Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics – Interview with Kenneth Valpey

Kenneth R Valpey’s book Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics (Read it here: 2020_Book_CowCareInHinduAnimalEthics (1)) turns experience into literature, seamlessly bridging the old with the new. The experiences Kenneth went through as a ‘Hare Krishna’ monk in Bavaria in South-east Germany and then in his trips to India are interspersed in this book about Indian traditions - both imagined and lived.   

All of us in India live shoulder to shoulder with cows. But Kenneth has watched, interacted and bonded with them more than many of us. Kenneth constructs his book with stories which we are all familiar with but with added compassion imbibed from his guru. “I write from a position of liminality: Western in background and culture, as a young man adopting ways and ideas generally labeled “Hindu” and, more specifically, “Vaishnava,” later (re-)entering the academy to study my adopted tradition from scholarly perspectives.”

He grew up in suburban America, and his connection with cows, Kenneth says “was almost exclusively through drinking their milk—delivered to our door in glass bottles—and in eating their meat at supper.” It all changed when as a monk he began to have a “growing awareness of cows as beings with lives of their own. Those twenty-odd cows were to be cared for their entire natural lives—a practice introduced in a few nascent Western Krishna farm communities by their founder, my spiritual guide, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Cows became, therefore, part of our lives, an important reason why we lived as we did, pursuing an ideal of “plain living and high thinking.”

Kenneth’s book is part of the Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics book series and interprets “cow care” (the practice of keeping and caring for cows throughout their natural lives, translating the Sanskrit and Hindi term go-seva) “by observing cows (and occasionally brushing them or offering them snacks), observing and listening to those with experience caring for cows, conversing with cow care activists and colleagues, reading and thinking a lot - these have been my ways of learning about, being moved by, caring about, my subject.”

He provides direct accounts of four intentional communities inspired by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada dedicated to the well-being of the cow: Mayapur Chandrolaya Mandir in West Bengal, New Vraja Dhama in Hungary, Bhaktivedanta Manor in London, and Govardhan Eco Village in Maharashtra. 

Edwin Bryant, Professor of Hinduism, Rutgers University, USA writes about the book: A thoroughly researched and most timely book analyzing the placement of the cow throughout Hindu culture, and its potential role in human well-being more broadly. While the growing Western animal rights movement is primarily based in human-centric concerns, and the protection of animals objectified and valued in terms of benefits to human health, diet, ecology and environment, Valpey introduces us to the notion of the cow as subject and as citizen in its own right. Using traditional as well as modern theoretical frames of references, Valpey leads us to the inexorable conclusion that the welfare of human civilization and cow protection are inextricably linked.”  

CSP conducted an interview with Kenneth Valpey this week trying to understand his motivation for writing this which he worked hard to make available for free through Common Access. 

How did you come to this research? What was your first introduction to Indian culture?

I first met some Hare Krishna members in Berkeley, California in 1969. Eventually I interrupted my studies and became an active missionary with ISKCON. Nearly 23 years later, I went back to University and completed my studies in Oxford. I have been involved in the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies since 1999, when I started studying there.

About six or seven years ago, I was invited to give a talk at the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics and that is when my interest especially was awakened to the topic of Animal Ethics and Hinduism. The director of that center is Professor Andrew Linzey, a wonderful person and scholar. He invited me to contribute a monograph to the Animal Ethics series in 2017. Initially, I was not so keen as I had other ongoing projects. But, at his persistence, I had an idea to focus specifically on Cow Care and he was completely happy with that suggestion. 

My interest has also been philosophical because I have been exposed to the Bhagavad Gita since all those years and there is I would say a key statement in Chapter 5 of the Gita, a wise person, a pandit sees with equal vision “samadarsh” - all living beings. I have always been struck by that. [A learned brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, or a ‘dog-eater’—a wise person sees [them all] with equal vision” (Gita 5.18)]. 

(In his book Kenneth writes:  “..arguably for most Hindus, consciousness indicates personhood as a fundamental category of reality; in contrast, designations such as “Hindu” and “cow” are of a secondary order, of identities that do not endure. Seeing equally means seeing all creatures as conscious beings who, depending on the particular bodies they occupy, exhibit varying degrees of the potential for full, enduring personhood. The implications of this worldview for animal ethics are considerable.”)

Your writing is very academic and scholarly. You left college in between and came back. What has influenced the writing - is it your life experience, or an academic journey into the subject, or is it your spiritual journey? 

(Smiles) I will take it as a compliment. I was concerned because I knew this is an academic publisher which means that everything you write (if it is going to be published) will be peer reviewed. So, I knew, I had to have proper standards in that regard. But, as I have said in the introduction,  I am also personally involved in the subject and I hope I brought some of that flavor into it.

How does your research address modern trends in cuisine and people's preferences towards one kind of food or the other. In India, decisions about eating or not eating meat are made not just for health reasons. It is also not about the inhuman treatment of animals. How will the West relate to respecting an animal for itself rather than for what it provides or work that it does?

Good question. I would say there is an increasing number of people awake to this dimension. Therefore this center for Animal ethics has a considerable presence. I am speaking in the Academic Universe.

The fact that such an institution exists in the West and incidentally, the director Andrew Linzey is himself completely sympathetic and very interested in Asian traditions. But, he himself is a Christian Minister. As a Christian priest he has been writing extensively several articles arguing that people are mis-understanding Christian theology with regard to diet. Such discourse means that this issue is opening up significantly. There is even a wider area called Animal Studies. Now there are departments and programmes in different universities on this topic.

Of course, in popular culture, there has been the impact of Vegetarianism which has mixed motivations no doubt, with a lot of it simply being about health. But  I think, there is an increasing number of people who are questioning the ethics of eating meat and so the Vegan movement in the West has become very vocal and surprisingly successful and this is to a large extent tied in with a concern about treatment of animals. 

I have met some people who are identified very much with the Vegan movement whose main concern is not just about eating animals but also about the use of animals for work. The more extreme Vegans say we should not be engaging bulls or horses in work as it is exploitative. So, there are these different extremes. 

I guess what I am trying to do in this book is that I am addressing the Vegans and saying that they have some very good points but there is no need to go to that extreme. It would be better If we understand relationships as we would say according to Dharma.

A common observation has been that in India, because it has been a pasteural and agricultural society, the cow especially was given a prefered status in society. Apart from the spiritual or the religious connotations it is also so in a very practical way because of the connection with the land. Does your research second this?

That is a common position that has been argued by some anthropologists especially, but it is also contested and debates kind of go back and forth. My own conclusion is you cannot separate life in terms of just economic arrangements for an agrarian society and what we now call ‘religious’ dimension. Of course, the term religion is an import from the west which makes everything complicated.

Why did you choose the Cow from a vast range of animals that are revered in India?

One reason was because as you probably know Dr Nanditha Krishna has written a wonderful book already on Sacred Animals of India and I thought there is no need to rewrite that book. I can say that I had a personal interest too. My own guru  was very concerned to establish farm communities which would include cows to be integral to farming and he wanted to do it  not just in India but also in the West. There have been attempts, some successful and some not. All relatively small scale. I wanted to follow this direction. What I felt was there was a need within our own society - ISKCON - to have a bigger intellectual foundation for developing what we are trying to do. I thought my book was one step in that process.

The more I did research, the more I knew how much I did not know. Especially on the practical and economic side - there are so many aspects to Cow Care. Getting back to why cows - as I mentioned in the book it is not just about the cows. The ethical foundation is the idea that all living beings, all life  is sacred. 

Why cows? I think this was nicely answered well by Mahatma Gandhi. I can’t give the exact quote. But essentially - Through care for cows, humans will realize the proper relationship with all the other creatures. 

(Kenneth adds in his book: The “less than ideal” reasons are nonetheless reasons for privileging cows: living cows do provide substances that humans benefit from, and this fact cannot and need not be ignored. One reason for singling out cows for special attention has little to do with Hinduism as such, and more to do with soil. Healthy, well-cared-for cows (and ruminants more generally) and healthy soil go together; the opposite is also true, and the misuse and abuse of cows have accelerated degradation of soil throughout our planet, leading to expanding—indeed runaway—desertification. Another important sacred text of Hindus, the Bhagavata Purana, seems to acknowledge this relationship when it identifies earth with cow and, in other texts, the dung of cows—which is extremely nourishing to soil—with Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune.

He adds: As a wide-ranging overview focused on cows, my aim is to make a case for cow care in particular and to set this case within a viable animal ethics discourse framework. I will be attentive to the practical challenges involved in cow care practice while questioning the current dominant instrumentalist and extractive economics of agribusiness that blinds us to the possibility of a different vision, a vision we may loosely call traditional. What I offer here are some rudiments of a vision of balance, as suggested by the Indic word dharma, and of interspecies care, as suggested by the Indic word bhakti.)

What I see is the close association of cows with  Bhumi devi and in that relationship in the sense it's through Gomatha that humans learn proper relationships with  Bhumi devi. 

The word Go also has a connotation with light.

Yes, It has a whole spectrum of meanings - light. I mentioned in the book (I referred to another scholar). In the Rig veda, cow is referred to indian 700 times mainly with the word “Go” and with others as well.

In Chapter 2, I offer a diachronic literary overview of relevant texts, beginning with the earliest known work, the collection of hymns known as Rigveda. Continuing with relevant references in later Vedic, post-Vedic, and classical Sanskrit works—the philosophically reflective Upanishads, the epic narrative Mahabharata, and the preeminent work of the Purana (ancient lore) genre, the Bhagavata Purana—we then touch on vernacular pre-modern and present-day literature. What emerges from this survey are two sorts of polarity—one of values, ranging between the Indic terms dharma and bhakti, and the second polarity one of meaning, ranging between literal and figurative understanding. These two polarities converge in the Sanskrit term artha, which indicates both value and meaning. Thus, cows as living beings and “cow” as a concept converge as a central locus of thought and action that strives for ethical integrity in all aspects of human life.

What are the implications of such research in modern times? Do you think we need to do more or  just take the texts for what they tell us?

I think any research is valuable. There has been quite a bit of research being done in India on products of the cow. Those who do the research need to learn what are the standards of rigorous and scientific research. It's not so easy. Double blind research and so on.  Just to set up a proper experiment can be very expensive. This also raises questions about the relationship between that form of knowledge and what is sometimes called ‘folk knowledge’ in a somewhat dismissive way. These are ongoing issues. 

Did you have any connections with Ayurveda which recommends using ghee and other cow products? 

Speaking of that, I was fortunate to spend a few days with one young man  who came from a family which goes back to five generations of Ayurvedic vaidyas. We visited one Go-Raksha project where they were producing Ayurvedic medicines and selling. As soon as we arrived there, he looked at the cows and said they were not being fed properly. The owners were saying they were making good medicines from Gomutra but were not taking care of the cows. He said if ‘you simply fertilize the earth with the products of the cow, and eat the products of the earth that has been grown in that soil then you will not need the medicines.’

You mention in your book four places where you studied Cow Care. Were those experiences very different?

They were very different in terms of scale especially. I mentioned Pathmeda which is one of the largest in India in South West Rajasthan and because of the scale. Each one had its own challenges. What I found in common I would say, perhaps I was fortunate or limited in this way,  in all the four places I went, the managers were extremely dedicated to their projects and had great faith in cows and they were there because they had a deep conviction that cows are very special. They would tell me, ‘Cows are not just animals. They are practically divinity’. That I found in common but the particular conditions that each of them were working with were all very different. 

Was this devotion only to the Desi variety of cows. Most of these Goshalas now have foreign breeds.

That was fairly true with most of those that I spoke to. They did have a very strong feeling that  Indian indegenous cows are the desirable breeds and so called “desi cows' '. It wasn't exclusively so. I met different extremes. Some were saying we only care about desi cows. One person I met in Gujarat was only breeding Gir cows. In Pathmeda, it is a rescue program which means taking cows of mixed breed. The good side is that the pure indegenous breeds are really wonderful- you just kind of fall in love with them as soon as you see them. The Tharparkar cows are so beautiful with their big horns and they each have their special characteristics and I think it's wonderful when those breeds are being preserved.

What were the outcomes that you expected from the book? Did you have an objective of a slight change of people's perception in terms of turning to vegetarianism or taking cognizance of this beautiful animal more or learning more about Indian traditions? Was there something at the back of your mind?

I am really not interested in any royalties for the book and so I managed to do crowd funding to manage the cost of open access and it is not cheap. But, I managed. According to the publishers’ website, it has been eleven months since the book came out; now  we have 35,000 downloads and I am happy that somebody is reading it. I am still waiting to get more reactions to the book. I am waiting for the critics - Who do you think you are? But, the hope is even as an academic book, it will have a trickle down effect and eventually more people will see that this is a serious thing. 

Ignorance of the traditions of India has to be changed, in the West. I am hoping this can be one brick in the structure to build this change in understanding. I know one book is not going to do a whole lot. But,  if it will inspire other scholars to then write and that can lead to others speaking about it and a person such as your good self to write, then it is a success.