Gokula – The cowshed in the Ashram

(Interview with Chitrangani:)

Q: Could you tell us something about when the first cowshed was built in the Ashram and why?

A: When the first Indian hostel children came to stay in the Ashram, I think it was around 1990, it was necessary to provide them with milk for tea and, besides this, milk was also needed for the daily abhishekams.  So, Swamiji arranged for the Ashram to acquire three milk cows.  At that time this was enough to meet the needs of the Ashram.  The Ashram grew and by 1992 there were 16 milk cows and 12 calves.  There were also 4 bulls used to pull the bullock cart.  All the milk was used within the Ashram, for the children’s tea and the abhishekams.  The cow dung was used as manure for the fields and the trees. Swami was very interested in agriculture.  So primarily there was the need for milk and secondly the need for fertilizer.  Another reason Swamiji started with a gokula (cowshed) is because it is traditional for ashrams to have one, as cows are considered sacred in India.  Still later, as the number of children grew, Swamiji installed a system for producing biogas from cow dung, which was then used for cooking.  This made it possible to reduce the amount of firewood used in the kitchen, because getting enough firewood was always a bit of a problem.

Q: Can you describe a day spent caring for the cows?

A: Swamiji gave instructions that we should begin by bathing the cows every morning.  Our day began at 5 a.m. when we took the cows out of the cowshed.  Then we cleaned and washed the entire cowshed.  Swamiji was very strict about the cleanliness.  Only after the cows had been washed could they be milked.  When that was done we fed the cows special food to keep them healthy and strong, a combination of rice powder mixed with black gram, rice husk and sesame cake.  We also fed them some straw and around 9 a.m. some of the cows were taken out to graze.  At that time there were three acres of green grass set aside specially for the milk cows.  Then, of course, we had to make sure they also drank plenty of water.  At 4 p.m. the cows that needed milking were again first given a wash and then milked.  The cowshed was then cleaned for the second time that day and at 6 p.m. the cows were again given water to drink and then taken inside the cowshed for the night and given some more straw.  There the day ended. 

Swamiji driving the bullock cart

Every Friday a cow pooja was performed in the gokula.  The cow is Gomata.  After the cows were bathed in the morning, we decorated them with pottus and we sprinkled turmeric water all around, as a disinfectant.  We waved sambrani smoke around them in the evenings, which was good to help keep the mosquitoes away.  

Once a month the veterinarian came to check the condition of the cows’ health.  This was important for, as we all know, only healthy cows give healthy milk.  Every year we celebrated Sun Pongal and Cow Pongal, when we all got together to bath and decorate the cows with pottus and garlands and we cooked sweet pongal for the cows and gave them bananas to eat.  We would show arati to the cows and offer them flowers.  These traditions still continue in the Ashram today.

Q: Do you have anything special to narrate about cows?

Cows are not just animals to me.  In the Ashram each one has a name.  Sometimes one of them would break loose and sneak off to munch on the green grass.  When she saw us coming she would quietly try to go hide behind the trees, just like a child.

On the day of Swamiji’s arrest, in 1994, the cows lowed loudly, ‘Ammaaa…’; tears were coming from their eyes and they were running nervously all round in the cowshed. Sadly, after that, one cow died each day, for seven consecutive days.  We don’t know why; we don’t know what their relationship was with Swamiji; perhaps it was due to grief.  As you can imagine, I was very upset when all this happened.  Swamiji used to visit the cowshed every day and he was always so happy to see the newly born calves running around outside for the first time. In 1998 the government sent some people to take the big cows away with a lorry.  They took lots of Ashram properties and they also wanted to take the milk cows.  They were pulling and tugging at the cows to get them onto the lorry but the cows protested and kicked. It wasn’t possible to even get one cow into the lorry.  The cows were very upset.  The people who came to take them noticed this and were surprised at how they behaved. 

Swamiji didn’t like anyone to hit the cows or push them around.  He said that we should bathe and feed them with love, as if they were our children.  He insisted that the cowshed and the cows should be kept very clean and that they should be fed at the correct times.  He expected the cows to always be clean, just like he expected the children to be clean.  Grass was expensive and he was strict about not letting anything go to waste.

Years of service in the gokula

(Interview with Afrikananda:)

Q: You worked with the cows in the Ashram’s cowshed for seven years.  What was your experience with the cows?  How do you see them?

Working with animals is a good thing, I think.  Cows are silent creatures.  You serve them, you try to understand their needs through a silent language, a kind of body language.  By working with them, milking them, feeding and bathing them, you learn to have compassion. To me it is love in action, because they cannot speak or take care of themselves.  Caring for them helped me to develop love for all animals, and also for people.  Cows have lots of patience, they have emotions and have much love for one another.  Once I saw how a mother cow was looking after a little calf who had lost its mother. Another time I even saw a calf cry with real tears after its mother had died.  I also saw a cow making three rounds around the spot where her best friend had been buried.  Once there was a cow who, joining her two front legs, kneeled down in front of me, seemingly asking for forgiveness for some wrong she had just done.  When a cow feels love for you, you can talk with her as you would with a human being; I am sure she would be prepared to even give up her life for you.  In India they say that cows can sense when danger is coming to their master and they will sacrifice their lives to protect them.

Something else I remember is an evening when all the cows had returned to the cowshed after a day of grazing – all of them, that is, except for one young calf.  However, it was already quite dark and I had not noticed her absence.  I was busy doing my work in the cowshed when one small calf starting showing me that she wanted me to follow her.  After some time I decided to do what she wanted and I began following her.  We walked together for a while, she taking the lead, and finally came upon the little calf who had been left behind.  Luckily we had reached her in time because a bull from the village was just getting ready to attack her.  I chased the bull away with a stick and walked with the calves back to the cowshed.

Q: What advice did Swamiji give you regarding your service with the cows?

A: Swami told me to look after them very well.  He explained that cows are holy animals, that I should give them my full attention and that I could learn spirituality through them.  Like I already mentioned, I feel that working with cows is an excellent way in which to develop patience and compassion.  It also helped me to understand others and their problems and to control my anger.

Q: What is the purpose of keeping cows in the Ashram?

A: It is traditional for every ashram to have its own cowshed, or gokula, because in India cows are respected and venerated as holy animals, as you can read in the story of Krishna’s life.  Also, when we look at the stages of evolution, the last incarnation as an animal is a life as a cow.  Furthermore, of course cows provide us with milk to drink, for poojas, to make into curd or butter and ghee and cow dung is used to fertilize the soil.

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