In this essay, I want to examine the validity of statements made by Sivarama Swami, a guru in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), intended as additional justification for the exploitation of cows for what he falsely calls “ahimsa milk.”
These statements can be summarised as: Cows are like children and mothers.
Having conflated sentient animals with insentient vegetables and inanimate objects, and having analogised cows with pets, Sivarama Swami now turns to saying that cows are like children, and then, that they are like our mothers. Which is it? And what, exactly, is the point?
It’s standard practice in ISKCON to claim that “the cow is our mother” and “the bull is our father” based on the fallacy that cows “give” their milk to humans in order to nurture them and on the fact that bulls traditionally help in tilling the fields, also falsely depicted as being an expression of a desire to serve humans. Both notions are part of a strategy for whitewashing animal exploitation by portraying animals as willing participants in their own exploitation.
Regarding comments by Sivarama likening cows to children—all of this is supposed to establish the idea that, since parents don’t ask children for their consent in what we do with them, we don’t need to ask animals for their consent, either. There’s a failure of logic here in that children are not bred exclusively as resources and are not legal property. Parents can’t legally exploit their children as providers of products or sell them on the market. They can’t legally choose to kill them or have them “put down” if they become too expensive or inconvenient.
And although children necessarily start out as dependent, they eventually grow up to become independent, self-determining adults. Animals remain perpetually dependent as property, in a world they can never understand or control, subject to the mercy, or lack of, of their human owners. They exist only to be exploited, in this case for their mammary secretions. The comparison of animals with children fails.
Just as Sivarama tries to justify the exploitation of cows by equating them with children, his guru and founder of ISKCON, Bhakitvedanta Swami (“Prabhupada”), in his commentaries on scripture, tried to justify the oppression of women by equating them with children. Two examples are given here:
Now, in the Manu-samhita it is clearly stated that a woman should not be given freedom…they are like children. The demons have now neglected such injunctions, and they think that women should be given as much freedom as men.
As children are very prone to be misled, women are similarly very prone to degradation. Therefore, both children and women require protection by the elder members of the family.
It should be noted that “protection” in “Hare Krishna speak” entails restriction of autonomy and ownership as property. Analogising cows with children and talking about “cow protection” is a spurious attempt on the part of Sivarama to justify animal slavery.
Moreover, if cows are really seen as being like children in ISKCON, then they are in deep trouble. ISKCON has a dark history of horrific physical and sexual abuse of children (see here, here, here, here, here and here). A psychologist compared the atmosphere of Hare Krishna gurukulas (boarding schools) to descriptions of concentration camps (page 341). In other words, the children were treated more like prisoners than students.
Sivarama Swami in particular lacks credibility as someone who cares about children since he has been documented (23.07) as being one of three ISKCON leaders who wrote letters of support on behalf of a known child abuser who had administered beatings to children in an ISKCON school.
Comparing cows to mothers also fails. By invoking motherhood, Sivarama attempts to cloak exploitation in a mantle of respect, and respectability. The Wikipedia entry on ISKCON states, “Mother is a term of respect for women and is often prefixed to the Sanskrit name they receive in initiation. Even unmarried women are referred to as mothers.” That may sound nice but an examination of the realities surrounding motherhood in ISKCON shows that Sivarama’s referencing motherhood as a way of trying to defend animal exploitation is highly problematic.
Considering that Prabhupada gave importance to statements in the Manu-samhita that treat women as chattel property, that is, that say that women should never be allowed independence; that women should remain dependent on men throughout their entire lives, including when they are the mothers of adult children, there is some perverse logic in Sivarama comparing cows as property to women as property. This simply reflects the longstanding nexus between oppression of women and oppression of animals.
Once again, this is not an argument that works in Sivarama’s favour, since most people in 2018 reject the status of women as chattel property. The unsavoury insistence within ISKCON patriarchal culture on addressing and referring to every woman without exception as “mataji” i.e. “mother,” while also referring to cows as “mother,” graphically demonstrates this connection between sexism and speciesism that exists everywhere, and very obviously so in ISKCON.
The standard use of this kind of language in ISKCON highlights that both women and cows are defined and valued according to their reproductive function; that is, according to their capacity to be used sexually, to give birth to offspring, and to provide milk and nurturance for humans, primarily males. Instrumentalizing women and cows as reproductive assets, or resources, and depriving them of autonomy denies their personhood. And it’s well known that once you deny someone’s personhood, the next step is that you feel can do whatever you like to them.
There is no question that women in ISKCON have been systematically treated as second-class humans, tolerated rather than valued, and on the whole dealt with appallingly, including being subjected to physical and sexual abuse (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Steven J. Gelberg, a former, senior devotee of many years, has described ISKCON as a “woman-fearing, woman-hating, woman-exploiting institution.” Addressing women as “mataji” does not change that.
Rather, defining all women as “mother” is consistent with women’s devaluation and inferior status in the organisation. Prabhupada stated, “A woman’s attachment to her husband may elevate her to the body of a man in her next life, but a man’s attachment to woman will degrade him, and in his next life he will get the body of a woman.” Involvement with women, marriage and family life is considered to be inferior in ISKCON to the lofty status of sannyasi, or celibate monk. Sannyasa confers prestige and power within ISKCON and this status is not open to women.
Women’s lesser role is marriage, which in ISKCON terms means one of obedient slave to her husband, and motherhood. According to Burke Rochford, a sociologist of new religious movements who has studied the Hare Krishna movement since the 1970s, “Sannyasis and other devotee men have routinely denigrated women devotees [including those who are mothers], finding scriptural support for their behavior,” and women’s identities were “reconstructed as ‘unintelligent,’ ‘spiritually dangerous’ to men, and incapable of little more than household duties and tending to the needs of children” (page 117). Nori Muster, an ex-devotee, says in an edited anthology about the Hare Krishna movement that, “The men considered it ‘Vedic’ to spit on the ground to show their resentment towards women (page 313).”
Another female ex-devotee of many years recently stated:
Devotees live in a regressive universe where they actively deride women members who aspire to equal treatment as “feminists,” urging them instead to submit to their husbands and be content with the notion that they are intellectual inferiors better suited to keeping house and being mothers.
While there is indeed much to respect about motherhood, and while the appellation of “mataji” used by males for women in ISKCON is ostensibly one of respect, the value placed on motherhood in this organisation is clearly demonstrated by the fact that, contrary to Hindu dharma, its leaders have seriously neglected their wives and children, setting the example for other men to do the same. (Read the harrowing experiences of such women and children here and here and read here how Prabhupada encouraged this). They also condoned men abandoning their wives and children with no financial support in order to “take sannyasa,” i.e. become monks. Although supposedly taking a critical stance towards mainstream, materialistic, Western society and liberal democracy, ISKCON is more than happy for these abandoned mothers and children to subsist on the meagre welfare provided by the State, and even this is subject to confiscation by temple authorities. In her book, Betrayal of the Spirit, about her experience over a decade in ISKCON, Nori Muster tells us that women, including mothers with children, who live in ISKCON temples and other facilities were relegated to the worst accommodations. According to another ex-devotee, these accommodations were overcrowded, austere and squalid. Muster also informs us that “in temple ceremonies women demonstrate submissiveness by queuing up behind the men” and that women were forced to congregate at the back of the temple during worship and to wait at the back of the food line.
Muster states, “One aspect of this Vedic civilization [that ISKCON purports to promote] that was completely lost on ISKCON was the culture of respect for women: we were never treated as ‘genteel Vedic mothers.’ We simply had low self-esteem.”
The implication in Sivarama’s comparing cows to mothers that ISKCON reverences motherhood as an exalted status, and that this somehow works to advantage cows; that they get to share in this reverence, does not reflect facts or logic. It’s not possible for cows to benefit from a reverence based on a status for women as mothers that doesn’t exist as an institutional matter. Rather, it’s to be expected that they will share in the oppression and exploitation that women in ISKCON experience as low status members. Given their species disadvantage, which confers greater vulnerability, we would expect animals owned by ISKCON to face even greater oppression and exploitation.
This is aside from the fact there is no way to “reverently” exploit animals.
It’s the devaluation of women and involvement with women through marriage, and by extension, motherhood, in an organisation dominated by celibate “sannyasis,” that is considered by Rochford to be largely responsible for the organisation’s devaluation of children, resulting in pervasive neglect and abuse of children in their boarding schools.
If this is how ISKCON treats its vulnerable human members—those who are not males of high status—can we really expect nonhumans owned by them, that is, cows and bulls, to fare any better? ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission acknowledges that cows (as well as women and children) have been abused (page 185). A History of Cow Abuse in ISKCON details this abuse, ending for many in death. A summary can be read in my previous essay. (Note that all animal use is abuse).
Sivarama’s likening of cows to mothers is obviously intended to elicit a sympathetic response based on the widely touted notion of respect for motherhood. However, the “respect” accorded in Western culture to motherhood is largely inauthentic, usually being invoked to serve right-wing agendas, including the denial of equal rights for women. For all the sentimentalising of motherhood and “family values” propaganda, mothers and children are treated shoddily, as second-class citizens, by ruling political parties under corporate capitalism, to varying degrees, as a reflection of pervasive sexism. Sexism pre-dates capitalism and standard sexism is amplified in ISKCON by the organisation’s conscious intent to revive varnashram dharma. That is, to revive the socio-religio-political, caste and gender hierarchical system of Indian feudal—or “Vedic”—society, rendering ISKCON’s sexism a more extreme version of that which prevails outside ISKCON. It’s basically about winding back the rights of women by hundreds of years.
As an example of this extremism, consider this statement from Prabhupada, made during a lecture in Los Angeles in 1972, just one of numerous documented expressions of his virulent sexism and misogyny:
So dealing with woman… Especially instruction are given to men. All literatures, all Vedic literatures, they are especially meant for instruction to the men. Woman is to follow the husband. That’s all. The husband will give instruction to the wife. There is no such thing as the girl should go to school…or go to spiritual master to take instruction. That is not Vedic system. Vedic system is a man is fully instructed, and woman, girl, must be married to a man. Even the man may have many wives, polygamy, still, every woman should be married. And she would get instruction from the husband. This is Vedic system. Woman is not allowed to go to school, college, or to the spiritual master.
If it weren’t for reference to the “Vedic system” one could be forgiven for thinking this was a diatribe by the Taliban! So according to ISKCON orthodoxy, women are to be kept “barefoot and pregnant” and ideally, illiterate and ignorant, with domestic slavery, motherhood and dependency on the largesse of men as their only “choice.” Just as cows are bred to serve as milk machines, and in a supposedly ideal “Vedic” setting, breeders of oxen as agricultural work slaves, women’s primary value is as breeding machines, or “wombs on legs” and domestic slaves.
Motherhood is hardly a position of respect when it’s inextricably linked with lifelong subjugation to men involving mandatory domestic slavery as the only respectable and viable option. The fact that not all women in ISKCON conform to this “ideal” doesn’t change the fact that rigidly adhering to the supposedly infallible prescriptions of Prabhupada is considered essential to Krishna devotion in ISKCON.
It doesn’t work for Sivarama to try to draw on warm, fuzzy feelings and positive cultural notions surrounding motherhood as a respected role in order to try to justify his exploitation of cows by comparing them to mothers. That would be invalid in any context—there is no valid excuse for animal exploitation—but in the context of how ISKCON orthodoxy views women, including mothers, and its barbaric treatment of them, it’s completely absurd.
I’ll continue this discussion in my next essay.
By Linda McKenzie
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