The sanctity of the cow is perhaps the foremost sentiment of Hindus for whom this sacred animal has far deeper nuances in Indian culture and ethos than is generally understood. For instance, in Sanskrit, the vocabulary used to mention the cow is indeed staggering, revealing the extraordinary importance that was once attached to it.
Indian scriptures tell us that the cow is a gift of the gods to the human race. It is a celestial being born of the churning of the cosmic ocean. Guias the cow is called in Hindi, is symbolic of Earth itself (similar to Gaia,the Greek goddess of earth). It follows that the cow represents the Divine Mother that sustains all human beings and brings them up as her very own offspring. Much as a mother shows the highest mark of affection for her young, the passion of the cow for her calf is just as legendary and often referred to in Indian literature. In fact, the cow is even more than a mother in the sense that it fulfills all the needs of her children as well. It is in this conception that the cow is understood as Kamadhenu, the wish filling mythical cow, abode of the 330 million Indian gods and goddesses.
But in Indian mythology and legend, it is with the cult of Krishna that the cow is closely connected. Among other deeds, Krishna is said to have lifted mount Govardhan to protect his group of cows, cowboys and milkmaids. In popular imagination it is Lord Krishna who symbolized the relationship man should have for the cow. Hence to take care of this innocent and self-sacrificing animal is a matter of virtue for Hindus who identify the act as dharma or moral duty.
Considerations of conscience aside, it was natural that in a predominantly agricultural and pastoral country like India, cows were and to some extent still are, considered to be the real wealth of the people. After all it is the cow that gives birth to the bulls, bulls that are harnessed to plough the fields and to provide transportation. And then of course, there is the mild-milk that is cultured to become yoghurt--yoghurt which is churned to produce butter--butter which is converted into ghee or clarified butter that in India is used as cooking medium and also used in HAWAN-the holy process for god’s happiness in presence of fire. In addition to this, there is paneer or cottage cheese and butter-milk. Indians cannot forget khoya and mana- the other milk derivatives used in preparation of sweets. No wonder the cow is considered the backbone of rural society.
Paeans of praise are reserved for cow's milk and ghee which is considered to be an elixir. Dr. D. Bhandari, the former Director of Animal Husbandry in Rajasthan said, "You see it is the wonderful bacterial flora of the cow's stomach that imparts this matchless quality to its milk ideally balanced for humans. Buffalo milk may be richer but it is the cow's milk that sharpens intellect, gives swiftness of body, stability of emotions and a serene nature to the one who drinks it."
Also taken, but in measured quantities, is cow urine or gau mutra which has a unique place in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine. Commenting on the chemistry of gau mutra, Dr. C.H.S. Shastry, Director of the National Institute of Ayurveda said, "Cow urine is used to produce a whole range of ayurvedic drugs, especially to treat skin diseases like eczema." Besides, gau mutra is a well known disinfectant. Anti-septic property is also the attribute of cow dung or gobar which is mixed with clay to form a plastering medium for mud huts. It is a proven fact that mud huts plastered with gobar keeps insects and reptiles away. This is the reason why people in the countryside still store grain in huge earthen pots plastered with gobar and gau mutra to keep it free from insect manifestations.
Gobar and gau mutra is also mixed with mud and straw to make dried cakes that fuel kitchen fires. Traditional wisdom says that in burning these cow dung cakes, the temperature never rises beyond a certain point, ensuring the nutrients in the food are not destroyed by overheating. Besides, the smoke of gobar clears the air of germs. Gobar has also been successfully used to produce bio-gas and generate electricity for consumer use. Scientific studies show that gobar has been found to be resistant to solar radiation. And of course, gobar mixed with gau mutra makes for excellent manure and a natural pesticide. Modern day ecologists are saying that as compared to chemical fertilizer which damages the land in the long run, gobar actually improves the health of the soil. It isn't hard to see why Indian mythology says that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, resides in cow's gobar.
Usefulness of the cow forms the subject matter of an essay every child in India gets to write in primary school. The children are told that even in dying, the cow gives us its hide which is prised for its softness. Besides the leather, the cow also gives its horns and bones and other parts of the body like intestines which have various uses. However, there are other benefits of the cow which are beyond the purvey of scientific scrutiny. Sages tell us that no matter how advanced instrumentation may become, man will never be able to unravel the subtlety of the cow's qualities which are sung in the scriptures.
It isn't surprising that the cow is then actually worshipped. Big and small, there are many festivals all over India which are dedicated to the worship of the cow but none is as important as the Gopashtami celebrated with great fanfare especially in rural India. Besides the festivals there are also fairs all over the Indian countryside where along with cows, colorful cow jewelry and clothing is also sold.
But the romance of the cow is at dusk or what Indians call the hour of Gaudhuli--literally "cow dust." There is a mystique in the tinkling of cow bells as herds return from the days foraging, kicking up a clouds of dust just when the sun is going down. This is a special time, considered auspicious especially for marriages. So intimate is the cow's association with the lives of Hindus that in all the rites of passage of life, almost from conception to cremation, the cow is connected to ceremony and ritual.
Perhaps the most significant tribute to the cow is paid during heavan or the formal fire ritual conducted by a priest. No heavan is said to be complete without the presence of panchgavya or the five gifts of the cow, namely milk, yoghurt, ghee, gobar,and gau mutra. In the Hindu world view, to give cow clarity or gau daan is considered the highest act of piety.
If you cannot afford to give a cow in charity, you can certainly feed one. At an individual level, people routinely feed the cows- especially the wandering ones in the streets. But what is unique to India are several institutions that look after the cow, chief among them is the Gaushala or "House of the Cow." Conceptually different from the dairy, the gaushalas,the gau sadans, the panjara pols etc., maintain even the non-milking, old and sick cows along with those that are physically handicapped and need human care and attention for survival. Mr. Ramavtar Aggarwal, Office Secretary of the All India Gaushala Federation said that there are more than 3000 Gaushalas in India which are charitable trusts managed by public funds. There are many other institutions that also look after the interests of the cow. Rajpurohit Seva Sansthan Gaushala is one of them.
Role of Cows in Rural Economy