Mattu Pongal, the third day of the Pongal festival of southern India, is dedicated to the animals of the world, particularly cattle.
The legend goes, Shiva told his bull Basava, or Nandi, to inform the people of the world that they should eat once a month and bathe daily with an oil massage.
Evidently, Bull was not the best messenger. He told the people to eat daily and bathe once a month.
When Shiva heard this he was furious, so he forced Bull to return to earth and help the people plow, where he’s been ever since. That way they’d have food enough to eat each day.
There’s a belief in western society that Indians “worship” the cow. This is a misconception, perhaps propagated by the activities on Mattu Pongal. On this day cows do get the royal treatment: they’re bowed down to, painted, decorated with care, and they are offered Pongal, the rice dish for which the festival gets its name. The cows are symbolic of all animals on earth.
But they are not worshipped in the English sense of the word. Cows are considered special in the sense that they cannot be slaughtered. Part of the reason for this is that the cows already give so much back to the people through their milk. Another historical, practical reason may have been that the killing of the best cows for their meat reduced the genetic diversity of the herd.
A third, more controversial theory is that in the Sanskrit of the Vedas the word Go, meant “light” or “sense” as well as “cow.” Thus, the phrase “Protector of the Brahmanas and the Light” was interpreted as “Protector of the Cow.” [But this sounds to me like the story of the Catholic priest who, after a life of being celibate (no sex), goes to up heaven and gets to read Jesus’s original instructions on how to live the life a priest. He’s furious when he reads the original translation: “A priest should be pure and celebrate.”]
At any rate, Holy Cow is misleading. More like “Venerated Cow.” As Gandhi put it:
“One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world.