by Marvin Harris
The cultural practices of other people often seem strange, irrational, and even inexplicable to outsiders. In fact, the members of the culture in question may be unable to give a rationally satisfying explanation of why they behave as they do: they may say that "the gods wish it so," or that "it is always done that way." Yet a fundamental assumption of social science is that no matter how peculiar or even bizarre human cultures may appear, they can be understood at least in part. To Americans and Europeans, the attitude of most people in India toward cows is perplexing. Hindus regard the animals as sacred and will not kill or eat them. In India a large population of cows wanders freely through both rural areas and city streets, undisturbed by the millions of hungry and malnourished people. Why? Marvin Harris suggests an answer to such puzzles. In this quite famous article, he suggests that India's sacred cow is in fact quite a rational cultural adaptation -- because the cow is so extraordinarily useful.
News photographs that came out of India during the famine of the late 1960s showed starving people stretching out bony hands to beg for food while cattle strolled behind them undisturbed. The Hindu, it seems, would rather starve to death than eat his cow or even deprive it of food. Western specialists in food habits around the world consider Hinduism an irrational ideology that compels people to overlook abundant, nutritious foods for scarcer, less healthful foods. Many Western observers believe that an absurd devotion to the mother cow pervades Indian life. Many Indians agree with Western assessments of the Hindu reverence for their cattle, the zebu, a large-humped species of cattle prevalent in Asia and Africa. M. N. Srinivas, an Indian anthropologist states: "Orthodox Hindu opinion regards the killing of cattle with abhorrence, even though the refusal to kill the vast number of useless cattle which exists in India today is detrimental to the nation." Even the Indian Ministry of Information formerly maintained that "the large animal population is more a liability than an asset in view of our land resources." Accounts from many different sources point to the same conclusion: India, one of the world's great civilizations, is being strangled by its love for the cow.
India’s Sacred Cow – Sociology101
The easy explanation for India's devotion to the cow, the one most Westerners and Indians would offer, is that cow worship is an integral part of Hinduism. Religion is somehow good for the soul, even if it sometimes fails the body. Religion orders the cosmos and explains our place in the universe. Religious beliefs, many would claim, have existed for thousands of years and have a life of their own. They are not understandable in scientific terms. But all this ignores history. There is more to be said for cow worship than is immediately apparent.
History of Cow Worship The earliest Vedas, the Hindu sacred texts from the Second Millennium B.C., do not prohibit the slaughter of cattle. Instead, they ordain it as a part of sacrificial rites. The early Hindus did not avoid the flesh of cows and bulls; they ate it at ceremonial feasts presided over by Brahman priests. Cow worship is a relatively recent development in India; it evolved as the Hindu religion developed and changed. This evolution is recorded in royal edicts and religious texts written during the last 3,000 years of Indian history. The Vedas from the First Millennium B.C. contain contradictory passages, some referring to ritual slaughter and others to a strict taboo on beef consumption. Many of the sacred-cow passages were incorporated into the texts by priests in a later period. By 200 A.D. the status of Indian cattle had undergone a transformation. The Brahman priesthood exhorted the population to venerate the cow and forbade them to abuse it or to feed on it. Religious feasts involving the ritual slaughter and...