In last month’s blog we explored the traditional significance of “Gau Mata” or “Mother Cow” in Indian spirituality. This month we look at what it means to care for Gau Mata in this modern age and ask the following questions: What important seva do cows provide on an organic farm or in a traditional village? What are the global impacts of modern practices of animal agriculture? What seva can we offer the cows in an ashram goshala?
Cows on the Village Farm
In his book “Cows and the Earth”, Ranchor Prime speaks about the traditional role of cows on the farm. Here is an excerpt:
“Throughout history, farmers depended on crop rotation and animal husbandry to regenerate the earth…Specialist herbivorous livestock feed on grass, some of which is up in the hills or in wet meadows not otherwise cultivated…so farmers traditionally got the best out of their animals, their crops and their landscape…As they grazed, ruminants such as cows and sheep deposited nitrogen-rich manure on the soil, which was absorbed throughout the year, collected and spread as fertilizer on vegetable beds or ploughed into the fields before sowing cereals. Chemical fertilizers fundamentally changed the whole balance of farming. The production of nitrogen fertilizer is expensive and contributes to global warming, and its continual use causes the soil to lose its ability to restore itself naturally, thereby depleting it.”
In the Hindu community in India, where cows are revered and never killed for their meat, there is a long tradition of raising and caring for dairy cows. In this tradition, a mutually beneficial relationship has been established in which care is given to the entire herd. According to one source:
“Besides their milk, cows also provide many other practical purposes, and are considered a real blessing to the rural community. On the farm, bulls are used to plough the fields and as a means of transportation of goods. Even Lord Shiva’s trusted vehicle is Nandi– the sacred bull. Cow dung is saved and used for fuel, as it is high in methane, and can generate heat and electricity. Many village homes are plastered with a mud/cow dung mixture, which insulates the walls and floors from extreme temperatures of heat and cold. Yagnas, or fire ceremonies, are performed to thank the gods and to receive their blessings. Cows play a central role in these fire yagnas or agnihotras by providing the essential fuel and offerings. Scientific research has found that the ritual of burning cow dung and ghee as fuel for these sacred fires actually purifies the air and has anti-pollutant and anti-radiation qualities.”
Ranchor Prime spoke with the head of the Bhaktivedanta Manor Farm in England, a farm following the principals of ahimsa, or non-violence, in which no animals are ever killed or deliberately harmed. He talks about the way in which they manage their dairy herd:
“The key to a successful dairy herd is knowing how to keep your oxen usefully occupied. Bulls are as productive as cows if properly managed. Moreover they are happier when they have work to do. Otherwise they get bored. Ten working oxen provide the power needed to farm 131 acres. A team of oxen are kept busy ploughing, rolling, spreading manure, weeding, chain-harrowing to pull up the dead grass and aerate the soil or transporting. The oxen cut the grass, turn it, and gather it into rows. After bailing, they transport the hay to be stored for winter fodder. They also power a circular unit used for milling grains and generating electricity. There is more than enough work for the oxen all year round. By relying on ox-power a farm reduces its dependence on expensive machinery and fossil fuels. It is estimated that a modern farm requires the input of 10 calories of fossil-based energy for every one calorie of food energy produced. This is due to both reliance on chemical fertilizers which are produced from either gas or coal and on fuel for mechanization-transport, tractors, harvesting machinery, etc…On the same land, with the same inputs, the Bhaktivedanta Manor dairy herd, even with its non-milking animals and its hard-working oxen, is nearly two and a half times more productive in food calories than a comparable beef herd. To this we must add the power supplied by the oxen, who do all the heavy work around the farm.”
Factory Farming of Animals and its Impacts
“Animal agriculture makes a 40% larger contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” -Jonathan Safron Foer, “Eating Animals”
Unfortunately, farms following the principals of non-violence towards both the earth and her creatures are no longer the norm. There are only a handful of farms today who are raising dairy cattle with a policy of total care for the herd in harmony with the land and a commitment to no slaughter.
Even “Food for Life”, the organization under the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON), commonly known as the “Hare Krishna” movement, which distributes free Prasad throughout the world especially in areas where food is scarce due to war or natural disaster, has gone vegan. This is because it is extremely difficult to find dairy products produced in a way which does not bring harm to the milking cattle or their offspring. If an organization devoted to Lord Krishna, the divine cowherd who is perennially fond of anything made with milk and butter, has stopped preparing dairy products to offer to Him, then it speaks to the dire need for responsibly produced milk.
The fact is that if one is vegetarian one cannot partake of commercial dairy products with a clear conscience because within the dairy industry all cattle eventually meet the same fate-in the slaughterhouse. And if one does choose to eat meat (or consume dairy products which feed into the beef industry), one cannot do so without causing deep harm to animals and the planet.
“Virtually all of the time one’s choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals.”
-Jonathan Safran Foer, “Eating Animals”
Here are some facts about the environmental impacts of raising animals for food within the current system:
“Recent and authoritative studies by the United Nations and the Pew Commission show conclusively that globally, farmed animals contribute more to climate change than transport. According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector-cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships-combined. Animal agriculture is responsible for 37 percent of anthropogenic methane, which offers twenty-three times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, as well as 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, which provides a staggering 296 times the GWP of carbon dioxide. The most current data even quantifies the role of diet: omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.
The UN summarized the environmental effects of the meat industry this way, ‘raising animals for food (whether on factory or traditional farms) is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global…[animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.’ In other words, if one cares about the environment, and if one accepts the scientific results of such sources as the UN (or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or the Pew Commission, or the Union of Concerned Scientists, or the Worldwatch Institute…), one must care about eating animals.
Most simply put, someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.”
-Jonathan Safron Foer, “Eating Animals”
“More than 10 billion land animals are slaughtered for food every year in America, and upwards of 99% of all animals eaten in the U.S. come from factory farms.”
-Jonathan Safran Foer, “Eating Animals”
Besides the impacts on climate that are caused by the modern systems of intensive, mechanized animal farming, there are a wide range of other global issues which are affected by modern animal agriculture-issues such as world hunger, deadly flu epidemics and biodiversity.
“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
What about the environmental impacts of dairy cows?
Dairy cattle also consume resources and produce methane. However, dairy cows are responsible for only one-twentieth of worldwide methane emissions and only one-eightieth of the emissions contributing to global warming, as opposed to beef cattle, which contribute five times as much. Of all meats, beef is the most expensive to the earth. At least ten kilos of plant protein are needed to produce a kilo of beef. The conversion rate of high protein feed to meat in cattle is about 30 to 1, whereas the conversion from fodder to milk is about 2 to 1. Additionally, organic dairy cows consume 38 percent less than cows reared conventionally and exhale less methane because they feed predominantly on grass and hay.
“If you have people who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have people who will deal likewise with their fellow human beings.”
-St. Francis of Assisi
Goshala or Gaushala is a Sanskrit word combining the words go or gau meaning “cow” and shala meaning “place of shelter”. This is a traditional abode or sanctuary for cows, calves and oxen.
The cows that live with us at the ashram in Taos give us gallons of milk each day as well as cream, butter, yogurt and cheese. They depend on us for shelter, food and companionship and repay us with innocent devotion and playful interaction. They are intelligent and wise. They have a deep connection to the earth and her offerings of plant life. They are inquisitive and sensitive. They intuit the emotions of those around them. They become attached with chords of deep love to their caregivers. They run, trot, leap and frolic in happy response to the sun, the wind, gentle rain, sweet-smelling earth, abundant alfalfa and open fields. They are our friends, our teachers, our mothers and our children.
Neem Karoli Baba teaches us to “Love Everyone, Feed Everyone, Serve Everyone and Tell the Truth”. As his devotees, we have the opportunity to apply these teachings in each of our interactions with one another, in each reaction to what life presents and in every decision that we make. Our greatest service to Maharaj-ji is to be open to the myriad opportunities which arise to serve all of creation and to care for all beings with loving kindness. Gai seva, or care for the cows, gives us the opportunity to widen our scope for loving care.
“Cow protection takes the human being beyond this species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. Why the cow was selected for apotheosis is obvious to me. She was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible.
-Gandhi, Harijan, September 15, 1940
The ashram was once a dairy farm and our own temple room was once the milk barn. What a sweet opportunity and a blessing to bring these sacred beings back to this lush land. As we update our ashram infrastructure with the building of the new temple and continue to plan for more space for guests and staff, it is also an important time to think about how to sustain the community with more land for growing vegetables, legumes and grains and for grazing the cows. Here in the Taos valley which has a several hundred year history of traditional agriculture, historically farmed land is being sold off rapidly. There are currently several parcels of land for sale near to the ashram. This land, much of which had been used for grazing sheep, would benefit greatly from careful tending and could provide the much-needed space for us to support the community with food and continue following Maharaj-ji’s teachings to feed everyone. Please see the listings below if you are interested in purchasing land to support the ashram’s efforts.
If you have any questions about cow seva at the ashram or about how you can contribute to the care of Gau Mata, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call Anandi at 575-758-8328.
Ashram Goshala Wishlist
5 Gallon Stainless Steel Milk Containers-$165, need 4