“Plain Living and High Thinking”: An English Lesson with Srila Prabhupada

Any student of Srila Prabhupada will at once recognize the phrase “plain living and high thinking.” It occurred frequently and memorably in his discourse. It functioned as kind of motto or slogan to epitomize Prabhupada’s vision of a natural spiritual culture, an alternative to our modern, “soul-killing” industrial civilization.

Prabhupada had made use of the phrase even before he journeyed to America in 1965. In an essay (published much later by the BBT as the second chapter of the booklet Message of Godhead), Prabhupada had written that people nowadays are interested only in

behavior like eating, sleeping, defending, and gratifying the senses. The material scientists—the modern quasi priests who invoke such material activities—invent many objects to gratify the material senses such as the eye, ear, nose, and tongue and ultimately the mind, and there results a field of unnecessary competition for enhancement of such material happiness, which leads the whole world into the whirlpool of uncalled-for clashes. The net result is scarcity all over the world, so much so that even the bare necessities of life, namely food and clothing, become objects of contention and control. And so arise all sorts of obstacles to the traditional, God-given life of plain living and high thinking.

After arriving in America, Prabhupada quickly made known his desire to established self-sufficient rural communities to demonstrate this “God-given” style of life in practice. For example, he wrote in a letter to his disciple Hayagriva dasa in June, 1968:

So, if you seriously want to convert this new spot [in West Virginia] as New Vrindaban, I shall advise you not to make it very much modernized. But as you are American boys, you must make it just suitable to your minimum needs. Not to make it too much luxurious as generally Europeans and Americans are accustomed. Better to live there without modern amenities. But to live a natural healthy life for executing Krishna Consciousness. It may be an ideal village where the residents will have plain living and high thinking. For plain living we must have sufficient land for raising crops and pasturing grounds for the cows. If there is sufficient grains and production of milk, then the whole economic problem is solved. You do not require any machines, cinema, hotels, slaughterhouses, brothels, nightclubs—all these modern amenities.

Hayagriva himself, a one-time college English instructor, recognized the phrase “plain living and high thinking,” and wrote in an April, 1967, issue of Back to Godhead, “Thoreau made Emerson’s injunction of ‘plain living and high thinking’ famous when he set out to live outside Boston on an isolated tract of Emerson’s land surrounding Walden Pond.”

It is true that the expression—and its use to signify a return to a simpler, more innocent way of life—had its origin in English letters. However, Emerson himself had appropriated his “injunction” from an earlier source, a sonnet by William Wordsworth. The eminent English poet had composed the poem the year before Emerson’s birth, as its very title shows: “Written in London, September, 1802.”

It is likely that Prabhupada knew Wordsworth’s poem at first hand. Prabhupada had, on his own telling, received a thorough education in English literature at Scottish Churches College in Calcutta. His professor, J.C. Scrimgeour, has been remembered as one who did much to spread appreciation for Shakespeare in Bengal.

Prabhupada had learned well: I heard a devotee recall how Prabhupada had once recited the entire plot of Merchant of Venice to his astonished young American disciples. Prabhupada had made an allusion to the play, and he was taken aback when no one seemed familiar with it. Hence, his Shakespeare lesson. We can see that Prabhupada had been a good student with a good teacher. So it seems likely he had read Wordsworth’s poem in college, and its theme, as well as its memorable phrase, would have stayed with him.

Here is the poem in question (an Italian sonnet):

Written in London, September, 1802

O Friend! I know not which way I must look
For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
To think that now our life is only drest
For show; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook,
Or groom!—We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.

It will be good to read it a few times. (Here the word “expense” means “wasteful expenditure, extravagance,” and the word “homely,” “unsophisticated, simple.”)

As we see, the poem is a lament: “Plain living and high thinking are no more.” Wordsworth was writing near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and as this and others of his poems show, he was horrified by the emerging civilization of money and machinery. Here he morns the way the ferocious dynamo of industrial civilization is uprooting England’s traditional agrarian way of life, and along with it “our peace, our fearful innocence,/ And pure religion breathing household laws.” The phrase “fearful innocence” nicely suggests how respect for divine law (“fearful”) comes from and upholds an unsophisticated purity. The word “breathing” vividly invokes the ease and naturalness with which religion produces and pervades even the humblest of domestic arrangement.

Now from our vantage of two more centuries, we can see that Wordsworth was truly prophetic. (In fact, the protest against what is known as “advanced civilization” was an enduring theme of the Romanticism of which Wordsworth was an early participant.) It is no wonder, then, that Prabhupada has embraced the poet’s fine phrase.

To be sure, Prabhupada has his own inimitable way of excoriating modern life—for example, in this purport to Shrimad Bhagavatam 1.8.40

Human prosperity flourishes by natural gifts and not by gigantic industrial enterprises. The gigantic industrial enterprises are products of a godless civilization, and they cause the destruction of the noble aims of human life. The more we go on increasing such troublesome industries to squeeze out the vital energy of the human being, the more there will be unrest and dissatisfaction of the people in general, although a few only can live lavishly by exploitation.

Or again (SB 3.9.10, purport):

People who have no taste for the devotional service of the Lord are occupied in material engagements. Most of them engage during the daytime in hard physical labor; their senses are engaged very extensively in troublesome duties in the gigantic plants of heavy industrial enterprise. The owners of such factories are engaged in finding a market for their industrial products, and the laborers are engaged in extensive production involving huge mechanical arrangements. “Factory” is another name for hell. At night, hellishly engaged persons take advantage of wine and women to satisfy their tired senses, but they are not even able to have sound sleep because their various mental speculative plans constantly interrupt their sleep. Because they suffer from insomnia sometimes they feel sleepy in the morning for lack of sufficient rest. By the arrangement of supernatural power, even the great scientists and thinkers of the world suffer frustration of their various plans . . . .

Wordsworth was present near the beginning of the civilization of “gigantic industrial enterprises,” and Prabhupada near what will prove to be the end. That civilization can be characterized quite precisely as an overdevelopment, a hypertrophy, of the material mode of passion (raja-guna). As the Bhagavad Gita notes, the result of raja-guna is misery. That misery is now upon us, and it will increase more and more.

We are being forced by the laws of nature to come to the end of the culture of “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth called it in another poem. It that poem, the poet longs to escape to an archaic past. It is our good fortune to have been shown the way forward by Prabhupada, to the life of plain living and high thinking, in which the archaic past becomes one with an attainable future—The Next Big Thing.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to ““Plain Living and High Thinking”: An English Lesson with Srila Prabhupada

  1. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said, “All our lauded technological progress – our very civilization – is like the axe in the hand of the pathological criminal.” Indeed, it is our good fortune to have been shown the way forward.

  2. Madan mohan

    I’m curious about how and why the phrase changed from “Plain living and high thinking” to “Simple living and high thinking” in ISKCON. Thoughts?

  3. What about ‘simple thinking and high living’? That seems to be the standard these days.

  4. Ravindra Svarupa dasa

    I recall a decision by the Back to Godhead magazine editors, sometime around 1975, to change the slogan from “plain living” to “simple living.” They thought “simple living” would sound more attractive to the contemporary American ear than “plain living.” They were probably right in that. Test it out for yourself: “simple” carries mostly good connotations for us, and “plain,” mostly bad. Anyway, there had been a little controversy about the policy, and I was consulted as to my judgment. I stated my preference for “plain living” because one, Prabhupada had used it, and two, it recalled the Wordsworth sonnet. However, it seems both words were equally acceptable to Srila Prabhupada. And as for the Wordsworth sonnet, they asked, who would care about that, other than a scholar or a pedant? OK, guilty as charged.

  5. James

    Plain and simple are simply synonyms as Ravindra Svarupa dasa suggests. Thank you all for restoring my faith that some with in Iskcon actually take the challenge of acting with knowledge to heart and so do not needlessly throw out the baby of material knowledge with the bath water of industrial civilization.
    Still hoping to see that bath cleaned though, maybe the baby, though blue, is not beyond reviving.

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