Don’t let the title fool you. Cow chauvinism is not a hyperbolic takedown of cavalier cows nor a criticism of the devotees who care for the cows. Nor is it a wrecking ball aimed at the institution—ISKCON—which connects the philosophical dots between human and bovine welfare. It is, however, a reminder that caring for cows must not be isolated from farming as expressed by Srila Prabhupada when he said, “The purpose of our Hare Krishna farms is to grow food.”
A nutshell rendition of New Vrindaban history—as I personally witnessed it—illustrates what happens when the interplay of cows, farming, preaching and fund raising goes wacky.
Once upon a time, in a village called New Vrindaban, a group of young villagers experienced how service to the cows, coupled with worship of Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra, defined their daily routine and consecrated their love for Srila Prabhupada’s first farm mission.
With the cows and Deities in the center of the community—it was a one minute walk from the temple to the barn–the villagers saw fresh milk—liquid religiosity—travel from milk bucket to Deity kitchen to pujari room to altar and then back to the villagers as Maha Prasadam.
They saw ox teams hauling in logs, horses and men mowing the hay, and the flourishing of vegetable, herb and flower gardens. As the village grew in size, many guests became attracted to the pure devotional atmosphere. Accommodations were needed. The villagers turned their attention towards expanding their preaching outreach. Prabhupada’s Palace bloomed. Guest houses were erected, pastures were dozed into parking lots, and the villagers were asked to travel in pursuit of seeking donations.
Life in the village was forever changed. The cows and oxen were moved out of site to a new barn. To the astonishment of the villagers, the herd size zoomed from eleven hand-milked heifers in 1974 to 150 machine-milked cows by 1982.
The transformation of the village seemed logical because hundreds and thousands of pilgrims were exposed to Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, but the runaway expansion eventually imploded, as do all things born of passion. There is a happy ending, Thanks to the guiding hand of greater ISKCON, the project called New Vrindaban was saved from the dustbin of history.
That said, I will draw back my arched bow and take aim at an embarrassing enigma: We’re eager to defend the thing we think is sustaining us—cow revenue from donors—but whimsical about where our food comes from. The rationalization that “food is just food” as long as it’s offered to Krishna is a death blow to farm community development. The origin of our food is the problem and that’s why Srila Prabhupada once remarked, “At our Pennsylvania farm, they have solved the number one problem: food.”
In a perfect Vedic world, cow care and agriculture are natural partners. How could they not be? In fact, unless the cows are joyful, human society, guided by brahminical culture, cannot flourish. Cows make milk for finer brain tissue. Cows exude manure for renewable crop production. Cows are the cornerstone of ecological harmony. What’s the problem?
The problem is image. If we want to successfully reach out beyond the comfort zone of Hindu congregational support, if our North American neighbors are deemed a valued part of the preaching landscape, beating the drum for cows is like teaching a kid to ride a bike by starting him out on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Cows are not the lead card for beginners. We don’t have the street cred. We are not a vegetarian version of the Amish, backed up by seven generations of successful farming.
The Amish grow, store and sell most of their own vegetables and grains. We grow very little of what sustains us. The Amish economy is land-based. They boomerang their earning by spending their money mostly within the Amish community. Amish cow operations function due to a complex web of interdependent relationships within the Amish community. ISKCON’s sizable cow operations are generally ultra-mechanized and require only a few highly specialized employees.
Here’s the point: ISKCON North American farm projects are not relevant to the needs of our Western peers. We are not mobilized to produce food from the hands of the devotees. We are mobilized to produce donations via the appeal of cow protection, Deity worship and the whirlwind cycle of festivals and Vaisnava holy days. Growing and distributing organic foods—an occupation that could make us totally relevant to our neighbors—is an underfunded, understaffed side show.
As a small scale organic farmer who has exclusively farmed on ISKCON owned farmland for 25 years—I emphatically understand why food production sputters along. Simply stated, farming—especially organic farming—is a weather dependent, labor intensive gamble. It’s easier to pick up the phone, dial in your veggie order and help unload the truck when it rolls up to the temple doors.
As Kali-yuga descends, however, into a morass of environmental, political and economic catastrophes, the “cow protection minus food production” formula will not prevail. Right now, food is deceptively cheap. Right now, management’s ingrained partiality towards cows makes management sense. For the time being, there’s no need to become food relevant to the housewives we shuffle past in Walmart’s grocery section.
On the eve of the 3rd Annual North American Farm Conference, the agenda is set. And you guessed it, it’s mostly about cows, cow policy, cow standards, cow trophies, cow decorum, and cow katha. If for no other reason than pleasing Lord Krishna, let the band play on… but some barnyard common sense is in order.
Pigs don’t fly, horses don’t grow feathers and most Westerners don’t give a hoot about whether or not a few cows on a few Hare Krishna farms are protected by a few devotees who, by and large, are supported by a few Hindu donors. I can make that assertion because I’ve mentored a few hundred young farm apprentices, most of whom arrive as kale-chomping vegetarians, eager to learn how to grow kale, cook kale, offer kale and market kale.
For these farm bhaktas, the logic and urgency of protecting cows will remain a quaint artifact of Hindu mythology until the reason we love cows chimes with the reason we grow what we eat and eat what we grow. They want to see magic, just as I did as a New Vrindaban bhakta in 1974. They want to see bhoga transformed into prasadam, not as passive observers, but as contributors in a chain of spiritual connections from their soiled hands to the cook to the pujari.
A closing prediction is in order: As Kali-yuga tightens its stranglehold—no rain means no grain—the tawny issue of food security will redefine our heady, brahminical misconceptions about how the second half of Srila Prabhupada’s movement will arise. Shaven headed brahmanas, be advised! Growing food is the incubator for varnashrama. Varnashrama, as it turns out, will not be voted on at the annual Mayapura meetings. Varnashrama will be driven by blue collar locals and kale-eating kids seeking shelter from the storm. And just as Srila Prabhupada predicted, the place of action will be our food producing farms.