from Back to Godhead, June 1989
In the ancient land of the Incas and the Aztecs, in the capital city of a country I’d rather not name, for many years an old man with a pushcart stood on the street outside our Hare Krishna temple selling bananas, oranges, apples, pineapples, and papayas. Now the fruits and the pushcart are gone, but the man is still there. And now he has a new occupation—changing dollars.
He and nearly everyone else on the block.
Roll down your car window. You’ll get the latest street-market exchange rate. And on the spot you can change your local money for U.S. dollars—or vice versa. Change dollars on the sidewalk, change dollars on the road. The whole street is astir with mustaches and moneybelts and fistfuls of currency. Walk through our temple gate into our garden: on the wooden benches beneath the palm trees, the mustaches and moneybelts have spilled over from the street, and hands are swapping local currency for dollars. And it’s not only our block—it’s like this all over downtown.
And—whew!—what happens to the rates! The day I arrive, six hundred to the dollar; four days later, eight twenty. And tomorrow it might be up to nine hundred—or back down to four hundred.
What’s going on?
A local devotee explains:
It starts up in the selvas—the jungles of the mountains, where the main crop these days is the coca plant. The buyers pay in U.S. dollars. Then the local growers come down to the city to change their dollars into money they can spend—that is, into the national currency.
And because that local money is so wobbly, everyone who’s saving money wants dollars. If you’re holding on to cash, you don’t bank it in the national currency. You lock it up in your house somewhere—in dollars. And you change it back into local cash only as you need money to spend.
So the people from the selva are selling dollars, and everyone else is buying. And who’s buying more than anyone else? The national government.
Like most Latin American countries, this one has a huge national debt. But one big advantage of being a government is that whenever you need money you can print it. Just start up the presses and roll off as much as you want. Great!
Well, not so great. You can spend that money here. But outside the country, who wants it? Those bankers you owe want dollars.
That’s why the local government has men out in the street buying up all the dollars they can get. The formula is simple: print your own currency, buy dollars, pay off your debt. (Or now that you’ve got more money, spend it.)
Of course, you’ll drive the local citizens nuts. But since when is it the government’s business to make citizens happy?
This is Kali-yuga, the age of cheating and hypocrisy. And cheating begins at the top. A main role of the state, we’re told in the Vedic literature, is to protect the citizens from thieves. But in this age, forget it—the leaders of the state are the thieves.
And what are these thieves mixed up in? Drugs, prostitution, gambling, killing. With all those dollars coming into the treasury, how hard do you suppose the local government is fighting the coca trade? Instead they’re busy cashing in—and prostituting the national economy in the bargain.
It’s two weeks later. The rates have changed again: more than eleven hundred to the dollar. The fruit seller is busy selling dollars. And this republic’s economy is busy going bananas.
Now contrast this with the Vedic civilization. In the Vedic civilization people stick to simple occupations and save their time for developing their relationship with Krishna. The Vedic economy is a simple one, in which material wealth consists mainly of things people need, like land and food.
For those who want temporary luxury in this world, the perennial opulences are natural ones like land, grain, fruits, milk products, and gold. And for those who want permanent wealth, the ultimate object is the transcendent source of all opulences, Krishna.
Another week has gone by. Now the rate is eighteen hundred to the dollar. Bananas and more bananas!
Of course, ultimately what’s real is what’s eternal. So in that sense money, being temporary, is unreal anyway. And how stable can you expect unreality to be? The real thing is not a temporary stash of money but our eternal relationship with the Supreme Being, Krishna.
But eighteen hundred to the dollar! That’s not just unreal. That’s ridiculous.
Maybe my devotee friend is wrong about what’s behind it. But back in the days of the Incas and the Aztecs, at least the money was gold. Nowadays the money is paper. And the Real Thing is coke.