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The “violence” of non-violence: Getting it horribly wrong on “ahimsa milk”

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Sivarama Swami, a guru in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement) made a video entitled, Can Vegans Consume Milk?, promoting so-called “ahimsa milk” as being suitable for vegans to consume. The video went viral. I’ve already written about this in two previous parts (see here and here). He responded to the flood of criticism he received on this video in an audio recording.

In that recording, although he claimed that, “there are many reasonable and rational answers to all of these” criticisms, he proceeded to offer absurdities such as, “if you let calves drink all the milk that the mothers have, they’re going to get sick. They may even die…so what’s the rest for?” So, apparently, in order to save calves from the supposedly potentially fatal consequences of being nurtured by their own mothers, we’re obliged to steal their milk. What self-serving inanity!

Sivarama then informs us that “bulls need to work.” Did the bulls tell him that? Or did they have no choice in the matter? He claims that if the bulls are not made to work, they get sick. “They’re created like that.” The concern here for the health of enslaved animals is touching, but how about not breeding them into existence to be milk and work slaves in the first place? The level of blatant opportunism here is disturbing. The only reason that bulls “need” to work is because, being useless for producing milk, and not being killed (as is claimed) on Hare Krishna farms, some use has to be found for them to offset the cost of their upkeep. That is, they’re expected to pay their way as economic commodities. Bulls would not “need” to work if they were not bred as surplus to unnecessary milk production. The swami’s attempt to try to convince us that bulls are being exploited as work slaves for the sake of their own health is just an exercise in selling snake oil.

Next followed Sivarama’s equating animals with things such as potatoes, tomatoes and, bizarrely enough, streets, earth and rivers. We don’t ask their consent to use them, so why should we ask animals? But animals are not things—that’s the whole point. They’re nonhuman sentient persons who have an interest in not suffering and should not be used as if they are mere things or resources. Potatoes and tomatoes are alive but they are not sentient. Streets, dirt and water are neither alive nor sentient. Non-sentient things don’t care about what happens to them. Sentient beings do. Sentience is what’s morally relevant. Is it really necessary to explain these basics to a man of mature years who purports to be a spiritual teacher, and now, an animal advocate? Sivarama’s comic book standard of logic is embarrassing.

Furthermore, it’s not a matter of asking the “consent” of animals who are incapable of giving it. The whole concept of consent—even if animals were able to understand the concept and clearly communicate consent—is meaningless in the context of domestication that is about being bred into slavery as property. It’s a matter of not bringing them into existence in the first place with the sole aim of exploiting them. Using sentient persons as property is inherently unjust. The interests of the property-owner will always trump those of her or his property—that’s what it means to be property. The notion of “consent” on the part of someone who has been designated property makes no sense. Once a being has been bred as property it’s already too late to talk about “consent.”

So both those, like Sivarama, who claim that consent is unnecessary, and those, like other Hare Krishna devotees (and Sivarama himself, in a later video response) who claim that the cows do show signs of giving consent, are missing the point entirely. Consent—even when there’s an ability to understand and communicate the concept, which is doubtful for animals—is a function of power. You have to have some power, and some autonomy, in order to be able to make the choice to give or withhold consent. Animals who are property possess no power and no autonomy. Their entire existence, and every aspect of it, is dependent on the whim of the property owner.

Continue reading this essay on Vox Vegan.

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  • Shaun Butler

    Very interesting this. I spent a long period of my much younger life following this movement, even went to a talk by Sivarama Swami. I let go of all the beliefs when I became an atheist a long time ago, but never stopped being veggie. I recently went vegan and it made me think back- why would the Hare Krishna movement consume dairy given their reasons of compassion for not eating meat? Looking back on it, all I could see was contradiction.

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