In the morning, I often make a long hike (forty-five minutes each way) up to the orphanage called Ramana's Garden to teach the children Kundalini yoga. It’s an exhausting walk in the heat and a true labor of love for these special children.
One day on the way home from teaching the children, along a dirt path next to the Ganga framed by beautiful cactus and bougainvillea and populated by orange-drenched sadhus, I saw a black cow walking along the path. She was struggling. It appeared that her leg was broken, perhaps having been run over by one of the crazy motorcyclists that zoom along at break-neck speeds. With every step, she would groan the most pitiful sound and as she put weight on her leg to move, she would dry heave from the pain. Although I am not a cow behavior specialist, it was pretty obvious that she was way beyond the point of pain. Before me, I had the definition of agony.
She was searching for food. I looked both ways down the road for a produce vendor, who set up their ramshackle carts with greens, turnips, cucumbers, papaya, grapes and mango. The only man some ways down along the road had a cart heavy with cucumbers, which he would juice for people to quench their thirst. I ran to him and bought some cucumbers whole and raced back to find the cow. By now, she had walked into a gated garden next to the one of the simple homes given by an ashram to a sadhu to live in until his death. I went into the garden and walked down a lane back into the forest. I saw many cows, but not her. In the garden, a sadhu stood on a ladder pruning a tree. I caught his attention and asked him if he had seen a hurt cow and I mimed a cow with a broken leg and made a horrible sound. He pointed to the rear of the forest, and I walked up to her and put the cucumbers in front of her so that she could reach them easily. I went back to the sadhu. In very simple English, I said that the cow was badly hurt and did he know a doctor for her? He told me that she comes every day looking for food and said, “What can you do, madam?” quite indifferently.
The fact that this man had seen her suffer day after day and had not bothered to try to help her inflamed me. You earn the right to call yourself a holy man in my eyes not after initiation ceremonies or taking a vow of poverty. You earn it through compassion and service. I looked at the sadhu, so indifferent on his ladder. I uttered seriously, “You had better never so much as think the name of Lord Krishna again until you help his beloved cow.” Lord Krishna is a beloved avatar who guides Arjuna through battle in the Bhagavad-Gita. Cows are sacred to him and receive his special blessings. People walk through the streets touching their heads to get a boon of grace. I cannot allow that the same people who would touch this cow’s forehead to receive grace cannot find it in their hearts to try to help give her some grace in return.
What can I do? I can refuse to allow a creature to suffer. I can try to find help. I can do something other than shrug at someone’s agony and say “karma.” And so I made it my mission to get her help. I gave the sadhu a final withering look and went to search for someone else who could help. I immediately thought of Santosh, my friend of the Brown Bread Man shop, who had helped me when Beatrice the French lady had lost her shoes. (See blog entry “A Pair of Shoes and a Cow.”) I ran the distance to Santosh’s shop, filled with the sounds of the cow’s pain. I explained the situation to Santosh. It didn’t get much of a reaction out of him. So I decided again that a higher level of emotion was going to be required to get my point across. I started to cry. I told him how much pain she was in and how it wasn’t right to let her suffer. He called a vet. But the vet wouldn’t come because a certain bridge was closed for Kumbha Mela, and he would have to walk across the river. I told Santosh the vet’s legs weren’t broken and he should get over here. But as often is the case in India, the person in a position to help, isn’t moved to do so. I was furious.
I went to the ashram to find Siddhi Yogi, (see blog entry “The Ayurvedic Shaman”) who I knew worked with animals. When I finally found his room, he was sleeping but woke up to talk to me. I told him about the cow and asked him to come help. He said he couldn’t leave the ashram, but proceeded to go into meditation and find her soul. He made some agonized sounds and favored his leg and then opened his eyes and told me a recipe for a poultice that I needed to bind around her leg. I told him that I was sure the cow would try to kill me if I touched her leg. He admitted it was a problem, but offered no solution.
This process was fast exhausting me. I left Siddhi Yogi because I had to teach my yoga class at Parmarth. I went to class and told the students about the cow and about taking our yoga out into the world through compassion in action. I taught my class and when it was finished, immediately ran back down the road where the cow had been and went to find the old man dressed in white who had told me I was doing good work (see blog entry “The Light of the World”). I walked up to his home, where I could see him staring at me through a crack in the wood. A younger man was peeling vegetables on the front porch. I told him I needed help for a sick cow. The young man asked what was wrong with the cow and I told him. He set down the peeler and gestured for me to follow him. We walked further down the road to a large ashram. We walked into the gate, down a seriously of steep stairs and then came onto the beach. A few people sat in meditation. “Wait”, he said and left.
The ashram was beautiful in location if very simple in build. Unlike Parmarth, the buildings were dirt floors, with one wall and a ceiling and open to the Ganga. The natural setting was stunning, with beautiful white beaches, a cliff next to the Ganga with a Shiva lingam on it, and large boulders deposited from glaciers that melted long ago. As I was admiring the view, an old Indian woman came up to me and in beautiful English asked me what I wanted. I told her about the cow and her agony and how no one would help. She smiled kindly and told me that her guru had set up this ashram specifically to take care of the cows. She asked questions about the cow, how she looked, where she was, et cetera. She then told me there was a vet coming that evening to take care of some other sick cows and that they would help her, too. She kept nodding at me, saying “Very good, very good.” Then she handed me a large leaf and spooned daal into it. “Eat.”
I ate. The daal was very rich and thick. The warmth calmed me down, almost as much as the idea that someone agreed with me and was going to help. We smiled at each other for a while and then I said I had to go as it was getting late. She told me to come back sometime and I promised I would.
The day was staggeringly hot. Walking back to Parmarth Niketan when the heat hung in the night was no easy task. I was dehydrated and emotionally spent. As I went to buy some water, I saw what I least wanted to see. A beggar was beating Beatrice, my favorite cow and the occasional star of this blog. She would try to get away and he would pull her tail. I lost it. I flew at him and started yelling at him to get away from my cow. He let her go and brushed me aside, dismissing me. “That cow is under my protection! Don’t touch her! Don’t you dare touch that cow! May Krishna curse you if you even so much as look at her!” He walked away. The vendors around knew me and were very surprised to see me in my white turban and chuni, usually so calm and meditative, channeling the ferocious protector goddess Durga. “He’s just crazy,” one said to me. I spun at him. “Unacceptable. If he is crazy, then your obligation is to protect the defenseless from him. You should protect the cows from his anger or you are no better.” They hung their heads. I bought some bananas for Beatrice and stroked her neck to calm her down.
I had never lost my temper in India before. I felt like Durga sprang from my body out into the marketplace to do battle for the innocent. I am a little embarrassed, as if I should maintain meditative peace at all times, but I am reminded of the spiritual tradition of the Sikhs, which requires strength and the fearlessness to do battle on behalf of the innocent. I know now that strength is alive in me.
One unexpected outcome of this day is that both Siddhi Yogi and a beggar on the street I never really noticed before have begun to worship me as the divinity Gopala. Both at separate times have touched my feet and bowed, chanting “Gopala, Gopala, Gopala, Hare Gopala” as I pass. Gopala is an aspect of Krishna, a lovely, white-skinned sheperd who takes care of his cows and protects them from harm. Durga emerged in the marketplace and left Gopala in her place to maintain peace.
The black cow was eventually taken care of by the ashram next to the beach. And my beautiful white Beatrice and her Gopala are often seen sharing a banana and a snuggle by the Ganga, Lord Krishna dancing and playing his flute in the sand.