From a bhakti perspective, there is only one answer to the question: “why serve cows?”
Devotees of Krishna serve the cows because it pleases their beloved Krishna. Selfless service, sevå, means an action meant only for the satisfaction of the one served – and service is, in fact, the very definition of love itself in bhakti. Because of their unique lovable qualities, cows are extremely dear to the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, who spent his youth serving the cows and calves of Vrindavan. Therefore, because they are dear to Krishna, cows are dear to his devotees.
However, since the question, “why go–sevå?” is commonly asked, it merits some discussion from a social perspective. Apart from its value in bhakti, how does go–sevå benefit the everyday needs of human society? What are the unique qualities of cows that benefit human civilization in practical ways?
Human beings are special creatures. Because of their high grade of intelligence, humans are capable of working selflessly in accordance with their various duties to protect and nurture everybody and everything, including the environment. The service attitude of taking care of and working for the welfare of others, as well as one’s own self, is called dharma. Dharma refers to the myriad duties humans have to each other and their world. According to Hindu social theory, if dharma were to be taken up on a large scale, i.e. if people were to serve each other dutifully, society would be peaceful and its citizens content. In the Bhagavad Gîtå, Krishna, urges Arjuna to follow dharma and thus participate in the well-being of the entire creation. But how do we identify and instill service-oriented attitudes?
The type of service attitude inherent in the practical pursuit of dharma becomes possible “
possible if we as humans cultivate two primary qualities: niraparådhî ‘not causing distress to others;’ and para-upakårî, ‘working for the welfare of others.’ In our day and age, people rarely exhibit these qualities, and are generally more interested in taking care of just themselves, often at the cost of others’ welfare. In other words, we are neglecting many of our social, civic and other dharmas. This leads to different kinds of miseries and conflicts in human society – social, economic, political, cultural and environmental. We also lack role models exhibiting selfless service. For practically exemplifying the qualities required for the pursuit of dharma and service, the Lord created a special creature that acts as an ideal of niraparådhî and upakårî behavior; an exemplar who demonstrates how we can serve others. That ideal role model is ‘go,’ the cow.
Hari Das Shastri Maharaj-ji would always say the cow is the complete embodiment of niraparådhî and para-upakårî. She is para-upakārī, because she serves humans with all her being – milk; urine for medicine, dung for fuel, (which is how rural folks cook); and even bones for glue and skin for leather if she is allowed to die naturally. And, similarly, the bull was the mainstay of Indian agriculture prior to the arrival of the tractor. The cow is nir-aparādhī because she offends no one. When unthreatened, the cows are the most loving of creatures. In exchange for simply grass or straw, which is useless for humans, she gives milk and all her gifts. In this way, the sages of India saw the cows as exemplars of these two qualities of niraparådhî and upakårî for human-kind to emulate – qualities that are the indispensable key to any prosperous and harmonious civilization. So the answer to the question “why go-sevå” from a practical social point of view, is that the cow serves as a paradigm for what is potentially the highest form of human behavior.
The cows’ qualities of niraparådhî and upakårî exemplify the qualities required for communal and civic harmony in human societies – for the pursuit of true dharma. The cow is not only our milk-giving mother, as commonly depicted in Hindu scriptures, but she is our guru wondering about in our midst, a role model teaching us how to be ideal human beings in our interactions with others. Pure service to go means working only for the well-being of go with no desire of getting anything in return. This is the meaning of the word go-sevå. In Sri Haridas Niwas this ideal creature is maintained and served in the true spirit of sevå. Nothing is expected or taken from the cows in return – even their milk, dung or urine are not commercialized. In all his years overseeing the go-Ωåla, Haridas Shastri Maharaj never once drank a drop of the milk of his cows, but distributed it freely to others. In this, he exemplified pure, selfless sevå: serving his beloved cows with all his being and resources with an absolute refusal to accept anything in return. And, of course, Bhagavån Krishna himself exemplified go-sevå. Krishna chose to be raised in a fairly lowly forest dwelling cow-herding community, to exhibit how to serve and love cows so dearly – as expressed in his most popular names – Go-vinda; Go-pāla, Go-pī-nātha. So God himself exhibited the centrality of cow service, which makes the cow all the more beloved for his devotees. So those who serve and please the cows, please the Lord Himself. In the hearts of such persons the supreme Lord manifests all virtues and remove all vices. Therefore Maharaj-ji would say that all good qualities that make a person proceed on the path of dharma appear in the heart of one who serves go selflessly.
Unfortunately, many cows are in an awful condition in India. Due to the ahimsā culture towards cows still prevalent, they are not usually slaughtered for meat in most parts of the country, but due to the decline in such culture, they are no longer cared for and served as they were in earlier days. The bulls are now socially redundant having lost their valuable and indispensable agricultural function in society to tractors and other forms of technology. We now see them left to wander the streets in India foraging in the garbage along with the barren cows. There are welfare programs for the desperately poor also surviving on rubbish dumps, and such programs are supremely important, but there are very few programs for the cows.
We are making strides to move beyond racism and sexism in our present cultural moment, and so it is perhaps a good time for those of us, especially ahimsā following bhaktas and yogis with broader para-human sensitivities, to really start pushing against animal-ism. We should be at the forefront of advocating against the injustices and suffering inflicted on fellow animals, and adding animal welfare more prominently on the list of ‘ism’ injustices humans are presently tackling. While all animal life is respected by those seeking to cultivate the higher potentials of human beings, amongst all creatures, the cow was seen as especially emblematic of honorable higher qualities. This is due to exemplifying for us two paramount qualities required for our own social well-being: para-upakārī and nir-aparādhī. The sages of ancient India correlated the spiritual and moral welfare of Vedic India and the prevalence of these two qualities amongst humans, with the way the cows were treated; and they would consider any degeneration in their treatment with a decline in higher culture and spirituality, as also in civic order and communal harmony.