Simple Living—High Thinking
By Vyapaka dasa
Janmady asya yatah...
The Absolute Truth is that from which everything emanates...
"The supreme one who is celebrated as the Supreme Being or the Supreme Soul is the supreme source of the cosmic manifestation as well as its reservoir and winding up. Thus he is the Supreme Fountainhead, the Absolute Truth." (S.B. 2.10.7)
Since the cosmic manifestation is an incarnation of Lord Krsna’s energy; logically all aspects of creation must reflect the nature of the original cause, i.e. the Supreme Being, Lord Sri Krsna. Therefore, we should be able to empirically verify that any action (vikarma) which violates the basic tenets of Krsna consciousness will also be socially and environmentally unsustainable in the long term.
Otherwise, it will be argued that the Vedic definition of the Absolute Truth is invalid or that the simple living model is an inaccurate reflection of the Absolute Truth. Certainly neither is true. So this provides the devotees an opportunity to show how the devotional lifestyle can act as a panacea for all of today's moral and social problems.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (Srila Prabhupada) explains in the preface of the Srimad Bhagavatam: “The ideals of spiritual communism, according to Srimad-Bhagavatam (Vedic scripture), are based more or less on the oneness of the entire human society, nay, of the entire energy of living beings. The need is felt by great thinkers to make this a successful ideology. Srimad-Bhagavatam will fill this need in human society. It begins, therefore, with the aphorism of Vedanta philosophy (janmady asya yatah) to establish the ideal of a common cause.
“Human society, at the present moment, is not in the darkness of oblivion. It has made rapid progress in the field of material comforts, education and economic development throughout the entire world. But there is a pinprick somewhere in the social body at large, and therefore there are large-scale quarrels, even over less important issues. There is need of a clue as to how humanity can become one in peace, friendship and prosperity with a common cause.”
Kali-Yuga (modern) society runs in the opposite direction of the simple living, high thinking lifestyle encouraged by Srila Prabhupada and the Vedas. His instructions in this regard are relevant both materially and spiritually and these teachings cannot be minimized in developing a comprehensive social plan, and will play an essential role in providing the vision and practicum of a sustainable society.
Simple living requires the philosophical basis and inspiration provided by spiritual life. Without this higher taste, the lower self (mind and senses) erodes the desire and morality needed to develop one’s relationship with Krsna. In essence, it is this pleasure of the eternal relationship with God that is being sought after even through consumerism. In the end, it is the only true pleasure. So without this higher taste, the mind eventually returns to material pleasures with the attractiveness and relevance of simple living being lost.
Recent history provides many instances where simple living is maintained solely by the level of available technology. However, though fulfilling many of our ideals of simple living, it lacks the higher spiritual connection. So simple living without higher thinking is also not recommended. Connection to the Supreme is key.
Presently, there is no shortage of technology. Its presence is everywhere from the computer I am composing this article on to telecommunication, transport, power generation and so on. Unfortunately, the current situation is often lacking in both simple living and high thinking and is more likely to be characterized as high living and simple thinking.
From hydrogen cells to condoms, contemporary remedies focus on symptoms while ignoring the underlying cause of spiritual bankruptcy. The urge to enjoy separately from Krsna (God) is the primary force behind the narcissistic and debilitating tendencies of modern society. As such, this social arrangement which is based upon action springing from the modes of passion and ignorance cannot persist.
This is confirmed in the 2nd chapter of the Bhagavad-gita (2.16):
"Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent there is no endurance, and of the existent there is no cessation. This seers have concluded by studying the nature of both."
Society has made countless technological changes over the course of history. As an example, the field of transport follows a continuum starting with oxen before moving to horses, to steam, and now to oil with each stage providing increased mobility and speed. However, each change in technology demands an increase in energy use. Inarguably, one can travel further and faster in the 21st century, but it is dependent upon a large increase in the amounts of energy consumed.
To illustrate, overall energy consumption in the 1980's is 80 times greater than that consumed 100 years ago. So at the heart of the current lifestyle is enormous energy use. As such, the question must be asked if these levels of consumption can be maintained and the quick answer is no. The crucial point is that these demands are stemming from an inflated standard of living fueled by uncontrolled desire.
So when some speak about an evolving society, the facts behind the matter is that the alleged evolvement is merely a reflection of harnessing energy through new technology to meet the demand of ever-increasing wants.
The unfortunate situation is that the primary energy source, oil, is non-renewable and is a prominent cause of adverse environmental effects. Could not the latest panacea in the form of hydrogen cells be as easily remedied by a civilization focused on an environmentally-harmonious, God-conscious culture of simple living and high thinking? Certainly, but not until the sensual buzz from material gratification is replaced by knowledge or is beaten down by the laws of karma using the strong arm of environmental degradation. Even as devotees, we are being constantly challenged by this dilemma; and if we are to pass the test, we will need to summon a strict adherence to our devotional practice and principles. These are the only hope and remedy available to us and the world.
Lasting change cannot be achieved until the true proprietorship of all things is understood. Nothing less will work and the basis of this change will come as a result of the sincere chanting of the Hare Krsna mahamantra (providing the chanting is done offencelessly), which will replace the urge for consumption with a proper understanding of one’s place in nature. Indeed, a sustainable society can only be achieved if built upon an infrastructure of spiritual practice because the gross always manifests from the subtle.
No where does the effect of moving away from a simple living, high thinking ideal seem so vivid as in the area of diet and its concomitant impact on the environment.
(relative biomass at each Trophic level)
The workings of an ecosystem illustrated by the Trophic Triangle reveals how nutrition (energy) passes through an ecosystem. There are three feeding levels in every system. The top level is populated by carnivores which subsist by hunting prey (generally herbivores) or scavenging carrion. The next level is the herbivores who find their nourishment by ingesting plants. The third level is the producers which are the engine of the ecosystem since it is their role to capture the sun’s energy and transform it into food energy (carbohydrate), of which all consumers (carnivores and herbivores) are dependent. They are the sole energy-producing component of the ecosystem and all levels are dependent for nourishment upon these plants fulfilling their responsibility of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic plants are the foundation of the food chain.
So as one moves up through the various stages of an ecosystem, the biomass of each level is reduced to 1/10th of the previous. Therefore, as measured in biomass, there is one carnivore to 10 herbivores and 100 producers. This is one of the ecological reasons behind a vegetarian diet being able to support higher population densities.
Some of the environmental effects of a meat-based diet are:
- “Raising livestock and poultry is a food consuming, not food-producing, operation. Many more humans can be supported on the same agricultural base if livestock and poultry are eliminated from the food chain and humans feed on the second trophic level rather than the third.”
- A shifting agricultural system takes .05 Calories of energy for 1 calorie of food output. Similarly, a hunting and gathering society consumes 0.2 calories for each calorie produced; a modern milk grass-fed cow farm produces 1 calorie for every calorie produced in comparison to a grass-fed beef which uses over 2 calories and a beef feedlot consumes 10 calories to produce 1 calorie of food energy.
- “Pure vegetarian food choices make less than 5% of the demand on the soil as meat oriented choices. Livestock production accounts for 85% of all lost topsoil. The U.S. has already lost 75% of its topsoil. The livestock in this country produce twenty times as much excrement as does the human population. Over half of this is not recycled."
- “Factory farming is resource-intensive and wasteful, which is partly why the Union of Concerned Scientists in their publication, The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices considers reducing our meat consumption as one of the most important things we can do to help the environment. Anywhere from seven to 16 lbs. of grain are needed to create one pound of edible cow flesh.”
- “John Robbins, author of the book, "Diet for a New America," reveals some interesting statistics on America's production of animal flesh and fluid: Raising animals for food requires more than one-third of all raw materials and fossil fuels in the U.S. If we all adopted a vegetable-based diet, only 2 percent of raw materials would be used.”
In researching this article I happened across the PBS website which discusses modern production of meat. In the article, the CEO of the American Meat Institute defends the efficiency of the 100,000 head feedlots as reducing the cost of meat for the masses and how the cost of meat and food has been reduced in North America to less than 9% of household income. This was attributed to centralization, refrigerated transport and new ways of packaging meat.
However, it was interesting to read data from the Economic Research Service site of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which confirmed that per capita expenditure for food decreased in affluent countries -- but simultaneously the cost to produce a calorie of food was greater in wealthier states. The reason given was that affluent diets were heavier in meat which is a very expensive source of protein.
Though it may be less expensive currently to eat meat compared to twenty years ago, but it is also less efficient from an environmental and energy perspective due to centralization and increased transportation costs. In addition, the external costs of water pollution, health care, long distance transport of feed to the herds, manure disposal and transportation of meat to urban centers are not accounted for.
As described above, when it takes an investment of ten calories to produce one calorie of food energy, it is only a question of time until the illusion of profitability evaporates. Economics cannot dominate nature for any extended period of time. In addition to shallow economics, the karmic reaction to wholesale animal slaughter provides a debilitating effect on society-as-a-whole in both the short and long term.
As such, the example of meat-eating is an important one. And one in which all devotees can agree upon. But it is just one of many possible illustrations to show that deviation from Vedic ideals works neither materially or spiritually. This is a lesson we must not forget.
Oil is transformed organic matter which was originally produced through photosynthesis and stored away in various carbon sinks over the course of many milleniums. The downside is that by quickly releasing this energy into the environment for the purpose of enhancing the standard of living, there has been severe pollution problems created. Due to inputting so much energy and byproducts into the environment in such a short period of time, the natural cycles cannot deal with it in the medium and short term.
In addition, over-dependence on non-renewable resources results in a fragile economy and social system. It is the price to pay for falling into the impersonal void of consumerism while ignoring self-sufficiency and Krsna conscious cultural development and practice. Adherence to even the basic principles of a Krsna conscious lifestyle avoids all of these pitfalls.
Krsna Conscious Self-sufficiency
Self-sufficiency is the highest form of ecological evolution. Sustainability is achieved because it produces more, or at least an equal, amount of energy as is consumed in maintaining the system, and Krsna conscious social development naturally embraces this principle.
Because it is a system which by definition maintains itself, it must be considered to be situated in the mode of goodness, sattva-guna. Practically-speaking, rather than utilizing energy in a linear fashion, self-sufficient communities must allow the energy naturally passing through the ecosystem, to be diverted and utilized in as many ways as possible. It requires a lifestyle which is not heavily energy dependent and this is where the relevancy of simple living is highlighted. As one’s energy needs rise beyond the available energy inventory, then at that time an energy subsidy is required and self sufficiency lost.
An agrarian-based, rurally-situated lifestyle becomes an obvious choice for the devotees as it is a lifestyle that is harmonious with both nature and Vedic thought. If done properly, it is truly sustainable. However, many difficulties arise in trying to accept this lifestyle when one is still desirous of a materially-opulent standard of living. The attraction to quantity instead of quality is insurmountable if the basic process of Krsna consciousness is not utilized.
Practical applications of these ideals will embrace many of the principles of permaculture, organic agriculture, renewable energy, vegetarianism, enlightened cow protection, animal draft and alternative housing to name a few. All will play an important part in developing a Krsna conscious social setting as envisioned by Srila Prabhupada. Fortunately, a great deal of information is already available and many organizations, individuals and farmers conversant with these themes, are available to draw advice and encouragement from.
Our urban upbringing and resulting values must be shed for a renewed commitment to rural development as a logical growth of our religious values. Certainly spirituality is not monopolized to any specific time and circumstance, but the overall protection of our devotees will be most easily achieved and maintained within a rural setting.
Numerous challenges lie before us since many of the points made in this article are idealistic and we rest far from the ideal. In the near term, what is required is the development of a vision which will inspire the gradual evolution of our society towards the goal of self-sufficient, simple living and high thinking.
One of the essential principles laid down by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada is “Utility is the Principle.” So we need not renounce something which can be effectively used in the service of the devotees and Lord Krsna. The trick will be in having the individual and collective honesty to determine when the technology is being utilized for Lord Krsna’s service, rather than for personal sense gratification. Wisdom will be ours when an understanding manifests on how to renounce technologies which temporarily aid us in developing a Krsna conscious, self-sufficient society, but in the long term are anathema to our pursuits.
In this regard, Srila Prabhupada has provided us with something very rare and extremely precious. That is an in-depth understanding of the workings of material nature side-by side with the process of developing Krsna consciousness. No one has a better track record than Srila Prabhupada in his ability to transform the mundane into the spiritual. Our challenge is to naturally renounce the high living, simple thinking lifestyle which most have been brought up with and which still effects our values.
Life is a constant battle amongst short, medium and long term goals. All must be accommodated and balanced. Our history of rural development on the whole has been below expectations, but as we mature we must look at past attempts and keep the best while discarding the rest.
For the development and maintenance of our personal and collective Krsna consciousness, situating our communities in rural areas is a must. It is the easiest way in which we can protect ourselves and dependents from the constant onslaught of material nature. It provides stability to our families which is a required commodity to effectively fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s instructions and vision.
One of the goals of this paper is to show some practical illustrations that if we follow this God-given philosophy, many of the hurdles thrown our way by the lower modes of material nature can be avoided. That is simple living, higher thinking is practical both materially and spiritually. In fact, it is reality. The more we move away from it, the more nature will force us back. It is the sum and substance of the law of karma.
Rural development must be made one of the central themes of the Krsna consciousness movement. There are hurdles, in fact many of them, but they can be overcome if service to Krsna is kept as a central theme. We simply need to apply our intelligence, muster our determination and strive not to repeat past mistakes.
As the founder/acarya of our movement, Srila Prabhupada is the most important connection to the Absolute Truth. Our duty is simply to give form to his instructions. After all, it is he who has been described as being able to build a house in which all can live. This is certainly no small task but we must always remember it is a program which the whole world is waiting, and one which will provide immense preaching opportunities. It is the only practical means to link all facets of a Krsna conscious society to the Absolute Truth. Simply put, that is its only purpose.
All glories to Srila Prabhupada.