Sacred Cows or Sacred Cars?
Posted January 1, 2010
A field trip
I would like to take you on a journey, and am asking you to please fasten your seat belts. We are going to time-travel a few years into the future, to a small village, to take a little tour.
As we arrive in the village we are struck by its serenity and cleanliness, and the vitality of its residents, including the children, the women, the elders, and the cows. Oxen pull carts, cows graze within the village, and other oxen pull farm implements in the nearby small fields. We discover that the village is inhabited almost entirely by devotees of Krsna. As we make inquiries we learn that this village was started by disciples of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami and that there are even a few of those pioneers still living in the village.
In the centre of the village is a temple, and we are invited to go there first to see Radha and Krsna. After seeing the Deities in the temple, we are offered mahaprasad sweets made of milk from cows that live in the community. Continuing our tour, we are taken next to the community school, where we see happy children in the playground.
A little further down the road we are shown an anaerobic composting digester that transforms biomass, including human and animal manure, into high grade compost, methane, and CO2. The compost, we learn, is used to enhance the soil in the fields and gardens, and the methane is used for heating and cooking. The CO2 is harnessed to enhance growth in the adjacent greenhouses. Everything in the village gets recycled, including especially the biomass left from harvested fields, which is seen as a great asset.
We observe solar panels on the rooftops of most buildings. Our guide then shows us the micro-hydro turbines that are hooked into nearby streams.
Near the border of the village is a parking lot with several buses, cars, and small trucks. Two of the buses, we learn, have brought visitors to this now-famous self-sufficient village. Another bus belongs to the village and is used by the community for going to local towns for sankirtana, and for going to Rathayatra festivals in the big cities. Sometimes the bus is used by the village school for taking students on field trips. We also learn that the families in the village cooperatively own several cars and trucks to be used for their occasional trips outside the village. Using the hemp grown by farmers in the village, they are able to produce all the fuel needed to drive these vehicles.
This ends our short tour, and we prepare to return to the present. Hopefully we will return again to find out more about the history and dynamics of this wonderful place, but at least for now we have been able to observe some highlights. One of the deepest impressions we take with us is the presence and importance of cows in the village and how much they are obviously loved by all the villagers.
Back to the present
Having returned from our time journey, let us think about the rural devotee communities in North America. Certainly there will be many things to learn in reviewing the history and examining the present state of Gita Nagari, New Vrndavana, Murari Sevak, New Raman Reti, New Talavan, Saranagati and others, but for the purpose of this paper I want to focus on cows and cars. Since I am a part of the Saranagati community, I'll use the example of my own village, but I think my observations are more or less common to all of our rural communities in North America.
At Saranagati there are approximately 30 licenced cars and trucks. There are also at least as many unlicenced vehicles, used only in our valley. In 2008 five brand-new vehicles were purchased. Taking together all the costs for purchasing, licencing, maintaining, and fuelling, I estimate that Saranagati residents spent close to half a million dollars on cars in that one year. During that same time a negligible amount was spent to take care of the few animals that live here, none of whom are milking cows. This is after Saranagati has been in existence for 27 years. Over this span millions of dollars have been spent on cars and very little on cows.
I want to touch on a delicate subject — delicate because, more or less, all devotees love milk products and the wonderful preparations that we offer to our Deities and our children. Since we don't get milk from our own cows, we purchase milk products from the supermarket.
Unfortunately, the economics of modern dairies (even the organic ones) demands that cows be slaughtered. In effect, all the cows' milk available at the store is subsidized by the slaughterhouse industry. The newborn males are slaughtered when they are very young; the females are forced to produce babies and milk for several years, and then they are also slaughtered. Even while they live, the conditions where the dairy cows are kept are often far worse than those where the beef cows are raised. I haven't tried to calculate how much is spent on slaughterhouse milk products every year by devotees in Saranagati (what to speak of the greater community of devotees), but it is a substantial amount.
Another point to consider is that the processing that milk is required to undergo before it reaches the supermarket shelves takes away much of the food value available in the fresh milk. I hesitate to even call it milk anymore.
Think globally; act locally
A major thread running throughout Srila Prabhupada's teachings, including his purports, lectures, letters, and morning walks, is a political, social, and economic analysis of and commentary on the world we live in. Naturally, he was extremely critical of the contemporary Kali-Yuga demoniac governments and cultures, which have continued their downward spiral since he was present with us several decades ago.
Along with his analysis, Srila Prabhupada offered solutions. He proposed a revolution — beginning, of course, with a revolution in consciousness. Building on that, he envisioned a resultant revolution in the political, social, and economic fields of human endeavour, which would somehow, eventually, transform into functioning varnasrama societies — daivi varnasrama, of course, with Krsna in the centre.
Social activists have popularized the slogan: "Think globally and act locally." This principle is inherent is Srila Prabhupada's teachings. He saw the possibility of a peaceful, united world through the spreading of sankirtana, and to support this he put forward a dynamic action plan for the establishment of local self-sufficient communities like the one we just visited in the future.
This cultural development is an essential part of Srila Prabhupada's plan, so much so that shortly before Srila Prabhupada entered his eternal samadhi, he stated that only 50 percent of his mission was completed. The completed 50 percent was the establishment of book distribution and Deity worship worldwide, but the balance was the development of self-sufficient varnasrama villages. In the summer of 1977 Srila Prabhupada surprised many of us when he decided to go to his Gita Nagari project in Pennsylvania, despite his grave physical condition, intending to guide his followers in developing it as a model varnasrama village. But Krsna had other plans.
Sometimes I hear from friends various reasons why they think it impossible to implement varnasrama in the modern age. Rather than take time here to answer all the arguments, I will just pose the question: doesn't the instruction of the spiritual master carry with it the power to carry it out? Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati asked his followers to establish Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's sankirtana movement in the western countries. Some of them thought it was impossible, but someone else understood it was inevitable because it was the Lord's plan. I think this is a similar situation.
The villages that Srila Prabhupada wanted us to develop and the village culture that Mahatma Gandhi promoted are very similar. "Simple living and high thinking" was a slogan Gandhi attached to the Indian independence movement, and Prabhupada had been a supporter of Gandhi's movement before meeting his spiritual master.
I would like to point out another similarity between India's independence movement and our Krsna consciousness movement. Gandhi dedicated his life to establishing this village culture and the value system of simple living and high thinking that it supports. He thought this would save India. Indian independence would be meaningless to him if the village culture couldn't function independently and self-sufficiently. Furthermore, Gandhi understood the importance of cow protection. He said: "Cow protection is more important than Indian independence." Gandhi was a proponent of community based on local sustainable agriculture and economics, and of local village autonomy and decentralized politics.
But Gandhi's prominent protégé Jawaharlal Nehru (who worked closely with Gandhi in the fight for Indian independence) turned his back on the village after becoming India's first Prime Minister and took the country down the path of western industrialization, more or less crushing Gandhi's dream for a truly Indian independence. Ten to fifteen years later, Srila Prabhupada, prior to coming to America, wrote articles decrying Nehru's policies and the consequent cultural and spiritual breakdown in India.
One of the consequences of Nehru's betrayal of Gandhi's vision is that in recent years almost 200,000 farmers in rural India have committed suicide, many of them by drinking the insecticide that was part of the package deal they were conned into accepting by the Indian government and multinational corporations like Monsanto on the promise that it would bring them great prosperity. Instead, the changeover destroyed their soil and put them hopelessly in debt.
Another consequence of Nehru's betrayal of Gandhi's principles is India's current hot pursuit of the motorcar. A main political issue during the last general election was the building of a superhighway network of roads required to accommodate the vast increase in vehicles exploding into circulation. In 2007 the prime minister of India announced a ten-year automotive mission with the plan of making India the global hub of vehicle manufacturing. Currently, India is already making over 12 million cars a year, but the aim is to be making over 50 million per year by 2016. Needless to say, this car frenzy is devastating to the environment and destructive to the cultural and spiritual lives of the people.
The Ford Motor Company, with the government's help, has recently expropriated by corrupt means 1,000 acres of prime agricultural land, including 21 villages. The villagers and small farmers were forced off their land so that cars can be manufactured. This same scenario is playing out in different ways all over the country, as all the giant car manufacturing companies, such as Toyota, Mazda and GMC, take advantage of the opportunities created by the unholy union of politics and finance.
India is emerging as the new global king of the road, the sacred-car capital of the world. The traditional role of the cow, as in the Vedic culture, is being lost to motorcar culture. I believe that cows and cars do not go well together; rather, they are symbols of two diametrically opposed world views and value systems.
Please consider this. After Srila Prabhupada departed from this world, the leaders among his followers, similar to the way that Nehru abandoned Gandhi's vision, seem to have turned their backs on the self-sufficient community development that was so dear and important to him and have taken the movement in another direction. The village has been moved to a back burner and nearly forgotten.
More than 30 years have passed since Srila Prabhupada was promoting the simple living and high thinking of self-sufficient model spiritual communities as a major platform in his mission. Yet we have hardly one model village that clearly demonstrates the efficacy of his teachings.
It is my observation that in many respects Srila Prabhupada's movement has come to resemble a mainstream, middle-class, sectarian religion, integrating happily into and catering to the dominant car culture. Cow protection has become car protection. The criterion for measuring the success of a temple nowadays is how many BMWs are in the parking lot during the Sunday feast program. In the meantime, the necessity of cow protection has become obscured and reduced to the use of slaughterhouse subsidized milk products and a few cow ornaments on our altars. Even our surviving rural communities have begun to resemble, in many respects, the suburban motorcar culture, with little or no cow protection.
Has Prabhupada's vision of worldwide, self-sufficient varnasrama communities burned to a crisp on the back burner? Is there hope for making a transition from the custom of keeping two cars in the garage and no cows in the barn, to the custom of keeping two cows in the barn and no cars in the garage? When will we be able to stop serving slaughterhouse milk to our Deities and children because we will have enough milk from Krsna's protected cows? When will we be able to provide our children with a thorough education that also prepares them to happily participate in the village culture, rather than gearing a significant part of their education for preparation to fit in as cogs in the wheel of the motorcar culture?
Certainly Srila Prabhupada wanted for us to be able to live in these self-sufficient villages centered on Vaisnava culture and cow protection. He wanted this for the protection of his followers' spiritual development and for setting an example of simple living and high thinking that could open the possibility for spiritual development to many other people. What will it take to move us in this direction? How soon will we be able to visit or even live in one of these real villages? How long will that village be accessible only by a fantasy journey into the future?