Cows and cow protection
Cows and Krishna have always been together. In His original form in the spiritual world, Krishna is a cowherd boy in the agricultural community of Goloka ("cow planet") Vrindavan, where He keeps unlimited, transcendental surabhi cows.
When He descends to earth, Krishna brings a replica of Vrindavan with Him, and He spends His childhood tending cows and calves while playing in the pasturing grounds with His friends. His example shows the importance of cows to human society, the practical benefits of caring for them, and the advantages of an agrarian economy based on cooperation between man and cows.
Note: our homepage banner photo for Cows and Krishna comes courtesy of the International Society for Cow Protection.
by Hare Krishna Devi Dasi
We can learn a lot about history and the people writing it by keeping tuned to what is not being said. Applying this principle, we can see why Westerners have such trouble understanding the significance of cow protection—especially protection of the bull or ox. Because of what is routinely suppressed or overlooked in history books, it’s hard for people to understand when Prabhupada says,
According to smriti [scriptural] regulation, the cow is the mother and the bull the father of the human being. The cow is the mother because just as one sucks the breast of one’s mother, human society takes cow’s milk. Similarly, the bull is the father of human society because the father earns for the children just as the bull tills the ground to produce food grains. Human society will kill its spirit of life by killing the father and the mother.
—Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.2.29, purport
Because of a silence in contemporary history books, we cannot understand that the bull is our father. To us it seems a sentimental concept. Yet most major civilizations around the world owe a great debt to the bull or ox (neutered bull). We read about land being cleared, fields being planted, roads, castles, temples, cathedrals, and aqueducts being built. But somehow our history books (and films) are silent about the “engine” that was indispensable for all this growth of civilization.
It was Father Bull. He cleared the land, planted the fields, ground the grain, hauled the stone and timber, and moved the dirt.
Throughout the ages, there has been a worldwide appreciation for the working ox. The Chinese named a year after him and declared it a sin to eat his flesh—as did the ancient Egyptians (for certain breeds). The people of India revered both the bull and the cow and set rules to protect their well-being. Europeans also respected the work of the ox.
Americans in the days of the pioneers esteemed the work of the ox, and cited Biblical references to his value. An 1853 Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge states under its entry for “Ox”:
The rural economy of the Israelites led them to value the ox as by far the most important of domestic animals, from the consideration of his great use in all the operations of farming. In the patriarchal ages, the ox constituted no inconsiderable portion of their wealth. … Men of every age and country have been much indebted to the labors of this animal. For many ages the hopes of oriental husbandmen depended entirely on their labors. This was so much the case in the time of Solomon that he observed, in one of his proverbs, “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean,” or rather empty; “but much increase is by the strength of the ox.”
Though such people were usually meat-eaters, that they could see the ox maintaining their daily life would have made it easier to convince them of the sin of killing their father the ox—which is precisely what Lord Caitanya was able to do in speaking with the Muslim Kazi of Navadvipa in sixteenth- century India.
On the contrary, how difficult it is to explain to modern Westerners the sin of cow-killing, when the ox has been—intentionally or unintentionally—eliminated from the history books. You may read a whole article about Colonial America, for example, and never see one mention of the ox—without whom the whole economy would have collapsed. I’ve noticed many times that when a modern artist needs to include an ox in an illustration, the commonest solution is just to draw him from the back—wagon, big ear, big horn—that’s all. Father Bull is so far removed from people’s experience that they don’t even know what he looks like.
But Prabhupada’s followers are changing that. We farm with oxen, and we take oxen on international walking tours in our Padayatra festivals. Devotee ox-drivers on Padayatra often report, “People come up and ask us what kind of animals they are.” Because of curiosity to come up and pet Father Bull, people get a chance to take some prasadam (sanctified food) and hear the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. Just as ignorance of Father Bull’s importance condemned them to sinful meat-eating, becoming attracted by him sets them on the road to spiritual life.
by Hare Krishna Devi Dasi
Srila Prabhupada writes in a purport to the Srimad- Bhagavatam (10.8.16), “[Krishna’s] first business is to give all comfort to the cows and the brahmanas. In fact, comfort for the brahmanas is secondary, and comfort for the cows is His first concern.”
Because Krishna loves the cows, His devotees not only protect them but also see to their comfort, a practice that has spiritual, psychological, and practical material benefits.
For thousands of years people have understood that for a cow to do her best job of providing milk she must be peaceful and happy. In this century, scientists discovered that the cow produces a hormone called oxytocin that helps her “let down” her milk. If the cow is frightened or annoyed, the oxytocin is shut off and the milk flow stops. This means that human beings must be well behaved around cows to get the most milk.
Bulls and oxen must also be given comfort, and we gain by treating them kindly.
In earlier times, when people relied on the ox for economic survival, scriptures of various countries taught people how to be kind to their animals. Writing in The Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge in the nineteenth century, Reverend B. B. Edwards comments on biblical injunctions for the treatment of working oxen:
The ox was best fed when employed in treading out the corn; for the divine law, in many of whose precepts the benevolence of the Deity conspicuously shines, forbade to muzzle him, and, by consequence, to prevent him from eating what he would of the grain he was employed to separate from the husks
In the Mahabharata (Anushasana Parva, Section 23), Bhishmadeva censures “those who set bullocks to work before the animals attain to sufficient age, those who bore the noses of bullocks and other animals for controlling them better while employed in work, and those who keep animals always tethered.”
Modern workers have discovered the wisdom of these scriptural principles while trying to bring improved animal- traction technology to third world countries. For one thing, an animal forced to do heavy work before his body develops will be stunted in growth. He’ll never become the powerful assistant he could have been.
Furthermore, proper exercise for bulls, oxen, and cows is essential to keep them in good shape for working, breeding, or milking. Not only will it keep their muscles in tone; it also improves their disposition and makes them easier to work with.
Finally, perhaps some of the most practical gains from animal comfort have come from improved animal-traction equipment for oxen. For centuries, inventors have ignored ox equipment while concentrating on making better equipment for horses. But led by the inventions of the late Jean Nolle, workers in recent decades have discovered that putting greater comfort into the yoke, the harness, and other equipment helps the ox do significantly more work.
Common sense tells us that when an animal is comfortable doing his work, he can pull more weight longer without tiring—just as you can carry a heavy backpack longer if it’s designed so the straps are kind to your shoulders. Only recently have modern designers taken advantage of this while designing ox equipment.
Sometimes certain types of equipment gain popularity because of tradition and aesthetic appeal, but testing shows that an uncomfortable ox works with less power. The head yoke was formerly popular in parts of Europe because it provides easy control for animals, requiring a minimum of training. Unfortunately, what is gained in ease of training appears lost in working efficiency. Comparing the head yoke with a three- padded German ox collar designed for ox comfort, researcher Rolf Minhorst found that when the oxen used the ox collar their efficiency went up 21% for plowing, 58% for pulling a double-hitch wagon, and 71% for pulling a single-hitch cart.
So modern researchers are beginning to discover the same principle Krishna showed long ago: both human beings and animals benefit when we pay careful attention to the comfort of the cow and the bull. Srila Prabhupada notes, “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.”
by Sureswara Dasa
Bir Krishna the calf loves coconut fudge, and Sita the teamstress knows it. Her pockets bulge with the sweet as she and Bir walk to the training ring. Today the calf will learn his first call: “Get up!”
The earth is soft from the recent rain. Sita carries a lash and leads Bir with a rope tied to a blue halter. The calf bounds through a cluster of gnats, then slows as they come to the ring. What’s this?
The gate opens, and Bir walks in to explore. He treads the edge and sniffs the white hardwood boards. The ring is twenty- four feet in diameter. Hoofprints stud the grass and mud, the signatures of oxen training. The calf’s eyes blink and widen at his new surroundings. Sita wants to reassure her charge. She strokes his head behind the ears. “Good boy, Bir.”
Time to teach the call. Sita walks to the center of the ring and lets the rope slacken. She raises the lash and taps Bir on the rump (“Get up!”), goading him forward. She follows him closely, indicating with her body he should keep going. When he stops, another tap. “Get up!”
A few times and Bir has made the connection between the tap and the call. “Good boy, Bir. Come here …” The calf walks over to Sita, who kneels and holds up a piece of fudge. A crumb falls on the kerchief crowning her hair, flaxen from the sun. A flick and a lick and Bir has it, his lotus eyes beaming. They are making a pact, animal and human, sealed in mud and trust.
At three months, Bir is the youngest calf at Gita-nagari, the Hare Krishna farm community in central Pennsylvania. Unlike his brethren in modern “factory farms,” Bir will never suffer the “veal-crate fate.” Every year, more than one million male calves are born into darkness, and kept there, chained round the neck in a stall so tiny they can neither stand up nor turn around. To keep their flesh pale and tender, they are denied sunlight, exercise, and even solid food. Their liquid diet of growth stimulators, antibiotics, powdered skim milk, and mold inhibitors gives them an iron deficiency that satisfies the consumer’s demand for light meat, sold as “premium” or “milk- fed” veal.
After three months of living in diarrhea, at an age when they could be trained to work, they are butchered.
Bir is learning remarkably fast. Sita doesn’t have to follow him so closely anymore. Just the call and a tap and he moves forward. Has he learned his lesson well enough to move without the lash?
Sita looks Bir in the eyes and raises the lash. “Bir … get up!”
The calf takes a few steps forward, then stops.
A swat on the rump and off he goes at the end of the rope, now circling behind her. Out of eye contact, he starts to slow, then speeds up again at the sound of the call. Sita beams. “Broke to the word” on the first lesson! Out comes the rest of the fudge. “Good boy, Bir. Very good boy.”
To the modern farmer, Sita and Bir are an anachronism, a picture in a history book. The caption reads: “Here’s how our farmers used to raise bulls—for work!”
But has it been a good deal, the ox for the tractor? His muscle for the engines that roar and pollute and suck up gasoline at soaring prices? His legs for the giant wheels that crush and compact? His enriching manure for chemical fertilizers that exhaust the earth and contaminate the water table? His labor for his meat, whose industry signals the decline of our health? Such is the progress of science without religion.
Factory farming finds its antithesis in the animal liberation movement. Disgusted by man’s exploitative domin-ion over animals, many animal rights advocates hold that animals should not have to work for humans and that humans have no right to use animal products.
The genuine advocate is often a vegan. Appalled by the dairy industry’s collusion with the slaughterhouse, he shuns the cow’s milk as well as her meat. There is an irony here. A cow produces an average of ten times more milk than a calf can consume. To deny humanity her milk is really to deny that she is our mother. And hence the possibility that we might treat her as such.
The same with the bull. To deprive humanity of his labor is to obscure his natural relation to us as a father, who tills the ground to provide food. This is the grave error of religion without science, for as soon as man stops working the ox, he wants to kill him. It is no accident that the technology that produced the tractor also produced the slaughterhouse.
The vegan rightly challenges exploitation and murderous abuse. Yet decades, even centuries, of abuse do not preclude the possibility of kindly use. And that is what Krishna’s cowherds have to offer.
In a field near Sita and Bir, Rasala Dasa, Sita’s husband, works a team of oxen tedding hay. After hay is cut, it is tedded, or fluffed up, so air can circulate through it for faster drying. Frequent rains have made the cutting especially thick. The oxen pull a long-fingered device that grabs the hay and throws it up in the air. Rasala walks on their left side, calling commands so they go straight over the rows. Rasala rests the oxen periodically as the sun nears the meridian. They will finish the field before it sets.
Sure a tractor can do more—more harm than good! In a couple of years Bir will join the oxen, spared the veal crate and the steer market. To work him in devotional service is to synthesize science and religion.
“The Vedic way is to farm with the ox,” writes ISKCON farm historian Hare Krishna Dasi, “as humanity has done for thousands of years, and as much of the world is still doing—small-scale, personal, noncapitalistic, nonexploitive farming. We don’t have to ruin the world to produce food. We can live a simple, sweet agricultural life, as Krishna Himself demonstrated.
“This doesn’t mean we have to be primitive, either. There is a large role for developing appropriate technology—like ox-powered energy generators and methane digesters—beyond strictly agricultural applications.”
Granted, the golden calf of historical progress is a tough idol to topple. Yet listen to the Vedic view of the earth when Krishna visited some fifty centuries ago. “The clouds showered all the water that people needed, and the earth produced all the necessities of man in profusion. Due to its fatty milk bag and cheerful attitude, the cow used to moisten the grazing ground with milk” (Srimad- Bhagavatam 1.10.4).
“The years like great black oxen tread the world,” wrote the poet W. B. Yeats, “And God the herdsman goads them on behind.” Time will tell if our modern world can recover the good life Krishna gave us. But doers like Rasala and Sita can’t wait for the world. Working oxen is too rewarding.
“There’s a new moon coming,” says Sita with a twinkle. “Get up!”
by Hare Krishna Devi Dasi
In a how-to book on raising a beef calf at home, a rancher presents her tips on how to make the process psychologically easier:
“I don’t see how you’ll ever be able to eat that little brown-eyed baby after you raise him.” You’ll hear this—maybe from some members of your family—or you may have said it yourself … [But] remember that the little brown- eyed baby will no longer be a pet by the time he is 18 months old and weighs 1,000 pounds. By then—especially if he is a bull calf—he probably will no longer trust humans and, except at feeding time, will come nowhere near you. … And many people refuse to give a name to any animal they intend later to butcher on the theory that the name gives it a personality. (Raising a Calf for Beef, by Phyllis Hobson)
The author’s relationship with her calf contrasts dramatically with Krishna’s relationships with His animals. In the book Krishna, Srila Prabhupada writes:
The cows taken care of by Krishna had different names, and Krishna would call them with love. After hearing Krishna calling, the cows would immediately respond by mooing, and the boys would enjoy this exchange to their hearts’ content. (Krishna, Chapter Fifteen)
In Radha-Krishna-ganoddesha-dipika (109-110), Srila Rupa Gosvami mentions the names of some of Krishna’s cows: Mangala, Pingala, Pishangi, Manikastani, Hamsi, and Vamshipriya. And also His oxen: Padmagandha and Pishangaksha. Just by hearing these names, we feel pleased to know more about Krishna and His cows.
The beef rancher is correct in her assertion that calling an animal by name gets us thinking that the animal has a personality. But besides that, we should instinctively sense that if the animal has a personality, it also has a soul and should not be killed. Srila Prabhupada confirms this intuition when he writes that consciousness attests to the presence of a soul.
The rancher, unfortunately, has missed this point. And by killing an animal, especially a cow, she blocks her chances for understanding the message of God. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Only the animal-killer cannot relish the transcendental message of the Supreme Lord. Therefore if people are to be educated to the path of Godhead, they must be taught first and foremost to stop the process of animal-killing.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.3.24, purport)
On a commercial farm or ranch, cows or steers have numbers (often pinned to their ears) instead of names. A cow without a name is easier to kill. But devotees don’t want to kill cows, so we follow Krishna’s example and give them names.
Cows and oxen like to respond to their names. A cowherd can go to the pasture and call out a milking cow from a herd. The cowherd might say, “Hari Lila, come and get your grain!” and Hari Lila will be happy to trot right over to get her grain and be milked, while the rest of the cows stay where they are.
Naturally, we all work more enthusiastically when praised for our service. That goes for cows, bulls, and oxen, too. So when we compliment them and pat them under the neck, we use their names.
Using the animals’ names is part of developing a personal relationship with them and seeing them more and more as Krishna’s servants. A similar principle applies in our devotion to God: when we call Him by name, we advance in our personal relationship with Him. (Of course, this is even more true for God than for animals, because His name is eternal and nondifferent from Him.) When we call God by His name, we understand that He is a person, with feelings, qualities, and activities. If I just say “God,” I’m talking about the supreme entity, but according to some concepts, that entity could be just a mass of energy or even a void. But when I say “Krishna” or “Govinda,” I’m speaking about a personal form of the Lord—His eternal, original form, with a specific personality and specific pastimes. I instantly increase my spiritual consciousness by calling the Lord by name.
So along with a name comes a personal relationship. And a personal relationship with Krishna’s cows can help us advance in realizing our personal relationship with the Lord Himself.
by Lavangalatika Devi Dasi
Milking our cow Hari Priya on a two-family farm in the South Konkan belt of Maharashtra, India, is quite different from milking cows on a big farm in the U.S.
Hari Priya is a small deshi, or native, cow who gives only two liters daily—just enough for some milksweets, such as rasagullas or mango or chikoobarfi, and a cup of hot milk for four or five people. Still, we feel great satisfaction taking care of her and offering her milk to Krishna.
An Intimate Milking Scene
You won’t find commercial milk industries or milking machines in our area. Cows are milked the same intimate way they always have been. We tie up Hari Priya for milking and bring her calf to her. The calf, Jaya Radhe, sucks eagerly at the mother’s udder, tail up in the air, nudging the udder with a hard shove to bring down the milk. Hari Priya licks the calf’s body affectionately. After a few minutes, we pull Jaya Radhe away from the udder and hold her.
Indignant at the interruption in the nursing, she struggles while she watches someone else “stealing” her milk. But her mother continues to lick her contentedly, and soon Jaya Radhe starts to munch on hay and grains. By Krishna’s arrangement, a cow produces much more milk than her calf needs, and we have to be careful that Jaya Radhe doesn’t take too much, or she will get “scours,” a kind of diarrhea that can kill young calves.
As soon as the calf is pulled away from the udder, we wash Hari Priya’s udder with clean water. We milk her with one hand, holding the milking vessel in the other. Hari Priya’s teats, small compared with those of Western cow breeds, are difficult to grasp with the whole hand. Using two fingers and a thumb is the easiest way.
Hari Priya stands patiently as I squat by her flank. The switch of her tail swatting flies falls on my head. The cowshed is quiet, except for the rhythmic squirts of milk. I can feel the udder emptying. Hari Priya, eyes are full of love for her calf, always holds back just enough milk for her. As soon as I’m finished, I release Jaya Radhe, who runs again to drink milk to her full satisfaction.
The whole process with Hari Priya is very simple. Hare Krishna Dasi describes using a strip cup to test for mastitis before each milking. This is a small tin cup with a screen over it. She squirts a bit of milk into the cup before milking and checks the screen for clots of milk that will warn of mastitis. We feel that mastitis isn’t much of a danger here, so we don’t use a strip cup. For one thing, mastitis more commonly affects cows that give a lot of milk, and Hari Priya is just a small cow, giving a small amount of milk.
Traditional Methods of Cow Care
Another cause of mastitis is that sometimes the udder is not milked completely dry. Jaya Radhe is very conscientious to make sure this is never a problem for Hari Priya. So we don’t use a strip cup or any after-milking disinfectant such as iodine, because the threat of mastitis or other diseases is not very great.
Nor do we need bleach to clean our milking pots, because in India milk is traditionally heated rather than cooled, so there is less chance of contamination by bacteria. Once the milk is cooled and made into yogurt, the yogurt bacteria help prevent spoilage by other bacteria. With a simple system like we have, we can avoid artificial disinfectants, which we would regard as pollutants on our pure organic farm.
Nor do I have to wear pants to the milk shed. Since we have only a few small cows to deal with, my sari doesn’t get in the way. In fact, here in India women always wear nice saris and ornaments, even to do manual labor. They would never want to be seen in something as unattractive and unfeminine as men’s trousers.
In the summer we keep the cows tied up, because the pasture is dry and they would spoil the young mango trees. We bring the cows hay from the long grass we cut and dried slightly green after last year’s monsoon, their favorite season, when they enjoy four months of roaming and eating lush green grass.
We also feed them grains, vegetable peelings, rice bran and wheat husk with chopped rice straw mixed in, cakes of peanut and cottonseed-oil, and whatever greens we manage to come up with in the dry season, such as creepers, cornstalks, marigolds, and tree leaves. The cows’ big treat is fallen mangoes, which they munch on while the juice drips down their chins. They suck the seed and then spit it out the side of the mouth with a loud “Phat!”
The Rest of our Cow Family
Another of our cows is Lakshmi. She is carrying her third calf. She has her second calf, a little bull named Bhim, and has just stopped milking. Her first calf was taken away by a tiger at her previous residence, fifteen miles deeper into the interior. Her behavior was wild when we first got her. It took five days of her kicking us and trying to butt us with her horns before she would let us milk her.
Then there is Lalita, a golden Jersey heifer (an immature cow) with beautiful lotus-petal eyes who came to us as a gift at six months and is now just old enough to be bred. She seems able to tolerate Indian conditions well. In general, local breeds are hardier and more resistant to disease. They also require less food and water than the Taurean breeds from Europe and North America.
We have only one bull calf. We will probably have enough work for only two bullocks, but we expect to have more calves, since we have enough land to feed them. This is also different from a farm like Gita Nagari, a communal farm in a cold climate. Devotees there have to be careful not to produce more animals than they can feed on the land, especially since their animals can’t graze in the winter. As Prabhupada wrote in a letter, “We must be able to grow our own fodder for the cows. We don’t want to have to purchase food for cows outside from some other party. That will run into great expense.”
Enough Grazing Land
That’s why the larger European breeds can be useful at a place like Gita Nagari. It takes far fewer animals to produce the same amount of milk. A cow like Prema Vihvala gives a lot of milk and can produce for two years every time she has a calf. A small cow like Hari Priya is easier to handle and takes less feed and water, which is good for a dry climate like India. But she also gives less milk and has to have a calf more often than a larger cow to keep milking. Luckily, we have enough land, so a few more animals are not a burden for us.
Having enough land to feed the animals is important for cow protection, especially with bulls. If feeding them costs too much, people want to sell them, and more so if they’re not working. Unfortunately, this is often the case with bull calves born in the cities in India. They have little economic value since they can’t do their natural work of plowing, and their food has to be purchased. So people in the cities often sell them.
In the states of West Bengal and Kerala, cow slaughter is legal, and in fact it goes on clandestinely everywhere, for a price. Animals are forced to travel long distances without food or water. They are jammed into big trucks, one on top of another, and shipped to the slaughterhouse. The methods used to kill them are too cruel to discuss here. Such hellish practices certainly create misfortune for all the parties involved, as the Lord is witness to the barbaric slaughter of the best of animals.
Cow Dung—A Treasure
We consider ourselves fortunate that our animals will never be subjected to such a fate. We’re lucky to have plenty of land to grow their feed. We’ll never have to compromise the cows’ security because we can’t afford to buy feed. And even a bull calf that doesn’t work is valuable to us because he provides dung and urine, a great treasure to us for growing healthy trees, flowers, and vegetables. We can also process cow manure in our biogas plant to provide gas for cooking and lighting, and a rich slurry to fertilize our garden and trees.
And here’s a natural fertilizer and pesticide the cows and bulls can help produce. Take a liter of cow urine and a liter of dung, mix them in a bucket with 350 grams of jagri (raw sugar) or molasses. Let the mixture sit in a bucket for a week. This makes an excellent fertilizer. If you filter it and mix it with ten parts of water, you can spray it on plants as a pesticide.
Protecting Cows, Thinking of Krishna
In our simple life, we appreciate more and more the value of the cows. When we see what goes on in the cities, we’re thankful to be in a rural area, which is much more favorable to cow protection. Srila Prabhupada taught devotees that high technology won’t make us happy. The cities, for all their technology, are just a haven for cow slaughter, meat-eating, and other sinful activities.
Instead, Prabhupada wanted us to practice simple living and high thinking. And protecting cows is a central part of a simple Krishna conscious life. They provide us with everything we need, and at the same time they remind us of Krishna. Prabhupada said,
In villages surrounding Vrindavana, villagers live happily simply by giving protection to the cow. They keep the dung carefully and dry it to use as fuel. They keep a sufficient stock of grains, and because of giving protection to the cows they have sufficient milk and milk products to solve all economic problems. Simply by giving protection to the cow, the villagers live so peacefully. Even the stool and urine of cows have medicinal value.
Mother Yashoda and Rohini and the elderly gopis waved about the switch of a cow to give full protection to the child Krishna, and they washed Him with cow urine and applied tilaka made of cow dung on different parts of His body.
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.6.16), Srila Prabhupada writes, “[Krishna’s] first business is to give all comfort to the cows and the brahmanas. In fact, comfort for the brahmanas is secondary, and comfort for the cows is His first concern.” We find that living on a small farm in the country, with our small herd of family cows, we can have a peaceful and happy life following the example Krishna has given.
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.
by Hare Krishna Devi Dasi
Starting around 1840, American farming became increasingly centralized. Replacing oxen with horses freed people to move to the cities to work in factories. And the new city dwellers became consumers for the products they’d once grown.
The village miller with his ox-powered grist mill gave way to automated mills in large Midwestern cities. As the mills of the Midwest began selling wastes back to farmers to feed animals meant for meat, the mills and grain companies grew still larger and richer. Grain prices became something for Chicago investors to gamble on.
Better steel-making helped the railroads develop, and refrigerated railroad cars helped great slaughterhouses develop in places like Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. As the twentieth century began, profits from cow slaughter surged. Meat-packers shipped millions of pounds of beef products being exported to Europe. But the biggest force for cow slaughter was yet to arrive—the tractor.
The first big push for the tractor came during World War I when U.S. farmers shipped more than 1.5 million draft animals to Europe for the military. To buy tractors to replace these animals, the farmers took out big loans, risking their land in the process. Within the next two decades, “Gasoline had replaced oats as the main ‘fuel’ used in agricultural operations, freeing millions more acres of grainlands for cash food crops.”
Boosting yields with chemical fertilizers and hybrids, farmers began using more land to grow grain for cash. Grain output shot up fifty percent or more. What to do with all that grain?
The ready availability of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap corn helped to make the United States a nation of steak eaters.… These steers were truly ‘hides stuffed with corn.’ In a sense, this was and is a wasteful use of grain.… But America had lots of grain, and a food system grew up that made it possible—even economically necessary—to run as much grain as possible through livestock.
But American farmers were still turning out more grain than America or the export markets could absorb. When this made grain prices drop, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was stuck: it had to pay huge subsidies to bail out farmers—and then pay to store the excess grain. Meanwhile, grain firms saw profits dwindling. What could be done?
To strategists at the USDA, [and] Cargill and Continental [two multi-national grain firms], the solution to the surplus problem was self-evident. It was to get people in other countries to eat the way Americans did. A global economy in which millions of rice-eaters in Asia were converted to wheat bread was one that absorbed some of the perennial U.S. wheat surpluses. And a food system in which affluent countries bought billions of dollars of U.S. corn and soybeans to feed their beef, hogs, and poultry every year was one that helped the American balance of payments and trade.
In 1954 the U.S. passed a bill, Public Law 480, to get rid of excess grain by turning it into foreign aid. Under P.L. 480, Uncle Sam offered selected countries long-term, low- interest loans with which to buy grain. In many developing countries, this started people eating American wheat instead of locally grown rice and millet.
In newly industrialized countries, grain from P.L. 480 put meat on middle-class plates.
By 1956, under P.L. 480 America exported half of its output of 295 million bushels of feed grains. And after 1962, Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy shielded European Community farmers, so about the only grains America could profitably sell in the EC were feed grains, especially soybeans.
So feed grains took over from food grains. “Livestock rather than people became the main market for American grain, and soybeans and corn ranked with jet aircraft and computers as the country’s major exports.”
Outside America, as people’s incomes rose, they wanted more meat. “Between the late 1950’s and 1983, total world meat production (by volume) increased about two and a half times.” Slightly more than half the increase came from poultry and pig meat, but clearly the goal was to eat like Americans—and this meant eat beef.
Srila Prabhupada notes, “Modern civilization is centered on animal killing.” History, in fact, shows a grim picture: the sacred cow killed for the sacred dollar.
In the short term, the U.S.D.A. and the large grain companies seemed to have solved their problems. Once again big money could be made selling grain. But long term the effects were disastrous, as we shall discuss in the next article of this series.
- Robert West Howard, The Vanishing Land (Villard Books, 1985), p. 129.
- John Schlebecker, Whereby We Thrive (Iowa State University Press, 1975), pp. 80-81, 157-158.
- Howard, op cit, p. 159-160.
- Dan Morgan, Merchants of Grain (Viking Press, 1979), p. 98.
- Ibid., p. 99.
- Ibid., p. 99.
- Harry Fornari, Bread Upon the Waters (Aurora Publishers, Inc., 1973), p. 118.
- Morgan, op. cit., p. 139.
- Phillip Raikes (Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1988), p. 128.
- Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.27.11, purport.
by Hare Krishna Devi Dasi
Krishna consciousness is practical. For spiritual advancement, you don’t have to renounce everything, go to the forest, and simply chant Hare Krishna all day long. In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains that all of us should continue to perform our duties according to our nature, but we should work with love and devotion as an offering to Him. Thereby every one of us can attain spiritual perfection.
The Vedic framework for organizing the work of a spiritual society is called varnashrama-dharma. As Krishna describes in the Bhagavad-gita, varnashrama gives each of us work to do that suits our natural qualities. This is known as the daivi-varnashrama system, which Prabhupada distinguishes from the exploitive caste system of modern India, in which a person’s role in society is determined by what family he is born in.
A pure devotee of the Lord is considered to be above the varnashrama system. But as Bhaktivinoda Thakura states, “During sadhana-bhakti, or devotional service in practice, so long as one has material desires within the heart one should stay within the confines of varnashrama” That is, unless one is a pure devotee one needs to keep working in society for his or her own purification. Simply, the work should be done to please Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada warned us that we can’t match the renounced life of the six Gosvamis of Vrindavana, and he criticized babajis who make a show of piety by chanting Hare Krishna yet still smoke cigarettes and keep loose relationships with women. “We can tell all these babajis they should be employed, chant Hare Krishna, and draw a plow. Then it will be nice.”
Srila Prabhupada’s remark about the babajis is more than a dismissal of a group of showbottle spiritualists. The fact is, if these babajis would take up Prabhupada’s instructions they could eventually attain the spiritual platform they now pretend to be on.
Prabhupada’s remark is a valuable instruction for us, too. Like the babajis, we sometimes tend to be sentimental about Krishna consciousness. We may want to enjoy intense devotional feelings from chanting Hare Krishna, but we may forget that to please Krishna we must offer Him our daily work as well: “Do it for Me.”
So the principle embodied in Srila Prabhupada’s simple instruction “Chant Hare Krishna and draw a plow” speaks vitally to us. And if we follow it? We have Prabhupada’s simple benediction: “Then it will be nice.” Our spiritual life will be successful.
In this column, I want to meditate on Srila Prabhupada’s order to “Chant Hare Krishna and draw a plow,” particularly as it applies to cow protection and agriculture.
We know we should offer our work to Krishna, but sometimes it’s not easy for us to do it wholeheartedly, especially if our work has aspects displeasing to Krishna.
In the sixteenth century that happened to Sanatana Gosvami when he was the minister in charge of the government secretariat for the Nawab of Bengal. Sanatana Gosvami’s expert management freed the Nawab from administrative duties so the Nawab could spend his time attacking other states. But when the Nawab at last prepared to attack Orissa, where the temple of Lord Jagannatha is located, Sanatana Gosvami resigned his post, and the Nawab had him imprisoned.
Most of us are not as strong as Sanatana Gosvami, and if our work puts us in a compromising situation it may keep us from fully taking up the devotional process or maintaining our devotional practice. Srila Prabhupada realized this, and that’s why he pushed his followers to revive the pure system of varnashrama. That system naturally purifies the work we do because the whole system is designed to satisfy the senses of the Supreme Lord.
Prabhupada explained that without this system Krishna consciousness can be difficult to take up: “Our main aim is how to give them Krishna consciousness. But if they are already disturbed in every respect, then how will they take it?” Therefore, Srila Prabhupada said, to help them come to Krishna consciousness, “this is the method—varnashrama.”
Elaborating on this, ISKCON leader Jagadisha Goswami cites three basic reasons Prabhupada gave for using varnashrama within ISKCON: (1) to organize our society effectively, (2) to engage the psychophysical propensities of our devotees to keep them happy and advancing in Krishna consciousness, and (3) to construct a house in which all the people of the world can live peacefully.
Varnashrama serves as a preliminary means of bringing people to Krishna consciousness, even if they’re not yet chanting Hare Krishna. Srila Prabhupada said, “We must pave the situation in such a way that gradually people will be promoted to the spiritual plane. … The chanting will go on. That is not stopped. But at the same time varnashrama-dharma must be established to make the way easy.”6
In the varnashrama system, it is the vaishyas,the productive class, who generate the wealth. And how are they to do this? Krishna says, krishi-go-rakshya vanijyam—by farming, cow protection, and trade.
The trade or business mentioned here is largely another aspect of farming or cow protection. Prabhupada explains: “Business means if you have got extra grains or extra foodstuff you can sell where there is necessity, where there is want. That is business. We are not going to open mills and factories. … That is shudra [low-class] business. The real business is that you produce enough food grains, as much as possible, and you eat and distribute.”
Srila Prabhupada further stresses the “cow protection” part of Krishna’s instructions: “The Bhagavad-gita specifically instructs us, krishi-go-rakshya: We human beings must protect the cow, our milk-giving mother. Go-rakshya—protect the cow. Not go-hatya—kill the cow. This is most sinful.”
In later columns I shall discuss how the modern economy depends on cow killing, and where this leads.
The leaders of ISKCON are determined not to simply let the world go to pieces because of ignorance and greed. They are working instead to help usher in the Golden Age of Lord Caitanya so that everyone may chant Hare Krishna and live peacefully. An important part of this is to set up a varnashrama society. And crucial to varnashrama is cow protection and simple agrarian villages where everyone can advance in spiritual life.