Call it what you want — economic crunch, financial meltdown, apocalypse now — the world in general, and the USA in particular, is not exactly rolling in wealth.
The recession began, according to the National Bureau of Economic research, in December 2007. By 2008, the prices of commodities such as oil and food had gotten so high that they were causing genuine economic damage — oil prices peaked at $147 a barrel in July, and a gallon of gas cost over $4 across most of the USA. By the end of 2008, demand had dropped so dramatically that prices fell below $35 a barrel. Prices of other commodities followed, and thousands of jobs were lost, with the International Labour Organization predicting the loss of at least 20 million jobs worldwide by the end of 2009.
Major banks such as Washington Mutual, Bear Stearns, IndyMac, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch cut thousands of jobs, filed for bankruptcy, were bought out by other companies, or were bailed out by the government. Stocks on Wall Street tumbled. Home prices fell and foreclosures rose. Between 2007 and 2008, 159 public corporations in the USA filed for bankruptcy.
On October 3, a $700 billion bail-out bill was passed by the US Congress. By November 2008, it was estimated that the loans, purchases, and liabilities of the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury, and FDIC brought on by the financial crisis totaled over $5 trillion. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called it the worst financial crisis since the end of World War II, and several economists have expressed their concern that there is no end in sight.
Of course it's investors, stockbrokers, bank staff and business owners who have been hit hardest by the crunch. But we've all felt its effects somewhat. When gas prices soared to ridiculous heights, many of us were forced to cut down on our trips or even get jobs closer to home. Some of us may have been laid off or had trouble finding a job. Nobody knows what's going to happen next. It's the kind of time when people turn to God and spirituality.
"I think people see it as a cataclysm of nature brought about by an excessive greed-driven lifestyle," says Ramabhadra Dasa, president of the Hare Krishna temple in New York. "They're losing faith in the material standard of living. And naturally, that makes them more receptive to spiritual alternatives."
Of course, a different outlook doesn't mean that spiritual communities are not affected by the problem. ISKCON temples are seeing a demand for increased income as the price of regular commodities such as gas, electricity and other utilities increase. Increases in food prices, especially the soaring milk prices in recent years, have also created financial strain.
"On top of that, some significant development projects have been substantially downsized, delayed by two years or longer, or even canceled; affecting our ability to make improvements," Ramabhadra says. "The temple itself has a lower property value, and there are higher taxes and insurance bills."
At a time when the temple most needs support, some major donors have lost significant funds and because of personal needs must reduce the amount they give. Ramabhadra says that the community can surmount this difficulty by rallying together. "Over the years, I've found that 80% of charity given by the congregation comes from only 20% of the congregants," he explains. "So we need the other 80% to increase their support. Otherwise, the temple may need to cut budgets, which would affect congregation services also."
It's not all gloom and doom. Ironically, although New York temple has no healthy savings account for rainy days such as this, and often just break even month to month, they are debt-free and have high standards of deity worship, food distribution and festivals — their Ratha Yatra rates among the top in the country.
Smaller ISKCON temples have felt the financial crisis less. San Diego temple president Mahat-Tattva Dasa says he hasn't noticed any major effects, and donations have not reduced. Still, he does have to assuage financial stress and concerns expressed by his congregation. "There are two causes to every effect, and two ways of dealing with them," he says. "Immediate, or superficial, and remote, or spiritual. While financial advisors will tell you about the immediate cause and offer you plenty of short term solutions, the remote cause is more difficult to detect. It all depends on how deeply you are able to penetrate into the heart of the problem."
When counseling members, Mahat-Tattva does his best to help them identify and find possible solutions for both the short term and remote problems. "Understanding the remote problem gives people a broader picture and helps them maintain a philosophical approach to the situation instead of getting emotional and unstable," he explains.
Charu Dasa, president of ISKCON Spanish Fork, Utah, took a practical approach when he gave a public talk on "Getting out of Debt" at the community's temple. Giving financial advice with a Krishna conscious flavor, Charu counseled congregational members on the dangers of relying on credit for purchases, the benefits of setting up a repayment plan, and why to always pay yourself — and Krishna — first. "We need to learn to simplify our lives," he said, "And not to overspend just to own status symbols. Remember, the greatest things in life are not things."
Ramabhadra looks to traditional Vaishnava practices for the solution to financial stress and anxiety. "Regular prayer and mediation, especially chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, significantly reduces stress and gives a feeling of peace and well-being even in the face of loss and emotional and mental stress," he says.
He adds, "Rather than offering a material solution to a material cause, we believe that the spiritual solutions provided by God -- especially in the Bhagavad-gita -- will bring us to a higher understanding of life, loss and gain, happiness and distress."
On a practical level, ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada advised establishing self-sufficient, independent farm communities as the answer to any such economic problems. "The Vedic teachings do not recommend too much interdependence," says Mahat-Tattva. "Rather, they teach people how to organize themselves so that they can maintain themselves by an eco-friendly and sustainable agricultural system, capable of producing locally and providing for the needs of the local population. This system of production creates a peaceful atmosphere, which is the basis for a spiritually flourishing society."
ISKCON San Diego is already making plans towards this goal; it owns some properties outside the city, and aims to start utilizing them for agriculture. "Of course, this is something not easily accomplished in a short period of time," Mahat-Tattva admits.
Yet while such an ideal may still be far-off for many Hare Krishna communities, many others have already established at least some steps towards it. Until then, their spiritual insights will help them through these, and future, difficult times.
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