Vedā: Cow Significance

The Cow Hymn in the Rig Veda (Gomātha)

The cow is known universally as an animal that is preeminently held sacred and holy by Hindus since time immemorial. She is used as a metaphysical symbol of nature’s bountiful and selfless generosity. She symbolizes the Divine Mother who loves her children (real and adoptive human) unconditionally. She is by her own nature very gentle, docile, harmless and warmly affectionate. Only people who have actually reared cattle, lived in close proximity with them and observed their character minutely would appreciate the magnanimity and beautiful and intelligent nature of cows.

The Vedas, which are the most ancient and most sacred scriptures of Hinduism, are filled with deep multiple levels of metaphysical and spiritual symbolism of the cow and the bull. The cow figures innumerable times in the Vedas as a symbol of deep revelation of spiritual knowledge. The Sanskrit name gauḥ (गौः) is a synonym for the Earth, sacred revealed Speech (vāk वाक्), mystical Light and the flow of deep insight. The Nighaṇṭu, the ancient Vedic thesaurus, lists among the words for the cow, jagatī (जगती) and śakvarī (शक्वरी), which are Vedic poetic meters (chandas छन्दः), and Aditi (अदिति) and Iḷā (इळा), which are names of female deities. It is noteworthy that Aditi is the mother of the gods and the mother of the universe in Vedic metaphysics, and Iḷā is the ancestor and progenitor of the Vedic people. Such is the reverence and affection for the cow.

The Ṛgveda, the oldest Veda and the cornerstone of the foundation of the edifice of Hindu civilization, dating back to at least 3500 BCE (and very probably much earlier), features a recurring creation myth in which Indra kills the mythical dragon Vṛtra who has all the waters and riches trapped. Once he is killed, Indra discovers the cows and releases them, thereby creating the universe. Here, the cows are the symbol of primeval life and knowledge. Indra is the original Govinda who finds the cows (gā avindat; RV 1.101.5; 1.103.5; 5.29.3; etc.), and he has a special bond with cows, very much paralleling the later legends of the cowherd Kṛṣṇa Vāsudeva in Vṛndāvana.

In spite of such extensive evidence for the deep reverence for the cow in the Vedas, western Indology academics (not “scholars”, which has a much more esteemed meaning) and their Indian cohorts of the left-leaning variety, as usual unscrupulously brush aside such inconvenient evidence in order to further their own erroneous and devious theories about crude, brutish and primitive slaughter and sacrifice of cows and beef-eating in Vedic times. There is a huge inconsistency in their approach. On the one hand, distinct from Hindu tradition, they espouse an internal chronology for the development of the Vedic corpus, saying that Samhitās were composed first, followed much later by Brāhmaṇa and Āraṇyaka texts. On the other hand, they also espouse a theory of gradual development from primitive pastoral society of cow sacrifice and beef-eating to a mature agricultural society where animal sacrifice is gradually abandoned. The inconsistency here is shown by the fact that the supposedly oldest Vedic texts, the Samhitās, have absolutely no evidence of any animal or cow sacrifice or beef-eating, while the same is found in supposedly later Brāhmaṇa or Śrauta prayoga texts.

The metrics of consistency, academic rigor, and integrity demand that the western Indology academics recognize the fact that in the oldest Vedic text, the Ṛgveda Samhitā, there is absolutely no evidence for animal sacrifice and beef-eating. On the contrary, the text shows the utmost reverence for the cow, and the existence of simple rituals with preponderance of deeper metaphysical or spiritual significance. The fact that the Vedic religious system was not monolithic but was instead a complex criss-crossing of multiple beliefs and customs, is seen in the later gradual development of complex rituals and introduction of  animal sacrifice. This later period is represented by the Brāhmaṇa and Śrauta Sūtra texts.

This view also agrees with traditional doctrine that in the golden first epoch (Kṛta Yuga), there was no animal sacrifice and no yajñas, and people were spiritually advanced, while there was a proliferation of rituals and yajñas in the second epoch (Tretā Yuga) as seen from Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1.2.1 (tretāyāṃ bahudhā santatāni).

To recapitulate, all evidence from the oldest and most important Vedic text shows the practice of simple rituals, a complete absence of cow/animal sacrifice, and utmost reverence, sanctity and spiritual symbolism of the cow. Later Vedic texts show a gradual development of complex rituals, reduced and simplified spiritual symbolism, and introduction of the non-Vedic new practice of animal sacrifice.  

In demonstration of the above evidence, I shall present below the Cow Hymn (RV 6.28) of Ṛṣi Bharadvāja Bārhaspatya, one of the most ancient Vedic seers. The sixth maṇḍala, which contain his hymns, is universally accepted as the oldest part of the extant Ṛgveda Samhitā. In case the reader had the impression so far that cows were only symbolic in the Ṛgveda, the cows in this hymn are very real, and share a deep bond with Indra.

Sāyaṇa’s commentary is straightforward and reflects the mantras almost identically. The only noteworthy point is that in verses 3 and 4 he interprets the verbs of present tense (laṭ lakāra लट् लकारः) as the benedictive (āśīrliṅ आशीर्लिङ्) and imperative (loṭ lakāra लोट् लकारः) moods. I shall mention the specifics under each verse.


RV 6.28.1:
आ गावो अग्मन्नुत भद्रमक्रन्त्सीदन्तु गोष्ठे रणयन्त्वस्मे ।
प्रजावतीः पुरुरूपा इह स्युरिन्द्राय पूर्वीरुषसो दुहानाः ॥ १

ā gāvo agmannuta bhadramakrantsīdantu goṣṭhe raṇayantvasme ।
prajāvatīḥ pururūpā iha syurindrāya pūrvīruṣaso duhānāḥ ॥

“May the Cows come to us, may they bring welfare, may they sit in our home, may they be satisfied with us. May they be plentiful in calves, in different forms, and in large numbers, may they be available for milking at Dawn for Indra.”

Here the rishi is hoping that the cows will be satisfied and happy with him and his family. The cows are treated as exalted deities whose pleasure is an important goal for the rishi. 


RV 6.28.2:
इन्द्रो यज्वने पृणते च शिक्षत्युपेद्ददाति न स्वं मुषायति ।
भूयोभूयो रयिमिदस्य वर्धयन्नभिन्ने खिल्ये नि दधाति देवयुम् ॥ २

indro yajvane pṛṇate ca śikṣatyupeddadāti na svaṃ muṣāyati ।
bhūyobhūyo rayimidasya vardhayannabhinne khilye ni dadhāti devayum ॥

“Indra generously gives to the worshiper who pleases him with beautiful hymns. He never takes away wealth from him. Again and again, Indra makes his wealth grow, and places the worshiper who desires Indra in a secure place safe from enemies.”


RV 6.28.3:
न ता नशन्ति न दभाति तस्करो नासामामित्रो व्यथिरा दधर्षति ।
देवाँश्च याभिर्यजते ददाति च ज्योगित्ताभिः सचते गोपतिः सह ॥ ३

na tā naśanti na dabhāti taskaro nāsāmāmitro vyathirā dadharṣati ।
devām̐śca yābhiryajate dadāti ca jyogittābhiḥ sacate gopatiḥ saha 

“Our Cows are never lost, they are never harmed by thieves. The weapons of enemies never violate or injure them. These Cows, by means of whom their owner worships the Devas and gives, he enjoys their company for a long time.”

Here, the indication is that the cows are not only sacred but also domestic pets with whom their owner enjoys an intimate friendship and bond, and hopes to have their companionship for a long time. 

Sāyaṇa’s commentary: naśanti नशन्ति (present tense) = naśyantu नश्यन्तु (imperative); dabhāti दभाति (present tense) = hiṃsyāt हिंस्यात् (benedictive); ā dadharṣati आदधर्षति (present tense) = ā krāmatu आक्रामतु (imperative); sacate सचते (present tense) = saṃgacchatām संगच्छताम् (imperative).

So Sāyaṇa’s interpretation would be: “May our Cows never be lost, may they never be harmed by thieves. May weapons of enemies never violate or injure them. These Cows, by means of whom their owner worships the Devas and gives, may he enjoy their company for a long time.” This does make better sense in some ways, but fundamentally it’s the same.


RV 6.28.4:
न ता अर्वा रेणुककाटो अश्नुते न संस्कृतत्रमुप यन्ति ता अभि ।
उरुगायमभयं तस्य ता अनु गावो मर्तस्य वि चरन्ति यज्वनः ॥ ४

na tā arvā reṇukakāṭo aśnute na saṃskṛtatramupa yanti tā abhi ।
urugāyamabhayaṃ tasya tā anu gāvo martasya vi caranti yajvanaḥ ॥

“The war-horse never catches them, they never go to the place of slaughter or sacrifice.  The Cows always roam without fear on the wide-spreading land of the mortal worshiper.”

This verse is very important for its direct and unambiguous statement that cows are never slaughtered in any way (i.e. either for food or for ritual sacrifice). The word “saṃskṛtatram” is the generic word for a setup used for cutting up the body of an animal.

Sāyaṇa’s commentary: aśnute अश्नुते (present tense) = prāpnuyāt प्राप्नुयात् (benedictive); yanti यन्ति (present tense) = gacchantu गच्छन्तु (imperative). 
saṃskṛtatram संस्कृतत्रम् = viśasanādisaṃskāraṃ विशसनादिसंस्कारं (preparation of meat by slaughter, cutting, etc.).

So Sāyaṇa’s interpretation would be: “May the war-horse never catch them, may they never go to the place of slaughter or sacrificeMay the Cows always roam without fear on the wide-spreading land of the mortal worshiper.” This interpretation as a benediction by the rishi, complements the main literal meaning of the verse. 

The original words state the fact of absence of cow slaughter/sacrifice, while the interpretation expresses prayer, concern and hope for the protection and safety of the cow.

What we can glean from this verse is that at least during the Vedic time period and culture of rishi Bharadvāja (most ancient period), cows were not slaughtered by the Vedic people. This practice may have been carried out by non-Vedic contemporaries of the Vedic people, who abhorred it because it conflicted with their own reverence and affection for the cow. This contempt and abhorrence for animal sacrifice may have expressed itself in the rishi’s benediction of protection (as per Sāyaṇa) for cows from the ill fate of slaughter. 


RV 6.28.5:
गावो भगो गाव इन्द्रो मे अच्छान् गावः सोमस्य प्रथमस्य भक्षः ।
इमा या गावः स जनास इन्द्र इच्छामीद्धृदा मनसा चिदिन्द्रम् ॥ ५

gāvo bhago gāva indro me acchān gāvaḥ somasya prathamasya bhakṣaḥ ।
imā yā gāvaḥ sa janāsa indra icchāmīddhṛdā manasā cidindram ॥

“Cows are my prosperity, may Indra grant me cows. They provide the offering (in the form of clarified butter) for the freshly squeezed Soma. O people! these Cows are verily Indra. I desire Indra with deep and sincere meditation.”

Sāyaṇa’s commentary: imā yā gāvaḥ sa janāsa indrah इमा या गावः स जनास इन्द्रः = evaṃbhūtāḥ yā gāvaḥ santi tā eva gāvaḥ indraḥ bhavanti एवंभूताः या गावः सन्ति ता एव गावः इन्द्रः भवन्ति

So this verse makes it unambiguously clear that cows were truly and sincerely considered Indra himself. Thus the sanctity and sacredness of the cow in Vedic religion and culture is firmly established. 


RV 6.28.6:
यूयं गावो मेदयथा कृशं चिदश्रीरं चित्कृणुथा सुप्रतीकम् ।
भद्रं गृहं कृणुथ भद्रवाचो बृहद्वो वय उच्यते सभासु ॥ ६

yūyaṃ gāvo medayathā kṛśaṃ cidaśrīraṃ citkṛṇuthā supratīkam ।
bhadraṃ gṛhaṃ kṛṇutha bhadravāco bṛhadvo vaya ucyate sabhāsu ॥

“O Cows! you make an emaciated person fat, you make an ugly person beautiful. O Cows, you with auspicious voices, you make our homes auspicious. Your mighty power and strength is praised in the sacred assemblies.”


RV 6.28.7:
प्रजावतीः सूयवसं रिशन्तीः शुद्धा अपः सुप्रपाणे पिबन्तीः ।
मा वः स्तेन ईशत माघशंसः परि वो हेती रुद्रस्य वृज्याः ॥ ७

prajāvatīḥ sūyavasaṃ riśantīḥ śuddhā apaḥ suprapāṇe pibantīḥ ।
mā vaḥ stena īśata māghaśaṃsaḥ pari vo hetī rudrasya vṛjyāḥ ॥

“May you have many offspring, may you graze on delicious grass, may you drink pure water from safe and easily accessible water places. May neither thieves nor predatory animals get control over you. May you be spared from Rudra’s weapons.”


RV 6.28.8:
उपेदमुपपर्चनमासु गोषूप पृच्यताम् । उप ऋषभस्य रेतस्युपेन्द्र तव वीर्ये ॥ ८

upedamupaparcanamāsu goṣūpa pṛcyatām । upa ṛṣabhasya retasyupendra tava vīrye ॥

“Let this mixture (or blend) be imbibed into the Cows, into the Bull’s seed, and into your might, O Indra!”

This verse is not fully clear, even by Sāyaṇa’s commentary. My guess is that the cows and bulls are fed a medicinal nutritious supplement. Even to this day, traditional Indian farmers regularly feed a highly nutritious blend to their cattle. Sāyaṇa says that through the use of milk and milk derivatives as havis offering in the yajña, Indra also ultimately receives and imbibes this “mixture or blend”.

Author: Ram Abloh
June 29, 2020
Full profile of this Author can be viewed at : https://www.quora.com/profile/Ram-Abloh?ch=10&share=8afff2bd&srid=12MJJ