"Simple living"—as it applies to the philosophy and practice of Krishna consciousness—can mean many things, such as freedom from greed and extravagance, straightforwardness in social dealings, exclusive service to the Supreme Person, honest work in harmony with natural laws, and dependence on God's mercy.
The English poet William Wordsworth wrote,
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.
Srila Prabhupada may have had this poem in mind when he frequently used the term "simple living and high thinking" to describe the ideal way of life for people in general and devotees of Krishna specifically. "Simple living" is rooted in the idea that an intelligent person should spend as much time as possible cultivating spiritual awareness and not get carried away by material circumstances or desires.
Simple living requires minimizing bodily needs and accepting whatever comes by the arrangement of Providence. To this end, Srila Prabhupada always spoke in favor of local self-sustaining agrarian economies to meet life's needs without the hard labor needed to acquire extraneous amenities.
*In this context, the word "homely" means "unsophisticated and unpretentious," qualities even more rare now than in 1802, when Wordsworth wrote it.
from Back To Godhead Magazine #31-05, 1997
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
In the Second Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Shukadeva Goswami criticizes those who pursue material life and have no desire to inquire into self-realization, and although he spoke thousands of years ago, his words are still relevant today. Those who are not interested in self-realization hover in a world of illusory pleasure and suffering.
Material life tends to become increasingly complicated. The more we try to enjoy it, the more we suffer; and the more we try to alleviate our suffering, the more entangled we become. Shukadeva Goswami therefore prescribes that the enlightened person endeavor only for the minimum necessities of life and not for anything else. His words are spirited:
When there are ample earthly flats to lie on, what is the necessity of cots and beds? When one can use his own arms, what is the necessity of a pillow? When one can use the palms of his hands, what is the necessity of varieties of utensils? When there is ample covering or the skins of trees, what is the necessity of clothing? Are there no torn clothes lying on the common road? Do the trees, which exist for maintaining others, no longer give alms in charity? Do the rivers, being dried up, no longer supply water to the thirsty? Are the caves of the mountains now closed, or, above all, does the Almighty Lord not protect the fully surrendered souls? Why then do the learned sages go to flatter those who are intoxicated by hard-earned wealth? (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.2.4- 5)
We could challenge Shukadeva Goswami’s statements in the modern context: “Do the trees not give alms?” No, they don’t. If we pick fruit from a tree, we’re likely to get shot at. “Do the rivers no longer supply water?” No, they are all polluted. And who can find an “earthly flat” that is safe to lie on these days?
His one irrefutable claim, however, is that the Almighty Lord still protects the surrendered souls. That is an eternal truth and cannot be touched by the onward march of time or progress. Under Krishna’s protection, we do not have to sell our souls to those who are “intoxicated by hard- earned wealth.” Even if we choose to work under someone else, we do not have to relinquish our Krishna conscious objectives, and we can still live with respect and dignity in spiritual life.
Srila Prabhupada writes, “The idea given by Srila Shukadeva Goswami is that the reserve energy of human life … should simply be utilized for self-realization. Advancement of human civilization must be towards the goal of establishing our lost relationship with God. …”
The standard of living in the West is so inflated, and the crunch of economic necessity so pressing, that even devotees can become preoccupied with fulfilling their economic needs. When that happens, they feel they don’t have time for the simple activities of hearing and chanting about Krishna. This is a shame, because it means that those persons who most want to develop love of God are somehow hampered in their spiritual development.
But we don’t have to be hampered. Our interest in spiritual development gives us the right to make another choice. We can choose to escape the straitjacket of material pressure and make spiritual life our priority. We can make a stand: Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!
Srila Prabhupada points out that simplifying our lives doesn’t require that we “revert to running naked through the jungles without culture, education, or morality.” It implies, however, that we should not live lives dedicated to the pursuit of materialism.
In the 1840s, Henry David Thoreau expressed similar sentiments. “Still we live meanly, like ants. … Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. … I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”
We may not be able to rid ourselves of everything that keeps us from the all-important practice of spiritual life, but we can reduce the things that distract us from our spiritual goal. Do we need so many things? Can we stop at ten, or in extreme cases, at twenty distractions instead of thousands or millions? Simplifying our lives is an art that every spiritual aspirant must learn. We all have to work. Then we should spiritualize our work by consciously offering it to Krishna and by being simple in our acceptance of and desire for the fruits.
Few people can live off the land in the sense that Shukadeva Goswami means it, but we can follow Sukadeva’s spirit of radical simplicity, and as Prabhupada assures us in his purports to these verses, we can count on Krishna’s help.