The cow is greatly revered by Hindus and regarded as a sacred animal within the Hindu religion. The cow is believed to represent divine and natural beneficence and therefore should be both venerated and protected. Cows have been associated with several different gods within the Hindu tradition. Most notably is Shiva, often thought to be one of the three most important gods of the Hindu religion, whose steed is a bull. Others include Indra, who is closely associated with Kamadhenu, the wish-granting cow; Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu and a cowherd in his youth; and goddesses in general, because of their maternal natures.
In Hindu mythology, Kamadhenu was a divine cow whoo was believed to be the mother of all other cows. Kamadhenu was regarded as a miraculous creature who could give her owner whatever they desired. For the true seeker, she could grand any wish, and provided Vasishta with sacrificial needs.
The cow remains a protected animal among Hindus today. Killing cows is banned in India, where 80% of the population regard themselves as members of the Hindu religion. Most Hindus today are vegetarians and no true Hindu would ever eat any beef product. It is common for rural families in India to have at least one dairy cow, which is often treated like a member of the family.
Many people have confused the cow's sacred role and believe that Hindu's worship this protected animal. However, this is not true, nor has it ever been. Cows are revered and celebrated and even mentioned in Hindu mythology, but are never actually the focus of worship.
While the animal itself is not worshipped, five different products produced by cows, including milk, curds, ghee butter, urine and dung, are all used in worship as well as in rites of extreme penance. Milk is celebrated for the nourishment that it brings to growing children and waste products are used as a major source of energy among Indian households. Unlike most non-Hindus, members of this religion are not repulsed by cow excrement, but instead regard it as a useful product of nature. It is even sometimes used, among other materials, to create a mark on one's forehead during certain Hindu rituals.
Cows are so revered within the Hindu religion that they are allowed to wander wherever they like, even throughout the streets among busy traffic. To those unfamiliar with the Hindu religion, it may seem that these sacred animals are not very appreciated in India. Visitors who observe them walking throughout the city streets, feeding on garbage from the gutters might think that these animals are being neglected. However, it is not for a lack of care that cows roam the streets freely, but actually because of their sacred status that they are allowed to do so without human intervention.
While the cows themselves are not worshipped, they are honored at least once a year, on Gopastami. During this celebration, cows are bathed and decorated in the temple and given offerings.
Cows have been regarded as sacred to one degree or another throughout the history of Hinduism, throughout all of its different traditions. While they are not worshipped as a deity, their sacred status means that they are a protected animal and will remain very important to the Hindu religion.