When I visited a cowshed of the Lakshmi Narayani Golden Temple in Vellore (India) in 2022 to participate in a cow donation ritual, I had to remove my shoes. The shed where the ritual was performed, was considered a sanctuary. A shrine was erected at the backside of the shed and under the guidance of a priest we performed an extensive ritual to a cow (participation in go puja, 28 August 2022, Vellore). Such goshalas (cow shelter places) are part of several larger Hindu religious communities, for instance the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). Traditionally, gau mata or ‘Mother Cow’ has a prominent place in the Hindu pantheon. In Hindu iconography she is for instance found as Kamadhenu and her statues are revered to in Hindu temples. Also, in the time around and after independence gau mata became a symbol for Hindu nationalism (Kulkarni 2022, 104). Another contemporary development in which the cow gets new meaning is the climate crisis. In this blog I explore the relevance of the cow (in relation to Krishna) in global Hindu environmentalism in more detail, especially among the ISKCON movement that has branches across the world (also in the Netherlands and Belgium).
The ISKCON Environmental Initiative
The ISKCON was founded in the USA in 1966 by Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada (Bakker 2018, 50). People in the West know the Hare Krishna’s mainly for the public chanting (kirtan) of the names of Krishna through repeating ‘Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare’. Through this practice of harinama the devotees deepen their relationship with their beloved Krishna whom they consider not just an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu but the Supreme Lord. The practice of kirtan in public is also a way to attract people to the ISKCON. The ISKCON has a missionary zeal: the love of Krishna is abundant and everyone should benefit from it. The devotional practices to Krishna are therefore open to all.
On 18 November 2022 the first ISKCON Environmental Initiative Global Workshop was held online with representatives of ISKCON communities from – amongst others – the following countries: Australia, UK, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, USA. During this Global Workshop the website of the ISKCON Environmental Initiative was presented. Special attention was paid to two subpages: ‘The ecotheology of our tradition’ and the ‘Start-up guide’. The latter includes guides and suggestions to support temples in moving towards more sustainable practices. The former was referred to as the foundational document of the ISKCON’s eco-theology.
Figure 1: Krishna and his consort Radha in the Radha Krishna Mandir in Amsterdam. Picture taken by Deborah de Koning, 15 January 2023, Amsterdam.
Krishna the Cowherd Protects Nature
In the Hindus’ famous calendar art, the cow is often decorative to the love couple Radha and Krishna (see figure 1) but she now has become central to the practice of devotion of Green ISKCON members. The service to cows (go-seva) as they practice it, builds on the manifestation of Krishna as cowherd (Govinda) and is key to one of the central elements of ISKCON’s eco-theology: ‘creature care and protection’.
Krishna as Govinda is
the deity Krishna as cowherd who lived in Goloka (cow planet). His incarnation
is believed to have taken this heavenly abode with him to duplicate it on earth
in the Mathura region of India. Thus, it is not just Krishna who incarnates but
his cows as well. On earth, Krishna has past-times with the gopis
(female cowherds – especially his consort Radha) and takes care of the cattle.
(located in the Mathura region) is now a sacred geography to Krishna devotees
(Eck 2012) who visit multiple physical places in the landscape and revere them
because of the miracles and past-times that Krishna allegedly performed there. At
the time that Krishna is believed to have come to the earth to defeat the evil
king Kamsa, Vrindavan suffered from many problems. Kamsa tried to kill Krishna
and from time to time he sent demons to the cowherd community where Krishna was
raised. Once Kamsa sent the demon Kaliya. Kaliya is believed to have resided in
the Yamuna river (a river in the Mathura region) and polluted her to such an
extent that birds flying over the Yamuna fell death in the river. Krishna
tightened his belt, entered the water and defeated Kaliya (https://youtu.be/wO31De8yX6Y;
see also figure 2). Another example of Krishna’s care for nature is that
Krishna allegedly swallowed a fire that devastated the world (https://youtu.be/wO31De8yX6Y).
The cow as part of the imagery of Krishna as Govinda is another example.
Figure 2: Sculpture at the Sri Sri Radha Parthasarathi Temple (ISKCON) of Krishna fighting the demon snake Kaliya who poisons the waters of the Yamuna river. Picture taken by Deborah de Koning, 20 August 2012, Delhi.
What Bovinity as Practice of Eco-bhakti offers to ISKCON Devotees and to (Hindu) Environmentalism in General
Central to the ecotheology of the ISKCON are bovinity and eco-bhakti. Bovinity is a concept coined by Kenneth R. Valpey to refer to bovine-divinity (Valpey 2020, 54). Bovinity has a long tradition in Hinduism when we include all the Hindu practices related to the cow as a sacred animal. The eco-theology of the ISKCON Environmental Initiative refers to bovinity and go-seva (service to the cow) as central to their eco-theology. It is mentioned on their website that:
‘The ecotheological ethics and principles of creature care, protection, and rights within the Caitanya Vaishnava tradition finds a primary focus in the values and practices of go-seva, or bovine (cow/bull) care and protection. The special status of bovines is a reflection of the special relationship that cows and bulls have with Krishna in the original, eternal spiritual realm of Vrindavan and during his appearances and manifestation of Vrindavan in the material universe.’
Devotional-wise, through their service to the cow, the ‘Green Hare Krishna’s’ practice Krishna consciousness since the cow was always close to their beloved cowherd Krishna, and eco-bhakti. Eco-bhakti is a concept coined in response to the climate crisis. In the Bhagavad Gita - one of the central scriptures of the ISKCON - Krishna shows the warrior Arjuna the way of devotion (bhakti-yoga) as the main way for his devotees to connect to god (in this case Krishna himself). For ISKCON environmentalists, the cow not only reminds devotees of Krishna (which is central to the practice of Hare Krishna’s), it is also a contemporary practice of the way of devotion (bhakti-yoga) to experience Krishna’s presence through service to this creature.
One of the suggestions of the ISKCON Environmental Initiative mentioned on their website ‘to infuse the practice of devotion with care for the earth and creation’ – so to encourage eco-bhakti – is to develop CSA (community supported agriculture) and cow/animal protection programs. During the ISKCON Environmental Initiative’s Global workshop on 18 November 2022 several pictures of ISKCON communities’ cow programs were shown; for instance the Govardhan eco-village in India and Krishna village in Hungary (https://youtu.be/wO31De8yX6Y). Also, in Radhadesh (the headquarters of the Hare Krishna community in the Benelux) they now have a New Radhadesh Cow Sanctuary that functions as a flagship in the ahimsa (non-violent) world of cow care (https://radhadesh.com/cows/).
Eco-bhakti of the Green Hare Krishna’s provides a powerful example of how religion is employed to encourage eco-awareness in response to the climate crisis. Also, their active dissemination of the imagery of the cow-shed as a sanctuary provides a sharp contrast and welcome alternative to the mega stables in Western Europe that appeals to those looking for ways to treat animals with more respect.
I am grateful to Bikram Lalbahadoersing for his valuable feedback.
Alston A. J. (1980). The Devotional Poems of Mirabai. Motilal Banarsidass.
Bakker F. L. & Velde P. van der. (2018). Hindus in the Netherlands. LIT.
Eck D. L. (2012). India: A Sacred Geography Harmony Books.
Kulkarni, M. (2022). GAU MATA: The Commodification of Cultural Iconography. Journal of Kavikulaguru Kalidas Sanskrit University (9), 96-117.
Participation in go puja, 28 August 2022, Vellore.
Valpey, K. R. (2020). Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics. Palgrave Macmillan.