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“The Riddle of the Sacred Cow” by Marvin Harris Essay

Who authored the Article?

Marvin Harris is the author of the article, The Riddle of the Sacred Cow. A native of Brooklyn, New York, USA, Harris got his master’s degree in anthropology from Columbia University in 1949 and his doctorate from the same university four years later. A student with a writing bent and avid reading habit, he was hired by the university’s department of anthropology where he worked as a lecturer before moving to the chair of the department.

He also lectured at the University of Florida during the twilight of the 20th century where he became the Anthropology Graduate Research Professor Emeritus. Finally, he became the chair of the General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association (Harris xv).

Harris has several publications that focus on the cultural and material roots of culinary traditions in various cultures. Thus, his signature tune was the cultural-ecological relationship of a people. Among his publications are, Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life; Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture; Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture; et cetera. Harris usually adopted a cultural materialistic stance, which posits that the social life of a person is a response to practical problems posed by his earthly existence.

Central Issues of the Article and the thesis statement

In The Riddle of The Sacred Cow, Harris has espoused several issues that are considered central to the article. To begin with, his thesis statement asks why so many animals are bad to eat yet meat is so nutritious and consequently, one would expect every society “to stock its larder with the meat of every available animal species” (Harris 47). He singles out India as one such society that abominates the slaughter of cattle and the consumption of beef by citing the Directive Principles of State Policy section of the federal constitution.

Terming the Bos induces (cattle) apotheosis by the Hindu religion as the traditional custodians of this practice, Harris traces the genesis of cow protectionism from the Vedic people who inhabited northern India from 1800 B.C. to 800 B.C. The Vedic society savored on the sumptuousness of beef, which the Brahman priests slaughtered for people during religious celebrations (Harris 52). The tables were, however, turned when the Vedic chieftains were unable to keep large herds of cattle as a reserve for wealth. As the population grew, forests shrank, grazing fields became cultivate grounds, intensive farming and dairying replaced semi-pastoral lifestyle since they could be fed by cereals, vegetables, and dairy products.

When the Vedic gods failed to stop drought and famine among the exponentially growing population, Buddhism emerged as a religious sect, proclaiming the sanctity of the cattle and forbidding their slaughter and consumption. Hinduism adopted this tenet nine centuries later and but sanctioned the consumption of milk (Harris 55). Accordingly, Hindus venerate their cattle as deities, keep them around the house, give them names, et cetera.

Hindus believe that Shiva, the avenger god, uses a bull to move around in heaven; and Krishna, God of mercy and childhood, is a protector of cows. They believe that everything that comes out of a cow is sacred and that cow worship symbolizes the protection and adoration of human motherhood (Harris 49). Moreover, the sanctity of a cow stems from Hindu theology of the doctrine of transmigration of souls where all creatures are believed to have risen/fallen from various stages of progress toward Nirvana. In total, it takes eighty-six transmigrations for the soul to rise from a devil to a cow, and one more transmigration to human form. Each cow is thus believed to be hosting 330 million gods and goddesses (Harris 50).

The author contends that contrary to the popular belief that the presence of a large number of cattle in India due to anti-slaughter laws and eating taboos is not indicative neither of waste nor of folly. They rarely compete with humans for the resource given that they seldom graze on planted fields or any land used for growing food crops. Rather, they are kept in semi-starved conditions and used for traction, fuel (dung), and milk production. Different regions predominantly keep particular sex of cattle due to the work required, which is oxen for traction or cows for milk. The choice of cattle over other animals is based on their resistance to diseases and hostile weather, stamina, and low cost of sustenance (Harris 64).

Evidence provided by the author

The author has managed to provide lucid evidence in his inquiries of the sanctity of the cow in India. For example, he gives a comprehensive religious doctrine of Hinduism surrounding the sacredness of the cow citing practices that are typical of Hindus such as housewives using dried cow dung and cow dung ashes to clean and purify their floors and hearths.

He traces the evolution of cow protection and sanctity using indubitable Hinduism earliest texts, the Rig Veda (Harris 51); sometimes using royal edict by King Chandragupta to give credence to his inquiry. He quotes various authorities such as Mohandas Gandhi, Rajendra Mitra, Deryck Lodrick, and the geographer A.K. Chakravarti for more objective and scholarly research outcomes. All this, among others, provide watertight evidence for the authenticity of his work.

The author’s Conclusions

Harris concludes that the cow protection policy and non-consumption eating taboos are of greater benefit to the Indians. On balance, he says, “the aversion to beef makes it possible for India’s large population to consume more rather than less animal food” (Harris 63). The second conclusion regards the exclusive application of the practice on cattle, not other domesticated animals. He argues that cattle are resistant to diseases and extreme weather conditions that other animals cannot withstand. Besides, the oxen have stamina and survive in semi-starved environments. Therefore, cattle are the best for this protection and non-consumption practice.

The Author’s Success

The author has successfully unpuzzled the riddle of the sacred cow in Indian society. His arguments are well reasoned out and stem logically from historical facts relating to the phenomenon. The cultural materialistic dimension enables him to beautifully relate the Indian culture with ecology thus finding a focal point in the people’s sustainable culinary habits. From the writer’s perspective, the article is a fact-laden anthropological literary piece, which is both educative and informative.

Works Cited

Harris, Marvin. The rise of anthropological theory: a history of theories of culture. New York, NY: Rowman Altamira, 2001.

Harris, Marvin. The Sacred Cow and the Abominable pig: riddles of food and culture. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

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""The Riddle of the Sacred Cow" by Marvin Harris." IvyPanda, 1 Feb. 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/the-riddle-of-the-sacred-cow-by-marvin-harris/.

1. IvyPanda. ""The Riddle of the Sacred Cow" by Marvin Harris." February 1, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-riddle-of-the-sacred-cow-by-marvin-harris/.


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IvyPanda. 2021. ""The Riddle of the Sacred Cow" by Marvin Harris." February 1, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-riddle-of-the-sacred-cow-by-marvin-harris/.


IvyPanda. (2021) '"The Riddle of the Sacred Cow" by Marvin Harris'. 1 February.

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