Famous Sayings #155 — ‘Sacred Cow’

July 1, 2019

This pre-meeting ritual of singing the company motto has become our boss’s sacred cow. It’s impractical, time-consuming, and annoying, but he will hear none of it.

sacred cow, Gopastami
Cows are honored during Gopastami, a “Cow Holiday” held yearly in India.

Sorry for being late with this post (I try to post on Sundays), but here is a term that should be familiar to most people.

Chances are you have heard this term uttered by a comedian or someone else who is controversial or iconoclastic. Whenever someone mentions a “sacred cow,” you know they have offended someone, or they are referring to someone who they feel or say is being overly sensitive. But why use the term sacred cow? Let’s first delve into the meaning of that term.

What Is a Sacred Cow?

Figuratively speaking, a sacred cow is a person, thing, project, or institution that is held in high regard, often unreasonably (Dictionary.com). And because that person or thing being discussed is held in such high regard, they or it is considered above reproach or criticism. The people who highly regard a figurative sacred cow will thus resist any questioning about a specific person or thing or changes to a particular process or institution (The Free Dictionary).

Where Does the Term Sacred Cow Come From?

The term sacred cow originates from Hinduism. This stems from the Vedic Hindu society, whose residents were reluctant to eat the meat of an animal whose milk humans consume (Various).

The Early Figurative Use of the Term

The figurative use of the term “sacred cow” originates in the United States and may date back to the late 19th century (Martin). Then, the term referred to a project or process they was immune from tampering. An example of this usage can be found in a March 1890 edition of The New York Herald:

While the great ditch may be regarded as one of the commercial diversities of the commonwealth, to worship it as a sort of sacred cow is not necessarily a work of true statesmanship.

In September 1909, an article in The Galveston Daily News referred to a project as a sacred cow:

They understand Mr. Bryan’s position to be one of antagonism to the contention that raw material is a ‘sacred cow,’ immune from tariff reform, ever to be upon the dutiable list and in consequence enjoying the blessings of incidental protection.

An Early Literal Use of the Term

The term sacred cow may have first been introduced in the United States in the 1850s by Wady Jahed, an Indian émigré who was living in Janesville, Wisconsin, if not earlier. Jahed sent a letter to The Calcutta Times about the lack of knowledge Americans had about sacred cows. That letter, which was sent on the “17th day of the 6th Moon,” was printed by The Janesville Press in January 1854 (Martin).

Here’s the text of the letter:

To the most eminent Kaali Ramon, High Brahmin, at Benares, India.

The religion of the Hindoo is now well established here, but I find many things to correct. For instance the grain which they bring as an offering to the goddess Bhavani, which they pronounce brewery, they work up into a liquor which they drink in honor of the gods, instead of feeding it to the sacred bulls and cows; they also eat the flesh of animals, and do other vile things.

Kiss the sacred cow for me, and may Doorgha bless you at all times.
From your Slave,

Do Hindus Actually Worship Cows?

Hindus do not worship cows, but it is appropriate to say that eating cows is taboo in the Hindu religion and in India at large.

In ancient India, oxen and bulls were used as sacrifices to the gods. After each ritual, the meat of the animals was eaten. However, the slaughter of milk-producing cows was forbidden, and the ancient Vedic scriptures encouraged vegetarianism.

Hindus started abstaining from eating beef during the period where Jainism and Buddhism were emerging. Some scholars believe that Jainism influenced Hinduism in this way. However, there were practical reasons for people in India not to eat beef.

What are the practical reasons? For one thing, it was expensive to slaughter animals, whether it be for spiritual rituals or for consumption. Also, cows were more useful alive because Indians derived important products from them, like milk, browned butter for lams, and dried dung, the latter of which was used as fuel. In rural India, most families keep at least one milk-producing cow, which is viewed as part of the family.

Today, there are five products of the cow that are used in worship and extreme penance: milk, curds, ghee butter, urine, and dung. Cow dung (gobar) is used as fuel for households and it is sometimes used as a material for the tilak, the ritual mark on the forehead.

Beyond that, cows aren’t appreciated much in India outside of Gopastami, a “Cow Holiday.” Many cows can be seen wandering streets and living on garbage. Yet during Gopastami, cows are washed and decorated in a temple (“Hindu cow taboo”).

What Is Considered a ‘Sacred Cow’ Nowadays?

All things considered, there are many policies, beliefs, and practices that have become sacred cows (“SACRED COW”). And, of course, many of them are political in nature.

For example, the practice of saluting the flag in the United States is a sacred cow for many people although many are now questioning it. The practice of standing for the national anthem is also a sacred cow and it has been politicized. I would even say that bits of “conventional wisdom,” like many economic theories have become sacred cows, even if most (like “Trickle-Down” Economics) have been discredited in practice.

Just look closely and see how certain things are held up unreasonably and fiercely defended. We are supposed to question things (even authority) because we’re human and it is better to know why we do things and why other things are done because those actions might not be right, necessary, or particularly efficient.

Works Cited

“Emigre | Definition of Emigre by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster. Online Dictionary. Retrieved 30 June 2019. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/emigre>.

“Hindu cow taboo.” ReligionFacts.com. 19 Nov. 2016. Web. Accessed 30 June 2019. <http://www.religionfacts.com/cow-taboo>.

Martin, Gary. “Sacred cow.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 30 June 2019. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/309250.html>.

“Reproach | Definition of Reproach by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster. Online Dictionary. Retrieved 30 June 3019. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reproach>.

“Sacred cow – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Online Dictionary. Retrieved 30 June 2019. <https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/sacred+cow>.

“Sacred cow | Definition of Sacred cow at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Online Dictionary. Retrieved 30 June 2019. <https://www.dictionary.com/browse/sacred-cow>.

“Sacred Cow | Definition of Sacred Cow by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster. Online Dictionary. Retrieved 30 June 2019. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sacred%20cow>.

“SACRED COW | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Web. Accessed 30 June 2019. <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/sacred-cow>.

Various Authors. “Sacred cow (idiom).” Wikipedia. Last Updated 7 June 2019. Web. Retrieved 30 June 2019. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_cow_%28idiom%29>.

One thought on “Famous Sayings #155 — ‘Sacred Cow’

  1. Pingback: July 12th 2019 – Weekly Roundup of Members Posts | Blogging Meetup

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