FROM TIME TO TIME I receive letters from people who want to help our Hare Krsna farms develop. They often suggest we market "organic milk" or "milk from protected cows." So it was with interest that I read the following instruction by Grandfather Bhismadeva to Maharaja Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata: "They who live by selling hair, poisons, or milk have to sink in hell."
Bhismadeva is considered one of the twelve great mahajanas, or authorities on Krsna consciousness. He spoke these words several thousand years ago. By looking at more recent history we can see the suffering these commercial activities have caused.
To see the miseries caused by "selling hair" one has only to look at the vast enclosure movement of the 1500s and 1600s, when peasants were swept off their land and left to starve so the manorial lords could expand a profitable wool industry.
As for the sufferings caused by poison sellers, one has only to look at the environmental havoc caused by pesticides over the last fifty years.
But what about selling milk? How would that cause suffering?
Consider the process of marketing milk. (For simplicity, we'll set aside government subsidies, which make the process more complex.) The price of milk, as with any product, must take into account the cost of land, labor, and anything else needed to produce the milk. All other things being equal, in an open market people will buy from whoever can produce milk for the least cost. To "live by selling milk," therefore, I must by all means bring my price down to a competitive level; otherwise, I'll lose my market share to more "efficient" farmers.
How does this affect the protection of cows? To protect cows I need extra land, labor, and feed for animals not producing milk, including bulls, oxen, and older cows. Obviously, this pushes up my production costs and the price I must charge for milk. In 1988 at Gita Nagari, the Hare Krsna farm in Pennsylvania, we calculated that to produce one gallon of milk from a mature protected herd costs $10.00 a gallon. We would not have been able to "make a living" from selling milk.
A farmer selling milk must do whatever it takes to bring his commodity into a competitive price range. If one farmer slaughters his animals to save on feed costs, then all others must do the same or be priced out of the market. Because of this sinful activity, the farmer must "sink in hell," as Bhismadeva describes. That is the karmic reaction for cow slaughter.
Srila Prabhupada encouraged devotees to produce for self-sufficiency, not for the commercial market. Then if there is surplus it can be sold in the market. So there's a difference between market-oriented production and a subsistence production that markets the surplus. To produce milk for my needs and sell what's left over, I don't need a competitive price to survive. If no one buys my product, I can still survive. I'm not forced to adopt cruel means to keep my prices low. My living comes from the land.
In a letter to Yasomatinandana Dasa (November 28, 1976), Srila Prabhupada summarized this perspective:
This is a no-profit scheme. For agriculture we want to produce our own food, and we want to keep cows for our own milk. The whole idea is that we are ISKCON, a community to be independent from outside help. This farm project is especially for the devotees to grow their own food. Cotton also, to make their own clothes. And keeping cows for milk and fatty products.
Our mission is to protect our devotees from unnecessary heavy work to save time for advancing in Krsna consciousness. This is our mission. So there is no question of profit, but if easily there are surplus products, then we can think of trading. Otherwise, we have no such intention.
At present, many of our farms protect cows with the help of charitable donations, allowing devotees a taste of cow protection until we can institute a full-fledged Vedic social system. The farms also enable devotees to avoid the sinful activities inevitably involved with marketing milk.
Last of all, a donation to a Krsna conscious farm allows devotees there to feed and milk cows and farm with oxen. Krsna is pleased to receive offerings made of milk from protected cows, and grains and vegetables produced by oxen. In return, He awards to the supporters of cow protection a special appreciation for His own joyful pastimes of herding cows and bulls in the transcendental village of Vrndavana.
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.