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The cow (Skt.: ‘go’) has been venerated in India from an early period. In Vedic times cattle, and their products, were an index of wealth, and so of good fortune and prosperity. They were also among the offerings made in the Vedic sacrifice (yajña). Cow-killing and beef-eating were therefore accepted, and even required in the contexts of ritual and hospitality until around the beginning of the Common Era. Over the following millennium a situation slowly developed in which the worship of the cow as a sacred animal came to prominence, and its inviolability was established—ultimately in pointed contrast to the Muslim practice of beef-eating. Since then the cow has remained a popular symbol of Hindu values, and a complete ban on its slaughter remains a vote-catching policy for Hindu nationalist politicians. The cow's importance as a draught animal, and as the provider of the ‘five products of the cow’ (pañcagavya)—milk, curds, butter, urine and dung (a source of fuel)—simply reinforces the animal's sanctity for most Hindus. Such products, whether singly or mixed, are regarded as both purifying and medicinal. In this context, Kṛṣṇa's early life as a cowherd, and his role as ‘protector of cows’ (gopāla) both reflect and further endorse the animal's status.

Subjects: Hinduism.

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