Are cows important? And if so, why? Many Rishis (ancient Indian sages/intellectuals) have thought about this question for millennia and have documented their views in a range of texts from the Vedas, commentaries and other literature. Overtime, the conclusions of the Rishis have moulded into societal traditions which we commonly see; though fail to understand. To think about this topic further, we can take a few angles that may spur us to introspect and think about how symbolisms and traditions can be an aid for our self-development (jivan vikas).     

Our Rishis have proclaimed boldly that the same divine presence that is within ourselves is also present in all of the diverse life around us. We regard all living creatures as sacred – mammals, fishes, birds and more. Just as a nation’s flag represents the entire history, culture and people of a country, we acknowledge the reverence for all life in our special affection for the cow. By honouring this gentle animal as our mother (Gau Mata), who gives more than she takes, we honour all life on our planet. An idol (murti) of Gau Mata is commonly kept in community Mandirs and inside homes – it provides us with a constant reminder of the relationship between ourselves and the planet. Repeated exposure to symbols allows one to think about a topic in detail and therefore helps transform one’s thought processes. This evolution of thought, in turn transforms one’s attitude towards nature and helps direct action.

But, what is so special and symbolic about the cow specifically? One example is how the cow symbolises the Earth through her nourishment and ever-giving, selfless nature. The cow is so generous, taking nothing but water, grass and grain. She selflessly gives and gives and gives of her milk via yoghurt, cheese, butter, ghee and of course ice cream! She is a source of Ojas (bodily strength, immunity, power, and vitality in the body) and hence is a virtual sustainer of life for many humans. Thus, she becomes a symbol of life, grace and abundance. Veneration and service of the cow can instil in us the virtues of gentleness, maternity, selfless service and connectedness with nature.

Not only does the cow provide for us through her milk, she has also been key for human civilisations progress through agricultural practices! There is a symbiotic relationship between us and cows, it was because of cows that humans were able to stop hunting, and cultivate a society based around farming. Crops are fertilised by cow dung by increasing the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil – increasing its fertility. The dung is also used once dried as an energy source (biofuel) for cooking and heating the house in rural India.

Specific Hindu texts that mention the significance of cows include: The Vedas, cows represent wealth and joyous Earthly life. From the Rig Veda (4.28.1;6): “The cows have come and have brought us good fortune. In our stalls, content, may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us, many-coloured, giving milk for Indra each day. You make, O cows, the thin man sleek; to the unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing. In our assemblies we laud your vigour.” Another example is seen in Sri Krishna’s life. Being a cowherder himself, it is said that he had immense love and affection for the animal. You may have heard that he is often lovingly called Govinda meaning the protector of cows.

We have now deconstructed and understood a few symbolisms of Gau Mata, however others include: a puranic allegory where King Kaushika – an imperialist (later being known as Rishi Vishvamitra) meets Rishi Vashishta (who had established a self-governed society). Upon meeting Rishi Vashishta and hearing about the exemplary nature of the people of Vashisht’s state, King Kaushika demanded for Nandini – a cow. Here the cow actually represents the members of Vashishta’s society who were peace-loving, virtuous and docile just like a cow. The cow thus has two meanings, the earth and also people. While offering our gratitude to Gau Mata we should think about how we can develop such qualities in our lives. We should always be asking ourselves what qualities are important for our self-development? Gau Mata provides us with a constant reminder that we can progress in our everyday lives.

Some specific rituals and utsavs associated with offering our gratitude to Gau Mata are in the Hindu tradition, where the cow is honoured, garlanded and given special feedings at utsavs all over Bharat, most importantly the annual Gopashtama festival. People come together to offer their gratitude to Gau Mata. From a young age, children are taught to decorate murtis of Gau Mata with garlands, paint and ornaments. We can now understand the benefit of this. Our previous discussion has taught us how symbolisms and traditions can be an aid for our self-development.

We can manifest reverence for cows in our daily lives. Cow reverence can be a personal experiment – ‘an experiment in love’. What should my relationship with the planet be like? How do I view and treat the people around me? In an age where human-induced climate change is seriously affecting not only human life but also animal life, can we find ways to live in a sustainable manner such that human life can coexist with all the wonderful life around it? Studying your relationship with Gau Mata allows you to develop an attitude of love towards all life. 

Overtime, constant introspection allows our intellect to evolve and attitudes towards this planet and its life forms start to change naturally. Initially, a cow was just a cow but now we realise that Gau Mata can be responsible for one’s intellectual and emotional progress- she really is like our second mother! The only question for us now is, why don’t more people respect and protect this remarkable creature? Mahatma Gandhi once said, “One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. The cow means the entire subhuman world.”