Canadian Family’s Journey in Simple Living Takes Them to New Vrindaban
By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON New Vrindaban Communications
Neither Filippo Paonessa nor his wife-to-be Sukhayanti Dasi had any previous experience in cow protection or agriculture when they met at the Toronto ISKCON temple. But they found that they were both inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s words on simple living and shared a desire to follow them practically.
Sukhayanti had grown up in Israel and traveled the world in her twenties, meeting devotees at a Rainbow Gathering in Germany in 2005. Attracted by their authenticity, she visited the farm temple of Simhachalam in the Bavarian forest and decided she wanted to join ISKCON.
Over the next few years, she became a whirlwind of service around the world: She hotfooted it across Germany organizing Rathayatras; led women’s book distribution parties in Heidelberg and London, England; organized Harinama Sankirtana weekends in Brazil, and took the Bhakti Sastri program in Mayapur.
Meanwhile in Toronto, Canada, Filippo was doing physiotherapy after sustaining an injury from his construction job, when a friend suggested he try yoga. Immediately Fil sensed that there was something more beyond the postures, and when yoga studios couldn’t give him the answers he was looking for, he decided to try the Hare Krishna temple. Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is won him over, and he never turned back.
At the time, in 2011, Sukhayanti also happened to be living at the Toronto temple, and the two started a relationship and were married. Among many things, they connected deeply on their shared understanding of what Srila Prabhupada wanted – particularly in the area of simple living.
“We had some good talks together, and we decided that the nicest way to raise a family and live a Krishna conscious life would be in a simple setting like a farm,” says Fil.
An action-oriented couple, they didn’t waste time, and began plans to purchase their own farm and protect cows right away. But first, they needed expert training. For this, they turned to Balabhadra Das of ISCOWP, which was based in New Vrindaban at the time.
“It was great – Balabhadra Prabhu is wonderful,” Fil says. “He’s very quiet, but he really works you hard. He doesn’t hold back because he wants you to experience the work as it is, and make sure you can actually handle it. When I passed the test, I didn’t just prove to him that I could do it – I also proved to myself that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
While Fil learned how to take care of cows, train oxen and maintain a garden, Sukhayanti assisted Balabhadra’s wife Chayadevi, learning how to maintain and promote a non-profit organization, how to keep in touch with donors and how to run a newsletter.
“It was particularly special because they taught us not only how to take care of cows and oxen, but also the mood and philosophy behind such care,” Sukhayanti says.
After six months training with Balabhadra, Fil and Sukhayanti purchased a fifty-acre farm in Hastings, Ontario. There, they maintained themselves by growing and selling a wide variety of different vegetables. They also rescued six cows and two bulls from neighboring dairy farmers, eventually resulting in a herd of thirteen animals whom they provided sanctuary to.
Their efforts were successful and garnered much support from devotees in the Greater Toronto Area who donated to their Adopt-A-Cow program and purchased their organic vegetables. Yet with devotees unwilling to move from the city to create a community with them, the lack of association became difficult.
“We felt a deep desire to be part of a bigger community, to work with other devotees,” Sukhayanti says. “And we wanted our one-year-old twin daughters, Rangadevi and Sudevi, to grow up with devotee friends too.”
New Vrindaban, with which they had already developed a bond, seemed ideal, especially with its opportunities for service and ability to take on their herd.
So recently Fil, Sukhayanti and their girls moved to the West Virginia community, taking their seven cows and six oxen with them.
Their animals increase New Vrindaban’s herd to about eighty. Two of their oxen are almost fully trained and two are familiar with voice commands, adding more value to the New Vrindaban ox program.
Meanwhile Fil and Sukhayanti themselves bring a lot of skill to the community. Fil is putting his experience to work as a general farmhand for ECO-Vrindaban – milking cows, maintaining buildings, cutting hay, putting up fence posts, and efficiently working through a list of projects.
“For my first, I am building a bull pen for one of the young bulls who is set to breed with the cows to expand the milking herd,” he says. “What’s nice is that ECO-V’s general manager Ranaka Prabhu lets me know the priority level on projects, and then lets me take it from there – because he trusts me based on my work in Ontario.”
Sukhayanti has her hands full caring for their two young daughters, but says she likes to do service, so she has been asking for whatever volunteer work she can.
One exciting project she is putting her organizational skills to is reviving an effort maintained by the late head cowherd Amburish Das, who kept meticulous records of all the cows’ activities, births, deaths, names, parents, locations and milk production amounts in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Compiling scattered data about the cows and interviewing long-time New Vrindaban residents to fill in missing information, Sukhayanti is creating new bios for the eighty-plus herd to create a more personal connection with them. She’s also helping to fundraise for the cows’ care.
Fil, 42, and Sukhayanti, 34, are bringing some younger energy to New Vrindaban, inspiring long-time residents like Ranaka, who feel it will soon be time to pass the torch to the next generation.
The couple also encourages other younger families to consider becoming a part of Srila Prabhupada’s first farm community.
“The facilities are here,” says Sukhayanti. “New Vrindaban is one of the few communities in ISKCON that has the ability to some extent to offer jobs to devotees. They have some housing and are planning to build more. They have a school and preschool for the children – and as the mother of two young girls, it’s super important for me that they will be able to have friends. And it’s great to have a Govinda’s restaurant right onsite for when you don’t feel like cooking!”
She continues, “We love being able to attend the morning program at the temple every day, and there are always devotees at the program here. There are also many senior devotees like Malati Devi, who remind us more of Srila Prabhupada. And the festivals like 24 hour kirtan that draw so many people are enlivening for us.”
“I think all these things are a big incentive for families who want to work with devotees, in a devotee environment – to surround themselves with devotees the whole day!” Sukhayanti enthuses. “Hopefully more and more families move here, and we can create a really young and vibrant community.”
For Fil, the possibility of doing that with Srila Prabhupada’s first farm community — “his original baby” – is exciting.
“I see the New Vrindaban community really trying to push towards fulfilling Srila Prabhupada’s vision,” he says. “And that inspires us to totally give ourselves to that vision too. We just feel very privileged and grateful to be here, and to be able to contribute.”