On Selling ISKCON Farms
Posted February 8, 2009
Moved by the efforts of Costa Rica devotees in defending the existence of their rural farm, and especially by the impelling necessity of protecting the Nueva Vrajamandala project in Spain, I'll try to write something on a farm-selling pattern in present-day ISKCON. My purpose is to understand what's happening, get some feedback from others and generate some public and societal consciousness of the problem. I am writing this article without much theoretical, academic, social or psychological context. I may stretch a point or two, but the general mood is rather easy.
The cases of Nueva Goloka in Costa Rica, of Sri Bhakti-lata Puri in Argentina and of Nueva Vrajamandala in Spain are similar. Devotees acquired the properties through donations and book distribution, following Srila Prabhupada's inspiration of creating rural self-sufficient communities for grhastha devotees leading simple lives working the land, protecting cows and worshiping the Deities. These places would provide an example and shelter to people if modern society were eventually to collapse and would facilitate development of a varnasrama society of simple living and high thinking. His Divine Grace personally showed the importance of those communities by spending much time in New Vrindavan and often alluding to the development of such projects in his books and conversations.
In practice, devotees acted in naïve ways, putting the cart before the oxen, so to speak. Without first developing a rural farming culture of simple living and high thinking, they got many cows and established high standards of Deity worship. Then, becoming tired of that, some left Krishna consciousness or gave up the sannyas ashrama. Devotees tried to get yoga groups to do agrotourism, offering the places for seminars and conventions, and going to the cities to preach or accepting paid jobs. Big, once-flourishing communities became deserted, and the "white elephant" concept arose.
All over Europe scarcely a farm has developed self-sufficiency, and families are not depending coherently on cows and the land. Really saintly devotees take on their shoulders the whole sweet weight of dressing, cooking for and doing puja to Deities with little or no external help from other devotees or temples. Cows retired from milking survive somehow while leaders try to understand how many years a cow can live. At the same time, maintaining these big projects is very often a real economic burden: do you know how many sankirtan devotees are needed to switch on the 700 light bulbs of a European villa community? Then, throughout these communities we can find devotees who do not follow the spiritual programs, are initiated with non-ISKCON gurus, smoke ganja or watch television and do next to nothing for ISKCON or ISKCON authorities.
From that perspective, stressed preachers, GBC members and regional secretaries are joined by different devotees tired of those big projects in concluding that the solution is to sell the farm. Contemplating the panorama of their region without the white elephant to maintain, without all those non-contributing or fallen devotees and with city preaching revitalized by the proceeds of the sale, they can only decide that the farm must be sold. They may even interpret it as a virtuous sacrifice to sell the marble of the temple to print books or to cut the rotten branches to invigorate the tree. As managers they decide that opposition to the farm sale is maya.
Such a decision usually creates enormous dissension within ISKCON. Devotees who worked hard for years to pay off the farm's mortgage, who love the place but live elsewhere, who live there and for years struggled to develop something there, who have real plans for the farm but never got the opportunity to put them in practice, who look on the place as a holy dhama, who have been born or raised there or look at the place as their only prospect of retirement, who think that selling is contrary to Prabhupada's order and will, who think that selling is weakness, who think the farm has never been used as Prabhupada envisioned and who see the selling as an external imposition and a sign of monetary coveting are devotees who have lost faith in management.
Devotees who don't appreciate external managers deciding their lives without consultation, who see only corruption or crookedness in this decision, who sincerely love the Deities and think Them the real owners of the place, who think it is a question of focus, who still believe in the project, who know by experience that selling not only won't solve anything but will create total schism, who want to see real plans behind the passionate impulse for selling and making money, who walked many times in those places chanting rounds and who have developed an attachment for places where everything is related with Krishna are forgotten devotees who will arise to counteract the real estate–minded manager.
"Those people are not ISKCON", is usually the manager's first reaction. "I am the GBC man, the authorized authority, the one engaged in real preaching, the one who knows the real needs of management. All those other people are ex-devotees, many without known sadhana, people whose spiritual standards nobody knows, people who are doing nothing for ISKCON or who exist only to criticize. We'll find another place for a rural community on an smaller scale, so Prabhupada would be satisfied with this intelligent act".
Let the waltz start. It is another front on ISKCON's civil war. Whose side are you on?
My opinion is that the farms should be protected. Now is not the time to sell anything; it is the time to prepare for an uncertain future or even the collapse of modern civilization. ISKCON has never taken up Srila Prabhupada's desire for small rural communities with enough sincerity. The ox devotee has always been seen as a folkloric aspect of Krishna consciousness. Leaders never tried to develop a real economy on the farms, to create a real society where devotees were not forced to go to work in the outside society. Rather, farms were a weekend retreat for book distributors, a curious place for organizing a Sunday feast, a shelter for devotees unable to do city sankirtan. No real consideration, aside from some isolated examples, has been given to self-sufficiency and the creation of Vedic villages. No real inspiration has been given to devotees to put their thinking, skills and energy into realizing devotional communities where the main thought is of Krishna and not "Where is the money? What will happen next?"
The original impulse was right. Passion was put into collecting money and donations to get the farms. That was a success. Now we need an effort to develop those centres in such a way that a real society of devotees can emerge. Economy, social organization, religion, education, services, technology — all of these things must be organized in the mode of goodness, to provide an alternative to general society. We have done nothing till now on these matters.
Maybe it is not easy; not enough stress has been given to develop rural communities, but Srila Prabhupada's instruction is there. We have done something; we have obtained the farms. Now is the time to develop them.