Cows, India, and Compassion

In a story written by Munshi Premchand, an Indian peasant has to sell his cow, his sole possession, for money. In spite of financial hardship, he sells it to a Hindu at a lower price, not to a butcher. It appears true that if God gave cows a choice, they would choose to be brought up in a Hindu household or shelter. Even if they end up with a poor cowherd in India and have to sustain on leftover food, they would still die a natural death.

Besides compassion for all beings and support for vegetarianism, numerous devotional and cultural factors add to the reverence of Hindus for cows. Some of them are given below.

  1. Cows symbolize piousness and auspiciousness in Hinduism.
  2. Because cows are associated with Lord Krishna (known as Gopala) and Lord Shiva (known as Vrishabharudha) in the Epics and Puranas, respect for cows is linked to one’s devotion for Krishna and Shiva.
  3. Supporting cows is said to increase prosperity in homes by attracting the blessings of Goddess Lakshmi.
  4. Dairy products are offered in temples as prasadam and are used in fire sacrifices.
  5. As Mahatma Gandhi tells us, cow protection means protection of the “helpless and weak in the world.”
  6. Following the tradition set by Krishna, many Hindus see a cow as a mother.
  7. Many Vaishnavas would love to reach Goloka (“the planet of cows”) — the abode of Sri Krishna, where he lives with his devotees and divine cows.
  8. Killing a cow is ranked among the worst karma in Hinduism.
  9. While cows provide nutrition through their milk, their dung is a fertilizer and gomutra has medicinal value in Ayurveda.
  10. In Vedic Astrology, offering food to cows can propitiate afflicted planets in a chart. 

“Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observances of caste rules but by their ability to protect the cow.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Asteya: Non-stealing

In Hinduism, Asteya, often translated as “non-stealing,” is a yam — a tenet for yogis. It refers to not accepting what does not belong to you. While stealing can downgrade anyone’s karma, spiritual aspirants and students may be more seriously wounded by it. Why? Because it may nullify the sole purpose of their actions.

If you are a “devotee” who offers money earned through questionable means, say bribery, in a temple, feeling that God will be pleased and offer you incentives in terms of spiritual advancement, you may need to think again. Can you steal and still surrender to a form of Brahman? Can you enjoy breaking a principal yam and still practice Bhakti Yoga? If you say “yes,” something is seriously wrong with your assumptions. At a lower level of offense, if you copy-paste a paragraph from someone’s website to your own religious website and feel that you are aiding in the promotion of your favorite path to God, you need to hold back and think for a while.

For students, cheating in an examination definitely disagrees with asteya. Getting your essays written by a professional writing service and submitting them for a grade at school may not be too different. But what if no one at school finds out? What if you regularly steal information and still get a high-paying job from the degree you “earn”? Because your self always sees everything, stealing blocks the absorption of knowledge from your self to your mind. What you miss by not following this yam is your own educational and spiritual growth, not transitory success.

Mahabharata: Karna and his friendship

In the Mahabharata, Bhishma lectures Yudhisthira about the types of friends a ruler has.  Basically, he talks about (1) “natural” friends, who share a similar temperament with you or belong to your family, (2) friends whose ancestors have been loyal to your family, (3) friends with whom you share a relationship of mutual profit, and (4) “contrived” friends, who you can pay to follow you. Then he talks about a rare class of friends — the dharmatma (“righteous soul”). Though everyone may wish to have a few righteous friends, they are not someone you can easily search for. Also, once you find them, they are not permanent. Because they are detached, they may move away if you leave your virtuous path, as the scripture suggests.

After raising general concerns about the trustworthiness of friends from the first four classes, Bhishma gives features of friends you can trust: (1) they are happy to see you happy and sad to see you sad, and (2) they are never jealous of your progress but get alarmed in your adversities. Unsurprisingly, trustworthy friends form a class of their own.

Based on this model, Karna appears to comfortably qualify as a trustworthy friend for Duryodhana. But is he a righteous friend as well? This is not an easy question to answer. A key given in the text is that you have to be a righteous soul yourself to attract a righteous soul as your friend. Accordingly, no matter how good a person Karna was, the scripture may hesitate to label a friend of Duryodhana as “righteous.” Only a king like Yudhisthira deserves a dharmatma as a friend.

So how would you grade Karna’s friendship? Please feel free to share your views in the comments section.

Caste, varna, and our aspiration

We can categorize ourselves into the four classes of ancient Indian society — brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra — by birth, function, or inner aspiration. When we use birth as the basis, it creates the caste system, a result that is not even worth talking about. By function (responsibilities of our current job), we can classify ourselves as educators (Class I), defense professionals (Class II), entrepreneurs (Class III), and employees (Class IV). In an entirely function-based classification, our varna is not a static label — it can be voluntarily changed by switching careers.

Similarly, we may classify ourselves according to our inner aspiration* as follows:
Class I: Learning or Seeking Brahman
Class II: Protection of the Motherland
Class III: Growth of an enterprise
Class IV: Focused work on a supervised project

In an aspiration-based approach, figuring out our true class may not be that easy. Does an industrialist who desires personal profit alone belong to Class III? Can teachers or spiritual gurus aspiring for money or fame call themselves Brahmins? Nevertheless, this approach does have an advantage over the function-based approach: Except our own mind and God, no one else can recognize our class.

*The Bhagavada Gita classifies us according to our inner nature, which includes function, aspiration, and aptitude.


Though meat, except for beef, is not prohibited in Hinduism and many Hindus are non-vegetarian, most Hindus respect vegetarianism in one form or the other. Let us summarize the main reasons behind Hindu allegiance to a vegetarian diet.

1. Compassion. Hindus feel that inflicting pain on an animal just to fulfill their appetite is not worth it. In a culture where ahimsa is prescribed at the mental plane, even thinking about bloodshed and reading recipes of non-vegetarian eatables oppose the practice of non-violence.

2. Reincarnation and Karma. Compassion towards animals may not be well developed in all humans. Still, supporters of the karmic law understand that any pain given to another life form, especially mammals, gets recorded as bad karma. The Mahabharata is very blunt in applying the karmic law to a non-vegetarian diet: “Whoever wishes to grow one’s own flesh by eating someone else’s flesh” faces suffering and may “repeatedly wander in the cycle of rebirths.”

The principle of reincarnation tells us that before appearing as a human being, we may have experienced life as a lower life form. Now that we have a chance and a choice to modify our instincts, it may not be a wise decision to revive our past habits of being a carnivore.

 3. God’s choice. In the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavan Krishna gives detailed instructions on the importance of sattvic food for a yogi. The same is offered to him in temples. Any other diet is not acceptable to God, especially in Vaishnavism, where he simply likes grains, fruits, dairy products, and sweets.

4. Psychology. Ayurveda teaches that whatever we eat influences our mind. For a calm and peaceful mindset, all rajas and tamas foods are to be avoided. Spices can be used as medicines after they have been matched to one’s doshas. Besides, when we eat something that can not be offered to God, we may already be placing sense gratification above our spiritual connection and gratitude.

Please use the comments section to share your own reasons for being a vegetarian.

Does ego block learning?

Among all elements of material nature, ego (ahamkara) is probably the most essential for the stability of the universe. As the Bhagavata Purana tells us, Sri Krishna himself encloses the universe with ego (and the other elements of material nature) when he decides to create the universe for his divine play.

Ego blocks learning by giving us a false feeling of being knowledgeable. And as soon as our mind registers, “I know,” we involuntarily but clearly signal Devi Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning, that we are no longer prepared to receive more data from her. Though ego has the potential to block learning in both worldly and spiritual subject areas, our mechanisms for trusting our mentors and receiving sattvic information from the environment are more strongly hurt when our ego expands. This also implies that people who are prone to thinking that they play bigger roles in society, including some of the rich and famous, may find it more difficult to become true students of spirituality.

Because jnana (spiritual knowledge) can help us transcend ego, jnana is considered ego’s only enemy and is sometimes defined as the absence of ego. As we recognize Rama as the Real Doer, the Absolute Reality, or our Sole Refuge, mineness is transcended on its own.

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