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Understanding the Origins of the Sacred Cow
By Ali Krishna Dasi   |  Mar 25, 2010

Amidst rush-hour traffic, in a city boosting over 19 million people, a large cow and her companion cross the street with reckless abandon. Brakes squealing, horns honking, heads and clenched fists asserting themselves out of car windows in protest- thousands of cars are forced to maneuver and heed the right of way to that divine couple who have now decided to take their morning nap in the middle of Mumbai’s busiest highway intersection. Thus, the phenomenon of the “sacred cow” within India is directly observed.

An impassioned controversy has been stirring for over 50 years in the great struggle to uncover the origin of the cow’s rise to sacred status in India. The debate has been led by the arguments of Marvin Harris, a renowned cultural materialist, who reduces the Hindu ban on cow slaughter as a factor of ecological pressures. He argues that religious sanctity has been mistakenly given to a phenomenon that can best be explained by socio-political factors. However, Harris’s theory has met with great criticism. Frederick Simoons, a cultural geographer and contemporary of Harris, suggests that beef was not simply tabooed on environmental grounds but on religious factors as well. Harris’s functionalist approach is clearly incomplete, having not sufficiently addressed religious claims. But Simoons and his ilk don’t go far enough. In order to determine the origins of the sacred cow in India, we must understand basic philosophical points of Hinduism concerning the nature of the soul, the laws of karma, and reincarnation.

In his essay “The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle”, Harris explains that, “I have written this paper because I believe the irrational, non-economic, and exotic agents of the Indian cattle complex are greatly overemphasized at the expense of rational, economic, and mundane interpretations.” He asserts that instead of Hindu theology, taboos, customs, and rituals associated with Indian cattle require a “positive-functioned” explanation resting upon India’s adaptive response to ecological degradation. This theory can be described as cultural materialism in that the holy designation of the cow is reduced to a socio-economic response of practical necessity.

Harris proposes this materialist explanation as a general theory in other cases where the flesh of a certain animal is made taboo when it becomes too costly as a result of ecological changes. The basic components of his theory include recognition that the animal was formerly sacrificed or eaten, a subsequent rise in population density, and a responsive restriction imposed when the animal can no longer be raised in sufficient numbers to meet societal needs.

In contrast to the simple pig whose flesh became an abomination in the Middle East after it became too expensive to be raised for meat, India’s cattle were valued for their milk and traction power over and above their function as meat. As cattle in India became too costly to be raised as meat, their plowing value increased in that growing populations demanded more agricultural cultivation. Therefore, they came to be protected rather than abominated, and so “the Hindu religion came to emphasize everyone’s sacred duty to refrain from killing cattle or eating beef.”

Harris defends the religious ban on the slaughter of cattle and the consumption of beef today as a continuation of India’s adaptation to swelling populations, increased energy demands, and prolonged drought conditions. In contrast to a popular report published by Vikas Mishra, who views any ban on cow slaughter in opposition to India’s economic interest, Harris suggests that “the taboo in question does not decrease the capacity of the present Indian system of food production to support human life” (240). Thus, his cultural materialist theory of understanding the origin of the sacred cow stands to reason.

Many anthropologists, including Paul Diener, Eugene Robkin, and Frederick Simoons, have criticized Harris’s theory citing his misrepresentation of the historical record and the economic and ecological irrationalities of the sacred cow. After reading such arguments, however, one is impelled to question why, despite these economic and ecological disadvantage, India chooses to stand by her sacred cow?

The answer is only available if we take a deeper look at the philosophy of ancient India. Whereas Harris’s materialism concludes that religion is shaped by socio-ecological pressures, we must see how socio- ecological variables are shaped by religion.

The most fundamental principle of Vaishnavism can be found in the Bhagavad-gita, in which the difference between the material body and the eternal soul is described and the law of karma (action and reaction) and reincarnation is established.

Krishna says “nāsato vidyate bhāvo nābhāvo vidyate sataḥ ubhayor api dṛṣṭo ‘ntas,” translated as, “Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change” (Prabhupada 2.16). The law of karma follows in that based on the actions in this birth, one receives a suitable body after reincarnation that will allow them to suffer or enjoy accordingly.

Furthermore, the Bhagavad-gita states that a saintly person, in recognition of the equality of all souls, “sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste]” (Prabhupada 6.18).

By analyzing the significance of karma and reincarnation within Hindu cosmology, we can understand how it might be in the best interest of humanity to refrain from killing the cow, despite the costs of wandering cattle and inefficiencies in cattle breeding, as the Vedas outlaw such animal sacrifices in the current age and especially the unnecessary slaughtering of cows.

We can also see how both the sacrificer and the sacrificed benefit, the former in pleasing his deity and the later in being elevated to heaven (Bryant 196).

A more interpretive approach that takes into account religious views helps address lingering questions and inconsistencies left by both Harris’s theory of exclusive cultural materialism and the counterarguments of his critics.

Indeed, amongst heightened political tensions and environmental challenges, an increasing amount of attention has been given to the way religion shapes environmental attitudes and practices in cultures throughout the world. We can address the contemporary relevance of the sacred cow controversy by understanding how its findings will impact the complex political situation of the Indian sub-continent. On the one hand, the conclusions derived from the great sacred-cow controversy will have little impact on the cosmology of a typical Indian villager. On the other, recognizing the legitimate religious claim, the sensitivities the sacred cow conjures within India, and the tension it provokes with neighboring Muslim and Christian societies, it would be foolish to downplay its socio-political significance.

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