By Madhava Smullen
A pioneer devotee is braving austerity to create a dream retirement home in Colombia’s lush Cauca Valley, for those who have dedicated their lives in service to ISKCON. And Lord Krishna is reciprocating as neighbors embrace the project and doors gradually begin to open.
This is not the first time Acarya Ratna Das started something from scratch – at 20 years old, he was one of a group of pioneer devotees who established ISKCON in Colombia. Today he sees many devotees of his generation left with nothing and no place to retire after giving everything in service.
In particular it was the tragic story of Purana Das, whose only option at the end of his life was an outside retirement home, that struck Acarya Ratna a blow to the heart. Faced with having to eat meat and live without devotee association, Purana decided instead to fast until he abandoned his body.
So when Acarya Ratna inherited his grandparents’ 42-acre farm in 2003, there was only one thing he wanted to do with it.
“My dad felt a great need to open up the farm to offer a place for elderly devotees to live and have Krishna conscious association,” says Sarasvati, Acarya Ratna’s daughter, who is speaking to ISKCON News and translating for her father.
That desire had to wait until his children were adults, however. Finally, in September of last year with their support and that of his wife Laksmana Dasi, Acarya Ratna moved to his farm in the verdant coffee-growing region of Colombia near the little town of Sevilla, where he grew up.
Calling it “The Puranas Farm” after Purana Das, he spent three months there enduring considerable austerity completely alone. The ancient house was dilapidated, and had no insulation. There was no hot shower. And the kitchen floor was completely open to the ground, made of nothing more than dirt.
“But he firmly believed that he needed to stay there to start the fire of the project,” says Sarasvati. “Then Krishna would come in the form of the wind, and feed the fire.”
Gradually, Acarya Ratna’s friends, now in their fifties and seeing the urgent need for such a project, began to come forward and give small donations. The house, although still austere, received improvements, such as a hot shower.
After three months, devotees from the ISKCON temple in Cali, two hours away, helped to inaugurate the project with a festival. After seeing devotees staying in tents on the farm during the event, one local donated beds including mattresses, pillows and blankets, so that they could stay inside the house.
Today the Puranas festivals are a regular staple, held every three to four months. Each draws around 100 people including devotees from Cali, Bogota, Los Angeles and Alachua, along with Acarya Ratna’s family members and their friends, and inquisitive guests from the town of Sevilla. The festivals last three days – the first day includes Harinama, Food For Life prasadam distribution, and Bharatanatyam dances in town for the public. The others take place at the farm and feature all-day kirtan, sumptuous feasting, campfires and stargazing.
These festivals and preaching in town with Food For Life are the short term plans for The Puranas. Acarya Ratna also aims to build a library of Prabhupada’s books at the farmhouse for people to browse there, as well as to purchase if they’re interested.
In the long term, the goal is to build a temple where devotees can practice Bhakti Yoga and worship marble Radha Krishna Deities Who have already been donated. The temple will include a dedicated kitchen for Food For Life.
Housing with five rooms each, holding two people per room, will then be built for elderly devotees who cannot afford accommodation, along with community bathrooms.
“Too many times we’ve heard about older devotees who have passed away in isolation,” Sarasvati says. “We think it’s important for devotees to have each other’s association, especially as Krishna consciousness is about preparing to remember The Lord and His devotees at the end of one’s life.”
Permaculture will be practiced at The Puranas to grow food by harnessing the natural ecosystem – already squash, corn, yucca, turmeric and mangos are naturally growing on the property. The gardening will engage the elderly residents if they so desire.
Because the farm is in the Colombian Coffee Cultural Landscape, part of it is protected by Unesco as a Natural Reserve, and the organization has already donated 2,000 fruit trees to bring the natural flora and fauna back to the region and keep the landscaped untouched and raw.
Meanwhile Cali temple president Vrinda Dasi plans to start a Govinda’s restaurant and preaching center in Sevilla, which will use produce from the farm. They will also direct people to the farm where they can visit the temple, do yoga and see the Natural Reserve.
All these are future goals – The Puranas farm is still austere with few facilities, and there is much work to be done. But all signs point to the fact that Krishna is indeed the wind fanning the flames, as Acarya Ratna dreamed when he first moved there.
For instance he wondered how his neighbors, simple coffee farmers and devout Christians, would take Krishna consciousness. But the response, far from being suspicious, was excited, as small town rumors began to spread.
“A monk has moved here!” neighbors would gossip in loud whispers. “Every single morning at four or five, he walks by and you can hear him chanting this thing! I don’t know what it is, but it sounds amazing.”
People became more intrigued, and Acarya Ratna would see curtains rustling during his japa walks as they tried to get a peek at the mysterious monk.
“Every three or four months, people from all over the world come for festivals on his farm!” the rumors continued. “And they sing the most beautiful songs!”
Once they became more familiar with the festivals, neighbors began offering their homes to use. One teacher borrowed an entire collection of Prabhupada’s books to photocopy and study in-depth. Parents were struck by how well-behaved and dedicated to their faith the devotee children were, and allowed them to teach their own children how to chant japa. The town of Sevilla asked devotees to close their international music festival with bhajans.
Acarya Ratna’s brothers – one of them a local community leader and the other director of the town’s teachers association – are not devotees, but are so inspired that they continually push their brother to follow his own practice better.
“They’d say, ‘Have you chanted all your rounds? We’ll give you space to finish them!’” Sarasvati recalls. “And at the beginning my dad liked to wear pants and maybe a devotional t-shirt. But they would encourage him, ‘You’re the director of the Hare Krishnas here! Where’s your dhoti and kurta!’ Then finally he went all out with the full robes, and they were beaming and asking to take a picture with him. They’re so proud of my dad for coming back to Colombia, bringing so many international devotees and doing all these festivals and outreach. One of them even takes care of the legal permissions for Food For Life.”
With his brothers, such upstanding members of the local community, so supportive and enthusiastic about Krishna consciousness, the town is becoming more and more receptive.
Recently, the Mayor of Sevilla himself began asking one of Acarya Ratna’s brothers about their fabled sibling, and inquiring about the Hare Krishna festivals he kept hearing about. As a result, a meeting with the Mayor is now on the cards.
“By the mercy of the Vaishnavas, the project is slowly starting to build towards our dream,” Sarasvati says.