“If we forget the aim of human life and simply take supplies from the Lord for sense gratification and become more and more entangled in material existence, which is not the purpose of creation, certainly we become thieves, and therefore we are punished by the laws of material nature.”

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami

As a young man Bhaktivedanta Swami was a keen supporter of Gandhi. He admired his idealism and shared his belief that India had the potential to offer something of immense importance to the world, but that in order to fulfil that potential she must first gain her independence from the British.

He was born in a middle-class family in Calcutta in 1896 and received a Western-influenced education finishing at the Scottish Churches College. When the time came to sit his exams, however, he responded to Gandhi’s call to boycott the colleges and refused to write anything, joining his fellow-students in the demand for ‘Swaraj!’, self-rule for India.

He was not a conformist and was always prepared to stand up for his principles. When, at the age of twenty-two, he met the outspoken religious teacher Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, the man who was to be his guru, he argued with him that now was not the time for religious reform – the priority was to get rid of the British; only then could India have her self-respect in the world. Saraswati, however, convinced him that society’s spiritual needs were too urgent to take second place to politics. If the spiritual goal of life could be established, and the rise of materialism turned back, then everything else would follow. Bhaktivedanta was convinced, and this conviction formed the basis for the rest of his life.

Through his guru he was initiated into the Vaishnava tradition of Bengal, centred on devotion to Krishna. The principal historical figure in that tradition was Chaitanya, the fifteenth-century religious reformer. Chaitanya taught that love of God was the universal religion regardless of caste, creed or race. Rejecting the conservative and privileged outlook of the caste brahmanas who dominated Hinduism at the time, Chaitanya travelled all over India, taking religion out onto the street and to the people. Influenced by Chaitanya’s spirit of reform and adventure, Bhaktivedanta decided to dedicate his life to presenting the teachings of the Krishna tradition to the Western world. He had been taught to speak and write English by the British rulers of India, and he had been schooled in Western ways in Calcutta, still the second city of the British Empire during his youth. His guru, on the eve of departing this world, blessed him, full of hope, saying, “Teach Krishna consciousness to the English-speaking peoples of the world. That will do good for you and for those who hear you.”

In 1965, at the age of seventy, after a lifetime’s preparation, Bhaktivedanta finally left India’s shores on his lone mission to the West. He was penniless but someone gave him free passage on board a cargo steamer. He chose to go first to America, where he considered his message was most urgently needed. Few would have expected him to achieve much. The odds against him were too great. He was old. He was alone. He knew practically nothing of the West. His message was too spiritual. He would be asking people to give up materialism – which in his book included intoxication, meat-eating and illicit sex – and dedicate themselves to serving Krishna. How could Americans agree to abandon their hard-won lifestyle and worship a god they had never heard of before? Why would anyone listen to him?


But they did – especially the young people in New York and San Francisco. One reason for this was his own complete conviction in what he had to say, and his faultless practice of what he preached. His sheer warmth of personality and strength of character also attracted many to him. Another compelling reason to take his words seriously was that he spoke with such a sense of urgency and addressed the problem that was uppermost in the minds of many of the young generation – the overwhelming materialism of the Western way of life. To those who cared to listen, Bhaktivedanta had a challenging message. He condemned materialism and proposed a spiritual way of life based on simplicity and devotion to God. It seems appropriate to end this book with his ideas, because, addressed to the world as it entered the current period of crisis, they encapsulate the true teachings of the Vedic tradition on the nature of the relationship between human beings and their environment. Few among the twentieth-century teachers of Hinduism, either before or since, have presented them in such a straightforward and uncompromising spirit.

Bhaktivedanta believed that nature could provide humanity with all its needs if only we would live more simply. He regarded industry as unnecessary; it disturbed the balance of peaceful life:

“The natural gifts such as grains, vegetables and fruits, rivers, hills of jewels and minerals and the seas full of pearls are supplied by the order of God, and as He desires nature produces them in abundance or restricts them at times. The flow of river waters fertilises the fields and minerals are produced in the hills and jewels in the ocean. The natural law is that the human being may take advantage of these godly gifts of nature and flourish without exploiting and lording it over material nature. If human civilization has sufficient grains, minerals, jewels, water and milk then why should it hanker after terrible industrial enterprises at the cost of the labour of some unfortunate men? Human prosperity flourishes by natural gifts and not by gigantic industrial enterprises, which are products of a godless civilization and cause the destruction of the noble aims of human life. The more we go on increasing such troublesome industries to squeeze out the vital energy of the human being, the more there will be unrest and dissatisfaction of the people in general, although a few only can live lavishly by exploitation. The more we attempt to exploit material nature according to our whims of enjoyment, the more we shall become entrapped by the reaction to such exploitative attempts.”

These words, written in 1962, before the modern environmental crisis had become generally apparent, foresaw the consequences of exploiting nature’s resources. According to Bhaktivedanta modern industry was a source of evil. It polluted the atmosphere and promoted inequality, injustice and poverty. In particular, it deprived the people working in it of the natural beauty of God’s world which could help them to develop their finer spiritual instincts, which Bhaktivedanta saw as the greatest need in human society:

“Perfection of human civilization is made possible by utilising the gifts of nature in their own way. As we find herewith in the description of its opulence, [the city of Krishna] was surrounded by flower gardens and fruit orchards along with reservoirs of water and growing lotuses. There is no mention of mills and factories supported by slaughterhouses, which are the necessary paraphernalia of a modern metropolis. The leaders of modern civilization select their own residential quarters in a place where there are naturally beautiful gardens and reservoirs of water, but they leave the common men to reside in congested areas without parks and gardens. [In Krishna’s city] all people depended on nature’s gifts of fruits and flowers without industrial enterprises promoting filthy huts and slums for residential quarters. Development of factories and mills deteriorate the finer sentiments of the human being and society. The dungeons of mines, factories and workshops develop demoniac propensities [while] vested interests flourish at the cost of the working class, and consequently there are severe clashes between them in so many ways. Human energy should be properly utilised in developing the finer senses for spiritual understanding, in which lies the solution of life. Fruits flowers, beautiful gardens, parks and reservoirs of water 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.”

Prosperity in human society, Bhaktivedanta taught, depended ultimately on receiving the blessings of God:

“The secret to success is to take refuge under the protection of the Supreme Lord. Without His sanction nothing can be possible. To make economic development by our own endeavours on the strength of tools and machinery is not all. The sanction of the Lord must be there, otherwise despite all instrumental arrangements everything will be unsuccessful. The rivers, oceans, forests, hills and drugs are not creations of man. They are all creations of the Supreme Lord, and the living being is allowed to make use of the property of the Lord for the service of the Lord. There is enough of everything by the will of the Lord, and we can make proper use of things to live comfortably. If the Lord is pleased, every part of nature will be pleased. The river will flow profusely to fertilise the land; the oceans will supply sufficient quantities of minerals, pearls and jewels; the forest will supply sufficient wood, drugs and vegetables and the seasonal changes will effectively help produce fruits and flowers in profuse quantity.”

Bhaktivedanta saw our relationship with God, nature and other creatures in an intensely personal way. God was our father, nature our mother, and other creatures our younger brothers and sisters. It was our responsibility to the rest of the family not to create chaos by our own greed:

“In the Bhagavad Gita it is said that the Lord Himself is the seed-giving father and nature is the mother of all living beings in all shapes. Thus mother nature has enough foodstuff both for animals and men, by the grace of the father almighty Sri Krsna. The human being is the elder brother of all other living beings. He is endowed with intelligence more powerful than animals for realising the course of nature and the indications of the almighty father. Human civilizations should depend on the production of nature without artificially attempting economic development to turn the world into a chaos of greed and power only for the purpose of artificial luxuries and sense gratification.”

Modern technology was an instrument of exploitation and disaster. “In modern civilization,” he wrote, “on account of too many machines there are so many unemployed people. Technology is not freedom, rather, it is a free way to hell. This factory system is most demoniac. It is not required at all. For the interests of a few persons this device has been invented. The discovery of nuclear energy has been disastrous to people in general because demons all over the world are manufacturing nuclear weapons. Demoniac persons act in such a way that ultimately their discoveries will be inauspicious for everyone.”

However, he was not so impractical as to expect the world to immediately renounce technology. Therefore, in accord with the philosophy of devotional service to God, he recommended that if it must be used, it should be used for the right purpose. In the absolute sense a machine was neither good nor bad. The way it was used was what mattered:

“If the western world, the blind man, takes India, the lame man, on its shoulders, then the lame man can point the way spiritually and the blind man can sustain them materially, technologically. If America and India pool their technological and spiritual resources, this combination will bring about perfect peace and prosperity all over the world. How blind these Americans are. They have attained the human form of life – such an intelligent form of life – and yet they are utilising it for riding motor boats in the lake. Of course, the Americans are doing things in a very nice way, with great technological advancement, but what they are doing is blind. You may be a very good driver, but if you are blind, how well will you drive? You will create disaster. The American people must open their eyes spiritually, so that their good driving capacity will be properly utilised. Take this car – so nicely decorated. If I say it is all nonsense is that very intelligent? No. The purpose for which you have created this car – that is nonsense. I simply want people to change their consciousness. I don’t condemn the things they have produced. For instance, with a knife you can cut vegetables and fruit, but if you use it for cutting your throat, that is bad. Now people are using the knife of technology for cutting their own throat, forgetting all about self-realisation, Krsna consciousness. This is bad.”

Bhaktivedanta’s alternative vision of how human society ought to live could be summed up with the twin concept of protection of brahmanas and protection of cows. Brahmanas are the spiritual teachers of society. Vedic culture teaches that society must give protection and support to them so that they can carry on their most important function – to guide people on the spiritual path. Without proper guidance and instruction from religious teachers, (who must have no professional motivation) people will naturally be misled. So much energy is put into modern education even though it has no spiritual dimension. Bhaktivedanta believed that the most important education was the spiritual one; other forms of education were only valuable if they were related to it.

To ensure spiritual well-being, brahmanas must be protected, and to ensure material well-being, cows must be protected. In a simple agrarian society it is easy to see the value of cow protection. The cow eats grass which humans cannot eat, and turns it into the ‘miracle food’ of milk, which is versatile and full of nutrition. From milk comes yoghurt, cheese, butter and ghee (butter-oil). In return for her milk, the cow is protected and cared for as a member of the community, and she and the bull are never slaughtered. The bull cannot give milk, but he can be just as valuable because he likes to work hard in the fields, ploughing, grinding and pulling carts. While the bull helps to produce grains and vegetables, the cow gives milk. Milk products combined with grains and vegetables produce the perfect balanced human diet. The protection of the cow and the bull is therefore the basis for a simple and prosperous life:

“The bull is the emblem of moral principle, and the cow is the representative of the earth. When the bull and the cow are in a joyful mood, it is to be understood that the people of the world are also in a joyful mood. The reason is that the bull helps production of the grains in the agricultural field, and the cow delivers milk, the miracle of aggregate food values.”

To protect the cow is more than good economics, it is a matter of principle. In the Vedic tradition she is one of the seven mothers: the real mother, the wife of the spiritual master, the wife of a brahmana, the wife of the king, the nurse, the earth and the cow. All of them should be respected and cared for. Bhaktivedanta explains our moral obligation:

“By God’s will and nature’s way a cow gives 40-50 pounds of milk per day, but she does not drink it. We may harm her but she still gives it to us and the rest of human society. “You take it. But don’t kill me! Let me live. I am eating only grass.” Without touching your foodstuff the cow is eating grass which is given by God. She then gives you the first foodstuff – milk. Just after your birth you began drinking cow’s milk. All I drank was milk from the beginning of my life, given by mother cow, and when I grow up I kill her. This is my gratitude. Those who kill cows and maintain slaughterhouses are not even human beings – they are less than animals and have no gratitude.”

It is a tragedy that modern society does not appreciate the significance of caring for cows and bulls, but instead exploits and kills them:

“Milking the cow means drawing the principles of religion in a liquid form. The great rishis and munis [saints] would live only on milk. It is the duty of every householder to have cows and bulls as household paraphernalia, not only for drinking milk, but also for deriving religious principles. The cow’s calf is not only beautiful to look at, but also gives satisfaction to the cow, and so she delivers as much milk as possible. But in [this age] the calves are separated from the cows as early as possible. The cow stands with tears in her eyes and the worker draws milk from her artificially. When there is no more milk the cow is sent to be slaughtered. These greatly sinful acts are responsible for all the troubles in present society. People do not know what they are doing in the name of economic development. They do not know how one earns happiness by making the cows and bulls happy, but it is a fact by the law of nature.”

Nowadays there are many countries whose economy is based on animal slaughter, and the eating of meat is taken for granted as civilized human behaviour. Despite today’s trend towards vegetarianism, such a diet is still regarded as extreme and unreasonable by the majority. Bhaktivedanta saw it the other way. Quoting from the Manu-Smriti, the basic law-book of Hinduism, he writes:

“According to Manu, the great author of civic codes and religious principles, even the killer of an animal is to be considered a murderer because animal food is never meant for the civilized man. He says that in the act of killing an animal there is a regular conspiracy by the party of sinners, and all of them are liable to be punished as murderers exactly like a party of conspirators who kill a human being. He who gives permission, he who kills the animal, he who sells the slaughtered animal, he who cooks the animal, he who administers distribution of the foodstuff, and at last he who eats such cooked animal food are all murderers, and all of them are liable to be punished by the laws of nature.”

The karmic result of indiscriminate slaughter of animals, warned Bhaktivedanta, would be continued suffering in human society:

“Men do not understand that because they unrestrictedly kill so many animals, they also must be slaughtered like animals in big wars. This is very much evident in the western countries. In the west, slaughterhouses are maintained without restriction, and therefore every fifth or tenth year there is a big war in which countless people are slaughtered even more cruelly than the animals. Sometimes during war soldiers keep their enemies in concentration camps and kill them in very cruel ways. These are reactions brought about by unrestricted animal killing in the slaughterhouses and by hunters in the forest.”

* * *

As is clear from all the above, Bhaktivedanta’s concept of human life was very different from that of Western civilization. Some would find his judgements harsh and his prescriptions extreme. However, no one can deny that today’s world is desperately in need of some extreme medicine if we are to survive the crisis we face. Taken in the context of that crisis, and placed alongside the opinions of environmentalists and alternative thinkers the world over, his statements are not so extreme and deserve to be taken seriously.

The last twelve years of his life, from 1965 to 1977, were spent ceaselessly travelling the world, broadcasting his message to anyone who would listen. During this time he established the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, dedicated to practising and spreading the message of Krishna. He gained many followers and initiated over 8,000 disciples. To them he was known as Prabhupada, ‘master among masters’. He founded twelve rural communities in Europe, North America and India where the way of life he taught could be demonstrated. In 1976 he wrote to one such community:

“That you are growing all your own grains is very good. It is my ambition that all devotees may remain self-dependent by producing vegetables, grains, milk, fruits and flowers, and by weaving their own cloth in handlooms. This simple life is very nice. Simple village life saves time for other engagements like chanting Hare Krsna.”

Om Tat Sat