by Dhanesvara Das
On my Gitagrad blog* I made several posts of people who are deliberately taking to the simple life away from the cities and off the grid. One of my friends, the devil’s advocate, wrote to me to ask how “living in a one room cabin off-grid relates to the performance of devotional service and the development of Daiva-varnashrama Village? Without such commentary, the reader may think that living off grid in small cabins will somehow solve the greater problems of the day, which, of course, won’t.” That’s a good point. Here is how I answered in my next post:
To begin with, let me answer by saying that without the Daiva-varnashrama culture, simple living cannot be established in a significant way in the present world. And without simple living there is no solution to the problems resulting from concentrating millions of people in densely populated areas, that threaten the ecosystems, and everyone’s mere survival, what to speak of their mental health or happiness. In other words, the Daiva-varnashrama culture must be established in order to save this world from its present suicidal course.
In order to make that connection I will first summarize the idea of Daiva-varnashrama and then explain the relationship between it and simple living. Please note that I use these terms Varnashrama Dharma, varnashrama culture, and Daiva-varnashrama interchangeably herein. While there are differences between them those differences are not pertinent here.
One of the objectives of Gitagrad is to create a place of transcendental culture, where all activity is done for the pleasure and satisfaction of the Supreme Lord. In fact that is the meaning of the word “Gitagrad” – the place where we live according to the Bhagavad-gita. Such a way of life, due to its connection with the Supreme Fountainhead of all that be, should be satisfying, abundant, rewarding, and the ticket to spiritual emancipation at the end of life.
That culture, the Daiva-varnashrama culture, is the culture given to us by God for our well-being and a spiritually progressive life. Many aspects of that culture are prescribed in what are called the dharma shastras. Shastra means scripture. Dharma can be translated as duties. The dharma shastras thus prescribe the many do’s and don’ts for human beings, and those duties are best carried out in the context of the complete varnashrama culture. Acharya Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur explains the function of varnashrama culture in “Sri Chaitanya-sikshamrita”:
The social rules are divided into two parts: varna and ashrama, or varnashrama. People in such a society have two aspects: their basic nature and their stage of life. Their nature is fixed by their mental and physical qualities, and their stage of life determines their role in society. From the individual’s nature arise the rules of varnas, and from the progressive stages of life comes the ashramas. As people act in these roles their individual mental and physical qualities do not disappear [as some may think is the result of spiritual practice], but rather, are nourished.
When bodily and mental tendencies gradually develop by cultivation, they attain a fixed stage, where one quality dominates all others. That quality is the human being’s nature. There are four natures [varnas]: brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya and sudra. These four varnas have arisen on the basis of the positive qualities of men. With the display of negative qualities, the outcast from the social system arises. [In a fully-functioning, widespread varnashrama culture] A person in such a situation has little alternative but to give up those negative qualities [in order to be accepted into society].
Formerly the varnashrama social system was soundly established around the world, and remnants of it are known to us in the West as the medieval social system. However, due to the degrading influences of this age the varnashrama culture has been lost. Details of how the past social order was deliberately replaced, and how society came to be organized by money alone is explained in Chapter Four of the first volume of my book on Spiritual Economics.* But, it has been the desire of the recent Vaishnava acharyas to reestablish that social organization for the progressive benefit of all society. Srila Prabhupada has stated that one of the aims of his Krishna Consciousness Movement is to establish the Daiva-varnashrama culture.
There are several significant aspects to note which may help us to understand and thus establish the Varnashrama culture. The first is that the economic basis of the varnashrama culture is agriculture and cow protection. Not money, nor industrial enterprises, because these act to undermine the culture itself. (For further details on this subject please see my post “Money and Varnashrama Culture” at http://spiritual-econ.blogspot.com, or www.dandavats.com). The second point is that the varnashrama culture that we seek to establish will be significantly different from the varnashrama culture of the past in terms of spiritual practices. Instead of following the Vedic-marga, with the rules and regulations given in the four Vedas as was formerly done, we will incorporate the spiritual practices of the pancaratrika-marga and bhagavat-marga, the practices of modern day Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Specifically we shall incorporate the yuga-dharma, or religion for the age, the chanting of the Hare Krishna Mahamantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. These practices give very quick results to the serious practitioner allowing the supreme objective of spiritual emancipation to be achieved in just one lifetime.
It was Srila Prabhupada’s desire to establish the varnashrama culture, and it was so significant to him that he considered it to be fifty percent of his life’s work. That work is left for us to do as he was not given time to accomplish it. In his books and teachings to his disciples he spoke endlessly about Varnashrama Dharma. He gave many instructions to his leading disciples to establish Varnashrama colleges in each temple leading to the implementation of the varnashrama social system and culture. Despite his many admonitions to that effect the work has hardly been pursued within the society, and we speculate this is because it is not well understood. The fulfillment of this desire of our spiritual master is the goal of our efforts within our Gitagrad communities.
In his instructions to his followers for how to live in this world Srila Prabhupada often used the phrase “simple living and high thinking.” He wanted us to live simply, constructing simple dwellings with local materials for habitation, produce our own food directly from the land, and, combining that with delicious milk products from the cow, to have delicious and satisfying food. With the time saved from having to run hither and thither as everyone must in modern society, one can hear the sacred texts, chant the Hare Krishna Mahamantra, and participate in the spiritual culture with Deity worship, drama, dance, kirtan, music, art, sculpting, woodworking, weaving, writing, etc.
The Spiritual Aspect is Paramount
Above all other aspects of the culture, the spiritual aspect of the varnashrama culture is its most significant, because it can give the participants the happiness and satisfaction so desired by all people in life, without which people cannot be satisfied with simple living alone. The Srimad-Bhagavatam states (1.2.6-7): “The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self. By rendering devotional service to the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna on immediately acquires causeless knowledge and detachment from the world.”
Thus when properly performed, devotional service brings about not only detachment from material objects, but also gives the practitioner full satisfaction. This is a paramount point and the connection between Daiva-varnashrama and simple living—It is due to becoming detached from sense gratification and being satisfied within oneself that one can live a simple life. Without this we see in practice that it is next to impossible for people to live the simple life for any length of time. The villages of the former Soviet Union have been emptying out since the fall of communism and the end of the collective farms that once sustained them. People are enticed by the sense gratification available in the cities with its alluring passionate influence. That is to say that simple living, in an of itself, is not sufficient to give people a satisfying life. Of course the Western countries are so much more “advanced” in this regard that 97 percent of the people now live on 3 percent of the land, urban and suburban.
Because internal satisfaction is so essential to simple living, and because simple living is so essential to solving the devastating impacts of the consumer culture, it is crucial that we create the circumstances that will allow that pure devotional service to develop quickly. Fair enough, you say, but does that necessitate crude living in a village?
There is a growing worldwide recognition that the consumer lifestyle constitutes a big part of our modern day problems—especially the environmental and social problems. And with food prices escalating quickly, causing food riots around the world, consumers are hostage to the moneyed-interests that profit by causing food prices to rise. The key element to note here is that city dwelling requires consumerism. How else can one live in the city? Therefore the “back to the land” movement that began in the late 60s and early 70s after fading is coming back. There are large numbers of people seeking ways to make village life a pleasant and happy experience. In Russia and central Asia the books of “Anastasia,” written by Vladimir Megre, glorifying the natural life have given rise to an entire movement of living close to the earth. This movement is spreading across the Asian continent, Europe, and continuing to North America as well. Then there are the Transition Towns, who, taking Peak Oil as a very real threat, are attempting to alter their lifestyles to be able to live with less oil. They also are beginning to recognize city life as “the problem” requiring oil dependency. There are also many people who see a real and present danger of one form or another in modern life and who desire to be independent and off the grid, like Bill Powers, (see my earlier post) who chose to go it alone in a simple 12 X 12 cabin based on his own inspiration for simple living.
Getting to the Village is Easy. How Do You Stay There?
There is one question that arises in relationship to all of these efforts, quoting the old song: “how you gonna keep them down on the farm?” Rural living may appear to be attractive, and the contrast with city life is at first exciting and pleasing. But how long can it last before it becomes boring and nothing but a lot of hard work? After some ten years the back to the land movement became a back to the city movement, albeit with some survivors—Steve Gaskin’s “The Farm” in Tennessee made it to the 21st century, and of course some of the Hare Krishna farms, and others, although many lost much of their previous vitality through the years. Some of the recent Anastasia settlements are even losing their once enthusiastic members after just a few short years. Let me give a few suggestions as to why this occurs.
Typically we see that most people don’t actually move to the country—they move but bring the city with them. That is, they do not change their lifestyles, their economic support, or their culture. They keep their city jobs with its income despite the longer commute, they import the city culture via satellite dish or internet, and because they do not produce their essentials, they must continue to shop in the city for them which requires money, which is of course obtained in the city. Money thus becomes a city-village umbilical cord which people continue to depend on to survive. To become free from money altogether requires a fairly well-developed group of people who have the know-how, skills and tools to provide for themselves.
An example of this city dependence is the Anastasia settlement Dolyna Djerel (Spring Valley) on the outskirts of Kiev that I visited several weeks ago. Of the fifty homes there, none of the people who lived in them were even trying to be self-sufficient, or even free from city life. Everyone commutes to the city to work. Although some of the homes were simple, judging by the other rather nice houses, they were not even attempting to live a simple life. It would best be described as an effort to create a comfortable community and “gentleman’s farms” where gardening is done as a hobby but is certainly not the main economic basis of living. This is also the case with several other Anastasia communities that I have visited, as well as some of the Hare Krishna farms.
There are some very important reasons that will help us to understand the inability of people to sever their city connection completely.
The first of these is what are called “the gunas” or modes of material nature. Again, in “Spiritual Economics” I treat this subject in detail, and here give only a very brief introduction. There are three modes of nature, goodness, passion and ignorance, under whose influence this entire material world functions. Things are created in passion, maintained under the influence of goodness, and destroyed by ignorance. Passion is very pleasing initially, but after some time brings distress and suffering. Goodness is unpleasant initially, but later is actually joyful. And ignorance is trouble from beginning to end. The city is under the influence of passion and ignorance, but the village is situated in goodness. It is very important to note that practically the entire world is now habituated to, or conditioned by, the modes of passion and ignorance (including our Hare Krishna devotees) due to city living. Due to conditioned behavior we feel comfortable with those modes of nature, and it is therefore very difficult to be satisfied in the village where those gunas are mostly absent.
So here is one of the big problems that stand in the way of successful transition to village living: a failure to become conditioned to the qualities of goodness, especially since goodness is unpleasant in the early stages, or unpleasant until we fully adjust to it. Initially this new lifestyle may be pleasant due to the contrast with city life. Kind of like going on a camping trip. But after some time that euphoria wears off and the differences become magnified. The newcomers may be living in older dwellings, and in a house without plumbing, electricity or gas it will likely be impossible to have the same standards of living that they were accustomed to in the city. Especially if money is difficult to get, shopping is inconvenient and they must learn to do without, there will be at least some dissatisfaction. In these circumstances any appreciation of the benefits of the new lifestyle may be easily overlooked. Unless the newcomers can make it through this adjustment period and the shift in gunas, after some time they simply conclude that the country life is not for them and head back to the city where they feel “normal” again. Solving the necessary problems so that the contrast is not so great will do much to ease the transition in lifestyle. It will also help if our expectations can be adjusted before hand, since when our expectations are unmet we generally become unhappy.
The second thing to understand about the move to the village is that we all must have culture. We are social beings and as such we cannot do without culture. The question now is: where do we get culture in the village? Typically, as stated above, people bring the city culture to the village with them via the airwaves, satellite dish, electronics, newspapers, literature, and recorded media. People have a cultural dependency that is typically not recognized and therefore not dealt with properly.
The best way to deal with this is for the villagers themselves to create their own culture, although there are challenges to this as well. In our modern lives we typically enjoy vicariously—through others. We are entertained. We are passive enjoyers of others’ performances. Thus we often lack the skills for entertaining ourselves, especially at the quality of the superstars that we are accustomed to hearing and seeing. But village culture is not meant to be vicarious, and that means that we must learn to enjoy by doing and participating in activities, rather than watching or listening to others. In order for such a village culture to develop there must be leadership that recognizes this need and encourages, supports and even directs the effort. The villagers themselves must also take responsibility for dedicated practice to develop reasonably satisfying skills. The nice thing about this is that it can be great fun.
The next question that arises is: what is that culture going to be centered around? People generally do only what they know, which are activities of passion and ignorance, not goodness, which further maintains the ties to those influences. Fortunately however, our devotees are learning how to center such activities around Sri Krishna and His eternal pastimes, thus helping them to stay on the transcendental platform of Krishna Consciousness.
In conclusion my thesis is that the simple life, in and of itself cannot give the lasting satisfaction that will sustain a person’s village effort, what to speak of sustaining a significant social movement away from consumerism. Only the Daiva-varnashrama culture has the ability to accomplish this. And thus, only Daiva-varnashrama has the ability to solve the consumerism problem, the environmental problem, the social problems and the economic problems of this world. It is therefore essential for the future well-being of this entire world. The only people who can bring this culture about are the followers of Srila Prabhupada, and it is therefore imperative that they take it up to lead the world out of their foolish ways of living under the influence of passion and ignorance. But are our devotees also too heavily influenced by these lower modes of nature? To averse to the initial unpleasant nature of sattva-guna in order to take up the simple life? Thus far it seems to be a serious challenge given the numbers who take establishing the varnashrama culture seriously. Indeed, I am often told by city devotees that village life is too difficult and unpleasant. Srila Prabhupada indicated that our Krishna Consciousness Movement can bring about a cultural conquest. But that will only happen when the devotees themselves begin to create, and live, that complete culture.
* “Lessons in Spiritual Economics from the Bhagavad-gita – Part 1 Understanding and Solving the Economic Problem” is available from www.spiritual-econ.com.