Cattle:  Cow, Bull & Calf

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Wish-fulfilling Cow

Cows represent the All-good.  The image of fruits of nature emerging from a cow's horn -- a horn of plenty -- is tied to the Cow of Plenty of Indian mythology, whose name is Surabhi.  She belonged to the Vedic sage, Vasishtha.  

Kamadhenu is the sacred cow as she relates to Hindu ritual.  Her 5 gifts are sacred offerings.  They are:  milk, curds (yoghurt,)  butter, urine (considered a pure substance that can serve as medicine,) and manure (which is used for plastering walls and floors, and which, dried, is used as fuel.)   She also gives us a further gift, her offspring -- a calf, the source of further cattle.

In the Himalayan tradition, butter is sculpted to make offerings such as tormas, and it also provides the oil that fuels butterlamps.  

Ghee, clarified butter, is the very essence of cow.  As such, it is the substance that, in India, is used to bath sacred images. 

Classification of Chinese Buddhist scripture  (p'an-chiao) owes a debt to Chih-i (538-597), who thought Dharma could be understood in terms of successive stages of refinement, similar to the way ghee is produced from milk:

Just as milk derives from a cow, cream derives from milk, butter derives from cream, melted butter derives from butter, and ghee derives from melted butter, so the twelve divisions of the canon derive from the Buddha, the sutras derive from the twelve divisions of the canon, the extended sutras derive from the sutras, the Perfection of Wisdom derives from the extended sutras, and nirvana, which is like ghee, derives from the Perfection of Wisdom.   ~ Quoted by Peter Gregory.

Hindu deity, Lord Vishnu, in his avatar or active form as Krishna, is called Govinda and Gopala: "the cow-finder" and "cow-protector."  These epithets are references to his existence in Vrindavan as a herdsman.  This is metaphorical in the same way that King David (The Bible: Old Testament. Psalm 23) sang, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."  From the viewpoint of a devotee of Krishna the Cowherd, the cosmic cow is seen as incorporating all deities. 

Cow = Wealth  

The Maasai of East Africa, who live off the milk and blood of their prized cattle are frequently heard to make the claim that all the world's cattle actually belong to them.  If that is so, then they once were rich beyond belief, for there is evidence to show that cows were the world's first "portable" wealth.

Once, the world was divided into those who kept wealth in the form of cattle, and those who did not.   Herders of sheep and goats were considered by the cattle-rich, as somewhat inferior.  On the other hand, the Greeks and the Romans looked down on all those who used butter instead of olive or other vegetable oil.  

The English word chattel meaning possessions derives from capital ( < caput = head.)  It further evolved into cattle, the collective word for cow.  In other words, especially in lands where the Romans left their imprint, cattle means wealth.  And in many other cultures, besides.

There is a motif in the mythology of the world known as "cattle-raiding."  In classical mythology, Hermes the Trickster steals the cattle of the sun.  One of the most famous Irish tales (c. 1100 CE) is The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Tin B Calnge). [Link to the finale in which the brown Bull of Cualaigne appears.  No longer  available.]

Heavenly Cow

 In Indian folktales, Dhol is the name of a white cow that holds the earth between her horns.  And we know  the Indian cow has been protected for millennia for the economic reasons this symbolism expresses.  A less direct symbolism is expressed by the fact that the white cow is "the vehicle" of Goddess Parvati. 

In ancient Egypt, there were a number of cow deities.  Nut, the sky goddess emanates as Mehueret, the Flood.  Another is Hesat and milk was referred to as "beer of Hesat.'"   The Egyptian goddess of fertility, Bata, was depicted as a cow, or as a human with the ears and horns of a cow.  She was a deity of Upper Egypt (Sudan.)  Even today, that part of the world has a special relationship with cows.  The Masai of East Africa consider that all the cattle in the world belong to them.

Cow-horned Hathor, daughter of Ra, is another Egyptian goddess associated with the heavens.   The Celestial Cow, who carries the sun's disc between her horns, she is later portrayed as a slender woman wearing the horns.  As "Eye of Ra" she transforms into avenging Sekhmet -- lion-headed death deity, goddess of war and pestilence -- to punish humans for their  transgressions.  She nearly wipes out all mankind before Ra manages to arrest her activity by getting her drunk with beer that had been colored to look like blood so that she once again becomes benevolent. 


Europa was a once a Phoenician maiden whom Zeus desired.  Jealous Hera turned her into a white cow and chased her towards the west, the region that today bears her name.

Indo-europeans carried the notion of a cosmic cow with them to northern Europe, for in the mythology of the Eddas, Audhumla ("Without Impurity") was the creator of humankind.  From a stone, she licked Man into being over a period of three days.  She was created from ice-melt at the beginning of time, and preserves herself while sustaining the status quo by licking the salt and hoar frost which would otherwise build up on Niflheim, abode of the gods.  The titans or Ymir feed on her milk.  

In southern Gaul, Damona was the name of this cow who exists in relation to the waters of the earth. The ultimate food was the milk of such a cow.  Ethne is an Irish goddess, who subsists on milk from a sacred cow.

The Basques had a special relation with the cow. They used to worship Mari at her sacred caves or "houses of Mari."  It is believed that her guardian, a fiery-eyed, red-haired cow (or bull?) Beigorri, may occasionally be seen there still.  It is this animal that is painted on the walls of the sacred caves, many of which contain evidence of occupation from over 20,000 years ago.  

Is it a cow or not?

There seems to be a definite idea as to what constitutes Cow that is rather different from the vague categorization of  deer / antelope /gazelle.  Cows are definitely not water buffalo nor are they yaks.  The Hindu Goddess Durga slew a primordial demon Mahisha, who had at first taken the form of a huge water buffalo but the bull, Nandi is the vehicle of, and hence all bulls are sacred to, her consort, Maheshvara or Shiva.   Though people cannot deny there is a relation here, the distinction between buffalo and bull is considered very important.  Many people who would never eat roast beef will eat "buff burger".

The sub-family of even-toed mammals known as Bovines is separated into several Genus.
1. Bos are true cattle, descended from the ancestor of the European cow known as the Aurochs (Bos primigenius.) There are 3 species:
Bos taurus, European cattle; Bos indicus, tropical cattle; and Bos frontalis, Bhutan cattle.
2. Bison is particular to North America, "American bison."
3. Poephagus is the yak.
4. Bibos is the guar (wild buffalo of India.)
5. Bubalus is the [east Asian] water buffalo, sub-divided into River and Swamp types.
6.  Anoa is a small-size variety, now classed with Bubalus.
7.  Syncerus is the impressive African or Cape buffalo.

Chromosomal studies and field experiments show that Bos, Bison and Poephagus will cross-breed, but not with Bubalus or Syncerus

~ National Research Council report.  The Water Buffalo: New Prospects for an Under Utilized Animal. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1981. 

The Yak

For Tibetans who live in mountainous terrain, we can say that the yak [a male term, actually] is their cow.

"The nomads call their animals "wish-granting yaks," for they provide all their needs - - hides and wool for warmth and shelter, meat and milk products for food, and even dried dung for fuel."  Inextricably linked to the fortunes of Tibet, the yak may go a long way to help preserve her culture* -- no pun intended.

*Yogurt or curd need some culture from a previous batch that contains an essential lactophile bacteria.

Greatest Places says: 

The yak is a hefty, primitive looking beast, somewhat resembling the ancient paintings of bisons. The high plateau is the natural ecological niche for this unique animal, which flourished best at heights above 13,000 feet. Below this altitude, there is a similar, though less powerful animal, the dzo, which is actually a crossbreed between a yak and a cow.  Strong enough to do heavy field tasks, yaks also supply their owners with milk, butter, meat, dung, and hair. Apparently the value of yak dung in the woodless regions of Central Asia cannot be over estimated. It is the main fuel of the country and burns with a hot, steady flame. Yet in 1994, 10, 000 were established in reserves by the current authorities, along with the always rare moose-like takin. 

A dri is the female yak.

The Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying that mixing Buddhism and Christianity is like "trying to put a yak's head on a cow's body."  This kind of reference to the cow in discussions of religion/philosophy is a very ancient one in the Indian tradition.   Even a thousand years ago, when the Nyaya metaphysicians disputed Buddhists about matters of ontology [being-ness/existence] they referred to  "eternal cow-ness" as being distinct from "bovine particulars."


Cattle (kine is an archaic English word) are grouped into herds that consist of cows, heifers and calves.  To control breeding, bulls are kept apart.  Steers are castrated bulls that are raised for meat.  Non-agricultural people do not seem to know what an ox is, nor the relation between oxen and steers.  An ox is a powerful draught animal and a young one is known as a bullock.

The flat wildflower with a yellow centre is called an ox-eye daisy, and a person who is gazing longingly at a loved one is said to be "making calf eyes." 

Bovine is an adjective derived from the Latin bos.  Yes, boss.


The cow epitomized gentleness and appears in The Bible as the opposite of the fierce predators. Isaiah XI, 6-7: 

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them,  7. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox

The Bull

Taurus is today the second constellation in the Western hemisphere, in the spring.  Many different cultures have seen the red-eyed bust of a bull in the arrangement of stars, and the notion of a Bull of Heaven is very ancient.  

In a way, it is the opposite of the heavenly cow, for in  Mesopotamian myth, it was the embodiment of a terrible drought created by Anu for the goddess Ishtar.

The Mediterranean island of Crete was the legendary home of the Minotaur -- a bull-headed monster according to the Greeks, but archaeologists of the 19th century revealed a misunderstanding.  Ancient Cretan culture is called Minoan after Minos, the legendary ruler of the island.  The largest building on the site was found by Sir Arthur Evans to be extremely complex in its layout -- a veritable maze.   Add to these two facts the discovery of the emblem of the Minoans, a double-headed axe or labrys (not unlike a flattened dorje) that was found carved into stone pillars and we have a Laby-rinth and a Mino-taur

The Minoans did have a sacred relationship with the bull, and bull-leaping youths depicted on the walls of the palace at Knossos indicate some elaborate ritual associated with it.  This involved dancing or tumbling between the sharp horns of unrestrained bulls.  Horned altar stones similar to contemporary abstract sculptural pieces were also found there.  

Sadly, other aspects of this seem to have a root in reality.  Legend has it that offerings of youths were made regularly to the Minotaur, and indeed human remains were recently found that indicate the intentional butchering of human beings. 

As a punishment for murder, the step-child of Hera [Hera-cles] was condemned to a series of trials or labours by King Eurystheus,.  The seventh was to capture the fierce marauding bull of Crete who some say was Zeus himself in his role as the shape-shifting trickster that carried off the Phoenician maiden, Europa.  It is more likely that the ferocious beast had been the animal lover of the queen of Crete, for when King Minos insulted Poseidon, that god avenged himself by inducing in the Queen , a near-deadly lust for a bull. 

According to the Greeks, this relation engendered the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster who was kept in a "labyrinth" and to whom the youths of the land were sacrificed. 

Later, Herakles made a lasso, and chasing the beast until it weakened, finally succeeding in throwing the lasso over the bull's head.  Having pacified the beast, Heracles leapt on its back and rode it across the sea back to the Peloponese.  He presented it to Eurystheus, who thought to sacrifice it to Hera, queen of heaven.  But Hera continued to bear a grudge against the hero who, through no fault of his was the offspring of her husband Zeus and the earthly woman Alcmene.  She refused the offering, and so the bull was released to run wild in Greece. 

While serving in Persia, the Romans encountered the cult of Mithras, Sol Invictis, Mithras stabbing the Bull of Darkness.vanquisher of the Bull, and that religion became exceedingly popular among legionnaires of the Empire stationed everywhere. 

They prayed, "Spirit of Spirit, if it be your will, lend me immortal life so that I may be reborn, and the sacred spirit breathe in me again." 

Greek carving (3rd century CE)  of Mithras Tauroctonos.

Mithras vanquishing the Bull of Darkness with his dagger, though originally a Persian image, became characteristically Roman. 

Mithraism vied in popularity with Christianity to the extent that several of the important aspects of its mythology were assimilated to Christianity by the late 4th century.  One of these is the important date of 25th December, the winter solstice which marks the birth of the Lord of Light, who is essentially a solar deity.  It was customary to mark the day with gift-giving.  Mithras can also be said to have been born of a virgin, and to have lived among shepherds.   His priests were the Magi.

  • An excellent description of bullfighting and its lifestyle appears in a collection of articles by Susan Orlean about extraordinary people called The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.  The title chapter is about matadora Cristina Sanchez.  (Reprinted by Doubleday, 2001.) 


Nandi means joyous.  Nandi the Bull is the vahana (vehicle) of Shiva. However in ancient times, there was worshipped the Lord of Joy (Nandikeshvara), who was depicted as a man with a bull's head.

The bull is also the emblem of Adinath, the first Jain tirthankara.  

In South India, on the north shore of the Cauvery, is the Hindu temple called Vallalar Koil that is sacred to Shiva as Sri Vadhanyeshwar.  At this shrine, Parvati his consort is called Gnanambika (Wisdom Mother.)  At this place is the shrine of a yogi, Sri Medha Dakshinamurti.  He is depicted under a banyan tree but somewhat surprisingly he is seated on Nandi, Shiva's bull.   

The bull, a symbol of male sexuality, is the driving force of attainment in many symbolic systems.  Consider Zeus, sky god of the Greeks who, in the form of a white bull, unrelentingly pursues Europa.  It may be that the prototype of that myth is the Indian cosmogony in which the First Being, Purusha, out of loneliness, splits into two aspects, male and female.  The female, aware that the two are brother and sister, out of shame assumes the form of a cow and flees her brother's advances.  Accordingly, he becomes a bull, so she eludes him by becoming a mare.  No matter what form she assumes, he changes to correspond, and so all the various animals of creation are born. 


According to legend, Vrishabha Deva (Nandi) was getting too proud of the fact that he was the one who carried the Great God.  Shiva wanted to teach him a lesson, so he placed a lock from his matted hair on the bull. Unable to bear the weight, Rishaba Deva felt humbled and realized his mistake. He prostrated before Lord Shiva begging his pardon.  Shiva not only forgave him, but also initiated him into the mysteries of Divine Wisdom.  Thereafter, when Shiva imbued the form of the yogi Dakshinamurti, Nandi also served as his mount. 


If, as we have seen, the cow stands for wealth, then the ox stands for work.

Any castrated male animal of the cattle family, especially if it is to be used for hauling logs, a cart or a plow, can be called an ox.  The plural of ox is oxen, one of the few English words still in current use that retains the ancient ending in its plural form. 

A young ox is a bullock and that is how the mind is depicted in the first of 

2009 ushers in the Year of the Female [Ch: yin] Earth "Ox," so let's face it, this is actually the Year of the Cow! 

The northern musk-ox, like oxen or yaks, are classified as Bovidae, but at least up to 1997,  it has been classified in the same sub-family as sheep and goats.  It likely received the "ox" part of its name due to its hefty and imposing appearance.   In folklore, it is often the general impression that matters, so since there is no apparent difference between the sexes except for the female's smaller size, she could satisfy our mental associations with the "ox" of East Asia's 12-animal calendar.  

 ~ 18th-century image < John Platts.  A Library of Wonders and Curiosities Found in Nature,  . . .   . 1884.


No Bull. Death is a Cow with Calf.

Aeons ago, during the time of Buddha Padmattara, a certain layman, seeing some monk being accorded a chief place in the sangha by that buddha, made the aspiration that he might achieve the same status under a future buddha.  After he had spent many intervening lives in the heavens, he became a monk under Buddha Kashyapa. Later, he finally took a human birth during the time of Buddha Shakyamuni. 

Known as Bahia, after the land of his birth, he became a wealthy trader and managed to complete seven successful overseas voyages.  On his eighth trip, he was ship-wrecked though he did manage to reach shore where he emerged naked as the day he was born.  He made himself a garment of bark [perhaps as he had seen certain islanders do on his travels in the Pacific] and so he became known as Barkcloth-Bahiya.

He made it back to Sopara, the legendary port north of Bombay where people set sail for Shri Lanka and other exotic places in search of riches.  There, taking up a cocoanut shell, he wandered about for alms.  He was treated as a holy man, given homage and receiving the usual contributions of food, shelter, clothing and medicine. 

Sceptics offered him various fine things to test him, but he realized what they were doing and did not give in.  That led to his being showered all the more with donations and respect so that he, himself, began to believe that he was one of the  arhats. 

Just then, a devata who had once been a relative in a former existence, out of compassion for him and aware of the line of thinking that had arisen in his mind, went to where he was staying said, "Hold on there, Bahiya; you are neither an arhat nor have you even entered that path.  You don't even have the practice to become one!" 

"Well, nagini, who in this world is one? Or who is even on the way?" 

"Bahiya, there is a city in the north called Shravasti.  There there is one, a real self-awakened person -- a Buddha.  And he teaches the Dharma that leads to arhatship. " 

Then Bahiya, chastened by his meeting with the spirit being, left Supparaka right then and, in the space of a day and a night, made it all the way to where the Blessed One was staying at Anathapindika's monastery in Jeta's Grove outside Shravasti. 

At the time, a large number of monks were outside doing walking meditation.  He went over to them and said, "Where, venerable sirs, is the Buddha staying? We'd like to see him." 

"He's gone into town for alms." 

Then Bahiya hurriedly left the Grove and entering Shravasti, saw the Blessed One out "begging" for alms.  He seemed so calm and so calming, his senses and his mind at peace, tranquil and poised in the ultimate sense, accomplished, trained, composed and restrained.  Just like a Naga. 

So seeing him, Bahiya went over and threw himself down prostrate at His feet.  He said, "Teach me the Dharma, Blessed One! Please, teach me, Tatagatha, something that will benefit me in the long run and make me happy." 

The Buddha replied, "This is not the time, Bahiya. We are here in town for alms." 

A second time, Bahiya said to the Buddha, "But anything could happen at any moment to you or to me. Teach me the Dharma, O Blessed One! Please, teach me, Tathagatha, what will help me and make me happy in the long run." 

A second time, the Blessed One answered, "Not now, Bahiya.  We have come here for alms." 

So a third time, Bahiya said to the Buddha, "But our lives could end here and now. Teach me the Dharma, Blessed One! Teach me the Dharma, Tathagata, so that I may be helped and be happy forever." 

"OK, Bahiya. This is it:

When you see something, just see it.
When you hear something, just hear it. 

When you feel something, then feel it.  And when you are aware of something, just know it.

That is how you should train yourself.   So that when for you there is only the seen in reference to what is seen, only the heard in reference to what is heard, only the sensed in reference to what is sensed, and only the cognized in reference to what you cognize, then Bahia, there will not be any distinctions any longer. 

So that when you are not "thereby", you will not be 'therein.'  When you are not "therein", you will be neither 'here' nor 'there' nor in between. This, just this, is the end of stress." 

Through hearing this brief explanation of the Dharma from the Blessed One, the mind of Bark-cloth Bahiya  right then and there was released from consequences [or karma] through lack of clinging/desire.  Having instructed Bark-cloth Bahiya with this brief explanation of the Dharma, the Blessed One left. 

And not long after that, Bahiya -- attacked by a cow with her calf -- lost his life. 

Then the Blessed One, having gone out to Shravasti, and then returning from his alms round and having eaten a meal together with a large number of monks, saw that Bahiya had died. 

On seeing him, he said to the monks, "Take Bahiya's body up on a litter and carry it away and cremate it; then build him a memorial. Your companion in the holy life has died." 

"As you say, lord," the monks replied. After doing what the Buddha had told them to, they went back to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As they were sitting there, they said to him, "Bahiya's body has been cremated, lord, and his memorial has been built.  What will happen to him? What is his future state?" 

"Monks, Bark-cloth Bahia was wise. He practiced the Dharma in accordance with the Dharma and did not pester me with issues related to it.  Bark-cloth Bahiya has achieved nirvana - he has been released." 

Then, realizing the significance of that, he exclaimed: 

Where water, earth, fire, and wind have no footing:
There the stars do not shine, the sun is not visible,
the moon does not appear, darkness is not found.
And when a sage, a noble person, through sagacity
has known [this] for himself, then from form & formless,
from bliss & pain, he is freed. 

                ~ Khuddaka, Udana 1-10

Much later, according to the Dhammapada (v. 101, or Thousands v. 2) when Buddha was telling his disciples that Bahia had attained release after hearing just one verse, a monk asked how it was possible for a single verse to lead to Nirvana.  The Buddha answered: 

Better than a thousand verses comprising useless words, is one single beneficial line that through the hearing of it, one is pacified. 

~ Tan Chade Meng

Bull of No-Death

To Hindus and Buddhists, the King of Dharma and Lord of Death are one and the same: Yama, here with his sister/consort Yami and their water buffalo are shown in a bronze image at the Patan Museum, Nepal.

One of the Tibetan Buddhist dharmapalas is a manifestation of Manjushri, the midnight blue Defeater-of-death, Yamantaka also called Yamari (Yama's enemy) or Vajrabhairava (absolutely terrifying) who may be depicted as riding or standing on a bull while trampling Yama, god of death, underfoot. 

The Golden Calf

In the most ancient Indian texts, the Vedas:

Wise poets have spun a seven-strand tale 
around this heavenly calf, the Sun

~ Dirghatama Rishi, Rig Veda 1.164.5  

In Genesis 32 we learn how Aaron the princely brother of Moses decided that it would benefit the wandering Israelites to have a visible, tangible representation.  He (24) . . . told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.' and "Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!"   It is as if the bits of gold cohered of themselves to form the calf -- the ultimate symbol of prosperity.

Later (Deuteronomy 9: 21) we find that Moses " took that sinful thing of yours, the calf you had made, and burned it in the fire.  Then . . .  crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust and threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain."

Of all the Israelites, the descendants of Levi were the only sept (sub-clan) that remained true to the-god-without-form, and so they had the duty and the honour of being attendants at the temple in Jerusalem where the sacred Ark of the Covenant was later installed.

White Buffalo-Calf Woman

The symbolic animal is correctly referred to as a bison, but we could say that a bison is a type of buffalo, just as a yak is.  

At least a thousand years ago, the Lakota Sioux, a people of the American plains (who had migrated south from their Iroquoian homeland), say that at a time of extreme drought and lack of game, a female spirit (wakan) appeared to two brothers.  The one who reached out to touch her was incinerated.  

HH Kusum Lingpa Rinpoche identified White Buffalo Woman as Yeshe Tsogyal.  He believes that she is the one who delivered the first pipe --  he considers it a ter -- to the first pipe guardian. (Chief Arvol Looking Horse is the current guardian of the Sacred Pipe of the Lakota.) 

  • The selling of culture necessitates a coalition for the protection of ceremonies.

Basques:  These distinctive people, who inhabit Western Spain, have a language (like Burushaski that is spoken in the Himalayas) that is one of the world's few unique tongues.  Geneticist Luiga Luca Cavalli-Sforza found Basques strikingly different from their neighbors as far as heredity.

Govinda: The Indian religious path that emphasizes devotion to deity is called bhakti, and one way to practice this is by singing bajan or hymns.  "Govinda" is probably one of the most famous of these, for the arrangement on an EP disc that also included the Krishna mantra by George Harrison of The Beatles (Apple Records, 1970) made the Top Ten on British record charts. 

The traditional bhajan [song of praise]:

Govinda jaya jaya, Gopala jaya jaya, 
Rdh-ramana Hari, Govinda jaya jaya. 

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