India has the highest number of domesticated bovine animals, approximately 294 million, making it the largest country in this regard. The husbandry of bovine animals has been the topic of multiple studies, many of which focus on the economic aspects of it. In a landmark study conducted in 1971, Alan Heston showed that there were 30 million excess cows at the time in India; in current day figures, it is at 117 million. This results in an inefficient allocation of resources, but religious sentiments play such a vital role that they cannot be overlooked. It can be argued that using biogas lowers fossil fuel and chemical fertilizer usage by more than 50% (Agoramoorthy, 2012, p. 9); but the truth is, the same quantity of milk, biogas and everything else can be produced with fewer cattle. This results in lower costs to farmers and higher marginal productivity for cattle. It also frees up arable land for more productive purposes. So why is it that the excess still persists?
Recently, there has been some controversy regarding the slaughter of cows and the sale of beef in India. I will not be going into state regulations and government intervention regarding this. This will be an overview of the history of the cow’s symbolism in Indian society.
Cows are a symbol of sacredness in Hinduism. As a young Hindu boy, I grew up seeing this in real life. Cars would stop moving and streets would be jammed because a cow would not get up, and it is bad karma to displace a cow from its restful nap, apparently. Indian myths incorporate cows in many different ways. Shiva, one of the most important deities in Hinduism, uses a bull called Nandi as his mode of transport. Kamadhenu, the cow goddess, helps sages and gurus with their penances; and Lord Krishna, a major Hindu deity and one of the most veneered gods in Hinduism, is depicted as a cowherd in mythological stories. The cow is also respected as a mother figure in society as well. This begs the question, where does this reverence stem from, and why?
The answer, of course, lies in economics—well, more like common sense, but you’ll see… The Indus Valley civilization, which originated in modern day North-West India, was one of the first civilizations in the world. The sacred Hindu texts called the Vedas originate from this era; they are to Hinduism what the Bible is to Christianity. Nowhere in the Vedas is it mentioned that slaughtering a cow is a sinful deed. In fact, early Indians used to sacrifice oxen and cows, and consume their meat. As it was a predominantly pastoral community, similar to the Maasai people in Kenya, cows and oxen were highly valued. They were the main source of power for agricultural work, transport and milk. Cow dung was, and still is, used as fuel for fire and fertilizer for fields. Even transactions were held with these animals as “currency.” With the passage of time the population increased, and accordingly, consumption of beef increased. With a scarcity of cows, society would not have functioned efficiently because they were pivotal in its functioning. Thus, it was decreed by the Brahmins around 200 AD that cow slaughter is a criminal offence in order to curb consumption. For a little context, the Brahmins are Hindu priests who teach the religious texts and are the supreme religious authority. Around the turn of the millennium, in the 12th century, Islamic emperors tried to conquer India. That is when the cow as a symbol of Hinduism took a political turn.
Islam as a religion does not ban beef consumption or cow slaughter. Consequently, beef was sold openly in territories occupied by Islamic rulers. Hindus were appalled by this and this has been the main cause of many a riot. As the Mughal Empire gained a strong foothold in India and conquered much of it, a few selective restrictions on cow slaughter were enacted by Akbar the Great. Other Mughal emperors were generally lenient regarding this. However, the Maratha Empire, which ended the Mughal rule and was primarily a Hindu empire, was very strict about these issues. While its rulers were very accommodating and encouraged diversity, cow slaughter and beef consumption were absolutely prohibited, more so in territories they acquired newly. This was viewed as a subtle way of establishing power and instilling fear and order in newly occupied territories, where ruling would have been chaotic otherwise.
A small wonder in this context is the fact that according to data of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, India is the world largest exporter of beef, accounting for almost of quarter of the global beef exports and valued at almost $5 billion in 2014. Also, given that cow dung also harbors psilocybin mushrooms, it is up to you, my dear reader, to understand why cows are so important in Indian society.
If you ever go to India, don’t complain about the cows everywhere—it’s bad for your karma.