From ISKCON News by Hare Krishna dd

“In my last birth I was born in the family of cowherd men, and I gave protection to the calves and cows. Because of such pious activities, I have now become the son of a brahmana.” – Lord Chaitanya (Chaitanya-charitamrta, Adi Lila 7.111)

Throughout history many traditional societies have centered on a particular animal, and the relations the people develop with that animal influence the values of the whole society. We think of the role of buffalo in shaping the lives and values of the Native Americans of the Plains. Similarly, we think of the Laplanders and their reindeer, or even the New England whaling villagers and the whales.

In each case, without a particular animal the culture of the people would be entirely different. Because of relations to that animal, whether by shooting, herding, or sailing after it, the society encourages attributes such as toughness, bravery, gentleness, or respect for nature.

Vedic culture centers on the cow. In fact, without cows there can be no true Vedic culture. Veda means “knowledge” – in the highest sense, spiritual knowledge. And as Srila Prabhupada explains, cow protection and brahminical culture are “the two pillars of spiritual advancement.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.17.20)

Now, it is easy for even an outsider to understand why brahminical culture is considered indispensable for spiritual advancement. After all, brahmanas are the disseminators of spiritual knowledge and the exemplary maintainers of spiritual standards, just like the priestly class in any society.

But what about cows? What do cows have to do with spiritual advancement? And why cows? Why not sheep or goats or horses?

In his purport to Lord Chaitanya’s statement above, Srila Prabhupada gives us the clue. “The words of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the greatest authority, herein clearly indicate that one becomes pious simply by keeping cows and protecting them.” How can that be? One reason is that cows are emblems of the mode of goodness.

In Vedic teachings different animals are associated with different material qualities. For example, monkeys, because of their extraordinary sex drive, belong to the mode of ignorance. Lions are said to be in the mode of passion, and cows in the mode of goodness. When humans ally themselves with an animal in the mode of goodness, they themselves gradually rise to goodness, which is favourable to spiritual advancement.

In the opening quote of this article, Lord Chaitanya was teasing an astrologer who had determined that the Lord, in His past life, had appeared as an incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. To have some fun with the astrologer, Lord Chaitanya ostensibly denied that He was the Supreme Lord, saying that in His past life He had been merely a cowherd boy, and that only by His pious activities had He now become a brahmana…

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