In Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches
by Marvin Harris
, a materialist
explanation of this ideology is presented. The argument is based on three core features: that the subsistence technology of India is a result of its biophysical environment, that the cow worship ideology is a result of India's subsistence technology, and that the subsistence technology
and biophysical environment
are both reinforced by the cow worship ideology.
First consider the environment of India. The precipitation is somewhat erratic, with monsoon seasons and then long periods of drought. This affects India in several ways. First, though the plant life is sparse, grass is able to survive in this type of weather. While humans don't find a use in grass, cows do. In this way, cows are able to take in some energy from the environment, which humans can use for other purposes, i.e., for plowing the fields after the monsoon comes and for their milk. Also, a cow's manure can be used in place of wood (because of the lack of plentiful forests due to droughts) for heat and cooking, in addition to being a fertilizer for the weak soil. In addition, the particular cow found in India, the Zebu cow, is well adapted at surviving through the drought periods so that it may be alive for the plowing when the drought is over. If the people of India were to kill the cow during the drought because they worried about not having crops, they would actually end up starving because they would then have no way to grow their crops when the monsoon came.
Furthermore, the higher up the food chain you go, the more energy you lose. Humans can only take in about 4 percent of a cow's energy by eating it with American-grown beef - in India, the energy is used so efficiently that it is more like 17 percent. But still, it is even better if the humans use the cow's energy instead to plow the fields, in which they can grow crops and get a much higher caloric yield than that which they would have obtained from eating the cows. By not killing the cows and using them instead for agriculture, they greatly increase their production, and while the cows end up consuming some of this food, that energy they obtain just goes back into growing more food.
For these reasons, cows are essential to the survival of the Indian people. As a result, the ideology that cows are sacred developed to prevent people from killing the cows, because killing the cows would have resulted in human deaths. An interesting side effect of this ideology, though, is that many of the very rich and many of the very poor do not follow it. Among the rich, eating cows is a sign of power and Westernization, and it is not fatal for them to eat their cows, because they can afford it. Among the poor, they cannot afford cows of their own, so when other people's cows get too sick or too old to be of any more use, the poor will take the cows away and eat them. Because of the prevailing ideology, they are obviously ridiculed for this by the middle class and this serves to maintain stability between the classes.
Now, because there is a belief that the cows are sacred, it prevents the people from killing them on both a survival level and a religious level. Because of this, the population of cows has increased, and this makes the society even more dependent upon them. Because of this dependence, the ideology is strengthened, and because of the strengthened ideology, the dependence is strengthened. This cycle creates a force of permanency on Indian culture that explains why the idea of the sacred cow has maintained its role over such a long period of time.
The Sacred Rac is probably one of the best descriptions of this - if Indians started eating their cows, it would affect their society similarly to how it would affect American society if we stopped using cars. It simply doesn't seem like it's an effective way to change things - the idea of the use and importance of cars is already ingrained in us from a very young age - as children we ache to get our driver's licenses because it is a huge part of the culture and it helps us function better within our environment. This is essentially how the cow works in Indian society, and why it will continue to be an important part of Indian society for years to come.