The Sacred and Mundane Cow

The History of India’s Cattle Protection Movement

Authored by: Kelsi Nagy

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138592728
eBook ISBN: 9780429489846
Adobe ISBN:


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This paper will examine current welfare challenges to cattle in contemporary India. Religious attitudes toward cattle will first be discussed in an historical context, examining anxieties about the use, suffering and death in ancient Hindu texts. Beliefs about ahimsa and karma contribute to high caste Hindu’s avoidance of beef, but these attitudes may have also coincided with practical use of cattle as important objects of utility. Cattle are often considered more valuable alive—as beasts of burden and creatures that supply milk, manure and urine, from many products are made—than killed for meat. None-the-less, religious attitudes about the metaphysical relationship Hindus have with cattle inform current laws banning slaughter of cattle throughout much of India. Even though many regard cattle as sacred, there are significant welfare issues faced by cattle living autonomous lives. Street cattle often forage on trash and ingest plastic bags, suffer from diseases and parasites, and sometimes are hit by vehicles. Cross-bred cattle (bred to produce higher volumes of milk than native cattle) may have increased the population of stray cattle in India, as they are generally of less utility on farms than native cattle and set free once they no longer produce milk. Even with anti-slaughter laws in place there is a growing underground slaughter industry where reports of extremely brutal slaughter practices in unregulated abattoirs occur. While anti-slaughter laws are put in place in the spirit of cattle protection, the case can be made that these laws provide cattle rights, while not necessarily ensuring justice. Though these laws give the illusion that cattle are protected as sacred animals in India, the reality of their welfare is far more complicated. Finally, efforts for cattle protection by Jain and Hare Krishna groups give some solutions for bridging the divide between rights and justice for cattle.

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