In the spring of 2014 a discussion amongst friends centered on how we would go about starting a rural community in the United States if a large sum of money happened to fall into our laps. We thought about the need for intentional design and considered the logistical reasons as to why community development has not yet happened successfully for ISKCON in America.
When, in the fall, devotees from an urban temple expressed their desire to start an ISKCON rural community someday, my thoughts precipitated as a four-page letter which was meant to express my initial, rough understanding as to why ISKCON in America, due to limitations inherent in its federal tax-exempt church status, could not be the entity to establish such communities. I also shared information about an alternative legal structure which potentially could work—one referred to by the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as “501(d),” or tax-exempt “Religious or Apostolic Association,” which, according to the Internal Revenue Manual, is for the purpose of operating a “religious community where the members live a communal life following the tenets and teachings of the organization.”
I later met devotees in several places who fortuitously engaged me in conversations about rural community development. I found, however, that when I tried to explain my thoughts and understandings regarding the 501(d) legal structure, many responded with blank stares, doubts or objections. I realize now that before someone can accept the 501(d) model as being worthy of consideration, one needs background information concerning the need for, the purpose of and the nature of community—particularly, the type of rural Kṛṣṇa conscious communities that Śrīla Prabhupāda asked for, which he referred to as “our farms.” Thus, after further research, that original four-page letter has evolved into the form of this paper.
Although there are various types of communities that could be developed (e.g., “eco-villages” and the like), this paper only addresses the establishment of the type of communal farm projects which Śrīla Prabhupāda specifically asked for, namely, examples of daiva-varṇāśrama-dharma (DVAD) communities. Many devotees sincerely wish to establish such DVAD communities pursuant to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s desires. This paper was written particularly to dialogue with them. For such communes to manifest in America, this paper argues that the 501(d) legal model is the best suited. Those interested in establishing other styles of communities will likely not find the 501(d) model practical or attractive—quite understandably.
Did Śrīla Prabhupāda want communal farms?
We find that when Śrīla Prabhupāda spoke about revamping society so that people in general would be able to live a simpler, God-centered life, he consistently said things like, “Take some land from the government. You produce your food. Where is the difficulty? Keep some cows; you get milk,” and, “Everyone should possess some land for growing food grains and some cows to take milk,” and, “…if one man has got a cow and four acres of land, he has no economic problem…Let the people be divided with four acres of land and a cow, there will be no economic question. All the factories will be closed.”
Notably, Śrīla Prabhupāda found modern man’s employment in factories and the like to be detrimental to the mission of human life. Thus, he prescribed that “everyone” should possess land and cows so as to independently solve their economic needs.
However, when he spoke about “our farms,” Śrīla Prabhupāda did not advocate that devotees get their own land and work independently, even if they were householders. Rather, he instructed that the devotees work communally and cooperatively on our farms:
Nityānanda: The householders on our farm, they should cooperate and produce the food centrally, or every householder should produce his own food independently?
Prabhupāda: No. Why they are living in a community centrally? Community means work everything for the community.d
And all who would reside on our farms would be equally provided for. “Anyone who comes to our Society we give shelter, we give food, we give instruction, we give dress, everything, without any condition. You please come and live with us. For such a nice building we have taken. Our farms are so nice, you can go and see how they are doing.”e
Bhagavān: So in our community, when we grow things, or we have need of someone’s services, how are these services distributed equally? Let’s say we grow cauliflower, we grow peas, we grow wheat. Is it that each family must be responsible and take only what he needs? How is it distributed?
But my question is, if the community produces… Some class of men produce vegetables and grains, some class produce cows, some class produce clothes, some class produce necessities for building. How are these things distributed equally?
Prabhupāda: Because we are community, we shall distribute whatever necessity for everyone.
Bhagavān: They will come and say, “I need this much cloth, I need this much milk.”
Prabhupāda: No, this much cloth… But if you become Kṛṣṇa conscious, then you will be satisfied with the minimum necessities of life. That is natural. You won’t demand.
Yogeśvara: So actually such a program can only be successful proportionately with the rise of Kṛṣṇa consciousness of the people.
Prabhupāda: Yes. That is the main basic principle. Without being Kṛṣṇa conscious, if you arrange like this, that will never be successful.f
Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted us to show by example how to become freed from dependency on city life and satisfied with the village idea. “But we are not going to develop a competitive farming enterprise for making money. The basic principle is to become independent of artificial city life…Gandhi had this idea, the one defect was that there was no Krishna in the center. So the same idea of village organization, but keeping Krishna in the center should be introduced on our farm projects.”g
The purpose of this paper, Community by Design, then, is to churn discussion on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s desire for devotees to establish communal farm communities which strive for self-sufficiency, sustainability and Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Herein we primarily want to address the aspect of design regarding American communities, for communes are indeed so by design, not by impersonal chance.
Section One of this paper, entitled Need for Community, is an overview of various concerns drawing our attention to the fact that there is a real, virtually urgent, need to develop rural communities based on DVAD principles.
Section Two, entitled Economy and Community, argues that DVAD communities cannot actually accomplish their intended goals if the members are divorced from the economic system inherent to DVAD, namely, Spiritual Communism, including its ideals.
Finally, Section Three, entitled Legal Structure and Community, argues that DVAD communities in America cannot be established, what to speak of operated successfully, if they are founded on an improper legal structure (entailing organizational form and tax status). We will show that the IRS “church” status, which ISKCON must and does operate under, cannot be used in the establishment of a DVAD community. That is, ISKCON (or any church) cannot, and thus will not, develop DVAD communities in America. This is not the fault of ISKCON’s leadership; it is merely a matter of legal limitations. Lastly, an alternative legal structure which may be used by devotees will be described.
Admittedly, there is likely much lacking in this paper, but I have tried my best to ensure there is no false or misleading information within by consulting several learned devotees. However, if there are remaining flaws, the fault lies solely with me. I would appreciate feedback from anyone who perceives inaccuracies, improper conclusions or missing information that I should have included. I also do not claim that the views expressed in this paper are “the way and the only way” to understand the issue of rural DVAD community development in America; I see no reason why there can’t be other valid understandings.
- Lecture—Aug. 5, 1974
- Lecture—Feb. 6, 1975
- May 11, 1969
- Aug. 1, 1975
- July 14, 1976
- May 27, 1974
- Letter—Oct. 14, 1976
Śrīla Prabhupāda’s desire for us to establish rural communities is no secret. In reality, however, plans in pursuance of this desire of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s, at least in the United States, have either not gotten past the discussion level or have failed when actually attempted.
Now, before we can continue, it is necessary that we “get on the same page” as to what we mean by “community.” There are certainly a number of legitimate usages of the word, but we are only concerned herein with Śrīla Prabhupāda’s intended meaning. When Śrīla Prabhupāda would implore devotees to develop rural communities, he specifically was referring to daiva-varṇāśrama-dharma (DVAD) communities.1
It should go without saying, but we cannot design a DVAD community without first defining what it is and what it is not.
Principles of Daiva-varṇāśrama-dharma
Depending on time, place and circumstance, a DVAD community can appear in various forms–“old wine in a new bottle.” We should not expect to duplicate that description we read about which paints a picture of perfectly qualified brāhmaṇas who were maintained merely by charity, of noble kṣatriyas who could protect and rule simply by their personal prowess and who thus could be maintained by the exacting of taxes, of charitable vaiśyas who, without greed, could incessantly produce more, and of faithful śūdras who met their maintenance by expertly serving without resentment.
Nonetheless, some of the principles of DVAD which must be approximated as closely as possible in whatever form the modern community manifests include:
- Dharmic social intercourse and division of labor:
Everyone serves interdependently (cooperative teamwork, like parts of a body) according to their natural qualities and capacity following the scriptural codes of conduct for their particular varṇa and āśrama. 2 [Unfortunately, many people today choose their occupation according to how many dollars per hour it pays rather than according to their natural inclination for work. This is due to the monetization of work.]
- Self-sufficiency—wealth is generated and needs are met internally:
Work and production are not monetized, and the internal economy is not fueled by profit motives but by gifting and sharing of one’s goods and services. There is no competition between community members.3 Income is not obtained through outside employment. Rather, goods and services (if they happen to be in excess) may be offered to those external to the community in exchange for monetary payment4, since money is needed to pay for things such as property tax and for purchasing those things which the community cannot produce for itself. (In this paper we will regard this as self-sufficiency since the revenue is generated internally rather than from outside employment.)
- Bhakti-yoga maturing gradually into ananya-bhakti:
Every production is made and every service is done as an offering to Kṛṣṇa. [Whereas in a typical material community one person’s hour of work is considered monetarily more valuable than another’s, in an interdependent DVAD community, all work is understood to be devotional service. Thus one person’s hour of service is considered to be as valuable as another’s.5 Such vision enables devotees to happily and honestly work according to their propensity, and eventually with real love, instead of being wage, or result, conscious.]
Education and training of community members facilitate ongoing following and passing down of the previous three principles.6
This, in a nutshell, is the substance of the community we believe Śrīla Prabhupāda envisioned. And life with the land and cows is the substrate on which this DVAD, or brahminical, culture naturally grows.7
The following are forms of community which, although legitimate in their own rights, do NOT contain the substance which defines a DVAD community—that community we specifically want to design:
- A congregation of devotees living near a temple but having outside employment
- Priests being maintained by a temple and doing agricultural chores
- Householders on properties (be they rural or urban) living as non-interdependent neighbors, whether keeping outside employment or not
- Devotees developing cooperative businesses and cohousing separate from life with the land and cows—that is, urban cooperatives
Please keep this working definition of DVAD communities in mind while proceeding through this paper.
The Seed One Plants
It is argued in the following pages that failures in executing Śrīla Prabhupāda’s vision in America and the subsequent reluctance to make further attempts are, in part, due to the fact that to date we have been using the wrong legal structure as the foundation on which to build a community.
Once an entity has established its economic and legal (meaning federal tax status) structures, its operational trajectory into the future is basically determined. That is, once established, the economic and legal workings of a community cannot be easily morphed into another species. For example, if one legally establishes a project as a church (which has its corresponding economic parameters that are legally allowed by the IRS) one cannot later morph that church into, say, a business. In other words, the seed one plants determines the tree that grows and the resultant fruits. There’s no option to change course!
Therefore, it is imperative when designing a DVAD community—which functions with its inherent economy, referred to in this paper as Spiritual Communism (not to be confused with egalitarianism or material communism)—to choose AT THE ONSET a legal structure which best facilitates that economy and the perpetual success of the community.
Indeed, if plans for a community are properly designed and executed, we will realize that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s desire (the theory) is correct and that simply our attempts at its execution (the application) have been faulty. Otherwise, as Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
To read the full paper, please the Community by Design PDF here.