The Sacred Cow

At an early age I went with my elder sister to visit the house of one of the only Indian families in our entire neighbourhood. She took me into one of their rooms and showed me a picture of a cow hung on the wall. She then said "they worship the cow". As a young boy I didn't quite know what to think. "Odd" was perhaps the only thought that came to my mind.

Today, more that thirty years later as a Hindu convert myself, I have been under great pressure to explain the importance of cows in our tradition to people who quite naturally think it's all really quite odd.

Over three days that began from the 11th December I made the determined effort to protect the life of a cow called Gangotri and failed. Gangotri was a thirteen years old and was part of a herd that live and serve in a sanctuary for cows at Bhaktivedanta Manor Temple. She like the other cows provided milk, butter, yogurt and ghee for the temple monks. The products of the cow are integral ingredients in the rituals of worship at the temple and are a large part of the diet for the vegetarian monks. In that respect the cow has both religious merits and practical relevance in our faith. In one of our scriptures it says that for religious performances you simply require a cow and a priest and all good things can be accomplished.

At the temple the monks live in harmony with all the animals. It's a bit like an extended family and because the cow generously supplies her milk to nourish us she is regarded as mother. And as the oxen pull the plough and do all the hard work of the farm they are regarded as father. In simple the understanding is that those who nourish us are mother and those who maintain us are father. Sometimes we hear about the earth being referred to as mother, it's basically the same idea.

In Hinduism animals are also believed to have eternal souls, just as we do. They exhibit all the same symptoms of life and as they don't run on batteries, it's concluded that it's the presence of the soul that's giving them life.

Living in such harmony and inter-dependency with animals and nature the relationships at the temple enter deep into the heart. In such an environment respect and love for all creatures becomes a natural reality. Those animals which work and provide for us are all given the guarantee of a lifetime of care and protection. It is forbidden to kill them, especially the cow. It is absolutely forbidden to kill a cow, even for non vegetarian Hindus. Her gifts make her an auspicious creature and to kill her brings great tragedy.

When Gangotri was unable to stand due to an accident with the bull she was being cared for by the monks under the supervision of two vets. Her quality of life was positive and her suffering due to pressure sores was not unnecessary or excessive. Daily she was brushed, fed and cared for. Gangotri had a great appetite, a strong determination to live and lapped up all the attention. In the last month she had managed to stand up on several occassions.

On the 13th December an RSPCA inspector in uniform turned up at the temple, read one of our monks his rights and gave him an unofficial notice stating that Gangotri was suffering and should be immediately killed by lethal injection. When informed of the situation I met the officer and asked him if he understood that he was in a temple suggesting that Hindu monks kill a cow and that such a demand would have immense repercussions and was highly insensitive. The inspector began to grasp the situation to some degree and left the temple, leaving us with his notice. That afternoon I made countless calls to the RSPCA trying to get hold of an official and I also called our MPs. Finally a Mr Tim Wass, RSPCA Superintendent spoke to me and for over an hour I endeavored to say that the circumstances in this case were exceptional and that Tim himself should come and visit us. The next day Tim did turn up with two RSPCA inspectors and two local police men. Not quite the chat that I was expecting, but anyway he came.

Over the next hour or so I presented the religious and humane reasons that forbade us to kill cows in our faith tradition. In essence the reasons were:

  • We respect animals and just as we wouldn't kill other people because they are suffering, we don't kill our cows, pets or other animals.
  • In response to suffering we offer treatment and loving care not death
  • We are forbidden to kill cows in our scriptures
  • Suffering is unavoidable, we all face it and for eternal souls entangled within a material world the act of killing their physical bodies doesn't end their suffering. All that happens is that the untimely death of the body we inhabit takes place and we are forced to then take our suffering into the next life with us, rather than it running it's natural course to conclusion in this present life.
  • Killing expands the cycle of suffering and implicates those involved.

After hearing me out I was then offered an options by Tim who stated "Don't worry I will never ask you to kill your cow, I will do it for you".

By this time the police understood this was no small matter and insisted that the temple be given time and space to take legal advice and thus be able to fairly challenge the demands of the RSPCA officer. The police were very concerned for good community relations. Our meeting ended on that note and it was the common understanding of those present including the police that there would be no immediate or radical action. We then gave everyone a tour of the temple and vegetarian snacks to take away.

The next morning as the monks were engaged in temple worship, the RSPCA and local police came onto to the temple property without due warning or any form of notification. They proceeded straight to the farm and killed Gangotri, leaving her dead body in public view and a community of monks and congregation it utter shock. Exiting the cow shed they announced "it is done".

Our community are today still in shock and feeling very vulnerable. We have only now understood that the RSPCA is a charity and as such has no powers. In a country where 2.5 million cows are killed routinely for food I tried to save one unsuccessfully.

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