New Vrindaban, West Virginia (Chapter 14)

The Hare Krishna Explosion
by Hayagriva Dasa

Part III: New Vrindaban, 1968-1969
Chapter 14

New Vrindaban, West Virginia

When Kirtanananda phones from West Virginia, I tell him that Prabhupada wants Mr. Foster converted to Vaishnavism.

“Impossible,” he replies. “We don’t agree on anything. I’ve just moved out to the back farm for some peace and quiet.”

“What about selling? Is he interested?”

“No, but he still favors five year leases on small parcels.”

“But we require the property!”

“Patience,” he says.

Impatient, I begin looking at real estate in the Poconos, near Wilkes-Barre. Prices, however, are prohibitive. Still, letters from Prabhupada keep pushing the conception of a rural ashram in West Virginia:

“We should always know that Vrindaban is not localized in a particular area, but that whenever Krishna is present, Vrindaban is automatically there. And wherever the holy name of Krishna is chanted, Krishna is present. There is no difference between Krishna and His holy name. So now Krishna is blessing a nice piece of land, resembling Vrindaban, to be a new place of pilgrimage for you Western devotees. So you must try for it.”

Satsvarupa has opened a fourth ISKCON center in Allston, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. From there, Prabhupada writes Kirtanananda, May 23:

“If this piece of land is turned into New Vrindaban, I shall forget to return to Indian Vrindaban. I am getting older and older, so actually if I get a peaceful place, as you describe, the rest of my life will be continued translating Srimad-Bhagavatam and other Goswami literatures, assisted by some of my disciples like you. So anytime you take me to your new hermitage, I shall be very glad to go there.”

Prabhupada indicates that at the end of May, he may either go to Montreal or return to New York.

In Wilkes-Barre, I’m fired from the community college. The college president and dean took exception to my chanting in English 102.

I manage, however, to get a contract to teach English in the fall at Ohio State University. It’s the same instructorship I held in 1964. Not really wanting to teach, I write the department chairman and request a Tuesday-Thursday class schedule. Surprisingly enough, he grants it. This gives me five days a week free. With such a schedule, I can commute weekly between Columbus and the West Virginia farm, about a three hour drive.

Still, I’m at a crossroads. Correcting hundreds of student themes is tedious time-consuming business. Shouldn’t my time be spent working with Prabhupada on Srimad-Bhagavatam?

Confused, I write Prabhupada. He replies:

“Accept this job without hesitation. In Bhagavad-gita you have read that one should fully utilize one’s talents for the service of the Lord. Arjuna was a military man, and he utilized his talent fully for Lord Krishna. So by the grace of Krishna, you have some educational talent, and when there is an opportunity to get some money, you must accept it, but spend the money for Krishna. As you are proposing to develop New Vrindaban, you will require some money. I advise you to purchase land there instead of taking on a lease. If you must take on a lease, it should be over a long period, say ninety-nine years. I do not understand the position of Mr. Foster there, but I advise you not to make any big plans on the land of others. There is a Bengali proverb saying that if one is a poor man, he can go to some friend’s house and accept food and then leave. But one should never accept residence in another’s house. That is very inconvenient.”

Classes finished, I leave Wilkes-Barre for West Virginia, accompanied by a student, Harold Miller, who is interested in the chanting and the idea of starting a community. We leave at three in the morning and arrive in West Virginia about noon.

Actually, Mr. Foster owns two farms: one, called simply “the Goat Farm,” borders the winding county road. The other is land-locked, inaccessible to ordinary vehicles.

At the Goat Farm, we are welcomed by Foster and his new tribe acquired from the announcement in The San Francisco Oracle: Reg Dunbar from New York City, Don Thomas from California, and two California girls, Caroline and Janet.

I talk with Foster. He’s still offering only five year leases. Kirtanananda, he tells me, is now living “on the old back farm.”

Harold and I wait, and in the late afternoon, Kirtanananda finally arrives. He’s obviously not interested in chatting with the loquacious Foster but in taking us immediately to the back farm.

We follow him down to a state lake and an empty field used for parking. Then we strap on backpacks with basic supplies and start trekking along a footpath leading to a creekbed lined with sycamores. It is a fresh, early summer afternoon, and the walk is invigorating. We cross the creek bed twice, stepping carefully from rock to rock. Soon the footpath turns into an old, abandoned logging road winding uphill through a dense forest.

After some minutes of the steep incline, we stop and set down the backpacks.

“It’s not much further,” Kirtanananda says.

We walk a mile, all uphill, then rest again in the mottled brown and green of maple and beech, poplar and locust. The poplars are perhaps thirty to fifty years old, tall, wide and straight. Then we take a footpath to the top of the hill, where the trees thin and give way to blackberry and raspberry bushes.

Walking along the ridge top, we can see the county road running along the opposite ridge. As we pass a grove of sassafras trees and clumps of wild roses, I sense the good feeling of arriving home, of being in an old familiar place full of warm memories.

Then suddenly I see, beneath a spreading willow, nestled snugly on the hillside, the old wood frame farmhouse.

Welcome to New Vrindaban.

The house itself is over a hundred years old, with beams hewn out of the great trees that once grew profusely throughout the Ohio River Valley. The men who built it were the children or grandhildren of pioneers. They were good builders. The chimney and basement were built from rocks hauled out of the creek. There is a back room, a living room with a stone fireplace, a small bedroom, and narrow stairs leading up to a dark, dusty room. Though small, the house is adequate for our immediate purposes. I sense it is already a kind of spiritual home.

“There were ghosts here when I first came,” Kirtanananda tells us. “But the chanting drove them away.”

After a rest, we set about cleaning the upstairs. Since there is no electricity, we have to work during daylight. Harold is a big help. Together we clean the dusty upstairs and repair the tattered ceiling.

Since the well isn’t working, we have to carry buckets down to the spring. Walking back uphill with the buckets is the hard part. Save for the creek beds and ridge tops, none of the ground is level. You are either rolling downhill, or climbing to the top.

We begin making lists of things to get in town. Screens for the windows. Insect repellent. More mantles for the kerosene lantern. Detergent. A new broom. Foam mats. Rubbing alcohol for mosquito bites. Sugar and oatmeal. Canned fruit juices. Whatever fruit and vegetables we can carry. Buckets. A bush-ax for clearing around the house and cutting paths.

At night, I stay awake a long time listening to the high whir of crickets punctuated by the occasional croaks of a bullfrog. It is pitch black, and the stars are very bright. No street lamps stun our vision.

I begin wondering how we’re ever going to make a transcendental village modeled on Vedic India’s Vrindaban. Materially speaking, we’re on a rundown, landlocked farm in the ancient West Virginia hills. A Walden, perhaps. But a village?

“If this piece of land is turned into New Vrindaban, I shall forget to return to Indian Vrindaban.”

In the morning, Kirtanananda builds a fire in the stone fireplace and makes pancakes with honey, which we offer before a picture of Lord Krishna. It is delicious prasadam.

In the early morning sun, I appraise the farm. Mist hangs down in the creekbeds. The pastures are overrun with wildflowers and prickly blackberry bushes. The fences are in disrepair—more barbed wire and new locust posts needed. The barn requires new siding, but its basic structure, like that of the house, is sound. The house also needs new siding, and a new roof before the fall rains. Shingles can be nailed up, and plastic stapled over the broken windows. Everything needs painting.

The old logging road continues past the house two miles south to Limestone Hill Road. City dwellers would consider it impassable. There are ruts, creek crossings, bogs, rocks and fallen trees to impede progress. After one attempted traversal, we dub the road “Aghasura,” the name of a monstrous demonic serpent who, camouflaging himself on a road, laid in wait to devour Krishna and the cowherd boys. Krishna, of course, saw through his trick and killed him.

As our first chore, we clear paths with scythes and bush-axes so we can walk about without getting scratched, snake bitten or lost. Afterwards, we repair the farmhouse doors. Kirtanananda works in his small garden, clearing weeds and spading. We have to bring up water in buckets for the tomato plants.

In the evenings, after work, we walk down the hill to the creek and bathe in a waterfall and waterhole beneath. The creek water is ice cold. We sit on rocks under the waterfall and chant.

My first days on the farm are spent picking blackberries, so many that I inspire Kirtanananda to start canning blackberry jam and chutney. In the early mornings, Harold walks to the lower pasture and gathers wildflowers for the altar. We get up just before dawn, chant, then read aloud from Bhagavad-gita. In the evenings, at seven or eight, we repeat this program, spraying on insect repellent to survive the mosquitoes. After chanting, we sit outside beside the garden and watch the stars.

On June 14, Prabhupada writes from Montreal:

“I advise Kirtanananda and yourself to convert West Virginia into New Vrindaban.”
We ponder this. Not just the farm. He wants the whole state.

“I understand the spot is very beautiful. The hills may be renamed New Govardhan. And if there are lakes, they can be renamed Shyamkunda and Radhakunda. …Vrindaban does not require modernization because Krishna’s Vrindaban is a transcendental village completely dependent on nature’s beauty and protection. Krishna preferred to belong to the vaishya (agricultural) community because Nanda Maharaj happened to be a vaishya king, or landholder, and his main business was cow protection. It is understood that he had 900,000 cows, and Krishna and Balarama, along with Their many cowherd boy friends, used to take charge of them. Every day, in the morning, He used to go out with His friends and cows into the pasturing grounds….”
Nine hundred thousand cows! We don’t even have one. And friends? There’s only Harold. And Nanda Maharaj a king! We’re just scraping by until I start work in October.

“So if you seriously want to convert this new spot into New Vrindaban, I shall advise you not to make it very much modernized. Better to live there without modern amenities but to live a natural, healthy life for executing Krishna consciousness. It should be an ideal village where the residents will practise plain living and high thinking. For plain living we must have sufficient land for raising crops and pasture for the cows….”
So far we don’t even have one acre. The pastures are hilly and overgrown, and as for seriously raising crops….

“If there are sufficient grains and milk, then the whole economic problem is solved. You do not require any machines, cinemas, hotels, slaughter houses, brothels, nightclubs—all these modern amenities. People in the spell of maya are trying to squeeze out gross pleasure from the senses, but this is not possible to derive to our heart’s content….”
Instead of opening brothels and slaughter houses, we are advised to purchase and protect cows.

“We have to maintain the animals throughout their lives. We must not sell them to the slaughter houses. Krishna taught us to give all protection to the cows; therefore the special feature of New Vrindaban will be cow protection, and by it we shall not be the losers….”
I gaze out the window at the blackberries and saplings growing in the pastures, at the fallen fences, decayed locust posts, rusty barbed wire, and try to imagine cows grazing.

“In India, of course, a cow is protected, to the cowherd’s profit. Cow dung is used as fuel. Cow dung dried in the sun is kept in stock and used for fuel in the villages. They get wheat and other cereals produced from the field. There is milk and vegetables, and the fuel is cow dung. Thus every village is independent. There are handweavers for the cloth. And the country oil mill—consisting of a bull walking in circles round two big grinding stories, attached with yoke—grinds the oil seeds into oil….”
Handweavers…. Cow dung for fuel…. Bulls walking in circles….Grinding stones….

Inspired by Prabhupada’s letter, I confront Foster while he’s weeding cucumbers at the Goat Farm. I suggest that he either sell or lease us the entire back farm.

“I’ll lease you the house,” he says, “and an acre or so around it. But not the whole hundred and thirty acres.”

I dicker, make excuses, suggest that with the entire farm, we’ll be more likely to stay on.

“I don’t want one sect to take over the whole ashram,” he says firmly. “I want to leave it open for as many different kinds of people as possible. That’s the idea, you see. To leave the path to Truth open. People of all backgrounds and philosophies can come from all over the world here to seek Truth.”

“I’m thinking of a long term lease,” I say.

“No.” He stands up and shakes his head. His face is red from weeding. “No. Just five year leases. Renewable, of course. You see, the idea is not just to settle in. The idea is to get to the Truth, to open up and let the Truth come in.”

When I inform Prabhupada of Mr. Foster’s stand, Prabhupada immediately writes back:

“Mr. Foster may be a very good man, but he does not know what is sectarian and what is nonsectarian. But at least you should know that Krishna is nonsectarian. Krishna claims that He is the seed-giving Father of all the 8,400,000 species of life visible within the material creation. They may be of different forms—aquatics, vegetables, plants, worms, birds, beasts, human beings—but Krishna claims that all of them are His begotten sons. Nor does Krishna claim that He Himself is an Indian or kshatriya or brahmin, nor white nor black. He claims that He is the enjoyer of everything that be. He is the proprietor of all the planets and the creation. And He is the intimate friend of all living entities. So it is a fact that Krishna is universal and nonsectarian. Therefore if Mr. Foster actually wants some nonsectarian institution, he must know how this is possible. I therefore think that you should try to convince Mr. Foster of our philosophy, and let him become nonsectarian in fact. Without understanding Krishna, one is sectarian.”

As the days grow hot and dry, and the houseflies increase, Mr. Foster grows more and more defensive and paranoid in respect to neighbors. This is somewhat provoked by a local newspaper account of “hippy” guests who “talk to trees.” Now Foster has taken to rifle practise. He, Reg, and Don set cans and bottles on a tree stump in sight of the road and shoot by the hour. Foster thinks it wise to advertise himself as an armory.

July 10. Another letter from Prabhupada. As we read it, we realize that the New Vrindaban project may have to be abandoned.

“We have no freedom of action because the land belongs to Mr. Foster, and he wants to develop an institution appealing to all sections of seekers in spiritual enlightenment. Such an impersonalist ideal can never be successful…. Our mission is to reach the supreme planet in the spiritual sky, namely the abode of Krishna. Therefore we cannot compromise by saying that all sorts of meditation give the same result. There is no Vedic evidence of this, nor proof by the acharyas. If Mr. Foster wants something for the satisfaction of all sections of spiritualists, I think your endeavor in that part of the country will not be very successful. Under the circumstances, I would advise you to live with me.”

The New Vrindaban scheme under the present inconveniences is not possible to be successful ultimately.
We read the letter several times. Should we pack up and leave? Stay on and struggle? There are plenty of other farms on the earth. Why be attached to a particular plot of land?

After debating all this, we finally resolve to go to Montreal to talk personally with Prabhupada and let him decide.

Quickly, we pack a few clothes and start out. On the trail to the car, we meet Reg. He is panting from running up the hill. There’s been a shooting at the Goat Farm.

It was Foster’s paranoia that set the scenario. He rigged up spotlights on his roof, posted “No Trespassing” signs, kept the rifles handy and everyone on constant, fearful alert. Inevitably, when some youngsters on Route 250 got drunk and rambunctious, they decided to drive by Foster’s house and throw some firecrackers. Late at night, of course.

“We thought the firecrackers were gunshots,” Reg tells us. “Foster was running all around flicking on spotlights and handing out rifles, shouting, ‘We’ll get ‘em next time round!’ Naturally Don and the girls were terrified. I was just dazed. And sure enough, the car came back. When the firecrackers went off, Foster and Don started shooting out of the second floor window. A 17-year-old boy was hit. They say he’ll survive. The parents are suing.”

When we arrive at the Goat Farm, we see that Foster has thrown up picket barricades. Additional spotlights line the roof; the road gates are locked, and boards are nailed across the doors and windows.

Foster’s face is pale, his eves sunken from worry and insomnia. Don now weeds the garden while Foster sits on the back porch, his rifle at his side, his chair tilted against the house.

“I might reconsider that lease proposal,” he tells me.

He’s worried about the legal repercussions—instant karma. Despite all his acreage, he has very little ready cash. If the boy’s parents win their suit, he can lose his back farm.

But if the farm is leased to someone else….

“We’ll need a lifetime lease,” I say, “with all land rights granted.”

“Can’t do that,” he says. “The mineral rights were sold off years ago, and there are some trees in there I want, so I can’t give you the timber rights. But I’ll grant a long term lease on the whole property.“

When I propose four thousand dollars for a ninety-nine year lease, Foster squints, then turns to quickly survey the field of tomatoes and bell peppers.

“Blasted groundhogs,” he says. When a car passes by, he reaches for his rifle and fires senselessly into the garden toward a fleeing groundhog.

“All right,” he sighs. “I’ll look into drawing up some kind of lease. Ninety-nine years! Jesus! Trouble with you people is you want to be God almighty.”

End of Chapter 14

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