Radha–Krsna and the Cow

It was by now the beginning of the second week of December, and 5:30 in the morning. Chanting on my beads, I walked up the steep stairs to the train station to take my usual 1 ½ hour ride on the IRT train from my parents’ house in the Bronx to the temple. I reflected that before I’d met Prabhupada, my train journeys were always filled with some kind of fearful anxiety. I had always justified the existence of that anxiety by citing one thing or another as it’s source. I felt a sense of relief.

The train rolled back and forth for about twenty minutes, forcing everyone to hold onto the poles and hanging hand-straps in the carriage, or, if they were children, onto their mothers—for dear life. The rattling train then went underground and a few stations later I got off to change to the IND. Walking through that station was like entering a hellish realm. The artificial lighting imbued the connecting tunnels with an unnatural, eerie glow, and the arriving and departing trains roared as if there was an earthquake overhead.

Still chanting japa, I boarded the next train. Some of the people in the subway car stared at each other blankly; some held newspapers in front of their faces, staring at headlines announcing death by murder, death by traffic accident, death by old age or death through the war in Vietnam. I had some faith that my fellow passengers would benefit spiritually by hearing Krsna’s name, even if they did not understand, so I chanted audibly.

At Canal Street I got off to change trains for the second time. By now it was 6:30 and the station was filled with thousands of people. Although most of them were passengers, many were homeless, living right in the station, and I tried not to breath too deeply the fetid air as I made my way down the platform. How could all these unfortunate people not die of hopelessness without Krsna consciousness?

I remembered Prabhupada telling us how a passenger absorbed in contemplating his final destination, on board a crowded, stuffy and bumpy bus is not disturbed. He had used the example to show how a devotee does not mind awkward situations, because he keeps his mind fixed on goal of love for Krsna and going back to Godhead. I certainly wasn’t very fixed; in that I was new. But at least I was thinking of going to see Prabhupada and his temple.

About two stations from Second Avenue, a young man took the seat next to me. Recognizing my tilaka and japa beads, he asked me a few questions about the temple. Then he challenged, “What’s wrong with killing a cow? Why do you people give so much attention to the cow? And what’s wrong with eating meat anyway?”

I responded as best I could, but I knew my answers were not really satisfying him. I was aware of the need for vegetarianism because Krsna is a vegetarian and we offer all our food to Him before we eat. I also knew that meat eating was bad because the animals have a developed consciousness and felt pain. Prabhupada had even written in his first canto of Srimad Bhagavatam that the killer of a cow and the killer of a child in a secluded place is awarded the same punishment given to the killer of a cow. But I had only become a vegetarian myself a few weeks before, and I hardly knew anything about the cow’s importance. I invited the young man to the temple so that he could put his questions directly to Prabhupada. He said he had something else to do, and so we parted at Second Avenue and Houston Street, where I got off. By now it was already 7:00 a.m. and I was anxious not to be late for the kirtana and class.

When the morning program was over, I went upstairs to begin painting. Still thinking about my encounter on the train, I was sorry that I had not been able to answer the young man’s questions to either of our satisfaction. After Prabhupada completed his breakfast I knocked on his door, and offered my obeisances. He looked up and greeted me as he often did, saying, “Jah-duraah- nee.” As usual, this somehow made me feel as if we were the only two people in the world.

“Swamiji, I tried to preach to someone on the train this morning; but I’m frustrated by how it turned out. I couldn’t properly answer the boy’s challenge about meat-eating. Can you tell me what I should have said?”

“What have you done?” Prabhupada sarcastically replied.

I was speechless. What did I do? What did I do wrong?

“What have you done for society?” he repeated. “The cow gives so much to society in the form of milk, which is made into so many health giving products. Milking the cow means drawing the principles of religion in a liquid form. The great rsis and munis would live only on milk. What have you given?”

I finally realized Prabhupada was not speaking to me as Jadurani, but to “me” as the young man. So I repeated his version. “He says there’s no mention in the Bible that meat-eating is sinful or that a meat-eater can’t enter the kingdom of God.”

Prabhupada used neither the Bible nor the Vedas in his answer. “You have to use common sense,” he said. “Suppose one son kills and eats his less intelligent brother. If the son then boasts, ‘Oh father, I’ve just killed your foolish son,’ would his father, who loves both sons, be pleased?”

“Wow! All beings are Krsna’s children and He loves them all. I’ve heard that before—in many other ways; so many people have said it. But it never meant anything to me until now.”

Prabhupada continued, “Better-endowed sons should not live by exploiting those less fortunate, and that includes the animals.” He described briefly how calves are taken from their mothers just after birth and slaughtered. “These sinful acts are responsible for all the trouble in the present society, they don’t know what they are doing in the name of economic development. As he spoke, a few tears fell from his eyes. Cow is mother. Mother supplies milk, and you are killing mother. Is that very good gratitude? Is that advancement of civilization?”

I had to shake my head in agreement and disgust.

“Now every twenty-five years there is big war. Wars and crime. This is their punishment. And they will suffer more.” Now they are repenting, and they will have to repent more and more.”

I thought of the Vietnam War. So many mother cows in America had their calves taken from them, and now so many mothers had their sons taken from them and slaughtered in Vietnam.

Prabhupada seemed lost in his own reverie, and I looked above his head at the picture on the wall. It was an Indian print of a youthful and debonair Krsna, looking about fourteen or fifteen years old, holding His flute and standing on the earth globe—a soft, beautiful white cow behind Him. The cow was craning her neck backward to look at Krsna with loving eyes.

I looked at Prabhupada again. His eyes were also full of love, so much so that I was almost embarrassed to look back at him. Feeling totally unqualified, and uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to react, I just offered my obeisances and left.

* * * *

Later that afternoon, as I was sweeping the altar room floor, Prabhupada was speaking with a few devotees in the next room. I heard him mention my name, and through the window between our rooms I saw him motion toward me. I strained to hear him say, “Krsna’s housewife.” Flattered by the designation, I swept the floor more enthusiastically.

When he had finished speaking with the others, he called me into his room. “Just wait a minute,” he said, walking over to his bookshelf and pulling out one of the volumes of his Srimad-Bhagavatams. He handed me only the dust jacket and asked me to duplicate the cover art in a large painting.

“The whole thing?” I asked, looking at the many forms of Krsna within the spiritual planet bubbles floating in the blue sky.

“No. Only the middle section showing Radha and Krsna and two cows in Vrndavana.”

I squinted at the middle section. It looked like the center of a lotus flower. Was this Vrndavana? Although I hadn’t a clue as to what the picture was about, I was too shy to ask any more details, and so I merely agreed to do the painting.

On my way out to go the art store for supplies, I passed Hayagriva who was speaking with a guest, and I stopped for a moment to listen. Hayagriva had joined Prabhupada seven or eight months before me, and seemed to be very knowledgeable in the Krsna conscious philosophy. The guest asked him why Krsna is blue, and Hayagriva answered. “The Swami actually just answered that the other day. He said that the shade of blue which is Krsna’s color is the most beautiful color existing.”

“Well, why is the sky blue?” the guest joked.

“Swamiji says it’s because the sky is a reflection of Krsna’s body,” Hayagriva answered good-naturedly.

As I hurried on to purchase my art materials, I reflected how timely it was to have heard about Krsna’s color. If I could remember things like that while I painted Krsna’s form, surely I would be able to imbue my paintings with more devotion.

* * * * *

Once I had the first layer of color on the painting, Prabhupada came over and asked me to paint nice garlands hanging from Radha and Krsna’s shoulders. He said to make them look like they did on the book cover. But that tiny picture was anything but clear. Besides being only about two inches high, it was obviously not made on the best of presses, because the primary red, blue and yellow colors did not exactly overlap each other. Bright blue stuck out on one side, and a very bright red showed through on the other. It was not easy to see what Radha and Krsna were wearing on Their shoulders
I had never even heard the word 'garland' before, what to speak of seen one. I had seen Hawaiians wearing leis in movies, but I did not know that garlands and leis were the same thing. Consequently, my garlands looked more like diagonally striped garden hoses than flowers.

Prabhupada told me that the trees in the background were “desire trees of the name kadamba”. “Whatever you like, you can get from these trees,” he said. “In this world from apple trees you get apples; from mango trees, mangos. But in the spiritual world, anytime, anything you like, you can have.”

It sounded magical, for sure, but I had no idea what a kadamba tree looked like. Therefore, trying to copy the tiny print, I made abstract kadamba trees that looked more like light green skies with dark green stars than a forest of wish-fulfilling trees.

When the painting was nearly done, Prabhupada again came over and, in his distinctively graceful Indian way, squatted in front of it. He handed me a small piece of paper on which he had written some Sanskrit words complete with diacritical marks indicating their phonetic pronunciations, and recited:

namo brahmanya devaya
go brahmanaya hitaya ca
jagad dhitaya Krsnaya
govindaya namo namah

“I offer my respectful obeisances to the Supreme Absolute Truth, Krsna, who is the well-wisher of the cows and the brahmanas, as well as all living entities in general. I offer my obeisances to Govinda, Krsna, who is the pleasure reservoir for all the senses, and especially the senses of His devotees.”

Prabhupada asked me to write the prayer on the lower right cover of the canvas, by Radharani’s feet. Not knowing how to print letters professionally, I used stencils and painted the words as best I could.

Soon after I completed the painting, three Indian gentlemen visited
Prabhupada. As I was in the next room, he called me into his greeting room to welcome them. I then watched him offer the men pieces of an Indian sweet called pera, which had been sent from Mathura by his intimate friend and siksa-disciple, Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Gosvami Maharaja. I watched the guests first touch their sweets to their heads and then put them in their mouths, without touching their hands to their mouths.

Out of the corner of his eye, Prabhupada indicated to me that I should note their reverential behavior and follow their example in showing respect to prasadam.

Prabhupada then directed the men to look through the window to my painting, now hanging above his small, oblong altar. “She is not painting out of concoction,” he said. “She is authorized by higher authorities.” I felt honored. For me, of course, that higher authority was Prabhupada; I knew no one else. But, at the same time, his words reaffirmed my connection to our important and authorized spiritual lineage and disciplic succession.

After the men left, I admitted to Prabhupada that I felt discouraged about how the painting had turned out, that it was crude and flat. “It seems like every painting I do is worse than the previous one.” A part of me wanted him to say, “Oh no, you are getting better and better. You are doing wonderfully.” But instead, looking at me seriously, he said, “What can you do? The demigods are painting Krsna, and Radharani is painting Krsna. What can you do?”

I felt humbled and embarrassed to have had such a proud desire exposed. During the kirtana that evening I looked around the temple walls at the Indian prints and at my own paintings. I prayed to Krsna that He might dispel my thoughts that those paintings were mine, and that He might take away all my sense of false pride in relation to them. I prayed that He would show me that they are really Himself.

Copyright 2001-2002 Jadurani/Syamarani dasi.
All Rights Reserved.