Veganism: Relative or Absolute
by Madhava Gosh
Posted March 15, 2003


While compelling arguments are made for veganism, examining them closely we see that most fall into the category of relative truth. On the other hand, while the case for cow protection is truth of an absolute nature, it does not provide justification for drinking milk in every circumstance.

"Krsna is the Absolute Truth. Relative truth is not truth in all the three phases of eternal time. Time is divided into past, present and future. Krsna is Truth always, past, present and future. In the material world, everything is being controlled by supreme time, in the course of past, present and future. But before the creation, Krsna was existing, and when there is creation, everything is resting in Krsna, and when this creation is finished, Krsna will remain."
- Ref. VedaBase => SB 10.2.26

Cruelties involved in factory milk production have given rise to veganism, an austerity beyond merely being vegetarian. . Too austere for me, so although I realize what is involved in milk production, I continue to partake. While appreciating and respecting the concern vegans show for the cow, most arguments related to the ethics of milk production are relative. Now milk is being produced cruelly, but in the past we have examples where it wasn't, and it is possible to foresee where in the future milk could be produced by protected cows. If milk is produced from protected cows, the ethical arguments evaporate.

Devotees, on the other hand, seem to think that because Krsna was a cowherd boy, and Srila Prabhupada promoted milk drinking, that there is no responsibility to take into consideration how milk is currently produced. Some even disrespect vegans. I think it behooves devotees who ignore cow protection to seriously contemplate the following quotation:

"The brahmanas, the cows and the defenseless creatures are My own body. Those whose faculty of judgment has been impaired by their own sin look upon these as distinct from Me. They are just like furious serpents, and they are angrily torn apart by the bills of the vulturelike messengers of Yamaraja, the superintendent of sinful persons."
- SB 3.16.11

If you drink factory milk, you drink its karma. There are some fancy rationalizations floating around to justify doing so, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it is a duck. You are responsible for your actions. Offering it to the spiritual master, who has mandated cow protection, and thinking that he is some karma filter that will make it all okay, is lame, IMHO. I don't think you can ignore his instruction to protect cows, and then expect him to cover for you when you don't. If you drink milk without protecting cows because of cost or inconvenience, then you are supporting factory style production, and all that that entails. Therefore you are seeing those cows as separate from Krishna.

"The Supreme Personality of Godhead, in His instructions of Bhagavad-gita, advises go-raksya, which means cow protection. The cow should be protected, milk should be drawn from the cows, and this milk should be prepared in various ways. One should take ample milk, and thus one can prolong one's life, develop his brain, execute devotional service, and ultimately attain the favor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As it is essential to get food grains and water by digging the earth, it is also essential to give protection to the cows and take nectarean milk from their milk bags.

- Ref. VedaBase => SB 8.6.12

Key thing is, first protection, then milk. Not milk, and if protection is inconvenient, rationalize. For most of its infancy, ISKCON has found it acceptable to make offerings of "blood milk" (as per the definition of Harry Bowler where the low cost of the milk is made possible by the slaughter of the cow and her calf). Well reasoned and pragmatic objections to this have been ignored or even demeaned, based on rationalizations ranging from "milk is needed to develop finer brain tissues" to "offering the milk offsets the matter in which it is produced". The fruit of this philosophy is a movement that is stagnant in the important American field. Vegans constitute a demographic that is thoughtful, principled, and austere - wonderful potential bhaktas, yet they are ignored so the tongue can be plied with milk products.

Putting milk consumption ahead of protection as the reason for keeping cows has resulted in many problems for ISKCON farms. The most inglorious example being Kirtananada when he ran New Vrindaban, breeding hundreds of cows for milk production, then when the realities and responsibilities of cow protection set in, callously abandoning them. Breeding stopped by 1992, but there are still 170 of his cows at New Vrindaban, being protected at great cost to the current management. Whatever the external cause, I believe the internal cause for Kirtananada's imprisonment was the consciousness that could so cruelly abandon those cows. Cattle raising is not cow protection.

Cow protection can be seen as a positive. Factory farm milk production can be seen as a negative. To be a vegan is to negate a negative. While this is good as far as it goes, it still leaves the door open for the positive. As Visoka dasa has said in a different context, "If we all admit that both sides have "reasonable cause" for their positions, we can start deconstructing barriers." I don't think that because devotees are for cow protection, they should be negative to vegans. They should respect their position, and then endeavor to make, not by theory, but by action, a commitment to cow protection. A harsh response to vegans serves no purpose.

Veganism has a history in Vaisnavism. If you did the complete caturmasya, all you ate for 4 months was unspiced rice and dahl. A strict observance of Ekadasi is a full fast. Couple that with other fast days, and it is possible to show that the strictest followers of Vaisnavism were vegans almost half the time. Of course, for most, that is too austere, so Srila Prabhupada faced that reality, and incorporated milk consumption into ISKCON, but he always had a plan to move beyond the field expedient of using blood milk to setting up true cow protection.

We have spoken how the romantic agrarianism notion of everybody living on the land in this age is unrealistic. So we have put forth this idea of cow protection by proxy as a transitional stage. Where even though we buy milk from the factories, we make contributions to cow protection programs, or take our vacations and spend them working in cow protection projects. We need vaisyas making money to contribute to these programs, and ksatriyas to set up trusts to benefit these programs. We have an immediate need for someone to compile a list of existing cow protection programs that devotees could contribute to. That is a valuable service that someone living in a city with a phone and computer could do, and be an active cow protector even in urban circumstances.

There are suitable projects currently operational that are worthy of being supported. The decision to do so is not dependent on anyone but yourself. No GBC or temple management to blame or consult. No "whose adhikary is higher" or guru succession etiquette to sort out. Personal choice, personal responsibility. If cow protection is too costly for you personally, then the option of being vegan is there. At least it is cheap :-)