The Tale of the Cow

Indian holy cow

Traffic jams are an annoying part of daily life.  We most commonly think of cars as the culprit, but in India a different large moving object often stalls the road- the cow! It turns out these animals are sacred for both religious and health purposes.

I have been on a bit of a hiatus from blog-writing, but I suppose it is only appropriate that I resume writing while traveling in India.A blog entry about India could be about many things. The country is full of colorful and amazing sights that can be overwhelming to the senses at first glance. I thought about writing about the more than 1.2 billion people that live here, or the over 1,635 recognized languages in the country.  I also explored the idea of discussing some of the amazing health benefits with roots in this country such as Ayurveda and yoga.

However after being in Bandhavgarh National Park in Northern India, where I came to try to spot an elusive tiger, I choose to write about the cow, a far more common site. In a national park where the tiger is the main attraction, it seems that the cow still has the upper hand.  On our way to safari we got side tracked by a cow traffic jam.  Since coming to India over two weeks ago, it is the cow with which I have become more familiar, rather than the tiger!

herd of indian cows

 There are a reported 40,000 free roaming cows on the streets of the capital city Delhi alone.  Stray and abandoned cows are often cared for by public as well as through support from government, religious and charitable entities. 

The cow’s importance in this country is linked to its role in Hinduism, a religion practiced by over 900 million people across the globe, 94% of whom are located in India. As story tells it, Lord Krishna appeared 5000 years ago as a herder of cows.

Hinduism is not the only religion that has revered the cow.  It is also held in high esteem in Jainism, as well as many of the early religions of Israel, Egypt and Greece.

The cow is considered sacred not only for its religious role but also because of its role in sustaining life. The milk of the cow provides nourishment. Its dung provides fertilization for fields.  Mahatma Ghandi once said   “Mother cow is as useful dead as when she is alive. We can make use of every part of her body — her flesh, her bones, her intestines, her horns and her skin.”

Eating beef is prohibited in the Hindu religion.  Although many of the nation’s states do allow slaughtering and consumption of beef (and India exports a large amount of beef to other countries), in some areas such actions result in fines and jail sentences. In Gujarat, for example, slaughter results in a 7 year jail term.   Discussion of how to protect cows has become a central topic of many political debates.

The practice of avoiding beef does have some health benefits. India has one of the lowest rates of colon cancer in the world.  Although protein is essential to the diet and beef is one source of protein, consumption of red meat has been linked with a higher risk of colon cancer.  In one meta-analysis, red meat was associated with a 28% higher risk of colon cancer.  Calcium on the other hand, such as from dairy sources such as milk, has been linked to lower rates of colon cancer. Calcium also has other benefits such as increasing bone density and lowering the risk of osteoporosis.

So perhaps followers of Hinduism have it right—drink the milk from the cow but don’t eat its beef!

(Of course everyone has different tastes, and red beef in moderation is fine. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends no more than two 4-ounce servings of beef a week, and eating leaner cuts. When possible, avoid char-grilled, salted, processed and cured preparations of the meat.)



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