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What is a Sacred Cow?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A sacred cow is something that is considered immune to criticism by virtue of its high status. This term is often used in a sardonic way to describe something that is regarded so highly that many people are afraid to criticize it. When discussing a sacred cow, the implication is that it must be handled very carefully to avoid causing offense. This slang term is used in many English-speaking countries, although some people find it offensive because of its origins.

As a slang term, "sacred cow" is derived from the status held by cows in Hindu culture, where the cow is regarded as a sacred animal. In India, where the Hindu faith is widespread, cows are allowed to freely wander the streets, and they must be treated with respect in accordance with their status. During the 1800s, many European visitors to India wrote about the sacred cow, and many people came to believe that cows were sacred in all Asian religions, not just Hinduism.

By the 1890s, Western newspapers were comparing people and situations to sacred cows, and by about 1910, they had gone a step further and dropped the comparison, simply referring to certain topics as sacred cows. By this time, the term had entered the English lexicon, and it became in widespread use. It is often used in political polemic, usually in a way which suggests that a person or situation could actually stand closer examination and perhaps some critical thought.

For people of the Hindu faith, this slang term could be considered offensive, because it references their religion in a rather uncomplimentary way. The term essentially makes fun of the concept of the sacred cow in Hindu faith, and it propagates the notion that cows generally are viewed as sacred throughout Asia, which is not the case. Although cows do play a role in some Asian religions, it is only in Hinduism that they are considered holy.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1002130 — On Sep 12, 2019

Coming from India, cows roaming around is not really because of the status accorded to them, but because they are not owned by anybody. There are stray dogs, pigs, buffaloes and other animals that roam around freely on the roads as well. I wish we could be more organized on our roads and make them exclusive to vehicles only.

People don't own huge ranches where their cattle can feed, so owners drive them on road. Hence, you might have to share the road with owned cattle too.

However, the belief of sacredness about cow came about because humans drink cow's milk. Right after babies are weaned off of mother's milk, they are given cow's milk. So, cow is accorded the same status as mother. But again, in this culture, a lot of things in nature are accorded different status. Snakes are worshiped as well.

Living in the west, I now understand how the cow is treated as another source of food, just the same as pigs or chicken or seafood. Where we grow up influences our belief system to a much higher degree than we think it would.

By mobilian33 — On Nov 29, 2014

@Feryll - As long as the people in power in India and other countries where the Hindu religion is the top religion make laws that punish people for harming the cows then the practices that go along with the sacred cow will continue. As I understand it, people are fined and sometimes sent to jail for harming cows.

To be honest, I don't see why the expression scared cow as it is used in secular conversation is considered disrespectful to the religion. If anything, when I use the term sacred cow to mean something that cannot be touched or challenged I am acknowledging the Hindu beliefs, and I am definitely not saying there is anything wrong with their beliefs. In general, most people are too sensitive.

By Feryll — On Nov 29, 2014

I find it interesting that the the origins of the Hindu sacred cow go so far back and how the esteem for the animal has managed to remain, especially in places where many people live in poverty and struggle to find enough food to feed themselves and their families.

In India, a country that has a lot of poverty, there are cows everywhere. I read somewhere that 30 percent of the cows on the face of the earth are in India. Just think how easy it would be for these poor people to simply start slaughtering cows to feed themselves. This goes to show how powerful religions and relics and symbols of religions can be.

By Sporkasia — On Nov 28, 2014

The first time I went to a country where Hindu was widely practiced, I was surprised at how cows, literally sacred cow, were allowed to roam the streets and pretty much do whatever they pleased. Coming from a country where cows are fenced in in pastures and considered a staple on the menu, getting accustomed to the way the Hindu sacred cow is treated took a bit of time.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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