Sivarama Swami claimed that in his “…Krishna tradition…cows and humans have a symbiotic relationship. You could compare it to what dogs are to man today. Nature’s full of these kinds of relationships.”

I’ve encountered numerous Hare Krishna devotees who referred to exploitation of cows on their farms as “symbiosis,” and who claimed that it’s all just fine because the animals are “treated like pets.” In fact, in my experience, this is the most common argument used by them to defend and sanitise exploitation. And of course, this nonsense is not exclusive to Hare Krishnas. We often hear people claim that “happy” exploitation is a form of “symbiosis.” Those who engage in “backyard” and “hobby” farming are especially fond of this trope. The truth is that however the exploitation of the cows is sentimentalized, as a “symbiotic relationship,” with a “family member,” and “generous giver” of milk, the cows on Hare Krishna farms are property.

Symbiosis is “any type of a close and long-term biological interaction between two different biological organisms, be it mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic.” It’s clear that when Sivarama and other promoters of “happy” exploitation use this term they mean that there is a mutually rewarding relationship between the exploiters and the animals who are exploited. That is, that both parties benefit from the relationship in some way. But if human domestication of animals involves any kind of symbiotic relationship, it’s of the parasitic, or exploitative, kind in which “one organism benefits and the other is harmed.”

Donald Watson, along with his early vegan colleagues who founded the Vegan Society in 1944, recognised the parasitical nature of this “relationship.” According to Francione and Charlton:

They claimed to “suspect that the great impediment to man’s moral development may be that he is a parasite of lower forms of animal life’ and expressed the view that “the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies.”

Aside from the fact that we don’t drink the milk of our cats and dogs, Sivarama is obviously unaware that abolitionist vegans reject all domestication, including that of animals as “pets.” While there certainly can be, and often is, mutual affection between humans and their pets, the idea that there could ever be any mutuality in terms of equality of power, or freedom to choose participate or not in the owner-pet arrangement is false when one party is a rights holder and the other party is property. In such an unequal relationship, the interests of the rights-holder will always trump that of their property. Abolitionists condemn the breeding of animals as pets, so analogising cows exploited for milk with pets does not get Sivarama anywhere in terms of any moral justification. Rather, it works against him.

Although abolitionists reject the morally problematic institution of pet ownership, we believe we have a responsibility to adopt and foster animals already in existence and needing homes. However, the animals Sivarama is talking about have not been rescued. They’ve been deliberately bred into existence to serve humans as milk-providers. Regardless of the affection owners may feel for their cows, and that this affection may be reciprocated by them, the cows are in a relationship of exploiter and exploited, analogous to that of slave-owner and slave. That’s very far from symbiosis. Symbiosis does not involve one organism systematically breeding another for its own use exclusively as a resource and having absolute control over every aspect of the other’s life.

Sivarama seems to be equally oblivious of the fact that referring to his cows as “religious paraphernalia,” and saying that “it” is protected as “church property” utterly contradicts his attempt to portray the relationship as “symbiotic,” implying some sort of mutuality and equal freedom to choose to engage, or not engage, in the relationship. The cows, precisely because they are property, and “paraphernalia,” that is, because they are treated as things, had no choice whatsoever in being bred into existence to be used as milk resources. They have no choice whatsoever whether to stay on the farm or leave it, since they’ve been bred and raised to be completely dependent for their every need on humans. They have just as little choice in whether to be separated from their milk by their human owners.

And what sort of equality is there when Sivarama, as the property owner, gets to decide what value to place on his cows? He can choose to value his property, or “paraphernalia,” highly and take good care of “it.” He’s also completely free to value the interests of his cows at zero and to have them killed, or abandon them to die of exposure and starvation, if he wishes. Whether he actually chooses to do that is beside the point, although other Hare Krishna farms have done just that, and these acts are commonplace in India (see here here, here and here), the land of “cow protection.” The point is that he has the power to legally use and dispose of his property as he wishes. There can be no mutual, equal, or benignly “symbiotic” relationship between parties of vastly unequal power. This is a relationship of domination and exploitation, not “symbiosis,” regardless of how nicely it’s dressed up.

“Symbiosis,” because it’s prevalent in the natural world, is also another way of saying that animal exploitation is “natural.” Francione and Charlton have addressed the excuse, “But…isn’t eating animal products ‘natural?’ in their book, Eat Like You Care. They state:

This “But” is like saying that God wants us to eat animals but we don’t need to bother with God. Something else that is big and important—nature—wants us to eat animals. If we don’t eat animals, we are acting against nature. We are behaving in an unnatural way. That’s powerful stuff—even if you’re an atheist. In fact, “But Natural” is like “But God” without God. It seeks to establish necessity, but without God.

As it happens, Sivarama told us already in his audio response that “God” wants us to exploit cows for milk and bulls for labour, and that if we don’t, we’re acting against God and are therefore “bad.” ISKCON’s founder taught that using cows for milk and other products is “God’s arrangement.” When Sivarama talks about “symbiosis,” this is just another way of saying that there is some sort of God-given, or divinely ordained, mutually beneficial, natural arrangement whereby it’s not just perfectly okay, but necessary, to exploit animals.

The “God” excuse obviously fails just as badly as the “natural” one, but I won’t pursue that here—they are equivalent in appealing to something big and awesome that supposedly overrides moral objections to animal use. Francione and Charlton provide a number of arguments against the idea that consuming animal products is “natural” and I encourage everyone to read those, as well as the arguments in response to “But…doesn’t God want us to eat animals?” in Eat Like You Care. There’s also an excellent, short response in the FAQ here (see Q. 5) to the question, “Isn’t human use of animals a “tradition,” or “natural,” and therefore morally justified?”

“Symbiosis,” used as a justification for animal exploitation, is just a pseudo-scientific idea and a pretentious label that “happy” animal exploiters like to bandy about as a cover for using animals as resources. It’s really just a fig leaf for naked exploitation. It’s an attempt to perpetuate a fantasy that animal exploitation is a win-win relationship and that animals enjoy being exploited, as long as it’s according to some arbitrary standard as determined by their exploiters. This is no different to saying that slaves enjoy their slavery as long as they’re given good food and decent bedding, and that slavery is therefore morally neutral as a “symbiotic,” mutually beneficial relationship. No one would accept this in relation to humans and we should equally reject it as a morally odious idea for nonhumans.

“Symbiosis” is nothing more than an empty buzzword and piece of speciesist propaganda that belies the reality of animal use, no matter how the animals are treated.

Moreover, when Sivarama, his fellow Hare Krishnas and other “happy” exploitation fans attempt to defend their exploitation by saying that farm animals are treated “just like pets,” they not only display ignorance of the moral arguments against pet ownership but that they have not considered basic facts about how most “pets” are actually treated. It’s only a minority of animals used as pets who live out their lives, cared for until they die, in a secure, loving relationship with one owner. The majority are either sold or given away to another owner, or passed along by multiple owners, or are neglected, abused, or abandoned. Vast numbers of “pets” end up tragically being killed as unwanted animals in shelters. Making facile remarks about farm animals being “treated like pets” evidences a lack of understanding, or a lack of caring, about the fact that fundamental rights are being violated in both forms of use.

Sivarama Swami should desist from trying to befuddle people with this transparently incoherent nonsense regarding “symbiosis,” along with all of his other vacuous excuses for exploiting animals. It’s not fitting for someone who styles himself as a spiritual leader, and who attaches “Swami” to his name. In such a role, he ought to be fostering moral clarity, justice and non-violence, not adding to confusion, immorality and injustice.

I’ll continue to respond to Sivarama Swami’s attempted justifications for his promotion of “ahimsa milk” in my next essay. Suffice it to say, none of them work. The only measure that works for justice where animals are concerned is to go vegan.

By Linda McKenzie


This essay is based on the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights, as developed by Professors Gary Francione and Anna Charlton.

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