The Amish
Learning From 'The Plain People'

I spent most of my life on the West Coast, California. I never saw Amish people, and never even heard about them while growing up. For several years in the early 1980's I had service and lived at the ISKCON Devasadhan Mandir in Detroit. At that time, passing through Ohio on a trip to New Vrndaban in West Virginia, I happened to see some of the Amish people now and then riding in their horse drawn buggies. I didn't know anything about them. They seemed far removed from both the outside modern world and from our Krishna Conscious world. There was some curiosity, but I was busy and never gave them much thought.

However, just last week (in December of 2006) I found a deal on ebay for a 1 ton 15 passenger van that I needed. I got the winning bid and had to pick up the van. It was located in a small town called New Holland, just outside of Lancaster in Pennsylvania. I had no idea this was the heartland of the Pennsylvania Amish.

We hadn't seen or noticed anything until after we arrived in New Holland and were looking at the van, which was parked in a lot on the side of a road in the town. While we were looking at the van a horse drawn buggy came driving by. My kids were surprised, nothing they (or I) were accustomed to seeing. I told them, "Hey, that was an Amish family that went by", still not aware we were right in the heart of Amish country. A few minutes passed and another buggy drove by. "Wow, what is going on around here?", I thought to myself. A few minutes latter and a 3rd buggy goes down the road. “What??” Then it dawned on me. 'Oh yeah, this must be Amish country'. And so it was.

We were in the area only for a day and during that time due to a bad search result on the internet, or really by Sri Krsna's arrangement, we wound up driving deep into the surrounding rural area to find a tag office for obtaining the temporary transit tag we needed to drive the van home. This journey took us deep into the very heartland of the Amish farm lands. And, it was very eye-opening.

One small farm after the other we passed. Clothes freshly washed flying in the wind on clothes lines and on the front porches. Dairy farms with cows with full udders waiting to be milked. A farm with a road side stand selling large headed cabbages via an honor system, $1 a head (a wooden box sat on one end of the table with dollar bills sticking out of it, you put in $1 for each cabbage you take). We put in 3 dollars and drove off with 3 large heads to be cooked and offered to Sri Krishna.

Several things impressed us. One, that I noticed immediately, was that one after the other, the small neat farms, the houses were very well taken care of. Not one old barn or shed in need of paint or repair. Everything looked picture-perfect, like it had been freshly painted. It was very obvious that these people were not living in material poverty, struggling to simply maintain a poor material standard, but I could see that these people appeared to be thriving and living very well. I will elaborate more on that point later. The other was that we saw many young married families with their small children. This was by no means a waning religious community only full of old people who were vainly trying to hang on to a dying way of life. Rather, I saw a very stable, living and solid society that appeared strongly able to continue on in it's way of life.

The women dressed so plainly. Long plain skirts, and no makeup. A dress that has given them the nickname as "The Plain People". More on that latter as well.

We observed a number of farmers in the process of plowing and tending their fields. It was early December. One man was, alone, walking with a basket and throwing and spreading seeds on a piece of land that was probably 5-10 acres. No gas powered tractor, no automated seed spreader. Just one man, walking with his basket of seeds. I thought, "So?, how long would it take him? - All of one day maybe. So, why not walk the field and spread the seed by hand?". It would take someone else years to pay the payments on a tractor to do the same thing, and then the insurance cost, the maintenance cost, the gasoline cost. We saw another man plowing his field. He had a 1 horse power plow. Amazing what you can do with just 1-horse power. Another man had a 3 horse power plow. One man, three horses. Then we saw another man with a 6 horse powered plow. 6 work horses with a large multi-blade plow tilling his field as we rode standing on the back. Wow, these people were for real. I felt like I had been transported back in time. What I was seeing was from the 1800's, or even 1600's.

The worse part of our experience was the stinking horse s...stool. It (the smell and the brown stuff itself) seemed to be everywhere. That is the refreshing thing about our Vedic culture. We use the bull for plowing and doing work. Bull and cow dung creates a pleasing and auspicious atmosphere. When cow dung burns it smells like incense. And, as Srila Prabhupad has said, 'Cow dung can purify any impure place'.

Next to one man's large, neat and freshly painted farm house was a 3 car -oops- carriage garage, the doors were up and I saw a buggy, a truck type horse drawn buggy and a wagon. There were many buggies and wagons on the road, sharing the road with the gasoline guzzling cars and trucks. What a stark contrast.

At a nearby Wal-Mart a number of the Amish were in the store. The Wal-Mart even had covered stalls on the side of the parking lot so the Amish could park their horses and buggies. One local told me many were buying Christmas gifts. But, all of their items were 'practical'. My daughter found her self sitting next to one lady and she showed my daughter what she had bought. A bag full of yarn. She had knitted the sweater she was wearing and told my daughter she was buying yarn to make more sweaters to give as gifts. My daughter noted how the lady was very peaceful, taking her sweet time. The lady told my daughter how she vastly enjoyed her domestic life. She said she enjoyed staying home knitting, sewing and cooking.
I was impressed by what I saw. The Amish live totally in the open, mixing freely with the 'English' (as they call us), and yet they preserve their very old and different lifestyles. Whole families were there in the Wal-Mart, young children, teenagers. They were fully exposed to all the latest video games and electronic gadgets, and yet even the kids showed no real interest. I was impressed how the youth are not fleeing away in large numbers, lured out and enticed by the glitter of the modern world.

On coming back from my trip I did a little more research on the internet about them and found even more to be impressed about. Since the 1960's the Amish population has tripled. It is definitely not a waning way of life, instead their communities are growing and they are moving out to new locations and states to find more farm land. They are growing even though most of them do not try to make new members by conversion (I found outsiders 'can' join and become Amish if they want). They are growing mostly from within. The average Amish family size is 7.

One interesting point is that the Amish do not consider even their children to be Amish until they are adults, at least 16, and have become baptized of their own free choice and take vows to live by their Ordung, their social orders and rules. This is equivalent of ISKCON devotees not considering our own children to be devotees until the children are at least 16 and commit themselves to our mission and taking the vows of initiation. And, in reality, that must be our actual process. That is, even if the parents are qualified Vaishnav brahmanas, the children are not, by shastric injunction, considered brahmana until they, as adults, have shown by example and become qualified themselves as brahmana. We can learn from the Amish that we should not artificially presume our children to be qualified vaishnava brahmanas and followers of Srila Prabhupad simply because they have taken birth in our families. We give them all good training and understanding, but society (in and out of ISKCON) should judge us and our children only on our work and our qualifications, not by birth. That is what shastra teaches, that is what both Mahaprabhu and Srila Prabhupad have taught. The Amish actually do this.

As I said, I saw that their houses were kept up very well. On the internet I found confirmation that the Amish, as a whole, are doing well, financially. They are not just struggling to survive, barely getting by, but rather, they are flourishing. The freshly painted well-kept up barns and houses showed this well. And, couple this with the fact that the average family is 7. It is not easy, in today's modern society, to comfortably raise even 2 or 3 children, what to speak of 5 or more. The average being 5 kids would mean some families are much larger. Yet, despite the plain living - animal powered farming – no electricity, TV, or computers, the Amish, are on average living comfortable. Of course, they do not have many of the overheads the rest of us have. No car payments, no electricity costs, no car insurance, no gasoline costs, etc. The Amish organic dairy farmers have found an outlet for their organic grass fed cow milk. A nationwide growing organic milk market. Today, in every grocery store we have been to, there are an increasing number of brands of organic milk being sold. A lot of it comes from the Amish family dairies. Here are a large group of people (estimates of about 130-150,000 Amish people, not counting their children, as the Amish do not count them as Amish until they are grown and make their own commitment to their lifestyle and faith) have chosen to live separate from society's norms. They forsake modern amenities, forsake the materialism and mood of sense-gratification of the modern world, and yet, rather then living an impoverished life of austerity, they appear to be living a life sufficient material abundance. Not over abundance, but they are doing well.

The Amish, especially the Old Order of Amish, do not allow electricity in their homes. This means no radio, no TV, no computers and no phones. Those who are of the old order do not use powered machines or powered farming machinery. They plow with horses and use the horse drawn buggy as their main transportation.

But, what impressed me further was to learn WHY they choose to live this plain and simple life style. They do not see modern technology as evil. They may use whatever is there if it can serve a utilitarian purpose and yet not be seen as influencing them toward possession of worldly things. They may ride in a car, we saw many Amish come to Wal-Mart by getting rides from their neighbors, but only if serves a utilitarian purpose. The dairy farms may use electricity in their barns and for their electric fences. If they need phones for their businesses, they may use them, but - NOT IN THEIR HOMES. Why? Because they take several verses of the Bible seriously in the instruction to avoid Worldly Things. To avoid sense enjoyment. As the industrial revolution was just beginning their elders decided that in order to abide by the essence of this teaching that the followers needed to keep modern technology out of their homes. To avoid worldly things one needed to be removed from the world of sense-enjoyment. And thus, due to the direction of their elders, they long ago chose to live simple and keep modern technology out of their lives as much as possible. Hundreds of years later they are still successfully doing this.

And so I observed that here they are, living in a world full of worldly things, living right in the midst of it all, and yet they remained totally separate from it. The way they achieve it is by keeping such things out of their home. Their home is where they live. By keeping those things out of their home they keep the worldly things out of their lives, even though they physically live in the same society as the rest of us. They share the same roads, go to the same stores, yet they remain aloof from worldly things. In this way, they are practicing renunciates, like munis, in that sense, choosing to live somewhat austerity.

I could see, they are not physically shielding their children or themselves from the outside world in the sense that they come to Wal-Marts and stores and the children are fully exposed to all the glitter of modern material gadgets. Their shield is the confines of their homes. That is they keep modern society out of their homes, but they do not shield their children from learning about the world outside. Rather, I read that they encourage that their children know the world outside. They shield their children by teaching them 'why' they chose their way of life over that of material sense enjoyment. Even the teenagers are allowed to have some freedom, and after 16 they are basically given the choice. But, by then it is an educated choice. Those who go on to accept their Amish way of life do so with full commitment and full understanding of what the outside world is all about. You have to respect them for this. Those young adults who do accept their life style, and my understanding is the majority do, they do so with such strong convictions very few of them ever leave later on. It also shows that they have substantial enough philosophical reasons for taking up their Plain or Simple Living, as their youth are choosing that lifestyle over the lure of modern gadgets and materialism.

This is somewhat amazing to me because of the plain and, to us, drab lifestyle of the Amish. Why so plain? Because they value humility and shun vanity. To the nth degree they shun vanity. They dress plainly so as to not attract attention to themselves personally. Yet, their plain dress and plain lifestyle is a striking difference between the Amish idea of simple living and our idea of simple living. Srila Prabhupad wanted us to also make communities where we can live an agrarian lifestyle, farming and living off the land, using the ox and bull to till the land, etc. Yet, Krsna Consciousness is far from plain and drab. It is a vibrant festival, exemplified by our colorful and vibrant Ratha Yatras or Janmastami festivals.

So, what is missing in the Amish culture? That is simple. What is missing is Krishna. Yes, the Amish are very God centered, but Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is missing. Like all other faiths of this world, the Amish, although they are most devout to God, via prayer, in reality they do not know who God is. They have, like other Christian and other religions, no idea of what God looks like, what His activities are and what His kingdom looks like. Their vacant and drab ideas of what or who God is, is reflected in the drabness and plainness of their culture. Whereas, in Krishna Consciousness we have full understanding what God looks like, the most all attractive male. The Supreme Person. Krishna is the very source of life, thus He is not just full of life, Life emanates from Him. He is the most all attractive, He is colorful. His clothes, His jewelry, His flower garlands, His hair and ornaments, His personality, they are all a festival of vibrance, effulgence and colour. His pastimes of love with the young gopi girls, His relationship with Radharani, Queen of the Gopis, His relationship with Mother Yasoda, with the cowherd boys, with the Queens of Dwaraka, with Arjun, etc., those pastimes and relationships are again, fully vibrant, they are themselves a colorful festival of relationships. Thus, the devotees, while also taking up a life of plain living ( or at least we should be ), remain colorful and vibrant and full of life. We express this in our lively kirtans, in the colorful dress of our lady folk, etc. Our festivals celebrate the wonderful and colorful activities of wonderful Krsna. The Ratha Yatras and Janmastamis are so full of life, color. Far from the seemingly drab and simple life of the Amish.

But, while we have what they lack on one side, they seem to have what we are lacking on the other. They are and have been living a plain and simple agrarian life for the past hundreds of years, while we have not gotten anything close together yet. What I saw in their small family run farms was a model that could be applied to our rural communities like Alachua, FL etc. where devotees own their own properties. The Amish farm using horse (we prefer ox or bull). They keep modern society out of their lives by keeping it out of their homes. These are very important lessons we can take. Yet, when needed, they also follow the snake and mouse example. What is that? Srila Prabhupad gave the example that the mouse digs a nice hole in the ground for him to live in. The snake then comes along and eats the mouse and enjoys the hole for himself. Srila Prabhupad said similarly the non-devotees are working hard in the factories making cars and airplanes, etc. As devotees we have no interest in building and working in such big factories, but since the cars and things are here, we will take them and use them in our service of Krsna. The Amish have a similar idea. They will not own or drive a car for their day to day life, but if and when needed for a practical and utilitarian purpose, they will take rides in cars to go to distant places.

The lady my daughter was speaking to said she was born there and has never traveled much distance away from her home. But, she was not lamenting, she was peaceful and happy with her rural way of life.

Srila Prabhupad envisioned this also for our farms. That people will not need to travel all over. He was speaking of a time when Krsna devotees take up government leadership:

"Prabhupada: No, at least we shall try to make closed [referring to many government departments]. And if people become localized, then this traffic will be little. Just like I am trying to organize the farm. If people do not come out of home, then this [current government] system will be obsolete. There will be no more department. They have created hundreds [of government departments]. They do not know how to manage it. For livelihood they have to go to Bombay, and therefore they require so many local trains. But if they localized, they can get their livelihood locally, there is no question of these all..."

>>> Ref. VedaBase => January 11, 1977

An idea for VAD farming village I have had for many years was to see a large piece of land, 2-5,000 or so acres, where a village can be built. In that village there would only be small roads or pathways for walking and very limited transportation, like bicycles or rickshaws, or even small electric powered carts. But, healthy walking would be the main means. All other transportation must be made and maintained via self-sustained cottage industry by the residents of the village. At the main entrance would be a large parking lot where those members who have cars can park them (and for visitors). There can be rickshaw services or electric golf-cart type cars for getting to and from the parking lot and home. For outside transportation one can use the cars, or use other's cars, but within the community the transportation is to be simple, mostly walking to and from the temple and to and from the village market place and to and from the garden and farming fields. Nothing else is really required.

Somehow the Amish have got the local and State permission to use their horse powered vehicles on the public streets and highways. In our communities like Alachua, FL where so many members have their own properties, it would be nice to develop a local system of simple transportation as well, along with an effort to help the members wean off the use of gas powered cars, the over use of electricity and to begin in earnest to create the sort of VAD villages where 'Simple Living' and High Thinking can flourish. Devotees who know how to farm via ox should train others. If the Amish can do well living simple and living off the land, why can't we? It is part of what Srila Prabhupad instructed us to do. We simply need more organization to help those who are willing and have the desire to do so.

Most of the Amish live off the land, farming and some by selling cottage industry made items. They make most of their own furniture and clothes. Thus they have a strong cottage industry based community. This is what we need to see set up in our communities as well. Devotees should grow their own cotton even. Jute, hemp, rayon, linen, make their own clothes, make their own furniture, build our own energy efficient homes, and become serious about living simple, disconnecting from the grid. The Amish have never connected and their numbers are growing. Our numbers should grow this way as well. We need to disconnect ourselves from the materialistic culture that we live in, just as the Amish do, by keeping that culture out of our homes.

Another thing I noted on my trip to Amish country was the view the local non-Amish had of the Amish. Over and over people referred to them as, 'honest, religious and hard-working'. I did not met anyone who had anything bad to say about them, although one retired policeman called them a 'cult', he then went on to say nothing but nice things about them, saying you can't meet a nicer group of people. Their most important thing to them, second to God, is their family followed by their farms. Still, the biggest thing they are known for is they are honest, religious and hardworking. These are good qualities to be known by. Living a simple way of life farming will not earn us, devotees, a bad name. Just the opposite.

Another thing I found in my research is that one website stated that the most productive farm land in the US are the Amish farms. US farmland is among the most productive in the world, yet this is often attributed to our extensive use of high-tech mechanization and chemicals. Yet, the most productive farm land in the US doesn't use the high tech, some may use limited chemicals, but most are organic farmers. This was also very interesting. Rather then the world looking to high-tech, the highly mundane educated chemists, physicists, and scientist to help them have more productive farm land, the real truth is they should be turning to animal powered low-tech or no-tech farming. The most productive farms are the small family farms, farmed using long established simple animal powered means. Not the gas powered tractor farmed big commercial farms. This is not really surprising, and is also good to know.

Education: Previously the Amish only taught their children up to 4th grade. The idea was that all the education needed to live in this world, by their standards, was to be able to read and write and basic math. This, by the way, is also similar to what Srila Prabhupad has taught, that our children need only to learn the basic skills of math and writing and to be able to read his books. Other then this, they are to study the scripture for higher education. State laws forced the Amish to increase the education and today the Amish educate their children up to 8th grade. After this, they go back home to work the farms and prepare for marriage. In the 1970's 3 Amish families took the state of Wisconsin to court over the State's law requiring all children to complete school up to age 16, which is at least into high school. The Amish reject this because they see that higher public education simply encourages wordly living (sense enjoyment). They objected to exposing their teenagers to close association with worldly minded youths at an age where it is most critical to have only association with those strong in their own faith and culture (ISKCON parents, are you listening? - we can very much learn from this). Also, all that is needed for an Amish to live well was a basic education. After 8th grade the Amish argued that their children were given further vocational training on their farms. Eventually the case went to the US Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the Amish.

Sadly, the only reference in the VedaBase regarding Amish was an indirect reference and the Amish people were not discussed with Srila Prabhupad. I was disappointed by this. At least in the VedaBase there is no conversation with Srila Prabhupad regarding the Amish. I would think that Srila Prabhupad must have seen them if he were traveling to / from Gita Nagari or New Vrndaban, but there is no discussion about them. If anyone knows of such a conversation, pass it on. I had hoped to hear what Srila Prabhupad would have said about them.

Regarding farming and education Srila Prabhupad once said,

"No education, no. Education will be required only for the guiding class: brahmanas, ksatriyas, not for anyone, sudras. They are two only. Others will... What education required? Suppose if you produce... If you are accustomed to agriculture, cow protection, there is no need going to college and schools. If you remain illiterate, still you can do.
Ramesvara: But in America...
Prabhupada: No, no, America is not... I am talking of the (indistinct), the class who will guide the aim of life, brahmana class, and a class that will give them protection from injuries by others, ksatriya class. Then the next class, food-producing men, they do not require. Actually only brahmanas, they require education, or all others, they will simply see and learn. So little education required -- that you can learn by hearing only, that's all. Suppose a brahmana class says that "This is good; this is bad." So you hear and accept. It doesn't require to go to school and college. So education will be simplified. (break) It has become very much complicated." --- January 11, 1977

And, the Amish are very much proof even in modern America. No real education is needed to be a successful non-technical farmer. No real education is needed at all. The Amish, by class, are Vaishya, not sudra. They run and operate their own farms, they do the labor themselves, but they are not hired labor like sudras. Thus, they have just enough mundane education that is needed to perform their function in society. The only higher education should be for the higher classes, the brahmanas, and their education should not be modern technology, but the higher Vedic scripture. Otherwise, modern higher education simply trains the population how to work in or run the big factories and large corporations. That, we are not interested in. As Srila Prabhupad once pointed out, they graduate from the big big universities with big degree, but then they take their big degree in their mouths like dogs and go begging door to door seeking a JOB - please take me as your servant and become my master. Big big degrees and big universities and they are simply creating sudras. What is the value? Our universities are to teach Varna, practical work, and those who have inclination to higher studies of shastra, they can be trained to be brahmana teachers, priests, ayurveda physician, etc.

The Amish have no car, house or life insurance, however 80% now have their own health insurance that is managed by their churches and a number of local hospitals and doctors accept their church managed insurance. ISKCON can learn a lot from the Amish. When someone gets ill they first try to treat with herbal type remedies, but if modern medical assistance is needed or called for, they take it.

Another interesting feature is that they will not accept any welfare from the government. They rely on their community in times of need. No food stamps, no hand outs from the government. You will not find an Amish family living in government housing. If a member is in need, the community members and church give them all the help they need. Can ISKCON devotees learn from this? I see a lot we can learn from these simple living people. They may dress in plain and simple clothes, drive simple horse powered buggies and plow with horse drawn plows, but they are very civilized. The only thing they lack is the high thinking of Vedic Culture. We need to combine these two together and implement Srila Prabhupad's instructions NOW, Today, not slough it off to our children and grandchildren.

Of course, in closing, let me clarify so there isn't any misunderstanding, I am not saying that all aspects of their culture or lifestyle is acceptable to our standards. No. There is no comparison to Vedic culture. But, in America many American devotees seem to question how can we implement rural life here in America. The Amish are doing this very successfully for 100's of years. It is possible, and possible for devotees to flourish in such a life. Lets work together to implement Srila Prabhupad's instructions and desire to build fully functional VAD based farming villages.

Aspiring to become the worthy and humble servant of the Prabhupadanuga Vaishnavas - ameyatma das





Last modified December 15, 2006