Hinduism is over 4,000 years old. It began in India by an ancient group of people who wrote down their philosophies and customs in works called the Vedas. These texts were eventually accepted as the sacred books for what became our modern Hindu religion. Today, just under 80% of India’s population follows this religion. With 95% percent of the worldwide Hindu population living in India, it can be difficult to understand the ins and outs of our religion.
For example, do Hindus drink milk? We consume all kinds of dairy products, including milk, ghee, butter, and yogurt. In fact, Lord Krishna himself was known to love butter and steal it for his friends as a child. However, we also consider cows to be holy. We will not kill a cow for food.
Because we believe that the Spirit of God is in every living thing, it is important to respect all life. But that doesn’t mean that our beliefs revolve only around keeping cows or other animals alive. It is a deep and diverse spiritual practice. But, why are cows so important in our religion? And why is it okay to drink milk but not eat beef?
Hinduism And The Cow
The cow is considered sacred because it supplies milk. In a way, it becomes like a Mother Goddess supplying milk for Her children. In our religion, cows actually symbolize all other creatures. Cows represent the earth, and the life it gives us. Milk and everything we can make from it is considered life-giving, and we honor the cow for everything it is kind enough to give us.
Cows supply more than just our milk. On farms, the bulls help plow the fields. They are also used as pack animals so farmers can haul goods to where they need to go. Cow dung is high in methane and is used not only to help heat homes in India but to actually make electricity. Cow dung also makes an excellent fertilizer for crops.
In the Bhagavad-Gita (chapter 10, verse 28), Krishna says, “among the cows, I am the wish-fulfilling cow.” In the spiritual world, Krishna is known as a simple cowherd boy. When he came to earth, he brought the cows with him and continued to care for them. In holy images, he is often pictured with at least one white cow. His love of cows was a way of showing how important they were and are to us.
Lord Krishna’s stealing of the butter is an important allegory for us. In the story, a young Krishna was sad that his friends were going hungry. So, he would sneak into the milkmaids’ homes and steal the butter for them (and a little for himself as well). Even though the milkmaids were angry at him for the theft, they loved him too much to stay that way. The story teaches us that by his stealing the villager’s butter, he answered their prayers and stole their hearts. Just as he can answer our prayers and steal our hearts.
Because of the sacredness of cows, in many parts of India it is illegal to kill a cow for any reason, but especially for the meat. Which is why there are often cows just roaming around freely, even in large cities. In writings by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, a 16th-century Hindu mystic, he says, “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.”
Even though we make up a significant percentage of the Indian population, not everyone in India is Hindu. In fact, there are people in India who eat beef. There are about 200 million Muslims in India who eat beef as part of their diet. As a minority population, they often face severe retributions for their choice of diet. There are even bands of vigilantes who try to protect cows at whatever the cost.
As far back as 1947, Mahatma Gandhi received requests for a ban on beef in India. While he said that he had dedicated his life to the sanctity of the cow, he couldn’t impose his beliefs on other religions that felt differently. He believed that all religions had a right to practice as they saw fit and persecuting the Muslims for believing something different didn’t do anyone any good. This is why there isn’t a full ban on beef across India.
Vegetarianism and Hinduism
Because of our belief that killing cows for meat is wrong, many assume that we lead a vegetarian way of life. This isn’t actually true. While some Hindus are, in fact, vegetarian, many of us are not. In fact, it’s estimated that out of all the Hindus in India, 71% of us are not practicing vegetarians. Still, with 30% of India identifying as vegetarian, it’s understandable why people would think we don’t eat meat.
Of those who prefer to not eat meat, most are often found in the same geographical regions, like near the border with Pakistan. In that region there are other religions who prefer a plant-based diet, like Jainists and Sikhs.
Even though there isn’t any rule saying we can’t eat meat, there are Hindu scriptures that advocate a vegetarian way of life. For example, the Tirukkural is a classic text from the Tamil people of Southern India and Sri Lanka. Written in the 1800s, it is a relatively recent Hindu text that states, “How can someone possess kindness, if one eats meat from another body to grow one’s own body?”
Yoga, another Hindu practice, has its own thoughts on vegetarianism. The Eight Limbs of Yoga gives us a road map to peace and enlightenment. The first two limbs are called Yamas and Niyamas. Think of them as the “do’s and don’ts” that need to be followed as we continue our journey to enlightenment. The very first of the eight Yamas is Ahimsa, which means “non-violence.”
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, considered by many to be one of the most important works on yoga philosophy written, Patanjali states about Ahimsa, “When you stop harming others, others will cease to harm you.” This is interpreted in different ways. While most of us think this means making sure you don’t hurt other people, others of us extend this to all living creatures.
Some of us also consider the third Yama of Asteya (non-stealing) to be another important reason to become vegetarian. We argue that the meat and dairy industries steal from the animals: milk, wool, furs, and meat. We believe that by not supporting the industries that steal from these animals, we are practicing Asteya. However, while many of us chose to interpret the sutras this way, the reality is the sutras don’t say that eating meat is a terrible thing.
Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old Hindu medicine tradition, also takes an “it depends” approach. In Ayurveda, we are diagnosed with at least one primary dosha, although everyone has all three in varying amounts. The doshas are Vata, or air; Pitta, or fire; and Kapha, or earth. We become unhealthy when our doshas become unbalanced. So, what can make one person feel healthy and happy can make another person feel terrible. Those of us who are Vatas or Pittas tend to do well with some meat in our diet, while Kaphas tend to flourish as vegetarians.
With most Hindus living in India, much confusion and mystery surrounds our practice. While some of our traditions, like yoga and Ayurveda, have made their way to the west, both practices have changed greatly and are often vastly different than our original Indian traditions. In the end, our respect for life and a desire to live according to God’s rules is something that everyone can understand and respect.
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