Continuing on in his attempt to justify the exploitation of cows for what is very wrongly called “ahimsa milk,” Sivarama Swami stated that:
“Milk is a by-product of cow protection, not the goal.”
This is simple dishonesty. If cows weren’t being bred into existence to be exploited in the first place, they wouldn’t need “protection.” What cows need protection from more than anything else is hucksters who peddle “happy” exploitation lies, such as Sivarama. The dominant idea that it’s morally acceptable to exploit animals as long as we do so “humanely,” as promoted by all of the large welfarist corporations, which Sivarama faithfully echoes, is the single factor most responsible for the ongoing disaster of the torture and slaughter of 60 billion land animals each year for food alone. If we’re ever going to shift the paradigm from animals as things to animals as persons; if we’re ever going to abolish animal exploitation, the whole, discredited, welfarist, “happy” exploitation approach must be completely rejected.
An analogy can be drawn between the International Society of Krishna Consciousness’s (ISKCON’s) rhetoric about “cow protection” and the need for “protection” of women. Burke Rochford, a sociologist who has been studying the Hare Krishna movement since the 1970s, states that the notion of “protection” of women “had too often been used to serve the interests of misogynist men determined to exploit devotee women (page 152).” Similarly, “cow protection” is not about the welfare or rights of cows; it’s about preserving the human privilege to exploit cows in a supposedly acceptable way.
In India, from where ISKCON derives its model, the ideology of “cow protection” is also very much about Hindu chauvinism and casteism, asserting Hindu dominance and superiority through using the “sacred cow” as a symbol of “pure” Hindu identity as distinct from, and antagonistic to, Muslims, lower castes and dalits (outcastes) who consume beef. “Cow protection” ideology is often used to justify violence towards these groups, Muslims in particular. In other words, far from “cow protection” being for the cows, it’s just one more way of using animals for human ends, to the detriment of cows. Cows cannot be dragooned into this “protection” racket unless they are first bred into existence to be exploited.
I refer readers interested in learning more about how “cow protection” works against the interests of cows to the excellent work of Dr. Yamini Narayanan. For example, see here, here, here and here. Of special interest is her essay, The Himsa of Milking and Cow Protectionism: A Response to Swami Sivarama, in which she explains how Sivarama has misinterpreted Hindu doctrine in his promotion of “ahimsa milk.”
In the West, among Hare Krishnas, although lacking the political component present in India, the ideology of “cow protection” is similarly used to create a false moral distinction between those who consume meat and those who consume dairy. There is no moral distinction, as I have previously stated. All animal products involve violence and injustice. The fact is that the vast majority of Hare Krishnas do not have access to “ahimsa milk” and consume standard commercial milk, caught up in the false notion that this is somehow morally better than consuming meat. So-called “ahimsa milk” may involve better treatment, but still involves unjust and immoral exploitation. The posture of moral superiority by those who are non-vegan animal exploiters towards other non-vegan animal exploiters is absurd and hypocritical.
Moreover, for Sivarama to declare that milk is only a “by-product” and not the primary reason for breeding and owning cows involves some impressive mental gymnastics. It appears to be entirely disingenuous. So if milk is not the main reason for breeding cows, then what is? Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that cows are basically oversized “pets,” as Sivarama previously claimed, who just happen to “give” milk! A senior Hare Krishna devotee with whom I communicated assured me that the cows are bred purely so that devotees can give them affection and to “protect” them. Their milk is just a “perk,” an “unsought bonus”! It’s “unsought” but requires routinely tugging on the teats of cows to procure it. That looks to me very much like something that is being sought. How convenient to steal someone’s milk, intended for their child, and then call it a “bonus.” How dishonest!
I’ve since discovered that this is a standard defence by ISKCON “happy” exploitation hawkers. It’s remarkable to witness the incredible, Byzantine, preposterous rationalisations people will spin in order to try to defend their exploitation of animals! The sad irony is that it would only require a fraction of the energy and ingenuity that they expend defending their exploitation of animals to go vegan and put an end to all of this ugly and unnecessary exploitation in their own lives.
If Sivarama thinks we’re going to uncritically accept this quite ludicrous notion—that milk is just a fortuitous but unsought “by-product,” “bonus” or “perk” of owning cows—he must take us to be hopelessly naïve and credulous. Are we really expected to believe that huge investments in time, energy, money, labour, land, water, feed and other resources would be expended if cows did not produce milk to be consumed and sold by ISKCON communities? If these people only want animals to lavish their affection upon, why don’t they just adopt some of the many animals needing homes?
The excuses here are not just threadbare. They’re lacking any threads at all! And they’re asking us to believe in fantasies and ridiculous claims.
Abolitionists already understand that there can be no such thing as non-violent and non-abusive exploitation of cows for milk. It’s not possible to “protect” someone at the same time as exploiting them as a resource—these are mutually exclusive and incompatible aims. And given the systemic failure of ISKCON to protect their most vulnerable human members—women, and in particular, children—can anyone take seriously the words, “cow protection,” when uttered by Hare Krishna leaders, considering that animals are the most vulnerable of all?
The many children of ISKCON who were abused in their gurukulas (boarding schools) eventually grew up and were able to speak out on their own behalf. A group of them, in 2000, filed a $400 million lawsuit against ISKCON alleging years of torture, involving widespread physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The allegations were horrific. Dallas trial lawyer, Windle Turley, attorney for the plaintiffs, said:
This lawsuit describes the most unthinkable abuse and maltreatment of little children which we have seen. It includes rape, sexual abuse, physical torture and emotional terror of children as young as three years of age. The worst of the practices spanned two decades, starting in 1972 with ISKCON’s first school in Dallas, Texas. The abuse continued in a half-dozen other schools in the United States and eventually at two boys’ schools in India…Although the leadership in ISKCON has long been aware of the mistreatment and abuse inflicted upon little children entrusted to it to raise, the full scope and profound maltreatment of its children has only recently been exposed…We believe the facts as they are developed will reveal more than a thousand child victims, many of whom have already taken their own lives or are today emotionally and socially dysfunctional…Elements within this new religious movement have attempted to operate outside the child protection laws of a half-dozen states. As a result, a generation of ISKCON children are permanently, and many profoundly, injured.
Peter Brandt of Salon.com wrote:
According to the Turley legal complaint, there were beatings with boards, branches, clubs and poles. In some cases, children were stuffed into trash barrels for two to three days, with the lid on, as punishment for their “sins.” In a few schools, children were forced to lick up their vomit from any foul food they may have thrown up.
Thirty-four charges of ISKCON child abuse listed by Turley can be viewed here. Readers are warned that it’s a gut-wrenching, deeply saddening list.
Throughout this scandal, it’s plain to see who was the focus of ISKCON’s “protection.” It wasn’t the survivors. The organization’s major concern was to protect its financial assets. Secondly, they protected the perpetrators, that is, known offenders. Even though management has admitted awareness of the crimes, ISKCON has never moved to have a single predator prosecuted.
Moreover, despite the lawsuit and negative publicity leading to a mass exodus of members, child abuse remains a recurring problem in ISKCON schools, albeit that most Hare Krishna children now attend public schools due to the history of abuse. A 2016 film, Cost of Silence, made by ex-gurukula student, “Sanaka,” states that, “Although some progress has been made over the years, in many regards the current policies are still inadequate” and asks, “Why is it that ISKCON still does not have adequate measures to ensure the safety of their children?” He points out that, “At present, ISKCON does not offer any form of support, assistance or counsel to child abuse victims.”
The film reveals that documented child abusers have been encouraged by ISKCON management to continue with, or resume, their positions in education of children and to remain involved in training of staff and curriculum development, against the advice of their own Child Protection Office, set up in the wake of the scandal. Abusers have never been made accountable for their past wrongdoings. On the contrary, they are treated with respect and often allowed to remain in positions of authority within the organization. Some are honored with the title, “His Holiness” prefixed to their names. After all the abuse the children suffered, this culture of impunity constitutes a symbolic slap in the face to survivors, adding insult to injury.
Cost of Silence discloses that, after being revoked, corporal punishment of children was reinstated. Stories of abuse, including sexual abuse, were continuing to surface up until the time the film was made. The film shows that, as I previously stated, Sivarama Swami is one of three Governing Body Commission members who, in 2006, wrote letters of support for a known child abuser (23.40). There is also a scene of Sivarama welcoming this same repeat child abuser with a warm embrace at his property in Hungary (47.50).
Dr. David Wolf, former director of ISKCON’s Child Protection Office (CPO), set up in response to the public exposure of child abuse, has written that, “A psychologist who had contact with some of the victims and testimonies related to one of the gurukula ashrams remarked on the similarity of the atmosphere in the schools and descriptions of concentration camps” (page 341). Interviewed in the film, he states that in ISKCON “there is a culture of lack of accountability.” Consequently, child protection and accountability is “a sham.” Dr. Wolf talks about how funding for the CPO has been progressively and drastically cut since its formation and that “ISKCON leadership, to a large extent, wanted to say they had an international Child Protection Office but they didn’t want the office to actually do its service…The history [of abuse] is again, and again, covered up. So there’s a culture of cover-up” which is “painfully sad.” The principle of the Vrndavan (India) gurukula acknowledged that the CPO is a “façade.” Sanaka laments that, “I have witnessed generations of Hare Krishna children suffer from the same mistakes made many times over. CPO is primarily a PR machine for damage control.”
Ex-devotee, Nori Muster, postulates that it’s the authoritarian culture within ISKCON that provides a fertile environment for child abuse to flourish. Sociologist Burke Rochford considers that negative attitudes toward marriage, family life, and children in an organisation dominated by male sannyasis (celibate monks) is a primary factor in accounting for the abuse. Whatever the cause of the rampant abuse of children within ISKCON, and although we know that it’s entirely impossible to “protect” beings while we are exploiting them, the question must seriously be asked: given that ISKCON has so chronically and spectacularly failed to protect its own children from very serious abuse, how credible is it that they will “protect” their cows, even within their own incoherent terms of what “protection” means? In my estimation it’s not even slightly credible. And ISKCON’s history of cow abuse (all use is abuse), involving neglect, abandonment and slaughter, bears this out.
Just as the Child Protection Office is, despite the sincere efforts of its staff and some in ISKCON leadership, a “sham,” a “façade” and a “PR machine” enabling child abusers to continue abusing with impunity, Sivarama’s propaganda for “cow protection” and milk supposedly produced without violence is just as much a “sham,” a “façade” and a “PR machine” enabling the continued exploitation of cows and bulls. This is a marketing exercise and nothing more.
Unlike its children, ISKCON’s cows, being utterly, permanently powerless and dependent as property, will never be able to tell us about the suffering they endured. They’ll never be able to leave, or sue, ISKCON. Meanwhile, our intelligence will no doubt continue to be insulted with more of the same schmaltzy advertising pap about cows existing in a bucolic paradise, “giving” “ahimsa milk,” a grotesque label if ever there was one, along the lines of Sivarama‘s slick video productions.
This statement from a Hare Krishna site baldly reveals what “cow protection” in ISKCON is really about:
Our cows and oxen must be made to pay their keep and fulfill their social responsibility of producing vegetables, milk and grain. If they are allowed to continue to abrogate this duty, it is only natural that some will conclude that the herds are a burden and the risk of abandonment arises. This has already occurred in our movement and this will perpetually repeat itself until done correctly.
The cows must be honored and protected but must reciprocate by producing food. Unemployed animals lying day after day in their pee and poop can, and likely will be, used as an argument for their slaughter. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. It is not enlightened cow protection.
…Until cows and oxen are made to produce milk, grains, pastures and pulses, they are not protected.
What self-serving, self-righteous rot! We’re told over and over again, ad nauseum, that these animals are “beloved family members;” “treated like pets;” are like “our own children;” are “our mothers;” are brought into existence only in order to have affection lavished upon them and to be tenderly cared for; and “protected” for life. In reality, they are obliged to “pay their keep” as productive commodities. No skiving off for the animals! They must produce! Otherwise, they more than likely—deservedly—face abandonment and slaughter as punishment for their sloth and uselessness. It’s acknowledged here that this has been their fate repeatedly in ISKCON. We all know this will continue to be their fate. This is the inescapable reality of exploiting animals as resources.
The above statement is made despite the fact that these animals never asked to be bred into existence to be milk slaves or, as males useless for producing milk, to have to justify their existence by being drafted into hard labour. Their being “honoured” and “protected” is strictly conditional upon upholding their part of a “deal” in which they never had any say, by providing milk and work. If they don’t “pay their keep,” any “honour” or “protection” will be forfeited. This gives the lie to Sivarama’s statement that “Milk is a by-product of cow protection, not the goal.” To the extent that these animals are being “honoured” and “protected” it is as valuable, exploitable resources.
We see here the brutal, naked truth that underlying all of the cloying, syrupy sentimentality and deceptive language of “cow protection,” what we have is the usual grubby, ruthless business of exploitation of animals as property. This really is “happy” exploitation propaganda on steroids.
ISKCON has squandered vast sums of money on the Palace of Gold, billed as “America’s Taj Mahal,” as well as other absurdly extravagant temples in India and the West, and similarly wasteful, useless projects. If Sivarama and ISKCON really wanted to live up to their much-vaunted ideal of “cow protection,” they would instead use these funds to set up sanctuaries for animals, including but not restricted to bovines, already bred into existence and needing homes to live out their lives in peace, without being exploited for their bodily products. It’s speciesist to morally value cows above other animals. If cows are “sacred,” then all animals are sacred.
But allowing for the fact that Krishna devotees, imitating the mythological Krishna, profess a special affection for cows, if they were genuine about wanting to live with cows only in order to give them love, and in saying that appropriating their milk is not the primary reason for owning cows, then whether or not they offered sanctuary to other animals, they would at least offer cows sanctuary and care with no conditions attached; no exploitation. That would be credible as an expression of love. They would not be making it a crude business deal where humans set all the terms and the animals have to deliver on their milk quotas or risk being abandoned or slaughtered. Most importantly, if Sivarama and his fellow Krishna devotees were serious about protecting cows and other animals, they would go vegan.
The fact that ISKCON deliberately breeds animals into existence to exploit them, and then employs propagandists like Sivarama to claim that they are being “protected,” is not only dishonest but obscene. The only credible way to protect animals is to free them from the harm inherent in being property. This means ceasing to breed them for our use. It means nothing less than going vegan.
By Linda McKenzie
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