by Krishna Dharma Dasa
Westerners see India’s reverence for the cow as superstition, but for those who appreciate her gifts, the sacred cow is worthy of her name.
Holy cow! We have all heard that expletive enough times, but what on earth is holy about the cow? I remember some years ago my mother was much maligning India for the “primitive and superstitious” practice of cow worship. To a city boy whose only contact with cows was the Sunday dinner, her criticism seemed quite sensible.
In Vedic religion there is in fact a ceremony—go- puja—extant for thousands of years, in which the cow is worshiped. But just how primitive is it? . Is the cow some kind of symbolic god?
For the Indian villager with his agrarian life, the conservation of natural resources is an integral part of daily existence. He is expert in using nature’s gifts to manufacture all his requirements, from his mud hut to his homespun clothes. And protecting cows has always been the most important feature of the village conservation program; every homestead has at least one cow.
The cow and bull are indispensable in rural India, where about eighty percent of the population lives. The cow, eating only grass, happily supplies milk, which provides virtually all of the nutrients our bodies need. From milk we get cheese, curd, butter, ghee (clarified butter), whey, cream, yogurt, and an endless variety of milk-based preparations well known to experts in traditional Indian cookery. Because the cow supplies milk, she is accepted in the Vedas as our mother.
In India it is well known that cow dung has antiseptic properties, and in any Indian village one will see cow-dung patties drying in the sun to provide an excellent fuel for cooking fires. The urine of the cow is prescribed as a medicine for the liver by the Ayur-veda, the Vedic scripture on the science of healing.
The bull is also an invaluable asset to the small farmer. The strong bull enjoys working all day pulling a plow through the fields. How quaint, you may say, but not very efficient or practical these days. Well, the use of the bull may be slower than machinery, but it does not compact the soil and reduce its productivity as does heavy modern machinery. There are other problems with machinery in India, such as its inability to cope with seasonal changes and monsoons. (What to speak of the problems of finding spare parts or a mechanic.) Because the bull provides for food. he is considered our father.
In Vedic society it was recognized that a symbiotic relationship exists between man and cow. The cow produces far more milk than her calf requires. If the calf is allowed unrestricted access to the udder, mastitis will develop, which could lead to the cow’s death. When the cow is done calving, she will peacefully continue to produce milk. Of course, if she’s not milked, she will feel pain.
People object now about the exploitation of cows in dairies that are more like factories. The calves are taken from their mothers at birth, and the cows are slaughtered when past milking age. This is not the Vedic system, which demands that the cow be as well looked after as most people today look after their dogs. But are there any practical examples of the Vedic system in operation, where the cow is not grossly exploited and made to suffer in exchange for her milk and flesh?
Of course, rural India is one good place to look. Another example is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), among whose principles is cow protection. Indeed, in the Bhagavad-gita cow protection is given the status of a religious principle. All ISKCON farms are dedicated to this important principle, and the results can be seen. The cows are happy and peaceful and produce abundant, creamy milk. On ISKCON farms (there are fifty worldwide), the cows and bulls capture many prizes at local shows.
One of the main purposes of ISKCON is to establish self- sufficient farming communities. The farming techniques employed are traditional and organic and as far as possible avoid the use of modern machinery. Men and animals work harmoniously together to glean just enough for survival, forgoing machines designed to produce more for profit-making. The Vedic tenet of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward all living entities, is carefully observed. Thus, of course, animal slaughter of any kind is avoided, and even a plant’s life is taken only to provide subsistence. If items cannot be indigenously produced and need to be bought, excess milk can be sold to provide the necessary money. Otherwise, the milk is converted into long-lasting ghee for future use or barter.
The cow is therefore the basis of the Vedic economy and is accorded the highest possible regard. On the ISKCON Hertfordshire farm. the grounds of the United Kingdom’s main temple of Krishna, ten cows are looked after by Dushyanta dasa and three or four other groundsmen.
“A man can easily maintain himself and his family with an acre or two and a cow,” says Dushyanta. “This may sound idealistic, but consider the immense amount of land now given over to livestock for commercial farming. To produce one kilo of beef protein requires twenty kilos of vegetable protein as feed. We graze our cows, and each one needs only one acre. An acre of land can produce three hundred pounds of vegetable protein or twenty pounds of beef in an equal amount of time. Even day our cows each give an average of forty to fifty pints of milk. To kill these cows for food would not make economic sense.”
Srila Prabhupada was appalled by the slaughter of thousands of cows every day in the West. To him it just did not make sense. Such a useful creature is being killed for her flesh. It is like taking an expensive car and demolishing it for its scrap value. We value our machines, but can any machine produce milk from a little grass?
Srila Prabhupada writes, “While living. the cows give service by giving milk, and even after death they give service by making available their skin. hooves, and horns, which may be used in so many ways. Nonetheless, the present human society is so ungrateful that they needlessly kill these innocent cows.”
The Vedic literature tells how Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, takes the role of a cowherd boy for His pastimes. In fact, one of Krishna’s names is Govinda, meaning “one who gives pleasure to the cows.” Five thousand years ago, Krishna appeared as the son of the leader of a cowherd community. At that time a man was wealthy not if he had a pile of paper money but according to the number of cows and the amount of land he possessed. Krishna’s community had hundreds of thousands of cows. Thus the members of the community are described as having been very rich. They paid tax to the king with ghee, cheese, and whole milk and would also barter these products for cloth and other items in the market.
The cow also appears in religious symbolism in the Vedic literature. Religion is symbolized by the form of a bull, known as Dharma. In one well-known Vedic history. Dharma was attacked by Kali, the personification of the bad qualities of this age. Kali had broken three of Dharma’s legs (symbolizing cleanliness, austerity, and mercy) when the king arrived on the scene. He was immediately ready to kill Kali, who begged for his life. The king allowed Kali to live in certain places only, one of them being wherever animal slaughter was taking place.
ISKCON farms are developing in most countries, and they invite anyone to visit and see the Vedic economic system in practice. “Simple living and high thinking” is the underlying principle of ISKCON farm life. A respect for all living entities as part of God forms the basis for a life very much in harmony with nature. And for the cow, there will always be a special regard, thanks to her free and bountiful gifts.