On a cold December morning, while a thin fog clung to the air with spidery fingers, I pulled my wrap closer around me and burrowed into its warmth as I walked the dusty track out of town. I was in Vrindavan for a week-long retreat. I had been looking forward to the opportunity, and had no intention of going anywhere: no day trips, no social outings, nothing. I was here to spend time with friends I hadn’t seen for many years, and maybe sit at some quiet temples and chant peacefully (well, one can dream…). It was going to be a well-earned break, a peaceful, solitary week on my own—or so I thought. I had no idea what was about to happen, though: my life would change, and it would be one tiny, broken, chocolate-coloured, nameless calf who would be the catalyst.
As I wandered down that dusty trail at dawn, I approached two tall iron gates. I stepped in and took in the scene: a peaceful, clean yard, divided down the middle by a brick wall covered with a mix of cow dung and mud; haysheds, cowsheds, and fenced yards at the back, all washed with the same mixture, which gave a finish that was both pleasing to the eye and purifying to the atmosphere. It was the home of Care For Cows; the man literally behind the cowshed, Kurma Rupa, was a devotee of Krishna and a long-term resident of Vrindavan. He had set up this cow hospice where abandoned and injured cows, calves, and bulls could come for shelter and medical aid.
It felt good in that yard: the smell was country-fresh, a smell of cows, hay, cow dung, and all things good and clean. Over the brick wall, an empty yard that later in the day would house around ninety full-grown cows and bulls was at present the roaming ground of a solitary, huge grey bull named Baba. In the distance, through the hayshed, I could see a fenced area at whose gate stood about twenty young cows and bulls, all under a year old, all too little to mingle with the grown ups. I would later refer to this area as “the playpen,” but for now, it was just the cowyard, and its inhabitants were curious about my arrival.
You might wonder if I’m just some bleeding-heart cow-lover who’s trying to campaign for some mistreated cows. Well, sure I’m a cow-lover, almost by default: I’m a devotee of Krishna, the original cowherd boy. What’s not to love about a God who loves cows? So many of this country’s ancient scriptures and writings refer to the cows and their relationship with Krishna:
"Krishna’s entire body is covered with the fine dust raised by the hooves of calves, and He carries a flute tucked into the dhoti tied around His waist. His mellifluous voice captivates all the cows."
(Stava Mala, Rupa Goswami, ca 1550)
And there I was, standing in a cowyard, knowing that despite the fact that the most holy site, a body of water named Radha-kunda, was a few miles away; or that a proliferation of temples of Krishna surrounded me, or any other number of “holy” surroundings or sites that covered every inch of the landscape, still I was standing in the right place, the best place, the only place I wanted to be: right amongst the cows. Vrindavan is in the district of Braja Mandala, meaning the circle (mandala) of pasturing grounds (braja). Unfortunately, due to the expansion of Vrindavan and the hold that greedy land-owners have on the town, there are no pasturing grounds left for the cows, and they are forced to forage amongst rubbish piles and along the streets for food. Just like little Kamala, who was pushed into traffic by a hungrier, and bigger, bull.
Yet like my darling chocolate broken calf, little Kamala, whose story we began with, also has a happy ending
Care For Cows doesn’t just heal patients like Kamala and Pushpa—it gives them a home for life. They’re not returned to the streets once they’re well to suffer the same fate. When they grow, they spend their days on a few acres of borrowed land not far from the Care For Cows yard. In the afternoons, they return to the yard that Baba occupies alone in the mornings—he was also a victim of a broken leg in his youth, and is retired to the yard. There they are fed well, brushed, and housed at night, warm together under blankets in the cold winter nights, sheltered and watered in summer, and secure in the knowledge that they don’t have to risk traffic, disease, and cattle rustlers to get their next feed.
Yes, I’m a cow-lover. And that’s a damned fine thing to be. It’s not a temporary campaign but a very real threat against our human existence to ignore the plight of cows. In 1915, Nobel Prize Winner Romain Rolland wrote:
To a man whose mind is free there is something even more intolerable in the sufferings of animals than in the sufferings of man. For with the latter it is at least admitted that suffering is evil and that the man who causes it is a criminal. But thousands of animals are uselessly butchered every day without a shadow of remorse. If any man were to refer to it, he would be thought ridiculous. And that is the unpardonable crime.
Because now Kurma is dying. He lies in the cowyard on a bed surrounded by friends, loved ones, and most importantly, the hundreds and hundreds of cows who reside in the expansive stretch of land he secured through his love, affection, and concern for the welfare of those cows. People the world over are today praying for the gentle and peaceful departure from this world of a soul whose legacy will remain in the hearts of thousands of humans, and tens of thousands of cows....
“Anyone who meditates on Krishna, his protecting the cows, his singing charming songs with the cowherd boys, and his other pastimes, will find himself overcome with bliss and love.”
Gopala-Campu, First Champi, Text 97, Jiva Goswami.
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The skies, the cows, and all the humans are crying...