Born in Britain in 1957, the author joined ISKCON
(International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in London in
1975 and was initiated that year, with the name Ilapati dasa by the founder-acarya, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta
From 1977 to 1979 Ilapati dasa was based in India, mostly
travelling in West Bengal distributing Srila Prabhupada's books. He spent the following ten years helping to pioneer ISKCON's preaching in Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia.
In 1989 he was granted the order of sannyasa, receiving the
name Bhakti Vikasa Swami, and again made his base in India.
Since then he has preached Krsna consciousness throughout
the subcontinent, lecturing in English, Hindi, and Bengali. He
also spends a few months each year preaching in the West. His television lectures in Hindi have reached millions worldwide.
Bhakti Vikasa Swami writes extensively on Krsna conscious
topics. His books have been translated into over twenty
languages, with more than half a million in print.
Sometime in 1993 in Dubai, while driving me back from an
evening lecture program, my good friend Ranganathan started to tell me about his childhood in a traditional Sri Vaisnava village in South India} Encouraged by my interest he went on talking even after we reached my apartment; and it was well after midnight when I finally got out of the car. I lay down to rest thinking about the pleasing life he had led, and how even now people could again live like that if they would simply agree to.
My memory wandered over the years I had spent in India
and Bangladesh. In the course of preaching Krsna consciousness, I had travelled throughout the Indian
subcontinent and experienced the varieties of Hindu culture
prominent in each area. Having stayed in the homes of many
pious and cultured Hindus, I had gradually come to learn
something about real culture. I thought of the many cultured
persons I knew throughout the Indian subcontinent, living
representatives of a dying way of life. I resolved to compose a book based on interviews with such people, to try to convey a feeling of what life in the old India was like, and what it could and should be like even now. I began contemplating how man had gone wrong in his quest for technological development, what traditional societies had possessed but we now lack, and what the actual criteria of civilization should be.
A principal goal of an enlightened culture is to elevate its
members to their ultimate capacity. A truly advanced society
strives not simply for the ephemeral requirements of eating,
sleeping, mating, and defending, for even animals do that. Real human civilization begins with philosophical inquiry into the nature of God, the universe, and the ontological position of living beings. Therefore spiritually oriented civilizations
throughout the world's history had practiced a realistic
approach to life that catered to all aspects of the individual-
physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual-while stressing his
responsibility to society at large. And as man has to live with
and by nature's mercy, traditional land-based cultures stressed respect for all life and cooperation with her. The people of such cultures sought to extract from the earth only as much as needed, and to give back proportionately.
In traditional societies man fulfilled his needs in a simple and
eco-friendly way. Material requirements were met without
undue struggle. There were no industrial complexes producing endless varieties of unnecessary accessories to an artificial way of life; nor were there huge shopping plazas for touting unwanted goods; nor was there an advertising industry goading the masses to buy such things. The economic system was based on need, not greed. Trade was limited and mostly by barter-"I give you something you need, you give me something I need." There were no stocks, shares, market crashes, currency speculation, budget balancing, inflation, mass unemployment, or strikes.
Life's basic necessities-food, clothing, housing materials, and
fuel-were available from the land. Cotton was spun at home.
Every village would have a potter to make vessels for cooking. In larger villages a blacksmith would forge simple farming and cooking utensils, razors (one razor would last a lifetime), and other such items, using either non-locally produced or recycled metal. Rope and string were made locally from fibers of plants such as coconut, jute, and flax. Water was available from rivers, wells, and ponds. There was no need for waterworks, sewage systems, lavatories, or taps. Nor was there need of electricity, for people were accustomed to living without complex machines. Lamps burning home-produced vegetable oil supplied light. The heat of summer would be tolerated, with bamboo hand fans giving a little relief; winter would be met with extra blankets and wood fires. Medicines, cosmetics, and dyes were made at home from plants, rocks, and other natural ingredients. Furniture was not required, for people would sit, eat, cook, study, and sleep on the floor.
Those leading such pristine lives tended to be innocent and
unpretentious. They didn't have strong negative emotions.
Bitterness, depression, and the like were practically unknown. People tended to be satisfied with what they had, and considered advancement not in terms of surrounding oneself with material possessions, but in becoming detached from such objects. Life based on these values was simple, sensible, and pleasing, and tended to foster laudable qualities such as honesty, respect for others, and kindness.
Of course, rural living does not automatically bring peace of
mind and spiritual wisdom. Some villagers are little more
spiritually enlightened than the dogs and buffaloes that they live among. And city dwellers who try to "get away from it all" by moving to the country often merely bring their passion and problems with them. This material world being intrinsically miserable, true happiness lies in God realization, which transcends both the excessive sensuality of city life and the complacent tranquillity of the country. For either in town or village, human life without endeavor for God consciousness is little better than that of the animals. Nevertheless, simple agrarian life is more conducive to God realization than the complex urban society of today. For those with eyes to see it, everything in nature speaks of God. Therefore sages traditionally preferred to live far from the hubbub of urban life. Breathing fresh air and drinking pure water, they could peacefully meditate upon God as the cause and upholder of nature.
Unfortunately, industrialized man has strayed far from such
innocent existence. Modern city life is highly artificial, being far removed from its source of sustenance. Even if of theistic bent, city dwellers tend to have very little knowledge of the
relationship between God, nature, and man. They think that
food comes from a shop, light from a switch, and health from a pill. Multinational corporations rape Mother Earth, exploit her resources, entice people to hellish factories, and sell all kinds of junk to them. Industrialization and consumerism engender selfishness, ignorance, and gross materialism. Secular education teaches man to consider himself master of his own destiny, and nature a beast to be hacked and tortured into submission as an adjunct to "progress."
For all their advancement and economic development, modern townsfolk cannot get even fresh food, what to speak of peace and contentment. The millionaire living in his posh apartment with all modern amenities cannot get even fresh vegetables, a staple of the poor villager. In modern cities potable water must be purchased because the tap water is repeatedly recycled sewage mixed with chemicals; nor does bottled mineral water have vigor or taste comparable to that of fresh river or well water.
People in big cities drive out to the country on weekends just to breath some fresh air, whereas in the village air means fresh air. What a nasty civilization-that crowds people into unhealthy, crime-ridden cities, has them work in horrible conditions, and provides them poisonous air and food.
Because city dwellers don't have to walk very much, carry water, or labor in fields, they tend to look down upon villagers as backward and primitive. But for all their modern conveniences, city folk must exercise artificially or else develop conditions like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, constipation, and so on.
Such artificial living makes for artificial people, who may smile superficially but are hollow within. The modern city dweller is constantly over-stimulated with a bombardment of information, advertisements, and so-called entertainment. But his heart remains spiritually and emotionally empty. Although modern man can hardly envisage life without cars, computers, television, and innumerable other diversions, this plethora of gadgets is a meager substitute for peace of mind.
Most villagers in the Third World still rise early, work the land, and hardly ever travel far from home. Despite their apparent poverty, they are often more content than those who have more money than necessary. Villagers tend to be better mentally balanced than those who live life "in the fast lane," divorced from the simple pleasures of stable family life and mutual sharing.
But village life throughout the world is under threat of
extinction, as the demands of consumer society are fast
standardizing the planet into one vast urbanized mega complex. Traditional cultures and values are being destroyed and people being reduced to screws in a massive economic machine. The charm has even been extracted from agriculture-now it is "agribusiness." Sanity has all but been civilized out of existence.
Modern life is a ridiculously over-hyped grovel for sense gratification. Although the mindless pursuit of wealth, luxury, power, and sex have never brought satisfaction to anyone, nonetheless lust and greed are promoted as desirable-indeed indispensable-to modern man. There is constant pressure to adopt the foolish ideals imposed by the entertainment and advertising industries. Consciously or unconsciously people try to cut profiles shaped in movie studios. Too busy trying to be someone else, they remain ignorant of their own identity.
Anxious to "get ahead" by any means, they nonetheless have no knowledge of what really lies ahead.
In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna describes lust, anger, and greed as gateways to hell. Of course modern men don't like to believe in hell, despite busily creating, it on earth. Their habits are unregulated, imbalanced, unhealthy, and sinful; their bellies filled with junk food and animal corpses; their values perverted. They cannot trust even their spouses, children, or parents. They're proud of their big buildings, big highways, big economy, and big universities, but their minds are so agitated that they cannot sleep without the aid of a sleeping pill. The "advancement" of which they are so proud is simply a ploy to make them work like beasts for the sake of sense enjoyment. Gorging on flesh, becoming intoxicated, living in a fantasy world of sex, violence, and myriad nonsensical diversions-all this is considered normal to modern "civilized" man. Psychosis, neurosis, crime, violence, divorce, homosexuality, threat of nuclear holocaust-are all part of everyday life.
Genuine spiritual culture, or the search for God, is almost
completely absent in modern society. The materialistic
worldview is so deeply embedded that cultivation of
transcendental knowledge is not only not encouraged but is
hardly even thought about, not even by leading intellectuals.
The slaughter of millions of animals is considered so normal
and acceptable that it continues year after year without protest. Governments not only sanction but support divorce,
contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Our godless
society is so fallen in every aspect that many books could be
written describing its moral decrepitude. But one word
succinctly describes it all: insanity.
As noted by Sir Arnold Toynbee, the late British historian: "The cause of [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 unattainable. 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.
Much has been discussed about the harm man has inflicted
upon himself and other living beings in the name of progress.
The more enlightened victims-cum-participants in this catastrophe are looking for solutions to the enormous mess
man has landed himself and the planet in. Traditional societies and values, once rejected as primitive and useless, are again being re-examined, at least by some.
People talk of going back to nature, not knowing that most of
the world never left it. For instance, if someone were to drive a bullock cart into a city or town in America, he would
undoubtedly be featured in the local newspaper; and he would almost certainly need police permission to bring bulls into an urban area. Yet in most parts of India bull-power is still as common as that nasty, noisy, only-seemingly-better
replacement called the tractor.
The original culture of India is based on Vedic wisdom,
subsuming a vast body of knowledge covering all manner of
subjects from astronomy and mathematics to architecture,
economics, and even the enlightened application of warfare and sex. Vedic culture is based on profound metaphysical
philosophy, its essence being the quest for freedom from birth and death, culminating in highly developed love of God. In India religion was never compartmentalized as merely one
aspect of life. It was life. And everything within life was
ultimately directed toward a transcendental goal. Although
other parts of the world are not without religious ethos, the
degree to which it has been developed in India is outstanding.
Unfortunately, over the past few centuries the Vedic legacy has been infiltrated by many non-Vedic ideas. Gradually the
original Vedic culture has been modified, diluted, and
contaminated in various ways, to become what is now known as Hinduism.
Still, whatever real culture remains in India is valuable and worth learning from. For even today bits and pieces of traditional India still survive. Behold the Saurashtrian cowherd leaning on his elaborately carved stick, his feet adorned with curled-up, ornately designed shoes, his face with a similarly curling mustache, and his head covered with fifty meters of ribboned white cloth, intricately wrapped as a huge turban. And see his son calling each cow of his herd by name and playing a flute to gather them. Meet a small band of pilgrims on perhaps a thousand-kilometer journey to visit places of God, singing bhajanas as they walk, taking provisions from pious people along the way, and stopping at midday to cook chapatis on a fire made from twigs and leaves. Note groups of village women walking several kilometers to the nearest well or river- their brass water pots stacked one atop another on their heads, their colorful clothing reflecting the early morning sun; their thick silver anklets just visible under their saris, and their bracelets jostling up and down as they march along, singing to
Krsna with childish simplicity.
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