The Farmer and the Land
by Hare Krishna Devi Dasi
I’ve described the evolution of a world economic system in which cow slaughter plays a central role. Now I want to contrast that system with Krishna’s varnashrama model of society as presented by Srila Prabhupada. In the next several columns I’ll compare how the two systems define the relationship between farmers and the land, farmers and the cows, and finally farmers and the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Let me first talk about the farmer and the land.
Independence for the Farmer
In the last several hundred years of Western history, government leaders have usually held to policies that discouraged subsistence farming. According to economic historian N. J. G. Pound, beginning in the medieval period the farmer was typically a serf who had to pay the village lord a head tax, a hearth tax, mill tolls, and rent. The lord often demanded burdensome and unpredictable services that disrupted the farmer’s work. The farmer had little independence.
If the introduction of horses to agriculture put the farmer and his ox out of work, the farmer was probably glad to move to town to get a job as a laborer or craftsman. At a time when farmers were “bound to the soil, subjected to service obligations, made to perform day-works and boon-works,” Pound writes, “the citizen of the town was free.”
This is the opposite of the varnashrama system, in which the farmer independently contributes to society. The vaishya, or farmer, can produce his own food and needs no one else to maintain him.
Furthermore, in the varnashrama system the farmer doesn’t pay rent on his land. Srila Prabhupada explains that the kshatriyas, the governing class, “distribute land on nominal taxation, and the vaishyas utilize the land for cultivation and cow- keeping.”
In a bad year for crops, medieval serfs would sometimes starve or lose their land because their rent and taxes were assessed at a fixed sum. The same is still true for small farmers around the world. But in the varnashrama system there was no rent, and the farmer’s taxes were tied to production. The farmer would give the government one fourth of what he produced, and that would be all. No further taxes. No mortgage. And because the farmer could pay in kind rather than money, he wouldn’t have to worry about market demand or grain prices. The farmer and his land were secure.
In a market-based economy, efficient commercial farmers flood the market, so small farmers get less for their crops. And commercial farmers push up land values, driving nearby subsistence farmers off the land and out of work. So farming solely for profit in the marketplace brings wealth and sense gratification for some, misery and desperation for others.
Farming for profit in a market economy calls for boosting output with machines. But machines bring unemployment, both for men and for animals. When the tractor puts the plowman and the bull out of work, the plowman winds up at the unemployment office, and the bull ends up at the slaughterhouse.
In the varnashrama system, therefore, the farmer is cautioned against growing mainly for the market. Instead, he is advised to work for self-sufficiency. By caring for cows and growing his own grain, he can feed himself and his family, and if he has more milk and grains than he needs he can trade to get other things.
Although varnashrama makes for socially just economics, that’s not its most important feature. Its true function is to bring people closer to the Supreme Lord by their daily work.
By Krishna’s arrangement, simple farming helps evoke one’s natural appreciation for the Lord. The New York Times recently quoted this statement from Clemente Torres, a Mexican farmer: “As long as I have faith in God, I think I would not sell my land. It has always given me something to eat.” The farmer, especially the small farmer, naturally feels dependent on God to grow his crops, and when the crops come up he is naturally thankful to the Lord.
The varnashrama system is designed to take this natural religious sentiment and gradually elevate it to the highest realized love of Krishna. That’s why the varnashrama system carefully protects the small farmer. The economic strength and stability of the whole society depends on the strength and happiness of the farmer. And the farmer can be happy and spiritually strong by working his land.