Simple Living, High Thinking


Hare Krishna Devotee sits on hill and looks at green fields. 1976.

by Dharmadhyaksa dasa

“The cause of it [the world’s malady] is spiritual. We are suffering from having sold our souls to the pursuit of an objective which is both spiritually wrong and practically unobtainable. We have to reconsider our objective and change it. And until we do this, we shall not have peace, either amongst ourselves or within each of us. ”
Arnold Toynbee
London Observer
25 October 1972

The reason for Mr. Toynbee’s remark is that, at present, governmental plans for social development around the world rely solely on economics, technology, science, and material education. His disapproval of one-sided, materialistic culture finds confirmation in sociologist Pitirim Sorokin’s statistical analysis of the past twenty-five hundred years of human history. Dr. Sorokin writes, “We are living in the most scientific, most technological, and most schooled century; and the same century happens to be the bloodiest of all the preceding recorded twenty-five centuries.”

Obviously, then, the materialistic plans for social development are failing. Paradoxically, the materially advanced nations are just as frustrated as the developing nations, if not more so. The people in the few areas where materialism has produced the greatest wealth suffer from the greatest psychological distress and highest crime rates. If both the rich man and the poor man are suffering, then clearly their problem is not material, but must stem from the need for something other than material. Historian Theodore Roszak defines that need as follows: “Technological achievements are… meaningless in the absence of a transcendent correspondence. They leave ungratified that dimension of the self which reaches out into the world for enduring purpose, undying value.” Psychologist Abraham Maslow shows how a sole reliance on materialistic theories actually inhibits all human progress: “…the major motivation theories by which most men live can lead him only to depression and cynicism.”

The alternative to this bleak scene is a spiritually conscious society. This proposal, however, usually provokes two objections: one, that religion is always dogmatic and inevitably leads to “holy wars”, two, that a spiritual society is impractical.

Those aware of only Western religious history would readily agree with the first objection. However, the history of the Vedic civilization of India proves that people in a genuine spiritual society live in the greatest mood of tolerance. Even today, the followers of Vedic culture respect all views, be they Christian, Buddhist, Muhammadan, or whatever. The other objection (that a spiritual society is impractical) also withers before Vedic history. In fact, the oldest civilization in the world (the Vedic civilization) is also the most spiritual. Dr. Sorokin’s study of history shows that organizations based on a materialistic ideology, whether they be businesses, nations, or any other, have a maximum life span of only a few hundred years. On the other hand, he has this to say about spiritual organizations: “The longest existing organizations are the great ethical-religious organizations—Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Muhammadanism, and the like. They have already lived more than one or two or three millennia.” Longevity (which means practicality and strength) results from the satisfaction of people’s basic spiritual needs.

At present the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), founded by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, is approaching our pressing social problems with a spiritual solution. Based on the world’s largest operational body of spiritual knowledge, the Vedas, ISKCON maintains over one hundred microcosmic spiritual communities throughout the world. Social scientists and government officials, including the former prime minister of India, Sri Lal Bahudar Shastri, have praised ISKCON’s practical efforts to improve the human condition. Dr. John B. Orr, Director of the School of Religion at the University of Southern California, appraised ISKCON’s social implications in this way: “Perhaps your movement is the revolution we’ve all been waiting for.”

Why did Dr. Orr call the Krishna consciousness society revolutionary? Perhaps because Krishna consciousness strikes at the heart of humanity’s problems, our forgotten relationship with the Supreme Being. Specifically, awareness of our relationship with God generates knowledge of the natural laws that govern the successful organization of society. Therefore, although Krishna consciousness is primarily a system for rectifying our spiritual predicament, it solves our material problems as well.

Science attempts to discover general patterns that rule its object of study. By applying the scientific laws of social development found in the Vedas, ISKCON is proving that patterns for harmonious living do exist. Rather than vainly treating symptoms of the social disease, now the world’s governments can observe Krishna conscious communities and learn how to treat the real cause of their troubles (the spiritual void in people’s lives) by following the laws of nature and of God.

The First Step

To comprehend how a spiritual society works, we must first understand, at least theoretically, man’s spiritual identity and his spiritual needs. Then the feasibilities, desirabilities, and actualities of a spiritual society will become readily apparent.

The Vedic literature describes man as a marginal being who lives on two planes simultaneously. First, we dwell in material energy, gross and subtle, that comprises our physical body and environment. The material energies include solid matter, liquids, radiant energy, gas, space, mind, intelligence, and material ego. Our four “animal” needs—food, rest, sex, and defense (including shelter)—spring from this plane. The material energies are mechanical, unconscious entities governed by the laws of cause and effect. Like an automobile, which requires a conscious driver to operate it, the inert material energies require a conscious person to activate them. Even the highly esteemed human brain is simply a masterful computer that still requires a qualitatively different energy, a conscious energy, to work it.

The material energies are inferior to the second plane of man’s existence, his consciousness, or spiritual energy. A primary characteristic of spiritual energy is continuity, or permanence. In the Vedic handbook of self-knowledge, the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna emphasizes this point: “As the embodied soul [consciousness] continually passes, in this body, from boyhood, to youth, to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death” (Bg. 2.13).

To grasp the truth of Lord Krishna’s statement, we may reflect on the nature and functions of our bodies, mental processes, and consciousness. A helpful analogy is what commonly happens in a movie theater. Suppose the movie is a biography, showing a great man’s birth, trials, achievements, and passing. During the movie, thousands upon thousands of images flash upon the screen. Yet, when the movie is over and the curtain closes, the screen that permitted us to see the movie remains unchanged, exactly as it was before the movie began. Consciousness (our soul) is like the movie screen, and the movie itself is like the sensations and thoughts we experience throughout our lifetime. And after the “movie” of one lifetime is over, our consciousness remains intact and immediately enters another body to experience a new set of thoughts and sense impressions.

Material scientists have tried arduously to disprove this view. They realize that the continuity of identity within the ever-changing body and mind defies one ironclad law of material energy, namely, that matter is endlessly changing. If every living being has a permanent identity, this would offer the strongest evidence for the existence of a nonmaterial, or spiritual, energy, something material scientists are reluctant to admit. Until recently many scientists had pinned their hopes on finding some physical substance in the brain, which they hypothetically termed the memory trace, or engram. Supposedly, the engram would have accounted for our continuous sense of identity during the life of the body, but it would die along with the body. The engram would then have relegated identity to the temporary status of a material thing. The December, 1975, issue of Harper’s magazine reports on the complete bankruptcy of the search for the engram. Science could not find the memory trace, and one of its most ardent advocates, Dr. Karl Lashley, who had spent thirty years searching, “ended by laughing cynically at his own foolishness in thinking that it existed.”

To put it simply, material science is simply baffled by consciousness. Why? Because, as Dr. Oliver Sacks (of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York) noted in the same issue of Harper’s, “Consciousness does not yield to dissection or analysis.” The best Dr. Sacks and other scientists can do is to “suggest its nature by metaphors and images.”

But by thoughtful observation, we can understand the qualitative differences between the spiritual and the material energies, and thereby directly perceive consciousness. First, examine the gross material elements—solid matter, liquids, radiant energy, gases, and space—from which all chemical compounds and bodies originate. They are ignorant, insentient, lifeless. They remain inert unless acted upon by a living, conscious being. Next, we can think of our bodies and how they are animated by consciousness. We can examine our own consciousness (our feelings, thoughts, and aspirations) and consider our free will (our ability to move and make choices) and our capacity to inquire into our identity, our origin, our destiny.

As we can see, there certainly is a gulf of difference between the material body and the conscious person. We live in two worlds: the outer world of matter, which gives us a material body and a field of activities, and the inner world of consciousness, which provides us with our very life energy. It follows that a perfect society should satisfy both these aspects of man’s nature.

Social Policy

Spiritual realization dramatically changes the focus of human effort. The materialistic conception of life multiplies material desires, which lead to the over-development of industry and technology, and to a ravenous, urban-consumer economy. Social scientists are nearly unanimous in warning us that the continuation of this trend will lead to ecological and social disaster. Therefore, the return to a simpler life style (one in harmony with nature’s laws) has emerged as the highest priority. A spiritual society automatically achieves this end by offering people higher and more enduring satisfactions. Hence, the motto of Vedic civilization is “Simple living and high thinking.”

ISKCON’s more than thirty centers in the United States practically demonstrate the guideline of simple living and high thinking. Most of the members come from middle- to upper-class families with average annual incomes of $17,000. These very same people are now members of families that average $4,000 a year. (The income of ISKCON’s farm-project families is considerably less.) Despite this substantial drop in income, however, ISKCON devotees attest to being happier and more satisfied with their lives. How is this possible? The simple explanation is that by reducing their material aspirations, the devotees have increased the time and energy available to advance in the truly meaningful and pleasurable occupation of life, namely, the development of self-realization and spiritual culture.

The example of a fish out of water is appropriate here. If you take a fish out of the ocean and put it on land, it will flop around in great anguish until you throw it back in. Similarly, when human beings are out of their natural spiritual environment, they also feel a deep-rooted anxiety that they can relieve only by returning to the life-sustaining atmosphere of a spiritual society.

The following verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam (the source book on spiritual civilization, translated from the Sanskrit by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada) differentiates the spiritual from the material conception of society. “The city of Dvaraka Puri was filled with the opulences of all seasons. Everywhere were hermitages, orchards, flower gardens, parks, and reservoirs of water breeding lotus flowers.” This well-constructed city had regular planned roads, streets, and lanes. The city was full of residential homes, assembly houses, and temples, all displaying varieties of architectural beauty.

In commenting on Dvaraka, Srila Prabhupada further mentions that all the people depended on nature’s gifts of fruits and flowers, without industrial enterprises promoting filthy huts and slums for residential quarters. Advancement of civilization is estimated not on the growth of mills and factories to deteriorate the finer instincts of the human being, but it rests on developing the potent spiritual instincts of human beings and giving them a chance to go back to Godhead…Human energy should be properly utilized in developing the finer senses for spiritual understanding, in which lies the solution of life. Fruits, flowers, beautiful gardens, parks, reservoirs of waters with ducks and swans playing in the midst of lotus flowers, and cows giving sufficient milk and butter are essential for developing the finer tissues of the human body.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam and other Vedic literatures explain that there is a complete arrangement in nature for our maintenance. However. when we exploit nature for excessive material enjoyment, we disturb that natural arrangement, and scarcities and unfair distribution of wealth result. The individual can enjoy life only by dovetailing his desires and activities for the benefit of the complete whole, just as our hand is normal and useful only as long as it is attached to the complete body and serves the needs of the complete body. If the hand were severed from the body, it might still appear like a hand, but it would have none of the potencies of an actual hand. Similarly, we are parts and parcels of the complete whole (God, or Krishna), but if we detach ourselves from the interests of the complete whole, social chaos results.

The Vedic literature prescribes the varnasrama system as the means to integrate the parts of human society with the complete whole. Varnasrama is a comprehensive social organization designed to raise everyone to the platform of spiritual understanding. First, to satisfy material needs, society has four main groups, or varnas: highly learned intellectuals, administrators and military men, farmers and merchants, and the assistants to the other three groups. “Such divisions are in terms of educational qualifications, not birth,” writes today’s foremost Vedic authority, Srila Prabhupada.

Intellectuals, scholars, and teachers make up the first group, called brahmanas. Providing the overall direction and education for the other three groups, the brahmanas are like the brain of the social body. As Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita (3.21), “Whatever action is performed by a great man, common men follow in his footsteps. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.” Naturally, corruption of the brahmanas leads to corruption and chaos throughout the society. To counteract this possibility, the varnasrama system prescribes that the brahmanas live simply, without even taking a salary. The other varnas freely provide the brahmanas with the basic necessities of life. Thus relieved from material complexities, the brahmanas are free to devote themselves to studying the standard books of Vedic knowledge. This literature fully describes how to organize society for the common good and how to elevate everyone to spiritual consciousness, Krishna consciousness. The brahmanas distribute this knowledge without charge to the people in general, and to the government leaders in particular. In the Bhagavad-gita (18.42) Lord Krishna describes how the brahmanas conduct themselves: “Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness—these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.” Because of the brahmanas’ virtue and disinterest in personal advantage, the other varnas respect and follow them. This mutual trust frees Vedic society from the class exploitations and struggles that so mar our modern world.

“Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas” (Bg. 18.43). The ksatriyas are the administrative and military men. Their responsibility is to execute the brahmanas’ instructions, enforce the codes of standard ethics, and protect all living entities (including animals and plants) from danger. Thus, the ksatriyas are like the arms of the social body.

The name for the chief executive of Vedic government is rajarsi. Raja means “political head,” and rsi means “sage.” Besides knowing the science of government, the rajarsi must also be learned in spiritual matters: He provides the perfect example of the ideal citizen, thus inspiring all the other citizens to be unselfish and cooperative in their dealings with each other. A healthy society shuns idleness. Therefore, one major function of the rajarsi is to see that each citizen is gainfully employed in one of the four groups.

“Farming, cow protection, and business are the qualities of work for the vaisyas…(Bg. 18.44). The vaisyas, or the productive group, provide the economic base for society through dairy farming, business, and agriculture. Because the vaisyas produce the material necessities of life, they are like the stomach of the social body.

Business includes trade and manufacturing. Although we may maintain certain technological advances, we should significantly reduce the scale of industrialization. Mechanized industry causes unemployment, bad working and living conditions, and pollution. Srila Prabhupada gives this explanation of the inherent difficulties of mechanization: When one machine works for a hundred men, the hundred men become unemployed, and one technician gets all the salaries. The expert computer technician makes a $30,000 salary, and others go unemployed. Many people think this is advancement of civilization. But does advancement of civilization mean to become happy by exploiting others? Let everyone be happy. This is Vedic civilization.

A Krishna conscious society guarantees full employment by returning to a decentralized economy stressing cottage industries and hand craftsmanship. A spiritual society utilizes certain modern advancements like electricity and printing, but because the general population returns to a materially simple life, the amount of industry retained presents no environmental problems.

“For the sudras there is labor and service to others” (Bg. 18.44). The sudras assist the other varnas in performing their duties. Thus the sudras are like the legs of the social body. Since the leaders are spiritually conscious, they organize the society’s work and distribute its wealth for the benefit of the entire social body. Because they are satisfied, the sudras do not resort to strikes, riots, and revolutions.

Just like a human body, a social body requires a brain, arms, a stomach, and legs to function. No single part should artificially dominate and exploit the other parts. Rather, by working together, all the parts can maintain the body’s health.

The four castes or orders of life: Brahmin, Ksatriya, Vaishya and Sudra
Integrating human society with Krishna: (upper left) intellectuals provide overall direction, (upper right) administrators execute their instructions, (lower left) farmers and merchants provide the economic base, and (lower right) laborers help the others.

To achieve cooperation in human society, we have essentially this choice: the gun or the tongue. By violence a tyrant can force people to cooperate. However, as Dr. Sorokin pointed out, this method succeeds only briefly and precipitates further violence. On the other hand, “the tongue” (or spiritual education) awakens the loving social cooperation characteristic of ISKCON communities. The message of the Krishna consciousness movement, that we are all parts and parcels of the complete whole (Krishna, or God), evokes the noblest responses from the human heart. Krishna consciousness melts material selfishness, the one roadblock on our path from present-day chaos to perfect social order.

As we have seen, the varna aspect of the varnasrama system furthers the material well-being of society. As we shall see, the asrama aspect of the varnasrama system furthers society’s spiritual well-being. Asrama refers to a spiritual order of life, and the varnasrama system has four such orders: student life, householder life, retired life, and devotional life. Space permits us to touch only on student life.

Primarily, Vedic education aims to develop young people’s total potential. Students cultivate sense and mind control, spiritual intelligence, and love for Krishna (God). The Krishna conscious school, called a guru-kula (home of the spiritual teacher), teaches students an occupational skill, but makes character-building the first order of business. Mr. Randy Gribbin, a sixth-grade teacher in an advanced school in northern Texas, studied the ISKCON Gurukula in Dallas. When asked, “What do you observe as the effect of this spiritual discipline?” Mr. Gribbin replied,

I see strong children who’ll be able to live anywhere, under any conditions. They’re not lazy. They’re healthy and bright. If anyone goes to a recognized public school and then comes to Gurukula, he’ll immediately see the difference. The children at Gurukula are all wide-eyed and alert, and they concentrate on their studies. Most public-school kids are busy dressing up to attract the opposite sex, passing notes, and smoking marijuana.

Every school administrator recognizes the need for discipline and hard work. Indeed, all countries want to instill these virtues in their youth. In this most important respect, how can ISKCON’s humble schools surpass multibillion-dollar education programs? Again, the answer lies not in technology or buildings, but in approach. ISKCON’s instructors practice their spiritual teachings in full-time association with the students. Thus, the students see not just theory but practical example. Although they receive no salaries, the Gurukula teachers are enthusiastic and dedicated, their motive being love. Srila Prabhupada describes Gurukula’s basic philosophy in this way:

Everything should be done on the basis of love. Strictness is not very good. The students should act automatically out of love. Superficially, strictness may be necessary—some material laws or basic principles—and if they don’t follow, they’ll be reprimanded. But they should develop the idea of love.

Great leaders (such as Lord Jesus in the West and Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu in the East) have organized millions of people through spiritual love. Spiritual love unifies people most effectively, because it transforms people into ideal human beings. As taught in ISKCON’s schools, spiritual love has no material substitute. Uniquely potent to stimulate social cooperation, spiritual love derives from nonsectarian spiritual life (Krishna consciousness).


The varnasrama system provides for perfect social organization by fulfilling both the material and the spiritual needs of human society. Our modern world confirms the Vedic conclusion that without such a system, anomie and disorder reign supreme. Therefore, ISKCON is presenting varnasrama—as a preliminary stage to establish the proper social atmosphere for spiritual realization, the actual goal of human life.

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