October 8, 2013
By Toni Okamoto for Within Color
Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where are you originally from? What brought you to the US?
I was raised by very supportive and encouraging parents, i.e., parents did not differentiate between sons and daughters. Realizing that I am very intelligent and wanted to study Engineering, they agreed though they would have preferred that I follow the common path of getting a Bachelors’ degree and getting married.
Two more notable recollections about my parents are:
- They always told us, “Do what you want to do and be happy that you are doing what you want to do.”
- Without telling us what to do or not to do, they made it plenty clear that anything less than one’s best is NOT acceptable. An example is, throughout school, a Bachelors’ degree and 3 Masters’ degrees, I have NEVER missed an assignment, actually never missed even one question on an assignment. I didn’t know it was possible to go to school and “face” a teacher without completing my assignment.
Our oldest taught me it’s not possible to do every assignment when he was in High School.
I remember joking with my mother after that, “You and Papa didn’t raise me right. You didn’t teach me that I could take shortcuts. You didn’t tell me I could skip assignments.” My mother laughed, “I don’t know to this day that it is possible to go to school without completing assignments and I would teach that to my children even today.”
Also, I am highly influenced by the discipline, hard work and integrity of my maternal grandfather who was the Chief Justice of India. I wish I could achieve a fraction of what he did.
I am originally from Kolkata, West Bengal, India. I got married to a gentleman, settled in the USA, and had just gained admission at Yale University for a MSEE (Master of Science in Electrical Engineering) degree.
People of color are definitely a minority in the vegan community, how did you find out about veganism? Was it an easy transition? Do you feel your approach and reasons for veganism are different than others because of your background?
Once I stumbled upon the information that even when cow’s udders are bleeding and painful, they are put on milking machines so milk has blood and pus in it. The person who said this seemed grossed by the presence of blood and pus in milk and I was shell-shocked by the extreme cruelty! I told my husband about this. We started reading and researching and learned about veganism. We became convinced that on our path to moksha (ultimate aim of Hindus – liberation from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth) it is absolutely imperative that we become vegan.
It wasn’t/isn’t an easy transition. The virtues of milk/milk products and the divinity of cows are extolled in our scriptures. Ghee lamps are more beneficial than oil ones in puja (personal or collective praying) and satsang (collective chanting of mantras). We love many desserts made with milk and yogurt, like gulab jamun, rasagulla, kheer. Tea with soy milk is not the same, I have stopped having tea.
The way in which my approach and reason for veganism may be different than that of others is due to my desire for moksha and to live the Hindu principle of Vasudaiva kutumbakam – all creation of Vasudeva is one family.
The way in which my approach and reason for veganism may NOT be different than that of others is that like all lovers of animals, as soon as I heard about the extreme animal cruelty, it immediately sparked my interest in learning more and finding out how to end it.
Further research convinced my husband and me that there’s no alternative to becoming vegan if we want moksha. There are many paths to moksha but the path we are on, we hope to gain moksha through good karma, i.e., by karma yoga. How can one eat the products of tortured animals and not be a tortured soul? Garbage in – Garbage out.
You recently opened PreetiRang Sanctuary in South Dixon, CA. What inspired you to do so? What was the process like? What’s your mission?
Regarding the inspiration to start PreetiRang Sanctuary, I had always wanted to do some punya (good karma) in my parent’s name. After leaving my very enjoyable job in July 2011, I spent a glorious 4 months with my parents in India…I finally had the time to “feel my feelings” for the first time in adult life!
Went through a lot of soul-searching about my purpose in life, even though I volunteer at and donate to myriad causes. Have been influenced a lot by the EXTREME abuse and exploitation of “farmed” animals and felt life is passing by. Need to leave behind my grihastha ashram (householder part of life) and, in true Hindu lifestyle, do something worthwhile with this “heera janam amol tha, kaudi badley jaaye“(wasting a life as precious as diamonds and swapping it for shells).
Mukul ji and I kept talking about different causes we are passionate about. I have given time or money to all the causes I am passionate about, like, right to primary education, adult literacy, vocational training, self-help groups for women, basic hygiene and health care, rights and responsibilities of citizens; I have even volunteered at at-risk schools and a hospital in the USA, but I had a lot of guilt about not doing anything for suffering animals.
As I was growing up in India, I witnessed a lot of animal abuse in daily life. If I requested people not to kick a stray dog eating out of a trash can or beat a cow with a stick, they would kick/beat harder after I walked 10 feet away, so I started to keep quiet and walk away from animal abuse though it used to eat me inside.
We asked Baa (my Guru) for advice – whether it makes more sense to have a cow sanctuary in India or here. She felt it’s a great idea; where we have a sanctuary is not as important as having one. We started looking at farm property, we changed our minds several times about where it would be located; the residence of our children, our own financial situation, our support base were the contributing factors.
The process has been very informative, challenging, fulfilling– difficult to express. We were going to set-up a Mom and Pop Sanctuary with 15 cows approximately, care for them, and retire with them. Of course, we would grab every chance to encourage our friends (most of whom are vegetarians) to try a vegan lifestyle; educate children about animals not being food or pets but living beings like us who exhibit the entire spectrum of feelings that we human beings do and spread awareness about health benefits of veganism – try and share vegan recipes.
Not getting a loan for the sanctuary property changed everything. Having used our savings in the property, we decided to create a non-profit and get tax exemption so we can raise funds for the operation of the sanctuary. Now we plan to keep as many cows as we can raise funds for.
So the scale and the nature of the operations have changed from what we envisioned. In the process we continue to learn a lot.
Our mission provides a peaceful, supportive and interesting home where farmed animals can experience life less the anxiety and abuse of meat industry practices. Where animals can express their personalities and explore a better side of life. In doing so, facilitate our own learning and the learning of visitors with the animals as teachers.
Do you feel the culture of your sanctuary is different than others because of your background?
Being a small “start-up” sanctuary, we don’t have the resources yet to engage in the rescue and transportation of residents so we are operating like a backend sanctuary, i.e., caring for animals that have been rescued and transported to us. Also, we are not as formally set-up with a Welcome Center. Our visitors are welcomed to our home and “some” of the Indian hospitality. That cultural aspect may remain even as we grow with time and resources.
Have you felt supported by the mostly white vegan movement? Have there been times you felt silenced/ignored/excluded/uncomfortable?
We have received an outpouring of emotional support for which we are grateful.
We haven’t felt any negative vibes from the vegan community so far…but we have not started participating in vegan events yet. We have become a member of a group of North American Sanctuaries. Hopefully we will start receiving emails about their events so we can start participating.
I have felt misunderstood, not by other vegans, but by the non-vegan community. Many people don’t understand why we cannot treat animals gently and use or sell their products to meet some of the expenses of the sanctuary.
I know that you’re a highly educated woman, how did your family react to you decision to do sanctuary work? Have they been supportive?
My family is 100% supportive of whatever I have done so far. My parents caution us not to take too much upon ourselves as caring for cows and birds and cats can be hard physical work and my husband and I are not getting younger. They are concerned about our health.
The children are supportive. My in-laws, big meat eaters, have shown a lot of interest and have given encouragement and no negative comments!
Do you any have advice for those who have strong cultural ties to food but are also interested in a veg-transition?
Take baby-steps. Eliminate one thing at a time and substitute it with something comparable. Start with things that are easy to give up. For me milk was easy to give up. I could have cereal with soy milk, instead of cow milk. However, I stopped eating cereal for b’fast and started making a fruit smoothie. It’s very time-consuming to wash, peel, cut fruits but I remind myself that I chant while doing do and that also contributes to my health. Since becoming vegan and meditating, I have become much more peaceful. My husband may vouch for that ;-).
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