Mahabharata: The Preeminence of Cows Bheeshma narrates the background stories of cows, their highly evolved nature, their status as the support of all beings, purifiers, givers of abundant wealth and prosperity, and granters of every wish.

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In the Anushasana parva of the Mahabharata1, Yudhishthira questions Bheeshma on the subject of cows. Using numerous accounts of past events and conversations with rishis of great knowledge and tapasya, Bheeshma then discusses the spiritual significance of cows and the punya (karmic merit) that one gains in serving them and in giving them as daana.

He says that just as Ma Ganga is the foremost of all rivers, even so is a Kapila cow the foremost of all cows. For which Yudhishthira asks, “Why is the gift of a Kapila cow considered more meritorious when all good cows that are given away as daana are equal?”

The story of Mahadeva and cows

Brahma, the creator of the universe, commanded Daksha prajapati to create living creatures. Daksha proceeded to do so and as soon as the creatures were born, they began to cry aloud for food and approached their father. For the sustenance and well-being of all his children, Daksha drank a quantity of divine nectar which caused him to belch and bring forth a cow named Surabhi. Surabhi brought forth a number of daughters who came to be regarded as the mothers or the world, since they were the means of sustenance for all creatures. They were all Kapila cows and they had a golden complexion. These Kapila cows began to produce milk in copious amounts. Some of the milk fell, from the mouths of the calves that were sucking, upon the head of Shiva, who was sitting on the Earth. Shiva got enraged and with this third eye, seemed to burn those cows as he looked at them. Like the sun who makes masses of clouds iridescent with diverse colours, the energy that issued from the third eye of Mahadeva produced diverse complexions in those cows. Only those cows that escaped from this glance remained in their original colour. Seeing Shiva very angry, Daksha explains that the milk that these cows yield, being born of divine nectar, is never considered impure and is in fact the means of sustenance and wealth enjoyed by all creatures. Daksha then makes a present of a bull and Kapila cows to Shiva, who, now gratified, makes the bull his vehicle. On that same occasion, the celestial beings united together and made Mahadeva the lord of animals and the master of cows. Hence, says Bheeshma, the Kapila cow of unchanged golden complexion is considered foremost among cows, and so is the gift of giving a golden Kapila cow in daana, for they have Shiva for their master.

Even today, the Kapila cow, a native breed of Southern Karnataka, is considered as the best cow breed. It is the most revered cow for worship and it is raised specially for using its products in poojas and yajnas. There is a popular view that Kapila cows are wise in eating and have the ability to distinguish unhealthy substances among plants or plant products. The milk from a Kapila cow is of very high quality and in Ayurveda, the Indian science of health, it is known to have high therapeutic value2,3.

Surabhi’s tapasya

Bheeshma also narrates to Yudhishthira the story of how the cows attained to a state of preeminence. In a conversation between Indra and Brahma, the latter desires to know why Goloka, the region of the cows, is higher than the region of the devas themselves who are the lords of all the worlds. Brahma then explains that in the Treta yuga, Aditi, the wife of Kashyapa Maharishi and the mother of the devas, undertook severe austerities to have as her son Vishnu, who took the Vamana avatara. Seeing her penance, Surabhi undertook similar austerities. She went to Kailasha and stood upon one leg for 11,000 years. Pleased with her penance, Brahma appeared and asked her what boon she desired, for which she replied that she had no need of boons for she considered his gratification itself as a great boon. Seeing that she was free from the least desire, so hard to overcome, he became extremely pleased and granted her the boon of immortality. He blessed her that she would dwell in a region that is higher than devaloka, and the region would be known as Goloka. It would be a beautiful and delightful place, endued with the means for the fulfillment of every wish and neither death, decrepitude nor fire could overcome its inhabitants. The daughters of Surabhi, ever engaged in good acts, would reside in Bhuloka, the world of humans. It is only through the practice of a life of brahmacharya, truth, self-restraint, tapasya, dharma and daana that one can attain to Goloka.

Abode of Sri Lakshmi

It is a common Hindu saying that the dung of a native cow is endued with Sri Lakshmi. Yudhishthira questions Bheeshma on how this happened, for which he narrates the story. Once, Sri Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, assuming a very beautiful form, enters a herd of kine and introduces herself to them, as the being by whose grace alone dharma, artha and kama become sources of happiness. It is by her energy that rishis and devas have success in their actions. They who forsake her will meet with destruction, just as the Daityas (asuras) lost their position. Knowing cows to be the givers of happiness, she expresses her wish to reside in every one of them. She says,”O sinless ones, there is no part of your body that is repulsive for you are sacred, sanctifying and highly blessed. In which part of your bodies shall I take up my residence?”

The cows discuss among themselves and say to her,”O auspicious Goddess, both our dung and urine are sacred, you may live in them.”

Feeling honored and filled with happiness, Mahalakshmi assumes an invisible form to fulfill her wish.

Cows – the root of yajnas and the support of all beings

The Vedic tradition recognizes the interdependence of all beings, and yajnas or ritual offerings to the devas and pitris (ancestors) are central to living a life of harmony with the natural forces. The devas depend on these yajnas for their sustenance and they in turn harmonize the natural forces for prosperity on earth. In a yajna, oblations of ghee are offered to the fire along with the chanting of specific mantras.   

In this context, Bheeshma tells Yudhishthira that no yajna can be performed without the aid of curds and ghee. Hence ghee, or, the cow from which it is produced is regarded as the very root of yajna. With their milk and ghee, which forms the havi (oblation), cows uphold all creatures in the universe. He further affirms that of all kinds of daana, the daana of cows is applauded as the highest. Cows are highly sacred and are the best of cleansers and sanctifiers. To enjoy prosperity and peace, people should serve and cherish cows.

Cows – givers of prosperity and freedom

Bheeshma also recounts a conversation between King Saudasa of the solar dynasty and his kula guru, Vasishta Maharishi, on the exalted nature of cows. Vasishta says that those who make gifts of cows transcend all sins which they may have committed. The regular recitation of the names of cows and reverence of cows has tremendous power and leads one to great prosperity and liberates one from fear. Even in the case of psychological conditions such as evil dreams, recitation of the names of cows helps one overcome them. One ought to always bathe, using cow dung at the time and one ought to sit on dried cow dung.

Vasishta also explains the background story of why cows are considered to be exalted. The cows of a former yuga practiced the austerest penances for a 100,000 years with the desire of attaining to a position of great preeminence. They desired to be the support of the whole universe and the best form of dakshina in yajnas. And by bathing in water mixed with their dung, people would become sanctified. Devas and humans would use their dung for the purpose of purifying all creatures, mobile and immobile. And they who give them away in daana would attain the same loka as them and enjoy happiness. With such a desire, they practised their austerities. At the end of their penance, Brahma appeared before them, pleased. He granted them their desired boon that they would be highly blessed and become the refuge of the world.  

Cows – granters of all wishes (Gomati mantra)

Bheeshma further narrates a dialogue between Suka and his father, Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa, wherein the latter discusses the power of the Gomati mantra, a mantra for obtaining blessings from cows. Living in a pure state in the midst of cows, one ought to mentally chant the sacred Gomati mantra, which purifies and cleanses one of all sins. He goes on to describe the manner in which brahmanas of Vedic learning may impart the knowledge of  the Gomati mantra to their disciples. A man who desires to have a son, a woman who desires to have a good husband, and even one who desires wealth may have their wishes fulfilled through worship and chanting of this mantra. In fact, one may obtain the fruition of every wish by adoring the sacred Gomati mantras. When cows are pleased with the service one renders them, they are, without doubt, capable of granting the fruition of every wish.

Imbibing Bheeshma’s words deep within himself, Yudhishthira performed many yajnas and gave away hundreds of thousands of cows to brahmanas.