The Farmer and the Cows
by Hare Krishna Devi Dasi
The bull is the emblem of the moral principle, and the cow is the representative of the earth. When the bull and the cow are in a joyful mood, it is to be understood that the people of the world are also in a joyful mood. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.16.18, purport)
Government policies often drive farmers off the land. One important exception came in the early days of American settlement. In WherebyWeThrive, Smithsonian agricultural historian John Schlebecker documents numerous bills and provisions that encouraged Americans to take up farming.
One government policy, that of making large tracts of land available to farmers at little cost, was a great stimulus to farming. This practice was similar to the Vedic system under which the kshatriyas (leaders) distribute land to vaishyas (farmers) for production. But as we have seen, the particular type of agricultural development the U.S. government promoted has led ultimately to a precarious situation for everyone.
What Went Wrong?
The major problem was that the whole agricultural policy developed around centralization and animal slaughter, especially cow slaughter. In contrast, Krishna advises in the Bhagavad-gita that central to economic development in a varnashrama society is go-rakshya—cow protection. Let’s examine how a policy of cow protection keeps things from getting out of hand.
Keeps People in the Country
As I’ve explained, cow protection implies using the oxen for farming. While Mother Cow provides milk, Father Bull produces grain for his human children and is valued as a beloved member of society. One common objection to using animal power is that it takes a lot of people to produce grain this way. If we use a tractor, the argument goes, one per-son produces grain, and the rest are free to do other things.
But free to do what? Free to work in hellish factories, to live in nightmarish cities, to eat the flesh of innocent animals, and to buy an endless variety of artificial services and manufactured goods—without ever becoming satisfied. That’s not really freedom; it’s slavery. It’s becoming a slave to manufacturers and to the senses. Cow protection protects human society by saving us from all these things. Farmers work hard, but they’re free from the oppressive environment of the city.
Cow Protection Means
Protecting Mother Earth
Protecting cows is the most important component of protecting the earth. In Sanskrit go-rakshya means “cow protection.” But it can also mean “protection of the earth,” be-cause the word go means both “cow” and “earth.” The Srimad-Bhagavatam presents several accounts in which Mother Earth, Bhumi Devi, assumes the form of a cow. So the cow is the representative of Mother Earth, and when the cow and the bull are mistreated, Mother Earth withdraws her bounty.
Under the varnashrama system, small ox-powered farms can benefit human society, benefit animals, and benefit the earth. A simple life in the country working with animals provides a natural, wholesome environment for human society. On a small farm, the animals can be given the most caring personal treatment, and the earth can be saved by thoughtful cultivation and the use of manure.
The proper use of manure—critical to protecting the earth—can best be achieved with small-scale ox-powered farms. As we hear from Sir Albert Howard, the grandfather of organic gardening, “No permanent or effective system of agriculture has ever been devised without the animal. Many attempts have been made, but sooner or later they break down. The replacement of livestock by artificials is always followed by disease the moment the original store of fertility is exhausted.”1
In The Violence of the Green Revolution, physicist and agricultural philosopher Vandana Shiva details how chemical farming causes desertification and ruins the soil. Manure from confinement cattle operations also causes immense environmental destruction. Authors like Jeremy Rifkin justifiably decry another horror of the cattle industry—the destruction of the Amazon rain forest for meat.2 Exploiting cows ruins the environment. But we’re missing out if we fail to see that cow protection is the most potent way to bring devastated lands back to lush growth.
With small-scale farming, the proper use of cow manure can provide the most valuable protection and enhancement of the soil. Only a small-scale farmer can fully use the miracle available in cow manure, because he’s the one who truly cares for bulls and cows.
Still, someone may object that small-scale ox-powered farming doesn’t make farmers a lot of money. It’s true that this may mean farmers can’t buy so many goods. But simple living eases the strain on the earth’s resources.
Environmentalists are anxious to fight the pollution of the earth. If only they could realize the need to protect the cows and work the oxen. If all cows were well cared for and all our grain were grown locally with oxen, so many workers would be involved that the whole world would become practically de- urbanized. With no one to work in the factories, no money squirreled away for manufactured goods, and no need to ship food around on vast transportation infrastructures, a huge burden on the earth would be lifted. Producing food and grain with oxen would also put the scythe to the need for petroleum (and the devastating oil wars that come with it).
Helps Sense Control
The word go has another meaning in Sanskrit. Besides “cow” and “earth,” the word also means “senses.” Krishna has designed the varnashrama social system to help different types of people bring their senses under control so they can make spiritual advancement. The farming and mercantile class is partly motivated by the mode of passion. In city life, this passion is fanned like a fire, and the urge to consume and to enjoy the senses becomes greater and greater. As Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita, lust to enjoy the sense objects causes anger, which then gives rise to delusion and bewilderment. The whole structure of urban life turns out to be a formula for violence and insanity.
But Krishna’s varnashrama system is the opposite. In Krishna’s system, farmers have the chance to exercise their brawny nature in situations where it is needed to control their animals. When a farmer uses his grit constructively—either to work the animals or simply to accomplish the hard tasks of farming—he becomes purified. And when the cows and oxen are well treated, they’re affectionate and obedient the next moment after they’re scolded.
On the other hand, in some situations, especially when milking cows, the farmer must learn to control his moods carefully. The cow won’t give milk if she’s upset by angry talk or tension.
If someone wants to be the controller, working with the animals provides a constructive outlet for this desire, as described by draft animal technical consultant Jean Nolle,
You should know that draft animals are pleased to work with their master. It is an honour for them to participate with him in useful work in the field. When the driver requests them to give the best of themselves, they do so. It is also a pleasure for the man to order an animal and to be followed immediately. No President can do the same with the citizens. Animals are more attentive to their duties than we are.3
Milk for Spiritual Understanding
Srila Prabhupada explained that milk nourishes the fine brain tissue needed for understanding spiritual knowledge. Therefore, society needs the cow for spiritual advancement. As Srila Prabhupada put it, “Milking the cow means drawing the principles of religion in liquid form.”4
And only if we protect cows can we be sure of having milk. If we depend on an economic system that exploits the cow instead of protecting her, when that system collapses most cows will be killed and milk will become scarce. Evidently this is happening in the former Society Union with the collapse of state-subsidized agriculture. According to the February issue of Hoard’s Dairyman, milk has become so scarce that a half gallon of milk (less than two liters) costs thirty hours of labor.
If we don’t work the oxen and protect them, they won’t be there for us when petroleum becomes too costly to use for food production. As Jean Nolle observed, “It is an incredible reality that farmers in the [industrialized countries], after having killed all their draft animals, are now sentenced to death by their own stupid economy.” Neglect of cow protection means the end of human civilization.
A Special Way to Remember Krishna
The last and most important reason for cow protection is that it helps us think of Krishna. We can catch glimpses of His attractive and wonderful personality in many ways that would be more difficult without protected cows. When Srila Prabhupada visited Gita Nagari, he told the devotees, “This town life, industrial life, factory life, is asuric [demoniac] life. It is killing human ambition. It is killing civilization.” He encouraged us to set an example by protecting cows and living as Krishna lived:
Krishna, in His natural life, is a village boy in Vrindavana. Vrindavana is a village. There is no factory, there is no motorcar, there are no big, big skyscraper buildings; it is a village. That Krishna likes.… Krishna is so fond of Vrindavana village life, with His cowherd boys and cowherd girls, His gopis, mother Yashoda, father Nanda, Upananda, uncles, big family, the cows and the calves, the trees, the Yamuna River. He is satisfied in that life. So at least those who are Krishna conscious, they should be satisfied with simple life in the village. That is part of Krishna consciousness.… Whatever Krishna has taught by His personal life, by His teaching, to follow that is Krishna consciousness.5
- Sir Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament (Oxford University Press 1940; Rodale Press 1972), p. 43.
- Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture (New American Library/Dutton 1992).
- Jean Nolle, “Improve Animal Traction Technology,” Animal Traction Network for Africa, Conference Proceedings, Lusaka, Zambia, January 1992.
- Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.17.3, purport.
- Srila Prabhupada, evening lecture at Gita Nagari Farm, Pennsylvania, July 15, 1976.
Miracle in Manure
I hand personal experience of the miracle of cow manure while I lived at Gita Nagari Farm. In the fall of 1987 I dug a pit two and a half feet deep and filled it with fresh cow manure. I topped it with three inches of soil and compost and transplanted spinach and lettuce into it. Then I covered this hotbed with a cold frame (a four-sided box covered with plastic to let in the sun). The decomposing manure provided heat to grow the plants during the snowy months so that we could offer the Deities fresh garden greens in the winter. (The winter-grown greens were exceptionally flavorful.)
But the real eye-opener for me came the following year when my hotbed, six feet by four, was plowed under to become part of the potato garden. There was a horrible drought over most of the United States that year. Crops were so bad the government had to keep farms alive with disaster relief. Even our potato field looked bad. By the end of July, the tops of most of the potato plants were dry and yellow. But not the three plants that grew over last winter’s hotbed. They just sank their roots into that rich, cool, moisture-holding cow manure and flourished in the hot sun. They were so green and healthy they looked like they’d never heard of the word drought. It was a striking lesson to me about how cow protection also protects the earth.