Taming the Human Beast

I Am the Taste in Water
August 21, 2019

by Kenneth Valpey (Krishna Kshetra Swami)

Lately, while writing my book Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics, I’ve been thinking a lot about soil. I’ve also been ruminating on the terms “domestic” and “wild,” terms often used in relation to nonhuman animals, with broad connotations. So I was intrigued, when reading a cultural history of cattle, that the domestication of bovines—thought to have occurred some ten thousand years ago—must have happened hand in hand with the domestication of human beings. If this be true, what would some implications of such reciprocal domestication be? What might this tell us about the current (bad, very bad) condition of soil? Here is a brief sketch of my reflections on the subject, but first, a thought-provoking quote from G. K. Chesterton, the American Roman Catholic convert and author of an early twentieth-century best-seller, Orthodoxy:

We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type all other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk.

As I see it, the truth of Chesterton’s words become increasingly apparent as we prove ourselves ever more competent in ruining the life-essential soil under our feet—trashing, slashing, burning, melting, desertifying, and paving over our planet. This competency is only too familiar to us, through our daily diet of bad news from mass-media.

If it is true that humans in prehistoric times have been simultaneously domesticated as we domesticated cattle, what happened later? It seems that in our eagerness to burn land-plots to produce fodder, to be turned into hamburgers—forgetting our need of the forest thereby destroyed, and thereby forgetting that it is cows (highly sensate beings, among numerous qualities) being slaughtered in the hundreds of millions (300 million worldwide, annually) to make the hamburgers—we have profoundly lost the plot of what it is we humans are meant to be doing with our lives.

Oh, pardon me. By saying “meant to be doing” I’m completely ignoring centuries of Enlightenment-to-existentialist philosophical tinkering that questions (with no purpose, of course) the very notion that human beings have a “purpose” in this world. The seeds of such questioning go back, arguably, to seeing that craters on the moon were only craters (only “dirt”). But I digress. Could it be that, to get back to properly honoring soil (as domesticated creatures), we need to also get back to honoring the heavens? And could it be that honoring the heavens—affirming divine order—could depend on our relations with animals? Indologist Andrea Gutiérrez writes,

Giorgio Agamben’s work on animals and humans asserts that our relations with the divine depend on the darker relations that “separate” us from the animal, meaning our anthropocentrizing notions and behavior . . . Conversely, I suggest that our relations with other animals depend on our relations with the divine. (Andrea Gutiérrez, “Embodiment of Dharma in Animals” in Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmaśāstra. Patrick Olivelle & Donald R. Davis, Jr., editors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

The celebrated ancient Indian book of wisdom, the Bhagavad-gītā (3.10), hints at this animal-human-divine relationship when Sri Krishna tells Arjuna that ritual practices acknowledging and honoring a transcendent reality (yajna), when performed with faith, bring about abundance and well-being:

Long ago the lord of creation brought forth creatures together with yajna and said, “By this (yajna) you will flourish. Let yajna be your wish-fulfilling cow!”

In India, the link between life-long-cared-for cows and human well-being goes back to the Ṛgveda, in which cows are referred to some seven hundred times. Also, in this same collection of hymns we find extensive elaborations on how humans do well to practice praise of higher beings—a kind of ancient version of what pop singer Boy George summed up bluntly in his 1991 song, “Bow Down Mister!”

What I became convinced of while researching and writing about cows is that, with a bit of cool reflection and a good measure of humble attention to the rich tradition of cow care that developed in India, we humans could actually get the “plot” back: We could do what humans are meant to do in relation with this world, with the added benefit that we could prepare ourselves and our loved-ones for “jumping the fence”—getting on with permanent (no-death) life after our present (mainly troublesome) frames collapse. Doing what we are meant to do would mean, for starters, of course, giving up the hamburgers (and the chicken, and the fish, etc., for much healthier, vegetarian vittles), and greatly reducing, if not eliminating, dairy intake.

For sure, sages of India, when they can be induced to speak, have been known to be blunt. A likely sagacious message: Human life doesn’t begin until we accept voluntary austerity, beginning with voluntarily restricting what we put into our mouths. But this is just the beginning. The good news is that if we accept this message, we can acquire the taste—a higher taste—of connecting in a profound way with God’s creatures, such that we can feel ourselves truly as assistants in the grand plan of things, rather than as the wild, cynical, fearsomely destructive creatures we have become since ages past. Further, and especially if we find ways to serve cows rather than exploit and slaughter them, we can make friends with the divine Friend of the cows, Krishna, who is also known as Gopala (the divine cowherd). And as we learn to be friends with Krishna, Krishna teaches us how to be friends with his creation, in such a way that all beings benefit, whether “domestic,” “wild,” or somewhere between: we can become proper citizens of the earth, thereby treating other beings similarly as earth’s citizens.

These are some of the ideas I explore in the book Cow Care in Hindu Animal Ethics. I know what you are thinking: Who has time to read such a book? Well, what if it were (legally) available as a free digital download? I’ve arranged for just this option, through the Open Access publishing mechanism facilitated by my publisher, Palgrave Macmillan. The book is expected to be available from November 25, 2019, so you are welcome to take this opportunity: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030284077

Kenneth Valpey (Krishna Kshetra Swami) completed his DPhil (PhD) at the University of Oxford with a study of Vaishnava temple liturgical practices and theology (published by Routledge in 2006 as Attending Kṛṣṇa’s Image: Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Mūrti-sevā As Devotional Truth). As a research fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, he co-directs the Bhāgavata Purāṇa Research Project. In this capacity, he and Prof. Ravi M. Gupta have edited a volume of articles and translated a volume of selections from the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (The Bhagavata Purana: Sacred Text and Living Tradition and The Bhagavat Purana: Selected Readings) with both volumes published by Columbia University Press (2013). He is also a research fellow for the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.