(This was originally written by me in 2001 for our email newsletter, Tattva Prakasha.)
The Vedic literatures [Hindu scriptures] state that protection must be given to weak and helpless living entities by the stronger members of society. It is the duty of a householder to protect and provide not only for one’s family, but even for the ants that live within one’s house; what to speak of higher living entities like the cow, who are at the mercy of their owners. The scriptures state that the cow is our mother. We drink the milk from the cow, therefore we must accept her as our mother and protect her. As such how can a civilized society allow violence to come to such helpless living entities, who sustain us all with their milk.”
In Hinduism the cow is held sacred due to the fact that it is very dear to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is explained in the Hindu scriptures as follows:
govindaya namo nama
[Vishnu Purana 1.19.65]
“I offer repeated obeisances unto Lord Krishna, who is the protector and well-wisher of the cows and the brahmanas. He is also the protector of the entire society. Unto that Lord, who is always satisfying the senses of the cows, I offer my obeisances again and again.”
The words go-brahmana-hitaya indicate that the Supreme Lord is especially concerned with the welfare of the cows and the qualified brahmanas (spiritual teachers). The Lord is concerned with everyone’s welfare, but the cows are especially dear to Him. The brahmanas (spiritual teachers) are dear to the Lord because they worship him, as indicated by the words brahmanya-devaya (the Lord of the brahmanas).
When Lord Krishna appeared on this planet 5,000 years ago, he appeared as a cowherd boy. This was due to his great love for the cows. Even in the spiritual realm, the Lord is engaged in herding the spiritual cows, as stated in the Hindu scriptures:
lakshavrteshu surabhir abhipaalayantam
govindam aadi-purusham tam aham bhajami
“Lord Krishna is situated in a spiritual abode made of transcendental gems. In that abode he is surrounded by millions of desire fulfilling trees (kalpa-vriksha), and he takes pleasure in tending the divine cows. He is always being served with great reverence and affection by hundreds of thousands of devotees. To that Supreme Lord, who is always trying to satisfy the senses of the cows, and who is the original person, I offer my worship.”
The great Hindu saint, Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, while commenting on this verse states:
“Kama-dhenus (cows yielding the fulfillment of all desire) give milk when they are milked; but the kama-dhenus of the spiritual world pour forth oceans of milk in the shape of the fountain of love showering transcendental bliss that does away with the hunger and thirst of all pure devotees.”
The cows of this world are the material reflections of the divine cows of the spiritual realm. As such, the Lord blesses them by basing the entire Hindu (Vedic) culture on their protection.
The very word govinda, which is a famous name of Lord Krishna, means “one who brings satisfaction to the cows”. And Lord Krishna has many such transcendental names which reflect His relationship to the cows. Gopala means “the protector of the cows”, and Krishna is famous throughout India as bala-gopala, “the child who protects the cows”.
The Vedic literatures state that protection must be given to the weak and helpless living entities by the stronger members of society. It is the duty of a householder to protect and provide not only for one’s family, but even for the ants that live within one’s house; what to speak of higher living entities like the cow, who are at the mercy of their owners. The scriptures state that the cow is our mother. We drink the milk from the cow, therefore we must accept her as our mother and protect her. As such how can a civilized society allow violence to come to such helpless living entities, who sustain us all with their milk.
All these rules and regulations in the scriptures are given by the Lord for the protection of the cows. When these rules are not followed, and when the world turns away from the injunctions of the scriptures by violating the rights of the helpless, at that time the Lord descends to reestablish the principles of religion, to punish the miscreants and to protect his devotees.
Thus, according to Hindu scriptures, a civilization where there is no respect for the cow is condemned.
Question: “If the cows are protected by Lord Krishna [God], then no force on this world should be able to harm the cows. Why then is there so much slaughtering of cows going on in this world?”
The cows which Lord Krishna personally tends and protects are not the mundane cows of this material world. They are the surabhi cows of the spiritual realm of Vaikuntha:
lakshavriteshu surabhir abhipalayantam
The supreme transcendental realm is called ‘Goloka’ because it is the abode of ‘go’, transcendental cows, and ‘gopa’, transcendental cowherds. These transcendental cows are the greatest devotees of the Lord.
Krishna also provides protection to the mundane cows of this world, but in an indirect way. For their protection he establishes the principles of religion and the Vedic culture. Krishna is the protector of dharma (religion), but in order to accomodate the free will of the living entities, sometimes He allows dharma to become degraded, and as a result the cows (and the entire world) are mistreated. At such a time, the Lord will incarnate to reestablish the principles of religion. Of course the true protection the Lord gives his devotees goes much beyond this. He does not protect us from death, He actually protects us from life – life in this material existence. People with a very limited vision of existence think death is our enemy, and we must prolong this life as much as possible. But those with a spiritual vision understand that the soul is eternal, and he will continue his journey in his next body. As such, our need no longer becomes protection from death, as death is nothing more than a passing phase of one body. We actually need to be protected from this life and attachment to its false bodily possessions.
The Lord’s protection is absolute. He is protecting each and everyone of us. Some people he protects from death, other’s he protects from life. In both cases He is protecting them, because he is seeing to the protection of their eternal soul, and not just their external body. The entire material creation is for the protection of the living entities. Krishna is drawing us back towards His spiritual abode. From the perspective of eternal time, one life span, or even a thousand life spans, are not very significant. The actual purpose of the Lord’s incarnations is to reclaim the fallen conditioned souls through His transcendental association. This is the Lord’s true protection, which he gives very freely to the cows of Vrindavana.
The Vedic culture is centered on sacrifice, and for sacrifice one requires ghee (clarified butter). Thus it is the cows which allow man to worship the Lord through sacrifice. The cows provide man with milk, ghee, and curds, all of which were essential in the worship of the Lord. Now due to the influence of the present age of Kali (“the period of darkness”), sacrifice to the Lord has stopped, and as a result the cows are neglected, despite the immense service they perform for society.