By Visakha Dasi
Lord Kṛṣṇa’s devotees differ from nondevotees in describing the essence of the simple life.
Śrīla Prabhupāda encouraged his followers to adhere to the principles of simple living and high thinking, and he himself exemplified those principles. People may associate simple living with minimalism, a current movement that encourages us to avoid overcollecting and conspicuous consumption. Minimalism has been shown to result in a less hectic, less cluttered life, with reduced stress, lower blood pressure, better sleep, and generally improved health. These perceptible and profound benefits, however, are only some side effects of what Śrīla Prabhupāda referred to as simple living. For him, simple living was much more than this, for it was inextricably linked to high thinking, which includes, among other characteristics, accepting the spiritual identity of all beings, the supremacy of God, and the goal of trying to reconnect with God through selfless and devoted service.
A person who is practiced in high thinking sees past all bodily coverings and mental biases to the spiritual essence, the ātmā, within. In Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s words, “The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].” (Gītā 5.18) While not naive or foolish, that person is trusting and trustworthy and a kind friend to all.
High thinking leads to an inner satisfaction that in turn fosters sublime simplicity. A person who lives simply and thinks high remains firmly focused on a worthwhile goal. Again in Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s words, “Those who are on this path are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one.” (Gītā 2.41) This focus protects the simple, thoughtful person from tangential, trivial distractions and diversions that squander energy, time, and life itself. The person with such focused awareness is joyful.
Simple living and high thinking can revolutionize our lives. By guiding us past the pervasive foundations of lust and greed that our current civilization rests on, these two principles – simple living, high thinking – create a culture shock: they force us to be aware of what is actually necessary and what is superfluous. And to our embarrassment, we find that much of what we thought was necessary is actually superfluous.
Śrīla Prabhupāda writes, “Live a very simple life, just maintaining body and soul together. Certainly one requires some means of livelihood, and according to one’s varṇa [occupation] and āśrama [spiritual order of life] this means of livelihood is prescribed in the śāstras [scriptures]. One should be satisfied with this. Therefore, instead of hankering for more and more money, a sincere devotee of the Lord tries to invent some ways to earn his livelihood, and when he does so Kṛṣṇa helps him.” (Bhāgavatam 7.14.5, Purport)
This joyful, focused awareness comes not just from doing one’s societal duty but also and especially from developing one’s attraction to the Supreme Person. Queen Kuntī says, “O Lord of Madhu [Kṛṣṇa], as the Ganges forever flows to the sea without hindrance, let my attraction be constantly drawn unto You without being diverted to anyone else.” (Bhāgavatam 1.8.42) Śrīla Prabhupāda explains: “This unalloyed devotion is the ultimate goal of life. Our attention is usually diverted to the service of something which is nongodly or not in the program of the Lord. When the program is changed into the service of the Lord, that is to say when the senses are purified in relation with the service of the Lord, it is called pure unalloyed devotional service. Śrīmatī Kuntīdevī wanted that perfection and prayed for it from the Lord.” (Bhāgavatam 1.8.42, Purport)
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Example
Devotees in the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement carry a story with them that gives them a sense of simple living, high thinking and an appreciation of the value of pure, unalloyed devotional service – that is the story of Śrīla Prabhupāda. In coming to the Western world with practically no possessions, money, or contacts, and freely giving the invaluable gift of transcendent knowledge as well as a practical process to attain the goal of that knowledge, Śrīla Prabhupāda exemplified simple living, high thinking.
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s remarkable story gives his followers a sense of family, a recognition of Kṛṣṇa’s caring presence, an appreciation of His mysterious ways. Through this unique story his followers share a common bond, with shared values, goals, and affection for one another. And inspired by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s qualities and character, as well as his seismic teachings, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s followers strive to think high and be more internally and externally simple.
This sort of simplicity is far more than minimalism; it means extricating ourselves from the ironlike governance of bodily consciousness; it means giving up hankerings, including the hankering for honor, respect, and prestige; it means saying no to ungodly options; it means remaining satisfied with whatever we have; it means, despite everything, staying spiritually resolute in purpose, just as Śrīla Prabhupāda did; it means tasting the ecstasy of our own insignificance.
On the principles of simple living and high thinking, Śrīla Prabhupāda gave us a vision of the world we can build together. These principles are not only about doing what’s right but are also a moral framework by which to see the world and navigate in it while remaining unaffected by it. Simple living and high thinking are a way to understand our struggles and our journey.
Our Consciousness Matters Most
One would hope that it would be easy to understand and apply the principles of simple living, high thinking to our lives. But this isn’t always so. For example, on one hand Śrīla Prabhupāda writes, “A devotee should not live very gorgeously and imitate a materialistic person. Plain living and high thinking are recommended for a devotee. He should accept only so much as he needs to keep the material body fit for the execution of devotional service.” (Bhāgavatam 4.22.24, Purport) Certainly most exemplary devotees of Śrī Kṛṣṇa follow this directive – they live simply, dress simply, eat simply, and behave simply. But we hear of highly advanced devotees who lived differently. Ultimately, simplicity is not about the number of possessions and responsibilities we have or don’t have; it’s about our consciousness. And externals may belie our consciousness.
Śrī Caitanya-bhāgavata (Madhya-khaṇḍa 7.47–121, summarized here) relates an instructive episode in this regard. Mukunda Datta and Gadādhara Paṇḍita were close associates and childhood friends of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. When Mukunda heard that Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi, who was known to him but not to Gadādhara, was visiting their town, Mukunda brought Gadādhara to meet Puṇḍarīka, whom Mukunda praised as an exceptionally advanced devotee. But when they visited Puṇḍarīka, what Gadādhara saw surprised him.
“Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi seemed to be a glorious prince. He sat on a splendid red chair decorated with brass. The chair was beautiful with splendid fine cloth and graceful cushions on four sides. Above him were three splendid canopies. There were five or seven brass pitchers, both large and small. There were excellent betel nuts on a splendid brass tray. On both sides were splendid spittoons. Looking at Gadādhara Paṇḍita and chewing betel nuts, he [Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi] smiled. At every moment two men fanned him with peacock-feather fans. . . . Although he was in truth an exalted Vaiṣṇava, externally he seemed to be a materialist. He ate opulent food and wore opulent clothing, and his hair was anointed the opulent fragrances.”
Puṇḍarīka then heard Mukunda recite a verse from the Bhāgavatam about how the merciless demoness Pūtanā ate babies and was planning to kill infant Kṛṣṇa by suckling him with her poison-smeared breast, yet despite this, because Pūtanā approached Kṛṣṇa as a mother and offered Him her breast milk, Śrī Kṛṣṇa gave her the post of being His mother in the spiritual world. The verse implies that only an ignorant fool would not worship Lord Kṛṣṇa, who grants such mercy.
On hearing this verse, Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi began to weep and exhibit the overwhelming ecstatic emotions of a devotee possessed of the highest levels of love for Kṛṣṇa. Gadādhara witnessed this transformation and became filled with wonder.
“Seeing Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi dressed like a materialist,” he said, “I thought, ‘He is a Vaiṣṇava attached to sense pleasures.’ . . . I have committed an offense to Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi. But if I become his disciple, he will forgive my offense.”
When Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was told of Gadādhara Paṇḍita’s desire, He approved of it.
When Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi understood that Gadādhara wished to become his disciple, he smiled and said, “Destiny has placed a great jewel before me. I have no doubts. After many births I have become fortunate to find such a disciple.”
Actual simplicity is a heart fully devoted to Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Until we achieve that exalted state, however, simplicity means that whatever situation we find ourselves in, we think and act for the pleasure of guru and Kṛṣṇa, we learn from that situation, we depend on Kṛṣṇa, and we strive to advance spiritually. This consciousness is simple living and high thinking, and it will gradually qualify us to go back home, back to Godhead.