4.4 My Vegan Conversion

Karech 2008.jpg

When I immigrated to the US and came to know of the horrific conditions in which dairy cows are raised in the US, I justified my continued consumption of dairy products telling myself that it is different in India. I spun a cocoon of denial around myself so that I didn't have to face the reality of what I was consuming on a daily basis. But the truth kept intruding, time and again.

The dairy industry in the US is one of the most blatantly violent industries in the world, separating mother cows from their calves within days of the calves' birth, torturing the mothers thrice a day, every day, by sucking milk out of their udders in 1 minute flat using machines, forcibly impregnating the mothers again and again and then slaughtering them and grinding them into hamburgers when they are 5 years old, just a quarter of their normal life span. The machine-based milking meant that a certain number of sick cows would necessarily be milked every day and therefore, the US Food and Drug Administration began to accept a certain percentage of pus and blood in milk on a routine basis. As Dr. Michael Greger puts it[30],

"According to the USDA, 1 in 6 dairy cows in the United States suffers from clinical mastitis, which is responsible for 1 in 6 dairy cow deaths on U.S. dairy farms. This level of disease is reflected in the concentration of somatic cells in the American milk supply. Somatic cell counts greater than a million per teaspoon are abnormal and “almost always” caused by mastitis. When a cow is infected, greater than 90% of the somatic cells in her milk are neutrophils, the inflammatory immune cells that form pus. The average somatic cell count in U.S. milk per spoonful is 1,120,000...

A study published in the Journal of Dairy Science found that cheese made from high somatic cell count milk had both texture and flavor defects as well as increased clotting time compared to milk conforming to the much more stringent European standards. The U.S. dairy industry, however, insists that there is no food safety risk. If the udders of our factory-farmed dairy cows are inflamed and infected, industry folks say, it doesn’t matter, because we pasteurize—the pus gets cooked. But just as parents may not want to feed their children fecal matter in meat even if it’s irradiated fecal matter, they might not want to feed their children pasteurized pus."


Moreover, with all that hormonally induced overproduction of milk, cows can barely stand up after 3-4 lactation periods and become "spent”. When they are just 4-5 years old, a mere quarter of their normal lifespans, these “spent” dairy cows are then carted off for slaughter and turned into hamburger meat, while all their male offsprings and a substantial fraction of their female offsprings are suitably starved of iron and other essential nutrients and turned into tender veal after a brief, tortured life.

But within my comfortable cocoon, I tried not to think about the plight of the mother cows that were providing me with milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, butter, ghee and above all, those delicious pedas, gulab jamuns and rasgollas, popular milk sweets in Indian cuisine. I tried not to think about the calves that were separated from their mothers within days of birth, telling myself that people don't separate calves from their mothers in India. I tried not to think about all the calves being tortured for veal. After all, in India, cows are revered as sacred and we would never hurt them, would we? Isn't that why dairy is still consumed in India by us, whose ancestors pioneered the concept of Ahimsa? Aren't dairy products, especially clarified butter (ghee), essential to Ayurveda, the ancient medicinal science of India, and essential to numerous sacred Vedic rituals in Hinduism?

But the stories that we tell ourselves even as we have a sinking suspicion that we're fooling ourselves, take a toll on our mental, physical and spiritual health. We are what we eat is not just a cliché, but also a truism. What we eat is a more accurate reflection of who we are than anything else. Patricia Bragg had said[31],

"We are what we eat, drink, think, say and do."

In that line, what we eat comes first. When what we eat, drink and do are incompatible with what we think and say, we suffer tremendously. But thankfully, during a fateful trip to India in December of 2008, I was forced to excavate every one of these cultural stories from the recesses of my mind and reconcile them with reality and with my core values. And make some life-changing decisions!

This fateful trip actually originated three years before, in December of 2005, when I was inspired by Vice President Al Gore's presentation to work on the environment instead of continuing my engineering career. Then I wrote to Mr. Gore and asked how I could be of help to him and he kindly invited me to Nashville, Tennessee, to get trained to make his presentation during December of 2006. This is how I became a member of his Climate Reality Project[32] and went around making presentations at churches, schools and professional gatherings in the US and India. Becoming an engineer trains you to be a doer and therefore, I had also started a non-profit organization called Climate Healers[33] with a mission to truly HEAL the Earth’s climate - as opposed to maintaining it precariously in an advanced state of disrepair - and an objective to work with in-country Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in India on reforestation to sequester the excess carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere. But I continued making presentations on behalf of the Climate Reality Project even after starting this non-profit. Of course, I tailored Mr. Gore's presentation to make it more personal and as part of this customization, I had been showing before and after photographs of a 250-acre protected forest that the villagers of Karech in Rajasthan, India, had nourished over a 4 year period from 2002 to 2006. These photographs showed barren land with a spindly looking tree in the foreground turning lush green with that same unmistakable tree blossoming in the foreground just four years later. During many of these presentations, some audience member would ask whether I was sure that these photographs were taken four years apart and not during different seasons of the same year. What if the before photograph, supposedly from 2002, had really been taken during the heat of summer while the after photograph from 2006 had been taken during winter? What if the so-called "forest regeneration" was just an elaborate scam that the villagers and the Indian NGO, the venerable Foundation for Ecological Security (FES)[34], who provided these photos, were playing on me? Therefore, when I found myself in the village of Karech during that trip in December of 2008, I asked the villagers if they would take me to their protected forest so that I could see it for myself.

They did. What I saw there shook me to the core of my being. Yes, the protected forest was even more beautiful than the 2006 photo that FES had sent me, but on the other side of the fence enclosing the protected forest, the land looked just as barren as the 2002 photo. The protected forest was fenced to prevent livestock from grazing in there, while livestock herds were freely roaming in the unprotected land. It struck me then that it was my consumption of dairy that was responsible for the devastation in the unprotected land.

India has a substantial population of about 600 million ethical lacto-vegetarians who consider the cow to be sacred, but consume milk and milk products on a daily basis. The result is that the cows are constantly impregnated to promote lactation, but they and their babies are not killed as ruthlessly as in the US, leading to a massive bovine population explosion. While the average dairy cow in the US lives for no more than 5 years, cows in Nature live for an average of 20 plus years. As a result, India has over 320 million heads of cattle, more than thrice as much as the US with 90 million heads of cattle, on about one-third the land area of the US. Consequently, the tiger habitat is now down to less than 2% of India's land area, when it used to be 90% just 100 years ago. The forest is dying, the sambhar deer is dying, the elephant is dying and the tiger is dying just to make room for all those cows and buffaloes. Lately, India has been increasing the slaughter rate for cows and buffaloes to keep the bovine population in some check. As a result, India has now become one of the largest exporters of beef in the world surpassing Brazil, with a 25% market share as of 2015, a dubious distinction for the land of Ahimsa[35].

So much for the sacred cow!

Due to the blatant inequities in our monetary system, the villagers of Karech are poverty-stricken and naturally have to do what it takes to survive. If the demand for dairy and meat products is rising along with the burgeoning middle class in India, then the villagers have to supply that demand in order to augment their meager incomes. Just as the British colonial state built railroads to efficiently extract timber from the forests of India in the 19th century, the post-colonial Indian nation state built roads into remote villages to efficiently extract firewood, meat, dairy and timber from the forests of India in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Banks give villagers loans to buy cows when they can attest that they reside close to wildlife sanctuaries and therefore have access to good grazing grounds. The banks know that even though livestock grazing is not generally allowed in the protected forests, the tribal villagers have grandfathered rights. Over time, with soaring consumer demand for meat and dairy, the land becomes overgrazed. At which point, banks are still willing to give the villagers loans to raise goats since goats eat almost anything, including the roots under ground. When goats get done with the land, it becomes a desert, eventually forcing villagers to move into slums in cities and eke out a living as manual laborers. Of late, the desertification of forested lands has been growing substantially in the state of Rajasthan in India, while the state has become the largest producer of mutton and beef for export to the Middle East.

As I stood there naked in my hypocrisy, waves of shame washed over me. When I left the village of Karech during that trip, I knew that I could no longer stay comfortable in my cocoon of denial and had to eliminate my consumption of dairy products right away. Then I visited a colleague, Amala Akkineni, in the city of Hyderabad and she told me that she had just given up dairy consumption and had turned vegan. This was so serendipitous and when I enquired why, she explained that as the head of an Animal Rights organization, she had been asked to certify that the local slaughterhouse met regulations. While she was able to certify that the slaughterhouse met regulations, she saw what was being slaughtered and immediately turned vegan.

I asked,

"So, what was being slaughtered?"

And she replied - I am loosely paraphrasing here -,

"They were buffaloes with shiny skins, who were obviously well taken care of. As they came off the lorries (trucks), they had this quizzical look on their faces because they could see the knives coming down at the end of the line. They were all mothers who had just stopped getting pregnant and this one slaughterhouse was killing 500 of them each and every day! From that day onward, I stopped drinking milk because I'm haunted by the looks on the faces of those buffaloes as they came off the lorries. Now I make yoghurt using soy milk and use that for our curd rice."

Curd rice is a staple in South Indian diets as it has live cultures to reinforce stomach bacteria and promote digestion. Almost every major meal in that part of the world is ended with that dish. I was thrilled to discover that even after quitting dairy consumption, I didn't have to give up my curd rice!

A few days later, I was relating my experiences to a friend and he showed me an online video of buffaloes teaming up to rescue a calf from lions in the Kruger National Park in South Africa[36]. When I watched that clip, I felt sure that every buffalo mother would like to do to me what those buffaloes did to the lions, for stealing their baby’s milk. That cemented my decision to quit my dairy habit.

At first, when I quit dairy consumption, I thought I would miss those milk sweets. But a week after I quit consuming dairy, I had this huge sense of guilt lift off my shoulders. I did not know why I had been harboring all that guilt, but the relief was so immense and palpable. I knew then that I would never go back to that destructive habit, ever. Within a month after I quit consuming dairy, I no longer felt even the slightest twinge of the arthritic pains that had been the source of my constant suffering for the previous eight years. Instead, I felt so alive and energetic that I thought I could play cricket once again as well as I did when I was a teenager in India! Back in 2000, when I was diagnosed with arthritis at the age of 40, I became resigned to it as my genetic inheritance from my father who had suffered from arthritis for the last 30 years of his life. Now, I really regret not giving up dairy much sooner when I became aware of the inherent cruelty in the industry in America in the early 90s. To think that I could have helped my father avoid the constant joint pains that wracked him all those years by giving up dairy!

Three years later, during another visit to the same village of Karech, I happened to be watching a woman milking her cow and then the light bulb turned on. I understood why I had been carrying that enormous feeling of guilt over my dairy consumption. I recalled a conversation between my grandmother and my grandfather from when I was about 6 years old. At that time, we were living in the metropolis of Chennai on the East coast of India while my grandparents were living in the village of Nethrakere near Mangalore on the West coast of India. During our summer vacations from school, my parents used to send all the children over to the grandparents' homes to spend some time with them. As children, we really looked forward to these trips since we got to explore in the woods and spend time with our cousins.

One evening, I overheard my grandmother discuss the milk situation with my grandfather. Clearly, my grandparents were still practicing the ancient tradition of milking their cows after the calves had fed their fill. But my grandmother was complaining to my grandfather that this particular male calf was drinking too much and was not leaving enough for the children.

My grandfather told my grandmother to pull the calf away after ten minutes!

I knew then that something wrong was going on, but in the turbulent excitement of childhood, I filed it away in the back of my mind and forgot about it.

Or did I?

I'm now certain that was the primary reason for the guilt that I had been harboring all along, which finally surfaced as relief when I became committed to Veganism. Guilt occurs when we act against our core values, our Dharma. I felt guilty about causing suffering to that poor calf, who was being deliberately deprived of his mother's milk, because compassion for all Creation or kindness to all Life is the core Dharma of our species. Just as the elephants' Dharma is to conduct themselves in ways that make the forest thrive, our Dharma is to nurture Life with our compassion and help all Life thrive. It is no coincidence that virtually every one of the world's wisdom traditions, including every major religion, preaches compassion for all Creation. The underlying truth that they are all trying to convey is actually the core Dharma of our species. We have a strong need to be compassionate, perhaps even more than our need for compassion.

But when we deliberately act contrary to our core Dharma, our minds store the resulting guilt as an imprint in our subconscious which then gnaws away at our spiritual, mental and physical well being. These subconscious imprints are known as "Samskaras" in Sanskrit. How often have we heard people say that the first time they witnessed an atrocity, say the slaughter of an animal, it really affected them badly but then they got used to it? Clearly, it affected them the first time because their inner being was screaming at them to intervene and stop the atrocity, the oppression of an innocent other. Then, assuming that they are powerless to stop the atrocity, their minds use this subconscious imprint, the "Samskara,” to dull their senses to the event, if it ever occurs again. This is Nature's mechanism to reduce the instantaneous impact of any continuing atrocities and thereby minimize our suffering, but it doesn't mean that our core Dharma has somehow changed. It certainly doesn't mean that our silent witnessing of the continuing atrocities, or worse yet, participating in them directly or indirectly, is inconsequential to our well-being. The best that the Samskara can do is to dull the instantaneous guilt, not eliminate the accumulated suffering. When our actions don’t match our words, we wound our souls.

The ancient sages of India, especially Buddha, who is undoubtedly the greatest scientist of the human mind of all time, understood all this 2500 years ago and devised simple meditation techniques to help us reconnect with our core Dharma. The Buddha was a true scientist in that he conducted observational experiments on himself and then verified that what worked for him also worked for others around him. The Vipassana "insight" meditation technique that the Buddha taught helps us uncover each of these defining, subconsciously stored, personal Samskaras that are clouding our perception of our core Dharma[37]. Once these stored Samskaras are uncovered, they can be acknowledged and rendered harmless through equanimity, provided that we are not continuing to be complicit in the underlying atrocity. Therefore, the conscious adoption of an attitude of compassion towards all Creation, Ahimsa, is an essential first step in our path towards liberation.

Even in the land that birthed the concept of Ahimsa, we have strayed so far from it in practice! Perhaps, it all begins with conversations similar to the one between my grandparents, but there is no doubt that animals including the sacred cow are exploited cruelly in India as well. The average cow in the cities of India has been found to have 70 pounds of plastic lodged in her stomachs as she tries to nurture herself on household waste in the city streets. The cow leads a miserable life even in the villages of India, as I witnessed. But the cow is also proliferating needlessly in India, for dairy products are not necessary for human well-being. Even the use of milk products in Vedic rituals can be easily substituted with coconut products for the symbolism carries over almost one to one.


Sailesh Rao

Dr. Sailesh Rao is an Electrical Engineer, systems specialist, Climate Healer, author of "Carbon Dharma: The Occupation of Butterflies" and "Carbon Yoga: The Vegan Metamorphosis", and Executive Producer of "The Human Experiment", "Cowspiracy," "What The Health” and “A Prayer for Compassion.