Dhanurdhara Swami April 17th, 2017
Today’s Monday Morning Greeting was written after a recent visit to Gītā-nagarī Farm.
Gītā-nagarī has a special place in my heart. In the mid to late ‘90s I frequented there as much as any senior devotee in ISKCON, usually staying in Satsvarūpa Mahārāja’s cabin by the river – that holy place where he penned much of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s biography. In fact, my best Kārttika ever was the one I spent there. That’s saying a lot because except for that one fall, I had spent the last forty Kārttikas in Vṛndāvana, usually at the foot of Govardhana Hill. Perhaps Gītā-nagarī is so Vṛndāvana-like because the resident deities there are Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Dāmodara, the presiding deities of the month of Kārttika, also known as the month of Dāmodara. During that Kārttika at Gītā-nagarī, I performed a strict kārttika–vrata of chanting and fasting, and took all the devotees there every day on parikramā to all the places of Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes that we imagined there, like their Govardhana Hill at the top of the property. It was especially at that time that I became convinced more than ever that outside of Vṛndāvana there is no place more Vṛndāvana-like than Gītā-nagarī, with its simplicity and the mood of the devotees residing there. In fact, at the end of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s life he was headed there to teach the devotes how to live off the land, but become too ill to continue.
But there have been challenges since Śrīla Prabhupāda left. It is quite cold there in the winters and most think why reside there when you could live in sunny Florida? Of course, they faced a myriad of other more serious problems in running a big farm. Devamṛta Swami has been guiding the project carefully over the last ten years. Under his direction two sincere devotees, Dhruva and Pārijāta, practically single handedly have saved, maintained, and developed the farm including developing, against all odds, a unique ahiṁsā dairy. Anyway, that is my preamble. Now what I want to say: I visited again this year and I was happy with the development there, especially that there are now some serious young couples dedicated to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s legacy. I pray that they imbibe Śrīla Prabhupāda’s vision – that happiness is consciousness and not just things and that the simple and hard-working life there is far superior to the economically, socially, and spiritually oppressive life of the modern-day cities and suburbs. I am convinced that they are beginning to realize that. The devotees there seem to have within them that joy of sevā – a joy that is just not offered so readily to even devotees working to survive in the modern world, sometimes just to accrue a few more comforts. My dear readers, I have strictly kept my Monday Morning Greetings to one or two pages of hopefully quickly digestible thought. Today, inspired by my visit to Gītā-nagarī, I have included a transcript of a lecture I gave this year at our Purī yātrā while visiting a simple village nearby. If you have time today please read it, or save it to read later. I think I had important things to share.
Class in Baligram, Odisha – January 18, 2017
Being here makes me think of the little village where I grew up – Brooklyn! There was a famous book about that town called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, like it was a big event. Joking aside, during Mādhavānanda’s class I was looking up and counting the potential coconuts on one tree. It’s forty or fifty on each tree. I was thinking how simple the village life is here. In just one tree, and there are thousands of lush coconut trees here, one could practically keep a family alive for a month. I was speaking to Tom from America, who’s here with Kiśorī and her four children. He told me that his aunt and uncle worked seven days a week at their own store. When he questioned them why they don’t take a day off they said: “If you close the door the money stops.” And I see that more and more people are being forced to embrace that mentality just to live. Today even in an ordinary middle class family, if even one parent stops working, the family will be consumed by their expenses. And I am seeing that today people can’t even retire and practically have to work until death because, “If you close the door the money stops.” But here in this village even if you have nothing, you can wear a gaṁchā, eat organic coconuts, and sleep under a tree and survive. The bottom line is that the traditional agrarian village life just doesn’t have that same air of oppressiveness found in the city.
When I first came to India forty years ago, life was very simple. There was only one phone and one car in all of Vṛndāvana. After being there for three years my parents sent me a ticket to visit them in New York. When I arrived the first thing they did was to take me to the supermarket so they could purchase me a few groceries. When I picked the items that I could eat and brought them to the counter, I was shocked that they just were touching the items to the counter and the price of those items was computed and added immediately. I never saw that before. When I was very young I remember how proud our grocer was that he could just take the pencil tucked behind his ear and accurately and quickly add up all the groceries on the small brown paper bag that he would then pack the items in. By the time I left for India they were still using manual cash registers, but this level of computation so amazed me that I spontaneously blurted out, “Things have advanced so much!” But then realizing that that was not really true, nor our teachings, I quickly corrected myself, “but the quality of life has not improved!” The cashier nodded and even my mother seemed to understand what I had just said.
Prabhupāda would talk about māyā-sukhāya, the illusion of modern happiness, that for every step forward technologically there is a heavy price to pay in the quality of life. For example, we now have airplanes so that we can get places quickly, but the result is that your near and dear ones live so far away. I see that often the elders in a modern Indian family instead of having their grown up children at home or across the street, now have to fly to places like London and then Los Angeles just to visit them. In one sense we have advanced. You can now quickly fly to another country instead of taking months on a boat, but that is illusory advancement for as a result of having airplanes family members often live far apart. It now may take one twelve hours to fly to see one’s daughter instead of visiting her in the next town. Even when I grew up, we knew everybody on our street. Today hardly anyone knows their neighbor. This is māyā-sukhāya.
Śrīla Prabhupāda really had a vision of these things. He was on the cutting edge of so many things. Cutting edge means the latest or most advanced stage in the development of something. So, fifty years ago Śrīla Prabhupāda was on the cutting edge of vegetarianism, the cutting edge of kīrtan, the cutting edge of Eastern philosophy and culture and the cutting edge of sustainable living, but we haven’t always succeeded in carrying his legacy and in too many cases have allowed others to take his mantle, especially with sustainable living. We all need to take that legacy back. Glories to places like Gītā-nagarī who are attempting to do that with their simple living and cutting edge ahiṁsā dairy.
Recently I gave a lecture near Harrisburg. The audience by circumstance was mostly composed of conservative Christians. Before beginning my talk, I was really wondering how to connect with such people, but then suddenly I had an inspiration and spoke: “At the end of my teacher’s life he was headed here to our farm in nearby Juniata County all the way from India to teach people how to live off the land, because he believed that you couldn’t separate economics from spiritual life.” As soon as I finished that sentence one very heavyset man with a big gruff beard and those denim overalls, that kind that cover your chest and hang around your neck, raised his right fist in the air and shouted out, “Amen, brother!” So, when I come here to Baligram, the village of Dasia Bauri, I just look around and marvel, “I’ve never seen a more beautiful place to live in my whole life, a place where people can easily live so simply off the land and have time for spiritual life.” Prabhupāda also wanted to give us such a better life, “Amen, brother!”
Many of you visit the town of Vṛndāvana and share my disturbance that its natural beauty is gradually being covered by housing and apartments, but still just fifteen or twenty minutes from Vṛndāvana, just a little off the path, there are the flower gardens of Vṛndāvana, thousands and thousands of pristine acres. I know quite well some of the mālīs, the gardeners, there and often take lunch with them. It’s such a simple life; they wake up in the morning, they pick their flowers, make garlands, put them in their baskets, and send one of their grown children to sit by one of the temples to sell them. And when the family finishes what do they do, they just sit and chant Hare Kṛṣṇa. Sure they have their problems, but their simple life does not rob them of their spirit and fill them with fear. It’s inspiring to watch!
Tejiyas Prabhu, a senior disciple of of Śrīla Prabhupāda, shared me some interesting insights about sustainable living. Śrīla Prabhupāda asked him to start the kisān movement, the farm movement, so he has studied the subject deeply. As a result he is very well versed in the economics of a traditional agrarian based economy. He told me that the reason most ISKCON farm communities have failed, despite Śrīla Prabhupāda’s instructions and wishes, is because his disciples, like everyone else, were too conditioned to a false standard of opulence based on technology. Real opulence is having your own land, eating fresh food, and breathing clean air. Real opulence is having community with a temple so that family and friends can worship daily together, not that you have to drive in heavy traffic and find a parking space, or ride the F train, just to say Hare Kṛṣṇa in the association of devotees. But despite the advantages of simple living, people are conditioned to a false sense of opulence that forces them into cities mostly to suffer in cramped places. I appreciated Prabhu’s insights.
He shared with me another thing that struck me: “It is proven that if you are born, live, and die in the same place, seventy-five percent of all material problems will be solved.” And he described one of the biggest problems solved by that traditional lifestyle, caring for the aged. Without village community life, old people are usually put in assisted living facilities that for most people take all of their family’s money. What he said hit home. My ninety-six-year-old mother was a successful business lady and intelligently saved a good amount of money for retirement to live out her life comfortably. She still lives in the home she owns outright, but my elder brother told me that it costs almost eighty thousand dollars a year to care for her including her full time caregiver and that soon, within a year, her money will run out, and her house may have to be sold to care for her. Her situation is now the norm for the aged in the first world.
He also told me that if you just add the numbers the present system of caring for the aged, including the cost of artificially prolonging life in the most painful and horrid condition, will totally bankrupt the US economy within fifteen years at the most. Without firm knowledge of the soul, everyone tries to keep the body alive even in the most tortured state so that whatever family money is left will certainly follow the deceased to the grave. It will be gone. Christopher Hitchens, one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, chronicled his last days dying of throat cancer. He wanted to write a book on what death is like and he wrote a book while dying called Mortality and made exactly this point. He had the astute realization while staying in the most advanced medical center in the world and chronicling the torture they put him through, that advanced medical facilities are simply places where they take all the family member’s money just to keep them alive in the most tortured condition – a telling realization of modern advancement.
Looking here, and seeing how beautiful it is, I am reminded of something that Paramahaṁsa Yogānanda said. I will paraphrase it. If you really want to control your mind, more important than your own personal willpower is the influence of your environment. So, we come here to this beautiful place today to have our hari kathā, but just as important as our hari kathā, is seeing firsthand what Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted us to realize, simple life.
Imagine what it would be like if we actually lived in communities like this that were free of economic oppression and where we could live a spiritual life centered on the temple and surrounded by our loved ones and friends. We then wouldn’t need a special retreat for what we would be retreating from. Mādhavānanda and Kṛṣṇakuṇḍa would be the local brāhmaṇa family and every single evening there would be quality hari kathā. I know someone who grew up in one of these villages in Orissa, and he said that every day you would hear either the recitation of the Rāmayana, the Mahābhārata, or the Bhāgavatam, and that even if you couldn’t read or write, you would learn the śāstra.
The austerity of simple life is actually also very healthy. I was in Mumbai at the Bhaktivedanta Hospital when there was a serious earthquake in Gujarat. Some of the doctors, especially the orthopedic surgeons, went to the scene of devastation. They brought back those people who needed more serious care to reset broken bones. The main orthopedic surgeon in the hospital, Girirāja dāsa, told me that the people he was treating from these villages were healing on the average fifty percent quicker than people from the city in similar conditions, another interesting meditation on the benefit of simple life.
Modern society and culture expertly provides entertainment and distraction, but it doesn’t readily solve four core problems, which a traditional society would provide effortlessly: where we are going to live, what is our occupation, who are we going to marry, and who is my spiritual guide. So much energy is wasted in settling these basic things in modern life that one has little room in his mind for anything else, in contrast to a proper culture where these things are provided automatically.
Although I’m a sannyāsi, I don’t like to travel and I never did, even before I was a devotee. I would often make excuses just to stay back in my house. Similarly, I was going to skip coming here today, but Mādhavānanda was insistent, “Please come. You will really enjoy it.” So, I’d like to thank him, because as soon as I came here, so much of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings came to life. This is what Prabhupāda had in mind when he told us simple living and high thinking. He so much wanted to give us a better way to live. And we should try to understand and support this part of his mission.
- Monday Morning Greetings