In this interview series we ask questions to people who are making a difference in our society, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.
Linda Voith is the director of The Compassionate Cow Project, a Goshala in Southwestern New York State, (south of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, NY). Her family was engaged in a seven year court case over keeping cows for religious purposes in a rural village in NY State.
Following are her answers to our questions.
Tell us something about yourself?
My background is in environmental education. I have been deeply connected with animals and nature all of my life. As a teen issues of social and environmental justice consumed my attention; why was society making choices that led to pollution? What was the cause of hunger and social strife?
By chance I had the great fortune to be introduced to the teachings of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Prabhupada and his translations of Bhagavad Gita and Sri Isopanishad. It was then that I realized all my new fangled questions had ancient answers. God is the father of all living entities, including the animals and plants; that rich and poor, all deserve respect and access to resources…. isovasyam idam sarvam, all resources belong to God and we, as a society, should take care of them, knowing to Whom they belong. The teachings confirmed what I knew in my heart all along.
I understand you run a Goshala in western NY State, USA. Can you tell us about your organization?
The Compassionate Cow Project is a newly formed nonprofit initiative. We run a goshala and provide educational programs showing the cows’ integral role in Indian cultural heritage.
I want to make a difference in the lives of as many cows as possible. The best way I can think of to do this is to pass along the knowledge I have gained by taking care of cows in the past 40 years and to empower others to have this opportunity.
We offer consulting and support services for individuals and Dharmic communities across the US that want to start and run Goshalas. We have developed a business template that can be replicated and adapted to any region, using educational programs and ahimsa products and adopt-a-cow memberships to fund the operational expenses.
Goshalas can work in cooperation with Temples by providing milk from protected cows for the Temple Murtis and ahimsa products needed for worship. They can also augment the role that Temples fill as community centers by offering hands on educational programs. Goshalas can bring an atmosphere of something for everyone on a visit to a Temple; while still maintaining the devotional focus.
We are developing a program called Rural Heritage of India where teens needing service credits for their school interview elders in their community about their experiences with cows and rural living skills. The interviews will be available on our website as a place for American students in middle and high school to learn about the cows’ role in Hindu culture. The program naturally creates bonds between teen and elder generations where there is often a gap due to technology and lifestyle changes.
When did you decide that you want to rescue and shelter cows?
In 1980 I moved to a farm community started by Srila Prabhupada’s followers. It was there that I learned about caring for cows and the importance of giving them lifelong protection. When I saw how useful cows are, and how loving they are, something clicked. Cows were a key to my questions about how society could get necessary food and resources while still being compassionate to the animals and responsibly care for the environment.
In 1999 my family rescued a pregnant milk cow named, Chintamani, she surprised us with twins whom we named Radhe and Shyam. It was these cows that the village objected to. Chintamani is still with us at 19 years old. She is like a surabhi, very patient and loving; to this day when she sees little children, milk will start dripping from her udder.
After all the hardships you faced over keeping and protecting cows and your religious beliefs, did you ever feel that you made a wrong decision?
No, all the opposition just made us more determined.
Do you feel anger or animosity towards people who tried to make things difficult for you or your family?
We were upset of course, because officials were using their government positions to stop us from keeping cows, a practice that is innately peaceful and beneficial to society. We lived next door to a beef farm, yet they told us that we could not keep the cows because it was a health and safety risk. It was all so ludicrous and they were not willing to come to the table for discussion or resolution.
Its easy to fall into anger and feel alone and like your being victimized. But anger is a downward spiral that does not lead to anything good for anyone. The worst harm you do in that state of mind is to yourself.
Rather than get angry, we got creative about reaching out for support. At the time, the only constructive actions we could think of were to put up some placards in front of our house explaining the situation. We also wrote letters to the editor of the local newspapers.
Did you get any support from the people in general in this effort?
Yes, there was support on many levels, local individuals came forward to offer moral support. The media picked up the story because it was of human interest. Our lawyer read about the situation in the newspaper. He could tell we were not being given due process in court and offered pro bono support. The VHPA and other Hindu groups got involved because it was an opportunity to support the practice of providing lifetime protection for cows in the USA.
The moral support from local people was the most touching. There are many examples that stand out. My children were very affected by the situation. The cows were their pets, just like family members. The kids were depressed and confused by the contradictory behavior they saw around them, even from people in the neighborhood that they liked and respected who fell into the community pressure to oppose our case. At such a young age it is not good to lose faith in humanity.
It made all the difference in the world for the kids to see how a few individuals stepped forward to offer friendship. Others spoke to the officials in question privately to tell them their actions were wrong. One Village Board Member stood up against his peers and told them their behavior was discriminatory. We even got anonymous letters in the mail from people who felt uncomfortable to speak our publicly. It all made a difference. My children got a good education about what kind of people they wanted to be.
You live at a farm, you grow your vegetables, do you or your family ever miss a city life?
I personally never miss it. My children had to relocate to get employment, but they long for rural life. It’s a shame that there is not a rural development policy in the US to allow people in local communities to provide a livelihood for themselves.
The US has one of the largest consumptions of meat in the world, is it difficult being a vegetarian and why others should consider it?
It was never hard for me to be a vegetarian because Indian cuisine has so much variety to offer. I find it to be physically healthier. It takes so many resources to raise animals for meat compared to food grains. I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s hunger. Nor do I want to support the destruction of the rainforest, and other natural habitats. To me a vegetarian diet makes sense because it is an ethical, compassionate and socially responsible choice.
The suffering caused to animals by a meat based diet is unspeakable. Human society’s hopes to live in peace will remain elusive as long as we are unnecessarily causing so much harm to innocent animals. What goes around comes around.
Do you think its practical in this modern world for people to have a simplistic mode of living that’s close to nature?
In this day and age it may not be practical for everyone to live a rural lifestyle. However it is certainly possible, and necessary, for everyone to think about how to reduce their carbon footprint.
For example, we can create energy systems that require us to pump water uphill, or we can change our design process to work with nature and let the water flow downhill. We can irrigate a desert to grow crops, or we can learn to grow food in our backyards or balcony or in a community garden. We can let rainwater run down the drain under the street, or we can create drainage systems to collect the the rain water to irrigate trees along the side of the street. We can pump oil out of the ground, and use huge amounts of energy to ship it around the world, or we can use gobar gas from composting our food scraps and cow manure. Permaculture and appropriate scale technology are the waves of the future if we want to pass along a healthy earth to our children.
Modern conveniences have made our lives easier. I am all for that. Still it is vastly important that we are aware of our impact on the environment. If we are so caught up in our cell phones that we do not notice that the pond or creek down the street no longer supports aquatic life, that means our children are also at risk from the pollution in the water that comes into our houses at the tap. Frogs and toads and salamanders are indicator species; pollution affects them first, and we are not far behind. When we lose touch with nature, we are not able to monitor our own habitat and wellbeing. Even in a city it is possible to notice and nurture nature around you and to create community initiatives to change the way things are done.
What has your own experience taught you about religion and the conflict that we see in our society over it? Can we as human beings ever live in peace?
Because I was raised as a Christian, and then later came to appreciate the truths in Vedic culture and philosophy, I take a broad view. I don’t think it matters what name we call God, or what religion we follow. If God is at the center then there is no conflict. Just like when you throw a pebble into a pond, the concentric circles never collide. They each have room to move freely and radiate out naturally. It is only when we each throw our own, self interested pebble into the pond, that the ripples collide. It is for each of us to figure out if our lives, actions, and relationships are in alignment with the central point. That is why it is said that peace begins within.
What is your message for our readers?
Be aware and proactive. Make choices that are good for all life. Every drop of water in the ocean counts. Every action you take can make a difference. Choose to live a useful and valuable life. If somehow you fall into depression, find one thing every day to be grateful for. Ask for help when you need it, follow through when you get it.