Bovine Dharma: Nonhuman Animals and the Swadhyaya Parivar

Posted: 18.10.2016

Introduction

This chapter is about the perspectives towards nonhuman animals[1] that are exemplified by Swadhyayis - Swadhyaya practitioners - in the Indian state of Gujarat. The Swadhyaya movement arose in the mid-twentieth century in India as a new religious movement, led by its founder, late Pandurang Shastri Athavale (1920–2003). In my research, I have discovered that there is no category of "environmentalism" in the "way of life" of Swadhyayis. I argue, however, that the concept of dharma can be effectively applied as an overarching term for the sustainability of ecology, environmental ethics, and the religious lives of Swadhyayis[2]. Dharma synthesizes their way of life with environmental ethics, based on its multidimensional interpretations, as I show with respect to their perspectives towards cows and other non-human animals.[3]

Swadhyaya's Dharmic Ecology

Having heard about the Swadhyaya, I called their office in Mumbai to visit one such sites during my trip to India in the summer of 2006. Soon, I found myself on my way to Valsad in Gujarat. I arrived at the home of a Swadhyaya volunteer, Maheshbhai,[4] who took me to a cattleshelter site managed by local Swadhyayis. All of them expressed warmth and enthusiasm when welcoming me, explaining various activities and ideologies of the Swadhyaya movement. As they began explaining the way they perceive nature and the vision of their guru Athavale, I asked questions related to environmentalism. What I present below is based on several such interviews with Swadhyaya followers. I have also extracted relevant information from the vernacular literature of Swadhyaya, based on the video-recorded discourses of Athavale.

Swadhyaya is one of the least known new religious movements, arising in the midtwentieth century in the Western states of India. This movement now has presence in several Western countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom[5]. Athavale started giving discourses on the Vedas, the Upaniṣadas, and the Bhagavad Gita in 1942 in Mumbai and continued to preach until his death in 2003. In his discourses, Athavale repeatedly emphasizes that the main goal of Swadhyaya is to transform human society based on the Upanishadic concept of "Indwelling God", i.e., the Almighty resides in everybody and that one should develop a sense of spiritual self-respect for oneself irrespective of materialistic prestige or possessions. In addition to one's own dignity, the concept of "Indwelling God" also helps transcend the divisions of class, caste, and religion and Athavale exhorted his followers to develop the Swadhyaya community based on the brotherhood of humans under the fatherhood of God. Activities of Swadhyaya are woven around this main principle.

Before I begin introducing the ecological work of Swadhyaya, it is important to mention that their environmental significance is denied by the Swadhyayis themselves. In fact, one of the Swadhyayis was taken aback when I told him about my topic of research:

You might misrepresent Swadhyaya if you choose to research it from [an] ecological perspective. Swadhyaya and its activities are only about our devotion to [the] Almighty; ecology is not our concern. Environmental problems are due to industrialization and the solution lies beyond Swadhyaya's activities. Swadhyayis are not environmentalists!

Based on my observations of Swadhyaya's activities, however, I tend to agree with him. Although environmentalism is neither the means nor the goal of Swadhyaya's activities, natural resources such as the earth, the water, the trees, and the cattle are revered and nurtured by Swadhyayis based on the understanding that the Almighty resides in every particle of the universe. Environmentalism does come out as an important by-product of Swadhyaya's multifaceted activities and this was noted during a 1992 conference in Montreal where Swadhyaya was invited to present its ecological philosophy and work.[6] In what follows, I nevertheless argue that a multivalent term like dharma can comprehend and describe the Swadhyaya phenomenon and the way it relates to ecology. Swadhyaya followers do not regard environmentalism as their main duty, their dharma; however, one can regard their dharma and their cultural practices as ecologically sustainable, as I will demonstrate. I also want to note that my observations are based on their activities in rural parts of India, since the urban and the diaspora Swadhyayis do not yet have such ecological projects.

Pandurang Shastri Athavale and Swadhyaya's Bovine Ecology[7]

In several explanations from Indic texts,[8] Athavale develops a set of preaching that I call "bovine dharma," which is based on the qualities of cows that emerged as gorasa (literally, essence of cattle), a project to nurture the cows. Athavale cites a Sanskrit verse to show that seven forces sustain the earth, cows, Brahmins, Vedas, Satis (noble women), truthful people, charitable people, and people without lust and greed.[9] The cow gives all of her belongings to humans: milk and other dairy products strengthen us, bullocks are utilized in farming, cow dung is utilized as a fertilizer, and urine is used as an Ayurvedic medicine. After her death, the cows' bones are utilized in the sugar industry, their skin is used in the leather industry, and their horns are used to make combs. According to Athavale, humans should be eternally grateful to cows and Indians do not just exploit cows for materialistic benefits but instead regard them as mothers. Only humans drink the milk of other species such as cows. Regarding cows as mothers expresses our gratitude and respect for them. Like our biological mothers, they nourish us with their milk. According to Athavale, Indian villagers used to feed their cows before taking their own meals, as a sign of love and respect. Even today, many families observe the tradition of go-grāsa, the offering of symbolic food to cows before meals. Athavale mentions Kṛṣṇa's love for cows and says that Kṛṣṇa turned into Gopālakṛṣṇa (Kṛṣṇa, the cow caretaker) out of his love for cows. Kṛṣṇa used to attract cows with his sweet flute in Gokul. He cites a Sanskrit verse from the Padma Purāṇa to show the importance of cows in ancient India, "Let cows be ahead of me, behind me, inside my heart. I should reside in the midst of cows."[10] Similarly, the Brahma Vaivarta Purāṇa mentions that all the gods and pilgrimages reside in the cows.[11]

Athavale explains that the cow has a quality of chewing her food thoroughly before swallowing it. He interprets this chewing as a preaching that we should also chew every new thought before accepting it. Only after carefully analyzing it, should we accept it. Such carefully accepted thoughts will not only help our own intellectual development but will also benefit broader society. Extending the bovine dharmic discourse further, Athavale cites the famous Bhagavad Purana verse in which all the Upaniṣadas are called cows, Kṛṣṇa as the milkman supplying milk to Arjuna. We should always be nourished by the teachings of the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gita.[12]

Athavale also cites another verse by Kālidāsa and extends the meaning of the Sanskrit word go. Go has several meanings such as cow, physical power, eyes, and speech. He preaches cow-worship in all its different meanings, i.e., that we should respect cows (animals), that the rulers should be powerful, that women should possess long-term vision, and that scholars should convey good thoughts to the masses. Any kind of ritual is incomplete without Pancāmṛta, consisting of the three dairy products, milk, yogurt, and ghee, in addition to honey and sugar, all of which serve as metaphors. First, milk signifies purity. Our life, character, reputation, actions, mind, and heart, all should be pure and untainted. Second, Athavale explains that just a small quantity of yogurt transforms a large quantity of milk. Noble people should also develop this quality. They may be small in number but they can transform huge sections of societies. Third, ghee has a unique lubricating quality. Our life should also be lubricated with love for everybody. As described above, Athavale very skillfully utilizes several metaphors, analogies, myths, and legends to inspire his followers.

Athavale developed a project for cows called Gorasa. He established dairies in villages where people could get the milk throughout the year at a nominal price and the profit earned from such collective efforts was distributed to needy local families or saved for future projects. This stopped the earlier practice of selling the milk to far-away cities. Since the intermediaries involved in selling were eliminated, the purity of milk was ensured, and the cost was minimized. This as also inspired farmers to domesticate more cows.

As has been seen, Athavale sought to develop what I have called a "bovine dharma," a dharmic environmental ethics for cows, which is inspired by the virtues of cows. Athavale describes the inherent qualities and virtues of the cows, i.e., the dharma of the cows. By observing and following the dharmic qualities of a cow, one can develop one's moral and ethical qualities, the dharma of a human being. Here again, we see several meanings of dharma interplaying with each other. The dharma, inherent quality, can inspire the dharma, virtue, and this can help develop the dharma to care for the animals and environment, environmental ethics.

In the following section, I will consider some other animals besides cows as they are discussed in Athavale's discourses. Athavale repeatedly highlights instances of God's divine presence in different species. Among animals, he is Kāmadhenu among cows, Vāsuki among snakes, Uccaiśravas among horses, Airāvata among elephants, lion among wild animals, eagle among birds, and crocodile among fishes. These are the references in the tenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita.

Perspectives Towards Other Non-Human Animals

Athavale derives several inspirations from various animals as mentioned in the Bhagavad Purana (11.7–9). This is evident in the dialogue between Yadu and Avadhūta in which the avadhūta describes his 24 gurus from different objects of nature including the earth, air, sky, water, fire, moon, sun, pigeon, python, the ocean, moth, honeybee, elephant, the deer, the fish, the prostitute Pingala, the eagle, the child, the young girl, arrow maker, serpent, spider and the wasp[13]. In line with the theme of this volume, I am including below only non-human animals from this list of 24 gurus as preached by Athavale in his discourses. Each animal's qualities are very skillfully connected with human ethics as is evident below.

Pigeon – The avadhūta considers the pigeon his eighth guru. This bird teaches how excessive attraction for a thing can delude one's mind. The pigeon dies when a hunter caught his family. His attachment to his family causes his own death also. We have to learn from the pigeon not to forget the self and the God. One should spend all one's energy for one's development and for God.

Python – The avadhūta says that the python is his ninth guru who taught him how to live without self-insistence. A python does not have his own insistence about his food. He just sits with his mouth open and eats whatever comes into his mouth. One should live with all his personal insistence and desires surrendered to God and accept only what is sent by God. One should live with indifference towards materialistic pleasures and should not run after them. Whatever is to be sent by God will definitely come our way so there is no need to spend our energy pursuing it. We should rather utilize our energy for our development.

Bee – The bee collects the essence of flowers. He collects the juice of flowers from several flowers instead of from one. We should not limit ourselves to a single book but should rather learn from different scriptures. Even an ascetic should not settle at one place but should keep roaming to avoid attachment to a place or a person.

Honeybee – The honeybee teaches the art of accumulation; he collects the honey but someone else takes it away. We should also accumulate the wealth for the sake of others. Wealth has three states: consumption, donation, or destruction. If we do not consume for ourselves or donate for others, it will be destroyed eventually.

Elephant – The next animal mentioned is a male elephant that desires to touch a female elephant. Even a powerful animal like the elephant falls due to his lust for the opposite sex. Lust should be replaced by a sacred reverence for beauty. We should sublimate our desires rather than suppress them.

Deer – A hunter could catch a deer with the aid of pleasant music. An obscene art or obscene music is to be renounced. Art that obstructs one's development should not obsess a seeker.

Fish – Just as an angler catches a fish by bait, a person who is a slave to his senses remains a slave to materialistic pleasures. A seeker should rise beyond these pleasures.

Bird – A bird holding a piece of meat lures other birds for that meat. However, when the bird throws away that piece of meat, other birds no longer bother her. This teaches Avadhūta the quality of non-possessiveness.

Snake – The avadhūta tells that an ascetic should learn five things from a snake. First, he should live like a snake without building a permanent house. Second, he should avoid the crowd and live alone in secret like a snake. Third, an ascetic should not allow spare things to accumulate, just as a snake does not even have hands to accept things. Fourth, he should practice his penance secretly just as a snake lives in secret places. Fifth, he should remain silent like a snake. According to Athavale, snake worship is one of the most unique aspects of Indian culture.

In addition to the utilitarian value of snakes, as a deterrent against rats and other creatures harmful for agriculture, snakes also have several other qualities that humans should learn. A snake likes the fragrance of sandalwood and other fragrant flowers. Humans should also have the fragrance of noble qualities to attract everyone. A snake stores the poison and does not waste it away by biting harmless people; she only bites in self-protection. Humans should also store and control their strengths and use them only for self-protection and for the protection of others. Some snakes have jewels on their heads. Humans should also adorn their minds with divine qualities exemplified by great visionaries. In the famous Puranic tale of sea churning, the snake Vāsuki becomes an instrument for noble work. Similarly, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva have accepted snakes in their vicinity. These examples show that even snakes are dear to gods if they are instrumental in divine work or are attracted to divine qualities.

Insect – Later, the avadhūta observes an insect shutting off its dwelling from another insect. Later it thinks about the invading insect and eventually becomes like it. This teaches Avadhūta the importance of thinking. One should think about sacredness that can change one's life. An insect gets attracted by a candle and burns in her. Beauty attracts and instead of escaping from it, we should consider it divine.

Spider – A spider spins her web and after some time, she swallows her own web. God also designs the universe with a thought and then dissolves it at the end of a cosmic cycle. This is the teaching that the avadhūta learns from a spider.

Conclusion

Anil Agarwal had mentioned that Hindu beliefs, values, and practices, built on a "utilitarian conservationism," rather than "protectionist conservationism," could play an important role in restoring a balance between environmental conservation and economic growth[14]. The Swadhyaya perspectives that I have described above do not fall into either category. In fact, when I interviewed some of the Swadhyaya volunteers, they vehemently denied both utilitarian and protectionist motives behind their prayogs (experiments) and instead underscored the devotional motive.

The cow protection examples are Indian counterparts to what could be called "environmental activism." They are inspired by Indic religious traditions. When I asked Swadhyayis about the practical challenges or difficulties related to such work, they noted several challenges. One challenge is to be able to sustain the transformation based on the Swadhyaya's teachings. Without the dharmic perspective, the work can become "mechanical" or can take the form of another "religious ritual." If these activities fail to inspire people to develop an ethos, develop a bond with nature, or if Swadhyayis stop practicing these ethics in their daily life, then their work will take a "religious" shape, reducing dharmic work into another religious ritual without a deep foundation for environmental ethics. Another challenge is to take these activities and replicate them at a larger level. So far, these have remained smaller local models found at the district level rather than projects at the regional or national level. Some of the Swadhyaya volunteers also confessed that the number of volunteers available to work at different sites varies according to the intensity and depth of Swadhyaya's thoughts in the surrounding villages. Since the spread of Swadhyaya is not uniform across the different villages and towns of Gujarat and Maharashtra (and elsewhere in India and other countries), the number of volunteers working at such prayogs is also not uniform. Noted environmentalist Anupam Mishra aptly remarked:

Even without involving the environmentalists, people are bringing out miracles at the grass-root level. Upon seeing them, we should humbly accept them. Even if they may not fit our measuring scale, our measuring scale itself may be inappropriate. A work that has already reached millions belongs to the people. Media reports only political parties but it cannot represent the people.[15]

Athavale had developed several more prayogs (experiments) to accomplish his mission for socio-spiritual transformation based on the dharmic philosophy of the "Indwelling God." I have described only some of them that relate to cattle (with the belief that the Almighty resides in cattle and in the rest of the universe). These prayogs do not label themselves as "environmental projects" and yet they have succeeded in sustaining natural resources in thousands of Indian villages. After the death of Athavale in 2003, the current leadership has not developed new ecological prayogs. The leadership instead seems focused on strengthening the existing prayogs by inspiring more villagers to join the movement. I agree with Ramachandra Guha's remark that there was no environmentalism before industrialization; there were only the elements of an environmental sensibility.[16]

The Swadhyaya followers also show similar sensibilities in their local activities in the villages. This sensibility in turn is inspired by a cosmology that is based on the texts, myths, and legends derived from the dharmic traditions. We do see a reflection of textual reverence for nature in the behavior of Swadhyayis. Whether this behavior will take a generic ecological ethos outside their familiar surroundings is yet to be seen. It is still a nascent movement fueled by the founder's charisma fresh in the memories of its followers. In this new century and in the absence of Athavale, will Swadhyayis become environmentalists? Swadhyaya is emerging as a movement around the globe. When Swadhyayis migrate to different parts of the world, will they connect their environmental sensibility to respond to the problems of climate change? Only time will tell the answers to these questions.

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