ECOV: A Dynamic Solution to a Modern Dilemma


ECOV: A Dynamic Solution to a Modern Dilemma

By Madhava Smullen

The world—and the USA in particular—seems determined to murder as many cows as possible. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 35 million of the mild-mannered creatures were slaughtered in 2010 in the USA alone—that’s over 95,000 cows killed a day and nearly 4,000 per hour.

During their short lives, these cows live on factory farms in cramped, concrete-floored milking pens. When they give birth, their female calves join the ranks of milk producers, while males are taken from their mothers within 24 hours of birth and sold at auctions to beef producers.

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Cows in a typical commercial dairy lot.

Within sixty days, the cow is impregnated again, and milked for seven months of her next nine-month pregnancy. According to the animal rights organization PETA, this cycle is repeated until her milk production wanes, and she is sent to slaughter between five and eight years old. She could have lived more than twenty.

But the world wasn’t always so keen on exploiting cows. Before the industrial revolution in the 1700s, most people were dependent on them. In ancient India in particular, the cow was deeply respected as the mother of mankind, and the bull as its father, as taught by the smriti scriptures. For just as a child is fed with its mother’s milk, the cow feeds human society her milk; and just as the father earns for his children, the bull tills the ground to produce food grains.

Cows and bulls were thus cared for as part of the family, and were the very backbone of society. Oxen pulled the plow so that people could grow vegetables and grains, and transported the food wherever it needed to go. The dung of both the cow and the bull was used as an excellent fertilizer, and even their urine was known to have medicinal and insecticidal purposes.

And of course, the cow needed to eat only grass to produce milk, an opulent and nutritious drink that could be used to make countless types of food. Cow’s milk was even cited by scriptures such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam as essential for developing the finer tissues of the human brain, enabling one to understand the intricacies of spiritual knowledge.

As Gandhi wrote in his periodical Harijan: “The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection… Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives… The cow was in India the best companion. She was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible.”

Thus people in India lived localized, independent lives, and had a symbiotic relationship with the cows and the land, in which all their basic needs were fulfilled.

Until the British arrived. To take away the people’s independence, they realized, they had to break the backbone of Indian agriculture. And to break the backbone of Indian agriculture—and Indian culture in general—they had to start slaughtering cows.

Today, generations have been cut from their relationship to the earth and driven to the cities. The number of slaughterhouses in India has grown from one—established by Governor Robert Clive in 1760—to 36,000. In 2001 CNN called India “The second largest producer of leather goods in the world,” a position it still holds now.

But there’s still hope for India, and for the world. Some have retained India’s ancient culture of cow protection and living in harmony with the land, and have attempted to transplant it to the West. One major such proponent was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a Vaishnava holy man who traveled from the sacred village of Vrindaban, India to New York City in 1965.

With his spiritual movement, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Prabhupada launched farm communities with cow protection programs all over the world. Encouraging a ‘simple living and high-thinking’ lifestyle, he taught that all animals were also souls, and children of God, or Krishna—and that just like humans, they deserved love, care and protection. In his purports to the ancient texts of India, Prabhupada explained how Lord Krishna came as a cowherd when he appeared on Earth 5,000 years ago in the village of Vrindaban. And he wanted his disciples to follow Krishna’s example.

The first cow protection program that Prabhupada established in the Western World was in the rural community of ISKCON New Vrindaban—named after Krishna’s village and nestled in the hills of West Virginia. “Krishna by His practical example taught us to give all protection to the cows and that should be the main business of New Vrindaban,” Prabhupada wrote to his disciple Hayagriva in June 1968. He suggested a life close to the land, similar to that which Indian villagers had enjoyed before the invasion of the British: “So these duties are there in New Vrindaban, and we shall live there independently, simply by raising cows, grains, fruits, and flowers.”

In May 1969, Srila Prabhupada visited New Vrindaban, and met its very first cow—and only cow at the time—a black Jersey named Kaliya. Prabhupada would drink a little of her milk morning, noon, and night. “I haven’t tasted milk like this in sixty-five years,” he said. Looking around at his disciples, he told them that he wanted New Vrindaban to demonstrate to the world the social, moral, and economic advantages of protecting the cow and utilizing her milk, rather than killing her and eating her flesh.

When Prabhupada visited New Vrindaban for the fourth time in 1976, the cow protection program had grown to include many cows, including Kaliya.

“The cows would graze up on the hill,” recalls Kuladri Dasa, who has served at New Vrindaban since 1970. “One day, as Prabhupada was walking up the road with a group of devotees, Kaliya came ambling down the hill towards them, all by herself. Prabhupada immediately recognized her from his first visit, and addressed her, ‘Ah, my dear old friend Kaliya.’”

kaliya-with-prabhupada New Vrindaban 1976

Kaliya walks with Srila Prabhupada in New Vrindaban, 1976.

In those early days, devotees would milk the little herd twice a day, and the milk would be more than enough for the small, dozen-strong community. “We would have two devotees milking the cow by hand at once—one on each side,” says Kuladri. “Radhanath Swami, now a major spiritual leader in Mumbai, was one of the cowherd boys then, and I would milk with him. I remember he was a strong milker—our cow would always give the most! Altogether, four or five of us would team up and milk all the cows.”

Back to Godhead - Volume 11, Number 01 - 1976

Devotees milking cows by hand at the Bahulaban Barn, 1976.

The cow protection efforts continued, and the herd began to grow. In the 1980s, when the New Vrindaban community expanded dramatically, it reached an incredible 400 cows with 160 of them being milked, twelve at a time and twice a day. The surplus beyond what was needed to feed the community was sold.

But the large-scale effort was unsustainable, as New Vrindaban discovered when it encountered community and financial struggles throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Times became more difficult. Funds and manpower were scarce.

Yet although they could not keep breeding and maintaining the size of their herd, those New Vrindaban devotees who remained, kept their firm commitment to the cow protection mission Srila Prabhupada had held so close. They continued to provide for the food, shelter, and medical needs of the herd no matter what. Each cow was lovingly cared for, living out their natural lives in peace and quiet, and receiving a spiritual funeral fit for a saint when they passed away.

In the late 1990s, New Vrindaban’s leadership decided to create separate entities for different areas of focus—including cow protection. And so, in March 1999, the non-profit organization Gorakshya- Seva Environmental Education Trust of America (GEETA) was born, and all New Vrindaban’s cows and grazing land were entrusted to it. Gradually, the cow protection program’s infrastructure was repaired; and today — while there is much work to be done—the future looks bright.

In February 2011, GEETA changed its name to ECOV, an-all inclusive moniker that stood for the entire agrarian lifestyle surrounding cow protection. The acronym, which stands for Earth, Cows, Opportunity and either “Village” or “Vrindaban” depending on the audience, also appeals to a broader cross-section of people, including eco-friendly Westerners, the Hindu community, and ISKCON devotees.

The organization immediately got down to practical work. It recently replaced much of the New Vrindaban farm’s twenty-five-year old equipment with brand new equipment, including two new tractors to harvest hay for feeding the cows every winter.

“Right now we are taking care of sixty-five cows—mainly Holsteins, Brown Swiss, and Jerseys,” says Ranaka Dasa, who is ECOV’s general manager, and a member of the board. “Every year, we harvest about one thousand 1,500 pound round bales of hay for them to eat during the winter. They are protected from the cold in a clean and spacious barn, which we’ve also recently renovated.”

During the summer, the herd is taken down to the lush, green pastures in Bahulaban, were the New Vrindaban community was centered in the 1970s. Today, ECOV has 640 acres of land—some of it forest, but much of it grazing land for the cows, who always get to eat their fill.

“The difference between a regular farm and New Vrindaban is like night and day,” says Ranaka. “Rather than being exploited and treated like machines, here they’re part of the family.”

Six of the cows are milked twice a day, by devotees that have become their friends over the years. And they give an average of 15 gallons per day, which is used to make curd, sweets, and other dishes for New Vrindaban’s residents and temple Deities, Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra.

“Optimally, we would like to have a herd of eight to ten milking cows in their prime, each of whom could yield about six to ten gallons of milk a day,” Ranaka says. “And we plan to gradually increase our overall herd to a sustainable size of just over one hundred, which our barn and other current facilities are already large enough to accommodate. Finally, we aim to re-establish New Vrindaban’s ox teamster program.”

Properly caring for and utilizing oxen is a vital part of ECOV’s cow-protection plan—after all, a balanced approach requires placing equal importance on both the mother and the father of humanity.  “The cow is so wonderful and valuable in society,” Srila Prabhupada wrote to his disciple Kirtanananda in January 1974. “But you should also use the bulls by engaging them in tilling the ground. People may call this the primitive way but it is very practical for engaging the bulls—have them work in cart loading, transporting, etc…”

On a broader level, ECOV is putting infrastructure into place to create a cow protection model that’s sustainable long-term. Part of this is attracting a new generation of cow lovers.

“The devotees that have protected the cows at New Vrindaban for the past forty years, and are still maintaining the program, are now in their late 50’s to 60’s,” says ECOV board-member Chaitanya Mangala. “So we need to attract skilled young families to move here and dedicate themselves to agriculture and cow protection.”

ECOV hopes to do this by helping to provide environmentally-friendly housing, educational facilities for children and adults, and ecological career opportunities for residents to make their livelihood.

ECOV main barn and office

ECOV main barn and office

“We also want to create financial viability, by setting up a cow protection endowment fund,” says Madhava Ghosh, another ECOV board member and long-time cow protection activist. “Since we don’t slaughter cows but support and care for them throughout their entire lives, we can’t hope to compete economically with mainstream farms—so our cow protection must be based on broad community support.”

Ghosh acknowledges that some may wonder how much their small effort would really help, when an ocean of slaughter surrounds us, and millions of cows are being killed around the world every year.

In response, he tells the famous Srimad-Bhagavatam story of the sparrow whose eggs were swept away by the mighty ocean. Rather than despairing, she bravely attempted to dry it up by picking out the water with her tiny beak. When Garuda, the gigantic carrier bird of Lord Vishnu, heard of her determination, he came to help his little sister, and the sparrow’s eggs were returned.

“In the same way, if we put all our heart, soul, and actions into trying to make a difference for Lord Krishna’s beloved cows,” says Madhava Ghosh, “He will surely come to our aid, and wonderful things will happen.”

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