Written By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON New Vrindaban Communications.
Archival Research by Chaitanya Mangala Dasa.
ISKCON Founder-Acharya Srila Prabhupada visited New Vrindaban four times, giving the devotees there his association and dispensing practical advice for simple living that remains invaluable not only to New Vrindaban, but to all ISKCON rural farm communities to this day.
During his first visit, running for over a month from May 20th to June 23rd 1969, Srila Prabhupada encouraged the small group of devotees to embrace the austerity of New Vrindaban life. He praised their simple lodgings and savored their well water and fresh milk straight from ISKCON’s first cow, Kaliya.
“I haven’t tasted milk like this in fifty years,” he said, commenting that “the Vedas calculate a man’s wealth in cows and grains.”
Prabhupada explained that the devotees could get everything they needed from nature, without artificial amenities. He taught them how to see Krishna in the morning sun, the fresh water, the cows and every other element of natural beauty at New Vrindaban.
One day, watching the young men working in the fields, he expressed that the hard work of simple country life was perfect for developing Krishna consciousness. “That is samadhi,” he said. “Samadhi doesn’t mean inactivity. It means being completely absorbed in Krishna.”
Every day at New Vrindaban, Srila Prabhupada held meetings at his favorite spot beneath a persimmon tree with the devotees gathered around him on the grass, and gave them practical instructions on how to realize his vision.
He laid out a plan for establishing the varnashrama system; gave his own designs for low-cost homes and horse carts; and described how to protect cows and bulls, who could provide many of life’s necessities. He told devotees they should build temples named after the seven main temples of Vrindavan, and call their hills Govardhana and their lakes Radha-Kunda and Shyama-Kunda.
Prabhupada’s vision and ambition astounded everyone. But he assured them that it could all be done if they cooperated together, and saw Krishna in charge and themselves as simply assisting Him.
“With cooperation, everything will be possible,” he said. “Krishna will help you.”
He was right. By the time he visited New Vrindaban again from August 31st to September 8th, 1972, Prabhupada was greeted by a much larger group of devotees outside a new farmhouse temple. And the community had expanded to several farms including Vrindaban, Madhuban and Bahulaban.
During his second visit, the ISKCON Founder focused on giving New Vrindaban residents spiritual education through a Bhagavat Dharma Discourse series. Over 500 devotees, guests and reporters from all over the US flooded in to hear him speak on the Bhagavatam for over a week. It was the biggest gathering ISKCON had seen so far.
Festivalgoers had to brave camping in the cold, rainy West Virginia Autumn weather, which turned Bahulaban into a sea of mud. Bathing and cooking were done outdoors. It was the full austere New Vrindaban experience. But the devotees faced it all with good humor and camaraderie, ready to do anything for Prabhupada’s association.
And it was worth it. Every evening, there was a transcendental party atmosphere as they carried him up “Govindaji Hill” in a palanquin, holding torches and lanterns and chanting ecstatically. At the top, Srila Prabhupada spoke from a large open-air pavilion, beautifully decorated and offering stunning views. And his words were nectar.
“In each successive discourse, Prabhupada took the devotees deeper and deeper into the meaning of Srimad-Bhagavatam,” recalls Suhotra Swami. “It was a perfect outline.”
Srila Prabhupada also gave ideal examples of how to put the teachings of the Bhagavatam into practice. He listened with rapt attention during a late night Janmastami reading of the Krishna book, while the other devotees struggled to stay awake. He humbly asserted, while being showered with praise on his seventy-sixth appearance day, that he was accepting the honor “on behalf of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, not for his person.” And he was so overwhelmed with devotion to the Lord while leading the kirtan on his vyasa-puja, that he cried tears of love and moved hundreds of devotees to tears too.
During the festival, Prabhupada wrote, “Yes, the Bhagavata Dharma discourses here in New Vrindaban are going on very nicely… it is truly a wonderful time.” And the devotees felt the same, emerging refreshed and rejuvenated in their services.
Srila Prabhupada’s third visit, from July 18th to 23rd 1974, lasted under a week. But it was deeply meaningful. For the first time, New Vrindaban residents got to show Prabhupada the Palace they were building for him to reside and translate his books in; he had often expressed the desire to retire to New Vrindaban for this purpose.
The Palace had started as a simple house, but the devotees’ overflowing love for their spiritual master had turned it into something much grander. Prabhupada beamed as he was shown where his bedroom, bathroom, Deity room and study would be, tapping the walls with his cane to make sure they were solid.
When one devotee asked if the Palace – then still just a construction site — would be illuminated with jewels, like Lord Krishna’s Palace in the Krsna book, Prabhupada turned to construction workers Soma and Gostabihari, who had been toiling hard all day. “These devotees,” he said, “Are my jewels.”
When he was requested to be patient as the Palace would be ready soon, Prabhupada responded, “If you want, I am already living here.” Before he left, he personally said, “Thank you very much,” to the crew, swelling their hearts with love and inspiration.
Srila Prabhupada continued to show his deep care for the devotees throughout this stay. One day, he visited one of the small cottages, built for householders based on a design he had provided himself. Laughing and chatting with Daivata Das, who had made his home there with his wife Parayana Dasi, Prabhupada asked, “You are happy here?” He also inquired about their four-month old daughter Devahuti, praised them for growing their own vegetables, and said, “You should make thousands of these nice houses.”
At other times during his visit, Prabhupada expressed concern for his female disciples, cutting through the crowd to give one devotee a sweet; and making sure another was warmly dressed in the cool weather.
In a lecture, he voiced the hope that the devotees would take care of each other in the same way, asking them once again to cooperate together “and then everything will go nicely.”
Upon his fourth and last visit to New Vrindaban from June 21st to July 2nd 1976, Srila Prabhupada was impressed to see more progress. Spotting the new buildings, including a hall for festivals, an ox barn, and a grain storage tank, he said, “Oh, much improvement.”
During this stay, Prabhupada spent some time emphasizing the importance of cow protection. On one occasion, he visited the cows at the recently completed Bahulaban barn. While there, he let one of the four new calves lick his hand as devotees told him how they were turning the cows’ milk into ghee, cheese and buttermilk.
On another day, he was taking a morning walk when one devotee, Advaitacarya Das, pointed to a small herd of cows at the top of a hill. “Srila Prabhupada, look!” he said. “There’s Kaliya. She’s our first cow. You used to drink her milk.”
As Prabhupada looked up, Kaliya, now a retired matriarch at fourteen years old, broke away from her herd and made her way down to the steep embankment to walk with Prabhupada as if she were his pet calf. “Ah,” Srila Prabhupada said simply. “My dear old friend Kaliya.” Although he had not seen her since 1969, there seemed to be an almost mystical connection between them that the devotees all felt.
Srila Prabhupada also spent his last visit to New Vrindaban encouraging devotees in all the main areas of his vision for the community. He visited the gardens, appreciating that devotees were growing their own vegetables and their own hay for the cows, and extolling the virtues of simple living. He visited several different Deities being worshipped in the different “forests and groves of New Vrindaban,” to show that it was a place of pilgrimage nondifferent from the original Vrindavan. He spent time with the young children in the gurukula, and held daily evening meetings on Krishna consciousness with his disciples to support spiritual education. And he tied it all together with the simple message to love Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada hoped that in the future, others could benefit from the peaceful New Vrindaban village life too. “Make this ideal life here,’ he told the devotees. “America has got good potency. We have got so much land here. We can have hundreds of New Vrindabans or farms like that. And people will be happy. Invite all the world, ‘Please come and live with us. Why you are suffering congestion, overpopulation? Welcome here. Chant Hare Krsna.’ Make that.”
On July 2nd, 1976, Srila Prabhupada physically left New Vrindaban for the last time, as its residents showered his departing car with flowers and called out his name at the top of their lungs.
But he forever remains with the devotees in their hearts and in his clear instructions for an ideal spiritual village.
And his words, written in 1975 letter, continue to guide and inspire them: “I am always praying to Krishna that the New Vrindaban attempt will be more and more successful and ideal for your country. That is my only prayer.”