The mistreatment of cows rips the fabric of India's esteemed heritage.

The I-5 freeway that runs between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a long, straight stretch of road. The landscape is bordered to the west by barren mountains whose brown, smooth folds, like loose skin, belie a rugged terrain.

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For almost half the length of this 400-odd mile road, as far as the eye can see to the east are constant green splashes of farming miles of orange trees and other crops planted by optimistic farmers on irrigated, otherwise barren, desert soil.

Somewhere around the middle of this journey, the landscape begins to resemble an alien nation. Coming over a rise of land, one sees brown soil covered by thousands of cows. At first sight, the mass of seething bodies is hard to identify, or perhaps the mind just hesitates to accept it. When recognition dawns, the effect is powerful and, for a cow lover, emotional. The smell in the air even through the air conditioning vents of the car is thick, earthy, pungent. A truck circles the vast expanse of cowhood, spraying water to temper the dust and (perhaps) cool the cows that stand in morose clusters with no water, food, or shade.

This is not a cattle farm. It is a waiting room for a slaughterhouse. These cows are on death row.

Now on to India

This is, of course, an American vista, not a scene one would imagine encountering in India. But in the holy land of the sacred cow, a controversy rages about the prevention or legalization of cow slaughter. One Hindu (lapsed, no doubt) even wrote an editorial in one of the country's leading newspapers, speaking of his "freedom of choice" when it came to killing cows to eat them. No such consideration for the cow, though . . . alarming sentiments from a person whose whole history, both cultural and spiritual, is one of protecting the cow.

In a Western country this issue wouldn't attract even a paragraph of media attention. Slaughterhouses dot landscapes across the world. Sanitized, packaged, and colored to perfection, meat is sold in air-conditioned stores with piped music, surroundings designed to lull the senses into a peaceful shopping ambience. Nowhere do you hear the screaming of cows or see the blood-soaked tunics of slaughterers; nowhere can you smell the stench of death or see the filth and putrefaction of dead flesh as it is torn from bones and sinew, the skins "tanned" in the most vile smelling process imaginable.

But in India? Surely it's not possible that the most venerated of God's creatures should be subjected to this kind of treatment in India. As unreal as it may seem, state boundaries and religious leaders can do nothing at present to stop the slaughter. Whatever restrictions apply are easily avoided by running herds of cows across state borders so they can be legally slaughtered in a state that has no respect for the ancient laws of God or the more recent ones of godly men. Yet history shows that this is hardly a current issue. In the 1800s, violence erupted between Muslim and Hindu groups over the slaughter of cows. Even as far back as the sixteenth century, rulers like Aurangzeb and Akbar decreed bans on cow slaughter out of respect for the brahminical and Jain communities.

The current call for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter parallels a demand for its legalization. The concern of both groups, apparently, is the treatment and condition of cows who are the victims of illegal cattle running scams. Cow slaughter is legal in only two Indian states: West Bengal in the east and Kerala in the south. For a country that supports a $4 billion worldwide leather trade, this raises suspicions of how such an enormous amount of money can be generated from just these two states. The fact is, illegal traders run border lines and bribe authorities to turn a blind eye and allow their trucks through. Even the government-operated train lines are used in the illegal transportation of cattle between state borders.

A Cultural Problem

And so we see an ancient culture rise to the test of maintaining its standards and setting an example to the world. The nation is divided over an issue which, if dealt with in the light of scripture and culture, wouldn't be an issue at all. But in the desperation to keep up with the West, Indians have succumbed to the ideas of multi-nationals who think it's okay to destroy a football-field-sized portion of forest every few minutes or so to graze cattle being fatted up for the kill.

Alarmingly, one article suggests that, in defense of the suffering cows, their slaughter be legalized to "prevent them suffering any further"that is, eliminate the black market cattle runners by legalizing cow slaughter:

"Villagers can't afford to keep unproductive cows. They're not saints," says Bangalore animal-welfare worker Suparna Baksi-Ganguly. "Slaughter has to be made more accessible suppressing it causes greater misery to the animals."

A nice, healthy, rounded approach to the slaughter of India's sacred image? I think the cows would disagree. But it's an interesting angle to use in support of a thick-steak-per night habit, and it's a subtle attempt to show that religion, not the animal slaughterers, undermines the safety of cows. Because someone can't maintain or respect religious standards, best legalize the barbaric slaughter of these holy creatures so that they are not put in "greater misery."

Perhaps this "animal-welfare worker" is ignorant of India's ancient culture and scriptures and therefore doesn't understand that killing a cow is akin to killing one's own mother. One website states that banning cow slaughter contradicts "the secular vision of the Constitution." Would we be so concerned with contradicting the Constitution if our mothers and sisters were being killed?

Perhaps the most alarming point of all is the lack of consideration of karma. In a country where most religions accept the principle of reincarnation, it seems to be conveniently forgotten when it comes to cow slaughter. But the reactions for killing are guaranteed, and selective memory won't help us at the time of death.

Worldwide Reactions

In a conversation recorded in Chicago in 1975, Srila Prabhupada pointed out the results of cow slaughter on an international scale:

Disciple: So the wars and the crime are a direct result of the cow slaughter.
Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. It is a wholesale reaction. All these crises are taking place . . . Nature will take action. Prakrteh kriyamanani gunaih karmani sarvasah [Bhagavad-gita 3.27]. You are not independent. So if you work independently, then you will have to suffer. The law of nature is there. You cannot avoid it. If you infect some disease, you must suffer from the disease. You cannot avoid it. This is the law of nature."

The knowledge available in the Vedic scriptures translated by Srila Prabhupada is more than the religious portion of a vague, irrelevant culture. The Vedic culture is a scientific formula for human behavior, a guide to living in any age. Unfortunately in this age, Kali-yuga, only remnants of the culture remain. In the Caitanya-caritamrta, Lord Caitanya says, "In this Age of Kali most people are bereft of Vedic culture, and therefore they are called yavanas. They are concerned only with killing cows and brahminical culture. In this way they all engage in sinful acts."

One would expect something different from the nation that is the source of such an ancient and powerful culture. Instead we see Westerners adopting the spiritual practices and religion of the Vedas. Thousands have taken to the Vedic philosophy and have given up their habits of Western life. Westerners in India often promote the Vedic culture, even to the extent of trying to turn Indians back to vegetarianism. Within the supposedly sacred borders of India, Westerners who have chosen India as their home constantly see environments that resemble the West that they so longed to escape. "Mother India" is fast becoming a spiritually barren wasteland in comparison to her former glory. In one Calcutta newspaper recently, I read an article about the "growth phenomena" of vegetarian restaurants. At first glance it would appear that India is turning away from the influence of the West and back to the culture that was the valuable foundation of the nation. Yet on further inspection it seems that instead, it's simply a case of dancing to the tune of America, where vegetarianism is a trend and vegetarian restaurants are common.

As Srila Prabhupada pointed out, the Indian culture is a shadow of it's former glory, and not much evidence of it remains:

Disciple: At least here [India] there is Indian culture.
Prabhupada: What Indian culture? They are killing cows. What is Indian culture? Their Indian culture is that some of them speak Hindi, that's all. This is their Indian culture.

Elephantine Value

Yet the Vedic culture has its roots here, and as Srila Prabhupada also said, modern-day Indian civilization could be compared to a dead elephant. An elephant is such a valuable creature that even when dead, because of its tusks and hide it remains almost as valuable as when alive and working. Similarly, although the Indian culture is practically dead, India still has great potential. That potential is the Vedic culture, the true spiritual culture.

And not only for Indians. Westerners have one thing in their favor that will move them to adopt fine elements of this culture: their dominance in the advancement of modern society and their trendsetting tendencies. This consumer strength is a powerful one, and can be used in a positive direction. All it takes is for someone to realize the strength, beauty, and power of the Vedic culture, and to take it up as a viable alternative to the madness that passes for modern civilization. In turn, the Indians will see how "Vedic" is done Western style in the twenty-first century.

Braja Sevaki Devi Dasi is a disciple of His Holiness Tamal Krsna Goswami. She is the author of three books, and her poetry has been published in Australia and Britain. She lives in Mayapur with her husband, Jahnu Dvipa Dasa.