It may come as a great surprise to anyone with even just a cursory knowledge of India's cultural relationship with cows, but new data from the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (h/t The Atlantic) shows that the way things are going this year India will be the world's largest exporter of beef. Beef.
By the end of 2012 India will export roughly 1.5 million metric tons of beef, continuing a sharp rise beginning in 2009 and overtaking Australia, Brazil, and the United States, in that order. Each of those nations will export around 1.2-1.4m metric tons of beef this year. India's beef is sold in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Yes, a nation in which cow slaughter is officially prohibited and utterly anathema to the majority of the population due to tradition and/or religion, will overtake three icons of cattle ranching and beef eating.
How is this happening?
A large part of it is technical: Though cow killing is prohibited, the USDA does not here make the distinction between the cow and the water buffalo in what it calls 'beef'. India also prohibits killing of milk-producing water buffalo, but male buffalo and female buffalo once they stop producing milk can both be killed. And, based on the stats from the USDA, they increasingly are, at least for export. Back in 2009, when India trailed by a large margin Australia, Brazil and the US, only 600,000 metric tons were exported.
Since, in my experience, outside of India there's widespread misconception as to why the cow is revered there and in Hinduism across the world today, here's how the Himalayan Academy explains it:
The cow represents the giving nature of life to every Hindu. Honoring this gentle animal, who gives more than she takes, we honor all creatures. Hindus regard all living creatures as sacred—mammals, fishes, birds and more. We acknowledge this reverence for life in our special affection for the cow. At festivals we decorate and honor her, but we do not worship her in the sense that we worship the Deity. To the Hindu, the cow symbolizes all other creatures. The cow is a symbol of the Earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider. The cow represents life and the sustenance of life. The cow is so generous, taking nothing but water, grass and grain. It gives and gives and gives of its milk, as does the liberated soul give of his spiritual knowledge. The cow is so vital to life, the virtual sustainer of life, for many humans. The cow is a symbol of grace and abundance. Veneration of the cow instills in Hindus the virtues of gentleness, receptivity and connectedness with nature.
Surely the distinction between the cow and the water buffalo is small enough that reverance can encompass them both, and all animals.