistence
of the farmers on protecting even sick and
aged cows. Westerners find this to be the
height of absurdity. At least they could be
killed and eaten or sold. But no. Animal hospitals
or nursing homes called goshallas, provided
by government agencies or wealthy individuals
in search of piety, offer shelter for old
and infirm cows. This is thought to be a luxury
that India cannot really afford, as these
"useless" cows are seen to be but
competitors for the already limited croplands
and precious foodstuffs. The fact is, however,
that India actually spends a great deal less
on their aging cattle than Americans spend
on their cats and dogs. And India's cattle
population is six times that of the American
The Indian farmer sees his cattle like members
of the family. Since the farmers depend on
the cattle for their own livelihood, it makes
perfect sense both economically and emotionally
to see to their well-being. In between harvests,
the cattle are bathed and spruced up much
like the average American polishes his automobile.
Twice during the year, special festivals are
held in honor of the cows. These rituals are
similar to the American idea of Thanksgiving.
Although in principle the same, there is a
basic difference in the details of how we
treat the turkey and how the more "primitive"
Indians treat their cows.
India cares for over 200 million zebus. This
accounts for one-fifth of the world's cattle
population. Critics say that if India does
not eat her cows, the cows will eat India.
Exasperated critics feel that even the cow
is underfed. However, in more recent years,
India's critics have come to agree that she
is essential to India's economy. Cattle are
India's greatest natural resource. They eat
only grass --which grows everywhere--and generates
more power than all of India's generating
plants. They also produce fuel, fertilizer,
and nutrition in abundance. India runs on
bullock power. Some 15 million bullock carts
move approximately 15 billion tons of goods
across the nation. Newer studies in energetics
have shown that bullocks do two-thirds of
the work on the average farm. Electricity
and fossil fuels account for only 10%. Bullocks
not only pull heavy loads, but also grind
the sugarcane and turn the linseed oil presses.
Converting from bullocks to machinery would
cost an estimated $30 billion plus maintenance
and replacement costs.
The biggest energy contribution from cows
and bulls is their dung. India's cattle produce
800 million tons of manure every year. The
Vedas explain that dung from cows is different
from all other forms of excrement. Indian
culture insists that if one comes in contact
with the stool of any other animal, they must
immediately take a bath. Even after passing
stool oneself, bathing is necessary. But the
cow's dung, far from being contaminating,
instead possesses antiseptic qualities. This
has been verified by modern science. Not only
is it free from bacteria, but it also does
a good job of killing them. Believe it or
not, it is every bit as good an antiseptic
as Lysol or Mr. Clean.
Most of the dung is used for fertilizer at
no cost to the farmer or to the world's fossil
fuel reserves. The remainder is used for fuel.
It is odorless and burns without scorching,
giving a slow, even heat. A housewife can
count on leaving her pots unattended all day
or return any time to a preheated griddle
for short-order cooking. To replace dung with
coal would cost India $1.5 billion per year.
Dung is also used for both heating and cooling.
Packed on the outside walls of a house, in
winter it keeps in the heat, and in summer
produces a cooling effect. Also, unlike the
stool of humans, it keeps flies away , and
when burned, its smoke acts as a repellent
When technocrats were unable to come up with
a workable alternative, they came up with
a new argument for modernization. They suggested
that the cattle culture be maintained, but
that it should be done in a more efficient
manner. Several ambitious programs were initiated
using pedigree bulls and artificial insemination.
But the new hybrids were not cheap nor were
they able to keep up the pace with the zebus.
The intense heat of India retired many of
them well before old age. Although they produced
more milk, this also created more problems,
because there was no efficient system for
distributing the surplus of milk throughout
India's widespread population.
India's system of distribution is highly decentralized.
Although the solution seemed simple, modernization
again met its shortcomings. With bottling
plants, pasteurization, and other sophisticated
Western methods of distribution, it was thought
that all of India could have fresh, pure milk.
Behind the automats set up for the distribution
of powdered milk, milk, and cream was the
expectation that in time, people would begin
to appreciate the abundant rewards bestowed
by these new modern deities of technology,
and worship of cows would gradually disappear.
But in the end it was modernization that failed
to prove its value.
Pasteurization proved to be a waste of time
and money for Indians, who generally drink
their milk hot, and thus boil it before drinking.
With the absence of modern highways and the
cost of milking machines and other necessities
of factory dairy farming, it was seen to be
impractical to impose the Western dairy system
on India; the cost of refrigeration alone
would make the price of milk too expensive
for 95% of India's population.
Eventually, after repeated attempts to modernize
India's approach to farming—and in particular
its attitude toward its beloved zebus—it
became clear that these technological upgrades
were not very well thought out. They were
not to replace a system that had endured for
thousands of years; a system not only economically
wise, but one that was part of a spiritually
rich heritage. On the contrary, it may well
be time to export the spiritual heritage of
India to the West, where technology continues
to threaten the tangible progress of humanity
in its search for the deeper meaning of life.