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Animal advocacy through religions – ISKCON and the dilemma of commercial dairy use

The annual Animal Rights Conference is the world’s largest and longest-running animal rights gathering, hailing back to 1981. It is the only conference open to all points of view on achieving animal liberation. This year it was held on Aug 3 – 6 at the Hilton Hotel in Virginia, USA. FFL Director, Paul Rodney Turner, and his wife Juliana were representing Juliana’s Animal Sanctuary and Food for Life Global.

Kosa Eli, the author of The Peaceable Forest was also there promoting her new book about Jaguars and saving the rainforest, and so too was Rangadevi dasi from Govinda’s Catering offering vegan cakes and desserts.

Turner was invited to be on a panel titled: “Engaging Through Religion” (Engaging various religious denominations in animal advocacy).

“I have been speaking at this conference since 1999 and typically I would give a talk on solutions to world hunger and a report on the work of Food for Life projects around the world,” he explained. “However, this panel topic was not suitable for that so I decided to lay out all the cards on the table for this panel.”

The first speaker was, Jeffrey Cohan, the Executive Director of Jewish Veg, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to encourage and help Jews to transition to veganism.

The 2nd speaker was Stephen R. Kaufman, MD, the chair of the Christian Vegetarian Association and vice-chair of the Medical Research Modernization Committee. His books include Guided by the Faith of Christ: Seeking to Stop Violence and Scapegoating. His articles include “Animal Research is Wasteful and Misleading” published in Scientific American with coauthor Dr. Neal Barnard.

Next was Turner who explained how Krishna is praised as the transcendental cowherd boy and “Makhan Chor,” the butter thief. “There is no question that Krishna holds a supreme position in Hinduism,” he explained to the packed room.

He then pointed out how, although Krishna is the cowherd boy and loves to drink milk, there is actually no reference to milk by Krishna in the entire Bhagavad-gita, and this includes the famous verse 9:26 where he describes the diet for a yogi.

This new information surprised many of the attendees who started taking photos of the slide. However, Turner made it clear to the audience that ISKCON was a lacto-vegetarian culture and that if they wanted to be effective in presenting their arguments to Hare Krishna devotees, they would have to first accept this fact and aim for encouraging ISKCON members to stop compromising their standards in using commercial dairy and insist that they only use excess milk from their protected cows.

Everyone in the audience really appreciated the talk. It gave them a fresh perspective and strategy for starting a new dialogue with devotees.

“I stopped consuming commercial dairy around 19 years ago,” said Turner, and I am so glad I did. Considering the founder of ISKCON’s emphasis on developing farm communities and self-sufficiency in ISKCON, I feel my decision is more in line with his desire for purity and sustainability.” Balabhadra Prabhu, ISKCON’s director of Cow Protection (ISCOWP) fully agrees with Turner.

The final speaker was Lisa Levinson who directs In Defense of Animals’ Sustainable Activism Campaign. Lisa also organizes Vegan Spirituality groups and retreats to explore veganism as a spiritual practice. She co-founded Public Eye: Artists for Animals to teach compassion for animals through the arts. Lisa was so touched by Turner’s talk that she invited him to speak on her popular podcast.

“I am encouraged to see more Hare Krishna devotees attending these events,” said Turner. “Animal rights activists and vegans are some of the best candidates for Krishna consciousness or at least good allies in the fight for a more peaceful world. However, I feel many of them have become disillusioned and discouraged by ISKCON stubborn stance on commercial dairy. There is room for dialogue here if only both sides of the aisle can find a common ground to start from. The obvious one here is respecting all animals just as Lord Chaitanya and all the great saints taught us. ISKCON devotees have to stop living in denial and accept the fact that commercial dairy is intrinsically tied to the rape, torture, and killing of innocent cows.”

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