Centennial note: What is the most opulent offering? "Anything grown in a garden is a hundred times more valuable than if it is purchased from the market," Srila Prabhupada told devotees in 1976. Now is the time to plant something to offer for Srila Prabhupada's Centennial feast on his appearance day in September. You'll have great pleasure offering Srila Prabhupada things you've grown yourself, even if your "garden" is only a pot of parsely and a pot of geraniums in your kitchen window. Don't miss this chance to give Prabhupada something you have raised with love and care.
SIMPLE LIVING and high thinking" was Srila Prabhupada's formula for spiritual advancement. To Prabhupada, simple living meant to break away from the din and misery of industrial life and "get all your necessities from the land" sarva-kama-dugha mahi. Why waste our energy struggling in the tangled web of industry and international trade when we can get all our needs close at hand, saving time for spiritual advancement? Srila Prabhupada pointed out that by Krsna's arrangement the land could supply our food and shelter and clothing.
Next to agriculture and cow protection, cloth production held an important place in Prabhupada's plans for simple living. As he grew from boyhood to youth, Abhay Charan (as Prabhupada was known as a boy) was himself familiar with the international cloth trade. His father, Gour Mohan De, ran a small cloth shop in Calcutta. Fabric he sold, though made of Indian cotton, was manufactured in England and exported back to India.
In time a strong sentiment built up against imported cloth. Nationalists such as Gandhi pointed to imported cloth as a prime example of British exploitation of India. Imported cloth put local weavers out of work, forcing them into poverty and starvation. Gandhi stressed that the economy should be swadeshi, or depending on products locally obtained:
My definition of swadeshi is well known. I must not serve my distant neighbour at the expense of the nearest. … Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote. … I should use only things that are produced by my immediate neighbors and serve those industries by making them efficient and complete where they might be wanting. Economic & Industrial Life Relations
Cloth had a central role in this philosophy:
It is sinful to eat American wheat and let my neighbor, the grain dealer, starve for want of customers. Similarly, it is sinful for me to wear the latest finery of Regent Street when I know that if I had but worn the things woven by the neighboring spinners and weavers, that would have clothed me, and fed and clothed them. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 1958
Such incisive thinking won the admiration of many young college students, including Abhay. The logical first act of an Indian nationalist was to cast off clothing made of imported mill cloth and to wear only homespun khadi. Young Abhay joined his classmates in this gesture.
Nevertheless, Abhay's motives were different from those of his classmates, and eventually he would prove himself more radical than Gandhi, both in his spiritual determination and in his vision of the social structure and economics that would manifest from a spiritual society.
In the passing years, as Abhay became less and less of a nationalist and more and more of a spiritual revolutionary, he still kept his interest in homespun cloth as a feature of the ideal way of life.
In his last days in Vrndavana, Srila Prabhupada reaffirmed the standard of simple living and high thinking as his goal for Krsna conscious devotees in every part of the world:
That is my desire. Don't waste time for bodily comforts. You have got this body. You have to eat something. You have to cover yourself. So produce your own food and produce your own cloth. Don't waste time for luxury, and chant Hare Krsna. This is success of life. In this way organize as far as possible, either in Ceylon or in Czechoslovakia, wherever … Save time. Chant Hare Krsna. Don't be allured by the machine civilization. Conversation, Vrndavana, October 8, 1977
The Allure of the Machine Civilization
Where did it come from, this "allure of the machine civilization" Prabhupada fought against so vigorously, this refinement of materialism he saw as the nemesis to spiritual culture?
In fact, it came originally from Krsna Himself. In the Bhagavad-gita (7.4-5) Lord Krsna explains that He has two kinds of energy. His internal energy, para prakrti, is spiritual and eternal. The living entities are part of this spiritual energy of Krsna's. But He also has an external, separated energy, called apara prakrti, which is material and temporary.
The personification of Krsna's internal energy is Srimati Radharani, Krsna's eternal consort, the essence of loving devotional service to God. The personification of Krsna's external energy is Durga Devi, or Maya, the goddess of material energy. Although Durga Devi is herself a great devotee of the Lord, it is her job to guard the spiritual world by keeping out the living entities who are not yet spiritually pure. She does this by enticing them with sense enjoyment in the material world.
Since the machine civilization allures us mainly by promises of sense gratification, this false civilization is under the control of the goddess Durga, also known as Kali. As we'll see, the goddess of material energy even put her own name on the fabric of industrial history.
But while Durga Devi was going about her work of enslaving people through industrialism, Srila Prabhupada came as Krsna's devotee to free them and help them go back to Godhead. Prabhupada presented a plan to cut through the bonds the goddess of material energy uses to tie us to the material world. That plan included replacing industrialism with simple living and high thinking and replacing machine-made cloth with cloth woven at home.
The story of how Durga Devi, or Kali, established the "machine civilization" starts in the same place Srila Prabhupada took off his mill cloth and put on homespun. It starts in Calcutta.
Once upon a time in the late 1600s, as the remnants of the feudal culture were dying out in Europe and England, the East India Company made its way to India to acquire goods for trade back in England. Among the most attractive of the exotic goods it brought back to London were wonderfully printed cotton fabrics called "calicuts" or soon "calicoes" named after "Kali's Bath," or Calcutta, the Indian port whence they came. And as if to mock the arrogance of the proud European civilization, the goddess Kali decreed not only that the goods should have her name on them, but also that she would set in motion the demolition of Western civilization by using not trained soldiers but ordinary women, human beings of her own sex, to do the job.
The English, of course, had their own cloth. For centuries Britons had produced cloth from wool and flax. By the mid-1600s, wool was an important item of trade. But it was a product of cottage industry, or the "putting out" system. Neither heavy machinery nor factories were used to produce wool, though many English citizens depended on wool production for their livelihood. In fact, the international wool trade eventually became so profitable that manorial lords enclosed vast areas of former cropland for sheep grazing, forcing thousands of peasants from their homes. But this was a small catastrophe compared to what Kali had yet in store.
A Passion for Fashion
The pretty new calico cloth from India was inexpensive and immensely popular with the ladies. Not everyone was enthusiastic, however. Critics said the cheap Indian cloth would ruin British culture by driving English woolen workers out of business. They criticized English women for their unrestrained desire for imported cloth. Though others scoffed at the worries of the critics, on the eve of the twenty-first century it appears that the worries may have been justified after all. In a 1728 pamphlet entitled A Plan of the English Commerce, one writer bemoaned women's appetite for imports:
The calicoes are sent from the Indies by land into Turkey, by land and inland seas into Muscovy and Tartary, and about by long-sea into Europe and America, til in general they are become a grievance. … Two things among us are too ungovernable, viz. our passions and our fashions. … It is true that the liberty of the ladies, their passion for their fashion, has been frequently injurious to the manufacturers of England. …
Daniel DeFoe's Weekly Review (1708) also lamented:
Above half of the (woolen) manufacture was entirely lost, half of the people scattered and ruined, and all this by the intercourse of the East India trade.
Home cloth production suffered devastating blows from foreign competition, but eighteenth-century England had no Gandhi to make a bonfire of imported calicoes. Instead it decided to compete by making its own calicoes even cheaper than the ones imported from Calcutta.
In this way it came to be that not wool production but production of cotton, or Kali's cloth, became the great impetus for the industrial revolution. Whereas the demand for wool was fixed a person only needed so many wool garments, no matter what the price cotton cloth became more popular as the price fell, stimulating the creation of clever new inventions to produce it more cheaply. The institution of slavery in the Americas reduced manufacturing costs even further. Economic historian Phylis Dean notes,
The falling costs and prices generated by the opening up of new high-yielding cotton lands and the invention of the cotton-ginning machine in the U.S.A., and by the factory system and textile inventions in Britain, brought a disproportionate expansion in demand on a world-wide scale. Cotton manufacture proved to be the first "growth industry" in the modern sense of the term. … The First Industrial Revolution, Second edition, p. 67
Using kidnapped African labor to grow and harvest cotton brought prices down considerably. But Africans weren't the only exploited workers in the profitable cloth trade. Workers laboring in the spinning and weaving factories and living in slums in British and New England mill towns were scarcely better off than slaves.
Ironically, cloth was produced to satisfy women's desires, and by a quirk of fate it was mostly women who labored to produce the cloth women and children. Just as women and children had traditionally woven cloth for their own families, women and children continued to make up the majority of the workers when cloth production meant manufacturing a commodity for sale.
But when cloth production took a commercial tone, it changed from a casual and congenial home craft to a rigorous, dangerous, and oppressive industrial enterprise. In 1833 the workers employed in cotton manufacture in Lancashire and Cheshire, England, included 19,247 men, 20,962 women, and 27,610 children. Children worked twelve hours a day five days a week and nine hours on Saturday. Working conditions were demanding:
While the engine works, the people must work. Men, women, and children are thus yokefellows with iron and steam; the animal machine [the worker] fragile at best, subject to a thousand sources of suffering, and doomed, by nature in his best state, to a short-lived existence, changing every moment, and hastening to decay is matched with an iron machine insensible to suffering and fatigue. The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions on Health and Longevity, by C. Turner Thackrah. p. 82.
Eventually, the protests of Dickens, Wordsworth, and others ended child labor in England. As England and other industrialized countries became more prosperous in the twentieth century, working conditions improved. At the same time, industry expanded until it produced not only cloth but practically every product needed by human society.
Unfortunately, industry couldn't produce the most important thing human society needed spiritual life. And without that central ingredient, civilization was destined to take a severe turn for the worse, as we shall see in the next issue.
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.