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Chant Hare Krishna and Draw a Plow

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Krishna consciousness is practical. For spiritual advancement, you don’t have to renounce everything, go to the forest, and simply chant Hare Krishna all day long. In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains that all of us should continue to perform our duties according to our nature, but we should work with love and devotion as an offering to Him. Thereby every one of us can attain spiritual perfection.

The Vedic framework for organizing the work of a spiritual society is called varnashrama-dharma. As Krishna describes in the Bhagavad-gita, varnashrama gives each of us work to do that suits our natural qualities. This is known as the daivi-varnashrama system, which Prabhupada distinguishes from the exploitive caste system of modern India, in which a person’s role in society is determined by what family he is born in.

A pure devotee of the Lord is considered to be above the varnashrama system. But as Bhaktivinoda Thakura states, “During sadhana-bhakti, or devotional service in practice, so long as one has material desires within the heart one should stay within the confines of varnashrama” That is, unless one is a pure devotee one needs to keep working in society for his or her own purification. Simply, the work should be done to please Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada warned us that we can’t match the renounced life of the six Gosvamis of Vrindavana, and he criticized babajis who make a show of piety by chanting Hare Krishna yet still smoke cigarettes and keep loose relationships with women. “We can tell all these babajis they should be employed, chant Hare Krishna, and draw a plow. Then it will be nice.”

Srila Prabhupada’s remark about the babajis is more than a dismissal of a group of showbottle spiritualists. The fact is, if these babajis would take up Prabhupada’s instructions they could eventually attain the spiritual platform they now pretend to be on.

Prabhupada’s remark is a valuable instruction for us, too. Like the babajis, we sometimes tend to be sentimental about Krishna consciousness. We may want to enjoy intense devotional feelings from chanting Hare Krishna, but we may forget that to please Krishna we must offer Him our daily work as well: “Do it for Me.”

So the principle embodied in Srila Prabhupada’s simple instruction “Chant Hare Krishna and draw a plow” speaks vitally to us. And if we follow it? We have Prabhupada’s simple benediction: “Then it will be nice.” Our spiritual life will be successful.

In this column, I want to meditate on Srila Prabhupada’s order to “Chant Hare Krishna and draw a plow,” particularly as it applies to cow protection and agriculture.

We know we should offer our work to Krishna, but sometimes it’s not easy for us to do it wholeheartedly, especially if our work has aspects displeasing to Krishna.

In the sixteenth century that happened to Sanatana Gosvami when he was the minister in charge of the government secretariat for the Nawab of Bengal. Sanatana Gosvami’s expert management freed the Nawab from administrative duties so the Nawab could spend his time attacking other states. But when the Nawab at last prepared to attack Orissa, where the temple of Lord Jagannatha is located, Sanatana Gosvami resigned his post, and the Nawab had him imprisoned.

Most of us are not as strong as Sanatana Gosvami, and if our work puts us in a compromising situation it may keep us from fully taking up the devotional process or maintaining our devotional practice. Srila Prabhupada realized this, and that’s why he pushed his followers to revive the pure system of varnashrama. That system naturally purifies the work we do because the whole system is designed to satisfy the senses of the Supreme Lord.

Prabhupada explained that without this system Krishna consciousness can be difficult to take up: “Our main aim is how to give them Krishna consciousness. But if they are already disturbed in every respect, then how will they take it?” Therefore, Srila Prabhupada said, to help them come to Krishna consciousness, “this is the method—varnashrama.”

Elaborating on this, ISKCON leader Jagadisha Goswami cites three basic reasons Prabhupada gave for using varnashrama within ISKCON: (1) to organize our society effectively, (2) to engage the psychophysical propensities of our devotees to keep them happy and advancing in Krishna consciousness, and (3) to construct a house in which all the people of the world can live peacefully.

Varnashrama serves as a preliminary means of bringing people to Krishna consciousness, even if they’re not yet chanting Hare Krishna. Srila Prabhupada said, “We must pave the situation in such a way that gradually people will be promoted to the spiritual plane. … The chanting will go on. That is not stopped. But at the same time varnashrama-dharma must be established to make the way easy.”6

In the varnashrama system, it is the vaishyas,the productive class, who generate the wealth. And how are they to do this? Krishna says, krishi-go-rakshya vanijyam—by farming, cow protection, and trade.

The trade or business mentioned here is largely another aspect of farming or cow protection. Prabhupada explains: “Business means if you have got extra grains or extra foodstuff you can sell where there is necessity, where there is want. That is business. We are not going to open mills and factories. … That is shudra [low-class] business. The real business is that you produce enough food grains, as much as possible, and you eat and distribute.”

Srila Prabhupada further stresses the “cow protection” part of Krishna’s instructions: “The Bhagavad-gita specifically instructs us, krishi-go-rakshya: We human beings must protect the cow, our milk-giving mother. Go-rakshya—protect the cow. Not go-hatya—kill the cow. This is most sinful.”

In later columns I shall discuss how the modern economy depends on cow killing, and where this leads.

The leaders of ISKCON are determined not to simply let the world go to pieces because of ignorance and greed. They are working instead to help usher in the Golden Age of Lord Caitanya so that everyone may chant Hare Krishna and live peacefully. An important part of this is to set up a varnashrama society. And crucial to varnashrama is cow protection and simple agrarian villages where everyone can advance in spiritual life.