One of the most common questions about Hinduism is “Why do Hindus worship cows?” Be it eight-year-old kids or schoolteachers, there is a fascination with Hinduism and the holy cow. Sometimes the question is asked in a mocking tone, while at other times there appears to be a genuine desire to get an insight into the subject of cows in Hinduism.
First of all (with a few exceptions) Hindus do not worship cows; we respect them. The cow is viewed as a symbol of motherhood since it selflessly provides us with the same nourishment that we get from our mothers as babies. Providing/nurturing is considered motherly. What appears to be ‘worshipping’ is more of a deep, sincere respect.
Predominant Western religions or ideologies have conditioned people not to respect the so-called lower forms of life and to think that those who do so are somehow primitive or superstitious. Hinduism advocates a respect for all creatures and for our environment, because God’s presence is everywhere. In the Hindu view, humans should cultivate reverence for all of nature, and sensitivity for all creatures. We begin by trying to respect those creatures that we take from on a regular basis. In the history of our civilization, we have taken a lot from cows. The cow’s milk is taken to nourish ourselves. Cow’s skin was used for the leather it provides. Even the cows’ dung was extensively used, as fuel and a building material.
It is often said, “a dog is a man’s best friend”. But if we look at the history of the human race, it is more true to say that cows are man’s best friend. Hindus see it as a mark of ingratitude to take so much from an animal, and then to kill and eat it. Such ungratefulness and lack of respect creates a negative and exploitive tendency in us as a species.
Today, some of the major crises facing our planet are due to unrestrained exploitation of nature, including other creatures. In our quest for more, humans have not hesitated to take so much, without any sense of balance. This has left many species on the verge of extinction and has caused seemingly irreversible environmental changes, such as global warming, ozone layer disruption and huge deforestation.
What does reverence of the cow have to do with this? Not much you may think at first. But if the issue is examined with a deeper vision, we will find that cow protection stems from an outlook towards life and nature that could help prevent and overcome the current problems.
Aspects of Hindu culture such as respect for the cow and other forms of life create and reinforce a mentality and outlook of gratefulness, appreciation and humility. Humanity has shamelessly exploited nature. The whole problem arises from a mistaken feeling that nature and other creatures are simply here for our pleasure and benefit, and we owe nothing. If we strived to appreciate how much we receive rather than think everything is there for us to lord over, we would not have abused and desecrated our planet and its inhabitants.