This essay is a continuation of Part 8 in which I responded to statements by Sivarama Swami attempting to defend animal exploitation for so-called “ahimsa milk” that can be summarised as:
Cows are like mothers and children.
Let’s be clear that the characterisation by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) of all women as “mother,” or breeder, is less about respect for women than about diverting the attention of men aspiring to piety away from what is considered women’s other main function—sex object and provider of sexual services. Wikipedia’s entry on ISKCON, clearly written with a strong pro-ISKCON bias, states, “The women are referred to in this way because it reduces the possibility of the women being seen in a sexual manner.” The fact that the categories of “mother” or “sex object” are the only two options envisaged for women, even in what amounts to a puff piece for ISKCON, is very telling. The option of equal person does not seem to have been considered.
The concern behind the labelling of women as “mother” is that celibate men will “fall down” from their superior spiritual status due to lust stimulated by their unfortunate exposure to women—cast as sexual temptresses—whose sexual appetite is ludicrously said to be nine times greater than that of men! Bhaktivedanta Swami, known as “Prabhupada”, ISKCON’s founder and supreme, supposedly infallible authority, nurtured an unhealthy obsession with the dangers to men of female sexuality. The following vulgar comment addressed to men shows him equating women to their sexual organs and comparing them to dogs:
The dog likes to smell the vagina. You are like that. What is business of going another vagina? You require vagina. Take one and be satisfied. That is intelligence. First of all there is no need of vagina. But if you want, take one and be satisfied. Why you are searching after dog vagina, this vagina, that vagina, that vagina?”
It should be noted that orthodox Brahmins—the highest caste—consider dogs to be spiritually unclean and avoid contact with them. Whenever Prabhupada mentioned dogs it was always disparagingly.
Once again in this statement by Prabhupada we see the connection between sexism and speciesism involving the erasure of personhood. Cows are reduced to their reproductive function, and ultimately, their udders, completely defined by their capacity to produce milk. Women are reduced to their genitals, defined by their capacity to gratify men sexually, or more accurately in this context, to “cause” the spiritual downfall of men due to that odious function.
The following comment by Prabhupada further illustrates how ISKCON views women as similar to animals. In his view, the way to deal with both unruly animals and women is to beat them:
Prabhupada: So…they should be punished. (laughs) Punished means, just like dhol [a mrdanga drum], when the, I mean to say, sound is not very hard, dag-dag, if you beat it on the border, then it comes to be nice tune. Similarly…animals, if you request “My dear dog, please do not go there.” Hut! [sound of beating] (laughter) “No, my dear dog. Hut!” This is the way. Similarly, woman. If you become lenient, then she will be troublesome. So in India still, in villages, whenever there is some quarrel between husband wife, the husband beats and she is tamed.
(Room conversation, 1969, New York)
Nori Muster writes that, “For a long time, ISKCON has had leaders who beat their wives and advocate wife-beating among the other married men. Also, ISKCON arranged marriages between minor-aged girls and often abusive men. The girls’ complaints were generally ignored.” She states in her book, Betrayal of the Spirit that, “One of the most out-spoken proponents of spousal abuse was the [American] guru Kirtanananda, who explained on national TV that it’s okay to slap a woman who disobeys. He compared it to training a dog. The culture of wife beating was widespread in ISKCON…”
Muster, a former devotee for a decade, adds that on the ISKCON commune in New Vrindaban, West Virginia, “women were considered property.” This is not restricted to New Vrindaban. The following statement illustrates the fact that Prabhupada considered women and their children to be literally the property of men:
The child has… the life from father’s property [i.e. the mother], and the mother is only giving you shelter. She is not the proprietor. Even in…womb of other’s wife, a child is born… I give birth to a child in other’s wife, that is my child. Mother is considered the field, ksetra. But when I till the ksetra, field, the production is mine…The land may be yours, but if I plow on it and produce food grains, that is mine. That is not yours…Even in other’s wife, if somebody begets child, the child belongs to the father.
So whatever his intentions, by comparing cows exploited by ISKCON to mothers and children, Sivarama is asserting their property status. Obviously, there is a difference between how human “property” is treated and how nonhuman property is treated. A major difference is that, however ISKCON males view women and children, and whatever they believe their status should be in an “ideal” or “Vedic” society, in 21st century modern societies they cannot legally treat women and children as mere property. ISKCON leaders have, for example, “given” girls as young as eleven years of age to older men in arranged marriages, often in exchange for a donation—treating them as transferrable property—thus enabling rape and paedophilia among other forms of “emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.” However, this is illegal. By contrast, ISKCON is free to legally exploit animals as property. More importantly, although just as morally wrong as exploiting women and children as property, exploiting animals as property is still considered morally acceptable by most people in modern society, as long as it’s done supposedly “humanely.” ISKCON, with its “ahimsa milk,” operates within this paradigm of “happy” exploitation. Animals owned by ISKCON are exploitable commodities, just as is the case in the dairy industry as a whole, whatever gloss Sivarama tries to put on it.
Becoming the property of a man through marriage and motherhood is the only thing that can save a woman from the inherent disgrace of having been born female, according to Prabhupada’s sordid sexism. Women did not figure in his class system other than as mothers, daughters and wives. He stated than an unmarried woman “is prostitute, that’s all. If you classify, then she is prostitute (laughter). That’s all. There is no other way.” Women who divorce and remarry are likewise “prostitutes.” “A widowed woman, by default, is a “prostitute” (page 380). Speaking of former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, a widow, he said, “She is not a leader. She is a prostitute. When women are liberated, this means prostitutes. Free women are called prostitutes.” Coeducation and education of girls, beyond teaching them how to cook and clean, is, of course, “prostitution” (page 378).
This is rich coming from a man who condoned pimping out under-age girls in “marriage.” Of his own arranged marriage, prior to becoming a monk, Prabhupada said:
I was married, my wife was eleven years. I was 22 years. She did not know what is sex, eleven years’ girl.
So (laughing) an eleven years old girl and I was at the same time twenty-one, twenty-two. One day I captured her hand. She began to cry. A little girl, you see?
His wife gave birth to their first child at fourteen. Childbirth entails serious risk of major injury and death for adolescents. While as a young man Prabhupada may not have understood the social injustice of child marriage, it’s execrable that he was promoting, and facilitating, this abomination in his seventies, in the second half of the 20th century, as the influential leader of a large organisation, and that male ISKCON leaders are to this day apologists for it. Apparently Prabhupada found his own former involvement, however unwitting, in what amounts to child abuse, rape and paedophilia amusing.
In case the slave status of women in ISKCON is in any doubt, these quotes from Prabhupada should put the matter to rest:
Women are meant to assist men. That is all.
A woman’s real business is to look after household affairs, keep everything neat and clean, and if there is sufficient milk supply available, she should always be engaged in churning butter, making yogurt, curd, so many nice varieties, simply from milk. The woman should be cleaning, sewing, like that.
One American woman, was…speaking that “In India the woman are treated as slave. We don’t want.” So I told her that it is better to become slave of one person than to become slave of hundreds (laughter). The woman must become a slave…And our Vedic civilization says…: “The woman is beautiful when she remains as a slave to the husband.
A former influential American male leader said (page 118) of the hostile environment to women in ISKCON:
I remember a number of temples which were perfect illustration[s] of the colonial/plantation style of management; they seemed eerily straight out of the pages of Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth.” Only in these cases, the sannyasi and brahmachari leaders were the white guys; the women, the n——s [niggers]. In short, there was widespread exploitation and abuse of women—physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse—and also neglect.
Given this context, Sivarama’s comparing of cows to women as mothers, and to children, underscores that, stripping away all of the rhetoric on his part intended to represent them as beloved, respected family members, cows owned by ISKCON are milk slaves. No one should be fooled that it is otherwise. Would anyone seriously argue that powerless, non-human animals in ISKCON occupy a higher position in the social hierarchy, and receive better treatment, than systematically denigrated and abused human women and children? Clearly, they exist at a level even lower than the human slaves. As horrifically as women and children have been treated, they have not yet been farmed for their bodily secretions, or sold to slaughterhouses, or given away or sold to those who will kill them or have them killed, or left to die of starvation and exposure to the cold, or kept tethered and ill in squalid sheds, as have many of ISKCON’s cows and bulls.
As Gary Francione points out, “In a world in which women, people of color, children, the elderly, the mentally disabled, the poor, and other humans are treated as second class citizens (at best) by the select patriarchy that runs the show, nonhuman animals are, in many ways, the most vulnerable among us.” ISKCON is not separate from that world. It’s a microcosm of it, representing the more extreme pole of patriarchal and class oppression, aspiring to renew a monarchical model of society based on caste and gender stratification. Prabhupada also subscribed to a racist and homophobic view of the world. Considering this regressive worldview embodying compatible, interlocking oppressions, why on earth would anyone believe that oppression based on species isn’t integral to ISKCON ideology, even if it manifests in a modified form to the mainstream? Why would anyone buy into notions of “ahimsic” animal exploitation, an oxymoron under any circumstances, as something achieved, or achievable, by ISKCON? Why should we give any credence to Sivarama’s claims, as though ISKCON is a bastion of social justice and concern for oppressed groups?
Even if, as slaves, these cows are treated better than in the commercial dairy industry, this does not justify their slavery. Even if ISKCON was a paragon of care and justice for women and children, comparing cows to mothers and children would not make exploiting nonhumans morally acceptable. But given how mothers and children have been routinely abused in ISKCON, the mobilizing of them by Sivarama in an attempt to sanitize animal exploitation is cynical and shameful. Only a slave master, and those who otherwise support slavery, would think it acceptable to compare one group of slaves (cows) to another group of slaves (women) in an attempt to legitimize their slavery. While doing this, Sivarama counts on us buying into Hallmark card sentimentality around motherhood to gain a free pass for owning animal slaves.
Sivarama’s claim of “ahimsic” animal exploitation is a lie based on, at best, the fact that ISKCON treats its slaves better than animal slaves are generally treated. “Benign” slavery is still slavery. The refusal to recognise that all slavery is himsa is a serious moral failure. We all recognise this where humans are concerned. Failing to recognise it for animals is nothing but the prejudice of speciesism.
It’s insidious that while affecting respect for cows by referring to them as “mothers,” their motherhood is treated with profound disrespect by Sivarama and his fellow “ahimsa milk” exploiters. This is the same disrespect that underlies all forms of dairy farming, in which the sacred mother-child bond is appropriated and exploited for the sake of human greed and pleasure. However much Sivarama and others strain to distance and distinguish themselves from the commercial dairy industry by spuriously slapping the “ahimsa” label on what they do, this central fact of the violation and commodification of motherhood stains them morally as much as any other animal exploiter. “Ahimsa milk,” along with every other form of “happy” exploitation, reinforces the property status of animals that is at the root of the entire system of mass animal torture and killing that Sivarama claims to reject.
It’s unutterably arrogant and parasitical to breed beings into existence for the sole purpose of owning and controlling them in order to exploit their reproductive systems; to invade and interfere with what ought to be an undisturbed, intimate and inviolate relationship between mother and child. Forcing a person to repeatedly become pregnant, whether using a “rape rack” or not, and then tugging on their teats in order to steal the milk produced for their child is very far from respect! It’s assault; it’s theft.
This has absolutely nothing to do with reverencing motherhood. Would Sivarama exploit his own mother in such a disrespectful manner? If he would not, then saying that ISKCON treats its cows “like mothers” is dishonest. The fact that an adult man, long past the age of weaning, tries to justify this violence by referring to cows as being like “mothers” is obscene.
So let’s unfold the tortured “logic” that ineluctably follows from ISKCON doctrine:
Women are slaves. Mothers are women. Therefore mothers are slaves.
Cows are like mothers. Mothers are slaves. Therefore cows are slaves.
Women are like children. Children should not be allowed independence. Therefore women should not be allowed independence and should be owned by men as chattel property.
Cows are like children, and women. Children and women should not be allowed independence. Therefore, cows should not be allowed independence and should be owned as chattel property.
Animals should be beaten. Cows and bulls are animals. Therefore cows and bulls should be beaten.
Women are like animals. Animals should be beaten. Therefore, women should be beaten.
Women should be beaten. Mothers are women. Therefore mothers should be beaten.
Cows are like mothers. Mothers should be beaten. Therefore cows should be beaten.
Somehow, the rampant confusion of false equivalences and cesspit of bigotry and backwardness promoted by Sivarama and his fellow ISKCON stalwarts is supposed to convince us that exploiting cows for milk can be done “ahimsically” and is morally justifiable. The only audience that could be convinced by such crude illogic is one that is comprised of irrational bigots, or those who are confused and simply cannot think clearly and are easily influenced. What we have here is a system of mutually reinforcing biases designed to prop up and maintain the power and privilege of one group of people—males of high status—at the apex of a rigid social hierarchy in which animals occupy the bottom rung.
Aside from this, Sivarama’s parental/child analogies are bizarre. Humans have human parents. Bovines are parents to baby bovines. There is no overlap here. Why does an adult man like Sivarama feel the need to project the role of parenthood onto animals? It’s not the job of animals to provide substitute parenting to humans, or to act as substitute children.
But certainly, if you want to steal someone’s lactation, then calling them your “mother,” despite the fact that they are of a different species, is one way of trying to rationalise it. Not only is this deluded, but unfortunately for Sivarama and his fellow exploiters, it’s transparently fraudulent.
It’s deeply disturbing that so many of Prabhupada’s Western male followers, including those who were highly educated, lapped up his extreme sexism and misogyny so enthusiastically. It’s equally troubling that in 2018 anyone can align themself with an organisation that accepts this man’s ultra-reactionary statements as the infallible word of God, to be followed unquestioningly. Another regrettable consequence of this cult mentality is the mindless embrace of the speciesism he promoted, as typified by Sivarama’s statements. The fact that many Westerners, trying to find the right way to do the wrong thing, hold up the “traditional” Indian model of cow exploitation speciously characterised as “cow protection” and promoted by ISKCON as being a progressive or “spiritual” alternative to the mainstream dairy industry would be funny if it were not so tragically misguided. Expecting anything progressive to come out of this organisation and others promoting a similar fundamentalist ideology is like expecting the sun to rise in the West.
Analogising cows with mothers and children, Sivarama has succeeded only in digging himself into an even deeper hole. Once again, in his attempts to justify animal exploitation, he shoots himself in the foot. Every attempt to deny that “ahimsa milk” involves rank exploitation of animals as property backfires by confirming the reverse. But he has even more excuses up his sleeve. Incoherently jumping from one excuse to another, Sivarama Swami might well say, as Groucho Marx did, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.”
I’ll continue to address Sivarama’s “principles” in my next essay. In fact, the only principle that can be defended regarding animals is that of their absolute right to have their fundamental interests respected via unequivocal veganism as the moral baseline. To learn about how to go vegan, see here.
By Linda McKenzie
This essay is based in the ethical theory of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights, as formulated by Gary Francione and Anna Charlton.
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