On behalf of cows everywhere, an activist offers ways we can improve the care of these gentle creatures, and be models for their protection
MANY THOUSANDS OF HINDUS EVERY DAY WILL STOP BY A grocery store and buy commercial milk for offering to a Deity—a type of sacrifice and cultural remembrance with deep ties to Vedic Indian culture.
I, too, happily participated in this venerable practice until my eyes were opened to the reality of commercial dairy farming. That was at least fifteen years ago. The Internet made finding this information easy. When I approached a temple board member with my concern about the ethics involved in offering the Deity commercial milk, I was basically ignored. The board member happened to be an environmental engineer. He actually had a different concern: that there was so much milk going down the drain in the temple sanctums that it might create an environmental hazard. There was an obvious disconnect. The priority should be on the cow. I did discover, however, a new initiative for offering organic milk soon after.
Then I witnessed a debacle where eggnog was accidently poured over the Sivalingam in the temple. The priest didn’t realize it until the ritual abhishekam was finished, at which time he started to clean up and saw the empty eggnog carton. He became furious and scolded the attending devotees. Everyone felt embarrassed and, I assume, somewhat ashamed. Eggs are regarded as impure and harmful, thus they are not to be offered. The auspiciousness of the moment was palpably diminished. Again, there was a disconnect. No one could see the milk itself was himsa—harmful.
But how could it not be? Just a few basic facts about commercial dairy farming will suffice, and this is without a tinge of fanaticism, hysteria or overstatement. Dairy cows are commodities, not only for their milk, but also for their meat. In fact, many vegans equate milk with meat because once the milk producing capacity of cows diminish (typically a quarter of their natural lifespan), they are sold for slaughter. Cows only produce milk after pregnancy, and so they are kept near constantly gravid through artificial insemination. Newborn calves are immediately removed from their mothers so a bond is not formed. Bull calves are sold as veal or allowed to grow bigger, only later to be sold as hamburger meat. Though practices vary, it is common to inject cows with antibiotics and growth hormones to increase milk production, and they are frequently confined in concrete stalls for insufferably long hours.
Mahatma Gandhi once wrote that “the cow is a poem of pity.” He was right. There are far worse things that happen to cows that I have spared the reader. You can do your own research. To say the least, commercial dairy cows do not lead natural lives, even if they are allowed to graze for part of the day.
I haven’t even invoked the considerable pollution and other negative environmental impacts of commercial dairy farming—not owing to the gentle cow herself, but because of the massive scale of the industry.
Let there be no mistake, commercial milk is fraught, particularly if you’re a Hindu living outside of India, and even more so if the milk is being offered for worship. It is the cow that is being sacrificed, and perhaps we—the worshipful devotees—along with it, owing to our ignorance. We should remember that the Divinity we seek to worship in the temple is also in the cow.
What are the alternatives? How about ahimsa milk? Though few in number at this point, there are slaughter-free dairy farms in India, UK and the US. More are bound to pop up. The idea behind ahimsa milk is humane care of the cow throughout its life. According to ahimsamilk.org—the website for a British NGO slaughter-free dairy—no bull, cow or calf is slaughtered. Calves are allowed to stay with their mothers and suckle. There is no artificial insemination. They are milked by hand and graze freely on organic pasture, even after their productive years are over. These are commonalities among all the ahimsa milk operations I’ve discovered. Ahimsa ghee is also available on Amazon.
There are obvious limitations to the scalability of such benign operations; and to be financially sustainable, the cost of the milk is high. But for the sake of ahimsa, these issues come with the territory. If milk is seen as an absolute necessity for worship and/or personal consumption, extra attention should be paid to the process of production and care of the cow. This is dharma.
A reduction in the amount of milk offered is another responsible step. Buying grass-fed organic milk helps, although still complicit with the worst harms of the commercial industry.
But why not get creative? What we sacrifice can be turned into a true sadhana. We can grow our own flowers with a deep sense of love and offer them instead of milk from exploited cows. We can offer organic juices, fruits and sacred plants which are grown with respect to the environment. Feeling more ambitious? Create a GoFundMe campaign to start or sponsor your community’s own ahimsa dairy, or support the ones already created. The possibilities are truly inspiring.
My Guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, in restating the dharma for Hindus of the twenty-first century, did not neglect to instruct his devotees to avoid products of exploited species. He said so in the spirit of ahimsa. Though he did not specify it himself, the modern dairy cow is the epitome of exploited species.
Mahatma Gandhi famously reflected, “Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It 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.” This quote highlights that even contemplating the problematic nature of commercial dairy could be spiritualizing.
Vamadeva Shastri stated emphatically that “a true yogi should be among those in the forefront working for protection of animals and protection of the Earth” (Yoga & Ayurveda, 176). As we confront the work to be done, we should take the messages of these great souls to heart.
The offering of milk for worship is still a potently meaningful cultural and ritualistic action, so I am not suggesting it be stopped altogether. Rather, let us take extra measures to ensure our sacrificial actions are based in compassion and nonviolence. At least take positive steps to reduce the harm. Devotees and temple management committees should give careful consideration to this ethical dilemma. Leadership is sorely needed. Everyone can contribute to this positive and compassionate cause.
Those wanting to explore this issue further can follow these links to ahimsa-based dairy products and producers: