A look at fifty years of cow protection at ISKCON first farm community.
By Satyaraja Dasa
Archival research by Chaitanya Mangala Dasa
From the inception of ISKCON’s first farm community, Srila Prabhupada directed that cow protection be one of its core concerns.
“I offer my respectful obeisances to the Supreme Absolute Truth, Krishna, who is the well-wisher of the cows and the brahmanas as well as the living entities in general. I offer my repeated obeisances to Govinda, who is the pleasure reservoir for all the senses.” (Vishnu Purana 1.19.65)
In this verse and throughout the Vedic literature, cows are honored as being worthy of the Lord’s special attention, on a par with brahmanas, Vedic society’s spiritually astute priests and intellectuals. Of course, the Lord is a well-wisher to all, which is also noted in this verse, but cows and brahmanas are given favored consideration.
“In modern human society,” Prabhupada writes, “spiritual knowledge is neglected, and cow killing is encouraged. It is to be understood, then, that human society is advancing in the wrong direction and is clearing the path to its own condemnation. A civilization which guides the citizens to become animals in their next lives is certainly not a human civilization.” (Gita 14.16, Purport) And the Mahabharata (Anushasana-parva 51.32) states: “That country or nation where cows are protected and live without fear of slaughter becomes exalted and the sins of that country are washed away.”
For this reason, among others, cow protection is a recurring theme in India’s ancient wisdom texts, and, apropos of that, Prabhupada included it as an integral part of his Krishna consciousness movement.
Right from the beginning, when incorporating the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1966, he listed one of the Society’s purposes as the need to bring members closer together for a “simpler and more natural way of life.” Vedic texts encourage village life, which includes cow protection, self-sufficiency, and living close to the land. Prabhupada was thus pleased in 1968 when his disciples found land in West Virginia that would lend itself to, in Prabhupada’s words, “simple living and high thinking.”
“You have New York, New England, and so many ‘New’ duplicates of European countries in the USA,” he wrote to his disciple Hayagriva Dasa. “Why not import New Vrindaban in your country?” Thus a farm community was established in America that would simulate Krishna’s holy land in India: The old Vrindavan of the East would now manifest as New Vrindaban of the West.
Part I: New Vrindaban and Cow Protection
Even before the West Virginia farmland was officially leased, Prabhupada made it clear in letters that cow protection should be one of the community’s central concerns: “Therefore the special feature of New Vrindaban will be cow protection, and by doing so, we shall not be the loser.” He even cited Krishna’s own actions in this regard: “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 thus gave cow protection high priority.
His vision for New Vrindaban was not vague. He saw it as a natural environment wherein one could cultivate Krishna consciousness and live happily in the here and now.
“My idea of developing New Vrindaban is to create an atmosphere of spiritual life where people in the bona fide order of social division, namely, Brahmacaris, Grhasthas, Vanaprasthas, Sannyasis, or specifically Brahmacaris and Sannyasis, and Vanaprasthas, will live there independently, completely depending on agricultural produce and milk from the cows.”
His intention was to recreate specific areas of traditional Vrindavan so that devotees living in his farm community could remember Krishna more easily. For example, the hilly areas, reminiscent of Govardhana Hill, would be so named: “And the hilly portions may be named as Govardhana. Govardhana-side, the pasturing grounds for the cows may be allotted.”
By 1969, after a year of devotees acclimating themselves to the area’s notoriously rough winters, the first cow was purchased. Prabhupada named her Kaliya (“black”), since she was a black Jersey with a white mark on her forehead (like Vaishnava tilaka). With her arrival he congratulated his fledgling disciples for properly developing his New Vrindaban community, taking the opportunity to reiterate the project’s purpose in relation to cows: “The basic principle of our life in Vrindaban will be cow keeping. If we can keep cows sufficiently and grow our necessary foodstuffs, then we shall show a new way of life to your countrymen.”
The first devotees to become involved in New Vrindaban’s cow-protection program were the husband-and-wife team Paramananda Dasa and Satyabhama Dasi. Ranadhira Dasa, too, distinguished himself by his dedication to New Vrindaban’s cows. These devotees – and others who followed, such as Ambarisha Dasa, who offered a decade of his life to nurturing New Vrindaban’s herds – worked diligently to develop the farmland and care for their bovine friends, much as Krishna’s cowherd friends did some five thousand years ago.
Prabhupada came to New Vrindaban in May of 1969 and stayed for a full month. Drinking Kaliya’s fresh milk, Prabhupada commented that he hadn’t tasted milk like that in fifty years.
“Ranadhir parades our cow Kaliya before him,” writes Hayagriva in his book The Hare Krishna Explosion. “Prabhupada admires her but doesn’t pet her. ‘We don’t have such fatty cows in India,’ he says. ‘In days past, yes, but now no one can feed them nicely. That is the way the Vedas calculate a man’s wealth – in cows and grains.'”
A few paragraphs later, Hayagriva continues: “The honey is from nearby,” Kirtanananda says. “It’s tulip honey. Maybe next year we can get a hive.”
“Then you will have the land of milk and honey complete,” Prabhupada says. “That is nature’s design, that everything is given complete for a happy life. We don’t require artificial amenities. All we need to realize Krishna is here.”
A month after visiting New Vrindaban, Prabhupada wrote to the devotees there:
I am always thinking of your New Vrindaban. The first thing I find in the taste of the milk. The milk which we are taking here is not at all comparable with New Vrindaban milk. Anyway, there must be a gulf of difference between city life and country life. As poet Cowper said, “Country is made by God, and city is made by man.” Therefore, my special request is that you should try to maintain as many cows as possible in your New Vrindaban.
By the fall of 1972, the time of Prabhupada’s second visit to New Vrindaban, the project had matured considerably. “I can see that Krishna is giving you more and more facility for developing this New Vrindaban scheme,” he wrote after the visit. “So this is very nice. I am very pleased that you have acquired some more cows.” At this time Prabhupada highlighted the importance of bulls as well: “The cow is so wonderful and valuable in society, but you should also use the bulls by engaging them in tilling the ground.”
Tillage then took place in abundance. Many devotees began to join New Vrindaban village, and for those so inclined, digging, stirring, and overturning rich soil became a daily endeavor. Ox-powered tilling, along with human shoveling, picking, hoeing, and raking, developed side-by-side with study of scripture, worship of Sri Sri Radha-Krishna, and intense chanting. The combination helped devotees blossom materially and spiritually. The New Vrindaban farm-folk used both animal-powered and mechanized plowing methods, as well as rototillers, cultipackers, and so on. Small-scale gardening and farming developed and grew, resulting in more sophisticated methods for nurturing the land – and taking care of the cows.
Prabhupada came again in 1974, but this time for a short stay. Still, it was important for him to stop there on his world tour, for he saw it as one of his most important projects and wanted to encourage the devotees to develop it further. In fact, he deemed it such a great success that when other disciples, that same year, purchased three hundred acres in central Pennsylvania, he dubbed it Gita-nagari, “the village where the Bhagavad-gita is sung and lived,” and modeled it on New Vrindaban.
He was proud of what the devotees had accomplished, and he wrote to his New Vrindaban leaders again and again: “I was very pleased to hear your report of our cow protection program, and I had part of your letter read aloud to a group of devotees how you have one cow who will be giving 70-80 pounds a day.” “Regarding New Vrindaban I was very happy when I was there.” “Not only myself but all devotees and GBC members all enjoyed the atmosphere of New Vrindaban, especially the cow protection scheme.” “In the beginning when Hayagriva purchased, I immediately gave him the idea of New Vrindaban cow protection. On the whole our New Vrindaban scheme is successful.”
When Prabhupada came back in 1976, his fourth and final visit, he was pleased to see a substantial increase in working oxen and over 150 cows yielding 120 gallons of milk every day. The devotees were growing their own fruits and vegetables and developing beautiful flower gardens. New Vrindaban was making great strides toward self-sufficiency, in line with Prabhupada’s desire.
During that final visit, Prabhupada toured the now expanded property, with all the simple living, high thinking features of his transcendental village set out before him. He and some two dozen leading disciples walked to the original farmhouse, now on the other side of what had become a tremendous series of interconnected farms – all joined together under one rubric: New Vrindaban.
The rustic atmosphere pleased Prabhupada, reminding him of Vrindavan, India – and Vrindavana in the spiritual world – where Krishna sports with His cowherd boyfriends and dances with His loving gopis.
As the devotees made their way through farm fields, their feet soothed by early-morning dew, Prabhupada noticed a familiar sight amid a team of oncoming bovines: an elderly black cow, obviously the matriarch of the herd. It was Kaliya. Prabhupada smiled. He recognized his friend from seven years earlier, when he had first visited New Vrindaban. Kaliya’s presence, health, and sweet disposition were indeed a sign of true success.
Part II: New Vrindaban Today
After Prabhupada’s departure from this world, New Vrindaban continued to grow. While there were serious periods of soul-searching and even decline – as when Kirtanananda Swami defected, causing nearly fatal set-backs for the community, especially in the early 1990s – the ’80s was a decade of popularity and enrichment, with Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, built by the dedicated devotees who gave decades of their lives to New Vrindaban, becoming a major tourist attraction. (See my article in BTG’s May/June 2016 issue.) New Vrindaban village has realized its potential in numerous ways.
Chiefly, Prabhupada mandated five components for New Vrindaban, and they have been developing ever since: (1) cow protection, (2) simple living, (3) spiritual education, (4) holy pilgrimage, (5) and loving Krishna. These five goals have been the focus from the beginning and continue to develop as ISKCON’s first transcendental village comes of age. (See my article in last year’s Jan/Feb issue.)
Regarding cow protection, by 1981 there were 250 cows in the herd (and the devotees harvested 100 acres of corn, other vegetables, and fruits). Each year, in fact, seemed to show progress, even if the community’s cow population would also know periodic downward slopes, often due to fluctuation in manpower.
Still, in 1982 the cow population increased to 300, and the following year to nearly 400. By 1985 Govardhan Dairy was born, establishing sophisticated means for milking many cows at once. This enterprise lasted over a decade, eventually morphing into ECO-Vrindaban, responsible for cow protection in New Vrindaban from 1998 to the present.
ECO-V is an organized effort that looks after around 900 New Vrindaban acres. It focuses mostly on managing four of New Vrindaban’s farmsteads: Nandagram, Bahulaban, the Community Garden and Milking Barn near Sri-Sri Radha–Vrindaban-Chandra’s temple, and the Valley Barn area. The 168-acre Nandagram farm alone, acquired about two years ago, is now home to part of ECO-V’s vegetable production, twenty retired cows, and its ongoing ox program.
“There are excellent ox-training facilities there, including roads, forests, and a large barn,” says Nitaichandra Dasa, an ECO-V worker. “We have six young oxen in our training program. They are currently pulling logs and learning their commands. They’ll soon be dragging the field for two acres of winter wheat – the first time they’ve been out in the field, which is pretty exciting.”
In New Vrindaban, cows are always front and center. In 1972, Srila Prabhupada started a cow-adoption program there and became its first patron by paying for the purchase of five cows. The program has far-reaching implications for those who can’t live in New Vrindaban or in an ashram environment.
By adopting a cow, one can offer needed support for the cows and the devotees who render hands-on service to them. Indeed, the adopted cow virtually becomes a part of one’s family, and one can keep track of how the cow is being taken care of. This support also connects the donor with Krishna, who is always pleased to see when someone nurtures His cows.
With Adopt a Cow and similar programs, New Vrindaban seemed unstoppable. But temporary setbacks occurred. If the 1980s bestowed great riches and progress in New Vrindaban, the 1990s largely took them away, for reasons briefly mentioned. The cows and the farmland continued to be cared for – and the bovine population was looked after throughout the creatures’ natural lives – but the herd size gradually reduced, and New Vrindaban, for a short period, became a shadow of its former self.
Even in the 1990s, however, certain projects continued to show promise and eventually bore fruit. For example, the International Society for Cow Protection (ISCOWP) had its headquarters in New Vrindaban for over twenty years, starting in 1995, before relocating to Florida in 2015. ISCOWP’s primary concern is to “present alternatives to agricultural and dietary practices that support and depend upon the meat and dairy industries’ slaughter of innocent animals.”
With the twenty-first century, New Vrindaban is back on the ISKCON map, with devotee support from around the world. Old stalwarts resurfaced, and new devotees began to lend a hand. By 2008 the village restarted its breeding program, and all the cows and oxen were well cared for. ECO-V started the Protected Cow Dairy Initiative, allowing New Vrindaban to move toward dairy self-sufficiency. With such promise, the community hopes to quickly grow to where it once was, and beyond.
Moving Toward the Future
While this humble devotee village once reached a height of caring for nearly five hundred cows, it was unprepared for that responsibility. Now, with the mature hindsight of trial and error, the devotees are gradually and responsibly moving forward. By 2018 some sixty cows were in the herd. Eight milking cows now produce approximately thirty-four gallons of milk a day. And every week, Ananda Vidya Dasa transforms extra milk into fifteen pounds of butter, fifteen gallons of yogurt, half a gallon of ghee, and two “wheels” (8″ x 3 1/2″) of Colby cheese.
New Vrindaban’s cowherds are eager to see upcoming generations get involved, and they work hard to share their considerable know-how and dedication with anyone who shows interest. Indeed, as New Vrindaban gains momentum in this new millennium, looking forward to its next fifty years, a revolution in consciousness cannot be far behind.