The debate of the sacredness of the cow is an issue even amongst India’s historians with some arguing that the “holy cow” is a relatively recent phenomenon exploited by political and religious groups. In The Myth of The Holy Cow, historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha says that ancient Hindus ate beef—the cow got its revered status around 500 A.D. coinciding with an agricultural boom on the subcontinent. Jha's research offers copious evidence that ancient Hindu kings regularly sacrificed and ate animals including cattle. Cattle, even cow, meat was not sacred during the Vedic period (1000-5000 B.C.) which was the time when Hinduism’s oldest scriptures—the Vedas—were written.
To Hindus, the cow is now worshipped as Gaumata (mother cow) because it provides milk to everyone. It symbolizes selfless giving. There are about 3,000 Gaushalas (cow shelters) in India where old and infirm cows are looked after. The cow, to many Hindus, embodies gentleness and non-violence. Hinduism holds the belief that all living creatures are sacred and promotes the idea of ahimsa(non-violence). “In China, dogs are killed for their meat and leather,” says Poorva Joshipura, CEO, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, India. “In the United States, where they are loved and kept in homes, they aren’t killed. So when people call for cow slaughter bans, there isn’t always an ulterior motive.”
India has a checkered past with cow slaughter bans. The Muslim Mughals ruled for three centuries and the British colonized the country for two centuries. The first Mughal emperor, Babur, banned cow slaughter in 1527 out of respect for Hindus; but some Hindu kings did not enforce the ban. The big picture today is a mixed one: On the one hand, there are Muslims and Christians who don’t eat beef out of respect for their Hindu neighbors. On the other, there are Hindus who eat beef.
According to Chetan Rajhans, spokesperson for Hindu Janajagriti Samiti—a social organization that hopes to revive Hindu values, India’s present anti-cow slaughter movement probably began with the Mutiny of 1857. The mutiny was an uprising of Indian soldiers against their British superiors for introducing pork and beef-greased cartridges for P53 Enfield rifles. The ends of these cartridges had to be bitten off before use, enraging Muslims, who don’t eat pork, and Hindus, who don’t eat beef. “The cartridges mobilized people to Gauraksha (cow protection),” says Rajhans. “That was the beginning of a nationwide Cow Protection Movement uniting Hindus against the British.”http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/02/selling-the-sacred-cow-indias-contentious-beef-industry/385359/