From the Srimad-Bhagavatam we learn that the earth is controlled by the goddess Bhumi Devi, who sometimes takes on the form of a cow. The Bhagavatam's ancient Sanskrit texts give the history of her dealings with a king named Prthu Maharaja, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord's power to rule. From the history of Prthu we learn how demigods, the controllers of the universe, help us serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead. We also see how they can retaliate against our misuse of the resources they generously provide. In particular, Mother Earth (Bhumi) can subdue our rebellion against God's laws by responding with famine and environmental disaster.
WHEN THE divinely empowered Prthu Maharaja ascended to the throne with his wife, Queen Arci, an incarnation of the goddess of fortune, they were honored not only by ordinary citizens but also by the demigods. The Fourth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the wonderful gifts the demigods presented to Prthu Maharaja:
Lord Brahma, whom the Supreme Lord appoints to preside over the universe, gave King Prthu a protective garment made of spiritual knowledge. Lord Brahma's wife, Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, offered Prthu a transcendental necklace. Lord Siva, who is in charge of ultimately destroying the universe, presented Prthu Maharaja a sword within a sheath marked with ten moons. And Siva's wife, Durga, the goddess of the material energy, gave Prthu a shield marked with one hundred moons.
Varuna, the lord of the oceans, presented an umbrella, as brilliant as the moon, that constantly sprayed fine particles of water. Agnideva, the demigod of fire, gave Prthu Maharaja a bow made of the horns of goats and cows, and the sun-god gave him arrows as brilliant as sunshine. Our own Mother Earth, Bhumi Devi, gave Prthu Maharaja mystic slippers that could carry him instantly wherever he desired. Thus all the demigods honored the reign of King Prthu and Queen Arci, and the relationship be-tween Mother Earth and Prthu Maharaja seemed to start out well.
Being an incarnation of the Lord's ruling potency, Prthu Maharaja was an ideal leader. Today we can hardly imagine his qualities. He was pious, equitable, and magnanimous, and his citizens loved him. Prthu was like the ideal well-wishing father, his beautiful face always smiling with affectionate glances, enhancing the peaceful life of the citizens.
But although Prthu Maharaja was kind and equitable, he formidably chastised criminals who tried to intimidate his citizens. His popularity came from his expert management of his kingdom, not from simply smiling and speaking platitudes. He satisfied everyone by his practical deeds, and his citizens were thankful to have a ruler both kind and qualified.
So it seems that life in Prthu's kingdom should have been completely happy. But soon after Prthu was installed on the throne, citizens came before him to complain of a scarcity of grains. The people had become so emaciated they were on the verge of starvation. "Although we are willing to work," the citizens said, "we are unemployed and hungry. You alone can give us work. Please arrange for the proper distribution of food grains and save us from starving to death."
Prthu analyzed the crisis and determined its cause: Mother Earth, Bhumi Devi, was withholding grains.
As an incarnation of the Lord, Prthu was ready to use his immense potencies to save the citizens. He took up his transcendental bow and arrows and threatened to kill the personified Earth. Frightened, she transformed herself into a cow and ran for her life.
As Maharaja Prthu angrily chased her, she ran here and there in outer space and between the heavenly planets and the earth. But wherever she ran, Prthu Maharaja chased her. At last, fearful and exhausted, she fell to the ground, pleading for mercy.
"Please save me. You are the king of the planet and the protector of all living entities. You are supposed to be the maintainer of religious principles. Why are you so angry with me that you are ready to kill me, a woman?"
Bhumi Devi's bewilderment at Prthu's hostility is understandable. Many modern rulers sexually harass women or treat them with disdain, but Prthu's treatment of women was exemplary. He treated his queen as half his body, and he respected other women as if each were his own mother. How then could he now be threatening to kill Mother Earth, especially when she had taken the form of a cow?
Mother Earth continued, "King Prthu, I am just like a strong boat. Everything in the world stands upon me. If you break me to pieces, how can you protect yourself and your subjects from drowning?"
Today's leaders, who sometimes seem willing to sacrifice everything for economic development, should ask the same question: If in their greed they destroy the earth, how can they save themselves and their citizens from destruction?
(Prthu, of course, as a partial incarnation of the Lord, had potencies far beyond those of today's leaders. And he was not acting out of greed, as we shall see.)
Prthu replied, "Goddess Bhumi, you are trying to cheat us by disobeying my orders. In the form of a demigod you accepted your share of the sacrifice we performed, but in return you have not produced enough grain.
"Although you eat green grass every day, you do not fill your udder with milk for us. Since you are treating my citizens so callously, merely having assumed the form of a cow does not exempt you from punishment. In spite of my orders, you withhold the seeds of herbs and grains. Therefore, I shall cut you to pieces with my arrows. I shall feed your flesh to the starving people and satisfy the crying citizens of my kingdom!"
Srila Prabhupada explains Prthu's threat: In the rare circumstance when there is no supply of grain, the government can arrange for the eating of cow flesh, using dried-up cows to feed the hungry masses of people. Krsna consciousness is not a fanatical philosophy. In an emergency, qualified authorities can do what's needed.
But Prabhupada stresses that such an emergency is extremely rare. Most often, supposed emergencies are created by our own mismanagement. For example, recently even when thousands of people in Ethiopia were starving, Ethiopia was still exporting thousands of tons of grain to fatten animals abroad for slaughter. Today we misuse grain to fatten beef cows, and we slaughter dairy cows when they're still giving enough milk to feed at least twenty people a day. We do these things for money, not for emergency. This kind of killing cannot be condoned.
Prabhupada notes that Mother Earth gives so much grain that it's sometimes dumped into the sea. "Consequently, in some places there is scarcity of grain and in others profuse production." Our problems come because of mismanagement, not because the earth is failing to give enough to feed her children.
After threatening Mother Earth, Maharaja Prthu told her, "Any cruel person man or woman who is interested only in his or her maintenance and has no compassion for other living entities may be killed by the king. Such killing can never be considered actual killing. Your duty is to provide food for all living entities. And even though you are quite capable of feeding everyone, you heartlessly allow the living entities to starve.
"You have become so insane with pride that you claim you are indispensable to the survival of my citizens. You are mistaken I shall cut you into small pieces like grain, and I shall uphold the entire population by my mystic powers."
Next issue, we'll see how Mother Earth and Prthu Maharaja became reconciled when she explained why she was withholding grain and what Prthu Maharaja could do about it.
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.