Monthly Archives: June 2008

“Plain Living and High Thinking”: An English Lesson with Srila Prabhupada

Any student of Srila Prabhupada will at once recognize the phrase “plain living and high thinking.” It occurred frequently and memorably in his discourse. It functioned as kind of motto or slogan to epitomize Prabhupada’s vision of a natural spiritual culture, an alternative to our modern, “soul-killing” industrial civilization.

Prabhupada had made use of the phrase even before he journeyed to America in 1965. In an essay (published much later by the BBT as the second chapter of the booklet Message of Godhead), Prabhupada had written that people nowadays are interested only in

behavior like eating, sleeping, defending, and gratifying the senses. The material scientists—the modern quasi priests who invoke such material activities—invent many objects to gratify the material senses such as the eye, ear, nose, and tongue and ultimately the mind, and there results a field of unnecessary competition for enhancement of such material happiness, which leads the whole world into the whirlpool of uncalled-for clashes. The net result is scarcity all over the world, so much so that even the bare necessities of life, namely food and clothing, become objects of contention and control. And so arise all sorts of obstacles to the traditional, God-given life of plain living and high thinking.

After arriving in America, Prabhupada quickly made known his desire to established self-sufficient rural communities to demonstrate this “God-given” style of life in practice. For example, he wrote in a letter to his disciple Hayagriva dasa in June, 1968:

So, if you seriously want to convert this new spot [in West Virginia] as New Vrindaban, I shall advise you not to make it very much modernized. But as you are American boys, you must make it just suitable to your minimum needs. Not to make it too much luxurious as generally Europeans and Americans are accustomed. Better to live there without modern amenities. But to live a natural healthy life for executing Krishna Consciousness. It may be an ideal village where the residents will have plain living and high thinking. For plain living we must have sufficient land for raising crops and pasturing grounds for the cows. If there is sufficient grains and production of milk, then the whole economic problem is solved. You do not require any machines, cinema, hotels, slaughterhouses, brothels, nightclubs—all these modern amenities.

Hayagriva himself, a one-time college English instructor, recognized the phrase “plain living and high thinking,” and wrote in an April, 1967, issue of Back to Godhead, “Thoreau made Emerson’s injunction of ‘plain living and high thinking’ famous when he set out to live outside Boston on an isolated tract of Emerson’s land surrounding Walden Pond.”

It is true that the expression—and its use to signify a return to a simpler, more innocent way of life—had its origin in English letters. However, Emerson himself had appropriated his “injunction” from an earlier source, a sonnet by William Wordsworth. The eminent English poet had composed the poem the year before Emerson’s birth, as its very title shows: “Written in London, September, 1802.”

It is likely that Prabhupada knew Wordsworth’s poem at first hand. Prabhupada had, on his own telling, received a thorough education in English literature at Scottish Churches College in Calcutta. His professor, J.C. Scrimgeour, has been remembered as one who did much to spread appreciation for Shakespeare in Bengal.

Prabhupada had learned well: I heard a devotee recall how Prabhupada had once recited the entire plot of Merchant of Venice to his astonished young American disciples. Prabhupada had made an allusion to the play, and he was taken aback when no one seemed familiar with it. Hence, his Shakespeare lesson. We can see that Prabhupada had been a good student with a good teacher. So it seems likely he had read Wordsworth’s poem in college, and its theme, as well as its memorable phrase, would have stayed with him.

Here is the poem in question (an Italian sonnet):

Written in London, September, 1802

O Friend! I know not which way I must look
For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
To think that now our life is only drest
For show; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook,
Or groom!—We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.

It will be good to read it a few times. (Here the word “expense” means “wasteful expenditure, extravagance,” and the word “homely,” “unsophisticated, simple.”)

As we see, the poem is a lament: “Plain living and high thinking are no more.” Wordsworth was writing near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and as this and others of his poems show, he was horrified by the emerging civilization of money and machinery. Here he morns the way the ferocious dynamo of industrial civilization is uprooting England’s traditional agrarian way of life, and along with it “our peace, our fearful innocence,/ And pure religion breathing household laws.” The phrase “fearful innocence” nicely suggests how respect for divine law (“fearful”) comes from and upholds an unsophisticated purity. The word “breathing” vividly invokes the ease and naturalness with which religion produces and pervades even the humblest of domestic arrangement.

Now from our vantage of two more centuries, we can see that Wordsworth was truly prophetic. (In fact, the protest against what is known as “advanced civilization” was an enduring theme of the Romanticism of which Wordsworth was an early participant.) It is no wonder, then, that Prabhupada has embraced the poet’s fine phrase.

To be sure, Prabhupada has his own inimitable way of excoriating modern life—for example, in this purport to Shrimad Bhagavatam 1.8.40

Human prosperity flourishes by natural gifts and not by gigantic industrial enterprises. The gigantic industrial enterprises are products of a godless civilization, and they cause the destruction of the noble aims of human life. The more we go on increasing such troublesome industries to squeeze out the vital energy of the human being, the more there will be unrest and dissatisfaction of the people in general, although a few only can live lavishly by exploitation.

Or again (SB 3.9.10, purport):

People who have no taste for the devotional service of the Lord are occupied in material engagements. Most of them engage during the daytime in hard physical labor; their senses are engaged very extensively in troublesome duties in the gigantic plants of heavy industrial enterprise. The owners of such factories are engaged in finding a market for their industrial products, and the laborers are engaged in extensive production involving huge mechanical arrangements. “Factory” is another name for hell. At night, hellishly engaged persons take advantage of wine and women to satisfy their tired senses, but they are not even able to have sound sleep because their various mental speculative plans constantly interrupt their sleep. Because they suffer from insomnia sometimes they feel sleepy in the morning for lack of sufficient rest. By the arrangement of supernatural power, even the great scientists and thinkers of the world suffer frustration of their various plans . . . .

Wordsworth was present near the beginning of the civilization of “gigantic industrial enterprises,” and Prabhupada near what will prove to be the end. That civilization can be characterized quite precisely as an overdevelopment, a hypertrophy, of the material mode of passion (raja-guna). As the Bhagavad Gita notes, the result of raja-guna is misery. That misery is now upon us, and it will increase more and more.

We are being forced by the laws of nature to come to the end of the culture of “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth called it in another poem. It that poem, the poet longs to escape to an archaic past. It is our good fortune to have been shown the way forward by Prabhupada, to the life of plain living and high thinking, in which the archaic past becomes one with an attainable future—The Next Big Thing.


Filed under Addtional Writings

The Divine Names: An Adventure

My first connection with the Hare Krishna maha-mantra happened during the “Summer of Love” in August, 1967 in the course of a wedding within a three-room apartment in Powelton Village, the budding hippie district in Philadelphia. The wedding epitomized the time and place.

The groom and I had become close friends during our travails as fellow philosophy majors at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. Thin, angular, his pale beak-nosed face densely hedged with a curly black beard, Steve presented “the Jew” with a delicious hint of self-parody. His bride Catherine was black and beautiful and very pregnant. Behind the altar—a massive wooden table, knobby legged and claw-footed—a goateed United Church of Christ minister of progressive views officiated. As recitations from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tao Te Ching sounded out, a mottled cat manifested itself on the altar and began weaving balletically through a maze of objets, sacred and profane.

Then the reception: with our mirth and good wishes amplified by the herb of choice, our hearts soon swelled to the mighty anthems of the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Buffalo Springfield. We lit our fires. We fed our heads.

Some of us—the philosophy B.A.’s there—formed ourselves into opposing cheer leading squads for the football teams of two rival high schools: Husserl High and Heidegger High. We cheered our teams on: “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Husserl!” “Hi! Hi! Hi! Heidegger!”

At some point Steve lead a group of us down a step into the bedroom. He had something special to reveal. As we made ourselves comfortable on the big bed and floor cushions, Steve leaned over a reel-to-reel tape recorder perched on a dresser.

“This is far out. You got to dig it. It’s really far out.” He diddled with the machine. “A friend from Buffalo sent me this.” Steve had been a student at SUNY-Buffalo before he’d transferred to Penn.

Satisfied, he turned and faced us with his signature look: serious, searching eyes peering over a small, tentative smile. “Ahhh—here . . . .” A click.

A drum tapped with fingers, some kind of cymbal, wooden sticks knocking together, a single twanging string—a simple beat . . . and then a deep voice, the voice of an older man, singing something, not English.

“The Swami,” Steve announced. “Sanskrit.”

I try to follow the complicated words, sung by the Swami with both ease and precision. I am fascinated. And then the music seems to shift gear, and the words suddenly become simpler, just a few words in some kind of repeating pattern:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

I had already been exposed to the media icon “Hippies Chant Hare Krishna” but now for the first time I hear the mantra chanted, and it is astonishingly different from what I had imagined. But before I can think about that, I am startled by the entrance of young voices repeating the mantra in unison, their vowels clearly American, their chanting a little tentative, a little—well—lightweight. Then the Swami takes it up again. After a few repetitions, I notice that the Swami sings the melody with some subtle inflections and modulations, but the chorus seems unable to reproduce them.

Then Steve begins to chant along with the chorus, and gradually we join in with him. As I chant and listen, my mind boggles. The chant is as simple and naive as a nursery rhyme, yet it plumbs profound depths, evokes uttermost seriousness. How? And what is it expressing? I have no idea, so I quit worrying about it and absorb myself in the chanting. There is no change other than a gradually increasing tempo. I do not know how much time passes.

Then a strange feeling takes hold of me, and an image forms in my mind: There is a ship, a ship lost at sea, lost utterly in the dense dark of night and in waters whipped wild. And from far away come the sound of a foghorn—not warning, but calling me back, drawing me back to safe haven. A lighthouse stands fast on the edge of the foaming ocean, casting its beacon and its horn out across the tempest. And the voice of the Swami seems to be calling, calling to me, calling me from far far away.

And I call back . . . .

And it is over. Quiet. “Well,” says Steve, “Far out, huh? Wasn’t that something?”

I nod. It was indeed. Whatever it was.

That was my first connection, yet the experience quickly became covered over. In those days we had many ‘far out’ experiences. Soon after the wedding, I began studies for a PhD at the new Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. Several more years were to pass before my next encounter with the maha-mantra. All the same, the image of being lost at sea and of being called or summoned through the dangerous darkness stayed with me. Though I was lost and covered, gradually, without my knowing it, I was answering the call and turning toward home.

—to be continued—


Filed under The Divine Names

Munchies for the Mind

• The Control of Nature

Shrila Prabhupada:

Can a living entity who claims to be as good as the Supreme Being control the material nature? The foolish “I” would reply that he will do so in the future. Even accepting that in the future one will be as good a controller of material nature as the Supreme Being, then why is one now under the control of material nature? The Bhagavad-gita says that one can be freed from the control of the material nature by surrendering unto the Supreme Lord, but if there is no surrender, then the living entity will never be able to control the material nature. (Shrimad Bhagavatam 2.9.3, purport)

In support of this statement, let me recommend some well written, engrossing investigations in The Control of Nature, by John McPhee. Particularly relevant for those of us in these disUnited States are McPhee’s accounts of the doomed war of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers against the Mississippi River (the lower river has long wanted to shift its main course westward, saying goodbye to New Orleans) and of the losing battle by Los Angeles county to stop the San Gabriel mountains from burying the expanding eastern suburbs under “mudslides.”

• Progress



• Is There An American Karma?

In an article in the Washington Independent, “The Other Subprime Loans: The Same Team that Cooked Up Subprime Mortgages Also Thought of Auto Loans,”
Charles R. Morris lets us know just how far American greed and gluttony have taken us. He writes:

Now the whole consumer-driven, debt-fueled sprint for growth has smashed into a brick wall, leaving a mountainous tangle of bad loans and big trade deficits.

A lot else is going wrong at the same time. The baby-boomers are turning into senior citizens; the dollar is in collapse; critical input costs, like energy, are rising sharply, and military spending has jumped to new levels, even as U.S. forces are under severe strain. If there is such a thing as an American karma, it has taken a decidedly wrong turn.


• Why Are We Suffering?

A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State

A Horse misued upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood

Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear

The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spiders enmity

-excerpted from “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake

• Theology

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

-beginning and ending lines of “Auguries of Innocence”

• The Mysteries of Shankarshana

Dark, Perhaps Forever,” a long article by Dennis Overbye in the weekly science section of The New York Times, explores the bafflement, bewilderment, and frustration of cosmologists arising from the discovery of “dark energy.” This mysterious force (detected a decade ago) drives apart; it is thus diametric opposite of gravity, which draws together. Overbye reports:

Although cosmologists have adopted a cute name, dark energy, for whatever is driving this apparently antigravitational behavior on the part of the universe, nobody claims to understand why it is happening, or its implications for the future of the universe and of the life within it, despite thousands of learned papers, scores of conferences and millions of dollars’ worth of telescope time. It has led some cosmologists to the verge of abandoning their fondest dream: a theory that can account for the universe and everything about it in a single breath.

“The discovery of dark energy has greatly changed how we think about the laws of nature,” said Edward Witten, a theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Discussing proposals for billion-dollar-plus “dark energy satellite,” Overbye says that the data it will gather “is likely to transform astronomy in unpredictable ways, but there is no guarantee that it will nail the mystery of dark energy.”

Although the powerful disintegrative, antigravitational dark energy was only recently detected by empirical researchers, it was known long, long ago to spiritual researchers. We discover this in the Shrimad Bhagavatam in the words used by Lord Shiva to offer obeisance to his worshipful master Lord Shankarshana (SB 4.24.35).

First there is the name “Shankarshana” itself. It means “one who draws together.” Prabhupada translates the name as “the master of all integration.” Shankarshana is thus the source of the power of gravity. But the same Lord is also addressed as “Antaka,” which indicates “the master of all disintegration.” Just as “gravity” denotes the universal integrating power, “dark energy” denotes the corresponding universal disintegrating power. These two opposing forces come from one and the same source.

Another name used to address Shankarshana, “Shuksma,” means “subtle.” The energies or potencies of Shankarshana are extremely difficult to perceive and to understand. The term “dark energy” is, in effect, an acknowledgment of this feature of Shankarshana. Gravity, by the way, is just as mysterious as “dark energy.” All of us automatically understand that when a ball falls to earth the “force of gravity” is at work. But think about it: How does one body in space reach out invisibly to grasp another and draw it close? Measurable movements take place, but invoking the name “gravity” explains nothing. How this force works remains occult and mysterious. Therefore “Shuksma.”

Empirical science has its uses, of course, but penetrating into the mysteries of creation is not one of them. As more and more data is collected, the more the mysteries deepen.

Is there any other science that can take us deep into the mysteries of existence? More to come on this topic . . . .

• Where did this come from? Why is it here? Where is it going?



Filed under Munchies for the Mind