ÄTMÄRÄMA DÄSA & AMBHRAËÉ DEVÉ DÄSÉ
(Adam and Claudia Cook)
Atmarama and I met in Mysore, Karnataka, South India, in the summer of 2013.
Over the course of the next five years, we travelled extensively throughout Eastern Australia, South India, and the South-Eastern U.S. looking for a suitable place to begin such a project. During the course of our travels, we acquired a wealth of knowledge regarding traditional Vedic agricultural practices and traditional village crafts and skills; all of which constitute an integral part of self-sufficient village life.
In 2018, we established this website, The Plow and Flute Project, as a means to broadcast our activities and ultimately to promote the cause of self-sufficient, environmentally harmonious, Vedic farm communities.
Described below is an account of our journey and the subsequent evolution of what we have termed "The Plow and Flute Project".
USA TO INDIA
Ātmārāma and I met in 2013 whilst studying at the renowned Śrī Kṛṣṇa Paṭṭabhi Jois Aṣṭāṅga Yoga Institute in Mysore, Karnataka, South India. I had traveled to India whilst on summer break from my senior year at Georgia Tech to study more seriously the yoga āsana system designed by Śrī K. Paṭṭabhi Jois.
Paṭṭabhi Jois was the acclaimed student of Śrī Tirumalai Kṛṣṇamācārya and brought “Aṣṭāṅga Yoga" to the West in the 1970's. Although he termed his system "Aṣṭāṅga yoga" (aṣṭa - eight, aṅga - limb or component), it primarily focused on only one of the eight components, namely āsanas or poses.
Before traveling to India, I had been becoming increasingly dissatisfied in school. My fellow classmates would oftentimes repeat the saying, "there's light at the end of the tunnel," which only served to increase my ill feelings. I wanted to experience the light immediately and extricate myself from any "dark tunnel."
I began my tertiary studies in 2008 and soon received recognition from the university for my performance in mathematics. In 2009, I began taking pre-requisites courses that would allow me to enroll in the Chemical and Bimolecular Engineering Degree Program at Georgia Tech with a minor study in Alternative Energy. From my childhood, I had developed a deep respect for the natural environment and a concomitant desire to protect it from harm. My mother was always cultivating a large herb and vegetable garden at home; just as her family had been doing for generations. Witnessing nature work its miracle was certainly inspiring and instilled in me a profound sense of respect for the earth; the source our existence. I wanted to pursue a career in which I could utilize mathematical ability but also engage myself in my long cherished desire to protect the environment. I presumed that Georgia Tech's engineering program would enable me to fulfill my ambition of helping to protect our environment through the development of renewable and alternative energy sources.
I was finally admitted into the program at Georgia Tech in 2011. To my dismay, the majority of my teachers, who were supposedly highly acclaimed scientists and engineers, were interested in alternative energy sources only so they could continue to drive their race cars once the Earth's fossil fuel reserves were depleted. It seemed that no one in the department was actually interested in exploring alternative lifestyles in order to preserve the environment. Rather, their goal was to find solutions to the environmental problems facing humanity only so they could continue their hedonistic life of sense enjoyment. Although I possessed strong will and determination, I felt like I was swimming upstream in an overwhelmingly strong current; or perhaps in the wrong body of water all together.
My inspiration began to diminish and the daily 10-page mathematical calculation became an arduous affair. I knew that my studies were not going to yield the fruit that I had initially anticipated. Unfortunately, I felt that I was too far into the program to begin anew. I therefore took leave from my studies for a semester to re-assess what could be done.
During this hiatus period in 2012, I visited some relatives in California. It was at this time that I took my first class in Aṣṭāṅga Yoga. The demanding postures and the deep, controlled breathing forced me to be conscious of and satisfied in the present moment. For the first time, I felt a real sense of peace and contentment which brought with it an inner strength to cope with the turbulent world around me.
Thereafter, I began practicing Aṣṭāṅga Yoga religiously. I continued my studies at Georgia Tech, exploring similar programs of study such as Biology and Applied Mathematics, but my real interest had been transferred to yoga practice. As a result, my attachment to my studies vanished almost entirely. Although my life after graduation was completely uncertain, I felt pacified at heart because I had something that was inspiring and invigorating and that made the whole fiasco somewhat tolerable.
In 2013, I completed a yoga teacher training course at Atlanta Hot Yoga, and shortly thereafter, I decided to travel to South India to study at the world famous Aṣṭāṅga Yoga Institute founded by Śrī Kṛṣṇa Paṭṭabhi Jois.
AUSTRALIA TO INDIA
Ātmārāma journeyed to India back in 2009 with a slightly different intention; he was determined to acquire a more complete understanding of the traditional Vedic culture, namely the Varṇāśrama Dharma. He joined the International Society for Krsna Conciousness (ISKCON) as a brahmacārī in Melbourne, Australia in 2007 and in early 2009, travelled to ISKCON’s New Govardhana Farm for their annual Ratha-Yātrā festival. There he met a sincere disciple of Śrīla Prabhupāda (the founder of ISKCON), the late Śrīman Gopīnātha Ācārya Dāsa Brahmacārī, who introduced Ātmārāma to an integral aspect of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings to which he had not yet been exposed: namely, Śrīla Prabhupāda's ardent desire to establish self-sufficient farm communities based upon the traditional Vedic culture known as Varṇāśrama Dharma.
Before joining ISKCON, Ātmārāma was also passionate about environmental and political issues. He was an active member of the Young Greens (a branch of the Australian Greens Party) and was seriously considering joining the Sea Shepherd crew, (a non-profit, marine conservation organization) when they docked in Port Melbourne in 2007. As a young adult, he was eager to dedicate his life to a higher-cause and upon meeting the Hare Kṛṣṇa's, learned that this desire could be perfectly fulfilled if one were to hear about the desire of the Lord from the mouth of a bona fide spiritual master and to make that desire one's mission in life. When Ātmārāma learned of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s desire to establish Varṇāśrama-based farm communities to provide society with an ideal example of an alternative, practical, natural, sustainable, and spiritually progressive way of life, he felt he had found his calling.
Inspired by this newfound understanding, Ātmārāma was interested to find other members of ISCKON who were attempting to execute this agenda. By the Lord's arrangement, he came across a Vyāsa-pūjā offering written by His Holiness Bhakti Rāghava Svāmī in which Mahārāja wrote of his own efforts in this regard. Ātmārāma contacted Mahārāja, who recommended that he travel to India to learn more about Varṇāśrama Dharma. Soon thereafter, in May of 2009, Ātmārāma was on a plane to India.
NORTH INDIA TO SOUTH INDIA
Ātmārāma's studies began in Māyāpura, West Bengal, where he frequented the lectures given by His Holiness Bhakti Vidyā Pūrṇa Svāmī at Mahārāja's traditional Vedic gurukula. During his classes, Mahārāja would constantly refer to, glorify and explain the tenets of the Varṇāśrama Dharma. He also explained how the Varṇāśrama Dharma was not only conducive to living harmoniously with nature, but infact absolutely necessary if one were to interact with the material world in a devotional manner.
Thereafter, Ātmārāma traveled to South India to attend the ISKCON Daiva Varṇāśrama Ministry's third annual Varṇāśrama College at the Ministry's Headquarters in Hebri, Karnataka. The College focused mainly on traditional Vedic farming practices and included subjects such as:
• traditional methods of cultivating crops such rice, sugar cane, fruits and vegetables
• traditional methods of harvesting and processing such crops
• traditional methods for utilizing cow and bull products to make fertilizers and pesticides
• the Vedic science of forecasting rainfall
• traditional methods of locating groundwater
In addition to these farming skills and practices, the Varṇāśrama College also hosted workshops on Aṣṭāṅga Yoga and the traditional martial arts of Kerala called Kalari Payattu. Ātmārāma particularly enjoyed studying the Kalari Payattu. The teacher, Manjunātha, noted Ātmārāma's natural ability in the subject and encouraged him to pursue further training.
Ātmārāma continued living at the Hebri farm for the next two years, acquiring Vedic village skills essential for self-sufficient living whilst also assisting with cow care and teaching basic Sanskrit grammar to the children of the community. During this time, he would also regularly travel to the nearby holy city of Udupi, the heart of the Madhva community, to study classical Indian music such as the bamboo flute, veena and singing. During these visits to Udupi, Ātmārāma came in contact with his sikṣā guru (spiritual guide) Śrī Visvādirāja Tīrtha Svāmī, who was at the time, a resident of the Pejāvara Adhokṣaja Maṭha.
KARNATAKA TO KERALA
Whilst residing in Hebri, Ātmārāma had read in Vedic scriptures (Dhanurveda) that all the men in Vedic society should have some basic martial training and that a particular weapon was prescribed for each caste; a long wooden staff was the prescribed weapon for an agriculturalist. Ātmārāma therefore, having spent sufficient time on the farm, travelled to Kerala, South India to receive more rigorous training in the Kalari Payattu.
He began studying at the famous CVN Kalari Saṅgam in Tiruvānantapuram, but shortly thereafter, upon the advise of his former teacher, Manjunātha, travelled to Kozhikode where he began learning at the Hindustan Kalari Saṅgam. Ātmārāma learnt at the Kalari for one month, but felt that the teaching style did not promote refinement of technique. A visiting ISKCON devotee from Guruvāyūr suggested that Ātmārāma come to Guruvāyūr, as it was a holy city and there were many Kalari centers. Ātmārāma, therefore, travelled to that holy place and studied at the nearby Vallabhatta Kalari Saṅgam. He was pleased with the thorough teaching approach and after four months, had completed the basic training known as Meipayattu and had also become proficient in the use of kettukari (long wooden staff.)
Thereafter, Ātmārāma returned to Udupi with the desire to study Sanskrit. He had observed that the Sanskrit pronunciation of the Madhvas brahamanas in Udupi was highly regarded and so desired to learn from them. By studying the Sanskrit language, as Śrīla Prabhupāda confirmed, then “all the śāstras (Vedic literatures) are open.”
KERELA TO KARNATAKA
Ātmārāma’s time spent in Udupi with Śrī Visvādirāja Tīrtha Svāmī was an extraordinary and invaluable experience. Over the course of one year, during informal meetings that would often extend into the early hours of the morning, Śrī Visvādirāja Tīrtha Svāmī would enlighten Ātmārāma about the Madhva Siddhānta (i.e. the Vedic conclusions expounded by Śrīla Madhvācārya) by referring to Vedic literatures, especially the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and the Mahābhārata. Although unwilling to delve into the vast ocean of Sanskrit grammar, Śrī Visvādirāja Tīrtha did instruct Ātmārāma in proper Sanskrit pronunciation, taught him principles of proper Vedic behavior (sad-ācāra,) and instructed him in the more subtle nuances of the Varṇāśrama Dharma.
Whilst living in Udupi, Ātmārāma noted that many amongst the Madhva community strictly maintained the standards found in traditional Vedic culture set by Srila Madhvācārya almost one thousand years before. He had travelled to many of the holy cities throughout India but had hardly seen genuine Vedic culture so well preserved and intact.
UDUPI TO MYSORE
During his stay in Udupi, Ātmārāma lacked proper facility to practice Kalari Payattu and so began to practice yoga āsanas as a form of exercise. Śrīla Prabhupāda had once written in a letter to a disciple that: "We should always remember that our body is not for sense gratification; it is for Kṛṣṇa's service only. And to render very good sound service to Kṛṣṇa we should not neglect the upkeep of the body.” Ātmārāma felt the practice of yoga āsanas to be more sustainable and less rigorous than the martial arts. This allowed him to carry on with his studies while maintaining his health in a more balanced way.
One day, whilst passing through Udupi, Prānanātha Dāsa, the devotee who had taught yoga āsanas to the students of the Varṇāśrama College in Hebri, saw Ātmārāma practicing. Prānanātha suggested he travel to Mysore to learn the āsanas properly from the yoga school at which he himself was a student. A few months later, after completing his studies with Śrī Visvādirāja Tīrtha, Ātmārāma took a train to Mysore.
OUR ENDEAVORS TOGETHER
After meeting Ātmārāma in Mysore, I gradually became acquainted with the Vaiṣṇava Siddhānta. After studying Śrīla Prabhupāda's instructions regarding his desire to establish Varnasrama-based, self-sufficient farm communities, I felt convinced about my direction and purpose in life.
After our wedding in 2014 in Udupi, Ātmārāma and I began our endeavor as a couple to fulfill, in some small way, Śrīla Prabhupāda's vision of establishing Varṇāśrama-based self-sufficient farm communities.
One of the requisite items in attaining self-sufficieny is medicine, and the best medicine is undoubtedly prevention of disease. According to the Haṭha-Pradīpikā by Svātmārāma, one of the benefits of yoga āsana is that it blesses one with ārogyam ["freedom from disease"] (1.17) as do other components of yoga such as prāṇāyāma (2.16, 20), ṣaṭ-kriyā (2.23), and mudrā (3.7).
Ātmārāma and I therefore, returned to Mysore where we completed a yoga teacher training course in “Aṣṭāṅga Yoga” at the Mysore Maṇḍala in Lakṣmīpuram. As part of the teacher training course, we studied yoga āsana under the tutelage of MV Chidānānda (a student of the revered BNS Iyengar); prāṇāyāma, mudrā and yoga philosophy with BNS Iyengar himself; āyurveda (medical science) and āyurvedic massage with Dr. Śaśi Rekhā; and the yoga ṣaṭ-kriyās with Mr. Śāntārāma.
Thereafter, we travelled to remote villages in South India such as Punjalkatte (near Mangalore, Karnataka), Hanja (near Udupi, Karnataka), and Karumandurai (near Salem, Tamil Nadu) to learn traditional agricultural practices and village skills required for self-sufficient living.
Having acquired some fundamental skills in order to begin our project, we set out to acquire land. After returning to the USA, we "boon-docked" off-the-grid in our tiny house in forests of the South-Eastern United States whilst looking for suitable land and compiling our project's Mission Statement. During our stay in the forests, we satisfied our milk requirements by raising dairy goats who were well suited to that environment. During this period, I also traveled weekly to Asheville, NC to study Western Herbalism at the Appalachian School of Holistic Herbalism in an endeavor to become self-sufficient in local medicines. Whilst visiting Atmarama's parents during a trip to South Australia, we also learned carding, spinning and knitting of raw sheep’s wool.
Although such travels may sound exciting and adventurous, our endeavors have often been accompanied by great difficulties. By the grace of the Lord, however, we have always managed to surmount such obstacles and by directly experiencing His causeless mercy, have remained always inspired to persist in our efforts. Throughout our trials and tribulations we have remained faithful to our aspiration of executing the instructions of our spiritual preceptor, guided by the conviction that by sincerely attempting to execute the order of a pure devotee of the Lord, regardless of the material outcome, one’s life becomes perfect.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
We currently live in our off-grid, portable tiny house and have one cow, Swātī; her bull calf, Sanātana; two guard dogs, Jaimini and Akūṭa (Jiminy and Kooza); one donkey, Sanka; one rooster, Surya; and two kittens, Lalana and Madhu. We have recently opened a yoga studio in downtown Burnsville, NC where we teach yoga and other Vedic sciences.
We are hoping to raise enough money to purchase land of our own in order to establish an ideal example of Varṇāśrama Dharma in a traditional, self-sufficient, village setting. In such an environment, we would like to establish a small Vedic Gurukula (school) to educate children in Vedic knowledge and culture. We would also like to host workshops and tours to educate the general public as to how they might adopt some aspects of the traditional Vedic culture in their own lives.
Ātmārāma and I in Mysore. - 2013
Kīrtana with H.H. Bhakti Rāghava Svāmī.
Manipal, Karnataka - 2010
Vallabhaṭṭa Kalari Saṅgaṁ, Kerala.
Ātmārāma wrapping a traditional katcha, the uniform for practicing Kalari Payattu, in Guruvayor. - 2011
Sannyāsa initiation ceremony of Śrī Visvādhirāja Tīrtha Svāmī (left) in Udupi, Karnataka
Ātmārāma and Sarasvatī Jois,
daughter of the late Sri K. Paṭṭabhi Jois, in Mysore. - 2013
Ātmārāma in Māyāpura, West Bengal. - 2009
Wedding in Udupi, Karnataka. - 2014
Studying with Sri B.N.S. Iyengar, disciple of
Sri T.M. Krishnamācarya, in Mysore. - 2014
Ātmārāma in Melbourne, Australia - 2007
Basket-weaving in Punjalkatte, Karnataka. - 2015
Boon-docking in Toccoa, GA, USA. - 2017
Ambhraṇi and Swātī in Pelzer, SC, USA. - 2018
Georgia Tech's main campus in Atlanta, GA.
My first Aṣṭāṇga yoga class at Power Yoga East - Santa Monica, CA