How did the cow become so holy for Hindus, though? A common materialistic answer is that it is useful; which like all materialistic explanations captures some, but not all of the reasons. Just as useful as the cow – or maybe even more given that they’re stronger and give more nutritious milk – is the majestic water buffalo. However, the BJP will never put out ads of buffaloes and no conservative, if well meaning, Hindu will accost you with the proposition that the buffalo is your mother since you drink its milk.
On the Pontic steppe
To trace back the answer to this question, we will have to go back a long time time – between five and six thousands years – and journey to a region called the Pontic steppe between Asia and Europe. There a monumental socio-economic change was taking place. Many communities were moving from foraging and hunting to herding animals, which also included sheep but mainly consisted of cattle. This socio-economic change was magnified by two new technologies: wagons and horseback riding. A herder on foot could look after maybe a dozen animals. One on horseback could look after scores.
Moreover, wagons broke down the barrier that was the steppe, opening up a massive source of food for these herds. Earlier, venturing out into the arid, harsh (both bitterly cold and blisteringly hot) and endless steppe was basically a slow form of suicide. Now with wagons, humans could carry tents, water and food. On a diet of meat, milk, yogurt, cheese from their animals and foraged vegetation, they could become completely mobile.
This prehistoric culture of super pastoralists is called the Yamnaya by noted archeologist David Anthony. Half of the planet’s population – 3 billion people from Bengal to Britain – today speak a language that is supposed to have descended from the language the Yamnaya spoke. The language is called Proto-Indo-European and the Indo-European language family it gave rise to includes German, Welsh, Bhojpuri, Urdu and hundreds of other tongues.
Distribution of Indo-European languages. The spread in Eurasia corresponds to the original migration of Indo-European speakers in prehistory, while the spread in the Americas and Australia is a result of European migration over the past five centuries. Image credit: Creative Commons.
Cow, the basis of steppe life
In this socio-economic system, the very basis of life on the steppe for these speakers of Proto-Indo-European was the cow. The Yamnaya did not farm, so they lived on the milk and meat of their cattle. Cowhide gave them their clothes and blankets, dung their fuel and bones their tools. In settled agricultural societies, wealth and status is measured by land but in the pastoral society of the steppe, wealth was measured by head of cattle.
The cow was, in fact, so important for these people that they literally mutated to adapt themselves to their cattle: they developed the ability to digest milk as adults. Man is the only mammal than can digest milk even after being weaned. Significantly, not all humans have this ability – only about one-thirds do, a condition known as lactose tolerance. Moreover, this is an ability developed very recently as a result of a gene mutation in the Yamnaya, as research shows.
In all probability, pastoralists first starting herding cows for their meat and only then, after this propitious mutation, developed the ability to digest milk – a significant evolutionary advantage since the cow is an extremely efficient machine for converting grass into calories in the form of dairy. Given the evolutionary advantage it confers, this gene mutation has spread with blinding speed, although its coverage is still largely correlated with the spread of Indo-European speakers – 33% of the globe and 25% of Indians can now digest milk. In Indians, there’s a sharp latitudinal-lactose split: 34% of North Indians can digest milk as compared to only 18% of South Indians, as per one study.
The ability of more North Indians to digest milk relates to the fact that some of them carry the genes of the Indo-European speakers who are supposed to have entered the subcontinent, at least as per one widely held theory, around 3,500 years ago. South Indians, who speak a completely unrelated family called the Dravidian language, and have had much less contact with Indo-European speakers, obviously fall behind on this count. This genetic ability manifests itself in culture and consumption as well. Punjabis, for example, celebrate dairy and the average monthly per capita rural spend on milk in the state is a whopping Rs 331. In Tamil Nadu, that number is more than 70% lower: Rs 92. This is in spite of the fact that Tamil Nadu has a higher per capita income than Punjab.
The Proto-Indo-European religion
Given its vital role in the life of the Indo-Europeans, it is not too difficult to surmise how the cow entered their religion. Proto-Indo- European-speakers are said to have had a creation myth with a bovine at its centre in which, as Bruce Lincoln informs us, a primordial man and primordial bull are sacrificed to produce the world.
Variants of this myth travelled as Indo-European speakers migrated throughout Europe and Asia. In Old Norse, Ymir is sacrificed and the world created from his corpse by the god Odin and his brothers. The cow makes its appearance earlier by suckling Ymir. In India, Lincoln draws out a story from the Satapatha Brahmana, where Manu, the primordial man, sacrifices both his wife and a bull.
Cattle rustling or raiding was also a feature of Proto-Indo-European life. A Proto-Indo-European myth, reconstructed by Bruce Lincoln, has a hero’s cattle being stolen by a monster. In the end, though, the hero defeats the monster, recovers his cattle and justice prevails. As a result, writes David Leeming, “any reader of European and Indian mythology will be struck by the importance of the theme of the cattle raid.” There is the Irish “Cattle Raid of Cooley”, “Nestor’s Cattle Raid” in the Greek Iliad and many raids mentioned in the Rig Veda.
A third common Indo-European bovine myth is the magic wishing cow, found in India (where she is called kamdhenu), Iran and Ireland.
The cow in Europe and Iran
Of course, the original importance of the cow died out in most places the Indo-Europeans migrated to, as they settled down, gave up pastoralism and took to agriculture. However, the ancient importance of the cow is still preserved in the language and etymology of many words as a time capsule.
The Proto-Indo-European word for cattle was “peku” (from which we get the modern word "pashu", present in a number of Indian languages). Since in Proto-Indo-European society, cattle was the only wealth, in later European societies this word “peku” gave rise to many words with meanings related to wealth and money. In Latin, for example, “peku” gave rise to the word “pecunia” which meant wealth and which, in turn gave rise to the English word “pecuniary”. Old English had a word, “feoh” which again meant cattle and is the root word of the modern “fee”. Words related to property like "fief" and "feudal" also have roots in words which once meant cattle. Another related change was the Latin word "capitale", which meant property and is the root of the word “capital”. However, "capital" also gave rise to the English word “cattle”, showing again how intertwined the concepts of cattle and wealth were for Indo-European societies.
Out in the east, an even more interesting change occurred. In Avestan, a very early form of Persian, the Proto-Indo-European word for a milch cow “dhemna” morphed into “daena”, to mean “religion”. In modern Persian “daena” morphs to “deen”, and is a very common Urdu word as well with the same meaning. Therefore when an Indian Muslim talks about his “deen”, religion, he is referring to an ancient Proto-Indo-European word which once meant “milch cow”, a deeply ironic etymological link given the role of the cow in Hindu-Muslim conflict in India.
India alone bucked the trend of the cow decreasing in importance in Indo-European societies. In the Rig Veda, while the cow and bull were sacred, they were still killed, sacrificed and eaten. Significantly, as late as the Mauryan age in the third century BC, the Emperor Ashoka did not find it necessary to include cows in his list of animals to not be slaughtered. By around the middle of the first millennium AD, though, Hindu Dharmashatras had broken with this Vedic line of thought and were proscribing the killing of the cow.
There are a number of reasons put forward as to why this happened. DN Jha connects it to the rise of the caste system, the taboo on gohatya helping to garner even more godaan, gifts in the form of a cow, for Brahmins. Ludwig Alsdorf attributes it to some pre-Vedic civilisation before the coming of the Indo-European speakers into the subcontinent.
While the exact process is disputed, the link to the Proto-Indo-European veneration of the cow is clear since the cow was the only milch animal treated as sacred in Hinduism. Till today, there is no taboo on the killing of the buffalo and, in fact, many Hindus still sacrifice buffalos as part of the religion itself.