COW PROTECTION is something which is held in the highest regard within our ISKCON society; yet, often misunderstood in its practical application. One cause is a lack of understanding of the cows’ importance within the agricultural ecosystem. If rural development is to evolve and be successful, changes need to be made in this area.
Cows are a beneficial and essential component of sustainable farming. They force a broadening of crops to include hay and pasture – both important additions to sustainable food production. In addition, some small grains can be grown to supplement the herd’s diet. This provides a practical need to expand crop diversity which is a pillar of sustainability.
The herd’s obvious contributions are milk and draft. Historically, our movement has excelled, at least in the short to medium term, on producing milk. But milk production is not the only objective of cow protection. The challenge found concerning dairy production has been herd size expanding beyond the carrying capacity of the farms. This has caused the eventual dwarfing and demise of many rural projects.
Draft is another story. Somehow, cow protection has been disconnected from utilizing the bulls. This divide needs to be corrected if progress in establishing Srila Prabhupada’s goal of rural independence is to evolve. To illustrate, a devotee once informed me that he had been placed in charge of a heifer program at an ISKCON farm, only to realize there was no similar service offered to the bull calves. Why such neglect?
In the case where cows are monopolized, herd size eventually expands beyond the farm’s carrying capacity and everything eventually grinds to a halt. This is simple biology; i.e. to get milk, the cows
need to be freshened every year or two, so in due course of time there is no longer sufficient land for all the cows. The wiser plan is to elongate the lactation and impregnate less with the aim of restricting milk to one’s family and locals.
In 1975, His Divine Grace toured the New Talavan Farm and left important instructions to his society on cow protection. During this tour, Srila Prabhupada noticed that farmland was dominated by the herd. He remarked:
Prabhupäda: They will grow, and they will eat. Rather, they will help you for your eating. The father also eats, but he maintains the family. Therefore the bull is considered as father and the cow as mother. Mother gives milk, and the bull grows food grains for man. Therefore Caitanya Mahäprabhu first challenged that Kazi that "What is your religion, that you eat your father and mother?" Both the bulls and the cows are important because the bull will produce food grain and the cow will give supply milk. They should be utilized properly. That is human intelligence.
Prabhupada’s comment “They will grow, and they will eat” refers to how a non-devotee farmer dedicates his land strictly to cows because he will eventually slaughter and eat the animals, an option unacceptable to vaishnavas…
Prabhupäda: So everything is for the animals. Nothing for the man?
Nityänanda: The cows give us milk.
Prabhupäda: That's all? And you are not growing any food grains? Why?...
Prabhupäda: And everything for the cows, but what for the man? They will give everything for cows because they will eat cows, other farmers. But you utilize the animals for growing your food.
Brahmänanda: The idea is we should maintain the animals, but then the animals should provide foodstuffs for the men.
Brahmänanda: And that way there is cooperation.
Prabhupäda: Yes. The animals, bulls, should have helped... instead of that machine. Then it is properly utilized. And others, they cannot utilize these animals. Therefore, what they will do? Naturally they will send to slaughterhouse. But we are not going to send to the slaughterhouse. Then what we will do? They must be utilized. Otherwise simply for growing food that the cows and bulls we engage ourself? You are already feeling burden because there are so many bull calves. You were asking me, "What we shall do with so many bulls?"
Nityänanda: Well, when they grow up we will train them as oxen.
Prabhupäda: No, what the oxen will do?
Nityänanda: Plow the fields.
Prabhupäda: Yes. That is wanted. Transport, plowing fields. That is wanted. And unless our men are trained up, Kåñëa conscious, they will think, "What is the use of taking care of the plows (cows)? Better go to the city, earn money and eat them." (New Orleans, August 1, 1975; Walk Around New Tälavana Farm)
There have been unfortunate occurrences regarding the fate of cows and bulls within the movement’s history. An underlying cause is that the cow program is divorced from other aspects of farm development such as grain culture and ox power. This must change.
Part of the dilemma is that there is a lack of farming knowledge within the movement. Srila Prabhupada teaches that traditionally the knowledge of the Vaisya varna is spread primarily from father to son and not via schools. In other words, farming is very practical and best learnt by hands-on training.
During a recent conversation with an ISKCON leader, the point was made that to move towards agricultural self-reliance, success must come by encouraging society’s Vaisya component. This was met with the defensive comeback that “No the Brahmans must lead the way.” The conversation later revealed that he didn’t even know the difference between straw and hay; so how can such a “Brahmana” be expected to manage a successful farm project?
Are we to believe that our rural communities can only thrive when the society’s Sannyasis and Brahmanas stand at the edge of the fields screaming “Chant and be Happy?” Obviously not. This lack of knowledge likely reflects their lack of interest which is poses a challenge for rural development.
There needs to be a comprehensive understanding of farm ecology, crop rotation, composting, animal husbandry, rotational grazing, soil science, tillage and Permaculture. In a nutshell, what we call simple living. It will be a difficult task to engage oxen lacking these knowledge skills.
The Brahmans must illustrate the benefits of high thinking and offence-less chanting, if unable to direct society in the practicalities of simple living. That is one of their important responsibilities. To date, an understanding on how to marry sustainable living with high thinking remains elusive.
Cows, cows, cows is not the answer. Cows are undeniably an essential cornerstone of a successful agrarian system, but we must find their place in the broader perspective of rural development. The current mal-emphasis in ISKCON leads to the misconception that cow orphanages and keeping pet cows is the be-all and end-all of cow protection.
Oxen-based agriculture is revolutionary, rips apart current society’s social structure, and demands a re-population of rural areas based on an inter-dependence of spirituality and culture. Ox-power forces society to slow down and re-evaluate. No longer will 1.5 to 2% of society’s population be dedicated to producing food. This segment of the populace will need to expand exponentially.
Although there is widespread lip-service given to simple living, most of us find it unattractive.
Until that changes, we are simply spinning our wheels. Endless talk, resolutions and meetings are all cheap and will not produce the desired result of successful farm communities. The oxen are the foundation of real change and denying this will provide little progress in reaching our goals.