Hinduism Today Magazine Issues and Articles
Special Feature: Behold Bharat’s Blessed Bovine
Category : April/May/June 2015

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ARUN MISHRA

Saints parade Karuna Mai from the yagashala: Shri Suddhananda ji Maharaj, Jagannathpuri; Subash Swami Maharaj; Maluk Pithadhiswar Dwaracharya Shri Rajendra Das Ji Maharaj; Shri Vitthal Krishna, Godham sevak; Ba, a Pathmeda cow caretaker; Shri Gopraja (holding Karuna Mai’s halter); volunteers and guests

SPECIAL FEATURE

Behold Bharat’s Blessed Bovine

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Join our intrepid correspondent for the grand festival of Gounavratri in Rajasthan, held in November of 2014 at India’s largest cow shelter

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LAST OCTOBER OUR EDITOR, PARAMACHARYA Sadasivanathaswami, received an urgent call from Swami Gopal Sharan Devacharya (HINDUISM TODAY’S Hindu of the Year, 2009) to join him and dozens of other swamis for the culmination of a nine-day festival honoring cows at the Shree Pathmeda Godham Mahatirth in Rehsil, Rajasthan, and the nearby Manorama Goloktirth in Nandgaon. The extraordinary event revealed the persistent reverence the Hindu community has for the cow, and highlighted efforts to protect the species and to craft a compassionate place for the holy bovine in a threatening modern world.

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Wanting to fully share this unusual event with our readers, we assigned our chief correspondent for India, Rajiv Malik, to travel with Paramacharya and write the story. But the day before he was to depart for Rajasthan, Rajiv fractured his wrist. His 27-year-old daughter, Palak, a videographer and journalism graduate, seeing her father’s predicament, volunteered on the spot to take his place—little knowing what she was getting herself into. Palak bravely dove into the story and inadvertently gave us a glimpse into what happens when a modern city girl from New Delhi wanders into rural Bharat to be among the cows.

BY PALAK MALIK,
PATHMEDA, RAJASTHAN, INDIA

WHEN PARAMACHARYA SAID, “It will be an adventure,” I looked at him in disbelief. It was only because a sense of duty prevailed that I agreed to step into my dad’s shoes after his accident. Having committed to venturing into the interiors of India in the company of saffron-clad swamis to cover a festival that involved worshiping a lot of cows, I picked up my iPhone to put my video­graphy work on hold and shift my weekend party plans.

It has been argued time and again that there exists a great divide between India and Bharat. India is the economic giant that you read about in business journals, the one that prowls in cities and has made massive progress in technology, industry and lifestyle. I live in the capital city of that India, New Delhi, where I pick up a coffee at Starbucks before heading out for each day’s work. For entertainment I visit malls and go to movies with my friends.

But suddenly I was to visit the fabled land of Bharat, the cow-worshiping, tree-hugging, agriculture-based society of rural India, full of exotic cultural practices until now delivered to my impressionable brain almost entirely by television, movies, books and the Internet.

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ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA

One of the Desi cows honored during the festival

Entering Village India
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The nearest airport to Pathmeda, our destination, is in Ahmedabad, 250 kms away. We flew into the city at 2 pm from Delhi on October 29. This is the hometown of Prime Minister Modi, and as such it has been blessed with world-class highways on which we zoomed out of town. But as we left Gujarat and entered Rajasthan, the roads abruptly deteriorated until we were bumping along at bare minimum speed on unpaved lanes, dodging pot holes and goats. It took four and a half hours to reach our destination, the last hour of which was an ordeal.

The rules of the road here are different from Delhi: each goat, bull or cow has a free pass to maneuver as it may wish. It was clear that a machine—that is, the car—is an outsider in this rural terrain. The driver gave way to cattle herds without even honking. Initially I was restless, but then I began to breathe more easily in the postcard-like countryside that we were passing in slow motion. Eventually I settled into the timelessness of this country.

For the last 30 miles we were swallowed in darkness. The road and countryside were unlit between us and the distant town of Nimbaj itself, our guiding light. Despite the bumpy road, I started to doze off. Then I was woken from a dream-like state by welcome shouts and chants from a raucous group of some twenty brahmacharis as we entered the premises of Manorama Goloktirth Nandgaon. They were jumping up and down in the back of a flatbed truck, happy the swamis from Hawaii had finally arrived. It was a surreal welcome. They leapt down, still shouting and chanting, garlanded us, and then we followed them along the wide sandy path they called a road to our quarters.

While the swamis and photographer Arun Mishra of Mumbai were expected, I was not, and there was quickly an issue as I was requested to get out of my city dress code of jeans and jacket to change into “religiously appropriate” Indian clothes. The minute I encountered the women devotees they told me to drape a sari, as this was the expected norm or uniform for women. I guess I was willing to blend in a bit, if that was the only way I could do the story. But in my mind, I could either drape a sari and look pretty, or I could work. I settled for salwaar kameez to respect their sensibility while ensuring my mobility.

Manorama Goloktirth is one of several cow shelters established in the last 20 years by Swami Dutt Sharananda. Most of the festival events were taking place here, though we would also visit Pathmeda, the original and still largest facility. The term shelter hardly does justice to these massive operations, which hold hundreds of thousands of cows and include complete veterinary hospitals for their care as well as modern milk-processing facilities. These are not passive care facilities; they are engaged in concerted efforts to preserve the main breeds of Indian cow, also called the Desi cow, which are genetically better suited to the climate than any of the more recently introduced foreign breeds. Importantly, this group gives away girl calves to local families in an effort to lift them economically. The generosity is mind-boggling. In 2013 they gifted over 52,000 heifers to local families, and then taught them how to care for the animals. Villagers are also provided a commercial network through which to sell the products of their cows. This outreach has significantly improved the local economy.

Pathmeda Godham...         Home to 125,000 Desi Cows

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Google Earth view of Pathmeda Godham’s arid 50-acre site, which cares for 125,000 cows and includes a cow hospital and a nearby modern milk processing plant; Paramacharya Sadasivanathaswami (kneeling) and Sannyasin Yoginathaswami of Kauai Aadheenam try to feed a 19-year-old who is feeble and started refusing food

Evening Arati

The festival had been going on for several days when we arrived, so we simply joined in with the evening arati. I grew up in an staunchly religious Hindu household in which arati—worship with oil lamps—is a routine activity. But nothing had prepared me for what I encountered as I entered the huge yagashala structure set up for the event: 64 cows adorned with accessories, completely calm and decorated to the hilt, were being honored with such fanfare, including the worship with oil lamps, that I had previously thought reserved for the Deities. The cows, dressed in neon-colored clothes and silver ornaments, were complemented by the priests in shades of saffron as they conducted the prayer.

No doubt cows are revered all over India, and now when I look back I do remember the unusual encounters wherein I have seen people worshiping one or two odd cows on a city street. But here even the simple hello was cow-related. I speak Hindi, but I had to adjust to the dialect peculiar to this region. Each one greeted the other with “Jai Gaumata. Jai Gopal.”

What was stunning here was the sheer scale of the organized event. The yagashala itself was easily 150 feet on a side. As I circumambulated the thatched chamber with the local villagers, I clicked a few images with my phone and quickly updated my friends in Delhi about my exotic experience. We did three rounds of the yagashala, with the devotees placing a hand on each cow’s rump for blessing. There were also two Nandis, massive Brahma bulls, fortunately as calm as the cows, for these are powerful animals that could cause harm if they wanted to. Many devotees, including me, gave them a wide berth.

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ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA

A massive effort: Inside and outside the half-acre yagashala where worship is performed over several days for 64 representative cows.

Someone explained to me that when Lord Krishna was moving from Mathura to Dwarka, He was so impressed by the fertile land here that He spent the four months of Chaturmas (the monsoon season, when travel is difficult) in this very forest, donating cows to the local villagers. After this, He proceeded to Dwarka. They believe that Lord Krishna’s visit inspired a cow protection movement of such magnitude to begin from this desert land. In scripture, the area is called Anandvan—the Forest of Joy.

Sadasivanathaswami and Yoginathaswami were invited to sit with the other saints beside the 43-year-old founder, Swami Dutt Sharnanand, a tall, fit swami with a red turban and deep, compassionate eyes (which we cannot show, as photos of him are never permitted.)

Sadasivanatha sat next to Swami Prajnananandaji Maharaj of Shri Hariharananda Gurukulam in Jaganath Puri. He is a delightful swami who is on more or less permanent mounam, silence. He conversed using a small high-tech writing tablet, on which he wrote that he reads every issue of HINDUISM TODAY. In the days ahead, he helped the Hawaii swamis follow what was going on, as many conversations were in Hindi.

They were next taken to meet the most respected swami here, Swami Rajendra Das ji, of the Ramananda tradition. He is said to know fully all the sacred texts nearly by heart, plus he is a musician and master kathak performer—the best in the world, they tell us. Swami conducts kathak daily here for four to five hours, sitting cross-legged and ramrod straight on stage the whole time without moving; he later told us he does so 300 days in every year. Dozens more swamis were introduced, several of whom have dedicated their life to cow protection. One has bullet wounds from his efforts to rescue cows from smugglers. Nearly all the swamis here were of a Vaishnavite lineage, with our Saivite swamis providing a nice complement.

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With great fanfare the cows are paraded to the yagashala.

I was not the only outsider immersed in this exotic experience in Anandvan. Among the devotees were not just the local villagers but hundreds of NRIs who had traveled from across the world to be here for the nine-day festival called Gounavratri, or nine nights for the cow. This elaborate event culminates on the eighth day, called Gouashtami, and continues for one day afterwards. It is similar to Navratri, the nine days of Goddess worship.

My heart was overwhelmed by the scale of celebrations, but my mind was looking for some rationale, which was provided when I met Dr. Ram S. Garg over supper. He is a neurologist who had traveled 13,000 kms from Philadelphia with his wife Mini Garg just to be a part of this event. The duo are devout cow worshipers, and offered this explanation: “Rajasthan is a desert. Only with the help of cow products like cow dung and urine has it become a fairly fertile land. In addition to enriching Mother Earth, the cow itself has been raised to the status of a mother as it provides us with milk that is full of nutrition.”

As we spoke together, food was served that consisted of a variety of milk-based products. The server insisted that I add an extra dollop of pure Desi ghee to the khichdi dish of rice and lentils. Everyone else at the table joined in to convince me of ghee’s health benefits. I reluctantly gave in to the peer pressure, thinking it possible that I’ll look like a cow myself by the end of this festival. The ghee tasted divine, and—setting aside any caloric concerns—I went for a second helping!

Five-Star Cow Care Facilities

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Each pen at Pathmeda Godham holds about 100 cows and is cared for by one family.

“Back Home” with the Internet

After dinner, I was instructed to proceed to a luxury tent where I was to stay. It was warm and welcoming, and super fancy by village standards. Only when I logged onto the Internet to do some research did I feel at home.

I googled “cow culture of India.” The results were contradictory. Some scholars defended this traditional ecosystem and praised the cattle economy, while others refuted it. Even the history seemed muddled. On one hand cow is mentioned as a sacred animal in the Vedas, but on the contrary—according to some scholars—certain verses reference the sacrifice of cattle. Some texts gave credit to Buddhism or Jainism for introducing the concept of ahimsa; others say it was part of Hinduism long before those religions appeared. I spent the night struggling with these opposing thoughts and ideas.

Before I went to sleep, I put on multiple alarms and even texted a few friends to wake me up in time. I’m a night person, and back in Delhi I never wake up before noon, unless it is a work requirement—which is rare, because as a freelance videographer I usually set my own schedule. This was going to be a challenge, to be up and dressed by 6.30am!

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Understanding the Desi cow

How It All Began
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To my surprise, I woke up early to the beating of drums in the background and felt pumped up to join in the celebration of cow life. The day’s program was to travel to the original cow shelter of Pathmeda Godham near the town of Sanchore, about a 90-minute drive away. The 50-acre Godham houses tens (many tens) of thousands of cows, all pure Indian stock, plus the Dhanvantari hospital facility—so named after Dhanvantari, the form of Lord Vishnu who is God of Ayurvedic medicine. We traveled with three busloads of foreign visitors and devotees on a day-long official VIP tour. The country lanes are narrow, just wide enough for one car. When two large buses met on our road, one had to back up hundreds of yards to the nearest intersection to allow the other to pass. I was in the wilderness.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this countryside Bharat sojourn made me time travel into the golden age of Indian cinema of 1970s. Indian art films produced in the post-Independence era reflected the sociopolitical reality of rural India, the core script revolving around agrarian crisis and revolution. Many song and dance sequences were composed around agricultural themes such as praising Mother Earth, tilling the land with bulls and celebrating a good harvest season.

I imagined myself in the midst of Shyam Benegal’s famous 1976 film Manthan (“The Churning”), co-produced by 50,000 farmers of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Federation. The film showcased the crisis of milk production and formation of a milk cooperative in a village. But the real-life scenario at Pathmeda Godham is much larger than anything portrayed in the now obsolete 35mm film era.

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DEPOSTIPHOTOS

Rajasthani farmers delivering milk to a collection facility—a common sight on the roads here

The Godham currently cares for 125,000 cows. Over the years it has donated another 170,000 cows to farmers in over 500 villages. But I’m told it all started with eight cows sometime around 1995, when villagers discovered some butchers taking truck loads of cows to a slaughterhouse in Pakistan. Out of that lot the original eight cows were rescued by the villagers.

They took the cows to the nearby ashram of Swami Sri Dutt Sharnanand ji Maharaj. The villagers apparently assumed that since the swami was living in the forest, he could easily manage the cows, who could forage for themselves. Swami Dutt Sharnanand went on to personally rescue thousands of cows and eventually founded Pathmeda Godham. He explained, “Our sanskaras were such that we believed dhenu (cow) and dharti (Earth) are holy and codependent on each other. If dhenu is not there, then dharti will become barren and poisonous. If the Earth is not there, then the cow will have no grazing ground. I found out that 60,000 cows were being slaughtered daily, or 22 million per year—this out of a total Indian cow population of 120 million. It was shocking to discover this mass smuggling. With the belief that cow protection is good for the world, we started this movement.”

Swami is a genuine hero among those who love cows in India. He has always been a strict brahmachari who rises at 2:30am, eats only vegetables (no grains) and only once each day,. He has never sought acclaim; even today he does not permit his photo to be taken. His life’s work started in earnest back when he was in his late 20s and came to know for the first time—with the unexpected arrival of those eight cows—of the illegal trafficking in Rajasthan, where lorries carrying cows were being smuggled out of India under the cover of night and across the border into Pakistan. There they were slaughtered, and the meat, usually halal, was shipped to various countries, including back into India.

The young swami decided to continue the rescue effort the villagers had started. Each night he went to the border area and stood in the middle of the road to stop the lorries. When they came to a halt, his compatriots would unlatch the lorry’s back gates and release the cows into the desert. The lorry drivers could not cry foul to the police, because they themselves were breaking the law. Again and again, lorries were stopped and their living cargo liberated, saved from a certain death. As the free-ranging cow population grew, so grew the needs for nutrition, medical care and birthing assistance. The response to those needs gave rise to a small goshala, which today has arguably become the world’s largest cow shelter.

We learned from Swamiji that the cow named Sam­ridhi, worshiped on the last evening, was the 21st offspring of Ma­nor­ma, one of those original eight rescued cows. In Bharat, sometimes the prosperity of a family is evaluated in terms of how many children a mother can bear. In this case, Sam­ridhi was testimony to how well the gau­vansh (cow lineage) was progressing.

We walked in the sand (there seems to only be sand in Rajasthan) for almost an hour in and around the expansive cow sheds. Each held 100 cows, along with water troughs, feeding stations, salt licks and lime. In my life, I had never seen so many cows together. As far as the eye could see, there were cows. In all directions! Our group enthusiastically chanted “Gomata, Gopala” in loud unison as they bravely marched (in full sari regalia) under the hot sun with clouds of dust billowing around them.

Turning the Five Products of the Cow into Cash

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ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA

Packing dried milk from the modern milk processing facility; making milk-based sweets; hand-filled cans of ghee, a popular export, ready for sealing

Seeking Economic Sustainability

image ANURADHA MODI HAS BEEN ACTIVE IN THE animal rights movement since 1975: starting one of Delhi’s first animal shelters, working to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, protesting the dissection of live animals in schools and initiating the country’s first program of birth control for stray dogs. After leaving her animal welfare activities to raise her family, she returned to the work in 2012, focusing on the pitiable conditions of India’s indigenous cows. With the support of her husband and family, she founded the Holy Cow Foundation (www.facebook.com/HolyCowFoundation) to develop and promote economically sustainable systems of cow protection and care. Her work resulted in a line of products (photo below) produced by cow shelters or gaushalas. Most of the following is condensed from her interview with The Speaking Tree in 2013 (bit.ly/ModiHolyCow); a few questions were asked by HINDUISM TODAY.

What inspired you start the Foundation?

I have always loved animals. Once I saw a pamphlet on gaugraas rickshaws which went door to door to pick up leftover rotis and vegetable peels to feed to cows. I sponsored one for our residential colony. Later I came across ayurvedic products made from cow dung, but they were badly packaged, so no one would buy them. One thing led to another and I started the Holy Cow Foundation to protect the indigenous Indian cow.

What are the challenges in rehabilitating cows?

When a cow goes dry, the farmer turns it out on the streets, or sells it for slaughter, even where cow slaughter is illegal. Earlier, in every village, there was gau­char land (protected pastures) where such cows could graze. Gradually, gau­char lands were used for agriculture or buildings.

What items can be made?

The five things that a cow gives are: dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee. All the five combined together are panchgavya. We produce incense, agnihotra kits for fire worship, toiletries, joint pain oil, chya­wan­prash, urine distillate, and pure ghee nasal drops. We make logs out of cow dung for cremation or as fuel in factories and boilers. We make pots of dried cow dung for decorative plants. Bio-gas and compost are other by-products of cow dung. Instead of using pesticides and urea, farmers can use composted manure.

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HOLY COW FOUNDATION

Cow products: Each item above is made with one or more of the five products of the cow

What are the special properties of ghee?

It is said that pure desi cow ghee lowers cholesterol. Doctors in the West have recognized the benefits of ghee [see, for example, the US National Institutes of Health paper, bit.ly/NIHghee].

What do you think about veganism?

People turn vegan to avoid cruelty and exploitation of animals. For example, it is unfair if we keep all the milk for ourselves and leave nothing for the calf. However, a farmer will only take care of the cow if he gets something in return.

How can we improve the condition of cows in India?

It’s important to remember our country’s culture and ethos. We appeal to every family to support at least one cow, which costs US$250/year. People should support the gaushalas on the outskirts of Delhi that look after old and injured cattle. Also, don’t throw food in plastic bags into the streets. Stray cows will eat the bag along with the food in it. The plastic accumulates in their stomach—often over a hundred pounds of it—and causes a slow death. The new government has offered a glimmer of hope, especially the Clean India Mission program which includes ridding the streets of plastic bags.

How do you raise cow protection awareness?

We organize the Holy Cow Music Festival in Delhi each year, featuring spiritual music to revitalize the body, stimulate the mind and pamper the soul. It is a platform which allows us to build awareness towards a common social initiative to serve and protect the Desi cow through economic sustainability. We promote organic produce and vegetarianism at the festival. We create a barnyard so children can come and touch the animals and see that they are living things and not something we should be eating.

How did government policies effect these concerns?

The problem for our indigenous cows started with the Green and White Revolutions in India in the 1960s and 70s. At that time India was struggling to meet the needs of its burgeoning population. It saw the developed nations as its role model and started copying the West without realizing the Indian ethos is totally different. What we needed was village development. The Green revolution bought fertilizers, pesticides and tractors to render cows and bulls useless for agriculture.

The White Revolution to increase milk production bought in strains of high yielding European breeds. There was disregard for the distinction between A1 and A2 milk. It has been found that the European breeds produced A1 milk, which is less healthy than the A2 milk of the desi cow. It is hypothesized that a mutation in European breeds in the last few thousand years has changed the beta-casein they produce, from the more easily assimilated A2 beta-casein to A1 beta-casein, which is harder for the human digestive system to deal with and possibly linked to several common diseases. [See bit.ly/Snowville for evidence in favor of this theory and bit.ly/EJCN-A2 for evidence against.]

Around 2009, the previous government declared a Pink Revolution to modernize and expand the meat trade. As of 2015, India is the world’s largest exporter of beef (including buffalo meat or carabeef), nearly reaching two million metric tons a year, much of it halal. This Pink Revolution is the death knell of the cow in India.

Our guide was Govats Shri Radha Krishna Ji Maharaj, a charming exponent of katha (since age 16), kirtan, cow protection and more, all in the name of Lord Thakurji, as Krishna is worshipped in the Vallabh­acharya lineage (see: radhakrishnaji.com). He is fond of parbhat feri, “early morning walk,” the practice of beginning the day chanting and spreading the name of Thakurji to the people. Just 31, he is already a popular spiritual personality who works closely with Swami Sharanand. Among other programs he conducts an annual five-day summer camp for 15 to 25-year-olds that attracted 1,000 youth last year. He has currently taken on the vow of Gayatri Mahapurushcharanin under which he lives only on milk for 16 months.

Shri Radha Krishna explained that the number of cows in the Godham varies depending on the inflow and outflow. Rajasthan is a famine-prone area, and during droughts many farmers abandon their cows. At the Godham the cows cohabit the land with gopals (cow caretakers) and their families, making it a sustainable proposition. The cows are not tied; they are allowed to roam freely within the large pens. Swami said he did not want to save the cows from execution only to sentence them to life imprisonment; rather he insists they live in as natural surroundings as possible.

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Swamis and devotees gather for the day’s kathak performance—a combination of story telling and devotional singing; cow ambulance arrives with a patient, though the Godham prefers to avoid transporting cows on the rough roads in favor of treating them where they live

Bovine Party in Full Swing

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ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA

Men spontaneously dance during the kathak; the ladies’ side of the kathak tent

The Cow Hospital

The Godham runs a huge hospital capable of treating 4,000 cows at once in three giant sheds. They have a massive x-ray machine and operating room, and even a cow ambulance. “Not many people are aware that cows suffer the same kinds of diseases that afflict human beings. They have metabolic disorders, uterus and respiratory disorders. They even have cancer, psychological and neurological disorders,” explained Rishi Jay Prakash, one of our hosts and treasurer of this Dhanvantri medical facility. Traffic accidents are a frequent cause of injury, and cows arrive from time to time with gunshot wounds.

On this day there were about 1,000 in the hospital area. Once healed, they are returned to the village farmers. “In fact, we don’t want all the sick cows to be sent here whenever there is a drought or famine. It is cruel to transport a seriously injured cow, so Swamiji’s idea is to create units at the village level for this purpose,” Rishi explained.

Nearly all the doctors serve on a voluntary basis, working with an annual budget of us$100,000 for medicines, much of them ayurvedic. I confess, I found the hospital grim, and I noticed our Sadasivanathaswami and Yoginathaswami retreating to a nearby neem tree outside to avoid the sadness of the place.

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Visiting devotees comfort an injured cow in the hospital

The more courageous visitors stayed in the sheds, sitting on the sand in their expensive saris, chanting or singing softly to the cows who clearly enjoyed the attention. It is taught here that, like a person, a cow will heal noticeably faster if it feels cared for and loved. The swamis and I reflect that these are the most fortunate of hurt cows on the Earth. One said he’d never seen ahimsa practiced at such a high level. Every effort was made to avoid hurting the cows, and it made him change the way he looked at them.

Sustaining the Operation

With little or no support from the government, the mere existence of this huge ecosystem is a miracle. They have storage capacity for 500 trucks of fodder, but due to paucity of funds, purchase of sufficient fodder is a day-to-day challenge.

After lunch we were taken to a huge modern milk processing factory. The Go­dham itself has only a few thousand cows producing milk, all of which is consumed on the premises. For the processing factory, milk is purchased from 16,000 farmers from 500 villages and packaged as dried milk or processed into ghee, sweets, etc. Bhupendra Chippa, manager of this unit, said about 40,000 liters of milk were coming in daily at the moment, and this can go up to 100,000 liters during the peak season. The factory aims for a fair return to the farmer, while the minimal profits go toward the Godham’s operating expenses. The operation employs 200 people.

The Godham insists that the milk only come from the indigenous, or Desi, cow, and not from imported breeds or from water buffalo (which are a major source of milk in India). Swami Rajendra Das, the kathak performer, told us that the cow described in the Vedas in clearly the Indian breed. There are four distinguishing features to the Desi cow, he explained: 1) a hump on the cow’s back; 2) a fleshy neck wattle; 3) a white streak that goes along the entire spine (in light skinned cows this streak is dark) which is said to draw the power of the sun into the cow and into her milk; and 4) a distinctive shape to the cow’s rump. Compared to the Desi cow, which is gentle and non-threatening to humans, all other cattle breeds, Swami said, are mere “beasts.” Our experience is that these gentle creatures are indeed different in temperament, almost like a pet, and quite affectionate.

I did look this up once back in Delhi, and in fact, according to Wikipedia, there is a considerable difference between the European and Indian cattle breeds. Both are descended from the now extinct auroch, Bos primigenius, which was found in Europe and Asia in ancient times. About 200,000 years ago, the Indian auroch, Bos primigenius namadicus, evolved as a subspecies in India. Around 7000 bce, it was domesticated as the zebu bovine, Bos indicus, which is exactly the Desi cow described in the Vedas. The European aurochs were separately domesticated about 6000 bce in the Middle East and are the ancestors of all European taurine cattle breeds, Bos taurus. The last European auroch died in 1627 in Poland, while Indian aurochs became extinct about 2000 bce.

Swami went on to explain there is a great difference in quality of milk, ghee, dung, urine, etc., between the Indian breeds and foreign breeds. Everyone I spoke with here told me the same thing: that consumption of the products of the Desi cow would improve our health and benefit the environment.

Cow Protection: America Is Far Behind

BY BOBBIE SRINIVASAN, PENNSYLVANIA

THERE ARE TWO MAIN MODES OF COW PROTECTION IN THE USA. One is what I and thousands of other animal activists do daily: educate people around the world about the horrors of the dairy industry, and beg everyone to adopt a vegan lifestyle. The second mode is to rescue cows and give them shelter for the rest of their lives. Doing either in the US is particularly difficult because there’s no national, prolific love of the cow as is the case in India. When you talk about saving a cow, you’re more likely to be laughed at.

In the US, where a cow is slaughtered every 12 seconds, she is not considered a living, loving being. Instead, she is looked at as a commodity—no different than an onion. The World Bank estimates that the average American eats about 42 kg of beef a year. According to Farm and Range Guide, the net profit on a cow whose life lasts around 4.7 years (of her potential 20 years) comes to about $2,600 after having about four calves. Because the industries that profit from her excretions, her muscles and her skin are huge and powerful, the system wherein the cow finds herself is deadly. This industry spends millions of dollars every year advertising their bloody product. They also pay a lot to change the very few animal “welfare” laws to favor their cruel “harvesting” practices.

I have found that those who rescue cows and start sanctuaries are brave, undaunted people. They spend their lives and savings doing everything they can to bring these animals to safety. Cows often become available for rescue, through some happenstance such as having fallen off of a slaughter transport truck or from escaping from the slaughterhouse. When this happens, the sanctuaries have to act fast and mobilize all their resources to bring the cow home. Just imagine all the time and money needed to make that happen. But they do it every chance they get. Unfortunately, you’ll notice, by doing a simple query on the Web of “escaped cows,” the outcome is rarely this good.

In all, the best way to protect cows is to convince people to adopt a vegan lifestyle. It is her milk and body after all—not ours. So, please, spread the word and educate everyone about the horrors of the dairy industry. By doing this, we’ll all become cow-savers.

Bobbie Srinivasan is a full-time K-12 substitute teacher. In her spare time, she works on a website, VeganCookingLessons.org, teaching how to prepare meals without animal products, and is active in The Save Movement. Email: BoeDevi@gmail.com; Website: www.torontopigsave.org/

It was nearly 5pm when we made our last stop at the Nandi Goshala. Here 17,000 bulls and oxen are cared for, the largest such facility in the world. They call uncastrated bulls Nandis. We then drove back to Nimbaj.

Returning to my tent, I asked one of the brahmacharis where I could get hot water to take a bath, for we were about to attend the evening arati. He laughed and said, “You didn’t take a bath in the morning, you city girl. I caught you! Haha.” I wasn’t sure how to react, for I didn’t fully know the rules of the land, though it became clear that not taking a bath in the morning was a big deal. I was embarrassed, and advised to bathe with whatever tap water was available. Suitably cleaned up, I attended the evening arati, which was much the same as the night before.

Finally back at my tent after a very long day, I checked my email, made a few phone calls and stuffed myself with several delicious chocolate brownies a friend had provided. It was some solace for the lack of coffee here, which I was sorely missing. I finally tucked myself into the massive quilt and switched off the lights. I was startled at first by the huge shadows made on the side of the tent by the night guards as they walked about. Even the small passing dogs appeared like wolverines. I had heard a lot of village ghost stories as a child, and they were all coming back to me. Fortunately, I soon fell asleep.

Worshiping the Amla Trees
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I was awaked by someone banging on the cloth door of the tent and requesting I come for morning puja. Having learned my lesson, I quickly bathed, as I wanted to keep my conscience clear in this atmosphere where people literally breathe religion. Here in conservative India, religious rituals are sacrosanct, and, as I had learned, bathing in the morning is one of them. In the city I take a bath whenever I wish, once in 24 hours.

By 7am, hundreds of devotees are already in the yagashala, walking around the cows, rubbing their legs, doing arati to them. Each cow is officially in the care of one or two families, who are given large bowls of a sweet feed mix to offer their charge. Today the cows are less eager to eat the offerings, perhaps because they have feasted for the previous seven days on this sweet grain goodie. Devotees offer a cricket-sized ball and seem seriously disappointed when the cow turns blithely away from their outstretched hand. They could take some solace from the fact that all the unconsumed offerings of food go to the other cows at Pathmeda.

Today, unlike previous days, the dozens of priests are dressed in fresh white and red dhotis and have tripundra on their forehead instead of the Vaishnava marks. Our two swamis are offered a seat next to the Path­meda founder. We all sit in the sand (remember, there is only sand in Rajasthan, no soil) near a cow, and a special offering begins with the arrival of large open pots filled with ripe amla fruits. We offer a huge quantity of amla fruits, one at a time, in synchronicity with the mantras of the priests. It all ends with an arati, hundreds of trays of lamps in the yaga­shala all at once. It is a fitting and strong crescendo.

We’re next taken to a mature amla grove, the 250 trees laden with fruits. We are here to honor the trees for their gifts, and the organizers have 12 to 15 devotees sit around each tree. They follow the priests in making offerings, then worshiping with arati trays. It is a popular belief here that amla worship on this days destroys all sins. In any case, amla (Phyllanthus emblica ) is well known for its medicinal properties and is used in many ayurvedic tonics and medicines.

Kathak

The group heads next to the giant tent were Swami Rajendra Das ji has held his four-hour kathak for eight days straight. Inside, there are some 1,200 devotees waiting. This is the ninth and last kathak, and there are dozens of accolades before the talks. Our two swamis are asked to address the audience, to speak of HINDUISM TODAY and Hinduism outside of India. The kathak follows, today going closer to five hours.

I decided to bunk the beginning of the long kathak, for I could, in any case, hear it from my tent. In the shimmering sunlight that was seeping in through the tent house, I took selfies and Whatsapped them to show off my luxurious accommodations to friends and family.

Later, I slipped in unnoticed to attend the second part of the kathak, sitting with local village women whom I had met the previous day. They are wives of farmers associated with Pathmeda Godham. They had come to be a part of this festival, to celebrate and worship cows. They told me they all have cows at home, and spoke about them with love and affection, quite often referring to each by a nickname.

I asked them a lot of questions about life in the village, and they asked me about city life. It had been evident from our arrival the first night that my presence here, an unmarried woman, was considered unusual—to put it mildly. One asked, “How can you travel on your own without a man by your side?” Another, “How old are you? You’re at the age to have kids, why aren’t you married already?”

For once I didn’t mind answering personal questions from strangers. A couple of ladies who had teenage girls studying in school came to my defense and said, “Education and work are equally important for both men and women.” I wasn’t sure how satisfied the rest of the ladies were by that explanation, but by the end of it, they put a bindi on my forehead, tied a rakhi thread around my wrist and called me “sister.” They still phone me every now and then to check on my well-being.

The Leather Issue

Later that day at the evening arati in the huge yagashala, I noticed something unusual. The man in front of me removed his belt at the entry and dropped it into a box full of belts and wallets. The guard stationed nearby informed me that no leather product is allowed on the premises.

Rishi Jay Prakash explained that leather and bones are more profitable products of slaughter than the meat itself. “That is why our Maharaj ji says that if you want to save the cows, then stop using leather products.”

According to him, laws banning cow slaughter exist, but there are loopholes. For instance, in Maharashtra the law states that you can slaughter a cow when three conditions are met: if it is uneconomical for milk generation, uneconomical for farming and uneconomical for regeneration. “Now if we focus on products like cow dung and cow urine, every cow becomes productive. She is productive even if she’s blind, deaf or suffering from ailments.” Then, by law, she should be safe.

Everyone I interviewed spoke against cow slaughter, pleading that the government do more about it, at the very least to conduct slaughter in a more humane manner. But few held out much hope of government intervention and opted instead for a strategy of appealing directly to the people.

By the end of the evening I had spoken to dozens of people about cow slaughter and cow protection. To my shock, and even anger (I am not a fan of such divisions), many of them made this a communal issue about Hindu-Muslim differences—claiming that the Muslims are responsible for cow slaughter. In part, it was a historical argument, that Muslims invaded India and ate the cows Hindus worshiped, and, no doubt, most slaughter houses are operated today by Muslims. The cultural tension in this rural scenario was intense and is a major aspect of the core ideology behind saving the cows.

But this discourse is nonexistent in the context of the city. When we consider the end products and consumption patterns, it is an urban-rural divide and less so a religious one. For instance, most urban dwellers use leather products and I, for one, never thought I was killing a sacred Hindu cow by carrying a leather handbag. Was that enough to make me a lesser Hindu? Most of the time we in the city do not know what goes into the making of the things we use or eat, nor do we pay attention to their environmental cost. Perhaps, I mused, it is time for us to reflect more on our choices and their consequences.

It was also only after I made this particular trip to Bharat that I began to seriously question the success of the Green and White Revolutions. In the school textbooks of India, these two are presented as glorious agricultural achievements. But what eventually became evident was that Bharat’s ground reality is quite different from India’s portrayed version. For someone like me who belongs to New India and takes full pride in these chapters of development and growth, this was a facepalm, an unwelcome revelation.

Scenes from the Cow Festival

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Luxury tent accommodations for the VIP visitors from India and abroad; Govats Shri Radha Krishna Ji Maharaj; Yoginathaswami (far right) joins in the feeding of amla fruit to one of the 64 cows

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Cow Worship Full Scale
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My last day at Pathmeda was Gou­ashtami, the festival’s main day. The morning arati was a special one, and the devotee couples who had turned up from all over the world had to pre-book (at a hefty price) their seat beside one of the 64 cows. The elaborate puja began once all couples were stationed in front of their cow. Some three dozen pujaris were seated before a dozen homa kundas, the fires blazing. They chanted, led by two gifted Vedic priests who dominated the space with their resounding (and amplified) voices. The main offering this day was 125,000 bana­nas—more than I had ever seen at in my entire life. They were donated by local farmers and offered in the puja to the 64 cows in the yagashala on behalf of all the cows of Pathmeda. At 2,000 bananas per cow, it was more than they could eat, despite the cows’ best efforts—the uneaten ones were shared with the rest of the of Pathmeda’s herd. In every corner of the yagashala, puja and arati were taking place.

As I snapped pictures, someone came up and asked me to take the charna amrit from a leaf bowl. This was obviously not the charna amrit sweet drink made from milk, curd, Ganga water and sugar I was familiar with, so I asked the ingredients before sipping it. It was, I learned, made from the five products of the cow: milk, curd, cow urine, cow dung and ghee. Now, I had heard people drink cow urine and that it has numerous medicinal properties, but I hadn’t taken it seriously. I quickly put the bowl back on the table, pretended I had a phone call, and made a swift exit. For the next half hour I played hide and seek with this man at the prasad counter who insisted I should drink it. He had clearly sensed my apprehension, and I had grasped his. I’ll never know what that tasted like.

The afternoon brought unfamiliar experiences. At one place in the compound, villagers were coming up to a cow, and a priest was touching their heads with the cow’s tail. He told me they believe that if you follow the cow’s tail it can lead you to heaven. Maybe at some level I empathize with the cause of cow protection and preservation, but I couldn’t adopt such foreign village ways. The rural-urban divide remained unresolved in me.

A touching event on this last day was the honoring of the gopal families with gifts. The head of each family charged with caring for the cows came on stage to accept a large-wheeled trunk filled with practical presents for the family, including blankets and clothes. Following this presentation, there was a colorful procession of the villagers with their decorated cows and bulls around the property (photo page 23). For the last time I joined my local village women friends as they walked along singing songs praising Lord Krishna as a cow herder. It was a calming end to an experience which had disrupted my city-bred ways of thinking.

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Group of the gopal cowherders decked out for a festive parade

Swami Dutt Sharnanand

It was after this evening’s arati that we were allowed, finally, to interview Swami Dutt Sharnanand at length, in the presence of Sada­sivanathaswami, Yoginathaswami, Rishi Jay Prakash and other swamis. The interview took place at a traditional five-room hermitage made of coconut thatch with a cow dung floor. It was the humble quarters where the swamis lived for these nine days. I was surprised that the floor was odorless and quite pleasant, more like a warm brown carpet than a cold wooden floor. It seemed a good use of an abundant resource.

Swami explained that treatment of the cow has been changing for the better in recent times. “In the year 2000 a lot of awareness was spread regarding cow protection and preservation,” he said. “Around 5,000 cowsheds were established all over the country. Many states also enacted laws at that time related to protection of cows. So, in the past decade or two, a good momentum has picked up, and I feel that there is a super power who is making this happen, because, so far as we are concerned, we couldn’t imagine that we would be able to make such a large impact.

“Still, more than 22 million cows are butchered in India each year, out of a total population of 120 million. On top of that are those that die of starvation during famines—I have seen thousands so perish. Many thought that when India achieved independence, cow protection would become common, but in fact the opposite occurred. The whole focus has been on industrialization as the means for the country to develop, but in the process we have ignored our cows and our villages.

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Future plan of sheds and veterinary facility at Nandgaon, Rajasthan

“The Brahma Samhita says that those living in this world as cows can be divided into two types of souls. One will take rebirth as a human being after ending their lives as a cow, and others will get liberated and go to Golukdham—heaven. During their birth as a cow, no new sin is created, and their whole birth is dedicated to the welfare of humanity. Many born into a lower level of creature come and spend their life as a cow to purify their karmas and be eligible for a human birth next time. Definitely many being born as human beings would have lived as cows.

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“We are not saying you should blindly use the products of the cow. Let us test them scientifically. I believe when cow dung is used in farming the various crops are very high quality, leading to healthy human beings and a healthy, poison-free environment. But the people who are maintaining the cows are not getting the proper economic incentives. This we are trying to solve by promoting the quality and value of the products of the cow.”

Rishi added, “Today if we take the population of Hindus in India as 975 million, if each Hindu family decides to take care of just one cow, the problem would be solved. If the Hindu community decides to seriously take up the project of cow protection, then there would be no problem at all.”

Pethmetha’s programs are already having a significant economic impact in the area. They have provided 50,000 heifers to the local villagers, and during the dry season, when few crops could be grown, the milk from just two of these can be a significant source of income for a small family.

Honoring the Cow in Delhi, Rajasthan & Tamil Nadu....

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ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA

Swami Gopal Sharan Das at his New Delhi goshala as the temple Deities are paraded through the immaculate granite and stainless steel facility; some of the 125,000 bananas offered to the cows; cow puja at the Golden Temple in Vellore—for the full puja, go to bit.ly/Vellore

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Conclusion

Even though the experience was unique and memorable in every sense of the word, I was relieved when we reached the airport and civilization. As we boarded the plane, it struck me that I was wearing a leather jacket and leather shoes. Now back in the city, I haven’t stopped wearing leather, but I have stopped buying it, for now. Every Delhi winter, I used to buy myself a new pair of good quality leather boots to add to my collection. This season, to my surprise, I didn’t—perhaps an unexpected change of heart brought on by my time in the presence of the cows of Shree Pathmeda Godam Mahatirth.

Email the author at
palakmalik1@gmail.com