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Holy Cow?! Where’s the Beef?

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India is a country with a rich and diverse culture. There are many different traditions and practices, but one thing that many Indians have in common is their respect and love for cows.

Cows have been part of Indian life for centuries. They have helped farmers plow their fields and fertilize their crops. They have also provided milk and other dairy products, which are essential sources of nutrition for many Indians.

In addition to their practical benefits, cows are also seen as symbols of life, abundance, and prosperity. They are often depicted in art and literature as gentle and nurturing creatures.

For many Indians, cows are more than just animals. They are sacred beings that deserve to be protected and respected. If you ever visit India, you’re sure to see cows roaming freely through the streets and countryside. They are a reminder of the country’s rich history and culture, and they are a source of great pride for Indians everywhere.

The average person in most of the modern world would be disgusted by the idea of eating cat or dog meat. This is because they are the most popular pets are often considered to be a part of the family in cultures all around the world. They are cherished and loved, and the thought of harming them is unthinkable. In fact, a 2017 survey found that only 2% of Americans would be willing to even consider trying cat or dog meat.

In that sense, for an average Indian who has a strong cultural connection with cows, the idea of eating beef would be equally repulsive and the thought abhorrent. Cows are considered sacred and revered animals in the culture and the Hindu religion, and they are seen as a symbol of purity and prosperity. (What is Hindu or Hinduism?)

There are several reasons why cows are held in such high regard in India.

First, they are seen as providers of important nourishment (Indians make and consume a lot of diary products – cheese, butter, ghee, sweets, yogurt and buttermilk etc.) and of course, milk. Cows are also used for plowing and transportation, and their dung is used as fuel and fertilizer.

Second, cows are seen as gentle and docile creatures. They are often depicted as symbols of peace and compassion. And in the largely agricultural society they are part of the farmers’ family.

Third, cows are associated with fertility and prosperity. In Hinduism, the goddess Lakshmi (The Goddess of Wealth, Prosperity and Abundance) is often depicted riding a cow, and cows are sometimes (traditionally in farming families) given as gifts to newlywed couples as they start a new life together.

It is illegal to kill or eat a cow in India in most states, and for many Indians, the thought of doing so is as seen as morally wrong as murder. In fact, a 2015 study found that only 1% of Indians would be willing to try beef.

Given their intelligence, gentle nature, and cultural significance, it is understandable why cows are held in such high regard in India. For many, if not most Indians, the thought of eating beef is simply unthinkable.

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Why are Cows special?

In addition to their cultural significance, did you know that cows are also highly intelligent animals. They have been shown to be capable of problem-solving, learning, and even forming emotional bonds with humans.

Cows have been known to nuzzle their caretakers and lick their faces. They may also follow their caretakers around and stay close to them. Cows have been known to become upset when their caretakers leave them, and they may even cry.

One study that looked at the behavior of cows when they were reunited with their caretakers after a period of separation found that the cows showed a number of signs of excitement and happiness, including:

  • Increased vocalizations
  • Increased activity levels
  • Increased social interactions with other cows
  • Increased attention-seeking behavior
  • The study’s authors concluded that cows form strong emotional bonds with their caretakers, and that they experience joy when they are reunited with them.

Cows have been known to stop eating or drinking when their caretakers are sick or dying.

  • They may also become restless or agitated, and they may vocalize their distress.
  • In some cases, cows have even been known to try to escape from their pens or enclosures in order to be with their caretakers.

One study that looked at the behavior of cows after the death of their owner found that they showed a number of signs of distress, including:

  • Reduced activity levels
  • Decreased milk production
  • Increased vocalizations
  • Increased social interactions with other cows
  • Increased attention-seeking behavior

The study’s authors concluded that cows are capable of forming strong emotional bonds with their caretakers, and that they experience a great deal of grief, distress and loss when their owners die.

These experiences are common among those who have, for generations, been around cows their entire lives.

For them, eating their cows or any cow for that matter is extremely distressing and emotional.

The culture of reverence is a result of hundreds if not thousands of years of a continuous civilization which was largely agrarian, dependent on and emotionally attached to cattle in their daily lives.

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Do Indians eat meat at all?

Indians eat a variety of meats, but the most popular are chicken, goat, fish, lamb, pork, and in some rare cases buffalo. The consumption of beef is taboo in some parts of India, due to the religious and cultural significance of cows. The type of meat eaten will depend on personal preferences, as well as the region and local culture.

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Does everyone in India eat meat?

Not everyone in India eats meat (In India meat is understood as including eggs, fish, shellfish and any form of seafood).

The consumption of meat in India has varied over time, influenced by a variety of factors. In ancient times, meat was a regular part of the Indian diet, but the advent of Jainism and Buddhism led to a shift towards vegetarianism and veganism.

Today, vegetarianism and plant-based diets are increasingly popular among Indians, particularly among urban populations. Environmental concerns, health benefits, and ethical considerations are among the reasons cited for this growing trend. Even those who do consume meat tend to be mindful of compassionate treatment towards all life.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”

Mahatma Gandhi

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How much meat do Indians eat?

India has one of the lowest meat consumption rates in the world, with the average Indian consuming just 4.4 kilograms (9.7 pounds) of meat per year. This is far below the global average of 34.3 kilograms (75.7 pounds) per year. There are a number of factors that contribute to India’s low meat consumption, including religious beliefs, cultural norms, and health concerns.


Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism are the three major religions in India, and all of them emphasize non-violence and compassion towards all living beings. This has led to a widespread practice of vegetarianism in India, with around 80% of Indians following a vegetarian diet.

Even those who do eat meat tend to do so in moderation. In addition, meat can be expensive and not always available in rural areas, and some people are concerned about the environmental impact of meat production.

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Holy Cow! But Why?

In ancient India, cattle played a vital role in the agrarian society, and they were considered a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The significance of cattle in agricultural life and their association with wealth can be understood through several factors:

Agricultural labor

Indian farmer ploughs rice fields with bullocks or oxen - cows are not usually used in India for this
Indian farmer ploughs rice fields – Photo by Guru Moorthy Gokul on Unsplash

Cattle, especially oxen, were used as draught animals to plow fields and till the soil. Their strength and power were harnessed to assist in various farming activities, making agriculture more productive and efficient. With the help of cattle, farmers could cultivate larger areas of land and increase crop yields.


Indian bulls or oxen used to pull cart - cows are not usually used in India for this
Indian bulls or oxen used to pull cart – Photo by Anmol Kerketta on Unsplash

Cattle were used to pull carts and carry agricultural produce, goods, and people from one place to another. This contributed to the transportation of goods and the development of trade and commerce.

Dairy products

Cows were primarily kept for their milk, which was a staple in the Indian diet. The surplus milk was used to produce dairy products like ghee, yogurt, butter, and cheese. These products not only provided essential nutrition but also had economic value as they could be sold or bartered in local markets.

Fertilizer and land enrichment

Cow dung served as a valuable natural fertilizer. It enhanced soil fertility, promoted healthy crop growth, and helped maintain soil structure. The use of cow dung as manure was an important agricultural practice that led to better crop yields.

Social status and gift-giving

Owning cattle was a sign of wealth and prosperity in ancient Indian society. The possession of a large herd of cattle elevated a person’s social status. Cattle were often given as gifts during weddings, festivals, and other significant events, showcasing the giver’s wealth and generosity.

Religious rituals

Cattle were sometimes used in religious rituals, especially cow’s milk and it’s products play an important part further highlighting their sacred and auspicious nature. Kings and wealthy individuals would often participate in such ceremonies to display their piety and affluence.

Symbol of abundance

Cattle, particularly cows, were considered symbols of abundance, fertility, and prosperity. They represented the life-giving forces of nature and were associated with prosperity, which contributed to their perceived value.

The concept of cattle being valuable assets was prevalent among both common people and the royals. For common people, owning cattle meant having a means of livelihood, a source of sustenance, and an essential companion in agricultural activities. It also provided economic security, as cattle could be traded or sold in times of need.

For kings and rulers, the possession of a large herd of cattle was a measure of their wealth and influence. Cattle formed a significant portion of the state’s wealth and resources. Kings often patronized agriculture and cattle rearing, as it contributed to the prosperity of their kingdoms and the welfare of their subjects.

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Milk and milk products hold significant cultural, nutritional, and economic importance in the daily lives of Indians across the country. India is one of the largest producers and consumers of dairy products in the world. Here are some key aspects of the significance of milk and milk products in India:

Nutritional staple

Milk is a rich source of essential nutrients like calcium, protein, vitamins, and minerals. It forms a crucial part of the Indian diet, especially for children, pregnant women, and the elderly, as it provides essential nutrients for growth, bone health, and overall well-being.

Traditional cuisine

Milk and milk products are used extensively in traditional Indian cuisine, adding flavor and richness to various dishes. For example:

Ghee (clarified butter): Used for cooking, frying, and flavoring traditional Indian dishes.

Paneer (Indian cottage cheese): A versatile dairy product used in curries, snacks, and desserts.

Dahi (yogurt): A staple side dish, often eaten with rice or used as a base for raita and buttermilk. In the south no meal is complete without rice with curd/yogurt/buttermilk.

Sweets and desserts: Indian sweets, also known as mithai, are an integral part of the culture and celebrations. Many of these sweets, such as kheer (rice pudding), gulab jamun, and rasgulla, are made using milk and milk products, giving them a delectable taste and creamy texture.

Beverages: Milk is used in various beverages, including masala chai (spiced tea) and lassi (a refreshing yogurt-based drink). These drinks are popular across India and are enjoyed daily by people of all ages.

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Religious and cultural significance

Milk is offered as a symbol of purity and devotion in religious ceremonies and rituals across diverse Indian communities. Pouring milk over idols and using it in prayers and offerings are common practices in temples and homes.

Economic livelihood

Dairy farming and milk production form an essential source of livelihood for millions of farmers and rural communities in India. The dairy industry contributes significantly to the rural economy and provides employment opportunities.

Ayurvedic medicine

Milk and milk products are used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for their medicinal properties. They are often prescribed as part of herbal formulations to support various health conditions.

Social and hospitality customs

Offering milk-based beverages and sweets to guests is a common hospitality tradition in India. It reflects warmth, generosity, and respect towards visitors.

The daily use of milk and milk products in India is deeply embedded in the culinary, cultural, and social fabric of the country. The versatile nature of dairy products and their significance in various aspects of life has made them an essential and cherished part of the Indian way of living.

The cow is thus revered as a giver of life and health.

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Cow Dung or Manure

Cow manure, also known as cow dung, has been used as a valuable resource in Indian villages for centuries due to its numerous benefits. Here’s a brief explanation of how cow manure is used as fertilizer and in other ways in Indian villages:


Cow dung is rich in organic matter and essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. As a natural fertilizer, it enhances soil fertility and improves crop yield. In traditional agriculture, farmers collect cow dung and mix it with water to create a slurry that is spread directly onto the fields as a fertilizer. This practice is commonly used in small-scale farming in rural areas.


Cow dung is often composted with other organic materials, like crop residues and kitchen waste, to create nutrient-rich compost. This compost is used to enrich the soil, promoting healthier plant growth and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.


In many Indian villages, cow dung is used as a source of fuel for cooking and heating. It is mixed with hay or rice husk, dried, after being formed into cakes or patties, and then used as a clean-burning fuel in traditional mud stoves. This practice helps conserve other sources of fuel, such as wood or fossil fuels.


Building material

In rural areas, cow dung is mixed with mud or clay to create a natural plaster or building material. This mixture is used to construct walls and floors, providing insulation and durability to traditional dwellings.

“Cow dung has a special property. Unlike other natural residual materials, it is hydrophobic, in other words, water resistant. In India, people use cow dung for the outer layer of their houses to protect them from the rain”


Rituals and religious ceremonies

Cow dung is considered sacred in Hinduism, and it is used in various religious ceremonies and rituals. It is often shaped into small balls and placed in the home or at temples as a symbol of auspiciousness and purification.

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Pest repellent

Cow dung is known to have insect-repellent properties. Cow dung is mixed with water and neem leaves, which are then applied on walls and floors to repel mosquitoes and other insects.

The use of cow dung as a resource in Indian villages reflects the sustainable and resourceful practices that have been passed down through generations. While modern agricultural and technological practices have evolved, cow dung remains an important aspect of traditional village life, contributing to agricultural productivity, household needs, and cultural rituals.

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Even a dead cow gives more!

After the cow’s natural death, its skin, hooves, bones and horns are collected and used for various purposes.Here are some examples of how different parts of the cow have been utilized:

Leather and hide

The cow’s hide is used to produce leather, which is widely used to make various products like shoes, belts, bags, wallets, and traditional footwear (such as sandals and juttis). The tanning and processing of cowhide have been traditional crafts in India for centuries. Leather is also used for making musical instruments such as drums, tablas, and harmoniums. Some people also use cow skin to make rugs, mats, and blankets.
Tabla set (Source)


The bones of a cow are used to make bone meal, which is a rich source of calcium and phosphorus that can be used as a fertilizer for crops and gardens. Bone meal is also used as an animal feed supplement, especially for poultry and fish. Some people also use cow bones to make buttons, combs, dice, jewelry, and other items.


The horns of a cow are used to make horn meal, which is similar to bone meal but has more nitrogen and less phosphorus. Horn meal can be used as a fertilizer. Horns are also used to make decorative items such as bowls, cups, spoons, knives, and sculptures. Some people also use cow horns to make musical instruments such as trumpets, flutes, and shofars.


The hooves of a cow are used to make hoof meal, which is another type of fertilizer. Hooves are also used to make glue, which can be used for various purposes such as woodworking, paper making, and bookbinding.

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Cows are much more than pets

In MOST cultures (including in India) it’s unthinkable to eat their pets or fur babies for food as a special treat or delicacy. As we saw above the role of a cow is integral to one’s daily life for several centuries – if not more.

The cow has been an integral part of daily lives of common Indians for thousands of years!

To Recap:

Indians perceive cows as sacred beings, often referred as embodying a motherly figure, providing sustenance and nurturing life.

Cows are considered gentle and nurturing animals, symbolizing abundance and prosperity.

Cows have been integral to Indian agriculture, providing milk, fertilizer, and other resources, making them indispensable for sustenance and survival.

The cow’s gentle and nurturing nature, along with its practical contributions to the household, reinforce the emotional bond between humans and cows.

The emotional connection and reverence towards cows make the idea of consuming cow meat is emotionally distressing and unthinkable for many Indians.

The slaughtering and consumption of cows for beef is legally restricted in several states in India. These laws are rooted in the cultural beliefs and sentiments associated with cows.

We hope this makes it clear why beef is not popular in Indian culture.

Source for Top Image

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