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The Sacred Cow Controversy

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A lot of debate has been carried about the Indian sacred cow. The term sacred cow originates for India meaning that the cow is worshiped, and has always been sacrosanct and inviolable. However there are different arguments by different scholars some opposing the way Indians value the cow. To India slaughtering of the cow is totally discouraged and any harm that is done to the cow is regarded as crime. Basically the cow is seen as a religious symbol and should not be harmed any more.

Those who are from the west, the Europeans, have a different school of thought on how they perceive cows. They do not see the need why the cow is to be literally worshipped by Indians yet many people across the world starve and suffer from undernourishment. India is viewed as a backward country many aspects linked to the western civilization. Most people in the west view India as an overpopulated country, under educated, overcrowded and uncultured.

            The controversy that exists is between the differences on how the western community views the cow, which is different from the Indians. They have been trying to convince Indians to change their behaviour by thinking rationally to avoid superstition they have. On the other side Indians are too adamant and rigid for change. They still observe their culture, customs, traditions and beliefs. There is a belief that Indians ancestors especially the Vedic Indians did not eat meat flesh. This is one of the reasons why up to date Indians do not take meat. Beef eating in India has also been associated with the coming of Islam regarding it as an identifying mark of the Muslim community.

            Changing the culture of India on the cow has been a difficult task many religious groups in the western have failed to achieve. To date the sacred cow still remains sacred and slaughtering of cows is still prohibited. Many scholars have argued raising their suggestions why they support the longest standing culture of India.

Others have also disagreed with the belief associated with the sacred cow   terming it as a myth. The real India itself from history is a rural India meaning that village life accounts for the bulk of Indians population. Normally those who live in the villages are not civilized and often mistaken to be ignorant. This is exactly what is happening in India.

            According to Marvin Harris (1996), the abstention of cattle meat serves several biological needs of the society and therefore is a rational choice. Harris uses the theory of cultural materialism to explain the avoidance of beef consumption by Indians. The cultural materialism theory states that to cultural food materialists, certain types of food, food rituals, consumption habits, production methods and food ceremonies exist in the society simply because they fulfill the basic biological needs of the society. To Indians, the cow serves as a religious symbol at the same time fulfill some rituals in the society (Harris, 1996).

            Culture simply means the people’s way of life and nobody should ignore the culture of any society. It is the society’s practices, beliefs and taboos that make it exist and continue to grow. Indian ancestors were not eating meat because eating it was a taboo, then there is no reason why they should take meat. They have the reason why the cow is regarded as sacred and holy.

Harris (1996) also acknowledges that people should look at the cow more positively by taking into account the byproducts it produces rather than meat itself. Its byproducts include milk, cow dung, which is used as organic matter in improving the productivity of land and power or energy production. All these are more useful than the meat itself. Harris argued that taboos on cow slaughter existed because the economic needs to utilize cows as draft animals rather than, as food never existed. This argument is very good since people’s culture must just be considered.

            Fredrick Simmons and Deryck Lined also have a different argument on the controversy about the sacred cow in India. The Hindu,s beef eating taboo posses cattle from making profit from its slaughter (Simoons and Deryck, 1981). This taboo has contributed a lot towards resource mismanagement. Indians cattle should be looked from the economic perspective rather than from irrational and non –economic perspective (Simoon & Deryck, 1981). Fredrick Simoons strongly contradicted the views of Marvin Harris on the cultural materialism theory explaining why Indians do not take beef. Irrational ideologies people have may make them over look food that are abundant locally and rich in nutrients and lay emphasis on foods that are scarce and contain less nutritional value.

The large number of cattle in India is not economical at all. This has led to inefficient surplus of cattle in India. The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection, which is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. Hindus lay emphasis on spiritual aspect while those in the west focus on the economic perspective. The essence of cow protection to Hinduism does not lie in the mechanical act of saving but lie in the self-purification and penance behind act (Deryck, 1981). Large animals are considered as liability not asset as compared to the little land resources that exist in India. The large number of cattle kept and preserved is a big burden to the economy. (Fredrick and Deryck, 1981).

            This argument even though it is okay I believe that what is important is the societal continuation. This means that the people’s culture should come in front.

            Vandana Shiva has also brought her explanation supporting arguments by Marvin Harris. She again supports the idea of worshipping the cow and why the cow should be kept sacred. All living things in this world have the right to achieve happiness and overcome suffering (Vandana, 2000).

            According to Vandana (2000), in India cows are treated as sacred meaning the goddess of wealth and as the cosmos in which all gods and goddesses reside for centuries.  In India the sacred cow that the Indian agricultural world has built its sustainability on her integrity of the cow upon looking at her inviolable and sacred. They view the cow as the mother of prosperity of food system.

India’s sacred cows stay in harmony with the environment. They perform multiple services and producing a variety of products that serves as food to the community. Therefore the sacred cow should not be disturbed. She brings wealth and happiness plus food to the people. On the other hand Vandana (2000) describes mad cows as a grotesque manifestation of an individual system obsessed with uniformity, technology and profit.

            Indians do not worship cows for the sake of it. Cows are regarded as sacred because they contributed a lot in enriching the soil with nutrients. The waste products or organic matter produced from cows do make the soil become more fertile leading to increased productivity. Indians worship cows and value them because they do not compete with human beings for food. Instead they provide organic fertilizer for fields therefore increasing food productivity.

            It is the role of women in India to collect cow dug, milking cows and nurturing the cow when sick until they become normal or healthy again. Due to the benefits the sacred cow brings to the community is why they are worshipped. Cows again to India provide more food more than they consume.

This shows that they are source of wealth. To those who are in United States (US) working in the cattle industry things are different. They argue that cows consume six times more food than they provide (Vandana, 2000). This is what Indians really contrast. Most of power used by the villagers is obtained from cattle dung fuel. Other multiple tasks that cows do include producing milk, draught power, dung for fertilizer and fuel, hides, skins, horn and hooves.

            Looking at how trade is being conducted in India brought by liberalization policies, the policies have made India to lead in terms of slaughtering cattle for meat exports. These policies were brought as a result of white revolution that advocated for some changes. These changes to India were able to bring some diseases to their indigenous cattle that are disease resistant. The new discoveries of cattle breeds could bring a disease called mad cow disease. This has raised several questions on the US slaughterhouses and farming sectors. The factory has been accused of infecting millions of cows in Britain by causing a mad disease called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. Indians cattle are also being taken to slaughterhouse, which is equally bad.


            The sacred cow controversy will still continue to be a big debate. Indians still prohibit cattle slaughtering and believe in cow protection. The cow is seen as sacred and anybody harming the cow should be punished. Those from the western also regard the taboos as just minor myths and Indians should view the cattle from economical perspective. I believe if cattle slaughtering is to be allowed today in Indian then everybody will match to the street. The debate on the sacred cow will still go on and it will be very hard for a suitable solution to be found.


Marvin, H. (1996) The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle. Current Anthropology, 7 (1): 261-270

Simoons, F and Deryck, O.L. (1981). Background to Understanding the Cattle Situation of India: The Sacred Cow Concept in Hindu Religion and Folk Culture. Zeitschrift for Ethnologies. Pp 121-134

Vandana, S. (2000). Mad Cows and Sacred Cows Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply.  London: South End Press.

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