THE QUESTION: What’s the background on Hinduism’s belief in “sacred cows”? (This question was actually posed by The Religion Guy himself -- not a reader -- because the topic is currently in the news.)
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Press reports from India say the government in Uttar Pradesh state is waging a campaign against Muslim slaughterhouses accused of processing cows, which is illegal, instead of buffaloes, which is allowed and constitutes a large industry. Muslim butchers deny the accusations. In Gujarat state, meanwhile, the maximum punishment for killing a cow has been increased from seven years to life in prison.
India is offically non-sectarian but has a lopsided Hindu majority, and the current national government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is Hindu nationalist in character. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat till 2014. The BJP recently won a lrge victory in Uttar Pradesh elections and installed strong-willed Hindu sage Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister. In BJP-ruled Rajasthan state, the cabinet includes a minister for cows.
There’ve been some riots and even a vigilante killing over cow issues during recent years. In times past, regimes even executed cow-killers. Since the 19th Century the nation has seen the rise of militant societies and vigilantes devoted to cow protection. Due to this religious heritage, many cattle roam city streets and the countryside unhindered. For some, reverence extends to bulls and oxen.
Though heavily Hindu, India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan. As with states’ “anti-conversion” laws aimed especially at hindering Christians, crackdowns on Muslims over cows reflect popular feeling among Hindus. Religion News Service reports there’s also sporadic persecution against atheists.