Wait… the cow? For most Western people, when we think of the cow we think of her as dinner, as the skin behind a slick new coat or a sturdy new pair of shoes. We see her as a mute and dumb part of the classical American rural landscape, or we see her as an archetypal symbol of the inscrutable horde of Hindu cosmologies and theologies. Yet the physical and metaphysical reality of the cow as she actually is, beyond our romanticization and depersonalization, defines our own physical and metaphysical reality. That is why the protection of mother cow is so essential in our efforts towards creating an ecologically-sound present and future.
The Independent recently posited that 2014 will be the year that being a vegan will become a mainstream thing. Some of our most affluential and eminent cultural and political figures, such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jay-Z and Beyonce have experimented with a vegan diet in order to enhance their personal health. The long shadow of the livestock industry has long been established as being one of the main causes of our collective existential ecological crisis. Many diverse peoples around the planet are beginning to recognize that living beings like the cow need to be seen as more than mere commodity, more than a machine to satisfy our tastes, and they are adjusting their lifestyles gradually and accordingly. Then there are those sagely souls who take it to a deeper level, giving a physical and metaphysical example of culture and theology based around the protection of the cow. It is these souls who in so many ways are at the vanguard of our ecological movement.
One such example of those in the vanguard is the International Society for Cow Protection (ISCOWP). Incorporated in 1990 as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization by disciples of A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada named William and Irene Dove (who are commonly known in the bhakti-yoga community by their respective spiritual initiate names Balabhadra Dasa and Chayadevi Dasi), the ISCOWP project is currently located on 165 acres of land in the foothills of the West Virginia panhandle near Wheeling. A herd of twenty protected cows and bulls make up the beloved inhabitants of the community. Most of the cows and bulls are older and are considered retired from any kind of active plowing or dairy production, having been donated to the project in order to allow them to live out their natural life peacefully and to provide a living example of the proper relationship between cow and human.
Balabhadra, as the “earthworm”, trains some of the younger male members of the community for plowing work as oxen, as all field work in the ISCOWP community is oxen-based as it is in traditional agriculture from the Indian model. He also tends the ISCOWP gardens, which utilize a harvest and preservation model which provides foodstuffs year-round for the community’s inhabitants and for global members of the ISCOWP fraternity, who receive lovely canned delicacies from the garden’s harvest. Chayadevi, as the “bookworm”, has been producing the ISCOWP newsletter since 1990 to keep everyone in the community informed on the wealth and health of life with the cows. To help financially support the project and the maintenance of the herd, ISCOWP has developed over the last thirty years the Adopt-a-Cow fundraising system, in which patrons of ISCOWP can donate for the yearly or lifetime care of a particular cow or oxen, allowing them to live the good life as part of the ISCOWP herd. Of course, this earthworm-bookworm relationship between Balabhadra and Chayadevi is no dichotomy or duality. Their mutual talents and inspirations interweave to serve a vision which reveals the timeless value of cow protection as an essential pillar of ecologically-sound society.
What exactly are the physical and metaphysical values behind cow protection? Krishna, in the Bhagavad-Gita, says that the “the humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and one who is outcast.” The quintessential value of ahimsa (non-violence) petitions our mind and heart to never commit unnecessary violence upon living entity, especially when we understand that the spiritual integrity of every being is of the same transcendent quality. Gandhi himself remarks that:
The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. It is to me one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human beyond his species…Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives…The cow was in India the best companion. She was the giver of plenty…She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind…Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world.
For Balabhadra and Chayadevi, the ISCOWP project understands cow protection as the practical revelation of happiest life for the cow and ox and those that take care of them. They write:
The actual philosophical reason for cow protection is very simple; all living entities deserve protection from slaughter and other violence at the hands of humans. Not only cows, all animals have souls the same as we do. They are all children of Krsna, all dear to Him.
In practice the first principle of cow protection, surprisingly, is OX EMPLOYMENT.
There is a mistake made when only the cow is considered, because typically, her main usefulness is seen as milk production, and she will not give milk unless she first has a calf. Half of all calves are bulls who will never produce milk. The expense of feeding the bulls will be a deficit to the farmer unless he realizes their potential for alternative energy by employing them in tilling the fields and hauling. Otherwise, the farmer, in most countries throughout the world, acquires his economic profit by selling them for meat either directly to the slaughterhouse, the meat industry’s feedlots, or to the veal industry where he lives a short life crammed into a small crate not much bigger than him.
The cow is also sold for meat when she cannot produce the required quantity of milk. Regardless of milk production, the dung and urine of a cow or bull is valuable. Instead of slaughtering all bovines who do not produce milk, why not utilize their dung and urine in fertilizers, compost, pest repellent, medicines, cleaning products, pancagavya, and biogas fuel to name a few useful and saleable items?
The modern system of agriculture does not realize the alternative energy potential of the bull calf nor the variety of useful bovine dung and urine products. Therefore, slaughtering becomes the only economically viable means of management. Most people, accustomed to this viewpoint and seeing no alternative, will throw up their hands and agree, even if they prefer a less violent solution. This is only because they don’t have the facts. They don’t know that the overall value of the ox is greater when he is utilized for work than when he’s slaughtered for meat, and even when not productive a cow or ox produces useful urine and dung.
A BETTER SYSTEM would be rearranging the components. First, breed cows not to provide milk with calves as the by-product, but to provide a team of oxen for every family farm with milk as the by-product. There will be neither excess milk nor excess calves. The oxen will be out in the pastures eating simply, and naturally fertilizing the soil, saving the farmer the cost of the tractor, fuel, and fertilizer. The oxen will be quite content to use their big muscles in such wholesome work, and the humans can become healthy vegetarians. As for the government, if it wants to subsidize something, why not the small family farm instead of the beef industry? The beef industry may have a powerful lobby, but who wants all that heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, not to mention all that bad karma from killing innocent animals!
Don’t we all hanker for a simpler, cleaner, more wholesome, less violent Earth?
The cow stands at the very nexus of our existential ecological crisis, and what she tells us about we treat her clarifies to an astounding and frightening degree how we treat the Earth and the path we are treading forward from our largely anthropocentric vision. By considering the interaction between the industrial animal-agriculture industry, the living political, economic, and ecological logic of meat-eating, and by contrast the radical choice to live by the vegetarian/vegan ethic, along with a sensitive understanding of the deeply sanctified ground the cow rests upon in the Hindu/Vedic tradition, we will gain an thorough understanding of how mother and sacred cow can help to guide us forward into ecological civilization.
It is the sacred mother cow, and those who protect her, love her, and cherish her gifts, who are truly some of the most revolutionary folk of our time. The lens of our ethical and spiritual vision is extended in the most vital ways when we see through the eyes of sacred mother cow and those who protect her. In the tradition of this loving relationship between human and cow is a path forward to restore and create anew the grand tradition of harmonious civilization on the Earth.