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What does the Rigveda say about dairy in the United States?

This article is targeted toward American Hindu vegetarians, but it may be of general interest as well. I myself am not Hindu (though I was raised in a Hindu family). My goal here is to be objective as possible, relying only on cited texts and facts (as opposed to certain viral videos). Comments and corrections are appreciated at the e-mail address surya at [this domain name].

I am aware that Hindu texts constitute a wide variety of varying beliefs and contradict themselves in various places, having been written by different authors, but I hope that regardless of your particular beliefs, that the article will be useful, at least as a starting point for your own research. Even if you are not Hindu, if you agree with any of the points in Lemma 1, the research may still be interesting.

Proposition 1

The vast majority of dairy products in the United States are inappropriate for consumption and use according to the Rigveda. This includes the milk at your supermarket, the butter and cheese at your favorite restaurants, the ice cream at your local parlor, and the ghee you may use for religious ceremonies (and rava idlis).

Lemma 1

Dairy is encouraged for consumption and religious use by the Rigveda, subject to certain restrictions:

  1. Barren cows can be sacrificed in religious rituals, but are never slaughtered for beef
  2. Cattle must feed on grass and other herbage
  3. Cattle must have ample pasture to graze on
  4. Mother cows must be in close proximity to their calves
  5. Mother cows must feed milk to their calves directly
  6. Cows should be impregnated by bulls directly

Remark 1

Here I take a prescriptivist reading of the Rigveda. This means I assume a mandate to follow the "ideal" practices as outlined in the Rigveda. If you disagree and take a descriptivist reading instead, you can still evaluate each restriction in Lemma 1 yourself based on your own ethical code. Since dairy farming practices have changed significantly since ancient India, re-evaluation is necessary to see if dairy consumption is still ethical.

Proof of Lemma 1

The Rigveda often refers to and depicts dairy in a positive light. For example, the following lines approve of keeping domesticated cattle and obtaining milk and butter from these cattle for nourishment.

    1. WE through the Master of the Field, even as through a friend, obtain
       What nourisheth our kine and steeds. In such may he be good to us.
    2. As the cow yieldeth milk, pour for us freely, Lord of the Field, the wave that beareth sweetness,
       Distilling meath, well-purified like butter, and let the. Lords of holy Law be gracious.

The Rigveda also encourages the use of dairy for religious purposes, both abstractly (note that a Milch-cow is a dairy cow):

    3. O Mitra-Varuna, Aditi the Milch-cow streams for the rite, for folk who bring oblation,
       When in the assembly he who worships moves you, like to a human priest, with gifts presented.
    4. So may the kine and heavenly Waters pour you sweet drink in families that make you joyful.
       Of this may he, the ancient House-Lord, give us. Enjoy, drink of the milk the cow provideth.
    5. With the loud-shouting band who sang his praises, with thunder, he destroyed obstructive Vala.
       Brhaspati thundering drave forth the cattle, the lowing cows who make oblations ready.

as well as for religious practice (a yadnya, or yajna is an offering to the gods performed by priests):

    [Gau Mantra, http://www.drikpanchang.com/vedic-mantra/festivals/diwali/diwali-mantras.html]
    [I was unable to find an original source for this mantra.]
    O cow, who is Lakshmi Herself in the form of a cow and who bestows ghee for yadnyas, obliterate my sins. 
The Vedas require dairy cows to be treated in a very specific manner. When dairy cows have become barren and cannot produce any more milk, they can be sent for ritual sacrifice in religious ceremonies. But they are not killed for beef, which is explicitly forbidden hundreds of times across Hindu texts (1.0).
    14. He in whom horses, bulls, oxen, and barren cows, and rams, when duly set apart, are offered up,
        To Agni, Soma-sprinkled, drinker of sweet juice, Disposer, with my heart I bring a fair hymn forth.
    16. The fiend who smears himself with flesh of cattle, with flesh of horses and of human bodies,
        Who steals the milch-cow's milk away, O Agni, tear off hte heads of such with fiery fury
    19. Agni, from days of old thou slayest demons: never shall Raksasas in fight o'ercome thee.
        Burn up the foolish ones, the flesh-devourers: let none of them escape thine heavenly arrow.
The following passage indicates that cows must be fed with herbage, or plants and grass (1.1).
    1. MAY the wind blow upon our Cows with healing: may they eat herbage full of vigorous juices.
       May they drink waters rich in life and fatness: to food that moves on feet be gracious, Rudra.
Further, cows should be allowed freely graze without danger (1.2).
    4. The charger with his dusty brow o'ertakes them not, and never to the shambles do they take their way.
       These Cows, the cattle of the pious worshipper, roam over widespread pasture where no danger is.
Several passages refer to a mother cow being close to her calf (1.3), and that a mother cow feeds her calf directly (1.4).
    2. What time on these, as on a dry skin lying in the pool's bed, the floods of heaven descended,
       The music of the Frogs comes forth in concert like the cows lowing with their calves beside them.
    6. I have gained thee for vanquisher, have grasped thee with a stronger spell.
       As a cow hastens to her calf, so let thy spirit speed te me, hasten like water on its way.
    8. When the bright-chested Maruts, lavish of their gifts, bind at the time bliss their horses to the cars,
       Then, as the milch-cow feeds her calf within the stalls, they pour forth food for all oblation-bringing men.
Additionally, cows are impregnated by bulls (as opposed to artificial insemination) (1.5).
    6. For him they lenghten prayers and acts of worship: the Mothers weave garments for him their offspring.
       Rejoicing, for the Steer's impregning contact, his Spouses move on paths or heaven to meet him.

For dairy to be used for consumption and religious purposes, its production must satisfy these six restrictions. ■

Lemma 2

The vast majority of modern dairy farms in the United States violate some or all of the six restrictions given in Lemma 1.

Remark 2

I have organized the proof of Proposition 1 so that if you wish to, you can prove the appropriate variant of Lemma 2 for your own country and publish it. I suspect it holds for every country in the world.

Proof of Lemma 2

20% of beef production in the United States comes from dairy cows that can no longer produce milk [AGWEB2014]. Virtually all healthy dairy cattle are sent to slaughter. Moreover, since fifty percent of calves birthed by dairy cows are male, they are sent either for slaughter as veal or as beef after a few more years. This indirectly violates Lemma 1.0, since simply buying US dairy supports the eventual slaughter of cows and calves for beef.

In 2002 the USDA conducted a survey classifying US farms. Farms with "confined-livestock-types" (which includes dairy cows) are only 18% of all US farms [USDA2002], but account for 80% of all gross sales.

Specifically, of all the dairy cows in the United States, 94,787 animal units (this unit is defined in the paper) are located within confined-livestock-type farms, whereas 19,180 animal units are located within pastured-livestock-type farms.

Further, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) account for 47.6% of gross dairy sales in confined-livestock-type farms.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 defines a CAFO as an animal feeding operation (AFO) that (a) confines animals for more than 45 days during a growing season, (b) in an area that does not produce vegetation, and (c) meets certain size thresholds [CWA1972]. Instead of feeding cattle with vegetation, CAFOs feed them with around 62% roughage (alfalfa, corn stalks, sorghum, or other hay, cottonseed meal, and premixes) and 31% grains consisting mostly of corn, milo, barley. [Fri2008].

Taking all of the above together, over eighty percent of dairy cows in the US are in confined spaces, violating Lemma 1.2, and at least thirty-nine percent of dairy cows in the US are not fed vegetation, violating Lemma 1.1. By the definition of confined spaces, calves are not in close proximity to their mothers which precludes direct feeding, violating Lemmas 1.3 and 1.4.

According to the University of Florida, 49% of dairy cows were conceived via artificial insemination in 1970, and that percentage has risen to 73% [UF1992]. This violates Lemma 1.5. ■

Remark 3

If you don't know how artificial insemination works for dairy cattle, Olds College has produced an instructional video on this topic.

Proof of Proposition 1

The proposition follows directly from Lemmas 1 and 2. ■


What next?

In this section, I am recommending a course of action based on Proposition 1.

In the United States, it is very difficult to ensure your dairy abides by the six restrictions in Lemma 1. Even if you look for grass-fed, pasture-grazed dairy farms, it's likely that male calves were sent to slaughter as veal or beef and that the dairy cows were artificially inseminated and will be slaughtered once they can't produce any more milk. If you do know of a farm that doesn't violate the restrictions you care about (perhaps at local farmer's markets), I'd encourage you to rely on them for your dairy usage. This means you'd have to limit your dairy intake at restaurants since they are likely not sourced from these farms.

Realistically, very few if any of these farms exist, and thus you should aim to minimize your use of dairy in general. Any reduction in your dairy consumption is a positive step forward towards you living your life more aligned with the Rigveda (and improving animal welfare). There are several easy first steps you can take:

You may be interested in these dairy-free FAQs. I hope this article has been useful. If you'd like to offer comments or corrections, my e-mail address is surya at [this domain name]. Thanks!