By Shyla Batliwalla, DivineCaroline
In India, cows rule the roads. Taxis, rickshaws, even ambulances all come to a screeching halt when a cow steps hoof onto the highway (which, I might add, is rather often). Growing up traveling to India every other year, I didn’t think much of it. In the Hindu religion, cows are sacred; clearly they should always have right-of-way. Whenever I tell my stateside friends this, they think it’s completely ridiculous, and I guess it does seem pretty odd. While cars here might come to a full stop on a major highway to let a herd of cattle cross, it’s mainly to avoid an accident. And cows rarely roam onto the road or hang out in the streets. They’re animals, and in the United States, that means they’re penned up.
Hindus, however, are not the only religious group to worship four-legged folk. Numerous ancient societies believe that animals have a special spiritual significance. Animism is the belief that all creatures, even inanimate ones, have a soul. Though more actively practiced in folk religions and in ancient times, animals still play an integral role in our society and our religious beliefs.
In Hinduism, the cow is a symbol of food and life. Vedic scripture dictates they should be treated “with the same respect as one’s mother.” They should never be killed or eaten. Cows are a symbol of the earth. They provide so much nourishment—in the form of milk for food and dung for fuel—and need little in return. Although Hindus do consider the cow as sacred, they do not worship bovines; they simply regard them as one of God’s gifts. In rural India, a cow is considered the most generous and pious of all gifts. and is often traded in the form of dowry.
Arctolatry, the worshipping of bears, is one of the world’s oldest religious beliefs. Dating back to Neolithic times, the bear has always been a highly revered animal. Primarily a North American and Eurasian belief, bear worship dates back to Neanderthal societies. In ancient Western European society, the goddess of wildlife always appeared as a bear. Similarly, the Greek goddess Artemis appears in the form of a bear. The Nivkhs, an Ancient Russian society, offer a bear in celebration to honor a fallen solider. In Japan, the Ainu people name bears kamui, which means “god.” The Ainu people would eat bear, as they believed that the animal’s fur and meat were a gift from the gods.