Cows are considered sacred in India. Consider the recent controversy surrounding Mr. Shashi Tharoor's tweet. He tweeted about how he was being asked to adopt 'austere measures' and so from now on he would
"travel in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!"Of course, Indian politicians are rarely known for their sense of humor (and usually even lesser for their sense of public service). Even Tharoor lamented about how he has learnt a very harsh lesson on why humour is a dangerous subject for politicians in India. Apparently, the diversity in India means that you can offend anyone with your 'free speech'. (Do read Amit Varma's recent post on the free speech cop-out.)
But back to cows. The exact reason why cows are sacred in India is probably lost to most practising Hindus. My reasearch, based on simple Google searches, indicates that the reason varies from;
- a carry over from Babylonian civilization that has come to India
- practical reasons - a (milch) cow throughout its life is more productive than as a source of beef. Milch cows provide dairy products, which are a continuous and valuable source of protein and fat.
Probably what many Indians do not realize are that there are two types of cows bred in the world. One is the 'milch' variety, reared almost exclusively for dairy, while the other is the 'beef' variety, reared as a source of meat. The variety of cattle raised for their meat are not really valuable as a milch cow and hence do not serve any economic value during their lifetime.
The economics of the cow
Here's my take on how it evolved that cows are sacred in India. As India slid from being a land of 'milk and honey' and of untold riches where everyone lived in relative peace and prosperity; the economics of putting food on the table became of paramount importance. It must be noted that none of the ancient Indian texts actually prohibit meat-eating (as some misguided, self-righteous 'Hindu vegetarians' would like us to believe). In fact, there are instances of meat-eating by Brahmins in the Mahabharata. Yes, vegetarianism is recommended, but meat-eating is not explicitly condemned. So, that effectively settles the argument about how ancient Hindu texts forbid meat-eating. Next, does it say anything specifically about beef? I do not claim to be a scholar on ancient Hindu texts, but my basic research suggests: No. So, it is probably fair to assume that slaughter of cows and consumption of beef was a done practice in ancient India.
Now, let's cut to the recent history, say around the time the Mughals invaded and afterwards. Economically, rural Indians were not exactly feasting. As a result, some bright folks probably realized that as far as milch cows were concerned, they were more viable alive than dead. Now, armed with this knowledge that cows were more valuable alive than dead, the 'community advisers', typically learned Brahmins, would have tried to find a way to make it morally reprehensible for simple folk to slaughter cows. Simple solution: Make it a religious sin! There are several instances across the world where economic and scientific principles are couched in religious laws to ensure a strict adherence. (Refer below for some instances). As a result, people slowly became religiously conditioned to not eat beef. Note the hypocrisy with how this does not extend to goats (very little milch value) and chickens and the like.
Of course, there is another train of thought that cows are sacred because they are used to till the land and the like. Because of the service they provide to the farmer, they are considered as sacred. The economic inviability of slaughtering bullocks in this case is obvious. Again, they are not exactly beef cattle either.
This train of thought leads me to believe that the Hindu religious notion of cows being sacred are not religious truths but in fact economic principles in the guise of religious truths.
The politics of the cow
Cut to the present day. Cows are a potent political symbol. The stated intention of certain political factions to protect the cow acts as the perfect ruse to disguise the lack of concrete social and economic measures that they need to undertake. As usual, the memory of the man on the street is short and his vision is near-sighted. Explosively discordant religious messages are better attention grabbers than a concrete vision for social upliftment. Caught in this atmosphere, the average Hindu fails to question fundamental truths as to why s/he does not consume beef but in a behavior uncannily resembling that of a cow just toes the line.
The final hypocrisy
Regardless of the economics and the politics, what however is utterly incomprehensible is the complete hypocrisy that Hindus show when it comes to their 'mother', the cow. Millions of cows roam Indian roads, left to fend for themselves. They pose a real threat to road safety and also litter the roads with unwanted dung. They have no better place to go, so are often seen munching on the patchy vegetation that is present on the road shoulders. Tell me, O Devout Hindu, if the cow is your mother, if the cow is your God, is this how you treat her? Would you let your own biological mother fend for herself on the streets? Would you rather she succumb to stomach cancer caused by consumption of plastics? Can't you see the hypocrisy of your thoughts and actions?
The poor breed of cows in India
It's probably also worth mentioning that cows in India are among the worst strains of milch cattle; meaning they produce very little milk. Which probably means that they might be a genetic breed of cattle which was earlier not exclusively of the milch variety. My guess is that they might have been extensively interbred with beef cattle which reduced their milk producing capacities.
The economics of meat eating today
Meat eating is very fashionable today. With the booming economies of China and India, meat is now found more often on the menu in families across these two countries. Considering that they harbour about 40% of the world's population, the increased demand for meat produces severe strain on grain cultivation. This is not to say that Indians and Chinese must refrain while the Western world continues to battle obesity. It merely highlights how economic prosperity changes our food habits. That said, we consume far more animal protein than we need, and we waste even more. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. In light of the fact that we still have millions of people starving across the world, is this the right dietary choice to make?
The dangers of meat today
IMHO, the best beef in the world comes from Australia. These cows are typically grass-fed and free range. The quality of the beef is great, the associated animal cruelty is minimal. Consider this against the beef produced in 'CAFO' style operations, where the associated health and environmental issues are severe. Read more about that here and here.
Science & Economics vs. Religion
A couple of cases where religion dictated the adoption of scientific principles. This is my own guess, and not proven research!
1) Hindus have (had) a habit of washing their feet before entering a residence. One can note how many houses still have a water tap outside to enable folks to wash their feet before entering the house. The belief is that 'Shani' or Saturn clings to the dust in one's feet, and so must be washed away before entering a house. The simpler scientific explanation is probably that in ancient times footwear wasn't as common as today. Further, roads and pathways were dirty (probably sparkling clean in comparison to the roads in India today) and littered with animal feces. It must have been realized that the simple act of washing one's feet before entering a household prevented many diseases. Unable to; or unwilling to provide a scientific explanation for the same, it was couched in religious mumbo-jumbo and passed on as religious fact.
2) Why Muslims and Jews don't eat pork? These religions originated in the middle-eastern regions, where slaughtered meat, especially pork, does not keep well (unlike Europe). As a result, it was noticed that people fell sick eating pork and hence the religious doctrine of why not to eat pork.