There is no holy cow in the Vedas

In Vedic mythology we come across the story of sage Trita looking for fire and finding it in the head of a cow. Today we face a really big and scorching fire ensuing from bovines in India. Cows, we are told, are worshipped by Hindus and cow slaughter is therefore a religiously sensitive subject. Dalits and non-Hindus have been severely tortured or killed on suspicion of  cow slaughter by such sensitive people.

Holy Cow

Let us see what the laws and constitution of our secular state as well as the religion claimed to be that of the majority of India’s population, have to say about cow slaughter.

In the Constitution of India, prohibition of cow slaughter is included in the Directive Principles of State Policy (guidelines to the central and state government for framing policies, not enforceable in any court of law). The directives on cow slaughter are recorded in Article 48 which reads
“The state shall endeavor to organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds and prohibiting the slaughter of cows, calves and other milch and draught cattle” (Directive Principles of State Policy, Ministry of Law and Justice).

This makes it clear that, India being secular, the Directive Principles of the Constitution are not against the slaughter of cows, but of milch cattle in general, and not for religious but for economic reasons. The term ‘milch cattle’ includes cows, buffaloes as well as goats. India consumes much more of buffalo milk as compared to cow milk. Also, since more than 65% of the world population drinks goat milk, it is highly possible that large proportion of Indians also drink goat milk.

The Central government, in a letter dated 20th December 1950, directed the state governments not to introduce total prohibition on cow slaughter, stating economic reasons[i] (DAHD, 2002, para. 64). Again, in 1995, the government of India stated before the Supreme Court that the central government was encouraging development of livestock resources and their efficient utilization which included production of quality meat for export as well as for the domestic market (DAHD, 2002, para. 65). In recent decades, the government also started giving grants and loans for setting up modern slaughter houses (Ministry of Food Processing Industries, n.d.).

In several cases, the Supreme Court has held that “a total ban (on cattle slaughter) was not permissible if, under economic conditions, keeping useless bull or bullock be a burden on the society and therefore not in the public interest” (DAHD, 2002, para. 124).
So much for the legal standing on cow slaughter in the Constitution of India.

We now turn to Hinduism. This religion is called a Vaidik Dharma. The Vedas, on which Hinduism claims to be based, are called ‘Shruti’ or ‘the word of God’, and are considered as the final authority by Hindus. The later Sanskrit books like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata, Manusmriti, etc. are known as ‘Smriti’ or ‘whatever is remembered’, and as such are less authoritative. When there is any discrepancy between the opinion of the Vedas and these later books, the word of the Vedas is held to be correct, according to all the great Hindu authorities including the Adya Shankaracharya.

A short digression into the history of Hinduism in India
‘Hinduism’ is definitely not the original name of the religion followed by the majority of Indians. In fact it has no name except the descriptive ‘Vedic religion’. It is not pure ‘Aryan religion’. It is an amalgamation of the Aryan religion and the non-Aryan religions of the Panis, Asuras, Rakshasas and Nagas, communities who lived in India at the time.

The time we are referring to is supposed to be around 2000 B.C. The Aryan King Sudas, his priest-prime minister Vasishtha and their Aryan tribe had long established themselves in Punjab (then called Sapta Sindhu) after fighting the non-Aryan communities of India. They hated their neighbouring non-Aryan Panis, who were the business community of Sindh and Gujarat (the Mohenjodaro/ Harappa region). This was the time when Vishwamitra and his clan migrated from Europe to India as refugees of a war [ii], and sought help from Vasishtha. Vasishtha was constrained to take help from his enemies, the Panis, who, perhaps surprisingly, were even then ready to help.

The fact that he received support from this non-Aryan community, in re-settling his refugee Aryan brethren who were in trouble, caused Vasishtha to rethink his hostile attitude towards the non-Aryans. He reconsidered his prejudice towards the non-Aryans and their religion, and began accepting non-Aryan deities within the Aryan pantheon (Rigveda7.86 [2-7]).

We may therefore consider the Hindu religion as the one which was established by Vasishtha, and was based on mutual acceptance of different cultures and communities. Its time almost coincides with the time of the great king Bharata, the son of Vishwamitra’s daughter, after whom India (Bhaarata) has been named. We can call this period the golden period of the Vedic age.

Vasishtha started interacting with the people of ‘Div’, which seems to have been the capital of Gujarat at the time [iii].  He decided to accept their non-Aryan god, Shankara, into the Aryan pantheon, and started offering oblations to him in his sacrifices (Rig Veda. 7.88 – [verses 1 and 2]). Slowly, idol-worship was also accepted. Vasishtha worked hard for the unity of religions. Thus started a neo-Aryanism in India which is now known as Hinduism, where Aryan gods such as Brahma and Vishnu formed a tri-murti with the non-Aryan god Shankar, and where havans or yajnas were performed for the non-Aryan temple-goddess, the mother-form of the creator, the Yoga-maya of Mohenjodaro. The female form of Maha Kala (Time Eternal) – the Maha Kali, the Creator Mother as well as the Destroyer of the universe, seems to be a mix-formation of the Aryan Aditi and the Mohenjodaro Maha-maya. The Pani, Rakshasa, Naga gods became Hindu gods, and acceptance of all religions became the rule of the day.

Thus, Hinduism was formed on the basis of “no fighting over religions”. That was its main rule or its cornerstone.

The possible origins of the cow as a sacred animal
The root cause of the belief that cows cannot be killed is the Rigvedic use of the word ‘Aghnyaa’ (meaning ‘not to be killed’). The later generation of Hindus mistakenly thought that this refers to cows in general, which it does not. The Rig Veda, like our Constitution, only recommends that young milch cows should be considered ‘Aghnyaa’ or ‘not to be slaughtered’, for economic reasons, and specifically states that those animals which are of no use have to be killed (Rigveda[10.95(6)]). The cattle-protection laws in most of the Indian states also rule the same way.
The Rigveda has never used the word ‘mother’ for a cow. To the people of the Rig Veda, a cow was identical with wealth, and there was no Lakshmi-worship in those days. Nature and creation were worshipped, while wealth and cows were mundane, and therefore only had a utility value.  If the word ‘go’ in Sanskrit means ‘earth’ and ‘speech’ in addition to ‘cow’ it is not to show that the cow is sacred. The root of the word is ‘gam’ meaning ‘to go/ to depart’ – we note that the word is identical in English and in Sanskrit. The word ‘gam’ can be connected to all three words i.e. ‘earth’ is what you walk on, ‘speech’ is that by which your thoughts can go to others, and a pet cow ‘goes where you lead her’ (a well-known proverb in Gujarati).

Some ideas that entered the later Hindu religion seem to have been the cause of the belief that cows are sacred.

  1. The Pauranic story of Prithu Vainya and the earth in the form of a cow.
  2. The Mohenjodaro Bull later became Nandi, the pet and vehicle of Mahadeva.
  3. The historic figure of Krishna was confused with that of an Abhir cowherd god.

The Prithu Vainya story tells us that the earth turned into a cow, which king Prithu milked. The real history behind the story could be only that King Prithu developed agriculture to high productivity in his time, so that he ‘milked’ the earth of its maximum yield. The word ‘go’ in Sanskrit has, as explained above, two meanings apart from the well-known meaning as ‘cow’. This is probably what led the story teller to identify mother earth with the cow. A religious story-teller (kathakar) in India has always been a professional, earning his bread through stories (kathas), and so has had to make his story interesting to the public. Unfortunately these Pauranic kathakars are not in the habit of writing disclaimers, as the current crop of TV serial writers do, stating that the story is fictitious and ‘any resemblance to real persons is coincidental’. Thus, the public has taken these stories very literally and this at times has led to human slaughter in order to take revenge for a cow’s death. These religious stories which should have held the position of very entertaining ‘Akbar-Birbal’ stories have instead had the position of Akbar’s history in the Hindu mind. Here it must be noted that the Bhagavata Purana tells us (4170251, 2; Srimad Bhagavata Purana, downloaded from that Prithu Vainya said to the earth cow that if she did not give milk, she would have to be killed to supply her beef. Even in the context of the Bhagavata Purana, therefore, there is no question of treating the cow as Aghnyaa (not to be killed).

The other reason behind cow-worship seems to be the Mohenjodaro Bull. Mohenjodaro Bull seals are well known and this bull has in later Hinduism taken the shape of Nandi, the pet and vehicle of Shankar. Late Hinduism has given almost all the gods a pet animal that also serves as their vehicle. Vishnu temples have a Garuda, the Mother Goddess has a tiger and Shankara has a bull. Originally, the non-Aryans had not imagined Shankara in a human form (as the Aryans imagined Indra and other gods). To the non-Aryans, the Creator was formless, and that is why only the linga (phallic symbol) was worshipped as an emblem of Creation. The bull in India has always been associated with production because of its use in agriculture as a draught animal – which was the reason for the bull seals – a metaphoric representation of the Creator. But the non-Aryans never really believed their creator to have a human – or bovine – shape, and though they had bull seals, they never worshipped the cow as mother.

I have come across a curious line in the Rigveda(RV. 10. 87 (16)): “The non-Aryans consecrate with horses’ and bovine paurusheya… through kravis.” This verse has been translated by Saayana and other scholars as “the non-Aryans worship with men’s, horses’ and bovine flesh”. But in order to divine the real meaning of the verse, we need to understand two words here, viz. Kravis and paurusheya.

Kravis’ is a Vedic word, not found in later Sanskrit, and so Saayana and others take it to mean ‘kravya’ or flesh. But the word Kravis can be directly connected with the English ‘crevice’ (pronounced ‘krevis’; old French ‘crevace’; Latin ‘crepare’), meaning a crack or a break. It seems the author is talking about the constant abhishek (worship by sprinkling of water) on a Shiva Linga from the jalaadhaari (a pot with a hole in the bottom) overhead. It is a common sight in the Hindu Shiva temples. The water then flows out through a small open duct attached to the Linga, thus the Linga and the duct combined representing the male sexual organ. As to the second word, paurusheya derived from purusha, or male, the usage is similar to that of the word veerya, meaning semen, from the word veera.

In place of the water used now in Hindu temples, it seems the non-Aryans used real urine and semen, of course, of horses and cows, which was easily available. In RV.7.86 (7), Vasishtha calls Mahadeva a urinating god, or midhusha (midh means ‘pass urine’). This could be further confirmation of the above. When cows began to be considered holy, it was this non-Aryan practice that possibly led Hindus to take cow urine as prasaad. The translation should therefore be: “….horses’ and bovine semen from a crevice” and not “men’s, horses’ and bovine flesh”.
The importance of the cow entered the Hindu religion with full force possibly later, when Krishna began to be worshipped as Vishnu’s incarnation. Let us see the voyage of the historic Krishna to divinity.

Krishna’s journey from human to divine and the bovine connection
The Chhandogya Upanishad (6th century BC) tells us about a historic Krishna Devakiputra, a philosopher and a religious thinker in search of his real ‘Dharma’. His father’s name is not mentioned, nor is his ‘Varna’ (caste). He goes by a matronym, like another historical personality Satyakam Jabal, whose mother had to live with many men and therefore could not inform him who his father was.

In the later literature, as Sharma (2016) writes, this Krishna Devakiputra is identified with Krishna Vasudeva and also an Abhir (Ahir or cowheard community) god, and deified. The Krishna story is thus a mixture of three personalities – a philosopher of ‘Dharma’, a shrewd politician and a cowherd-god. The last aspect seems to have been the main cause of the love and worship of cows in Hinduism. It is a wonder though, why caste Hindus, despite their love and worship of Krishna, did not come to respect the Abhirs and such other so-called ‘lower caste’ communities in the same way as they came to worship the cow.

The use of the word “Aghnyaa”
The word ‘Aghnyaa’ (not to be killed) coined by Rigveda for young milch cows was the main cause of the Hindu misunderstanding that cows or bovines are not to be slaughtered. The fact that the word was used in the Rigvedafor young, milch cows only, and not for bovines in general, was forgotten in later times when the ancient Sanskrit of the Rigveda was no longer understood [iv].

Since the cow was a living divinity, met everywhere in the streets, by touching whom or by sipping whose urine one could easily further one’s step towards heaven, it became a very popular divinity and other words in the Rigvedasimilar in pronunciation to ‘aghnyaa’ also started being interpreted as ‘aghnyaa’ in the Brahminical minds. The Vedas came down through generations by oral recitation, and the students possibly pronounced ‘aghnyaa’ whenever anything similar-sounding was mentioned.

Thus the Rigvedic verse (RV.10.46 (3)) in which later Hinduism has read the story of Tritaa finding fire in the head of an aghnyaa is only an account of how humans started to kindle fire whenever desired. Like Newton seeing the falling apple, Tritaa Vaibhuvas had observed the production of fire by the combustion in the top branches of the Agnus Castus tree (Greek: Agnos, called ‘agnya’ or the agni-producer in Sanskrit here), and this great event has been immortalized in this verse. But our cow-worshippers naturally thought the word was ‘aghnyaa’ and not ‘agnya’. The cow was therefore revered, and Tritaa Vaibhuvas, the man who discovered how to domesticate fire was forgotten.

The Sanskrit of the Vedas
The Hindu religion is laid down in a language that people do not understand, and Vedic Sanskrit especially is very different from even the Sanskrit that is known today. It is the language of the Aryan foreigners who attacked India, and so we find a lot of similarity even between the later Sanskrit and European languages. There are quite a few words in the Rigvedawhich we do not find in later Sanskrit and they can be understood only through European languages. The orthodox Hindus are used to translating and understanding the Rigvedawith the help of the Sayana Bhashya, but due to the limitations of his times, Acharya Sayana naturally found it impossible to understand these words, and has often interpreted them as the name of some god or Rakshasa. This has led to a lot of misinterpretations.

I would like to draw the attention of those who think that Rigvedais best understood with the help of an old Sanskrit authority, to the similarities between English and Sanskrit, by giving a few examples:

Guru (large)To grow
AhamI am
(vedic) Marya (bridegroom)Marriage
Antar (in)Enter

Enough to show that knowledge of Western languages can help us to understand those Vedic words which are not known to the later Sanskritists.

Beef in the Vedas
Since the Hindu sensitivity about beef and cow slaughter has made people turn violent in recent times, it is necessary that they realise what their Vedic religion really is, and that just like physics or chemistry or any other subject, religion also requires to be studied to be understood, and not picked up from hearsay. So let us examine the Vedas to know about the correct situation of the bovine in Hinduism.

As in our constitution, so in the Rig Veda, cow protection is not mandatory but only a directive principle. There is no punishment recommended for a cow slaughterer even if he kills a young milch cow. Beef-eating is also not taboo. Beef parties are not only allowed but highly appreciated, and a person who cooks beef for his guests is praised by the term ‘Atithi-gva’ ‘one who offers beef to guests’. Ritual sacrifice of a bull is a must in worship to the god Indra. Beef parties also seem a regular affair in weddings (RV 10.85).

Cows are not sacred and beef is not forbidden to Hindus. Here is a line from a verse ascribed to the god Savita, the presiding deity of the Gayatri Mantra, describing a dinner party he is hosting: “At night we are going to kill cows” (RV.10.85(19)). RV 10.89 (14) mentions “cows for food, lying scattered on the grounds of a slaughter house”. Mark that the author does not use the word ‘animals’ but ‘cows’, showing that beef was the most popular item, and the cow the most slaughtered animal. RV 10.95(6) says that “old cows which do not give milk” are “only fit to be cooked”. It further states that “useless cows ….are taken to be cooked, but never milch cows”.

It is clear that slaughter houses are not banned, beef is allowed and useless bovines are allowed to be slaughtered in Hinduism. The richas (verses) quoted above show very clearly that the meaning ‘cows in general’ given to the word ‘Aghnyaa’ by later scriptures is wrong. While rivers are respected as mothers in the Rig Veda, because of nature being considered divine, there is not a single line of cow-worship in the more than a thousand verses of the Rig Veda. Bovines are only property and so to be used, as economically as you can, getting milk till you can, and beef when you can no longer get milk.

Now to the Yajurveda (30.18), quoted sometime back in the RSS mouthpiece, Panchajanya[v], as recommending ‘a cow-killer to the gallows’ (Bharadwaj, Indian Express, 2015). The Sanskrit words are “mrityave govyyaccham antakay goghatam…” and the word ‘antaka’ means Death or Yamadeva, hence the above interpretation.

If we accept this interpretation, then we should also note that only four sentences before this, in Yajurveda (30.14, 30.15) we find two more candidates for the gallows. The Yajurveda says “yamayasum, yamayyamasum” – which could also mean “to the gallows a woman who does not deliver a child; to the gallows a woman who delivers twins”! In reality, the line “yamayasum, yamayyamasum”, in 30.14 and 30.15, recommends temporary abstinence from sexual activity for women who deliver no children and those who deliver one pair of twins after another.
Just as 30.14 and 30.15 above have scope for such ridiculous misinterpretation, the text in 30.18 has also been misinterpreted. The word ‘go’ has a second meaning also – ‘speech’ – which I rather think to be more suitable here. The phrase ‘mrityave govyaccham’ means ‘a witness who lies in a murder case’ (mrityave = in case of murder; go = speech; vyaccham = impure). This has nothing whatsoever to do with cows.

Yajurveda is later than Rigveda and quotes from it, teaching us the methodology for Rigvedic sacrifices. It is thus not independent, and so cannot and does not go against the Rig Veda. Therefore, Yajurveda recommending gallows for cow-slaughter is an impossibility and the same is true about the Samaveda.

Now to Atharvaveda. It is independent of the Rigveda and so its opinion about bovines and beef is also independent and important. The Atharvaveda is connected with medicines and health. It lays down a rule in the ‘Vasha Go Sukta’ as to the type of beef that can be eaten by all, and the type that is to be kept reserved for learned Brahmins only. ‘Vasha cow’ means a cow that has stopped giving milk, or a cow that can no more produce offspring.

Atharva 12.4(13) tells us that in case a Brahmin begs for a cow from a non-Brahmin, “even if that person has a beef-dinner at his house, he has to select another cow to slaughter for his own dinner, than the one that is asked for”.

Atharva 12.4(43) asks, “O Narad, how many types of Vasha cows are there, which no one but a Brahmin may eat?” showing clearly that even Brahmins ate beef, and that the Veda was not against it, but on the contrary reserved some specific types of cows “for Brahmins only”. Rules of reservation are made only for what is considered essential, and as the Atharvaveda talks about reserving some special type of beef for the then reservation group, the educated Brahmins, we can say that this semi-medical Veda considers beef to be an essential item in food. The Atharvaveda in fact devotes 125 shlokas of the Vashago and Brahmagavisuktas to the subject of reservation of beef for educated Brahmins.

In conclusion
Thus, the Vedas consider bovines very important, for milk, beef, and agriculture as well as transport, but not divine or holy. The word ‘Aghnyaa’ applies only to a milch cow because it is not economical to kill it. A Vasha cow is meant for beef, and especially reserved to an extent for Brahmins only.

Hinduism considers the Vedas as its Supreme Court, whose word is final, and if any of the later Sanskrit of non-Sanskrit writing or oral lecture goes against what the Vedas have said, a Hindu has to follow the words of the Vedas. Thus secular India may make a law against cow slaughter for economic or even moral reasons (in that case that ban would be applicable to all animals, not just cows), but a Hindu can never opine against cow-slaughter on religious basis. A person can believe in vegetarianism on moral principles, or decide against cattle slaughter on economic grounds, but there is no logical explanation for the current religious compunction about beef or the slaughter of cows.

Rajani K Dixit is a retired Lecturer of Sanskrit

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AshutoshBharadwaj (2015). “RSS mouthpiece defends Dadri lynching: Vedas order killing of sinners who kill cows”, Indian Express, October 18, available at
Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairy and Fisheries (2002). “Report of the National Commission on Cattle (RashtriyaGovanshAyog)”, Chapter 1, para.64, available at
Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairy and Fisheries (2002). “Report of the National Commission on Cattle (RashtriyaGovanshAyog)”, Chapter 1, para. 65, available at
Ministry of Food Processing Industries (n.d.) “Modernization of Abbatoirs”, available at
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Shastri, Gyan Prakash (ed.), (2008). “Yajurveda bhashyam – produced by Shrimad Dayananda Saraswati Swami in Sanskrit and Hindi”, ShraddhanandaVaidicShodhaSansthan, GurukulKangriVishwavidyalaya, Haridwar. Available at
[i]An extract of the letter dated 20th December, of the letter written by the Central Government is given below.
“Hides from slaughtered cattle are much superior to hides from the fallen cattle and fetch a higher price. In the absence of slaughter the best type of hide, which fetches good price in the export market will no longer be available. A total ban on slaughter is thus detrimental to the export trade and work against the interest of the Tanning industry in the country.”
[ii] The famous Battle of Ten Kings (daasaraajna), a battle alluded to in RV-7, hymns 18, 33, and 83 (verses 4-8).
[iii]The word ‘Devas’ generally refers to gods, but it has also often been used to mean the people of ‘Div’, or the Panis – the business community of Gujarat, in the Rig Veda.
[iv] Soon, cramming up and reciting Vedic verses, with no understanding of them, in religious functions, became the order of the day, the mere pronunciation of the words being considered holy. In the time of Yaaska, a famous Sanskrit grammarian of the 4th century BC, it was thought that Vedic mantras were mere sounds with no meaning, which was why Yaaska concentrated his energies in attempting to make the first grammatical interpretation of the Vedas.
[v]Our source is an Indian Express article, where the author of the Panchajanya article “IssUtpatkeUssPaar” is quoted as saying “30.18 of Yajurveda says ‘hand over capital punishment to those who kill cows’”.




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