The Paradox of the Holy Cow

Narendra Modi — then Chief Minister of Gujarat — feeds a cow at an agricultural fair in Dohad, May 2013.

In 2001, Indian historian D.N. Jha published a monograph that meticulously documented what scholars of India had long known: early Hindus slaughtered cattle for both food and ritual, and the cow was not widely regarded as sacred until the modern era. Written in the context of the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP, which sought to blame Muslims for introducing beef eating to India, the book became enormously controversial, and its opponents succeeded in obtaining a court order to prevent its distribution on grounds of blasphemy. In 2002, Verso issued a world edition of The Myth of the Holy Cow

"Most Hindus today are guided by a religious concern for cow protection," Jha writes. 

Therefore an average Indian, rooted in what appears to him as his traditional Hindu religious heritage, carries the load of the misconception that his ancestors, especially the Vedic Aryans, attached great importance to the cow on account of its inherent sacredness. The sacred’ cow has come to be considered a symbol of community identity of the Hindus whose cultural tradition is often imagined as threatened by Muslims, who are thought of as beef eaters. The sanctity of the cow has, therefore, been announced with the flourish of trumpets and has been wrongly traced back to the Vedas, which are supposedly of divine origin and the fountainhead of all knowledge and wisdom. In other words, some sections of Indian society trace the concept of sacred cow to the very period when it was sacrificed and its flesh was eaten.

More importantly, the cow has tended to become a political instrument in the hands of rulers over time...the cow became a tool of mass political mobilization when the organized Hindu cow-protection movement, beginning with the Sikh Kuka (or Namdhari) sect in the Punjab around 1870 and later strengthened by the foundation of the first Gorakshini Sabha in 1882 by Dayanananda Sarasvati, made this animal a symbol of the unity of a wide ranging people, challenged the Muslim practice of its slaughter and provoked a series of serious communal riots in the 1880s and 1890s. Although attitudes to cow killing had hardened even earlier, there was undoubtedly a "dramatic intensification" of the cow protection movement when in 1888 the North-Western Provinces High Court decreed that a cow was not a sacred object. Not surprisingly, cow slaughter very often became the pretext of Hindu-Muslim riots.

In the excerpt below, Jha describes the contradictions of the purificatory role of cows in early Brāhmaņical society.

Most of the legal texts and religious digests accord to the cow a status higher than they do to other cattle and say it is not to be killed in the kaliyuga. The intention of their authors may have been to discourage a practice they saw prevailing around them. Perhaps this may partially explain why the killing of the cow or ox figures as a sin in religious texts even when the Vedas, Brāhmaņas, and Upanişads do not include cattle killing in the list of sins or moral transgressions. Yāska explains a Rgvedic passage (X.5.6) by enumerating seven sins, but this list does not include cattle killing. Similarly the Brāhmaņa texts and the Upanişads do not mention the killing of the kine as a sin. Although the killing of a brāhmaņa (brahmahatyā), theft (steya), drinking of liquor (surāpāna), sexual intercourse with a teacher's wife (guruanganāgama), and association with those guilty of these offences are listed as the gravest sins (mahāpātaka), the killing of the cow, despite the high status it is said to have enjoyed, is not mentioned as a major offence. The slaying of kine has been viewed as a minor sin (upapātaka) by almost all the lawgivers. It is first mentioned as a minor sin (upapātaka) in the Dharmasūtras 3 but more frequently in the Smrtis and later commentaries, which also lay down rules and procedures for its atonement. Manut and Yajñavalkya, despite their approval of ritual slaughter of cattle lay down elaborate penances for the killer of the cow, and the term goghna used by Pānini in the sense of an honoured guest now came to acquire the pejorative meaning of a cow killer. Yet, paradoxical though it may seem, the lawgivers do not classify slaying of cow as a major offence (mahāpātaka).

Lawgivers from Manu onwards are generally unanimous in describing cow killing as a minor sin, but do not lay down a uniform penalty for the cow killer. Parāśara, who belongs to the early medieval period, prescribes the prājāpatya penance (govadhasyā’nurūpena prājāpatyam vinirdiset), and assures us that by feeding brāhmaņas a killer of cattle is bound to become pure (brāhmanān bhojayitvā tu goghnaḥ suddhyenna samśayah). 7 According to a passage of the Šankhalikhitasmrti, another later legal work, the killer of the cow should fast for twenty-five days and nights, subsisting on the five products of the cow (pañcagavya), 8 tonsure his head and wear a top-knot, wear cow-hide as an upper garment, follow cows, lie down in a cow-pen and donate a cow. Attention has also been drawn to the fact that the penance for cow killing (govadha) differed according to the caste of the owner of the cow, especially in the later law books and digests. 10 If the cow belonged to a brāhmaņa, its killer would incur greater sin than if it were possessed by a non-brāhmaņa. Later exegetical writings, in fact, emphasize the superiority of the brāhmaņa's cow. Vijñāneśvara (AD 1100) raises this question in interpreting Yajñavalkya (III. 263) and explains it by arguing that since, according to Nārada, the property of the brāhmaņas is the highest, a heavy punishment is necessary for killing a brāhmana’s cow 11 — a view which also finds support in the early seveteenth century from Mitra Miśra. 12 Although this reminds us of the Vedic period when the brāhmaņa’s cow may have achieved a certain degree of inviolability on account of the animal being the ideal dakşinā, the Dharmaśāstric texts do not look on cow killing as a major sin even when the victim belonged to a brāhmana. On the contrary some texts consider it no more than a minor indecorous act. For example Atri, an early medieval lawgiver, equates beef eating with such acts as cleaning one's teeth with one's fingers and eating only salt or soil 13 and with drinking water from the aştaśalli(?) with one's hand. 14 Several other early medieval lawgivers like Sātātapa and Vrddhavasiştha quoted by Devaņņabhaţţa (early thirteenth century) 15 expressed more or less similar views. Thus even within brähmaņa circles there is divergence of attitudes towards cow slaughter and, despite the ban on it during the kali age, the offence was not considered serious enough to be classed among the major sins.

The Paradox of Purification

No one would question the fact that practice of eating animal food has continued to our own times and that the memory of the ancient tradition of cow killing persisted till very late in the minds of people, so much so that it is reflected as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in religious digests and commentaries on Dharmasāstra texts as well as on some classical Sanskrit literary works. But it is equally true that the cow has played a purificatory role in Brāhmaņical society from very early times.

As early as the Rgveda, cow's milk and milk products appear to have been used in rituals and ceremonies 16 and the use of the term kāmadugha for cow in the sense of "milking desires" or "yielding objects of desire like milk" or "yielding what one wishes" in the Atharvaveda, Taittirīya Samhitā, and Satapatha Brāhmana may imply a tendency to look upon the animal as a giver of plenty. 17 Although the cow of plenty had not achieved the sanctity assigned to it in modern times, the literature of the post-Vedic period provides clearer indications of the purificatory role of the products of the cow. Apart from textual references to the ritual use of cow's milk and milk products, we now come across the use of other derivatives either for purification or for the expiation of a sin. For instance, cow dung was smeared on the sacrificial altar 18 and ghee was used to purify men. 19 According to Baudhāyana, the land becomes pure when cows walk on it 20 and drinking gruel of barley that has passed through a cow is a meritorious act. 21 Baudhāyana treats cowpens as sacred places and cow dung as effective in removing defilement. 23 A mere touch of cow dung, he tells us, cleanses a man 24 and metal objects can be cleaned by smearing with cow dung or by immersing in cow's urine. 25 The dung and urine of the cow along with milk, curds, and clarified butter, which seem to have acquired significance from the Vedic period onwards owing to their use in rituals and sacrifice, figure as pañcagaiya (five products of the cow) first in the Dharmasūtra of Baudhāyana 26 and continue to find mention in subsequent legal texts in various contexts. 27 References to the purifying abilities of the cow and its derivatives, however, multiply in subsequent times. The Vasiștha Dharmasūtra makes several rererences to the purificatory use of the products of the cow (separately as well as in mixture), the pañcagavya, sometimes also called brahmakūrca. 28 Manu recommends the swallowing of pañcagavya as atonement for stealing food, a vehicle, a bed, a seat, flowers, roots, or fruit 29 and refers to a penance called samtāpanakrcchra in which subsistence on the five products of the cow and a decoction of kuśa grass was prescribed. 30 His near contemporary, Vişnu, mentions pañcagavya more frequently, 31 though he also adds another derivative of the cow and calls it gorocanā, 32 which is taken to mean a yellow pigment prepared from the urine or bile of the cow. 33 Yājñavalkya refers to the products of the cow (pañcagavya) as having purificatory powers 34 and Nārada mentions the cow among eight sacred objects. 35 The law books, especially the later ones, 36 lay down different rules for the preparation of the pañcagavya, but are unanimous about its role in purification and in the expiation of sin. However, some lawgivers do not permit its use by members of lower castes. Vișnu clearly states that if a śūdra drinks pañcagavya he goes to hell. 37 The lawgiver Atri 38 repeats this view in the early medieval period, though according to Devala 39 and Parāśara, 40 śūdras and women may take it without Vedic mantras. Nandapandita, a seventeenth-century commentator on the law book of Vişnu, however, quotes an anonymous Smrti passage to justify the exclusion of śūdras and women from its use. 41 The divergence of opinion on the minor details about the use of pañcagavya by different castes indicates a linkage between the highly stratified social structure and the idea of purification. But the fact remains that the Dharmaśāstras unanimously recognize the indispensability of the five products of the cow for purification and expiation and accord them a place of importance in the ritual arena.

Mention of the five products of the cow (pañcagavya) as well as its sixth derivative, gorocanā, is also found in the classical Indian medical treatises of Caraka, Suśruta, and Vāgbhața. Caraka, for example, recommends the use of pañcagavya, among other things, in high fever 42 and advises that pañcagaiyaghrta 43 and mahāpañcagavyaghrta 44 should be used in fever and several other ailments. He also speaks of the curative powers of the urine (gomūtra) 45 and bile (gorocanā) 46 of the cow just as Vāgbhața mentions them much later in the seventh century. 47 Despite this textual evidence, it nevertheless remains arguable if the pañcagavya gained importance as a ritual purificant on account of its supposed medicinal properties.

Equally doubtful is the suggestion of some scholars that pañcāmrta is a modern substitute for pañcagavya. 48 The pañcāmrta (five nectars) is a mixture of milk, curds, clarified butter, sugar and honey and is often used for bathing the idol, the leftovers of the material being used as an offering to the deity. 49 The earliest reference to it is found in the Baudhāyanagrhyaśeṣasūtra, 50 which may belong to the early centuries of the Christian era when sacrifice was gradually being replaced by deity worship (pūjā). Scholars have also noted the occurrence of pañcāmrta in later texts. 51 It appears therefore that the idea of pañcāmrta developed independently of that of the pañcagavya, and the one cannot be treated as a substitute for the other.

Whatever be the history of the concept of pañcagavya, there is no doubt that it has continued to play an important role in both purificatory and expiatory rites, even if some law books do not permit śūdras and women to use it. But the Dharmaśāstras also provide enough evidence, to disprove the purity of the cow. Manu states that food smelt by a cow has to be purified by putting earth on it 52 — a statement repeated by Vişnu 53 and indirectly supported by Vasiştha who states that the back of a cow is pure. 54 According to Yājñavalkya also, the food smelt by the cow has to be purified. 55 He adds that the mouths of goats and horses are pure but that of a cow is not; nor is human excrement. 56 Among the later lawgivers Angīrasa categorically asserts that bronze vessels smelt by the cow or touched by a crow and those in which a śudra has eaten, are to be purified by rubbing them with ashes for ten days 57 — a view repeated by Parāśara 58 and Vyāsa. 59 Šaikha goes to the extent of saying that all the limbs of the cow are pure except her mouth. 60 The Dharmaśāstra view of the impurity of the mouth of a cow is also reflected in commentaries of the early medieval period and subsequent times. Medhātithi (AD 900), for example, commenting on the crucial passage of Manu, repeats the view that a cow is holy in all limbs except her mouth (gāvo medhyā mukhād-rte). 61 Similarly Vijñāneśvara (AD 1100) and Mitra Miśra (seventeenth century) state that all eatables smelt by the cow need to be purified. 62 In fact there is no lawgiver who describes the mouth of the cow as pure, though, like several other domesticated animals, the cow is a herbivore.

It appears therefore that the idea of the impurity of the cow's mouth developed from the post-Vedic period onwards and is found in almost all the law books. It finds an echo in the popular Purānic legend about the god Vişnu who cursed Kāmadhenu so that her mouth should be impure and her tail held holy forever. 63 Although a Brāhmaņical concoction, this myth was intended to rationalize the Dharmaśāstric view for which there appears no logical basis. A late nineteenth-century account, in fact, refers to a brāhmaņa priest waving a wild cow's tail over his clients to scare away demons while they were bathing in the sacred pool at Hardwar, 64 and it is difficult to imagine how one could get the tail of the animal without killing it. It appears from all this that the notion of purity of the products of the cow goes hand in hand with that of the impurity of its mouth. This contradiction, deeply rooted in the Dharmaśāstric portrayal of the cow, is irreconcilable.


1. P.V. Kane, History of Dharmaśāstra, Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, Poona, 1973, III, p. 613.

2. For a discussion of mahāpātaka see ibid., Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, Poona, 1973, IV, section I.

3. S.C. Banerji, Dharma-Sūtras: A Study in their Origin and Development, Punthi Pustak, Calcutta, p. 96; P.V. Kane, op. cit., IV, p. 32.

4. Manu, XI.108-16.

5. Yāj., III.263-4.

6. Pārāśara, VIII.44.

7. Ibid., VIII. 49-50.

8. These are milk, curds, ghee, urine and dung.

9. Kane, op. cit., IV, p. 108.

10. Ibid., pp. 107-10.

11. katham punarbrāhmanagavīnām gurutvam? 'devabrāhmanarājñām tu vijñeyaṁ dravyamuttamam' iti nāradena taddraryasyottamatvābhidhānāt, goșu brāhmanasansthāsviti dandabhūyastvadarśanācca/Mitākşarā on Yāj. III.263, see Yājñavalkyasmrti, ed. Gagasagar Rai, Chowkhambha Sanskrit Pratisthan, Delhi, 1998, p. 518.

12. Yājñavalkyasmrti, English tr. With notes, J.R. Gharpure, Bombay, 1936, p. 1825.

13. angulya damtakõtham ca tratyaksam laoạnam tatha/mrttikābhakṣaṇam caiva tulyam gomāmsabhakșanam//Atri, 314. Also see Attri, 315.

14. aştaśalyāgato niram pāņinā pibate dvijah/ surāpānena tattulyam tulyam gomāmsabhakşanam//Atri, 388.

15. hastadattãmi cũnmãmi tratyakẹalacanam tatha/ mrttikābhakşanam caiva gomāmsāśanavatsmrtam//Sātātapa ghrtam vā yadi vā tailam vipro nādyānnakhcyutam/ yamastamasucim prāha tulyam gomāmsabhakșane/ / Vrddhavasiștha. Devaņnabhaţţa in his Smrticandrikā (Āhnikakānɖa, ed. L. Srinivasacharya, Mysore, Government Oriental Library Series, 1914, p. 604) quotes both the passages. Also see Śrāddhakānda, p. 224.

16. Frederick J. Simoons, "The Purificatory Role of the Five Products of the Cow in Hinduism," Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 3 (1974), p. 29.

17. For early occurrences of kāmadugha and kāmaduḥ see Otto Böthlink and Rudolph Roth, Sanskrit-Wörterbuch, rpt. MeichoFukyu-Kai, Tokyo, 1976 and M. Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, new edn., Indian rpt., Motilal Banarsidass, 1963. In later texts, however, the two terms are often used for the desire fulfilling cow or celestial cow.

18. SB, XII.4.4.1.

19. SB, II.1.2.11.

20. BaudhDS, I.6.19.

21. Ibid., III.13.

22. Ibid., II.5.8.; III.10.12. Also VasișthaDS, XXII.12.

23. Ibid.,

24. Ibid., I.5.10.17.

25. Ibid.,,7.

26. Ibid.,; IV.5.11-25.

27. The word pañcagavya is usually interpreted to mean the five products of the cow, listed above (n. 8). See the Sanskrit dictionaries of Böthlink-Roth, M. Monier-Williams, V.S. Apte and K. Mylius, s.v. pañcagavya; also Sabdakalpadruma, s.v. pañcagavya. Atri, 115 and 296, Mitākşarā on Yāj. III.263. Some law books add kusodaka (kuśa water) to this list of five products. According to one interpretation the term means a decoction of kuśa grass and according to another, it stands for "water mixed with kuśa grass." Shingo Einoo agrees with the second interpretation. He also suggests that despite the inclusion of kuśa water in the pañcagavya as its sixth ingredient, the term came to denote only the five products of the cow in course of time (Shingo Einoo, "Notes on the Initiation Rites in the Grhyaparišiştas," unpublished manuscript, n. 19).

28. VasisthaDS, III.56; XIII, 12; XXVII. 13-14. For a discussion of brahmakūrca see Kane, op. cit., IV, pp. 146-7.

29. Manu, XI.166.

30. Ibid., XI.213.

31. Visnu, XXII.18, 79, 88; XXIII.45; XLVI.19; LI.47; LIV.6-7, etc.

32. Ibid., XXIII.58-9.

33. V.S. Apte, The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, s.v. gorocanā.

34. Yāj. III.263.

35. Nārada, XVIII.54.

36. E.g., Pārāśara, XI.28-34; Devala, 62-5, Laghuśātātapa, 158-62, etc., cited in Kane, op. cit., II, pt. 2, pp. 773-4.

37. Vişnu, LIV.7.

38. pañcagavyam pibet śūdro brāhmanastu surām pibet/ubhau tau tulyadoșau ca vasato narake ciram/Atri, 297.

39. strīnām caiva tu surāņām patitānām tathaiva ca/pañcagaiyam na dātavyam dātavyam mantravarjitam// Devala, 61.

40. Pārāśara, XI.7, 28.

41. SBE II, p. 175 n. 7.

42. pañcagavyasya payasah prayogo vișamajvare, Caraka, cikitsā, III. 303; pañcagavyam mahātiktam kalyānakamathāpi vā/snehanārtham ghrtam dadyāt kāmalāpāndurogine//Ibid., XVI. 43.

43. Ibid., X.17.

44. Ibid., X.18-24

45. Ibid., V.96, 178; VII.87. The text refers to the therapeutic use of the urine of several other animals like buffalo, goat and sheep (Caraka, vimāna, VIII. 136).

46. Caraka, cikitsā, VII. 87.

47. Aștāṁga Hrdayam of Vāgbhața, text, Eng. tr. notes, appendix and indices by K.R. Srikantha Murthy, vol. I, 3rd edn., Krishnadas Academy, Varanasi, 1996, Appendix, p. 476.

48. S. Stevenson, The Rites of the Twice-Born, Oxford University Press, London, 1920, p. 166; L.S.S. O’Malley, Indian Caste Customs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1932, p. 75; J.H. Hutton, Caste in India, 4th edn., Oxford University Press, London, 1963, p. 108. For a more recent statement on the point see Frederick J. Simoons, "The Purificatory Role of the Five Products of the Cow in Hinduism," op. cit., p. 30.

49. P.V. Kane, op. cit., II, pt. 2, p. 731; Gudrun Bühnemann, Pūjā: A Study in Smārta Ritual, Gerald & Co., Vienna, 1988, p. 139f.

50. Bodhāyanagrhyaśeṣasūtra, II.20.11. in Bodhāyanagrhyasūtram of Bodhāyana Maharși, ed. L. Srinivasachar and R. Shama Sastri, 3rd edn., Oriental Research Institute, Mysore, 1983 (1st edn.,Mysore, 1904).

51. Saurapurāna by Srimat Vyāsa, ed. Pandita Kasinatha Sastri, Anandasrama Sanskrit Series, Poona, 1889, p. 156.

52. paksijagdham gavāghrātamavadhūtamavakşutam/dūṣitam kesakitaiśca mrtpraksepena śuddhyati// Manu, V.125.

53. VisnuDS, XXIII.38.

54. VasișthaDS, XXVII.9.

55. goghrāte’nne tathā kešamakşikākitadūșite, Yāj, I.189.

56. ajāśvayormukham medhyam na gorna narajā malāh. Yāj, I.194.

57. gavāghrātāni kāṁsyāni sūdrocchiștāni yāni tu/bhasmamũ dasabhih suddhyetkãRemopahate tathă/ /Angirasa, 43.

58. Pārāśara, VII.25.

59. Vyasa, III.53.

60. Sankha, XVI.14. Cf. ibid., XVII.45.

61. P.V. Kane, op. cit., II, pt. 2, p. 775.

62. See Mitākşarā and Viramitrodaya on Yāj. I.189.

63. William Crooke (The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India, II, 2nd edn., 4th Indian rpt., Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1974, p. 233). But the Skanda Purāna provides a different version of the story: Once Śiva's fiery linga grew speedily. Curious, Brahmā tried to ascend to the top of it, but without success. While coming down he saw Surabhi (the divine cow) standing in the shade of the ketaki tree on Mt. Meru. On her advice Brahmā told a lie to the gods that he saw the top of the linga and produced Surabhi and Ketaki as witnesses. Thereupon a voice from the sky cursed Brahmā, Ketaki, and Surabhi that they would not be worshipped. A variation of the legend occurs in the Brahma Purāna (S.A. Dange, Encyclopaedia of Purānic Beliefs and Practices, I, Navrang, Delhi, 1986, p. 201). The name Kāmadhenu, also known as Surabhi and Nandini, does not occur in the Vedic texts but is mentioned in various contexts in later works especially the epics and the Purāņas (Vettam Mani, Puranic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1984, s.v. Kāmadhenu.

64. William Crooke, The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India, II, pp. 232-3.