Part III: New Vrindaban, 1968-1969
By Hayagriva das
New Vrindaban, West
this story to a friend
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
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
has opened a fourth ISKCON center in Allston, Massachusetts, a suburb
of Boston. From there, Prabhupada writes Kirtanananda, May 23:
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
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."
indicates that at the end of May, he may either go to Montreal or
return to New York.
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:
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."
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
“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.
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
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.”
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
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:
advise Kirtanananda and yourself to convert West Virginia into New
this. Not just the farm. He wants the whole state.
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...."
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.
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
So far we
don’t even have one acre. The pastures are hilly and overgrown, and as
for seriously raising crops....
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...."
opening brothels and slaughter houses, we are advised to purchase and
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.
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
Cow dung for fuel.... Bulls walking in circles....Grinding stones....
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
“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:
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.
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.
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
“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
End of Chapter 14
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