My visit to a cow sanctuary – a personal experience of compassion.
It’s been three weeks since we’ve been talking about visiting the cow sanctuary. During those three weeks, it was one day or the other we had to postpone our visit. I was very impatient, I kept bothering Hemant about the sanctuary. “Well, there are cows and this man takes care of them. He rescues them before they’re sent to slaughterhouses and raises them in this 42 acres of land he bought,” Hemant mentioned. “Wanna go?” he said with his modest voice. My mind took me back to when I was a child in India where cows visited my home all the time and my mother would feed, adore and take the blessings of every cow that walked through the entrance of our home. I kept talking to Hemant everyday about the prospect of feeding a cow, playing with one in the field and just hugging it. I was way too excited. I even dreamt of a cow by the name Yogeshwari (a cow later mentioned in this article and is real). There she was in my dream sitting up high on a concrete slab in the middle of a rich, green field of grass. I was chanting the Shiva Rudram Namakam at a nearby temple when I heard her calling for me. In black and white, there she was sitting peacefully. I still vividly remember the open field, Yogeshwari on the concrete slab, and me feeding loads of grass that kept going straight into her mouth. “How can I dream of a cow I’ve never met?” I thought. I found this inner excitement myself to be quite weird. Where was all this joy coming from? What is this sudden attraction towards cows? “It’s probably the intense meditation I’ve been practicing recently,” I thought to myself brushing it off. Or maybe it’s the fact that I felt so strongly about vegetarianism and that this central principle in my life was ready to turn into action.
We finally decided on a day. Just happened to be 55 degrees fahrenheit, in the middle of winter, snow was melting, and the sky was as clear as it can be. A blessed day it was. We arrived at the small-town of Bangor, PA just before noon. As we drove in looking for a sign to direct us to the sanctuary, we almost missed the cow smiley-face sign pointing an arrow into a remote, downhill, unpaved drive way. As we drove down and down the hill, the narrower and muddier the road became. As I sat in the back seat, feeling the wind of the clear-skies and the warmth of the sun light on my skin, I saw a group of cows staring at me as we approached the entrance of the sanctuary. I opened the door with curiosity, my eyes fixated on the group of cows. A smile sprung up on my face. I couldn’t believe it. My heart was pouring with gratitude. I felt a sensation of peace I couldn’t explain. A feeling of humility rushed through my veins as I ran to the back of the car to grab the several bags of food we brought to feed them. My mother earlier told me to take with me cooked rice, bananas, and fruits. Being a traditional Hindu, she told me to pay my respects to the cows as cows represented the ‘Adi Mata’—meaning the “first mother” or the “mother of all mothers”.
“You know people ask me, how do you live so secluded on a farm, isn’t it lonely? I ask them the question back, what do you think is more crowded, the city or the farm? I tell them, the farm is more crowded than the city. You know why? It’s because during the summer, all the ants come out. All the flowers bloom. There are so many insects and birds that are at this place and its all in perfect order. When God made all these beings, they made them all function in a perfect order. It is us, humans, that don’t have the knowledge to work in perfect order. All these animals, when I see them, work so perfectly together and live so peacefully.” -Professor Sastri
In Hinduism, cows are worshipped as a mother. They are consider as “Lakshmi”-the female Goddess that controls this Universe through her Shakti (the powerful feminine element). Many Hindu households in India consider the cow to be part of their family. These sentient beings are taken care of from the beginning of their lives to the end. They are given human-like identity with elaborate names, treated like humans, and respected for the resources they provide. A cow’s milk is believed to be Sattvic(purifying), hundreds of different foods like ghee (butter) are prepared from this pure milk She provides. The ghee is said to have enhance memory, alleviate arthritis and disorders in the eyes, and is known to contain various antibacterial and antiviral properties. Cow dung (gobar) is used as a fertilizer rich in minerals, as fuel (look up biogas) and a disinfectant in many homes. Cow urine is used for medicinal purposes. It is believed thatcow urine has amazing germicidal power to kill varieties of germs. The ancient scriptures of Rig Veda considers cattle as one of the most important animals. In the Rig Veda 3.33.1, the cows figure frequently as symbols of wealth and in comparison with river goddesses, “like two bright mother cows who lick their young, Vipas and Sutudri speed down their waters.” In the Atharva Veda, the cow is represented by the Devas, various energies controlling this universe, as a source where all those energies are contained. In fact, the importance of the cow is not given over other animals discriminatingly but its to show that the cow, because of what it has to offer, is a central figure in representing the kind of compassion we must show to all non-human living beings. It is through the cow we perceive the beauty of all animals and all of creation. The cow is an instrument of this compassion and realization. Mahatma Gandhi understood this,
“Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live so ling as there are Hindus to protect the cow…Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observances of caste rules, but their ability to protect the cow.”
As we walked down to walk way to the shed where Professor Sastri lived, I couldn’t get my eyes of the cows all sitting and staring at the guests that just arrived in their home. Well, we’ve always been visitors right? This Mother Earth was theirs all along and us humans have just come and occupied it. I opened the door, along with Hemant and Anjuji, and met a man of great humility and kindness, a mahatma (Great Soul) of our time, Professor Shankar Sastri. Professor Sastri, a bachelor all his life, retired from CUNY as Dean of Engineering in 1999. Soon after, he bought the 42 acres of land in Bangor, PA to create the Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary (the name Lakshmi was named afterBhagavan Sri Ramana Maharishi‘s cow called Lakshmi). He has so far rescued 17 cows, among other animals like chickens, turkeys, cats, all of which were rescued before being sent to slaughterhouses. Upon rescuing the cows, he names them various sanskrit names deeply rooted in Hindu mythology, full of personality. He doesn’t treat them as animals but as living beings with an identity. Throughout this article you will find pictures of Rama (the Bull, brought from India), Vishnu (brown colored one), Vedanta (black with a white question on its forehead), Lakshmi (brown colored one currently injured), Yogeshwari (black and white), Bal Ram, Sita, and others.
“They are beautiful beings aren’t they? I’m never alone here,” he says smiling. “And we have the best milk here, and the best ghee, and we even offer for sale organic cow-dung patties to many temples.” -Professor Sastri, founder of the Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary
We introduced ourselves to Professor Sastri. His humble voice and Divine presence immediately yielded within me great respect towards him. We were surprised at the minimalistic lifestyle he was leading. A small wooden table, old fashioned fire place and a small kitchen made up his living quarters. Here is a man who migrated to the United States in the sixties, spent decades as an engineering professor, remained a bachelor all his life and now surrendered his retirement to taking care of these beautiful gentle beings. Sounded like a perfect lifestyle to me. I always questioned the purpose of life and Professor Sastri’s lifestyle answered it. We come into this world penniless and leave penniless, I thought to myself. Our purpose lies in the amount of unconditional love and light we radiate to those around us— not just human beings but all of creation. Professor Sastri is a living example of this. After our introductions, Professor Sastri took us to where the cows were, a small shed he built himself where the cows gather to be fed. He also was gifted a Ganesha Deity, once worshipped by three thousand monks, to which he does Puja (prayer) everyday. As we walked up, the cows too stood up slowly and approached us with curiosity. I can never forget this moment in my life. Vedanta was the first to approach me. He took the bananas and the bread I fed him so quickly that I was running out of things to feed him. As I told Professor Sastri of my dream about Yogeshwari, he called her out to come meet me. I saw Yogeshwari in the distance walking towards me as I was walking towards her. We both met at a point where I offered her rice and she took it all right in. Feeling teary-eyed at one point, I thought to myself, “this is unconditional love, no expectations, no contracts, just pure reciprocation.” I pulled out my iPhone and started recording my interaction with them. I wanted to show the world the little space of heaven Professor Sastri created (you will find videos at the end of this article).
“Many people in America see animals, particularly cows, as meat,’’ Professor Sastri says. “Animals have a soul, personality, they interact… Ten years ago I did not know much about farming, but the divine call was there…I enjoyed my years of teaching, but I enjoy this work much more.” -Professor Sastri (in rediff times).
After feeding the cows, we said a prayer and ate our pasta/dhal lunch with veggie chips. I sat next to the window where I kept looking at Yogeshwari back and forth. I thought to myself, “what gentle beings…what gentle beings. How can they be slaughtered? How can they be killed? How can they be looked upon with such hate and inferiority?” As the day progressed, we walked around the sanctuary. We met Lakshmi, the first cow at the sanctuary, who was now injured due to a hip problem. We then went up to a shed where Professor Sastri created a space for educating the public about the importance of cows. The place filled with quotes, posters of cows in various forms, pictures of great beings like Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Lord Krishna and Bhagavan Ramana Maharishi with cows. We performed Angihotra, a ritual of yagna which brings healing and purification to the environment one is in, to which we offered butter, cow dung, and various other offerings to the fire God.Professor Sastri spoke about the Agnihotra, why we do it and the role cows play in it. We also spent a few minutes meditating during which I felt tremendous energy at the place.
“You must look at Vedanta,” says Professor Sastri. “Her mother was given to us by Swami Dayananda Saraswati and her offspring was born with the question mark on the forehead. See it? Swamiji always asks, in time of trouble ask the question, “who am I?” Vedanta was born with this question mark on his forehead so named him Vedanta.” -Professor Sastri
After drinking tea prepared from cow milk, which might I add was silky smooth and nutritious, we went back to where the cows were and did a cow prayer. I never knew that my Vedic chanting would come so handy. We went up to the space where the Ganesha deity was placed. As we all gathered in reverence facing the Ganesha deity, to our shock, all the cows stood up. As I chanted the Ganapathi Atharva Shirsha, the cows, unflinchingly, starred at us with great respect. To me, this was a life-changing event. It was a testament, a moment of truth that inextricably became part of my consciousness. We are not so different from them. They are not so different from us. In fact, we are all one. We all breath the same air, eat the same food, live on the same piece of land. If they had a voice, they would stand up for their rights too, I thought.
On our way back from the cow sanctuary, Hemant, Anjuji and myself had a conversation about how we can make the Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary a place of education, selfless service, and a role-model for sustainability (Eco-Dharma Seva). We all agreed that more people need to know about this place. We spoke about implementing a bio-gas project where we can use the cow dung from the sanctuary to create fuel. We spoke about making the sanctuary a place of education where people can be educated on the importance of cows and other animals, how the 25 year life span of a cow can be more beneficial than the mere 5 years in which it is milked and slaughtered. We spoke about creating a camp for kids who can come and spend time with the sentient beings, feed them, play with them and build compassion. We also spoke about having each Hindu temple adopt a cow as part of their temple and create their own sanctuaries. In addition, these sanctuaries can be a place of interfaith dialogue bridging all faiths and lifestyles. We also spoke about planting trees in and around the 42 acres of land and create a space for the vegetation as well, a small effort to counter deforestation. If each state in the United States had a cow sanctuary, how wonderful, holistically, and compassionate would we all live? “This place has so much potential,” we all thought.
Today as I sit here and write this article to let the world know my first encounter with these gentle beings, I make a plea. I make a plea to you to understand and think about the impact your lifestyle is having on this planet. I make a plea to think about the choices you make, the products you buy and the food you eat. I make a plea to educate yourself, if you have not already, on the impact human beings are having on this planet, especially in trying to feed its population. I finally make a plea to visit the Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary and see for yourself the importance of these beings. I don’t speak as an activist, I speak as a human being bearing a sacred responsibility of coexisting with this one precious planet that we have, a responsibility we all have. I don’t ask you to abandon your lifestyle of meat-eating, if you do eat meat. I simply ask you to be aware of how your food arrives on your plate, give it respect and reverence, and at the very least be thankful for it. When we understand the value of species that don’t have a voice, we understand the value of each other. As humans we have the ability to make decisions, think rationally, and learn to give. This human body is an honor, it is a privilege we are given to not just enjoy the pleasures of the material world but to create a beautiful planet for us all to live in while discovering its Truths.