Does it purely have to do with ahimsa or is it also partly based on the status of Nandi?

(If Nandi is a factor, does this also bear on the protected status of monkeys per Hanuman's assistance to Rama?)

I've also heard it related to Kamadhenu the divine mother of all cows, and Krishna as the child protector of cows in the Harivamsa. How much of a factor are these dieties?

Is it possible that potential food availability issues due to India's large population could have provided some impetus towards general vegetarianism? (i.e. it takes more calories to raise a cow for meat than the calories produced by the meat. Certain Hebrew Kosher laws, such as the prohibition of shellfish, which spoil quickly, almost certainly had purposes beyond simply religious in the pre-refrigeration era.) The story of Prithvi milked by Prithu to save the world from famine is certainly scarcity related.

  • I see you shoehorn mythology in here, but I do think this is a better fit for Hinduism.SE. – C. M. Weimer Jan 19 '17 at 6:33
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    @C. M. Weimer It might be, but this is about India. Posting it in Hinduism SE would be to say that India is synonymous with Hinduism, which is wrong. – DynamoBlaze Jan 31 '17 at 8:02
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    @MalayTheDynamo I think that takes an anachronistic look at the development of Hinduism. Which religious groups in India call the cow sacred but do not link themselves to any branch of Hinduism? – C. M. Weimer Jan 31 '17 at 14:51
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    @C. M. Weimer About the Muslim and Christian you're right, but the Adivasis are largely- almost completely- independent from Hinduism. Indeed, their name literally means the 'Beginning Livers', meaning they lived there before the Vedic Aryans brought primitive Hinduism with them. And it is fact that the Aryans described them as nature or animal worshippers, including the cow. – DynamoBlaze Jan 31 '17 at 15:18
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    @C.M.Weimer The intent of the question was to learn more about the mythological roots of this custom specifically.. – DukeZhou Feb 2 '17 at 22:51

As you say, cows are sacred and respected in India. Indeed, a cow is often referred to as Go-Mata, meaning Cow-Mother.

There are a pretty high number of reasons why the cow is so sacred.

When Brahma created all things in the world, it took the form of a Goddess, who was his daughter. So beautiful was she, that Brahma himself was attracted to her. Perceiving this she fled, and Brahma chased after. She took the form of a female animal, and Brahma of the corresponding male. She turned into a doe, he a stag. She a tigress, he a tiger. He ran fast, she faster. And eventually their varied forms became independent, and the animals were created. Due to this she was known as Shatarupa, she of many forms. And when Brahma could run no more, he sat down, and sprouted three additional heads, so he may gaze upon her wherever she went.

The above is an account of how the cow came to be, in Hindu Mythology.

Following are the reason:

  • Prithvi, the Goddess of the Earth, nourishes all that live upon her. So does the cow, and it is due to that reason that she regularly uses that form.

  • When a demon had dragged her to the deepest oceans, depriving anyone and everyone of land to live on, Vishnu took the form of a boar, Varaha, and after a duel with the demon which continued a thousand years, dragged her back in the form of a cow.

  • Indra's city, Amravati, had a cow, whose name was Kamadhenu, the Cow of Desire. She would grant any wish, wisdom, wealth, men, resources, anything that was conceivable. (It is known fact that during the events of the Ramayana, Vashishtha had possession of her.)

  • Krishna was famous for stealing butter, playing flutes, and generally being a cowherd.

  • Shiva's ownership of Nandi might have been an influence, but I'm not sure.

Then there's the immense usefulness of a cow(Milk, Butter, Ghee, and of course, leather) in Vedic society. It is a combination of these things that has led to the immense sacred status of the cow in Indian society.

All information was taken from:

  • Mith=Mithya - Devdutt Pattnaik

  • Amar Chitra Katha Books

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Very good question!

In the ancient vedic texts and in Srimad Bhagavatam (composed about 5000 years ago) in particular, there is a mention of the 7 mothers for a human being who are as follows:

(1) the original mother, (2) the wife of the teacher or spiritual master, (3) the wife of a brahmana, (4) the king's wife, (5) the cow, (6) the nurse, (7) the earth.

From this view point, the cow is not only placed in a very high status but also is considered as a mother. Hence, like a human she is also cared for and protected. (Refer: http://vaniquotes.org/wiki/Seven_kinds_of_mothers)

The killing of a cow also had serious karmic reactions and hence it was/is considered a great sin. The Vedas declare that the purpose of human life is to evolve spiritually and liberate oneself from the ocean of birth and death. Taking the life of another living entity is not only causing it a great pain but also restricting their own spiritual evolution. Such killing for the sake of personal desires, is considered violence of which killing a brahamana or a cow was considered the highest of crimes. Violence causes the soul to transmigrate from one body to another (life after life), causing it to be tightly bound within the material universe. It's re-entry to the spiritual universe was very much based on (a) seeing/protecting/loving all living beings (2) devotion to God

The cow is also seen as very important from a medical and health point of view. In Vedas (and Ayurveda), the milk is considered to nourish the brain there-by helping a spiritual student assimilate deep philosophy and similar subject matters. Butter & ghee is used for cooking whereas cow dung was a natural fuel. Cow urine is an important part of ancient medicine and even in today's ayurvedic medicines. Ghee was also an important part of many of the ancient vedic ceremonies.

The cow & the bull was also seen an integral part of a just, peaceful and a non-violent soceity. Here is a statement from Srimad Bhagavatam (Canto 1 Chapter16 Vese 18):

"The bull and the cow can be protected for the good of all human society simply by the spreading of brahminical culture as the topmost perfection of all cultural affairs. By advancement of such culture, the morale of society is properly maintained, and so peace and prosperity are also attained without extraneous effort."

Purport: The bull is the emblem of the moral principle, and the cow is the representative of the earth. When the bull and the cow are in a joyful mood, it is to be understood that the people of the world are also in a joyful mood. The reason is that the bull helps production of grains in the agricultural field, and the cow delivers milk, the miracle of aggregate food values. The human society, therefore, maintains these two important animals very carefully so that they can wander everywhere in cheerfulness. But at the present moment in this age of Kali both the bull and the cow are now being slaughtered and eaten up as foodstuff by a class of men who do not know the brahminical culture. The bull and the cow can be protected for the good of all human society simply by the spreading of brahminical culture as the topmost perfection of all cultural affairs. By advancement of such culture, the morale of society is properly maintained, and so peace and prosperity are also attained without extraneous effort. When brahminical culture deteriorates, the cow and bull are mistreated, and the resultant actions are prominent by the following symptoms.

(Refer more statements here: http://vaniquotes.org/wiki/Brahminical_culture_and_cow_protection)

Finally, devout Hindus see the cow as a great object of affection for Lord Krishna. Infact, in His earthly pastimes and in His eternal pastimes in His own spiritual planet, He is seen to spend a great deal of time with the cowherd families of Vrindhavan. In books realted to Krishna, He is often described to be surrounded by millions of cows, chanting their names and taking them out for grazing everyday. He is famously known as "Govinda", the well-wisher of the cows. Hindus and eastern spiritualists, often protect the cow from this angle as well, as they want to follow in the footsteps of Lord Krishna, whom they have devoted their own lives too.

That's all I can think of for now and hope I have contributed in some way.

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I would like to add a point. Surely, as answered by Malay, there are many references to different forms of cows playing a major role in various pastimes. However, along with those references and the general quintessential importance of cow-products in India, Gau-mātā (mother cow) is also revered because -

  1. She has special importance in the Hindu scriptures. For example, Gau-hatyā (killing a cow) is one of the most serious offences you can possibly commit, and it is said that

go-aṅge yata loma tata sahasra vatsara

go-vadhī raurava-madhye pace nirantar

Cow killers and cow eaters are condemned to rot in hell for as many thousands of years as there are for each hair on the body of every cow they eat from.

There are many other similar quotations from the canonical Hindu texts that are well documented here

  1. Krishna is particularly attached to cows. He has many names which describe Him as a protector of cows, like Gopāl, Govind etc. In one of the more popular mantras for Him, it is said -

namo brahmaṇya-devāya go-brāhmaṇa-hitāya ca

jagad-dhitāya kṛṣṇāya govindāya namo namaḥ

"My Lord, You are the well-wisher of the cows and the brāhmaṇas, and You are the well-wisher of the entire human society and world." (Viṣṇu Purāṇa 1.19.65)

So apart from the various references, it can be seen that scriptural injunction (which is an important independent entity in Hinduism) and Krishna's special spot for them makes cows revered in India, especially from a Hindu perspective.

NOTE: All italicized instances of go/gau here are Sanskrit for cow (grammar rules dictate which of the two would be used)

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  • Thank you for adding perspective and welcome to Stack Mythology! Thank you also for providing the transliteration along with the translation. Very useful. – DukeZhou Mar 10 '17 at 18:05
  • @DukeZhou, thank you for the encouragement! – user1993 Mar 10 '17 at 18:08
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    am I correct that "go" is the root of cow here? (go-ange, go-vadhi, go-brāhmaṇa-hitāya) – DukeZhou Mar 10 '17 at 18:10
  • @DukeZhou, yes that is correct. edited – user1993 Mar 10 '17 at 19:21

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