Practical solutions to Africa’s economic, political and social problems. An interview with His Holiness Chayavana Svami, Chairman of ISKCON’s African Mission.
BTG: What do you regard as the challenge of the ISKCON mission in Africa?
Chayavana Svami: The challenge of the African mission is the same challenge we find everywhere in the world: to go out and present Krishna consciousness as we have been taught it by our spiritual master, and to convince people that Krishna conscious life is the solution to the problems of modern day society by showing our practical example.
BTG: The Christian missionary movement has been very active in Africa for about one hundred years and has played a very important role in the, continent’s development. How do your philosophy and practices differ from theirs?
Chayavana Svami: The Christian missionaries have actually done a lot of good work in Africa. They have taught the people that God exists and that one should offer Him respect. But because their philosophy is based on a material conception of human welfare, they are mainly concerned with things like opening hospitals and schools, which can only temporarily alleviate suffering. They do not understand that the individual is actually spiritual—an eternal part of God or Krishna—and that real human welfare is to awaken people to this truth, which can actually liberate them from all material miseries.
BTG: What are the advantages of working here in Africa rather than in America or in Europe?
Chayavana Svami: The main advantage is having a field that is still undeveloped. In one sense we can call Africa a new frontier for Krishna consciousness. The continent is tremendous—it is a vast conglomerate of fifty-four nations—and there are many challenges yet uncovered. Of course, in any part of the world there is opportunity for preaching, but Africa is especially suitable because it’s a unique combination of East and West. We find not only large universities and modern cities but simple village life as well. We can preach Krishna consciousness on both levels. There are also many native Indians here, and this gives us an opportunity to make life members, as we do in India. So we have a very broad field for our missionary activities.
BTG: I’ve heard you’re establishing a varnasrama program in Africa. Can you explain what varnasrama is?
Chayavana Svami: Varnasrama is a comprehensive system of social organization designed to uplift everyone to the platform of spiritual understanding. In the varnasrama system there are four spiritual orders and four functional classes. The four functional classes are the brahmanas, the ksatriyas, the vaisyas and the sudras. The brahmanas are the most intelligent members of society. As the spiritual authorities, they give direction to the ksatriyas, who administer the government and protect the citizens. The vaisyas engage in trading, cow protection and farming, and in this way support the other three classes. And the sudras or laborers assist the other three classes. The four spiritual orders are the brahmacaris (single male students), grhasthas (householders following the regulative principles of spiritual life), vanaprasthas (those who are retired from household life), and sannyasis (those who have completely renounced everything for the purpose of self-realization).
BTG: Is the varnasrama system the same as the caste system?
Chayavana Svami: Yes, but it is not the artificial caste system prevalent in India today, which is based on birthright. If I claim to be a brahmana because my father was a brahmana, that is artificial. For example, suppose a qualified doctor has a son. The son is not automatically a doctor. He may become a doctor, but he is not born a doctor. Similarly, the son of a brahmana is not automatically a brahmana. He must actually qualify himself as a brahmana. The system we advocate accepts a brahmana by qualification, not by birth. This is the caste system given by Lord Krishna for the benefit of human society.
BTG: When someone joins your mission, how do you determine his place in the varnasrama system?
Chayavana Svami: We don’t force a person into a specific varna or asrama. We simply let him work according to his propensities, and he naturally falls into one of these categories.
BTG: How can the varnasrama system solve the problems of society?
Chayavana Svami: In the varnasrama system, everyone’s energies are directed toward serving God. Isavasyam idam sarvam. This means that God is the supreme controller and owner of everything. Thus when everyone cooperates in using everything in His service, He provides all the necessities of life. In this way society becomes peaceful, free from the disturbances created by a godless civilization.
BTG: How are you introducing this program here in Africa?
Chayavana Svami: At present we have a small-scale project in the coastal village of Kilifi, near Mombasa, Kenya. We live among the villagers, teach Krishna consciousness at regular meetings, and apply the varnasrama philosophy. We’re getting very good results in Kilifi, and the government has recently promised us another plot of land where we will expand our activities.
BTG: How will the varnasrama system change the present economic structure of Africa?
Chayavana Svami: The basic principle is to go back to the land. For example, here in Mauritius, the European colonists came to exploit. They took the land, which was at one time used for raising the necessities of life, and turned the island into a one-crop economy. In this way people became dependent upon foreign imports for their subsistence. And because they were dependent, the prices could be controlled, and the people were forced into such a degraded position that they could barely get by from day to day. The whole idea of importing and exporting, which came about as a result of colonialism, is simply artificial. If the land is properly used with an aim toward self-sufficiency, then the people will not be dependent for their livelihood upon importing and exporting. We are trying to present the idea of varnasrama on a small scale with an aim toward self-sufficiency. If a man can become self-sufficient in providing food for himself by proper use of the land and by keeping a few cows, then his primary problem is solved. Using the same land and the same simple process, he can also construct a small house and live very peacefully there with his family. Then he can begin to make cloth to provide clothing, and by following this system he will become completely freed from the unwanted things in society that simply cause agitation and disturbance. He will be in an ideal atmosphere for cultivating Krishna consciousness, the real purpose of life.
BTG: You mentioned that trade is artificial. But doesn’t it yield the benefit of promoting contact between various peoples? Wouldn’t total self-sufficiency lead to indifference and hostility between different people of the world?
Chayavana Svami: No, the only valuable connection between countries—as between individuals—is on the platform of Krishna consciousness. Every individual living entity is part and parcel of Krishna. Therefore, instead of each state becoming the center of activity, if Krishna remains the center of activity, then there is peace and harmony between individuals as well as nations. The present system creates envy between the haves and the have-nots. Under the banner of Krishna consciousness, however, the whole world can be united with God as the center.
BTG: Do you have a food distribution program here like the one in India?
Chayavana Svami: Yes. At our temple in Nairobi we distribute prasada daily, and we also prepare large quantities of prasada for distribution in villages throughout Kenya. The devotees go out every day in trucks and distribute the prasada in the villages. This program has become very popular in Kenya.
However, unlike the mass food distribution program in India—which we may yet develop in the future—our main emphasis has been on teaching self-sufficiency through the establishment of the varnasrama system. Many groups have come to Africa and tried mass food-distribution programs, and although they temporarily relieved some suffering, they did not have the long-range effect that the varnasrama college will have. In the varnasrama college we are educating people to take care of themselves and be independent of handouts from philanthropic organizations. Although we are doing both kinds of work, we find that the real future lies in the varnasrama education, which will instill a sense of pride in the people and give them what they actually want: self-sufficiency and, ultimately, spiritual enlightenment.
BTG: Have you had any success in making dedicated African devotees?
Chayavana Svami: Yes, a great deal. For example, several months ago two of our men came to see me and indicated that they were very anxious to travel and preach. One of them had just been initiated, and the other had been with us for only six months. I immediately arranged for them to take books and prasada into neighboring Tanzania, where they were to open up a center in Dares Salaam. Unfortunately, they were stopped at the border by immigration officials and forced to return to Nairobi. Although we were disappointed at not being able to successfully establish a center in Tanzania, we were not discouraged because the men had developed the determination to go out on their own and preach. Now we are arranging for them to travel and preach within Kenya. Because this preaching attitude is developing among the local men who have joined us, we are very encouraged. The desire to preach is the most important thing in Krishna consciousness.
BTG: How do you propose to solve the challenge of preaching Krishna consciousness to the people of Africa?
Chayavana Svami: The solution lies in how effectively we are able to present Krishna consciousness as it is. Srila Prabhupada, our spiritual master, has given us the perfect example. When he came to America in 1966, he began preaching, and gradually young men and women came forward and started to take to Krishna consciousness. Professor Stillson Judah of Berkeley University has recently written a book about Krishna consciousness in which he concludes That it has a very good chance of surviving in the Western world because the senior disciples are serious and have remained fixed in Krishna consciousness. The same idea applies in Africa. Now we have nearly thirty Kenyan men and women, and we are very encouraged by their progress. Some of them have been initiated, and they are all taking the process very seriously and becoming Krishna conscious. Therefore, we are confident the movement will spread here in Africa. We are also very encouraged that many foreign devotees—particularly from the United States and Europe—are taking a new interest in the ISKCON mission in Africa. In the past year nearly fifty young men and women from America and Europe have come to Africa, and they are all enthusiastically engaged here. As long as this missionary spirit is present among the members of the Hare Krishna movement, Krishna consciousness is sure to spread in Africa and all over the world.
Chayavana Svami: Yes. In Nairobi, Yogesa dasa adhikari is training to be the president of the Nairobi temple. And in Mombasa a recent initiate named Sarvavit dasa brahmacari is also being trained for the presidency of that city’s temple. Within six months to one year these men will be able to take their posts, and they will then become the leaders of the ISKCON mission in Africa. Many others are being trained in Deity worship, cooking, gardening, farming and other aspects of service, according to their capacities. They will eventually take over the work now being done by the foreign students of the Hare Krishna movement.
BTG: What special programs have you instituted in Africa?
Chayavana Svami: One of the most important is the life membership program begun in 1971. We arrived in Africa with very little money and completely dependent on the support of the local people. We do not receive money from overseas, as many other missions do. Therefore our first problem was how to raise funds. At that time Srila Prabhupada had just instituted the program of life membership in India, and we began a similar program among the Indian nationals in Africa. At first we did not even have books. We simply issued a life membership card and promised that in the future we would give them the books and they would receive BACK TO GODHEAD magazine every month for the rest of their lives. To date we have enrolled well over one thousand life members throughout Africa. Most of them are members of the Indian community, and they have given us their financial support. Any endeavor requires organization, labor, land and capital. We have the ability to organize and to provide labor, and from the local population we request capital and land. As we acquire these things, we are then able to apply the philosophy of Krishna consciousness and make it work for the benefit of the local inhabitants.
Our next program was starting Deity worship in the temples. Srila Prabhupada wrote us a letter explaining that for the new men traveling and preaching would be too difficult in the beginning; therefore it would be necessary to establish temples like the ones in the West. So in 1973 we installed the Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Banavihari in our Nairobi temple, and by Krishna’s grace it has become the most popular Radha-Krishna temple in that city. On Sunday we have two feast programs, and during the week we receive many guests.
Our third program is the varnasrama college, launched within the past year on an experimental basis. The varnasrama system itself is well-tested and proven—we know it will work. It is simply up to us to become pure and determined enough to practically apply the principles in Africa.
Of course, our traveling sankirtana (preaching) parties are as active as ever. Just a few weeks ago we sent a group of devotees to the ancient city of Addis Ababa, high in the mountains of Ethiopia. We’ve received reports that they are doing very well there. They’ve met some very intelligent people who are taking interest in Krishna consciousness. We have high hopes that the mission will continue to expand in this way, although traveling in Africa is certainly not easy. The group that went to Ethiopia spent five days of arduous travel to go about a thousand miles. Spreading Krishna consciousness in Africa is a challenge for anyone, but I am confident we are attracting people who can meet this challenge successfully.
BTG: How have the African people received your movement here?
Chayavana Svami: Very well. We’ve now established centers in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Mombasa and Mauritius. In the beginning, people were curious, and we found large crowds gathering wherever we held a public event. But now, although we still attract large crowds wherever we go, the movement has matured to the point where we’re beginning to interest the intelligentsia—the leaders of society. They are coming forward not only out of curiosity but also out of a genuine desire to learn something.
BTG: What is your role in the ISKCON African mission?
Chayavana Svami: I am trying to practically apply the instructions given to me by my spiritual master. Most of the management and organization work is carried out by the African students. I simply preach and keep them enlivened and fixed in Krishna consciousness.
BTG: What do you feel ISKCON can contribute to the African people?
Chayavana Svami: As I mentioned before, the most important thing we are trying to give them is a simple, peaceful way of life, which is what everyone is looking for. They are fed up with the exploitation of the Europeans, and now the Russians and the Chinese are coming—all simply to exploit the land and the people of Africa. But we have not come here to exploit Africa; we have come to give the African people what they actually want: a peaceful, God-centered way of life. This is our most important contribution to Africa and to the world.
BTG: What advice would you give the leaders of the emerging African nations?
Chayavana Svami: They should approach those who are spiritually enlightened for guidance in governing their nations. Here in Mauritius, for example, we have learned through meeting some of the top ministers in the government that they are trying to develop a perfect state. According to the Vedic literatures, a perfect state must have God at the center. During the Vedic age, such rulers as Maharaja Pariksit and Maharaja Yudhisthira presided over perfectly peaceful and prosperous God-conscious empires. There was no enmity or dissension even among individuals; everyone was both materially and spiritually opulent. If the leaders of society would consult the Vedic literature, they could understand that Krishna consciousness is the practical solution to all the problems of modern life. Then, if the leaders themselves take up the process of Krishna consciousness, they will actually acquire the qualities necessary to govern effectively: mercifulness, cleanliness, austerity, and truthfulness. If these qualities prevail in the leaders of society, then the general populace will soon acquire them, and the sinful, destructive activities of illicit sex, intoxication, gambling and meat-eating will automatically be eliminated. Then the entire human civilization can be saved.
BTG: How is your mission funded?
Chayavana Svami: Our activities are financed primarily through the sale of literature published in America by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Contributions from life members are also an important source of income. As I mentioned before, we have over one thousand life members enrolled in Africa alone. We also have several thousand in India and Europe.
BTG: Are you still seeking help from devotees in other countries?
Chayavana Svami: Yes, we are interested in attracting serious-minded men and women to come to Africa and help us propagate Krishna consciousness. Africa is a great challenge because it is a strange place, and anyone who comes here must be prepared to make certain adjustments. But there is also an urgent need for Krishna consciousness here. Now the people of Africa are looking for development, and they are naturally trying to follow in the footsteps of those nations who appear to be most developed. To the untrained, materialistic eye, the Western world appears to be very advanced, but from the sastras [scriptures] we understand that they have simply created a hellish condition of life. In fact, in the big cities of the West, many people—especially the youth—are becoming so frustrated by so-called advanced technology that they are fleeing to the country. Actually, people all over the world are looking for a peaceful, natural way of life, and we know by our experience within the Krishna consciousness society how to achieve that. We are simply trying to give everyone the opportunity to take advantage of the ideal Vedic way of life.
BTG: What do you see as the future of the ISKCON African mission?
Chayavana Svami: Our goal is to spread Krishna consciousness to the entire continent of Africa. By exploring areas of western and northern Africa and the islands surrounding the continent, we have found an excellent field for spreading Vedic culture. People are actually anxious to take to the Vedic way of life, and we see a very bright future.
We have some very serious men and women now, and they are becoming determined and eager to preach the message of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu to their countrymen. As long as the devotees have this missionary spirit, then Krishna consciousness will be successful in Africa or in any part of the world. The real Vaisnava spirit is not to be satisfied simply remaining alone in a secluded place and attaining salvation, but to go out and preach Krishna consciousness and save all the fallen souls. The great Vaisnava saint Prahlada Maharaja was offered whatever he desired by the Lord, including liberation from all material miseries. But rather than take liberation, Prahlada chose to stay in this world and preach Krishna consciousness so that the unfortunate people could be saved and go back to home, back to Godhead. As long as this attitude prevails in ISKCON, our mission will be successful.