Hindus/The Sacred Cow
Why is the cow considered so "sacred" in Hinduism? Has it always been held in such high regard? Also the citing of certain scripture regarding this topic would be much obliged.
Hinduism is a mix of two cultures, That of Vedic Aryans and the indigenous Indian people. The Vedic Aryans were herders. For them cow was wealth. They measured their seasons by considering when they could take their cows for grazing (Gavam Ayanam - Cow Time). That was considered the auspicious part of the year, from vernal equinox to autumnal equinox. This period was known as 'Devayana', the path of Gods, as opposed to the other half, which was known as 'Pitriyana' the path of the departed forefathers. The Aryans, sure valued their cows but they sacrificed the bull for their Chief God, Indra. There are hymns in RigVeda, our and the world's oldest religious composition, when the Aryans invoked Indra saying that they have sacrificed the bull and he should come and partake it.
For the indigenous people, it was different. Cow was not only the provider, but also a dear pet. The calf would grow with the family. All the members would feed it and provide water. The young boys and girls would take the cows for grazing and sunset would be heralded by the tinkling of bells of the returning cows. The cow shed was normally either below the house or in the compound of the house. When a girl was married, she would not only miss the members of the family but also the cow who waited for her to be fed. They had an emotional relationship with the cow.
Cows are great providers. Indians use a lot of cow products. Milk, curd (yoghurt), whey, cheese, butter, clarified butter (ghee, ghritam, which was used in cooking). The calf would grow up to be a bull and would help to till the field/pull the cart/be used in tilling for oil or pounding the grain/pull water from wells. Cow dung was used in construction of adobe housing and as fuel and fertilizer. Even when the cow died, its skin could be used for making shoes. And they did not have many cows. Usually a village household would have two or three cows (we also had them at one time. Remember the fresh milk).
Milk products were the mainstay of Indian cuisine, given that many castes, such as brahmins and traders were non-vegetarian. The warrior castes mostly were not vegetarian, but they were the protectors and could not kill the cows. These were some of the reasons why Hindus did not kill cows and even worshiped them in an annual ritual. Shiva is associated with the bull as his mount, and cow is associated with Krishna. Cow is also the representation of the earth in Hinduism, as the providing mother.
When the Aryans settled in India, among many adjustment features, they also started revering cows, Indra was forgotten and the bull sacrifice which would have been sacrilegious for the indigenous people was stopped. The hardest part of your question is to find references in scriptures, they are dispersed all over, but I have been able to get some information.
“Thus when Krishna calls out, ‘Hey Dhavali’ (the name of a white cow) a whole group of white cows comes forward, and when Krishna calls ‘Hamsi, Candani, Ganga, Mukta’ and so on, the twenty-four other groups of white cows come. The reddish cows are called ‘Aruni, Kunkuma, Sarasvati, etc., the blackish ones ‘Shyamala, Dhumala, Yamuna, etc., and the yellowish ones are Pita, Pingala, Haritaki, etc. (Srimad Bhagavatam 10.35.19 purport)
“As described in the Brahma Samhita (surabhi apbipalayantam), Lord Krishna on His planet, Goloka Vrindavana, engages in tending the surabhi cows. These cows are the Lord’s pet animals.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 8.8.2 purport)
Krishna says in Srimad Bhagavatam, “I can be worshiped within the Cows by offerings of grass and other suitable grains and paraphernalia for the pleasure and health of the Cows, and one may worship Me within the Vaishnavas by offering loving friendship to them and honoring them in all respects.”
[Srimad Bhagavatam 11.11.43]
Cow is supposed to be the abode of all Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism
I hope I have been able to answer some of your questions. Best regards,