The Stepping Stones to Real Cow Protection
Separating the Rhetoric from the Reality
An Interview with Tapahpunjah Dasa of The Small Farm Training Center
as reported by Bhakta Chris Fici
Q: What about privatization of the food supply? Why can’t householders who own their own farmland grow and sell to the temple?
A: Privatization sounds great on paper but if it’s that simple, why hasn’t some enterprising household couple launched it? As a farmer, I know why…. the vagaries of weather, the short growing season, the costs of labor, the costs of mechanization (if you can’t hire labor), the unpredictability of good help, the deer problem, crop failures. etc.
The only entity who can rebound from these vulnerabilities is the temple. I can name four land owning families in New Vrindaban who courageously attempted to keep a
family cow and failed because it made no economic sense. Had they been subsidized they may have succeeded. The subsidy I’m referring to is not a welfare handout. It’s a compact of trust between the temple management and those devotees inspired to work and live on the land. It’s a subsidy for supporting young devotees who require land and encouragement to get started.
Q: It seems that you’re painting a picture that incorporates both decentralization and guided centralized control. Can the two strategies function simultaneously?
A: Yes, both systems must co-exist. On one hand, we’re energizing the family unit by creating “farmetts.” “We’ll give you a cow, the feed, the bales of hay for winter and you keep the milk to drink and the manure for your garden.” On the other hand, the temple is functioning like a ksatriya landlord, safeguarding the interest of the institution. This is what’s meant by “the stepping stones to real cow protection.” Without the temple acting as a loving, empowering parent, self-sufficient culture will not evolve. Our strategy should be to teach the value of cow protection by first coaching a family in fundamental life support skills, e.g. organic gardening, that culminates in a natural yearning to keep animals..
Q: If subsidized land and living arrangements succeeded as a working model, what would be the positive effects on a rural devotee community?
A: It would have an immediate short term effect of opening up settlement for younger devotees. What a morale booster that would be! Imagine if we could legitimately say that the bhoga used in our college food programs, vegetarian cooking classes, Sunday feasts and offering to the Deities was all grown by devotee hands on devotee worked lands. Right now our reputation as environmentally conscientious people who “walk-their-talk is tarnished by the abuse of the yukta-vairagya principle. .
Q: The yukta-vairagya principle was often cited by Srila Prabhupada to explain his use of modern amenities like airplanes and Dictaphones. How is this concept being abused within ISKCON?
A: Yukta-vairagya has become like a magical wand—just wave it and poof!!.. you’re immunized from anyone questioning environmentally unfriendly management decisions. The philosophical principle of seeing everything as potentially useful in Krishna’s service is beyond reproach. It’s the application that has disgraced us as it applies to self-sufficient living. Besides derailing our preaching, its misuse numbs us to the order of the spiritual master.
Q: As a spokesperson for The Small Farm Training Center, you attend agricultural conferences, speak at universities and host students visiting New Vrindaban. How do they perceive the movement?
A: They see us as quaint …but irrelevant . Instead of being guardians of the mode of goodness, we’re perceived as philosophical chauvinists. I recently spoke at a Quaker high school in Ohio.The students visited New Vrindaban on three occasions last winter and participated in a series of min-workshop presentations ranging from yoga to Deity worship. On their final visit the teacher phoned ahead and asked me if it would be o.k. for the kids to bring their own plates because they objected to eating off of Styrofoam. Trying to change the subject, I asked her what the students thought about subjects like reincarnation and karma. She replied, “ I don’t know, they can’t get past the fact that you serve prasadam on Styrofoam plates…that’s all they talk about.” In the minds of those teenagers, we’re hypocrites.
Q: One unique feature which distinguishes us as more than just secular vegetarians or animal rights activists is the message of cow protection. Are we effectively getting that message across?
A: Cow protection resonates with our Hindu constituency but rings a little hollow with Western people. To use a crude analogy from the card game poker, “it’s not our lead card.” Vegetarianism—and more specifically, vegetarianism guided by spiritual motives—is our lead card. According to the U.S. government’s estimates, 1 out of every 200 adolescents in a America are actively vegetarian. (Center for Disease Control study). That statistic should send ecstatic shivers down the spines of every ISKCON North American temple president. To be honest, we’re a little cow myopic. We need to gradually introduce the value of mother cow rather than philosophically thunking people over the head. For example, connecting a person’s personal health concerns to the environmental health of the Earth’s life support systems is comprehensible compared to evangelically insisting that cows are God’s favorite animal. Preaching directly about cows smacks of elitism because people suspect that your real agenda is converting them into cow loving Hindus. In our rural communities, we make a similar mistake by telling entry level homesteaders to get a milk cow and an ox team. Introducing new people to sustainability by encouraging them to “get a cow” is like introducing a three year old child to bicycle riding by sitting them on a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Q: I’ve sometimes heard you use the phrase, “No spirituality, No sustainability!” when talking to visiting colleges classes. What do you mean by that?
A: The transcendent fact is that there is no such thing as “sustainability” in the material world. Everything is subject to the devastating time factor. The only true sustainability is our relationship with guru and Gauranga. Without a spiritual motivation, however, even the best secular plans reinforce the illusion that the material world is fixable. Our Krishna conscious gift to the worldwide debate on sustainability is the message of transcendence.
Q: You mentioned connecting the dots between spirituality and sustainability. What advise do you have for devotees eager to spread Krishna consciousness through the medium of ecological activism?
A: Be humble and learn to speak the language of environmental kinship. Last February, I conducted a workshop at Penn State University before 100 participants entitled, Bad Karma Is Not Sustainable: Farming As If Your Next Life Depended on It. Many of the attendees were organic meat producers. I started the talk by apologizing. I assured them that my purpose was not to sit in judgment of them. I begged permission to share an ancient secret of sustainability that would have a great impact on their personal destinies. For the next 90 minutes they sat in rapt attention hearing about the soul, the nature of embodiment, karma, and varnashram. I even dared to recite the seven co-conspirators in the killing of an innocent animal. You could hear a pin drop. I felt Srila Prabhupada speaking through me. The point is this: People of all persuasions are saying the same thing: THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM IS SPIRITUAL. Devotees are uniquely qualified by the grace of Srila Prabhupada to define the cause and effect interplay between lost spirituality and world scale environmental degradation. Devotees are uniquely positioned to explain why spirituality should be the motivating force behind care of God’s creation. Because of the clarity and authoritative nature of Srila Prabhupada’s books, we—and only we—can articulate how the laws of karma govern. No one else has that information. What’s missing is a working model.
Q: I’m sure you’re aware that many ISKCON leaders have expressed a renewed interest in farm communities and self sufficiency. At this year’s GBC meetings in Mayapur it will be a key agenda item. What are your thoughts about that?
A: I’m encouraged. Radhanath Swami and Devamrita Swami have been very supportive of how I’m trying to develop The Small Farm Training Center. My hope is that their good intentions translate into inspired capital investment in self-sufficient infrastructure such as greenhouses, root cellars, grain silos and the like. Last summer we began construction on a combination workshop pavilion and wood fired baking oven. Winter wheat is planted and we’re balancing our vegetable production with the growing of grains. New Vrindaban is Srila Prabhupada’s first farm. We have land, labor , management and plenty of vision. What’s missing is capital. Capital is the lubricant which makes it all flow like nectar towards Lord Krishna’s lotus feet.