Chakra Discussions

Book Review: "Holy Cow: The Hare Krishna Contribution to Vegetarianism & Animal Rights"

by Vasu Murti

Posted August 24, 2004

"Holy Cow: The Hare Krishna Contribution to Vegetarianism & Animal Rights"
by Steven J. Rosen
Lantern Books: New York, NY 2004

In his book, "Holy Cow," author Steven Rosen (Satyaraja dasa) does an expert job of explaining the philosophy and history of the sankirtana movement to nondevotees. He begins by quoting Srila Prabhupada as saying, "Real philosophy is nothing more than this: ‘friendliness to all living entities.'" Rosen explains that devotees do not artificially renounce the material world, but rather engage it in Lord Krishna's service. Offering one's food to Krishna is a standard Vaishnava practice, which Rosen compares to the Eucharist in Christianity--sacramental food. This is an appropriate analogy. Madhavendra Puri dasa (Steve Bernath) of the Bhaktivedanta Institute reports that in 1986, when devotees in San Diego, CA held a Jewish-Vaishnava interfaith conference, none of the rabbis present would take prasadam--because it was food offered to idols. On the other hand, Catholic clergy have defended devotees against charges of idolatry from Christian fundamentalists, and some of them have even compared prasadam favorably to the Eucharist.

"If people are to be educated in the path back to Godhead," writes Srila Prabhupada, "they must be taught first and foremost to stop the process of animal-killing." Rosen does a good job of demonstrating (through quotes from the Vedic scriptures) that the ancient Vedic religion espoused vegetarianism and nonviolence. Rosen refutes Professor D.N. Jha, author of "The Myth of the Holy Cow," a book which claims the ancient Vedic religion supported flesh-eating and animal sacrifice. Rosen shows that the sacrifices were meant to elevate people in the lower modes of nature, and that they were permitted only in previous yugas; thus, the Vedas uphold vegetarianism and nonviolence as a moral ideal...

On the issue of cow protection, Rosen quotes Gandhi and the Rig Veda, and describes Krishna's pastimes as a cowherd boy and a butter thief in Vrindavan. He quotes Srila Prabhupada as saying that abortion, like war, is the karmic reaction for killing animals--especially cows. Srila Prabhupada said, "If you kill the cow, who is your mother, then in some future lifetime your mother will kill you." Devotees have always scoffed at people who protest war, march for peace, protest nuclear weapons, etc. while eating meat, but Srila Prabhupada said the same thing about abortion! Rosen cites James Lovelock's "Gaia Principle," and describes a Vedic "ecotheology" to demonstrate the importance of protecting cows. He shows how modern science confirms that cow products--milk, ghee, dung, urine, etc.--are beneficial to human society.

Rosen explains how foods fall into different modes of nature, according to Bhagavad-gita, and explains Ayurveda to a Western audience. He quotes distinguished historian Will Durant, in "Our Oriental Heritage," as having said of Ayurveda, "Many of its diagnoses and cures are still used in India, with a success that is sometimes the envy of Western physicians."

It is in Chapter 4, entitled, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," that Rosen's scholarship really begins to shine. This chapter contains numerous quotes from Srila Prabhupada about the immorality of killing animals for food, and the hypocrisy of the Christian religious leaders in sanctioning this practice. Rosen should have quoted a purport from the First Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, where Srila Prabhupada says, "It is nonsensical to say that the killing of animals has nothing to do with spiritual realization." Similarly, in his purport to the Srimad Bhagavatam 6.10.9, Srila Prabhupada writes: "One cannot continue killing animals and at the same time be a religious man. That is the greatest hypocrisy. Jesus Christ said, ‘Do not kill,' but hypocrites nevertheless maintain thousands of slaughterhouses while posing as Christians. Such hypocrisy is condemned..."

Srila Prabhupada even candidly told a Catholic priest in London in 1973, that, "Animal-killers cannot understand God. I have seen this. It is a fact."

Rosen quotes Srila Prabhupada as saying, "...as far as meat-eating is concerned, every cow will die--so you just wait awhile, and there will be so many dead cows. Then you can take all the dead cows and eat...Don't kill. When the cow is dead, you can eat it." One of the first things I learned from devotees was that Srila Prabhupada said this about meat in general: if you want to eat meat, wait until the animal dies of natural causes. This indicates that Srila Prabhupada was not thinking in terms of "dietary laws," or food in the mode of goodness, passion, or ignorance, but rather in terms of the rights of the animals.

The Srimad Bhagavatam quotes Maharaja Pariksit as having said, "only the animal-killer cannot relish the message of the Absolute Truth." And Srila Prabhupada is quoted on page 81 of "Holy Cow" as saying, "if the Christians want to love God, they must stop killing animals." Srila Prabhupada not only opposed killing animals for food, he also opposed killing animals for sport and animal experimentation. These facts should have been mentioned in "Holy Cow." These facts indicate that devotees of Krishna are vegetarian out of compassion for animals, and not just because meat, fish and eggs are unofferable to Krishna. It is a significant fact that Srila Prabhupada did not reject any of his fallen disciples, as long as they did not return to meat-eating. In describing Food For Life, Rosen quotes Srila Prabhupada as having said, "To distribute prasadam to millions of hungry people hankering for spiritual emancipation. This is the mission of the Krishna consciousness movement." (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.13.9 purport) A Nigerian radio station compared Food For Life with "the second coming of Jesus, because just as he fed the masses, so the Hare Krishnas were feeding thousands of people."

Steven J. Rosen's "Holy Cow," would be an excellent book to give to congregational members, friends, relatives and well-wishers of devotees, college students, academicians, and anyone else interested in the relationship between theology and compassionate living. As an ISKCON Life Member, author of "They Shall Not Hurt or Destroy," and an animal rights activist, I am pleased to endorse this book.