Gita Nagari: Prabhupada's Vision for an Ideal Life
By Satyaraja Dasa
Building a community where life centers on Lord Krishna's teachings in the Bhagavad-gita.
In a 1956 issue of Back to Godhead magazine (Volume 3, Part 6), Srila Prabhupada wrote what is tantamount to a mission statement for a Krishna conscious farm community. Here's an excerpt from the article titled "How to Broadcast the Teachings of Bhagwat Geeta":
Geeta Nagari will therefore be the main preaching centre of the Supreme Authority of Sree Krishna the Personality of Godhead. . . . It shall be proclaimed from that place that Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the Absolute Enjoyer of all benefits derived from all kinds of works, sacrifice, cultivation of knowledge, that He is the Absolute Proprietor of all the material and spiritual worlds, that He is the unalloyed friend and philosopher of all living entities, namely the gods or the rulers, the general people, the beasts and the birds, the reptiles, plants and trees and all other animals residing in every nook and corner of the great universes. When such knowledge will be fostered from the vantage of the Geeta Nagari, at that time only real peace and prosperity will usher in the world so anxiously awaited by the people of the world.
Throughout the article, Prabhupada outlines the general principles of what would become his International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He gives special attention to helping people live spiritually and close to nature and the land. On the second point, he refers to the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi, whom he mentions several times in the article.
Gita Nagari in Port Royal
Following the success of New Vrindavan in West Virginia, founded in 1968, Prabhupada's disciples bought a 350-acre farm in Port Royal, Pennsylvania in 1974 and named it Gita Nagari. They planned to model it on Prabhupada's 1956 prophecy. He had envisioned an environment of peace and prosperity, where devotees could live simply, drink pure, healthy cow's milk, and cultivate the principles of Krishna consciousness. The community would be centered on its cows and bulls, whose virtues were well known in ancient India.
When Prabhupada lectured at Gita Nagari in 1976, he summed up the project's mission by isolating the ideal activities for the devotees who lived there:
Give protection to the cows. That is the order of Krishna. We cannot be so ungrateful that we kill our mother. Milk is so important. We are drinking the milk of the cow, and in exchange if we cut the throat of our mother, that is not civilization. That is barbarism, less than animal. Animals also, they have respect for mother. So try to give protection to the cow; that is a pious activity. And you'll not be in scarcity. Live village life, simple life, and be satisfied with the bare necessities. There is no need of luxury. And save time and chant Hare Krishna. This is ideal life.
In the 1980s Sureshvara Dasa was living at Gita Nagari and writing regular Back to Godhead articles on Krishna conscious farm life. In a 1987 article titled "Adopt a Cow for Peace," he wrote, “The devotees protect them [the cows and bulls] for as long as they live. They will never hear the sound of the slaughterer's gun.”
Today, Gita Nagari emphasizes sustainability, which according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers to an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that (1) enhance environmental quality and the natural resources that an agricultural economy depend on; (2) make the most efficient use of both renewable and nonrenewable resources; (3) sustain the economic viability of farm technologies; (4) satisfy human food and fiber needs; and (5) enhance the quality of life for farmers and the larger society for which they function. Prabhupada wanted these things from his farm communities. And most of all he wanted them to be Krishna conscious, as the name Gita Nagari suggests: "the village where the principles of the Bhagavad-gita are lived." Besides being a planned community that favors teamwork, cooperation, sustainability, and cow protection, Gita Nagari has as its primary focus the spiritual pursuit – to help its residents grow closer not just to the land and nature but to the source of both: Lord Sri Krishna.
Changes Through the Years
In its initial years, Gita Nagari met with mixed results. Caring for cows was always a central concern, and for a time Gita Nagari success stories appeared in ISKCON periodicals. But manpower was lacking, and the community went through hard times. Still, in 1977 the devotees managed to build a temple, with the beautiful deities of Sri Sri Radha-Damodara taking center stage. Prabhupada had planned to visit that year, as he had visited the year before, but declining health prevented him from doing so, and that year he departed for Krishna's kingdom in the spiritual world.
By 1980 Gita Nagari started its own school for devotee children, but it eventually closed as the community splintered. Gita Nagari held its own for several more years, and in 1983 the Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association acknowledged it for managing the top-producing herd of Brown Swiss cows in the state, amid considerable competition.
That same year, to accommodate the herd of over a hundred cows, the devotees erected a new barn, which also housed a methane digester. The mechanism substantially reduced methane emissions by capturing the gas from cow dung, creating a renewable energy source. The project showed great promise, but lack of money and manpower prevented it from realizing its potential.
After leading devotees held meeting after meeting to confront the challenges Gita Nagari faced, they discovered they had friends and supporters in the Indian community. Here they found an unexpected resource: pious people who appreciated the farm and its goals. Building on this realization, and after months of brainstorming, the devotees launched the Adopt A Cow program. It was the fall of 1985, and they placed newspapers ads directed toward their targeted market: people from India. They also sent letters to some 15,000 Hindus in the U.S. alone, asking them to “make a stand for world peace” by fulfilling their religious obligation to “protect the sacred cow.” Adopt A Cow's stated purpose:
1. To show a living example of cow protection, as described in the Vedas, by having the cow provide milk and the ox plow the fields for grain. In return, we protect the cow and the ox so they can live out their life span and avoid the slaughterhouse.
2. To enable others to participate in cow protection by providing adoption plans. Participants can “Adopt A Cow” by giving donations to ensure a cow's or ox’s feed and care.
3. To educate others about cow protection, ox power, and vegetarianism through travel, lectures and newsletters.
The program enabled the devotees to collect the money they needed to sustain Gita Nagari. In the late 1980s, Bhakti Tirtha Swami (1950–2005) was the spiritual head of a thriving Gita Nagari community, and many people joined the ranks. Farmers, devotees in training, and even professionals like doctors and lawyers began to patronize Gita Nagari.
“At its peak,” writes Madhava Smullen in a recent article on iskconnews.org, “Gita Nagari cared for and milked a large herd of Brown Swiss cows, but over the years, efforts dwindled. Then, in 2008, Dhruva Maharaja Dasa moved from Cape Town, South Africa, to Gita Nagari to serve as temple president, along with his wife Parijata Dasi.”
Gita Nagari Today
Before coming to Gita Nagari, Dhruva Maharaja was an engineer for a nuclear power plant, and Parijata was vice president of organizational development strategy for several multinationals, such as Volkswagen and Chrysler. The two professionals seemed unlikely candidates for rejuvenating a failing farm community. But, inspired by Prabhupada's vision as articulated by Bhakti Tirtha Swami, who had recently passed away, they determinedly moved forward, quickly developing the needed expertise by extensive reading and by consulting with experienced farmers and longtime devotees who knew the ropes. They attended agricultural conferences and connected with experts in forestry, agronomy, dairy, crops, grain production, energy sources, and so on. Since Krishna consciousness is nonsectarian and accommodates people of all authentic religious outlooks, Dhruva Maharaja and Parijata share camaraderie with local Amish and Mennonite farmers, who help them make the best use of the land.
Although initially overwhelmed, they set themselves to the task – and they prayed. Feverishly.
Parijata remembers focusing on something Bhakti Tirtha Swami had said: “When your desire to serve is beyond your capacity and yet you act without hesitation, that is the moment empowerment occurs.”
Accordingly, they launched into high gear, focusing on core concerns – Radha-Damodara, the community, the cows, the land, and a simple but effective economic model.
Their hard work paid off. Gita Nagari's Community Supported Agriculture program recently yielded at least twenty types of vegetables, supplying organic produce to four nearby ISKCON temples in various cities and 115 families. This is in compliance with Srila Prabhupada's strategy. He wanted every city temple to have an affiliated farm project, as he wrote to his disciple Rupanuga Dasa in 1976: “Every center must have a farm so we can get all milk and if possible vegetables, even fruit and flowers.”
In addition, Gita Nagari has not only revived but enhanced its dairy efforts with the new Gita Nagari Creamery, the first certified dairy in American that's slaughter-free.
“The Gita Nagari Creamery," Madhava Smullen writes, "is a unique operation in today’s world. It avoids cruel practices used by conventional dairies such as dehorning and tail docking, instead gearing all its practices towards the cattle’s comfort.”
ISKCON communities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Potomac, Maryland; Newburgh in Upstate New York; Towaco, New Jersey; and Central New Jersey each purchase some fifty gallons of milk a week for their temples and members, again taking steps toward fulfilling Prabhupada's desire that temples become self-sufficient as a result of affiliate farms.
“When we first got to Gita Nagari,” says Parijata, “we began by milking just two cows, then four.”
But things grew quickly.
“By March 2013, we bought a herd of 28 Brown Swiss milking cows. We also have 19 retired cows and oxen, and 14 calves, including ten heifers and four bulls.”
Madhava Smullen writes, “The cows are milked twice a day, at 5:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., as peaceful kirtana music plays. Initially, when they had only a small number of cows, Dhruva and Parijata would milk them by hand. Now that they have dozens, they use the gentlest type of suction pump machines, and compensate for the reduced personal interaction by spending plenty of quality time with the cows.”
“Our cows are milked with gentle suction milkers," Dhruva Maharaja says, "and our milk is stored in a 510-gallon refrigerated tank. We process the milk by means of low-temperature vat-batch pasteurization, heating the milk to 145º F, holding it for 30 minutes, then cooling it to 40º. We then bottle it using a single-valve bottling machine. The milk is then stored in our walk-in cooler at 40º. After that, it is transported to delivery locations with our refrigerated truck.”
To avoid the shortcomings of the past, a group of devotees outside the farm community has formed Krishna Protects Cows, Inc., to take responsibility for the well-being of the cows and bulls throughout their natural span of life. This is important to Dhruva Maharaja and Parijata, who care for the animals as if they were family members. The devotees at Gita Nagari have loving relationships with all their cows and bulls. They give them affectionate names and treat them like people, just as Krishna did with His cows some five thousand years ago.
The bull named Clover, for example, was rescued from a horse farm, from which he would have eventually been sent to slaughter. Parijata says he thinks he's a horse and acts that way too. Then there's Govardhan Lal – beautiful but grumpy; Burfi – large, quiet, and shy; Venu – strong, protective, and a bit of a bully; Pandu – soft, affectionate; Lala – the baby, large, strong, intelligent, and mischievous (always escaping through the fence). Each has a distinct personality, Parijata says. They are affectionate like children, and they respond to treats.
The cows produce six to seven hundred gallons of milk a week. A small portion is used for Radha-Damodara and Their devotees, in the form of milk, yogurt, butter, paneer, and several Gita Nagari cheese varieties, including Cheddar, Colby, Baby Swiss, and Pepper Jack.
“We don’t push our cows to production," says Parijata, "and their diets are carefully managed. Because they’re well cared for, happy, and content, their milk is nutrient dense. We’ve even had people who are supposedly lactose intolerant not have any reactions to drinking our milk.”
Gita Nagari is again a thriving community, where residents, while developing a viable, sustainable economic base, engage in loving devotional service to Sri Sri Radha-Damodara on fertile, productive land amid contented cows.
Moving Toward the Future
Recently, Gita Nagari received Grade A certification by the FDA and can now ship perishables over state lines. The Creamery has added primary drop-off locations to its itinerary, including projects in Baltimore, Maryland; Detroit, Michigan; Hartford, Connecticut; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The certification is significant on many levels. Primarily, it establishes that Gita Nagari is a legitimate, effective approach to farming, recognized by leading authorities on the subject.
An important article praising Gita Nagari's methods and accomplishments appeared in Modern Farmer (June 26, 2014), a respected online magazine focusing on industry standards. The very beginning of the article shows that the author, Jodi Helmer, understands the uniqueness of Lord Krishna's transcendental farm community: “On most dairy farms, heifers are inseminated after their first birthdays and impregnated every year; newborn calves are taken from their mothers after birth and bottle-fed formula instead of nursing from their mothers. The girls are placed in the breeding program and the boys are fattened up and sent to market. Gita Nagari Farm is not most dairy farms.”
An exciting development for Dhruva and Parijata involves Whole Foods, a major health-food chain with whom Gita Nagari is negotiating to carry its milk products.
“Our strategy regarding Whole Foods,” says Dhruva, “is to make our milk available to the mainstream. We have folks all over the USA, somewhat scattered, desiring to switch to milk from protected cows only, and our goal is to increase the awareness of ethical choices and make our slaughter-free, cruelty-free products available and accessible to them. We have followed the vendor-approval process with Whole foods – a rigorous procedure, with third-party audits, as well as their senior management team coming out to do a farm visit – and have been successful. We are evaluating the best approach to proceed further with them, and we expect to begin a fruitful exchange.”
Gita Nagari is moving forward as Prabhupada had always wanted. Dhruva and Parijata, along with their visionary Governing Body Commissioner Devamrita Swami, their close-knit team of devotee farmhands, and their ever vigilant and dedicated investors, realize the virtues of Prabhupada's 1956 prophecy. Gita Nagari is promoting a life close to nature and God, and is becoming an economically viable slaughter-free dairy as well. Although Gita Nagari was always one of Prabhupada's prize projects, he would be especially happy to see recent developments that encourage all, according to their ability, to support it wholeheartedly.