Integral to the mythological “5,000 year old tradition” that Sivarama cites in defense of his promotion of “ahimsa milk” is the legends of Krishna as a cowherd boy. Two of Krishna’s most beloved names—“Govinda” and “Gopala”—refer to this aspect, both meaning “cow protector,” and “protector of Veda.” Most of us have seen those lyrical paintings of Krishna as a beautiful, happy cowherd boy enjoying a loving relationship with cows in a peaceful, bucolic setting. These are seductive images. According to an ISKCON site:
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.
According to statements made by a number of Hare Krishna devotees with whom I’ve communicated, and as can be readily seen on any Hare Krishna site, the idea driving much of the fixation on the supposed need and obligation to farm cows for milk is this relationship of Krishna with cows. Because, according to the legend, on earth Krishna had, and in the spiritual world is said to continue to have, this relationship with cows, and because of his much-celebrated enjoyment of dairy products, his devotees must continue to farm cows in order to emulate his example; they must appropriate, offer and consume dairy products in order to “please Krishna.”
This statement by a devotee with considerable experience in the exploitation of cows on Hare Krishna farms expresses the importance attached to “cow protection,” that is, “happy-holy” exploitation of cows:
For us to advance in spiritual life it is essential to start by remembering Lord Krishna’s wonderful pastimes as protector of the cows. Prabhupada [the founder] states that, “One cannot become spiritually advanced without acquiring the brahminical qualifications and giving protection to cows.”
I’m not sure where that leaves anyone who doesn’t live on a farm! This literalist, fundamentalist interpretation of the mythology of “Krishna lila,” i.e. the pastimes of Krishna, cuts across any kind of rational thinking or empirical facts about the realities of animal agriculture, the lack of any physiological need for milk, and the ethical issues involved. Spiritual realities, according to this ideology, transcend and eclipse such quotidian concerns. As Sivarama insists, “We have to do it God’s way” and we are “bad” if we don’t.
But for those of us who are not members of this particular Krishna cult, this rationale only highlights the utter folly of the whole enterprise of “ahimsa milk.” Krishna’s idyllic relationship with cows is mythological story; a fiction; a fantasy. This is not to deny the reality and significance of Krishna at a symbolic level; as a divine archetype; as one of the many cherished forms and names of God as an expression of the formless, engaged with in devotional culture. But this is not the way ISKCON relates to Krishna. If it were, there would not be this obsession with reifying and replicating his pastimes, to the detriment of cows. For them, Krishna is a really existing super-person, with a real, humanlike, blue body, who plays the flute and lives in a perfect spiritual world, surrounded by cows, gopis (dairymaids), and other companions.
The mythical, pastoral idyll of Krishna as a cowherd boy with his happy cows is on a par with the stories of the child Krishna performing superhuman feats. These include slaying giant demons and lifting Govardhana Hill with one hand and balancing it on his little finger to protect the inhabitants of Vrindavan from torrential rain. It has the same ontological status as the adult Krishna marrying 16,100 women. The story is that he provided each of them a palace with huge gardens full of colourful flowers. He created 16,100 forms of himself so that he could treat them all in the same manner as his first eight wives—yes, that makes 16,108 wives in total! Each woman is said to have had ten sons and one daughter.
The notion that the story of Krishna as cowherd boy provides an “example [that] 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” makes about as much sense as saying that Krishna’s other fantastical and supernormal feats have some sort of real world significance and practical utility that should be imitated. Does ISKCON also advocate the practical benefits and advantages of polygamy to the extent of each man wedding and providing richly for thousands of women and their children? Are Krishna people recommending we seek out demons in order to slay them? If demons are unavailable, who is the next most suitable victim?
In reality, it’s as impossible to exploit cows harmlessly as it is to hold up Govardhana Hill with one finger. I’m quite sure Krishna’s affectionate encounters with cows in a rural paradise were not marred by having to deal with the inconvenient economic realities of animals as property—how to ensure that cows are impregnated each year so they continue to produce milk; how to dispose of unwanted male calves, or spent female cows who are no longer paying their way; how to make a profit.
Mythological characters are not under any obligation to consider the ethical argument against all animal use—that it’s immoral to treat nonhuman persons as though they are things. They’re also free of having to worry about those pesky details concerning the threat to the existence of sentient life on earth due to global warming, with animal agriculture being the major contributor to greenhouse gases. And eternally youthful, heart-throbbingly handsome avatars won’t ever get cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, prostate cancer or acne, no matter how much milk they quaff.
Fantasy cows can “give” milk without being exploited and live out blissful lives frolicking with Krishna and his friends long after their milk has dried up. There is unlimited land with succulent grass to sustain them, including the ever-growing herd of those who can no longer produce milk. Their babies never have to be taken away and killed so that Krishna and his friends can steal their milk. They never have to be forcefully inseminated on a rape rack. These contented cows magically gush milk out of pure love and lots of it! There’s no end to the delicious treats one can eat made with their milk! How wonderful!
It’s risible that this mythological scenario is treated seriously by any organisation as a blueprint for animal agriculture on planet Earth in 2017, and touted as the way of the future for dairy farming! And that on this basis, ISKCON leaders like Sivarama actually buy up tracts of land and run farms trying quixotically to make this fantasy a reality. It’s astounding, and disturbing, that grown adults can behave in such a misguided manner as to treat what is, for practical purposes, equivalent to a charming fairy story as providing a directive and imperative for animal exploitation, involving real, sentient animals with real interests. But ideological zealotry has a way of addling the brain and blinding one to reality—in this case, speciesist ideological zealotry.
Is it any wonder that Sivarama won’t engage in a podcast debate with Gary Francione on the issue of “ahimsa milk”? He has to be aware of how preposterous this is for anyone who is not an ISKCON true believer. Of course, as mere “karmis,” the derogatory word used for us benighted non-devotees, supposedly mired in the material world, we would be dismissed as the ones who just don’t get it.
It’s tragic for the cows and bulls exploited on these farms that they are bred into existence in order to play their parts in this farce, for the sake of religious fundamentalism, and, let’s be clear, overriding that, palate pleasure. The magical, mystical mythology of Krishnaism may be more elaborate and exotic than your usual justification for what is at base palate pleasure, but that is what it is. Does anyone think that Hare Krishna people would be going to all this time, trouble and cost to breed and raise cows if not for the products extracted from them that they enjoy? It’s certainly not possible to argue that oxen are needed to for agricultural labour—ISKCON is well able to afford tractors and in any case, animals should not be used as work slaves—and there is no physiological necessity for anyone to consume milk. The trivial reason of palate pleasure is all that remains, bolstered by elaborate religious rationalisation based in mythology, all of it failing utterly as a moral justification for animal exploitation.
Sherry Colb wrote a compelling essay that has a bearing on this situation. She commented on her repeated experience of the weight given by those who wish to continue consuming animal products to the fact that it’s possible to imagine animal exploitation that does not involve pain, suffering and death. “In other words, the fact that one can imagine painless exploitation and slaughter is …enough to make it acceptable to consume the products of painful exploitation and slaughter. Got that?” So, according to those who take this position, if in theory, that is, in our imaginations, we could produce eggs without killing all the male chicks, then “that is apparently enough, from [this] perspective, to justify consuming eggs in the real world, where male layers are always killed as part of the process.”
Colb points out that this “argument” is equivalent to saying “but I had a dream in which an angel said that I should eat eggs.” Indeed, it’s as bizarre as saying that because Krishna and his friends in an imaginary, mythological world, or a spiritual world beyond this universe, were/are able to extract milk from cows non-violently, this somehow means that we are perfectly entitled—even obligated—to act out that fantasy in this world where all animal use violates fundamental rights and procuring milk without violence is impossible.
That this is impossible has been demonstrated—as if we needed any demonstration—by the fact that ISKCON have a history of widespread cow abuse (see here, here here and here). This should hardly come as any surprise. It bears out the inescapable fact that abuse is inherent in all animal use, even in the most supposedly humane conditions. Unlike the all-powerful “Supreme Personality of Godhead,” those running Hare Krishna farms have been faced with the economic realities of animal exploitation that guarantee animal torture and death. The documented results of this include: animals have been sold at auctions, or to conventional farmers, leading to them being killed in slaughterhouses; large numbers of unwanted “animals (generally calves) were left outside in the winter to die an ignoble death. Starvation and freezing was to be their fate. This merciless torture was unceremoniously labelled ‘winter kill.’”
Also part of this history is animals dying through various kinds of neglect; ISKCON farms renting out land for conventional farmers on which to graze their cattle, thereby “directly receiving profit from the slaughter of cows” over many years; retired animals “in bad shape,” “barely maintained properly,” who, “because of lack of manpower and Lakshmi [money]…never got any exercise and the chains had eaten into their skins over the years;” calves dying because of receiving insufficient mother’s milk; animals suffering from lice, ringworm, “lack of foot trimming causing lameness;” and “arthritis due to lying on cold, damp concrete.”
All of these problems have been documented by a Hare Krishna devotee with a decade of experience in ISKCON animal agriculture. This devotee also notes that there has been a general lack of involvement and responsiveness on the part of the top decision-making body of ISKCON, the Governing Body Commission (GBC), in the welfare of cows, despite the rhetoric about the importance of “cow protection.”
Balabhadra das, ISKCON Minister for Cow Protection and Agriculture, is cited as saying that in ISKCON goshalas (cow shelters) in India he saw that the tethered cows were in run-down buildings, contrasting with “new, prosperous buildings being erected in the vicinity.” He noted a glaring lack of bulls and oxen indicating the “unpalatable” fact that this “points at a management system that has systematically sent cows and bulls away [resulting in their slaughter] for perhaps decades.” This is viewed as being related to overbreeding and a supposed failure to use oxen for labour so that they end up being given away or sold off and ultimately killed.
Balabhadra das observes that at a Hare Krishna farm in Vrindavan, India, the epicentre of the Krishna tradition, which we would expect to be a model of “cow protection,” there are hundreds of animals “unaccounted for,” that is, missing, with severe lack of provision in land and resources to support the number of animals bred. He points out that “cow protection” has been a low priority for the GBC. As the GBC itself concluded (see page 185), at a special meeting, “women, children and cows are unprotected and abused.”
What a far cry from the rosy picture of Krishna mythology!
We can shake our heads in disbelief at the delusions of ISKCON and its absurd “ahimsa milk” fantasy, but it’s not only “ahimsa milk” that’s the issue—it’s the whole ideology of welfarism that is deeply problematic and responsible for massive delusion and immorality everywhere concerning animals. Beyond the impact within ISKCON and its sympathisers of whatever nonsense Sivarama and others promote, the point is that notions of “cow protection” and “ahimsa milk” are symptomatic of the widespread malaise of animal welfarism that relentlessly promotes “happy exploitation.” This ISKCON version of the malaise represents a striking example of myth-making and delusion in what is actually the norm in our speciesist society. What ISKCON promotes is essentially no different to what is peddled by all of the large animal charities and accepted by most people—the idea that it’s morally acceptable to exploit animals provided we do it “humanely.” Let me state again that “humane” animal exploitation is impossible, but even if it were possible, it would not be morally right.
We see that ISKCON’s talk about non-violent animal exploitation is nothing but propaganda, just as is the entire “happy” exploitation approach promoted by the corporate animal charities, such as PETA, Mercy for Animals, Animals Australia and VIVA! to name a few. What they promote is no less deluded, reactionary and morally odious than what ISKCON promotes. “Animal advocates” who slavishly follow these groups and who resist rational abolitionist arguments against welfarism, talking only in empty slogans and buzzwords, are just as implicated in cultish behaviour as any ISKCON “ahimsa milk” acolyte.
“Ahimsa milk” from “protected cows” is a glaring example of the failure of welfarism. Unlike the picture presented in the legends about Krishna, it’s not a happy, or pretty, one. How could it be? As Sherry Colb said:
Ultimately, then, I must conclude that the “it could be done ethically in theory” argument is not really an argument at all but simply a (rather transparent) rationalization… I would say that if something could be ethical in theory but is in fact unethical in practice, then that means that one is under an obligation, absent some truly compelling need, to avoid supporting that something unless and until the fantasy/theory becomes a reality. Though imagination can yield many wonderful things, it cannot justify behavior that is, in reality, unjustifiable.
Indeed. I suggest it’s time to learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality. Whatever the stories about Krishna as a cowherd boy offer, they have absolutely nothing to do with the realities of animal agriculture and have nothing to say about the morality of animal exploitation. To try to act them out as a real life scenario with living, breathing, sentient animals is the height of folly! It can only ever result in disaster for animals.
“Ahimsa milk” gives magical thinking a bad name.
To Sivarama and those who support his position: Unless you find yourself magically transported to Goloka Vrindavana, Krishna’s supposedly eternal, heavenly “cow planet,” (Go=cow, loka=world, planet) outside of this material universe, then “ahimsa milk,” along with all forms of “humane” or “spiritual” animal exploitation will remain nothing more than a fantasy, and a very toxic one.
In fact, in any world, treating cows as milk resources for humans, that is, treating nonhuman persons as things, would be morally offensive. I regard the notion of a “heavenly abode” where this occurs, and a God who delights in it, to be just a very sad, stunted, and humanocentric idea. Definitely not my idea of heaven! More to the point, it could only ever be hell for the cows.
As Voltaire said, “If we believe in absurdities, we will commit atrocities.”
Stop trying to imagine that there is a right way to do the wrong thing. Just do the right thing by animals—go vegan.
By Linda McKenzie
Disclaimer: I do not support Victoria Moran, as cited by Sherry Colb. I strongly reject Moran’s promotion of animal exploitation in her promotion of reducetarianism.
Learn more about abolitionist animal rights and ethical veganism here.
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