The Sacred Cow

What is a “Sacred Cow”? The online Cambridge Dictionary states that a Sacred Cow is

  • “a belief, custom, etc. that people support and do not question or criticize”

The online Oxford Learner’s Dictionary states that a Sacred Cow is

  • “a custom, system, etc. that has existed for a long time and that many people think should not be questioned or criticized”

Here is a quote from the Washington Post, “Hindus do not consider the cow to be a god and they do not worship it. Hindus, however, are vegetarians and they consider the cow to be a sacred symbol of life that should be protected and revered. In the Vedas, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, the cow is associated with Aditi, the mother of all the gods. Hindu imagery often pictures a pretty cow — usually white — garlanded with flowers as a sign of the faith’s special reverence. Hindus even have a “cow holiday” called Gopastami (this year on Nov. 19) when all cows — even the ones left to wander through busy streets and rural villages — are washed and dressed with flowers. To harm a cow or kill a cow — especially for food — is considered taboo by most Hindus.”

However, there are also depictions of Kamadhenu, also known as Surabhi, a divine bovine-goddess described in Hinduism as Gou Mata, the mother of all cows. She is generally depicted as a white cow with a female head and breasts, the wings of a bird, and the tail of peafowl, or as a white cow containing various deities within her body. I have included an example of such depictions below.

In Hindu culture, the Sacred Cow represents Mother Earth, as it is a source of goodness and its milk nourishes all creatures. Newly born babies usually start suckling milk from their mother’s breasts as a source of nourishment. Later, they will be weaned off and given cow milk. In ancient India, cow milk was an invaluable food source and as such, killing these animals quickly became a taboo. In fact, killing a cow is often considered to be matricide!

There are four examples of Cow imagery below. The first two are traditional representations of the Sacred Cow. The third is digital vector art and the last one is a depiction of Kamadhenu.

The Sacred Cow

Hinduism is the main religion of the Indian subcontinent. It dates back to the Iron Age, it is often referred to as the oldest living religion in the world. It has no single founder and is an accumulation of diverse traditions and philosophies rather than a rigid set of beliefs. Most Hindus believe in one supreme God that takes many different manifestations as devas, celestial beings or deities, and they may worship specific devas as individual facets of the same God.

Hindu artists use colour in a symbolic way. Colour is used on the deities and their dresses to signify their qualities. Therefore, colours create their environment, which should keep a person cheerful. Some of the main colours used in religious ceremonies are red, yellow (turmeric), green from leaves, white from wheat flour. etc. Red indicates both sensuality and purity. Saffron, the most sacred colour, represents fire and as impurities are burnt by fire, this colour can symbolize purity. It can also represent religious abstinence. Green is a festive colour. and can represent life and happiness. Yellow is the colour of knowledge and learning. It symbolizes happiness, peace, meditation, competence, and mental development. Blue represents power, magnificence, bravery, stable mind, and depth of character. White is a mixture of seven different colors and thus represents small doses of every quality. So colors have a very deep significance that transcends purely decorative and/or superficial values.

Hindu art reflects a plurality of beliefs. Hindu temples are usually devoted to different deities and they are often portrayed with multiple limbs and heads, etc. They are designed to demonstrate the extensive power and ability of God. Hindu art is also characterized by several recurring holy symbols, including the om, an invocation of the divine consciousness of God; the swastika, a symbol of auspiciousness; and the lotus flower, a symbol of purity, beauty, fertility, and transcendence. According to Hindus, there are four main goals of life on earth. Firstly, everyone should aim for dharma or righteous living; secondly, artha, or wealth acquired through the pursuit of a profession; thirdly, kama, or human and sexual love; and, finally, moksha, or spiritual salvation.

Unit 3) My observations on Hindu Art

I will first make reference to the images shown in Unit 2. The top-left image has many representational elements. The background is treated in an almost photograph-like manner. The cow in the bottom right and the background are both painted on a significantly smaller scale when compared to the obvious focus of the painting, the Sacred Cow. This element is absolutely massive and appears to me to stand as high as the memosphere! Human life appears to be somewhat puy and irrelevant! Within the body of the Sacred cow, there are Indian symbols and people, etc. It is an image that is clearly designed to impose and invoke absolute reverence. 

The top-right image features a cow and its calf. It is depicted as a happy cow. The symbolism of cow suckling milk also appears. This would appear to confirm the importance of milk as an important source of nourishment. The head is adorned with a bouquet and there is clearly a reference to mothering.

The bottom-left image is a fairly modern digital version. It has been created using vector graphics and it has a flattened clip-art feel to it. It is again lovingly adorned with a ceremonial blanket and other symbolic trinkets.To me, the cow appears to be confident, strong-willed, solid, secure, and content. This image would make an interesting base for future artwork. The blanket could easily be replaced with a contrasting Hundertwasser house-like image to almost be in diametric opposition to the visual qualities of the traditional cow representation.

The bottom-right image is obviously meant to be a literal and photograph-like creation to make Kamadhenu as real as possible. There is an obvious attempt to get across the idea that Kamadhenu exists and should thus be treated with reverence, again. I would be interested in creating a more two-dimensional version that visually challenges the well-known depiction. I will discuss why change is necessary for unit four.

Hindu deities and figures all have idealized human bodies. Females are often curvy and sensual. There is a deep love of life that comes across to me and also an active attempt to visually epitomize the four main goals of life as mentioned earlier.

Hindu Art obviously has virtually no references to modern art movements such as cubism, surrealism, dada, and impressionism, etc. The imagery really has stayed almost quite literally untouched for a very long time. Hindu art is all a kind of sacred cow in this respect.

The image of a Sacred Cow at the top f this post is one of my paintings. It is watercolour and ink on paper. Completed April 2021.

The Sacred Cow
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Summary

A Sacred Cow is “a belief, custom, etc. that people support and do not question or criticize”



Author: Piers Midwinter
I am an artist and a teacher. I am currently teaching at a Cambridge International School in Vietnam.