What you choose to eat may be the most consistent and consequential interaction you have with your environment.
Hindu teachings present our environment as not just a physical space, but a spiritual one of great consequence. Our interactions with the environment, living and nonliving, determine our next birth, according to the doctrine of karma. This is part of the reason that some Hindus may choose a vegetarian lifestyle as an expression of ahimsa. A meatless diet is also helpful in cultivating sattva, a subtle mental impression of goodness, because it minimizes harm to animals and the environment.
But, if you are passionate about practicing ahimsa and embracing more sattvic living, being vegetarian might not be enough in our modern world. In America, the majority of dairy products we buy from stores are produced through factory farming. Factory farming flagrantly violates ahimsa on at least four levels: it crams vast numbers of livestock together in unsanitary and restrictive conditions, it manipulates the natural cycle of a cow’s body through artificial hormone injection and insemination, it destroys the relationship between a mother cow and her calf by separating them a few hours after birth, and it has detrimental effects on the planet due to its contribution to deforestation, increased methane emissions, and strain on land and water resources. On top of that, other animal-based industries are fueled by the dairy industry. For instance, since male calves are not useful for the purposes of milk production, industrial dairy farms make a hefty profit from selling male calves to veal manufacturers. For any vegetarian, it’s one thing to come to terms with the fact that your money is going towards an industry that uses violent practices to mass-produce dairy—it’s another when you recognize that you are inadvertently fueling the meat industry. In light of these realities, it is difficult to maintain that dairy consumption is still sattvic. Thus, abstaining from dairy may be an option to consider to more fully realize ahimsa and sattva.
Of course, no form of human sustenance is possible without causing some form of suffering to other living entities. One Hindu practice to counteract the violence caused by dairy production is to offer one’s food to God; the act of offering signifies that the food is no longer merely for personal enjoyment, hence one is freed from the karmic reactions associated with it and the cow receives benefit for its service to God.
Another option is one provided by a growing number of cow protection projects that are led by individuals who have felt compelled to put their Hindu values into practice. The Gita Nagari Yoga Farm in Port Royal, Pennsylvania maintains a peaceful community of 66 cows and oxen. Pennsylvania has an additional cow protection farm in Stroudsburg, the Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary, which has 17 cows. Both these projects have created sustainable systems where the cows can be taken care of for their entire lives, not just when it is profitable. For those who live on the Northeast or within shipping distance, the Gita Nagari farm ships milk and other dairy products. While these milk products might be more expensive, you are not only paying for nutritious, hormone-free dairy, but for the lifelong care of the cow who provided you with her milk. In addition to the two mentioned above, there are several smaller projects across the United States where cows are being taken care of alongside temple communities or by individual families.
As American Hindus, this issue clearly resonates with us. As a demographic group, we have strong interconnected communities and are all bound by a unique spirituality that galvanizes us to take action for the betterment of our societies. Let us take notice of the work that our peers are doing on the ground to implement cow protection programs and cruelty free milk production. We can learn from them and contribute in a multitude of ways. These organizations require the development of practical economic models that can support both milk production and lifetime cow protection; they require individuals who can advertise the importance of ahimsa dairy practices to investors, policy makers, and civil society; and they require voluntary help and financial support.
Which approach one chooses may boil down to the extent of power they believe is vested in their personal choice. Hindu practice should constantly strive to most authentically express the essence of its teachings. The complexity of Hindu teachings support a variety of responses to the injustices of the dairy industry. Dairy does hold a cherished, sacred role in traditional Hindu culture, but can we ignore the cycle of oppression and violence it produces today?
This is a guest post by Brinda Raval, a junior pre-medical student at Sarah Lawrence College, currently studying abroad at the University of Oxford. She’s involved in campus interfaith engagement, is a UN Youth Representative for the Bhumi Project, and actively seeks ways to put the principles of her Hindu faith into practice.
This article is part of a content-sharing collaboration between Hindu American Foundation and Bhumi Project highlighting how Hindu philosophy and understandings about the environment is being put into practice.