Friday, February 24, 2012

Embracing Unity in Diversity: Early Notes Toward a Rhetoric of Consciousness

When I was teaching in gurukulas, the students would occasionally find out that another child didn't like one sort of food or another and would tease them: “Eww—you don't like mangoes? That means you don't like Prabhupada and Krishna!” These eight- or nine-year-olds were probably joking, or half joking, to the extent that kids are capable. But when adults insist in the rudest language that other devotees who don't share their opinions on one detail or another regarding devotional practice or association are faithless, or even demons, they are not joking. And it's not funny.

Rather, they are simply demonstrating a narrow-minded attitude and cramped thinking discouraged by Srila Prabhupada himself. Unfortunately, we see a great deal of such narrow-mindedness in discussions among devotees over the course of our association, both face to face and in online discourse. I have found it to be perhaps the most discouraging, most corrosive attitude among devotees. I believe it would immeasurably improve the quality of devotee association, and perhaps even the devotees' preaching efforts, if, rather than seeing other devotees of Krishna in such a pinched, miserly way, we tried instead to imbibe and exhibit the kind of broad, generous vision of others that Srila Prabhupada himself exemplified.

Those devotees who have spent any time on the internet over the last few years have most likely observed a number of controversies among preachers, which often appear to be focused more on approaches to preaching than anything else. Sannyasi A rips into Sannyasi B for having the temerity to write on Bhagavad-gita. Sannyasi C conducts a campaign against Sannyasi D, accusing him of being infected with “New Age” ideas. Then he goes after Sannyasi E for engaging in mundane welfare work in the name of preaching. Others in turn criticize Sannyasi C for being stuck in the Middle Ages with regard to a number of social issues. A good number of ISKCON leaders consistently vilify those who have accepted instruction from preachers outside the GBC’s control, calling them guru-tyagis or worse, often pushing them outside ISKCON altogether. Many devotees criticize the BBT and its staff for continuing to edit Srila Prabhupada's books. Defenders of the BBT's managers and staff, on the other hand, sometimes belittle those who see themselves as simply standing up for the purity of Srila Prabhupada's books.

And I don’t want to give the impression that this problem is exclusively, or even primarily, a problem among ISKCON’s devotees. It’s no secret that many preachers from one mission have over the years disparaged pretty much everyone who didn’t surrender to their guru, whom they touted as the most advanced devotee on the planet, sometimes as the only pure devotee around. And leading preachers in another mission used their blogs for years to harass preachers from other missions who did not serve under their guru, using downright cruel facsimiles of humor. More recently, these same leaders now find themselves embroiled in succession conflicts, which some of them broadcast all over the Web, publicly accusing their perceived opponents of all sorts of impropriety and a laundry list of offenses. And then we have a number of Web sites whose specialty seems to be publishing any and every complaint against leaders of ISKCON and pretty much every other Gaudiya mission. And so it goes, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

What's more, we engage in all this bickering in public, across the internet! What does this say to the countless students who type “Hare Krishna” or some such search phrase into their search engine as they work on that term paper? To someone who might have purchased a book about Krishna consciousness, or the father wondering if he should let his child visit a temple or stay at an ashram? It seems we can establish dialog and discuss contentious matters cordially with academics, with Christians, with Jews, perhaps with some Muslims and Buddhists, and even some atheists, but we can't talk with another devotee who disagrees with us by even less than one percent without getting into a fight. And sometimes we do so in the most intemperate language. One can only imagine how Gaudiya vaisnavism must look to those whose experience of it is limited to what they see on the internet.

What seems to be missing here is discourse driven by the kind of vision Srila Prabhupada showed throughout his lifetime of spreading Krishna consciousness. Let us see, for example, how he responded to discord among devotees in a letter he wrote to Kirtanananda in 1973:
Now this displeasing of god brothers has already begun and gives me too much agitation in my mind. Our Gaudiya Math people fought with one another after the demise of Guru Maharaja but my disciples have already begun fighting even in my presence. So I am greatly concerned about it. . . .
Material nature means dissension and disagreement, especially in this Kali yuga. But, for this Krsna consciousness movement its success will depend on agreement, even though there are varieties of engagements. In the material world there are varieties, but there is no agreement. In the spiritual world there are varieties, but there is agreement. That is the difference. The materialist without being able to adjust the varieties and the disagreements makes everything zero. They cannot come into agreement with varieties, but if we keep Krsna in the center, then there will be agreement in varieties. This is called unity in diversity. . . . But, if we fight on account of diversity, then it is simply the material platform. Please try to maintain the philosophy of unity in diversity. That will make our movement successful. One section of men have already gone out, therefore we must be very careful to maintain unity in diversity. . . .
What we see here is an exhortation to a broader, more generous vision of how diverse devotees may serve the Mahaprabhu’s mission than some may be accustomed to. The basis of this generosity, Srila Prabhupada explains, is the generosity of spirit Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu teaches:
Following in the footprints of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
trnad api su-nicena taror iva sahisnuna
amanina manadena kirtaniya sada harih
“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and should be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.”
We must always remember this verse and be as tolerant as the tree, as we execute the Krsna consciousness movement. Without this mentality we cannot be successful.
Srila Prabhupada’s letter suggests that tolerating difference is essential to the broad vision he urges his disciple to develop here. This word is well worth examining.

Devotees generally use “tolerance” in the sense of forbearance, putting up with something we see as unfavorable. We often speak of tolerating the urges of the mind and senses, of tolerating abuse from an unappreciative public, of tolerating the devotees who get on our nerves, of tolerating bodily pain or the itching of bug bites. This certainly answers to one of the two meanings the word has in English; moreover, it’s a useful understanding for practicing devotees. But it is neither the sole nor the primary meaning.

Most English dictionaries give the primary sense of tolerance as fairness toward practices, opinions and perspectives different from our own; freedom from bigotry; a liberal, undogmatic attitude. This is certainly the sense in which Srila Prabhupada uses it in his letter to Kirtanananda, the most useful sense of tolerance for truly progressive devotees in a diverse, worldwide movement. And, unfortunately, this kind of tolerance among devotees is too uncommonly found.

Instead, we encounter scenes such as this: When visiting an ISKCON temple in a large US city a few years ago, I was subjected to one of ISKCON’s more prominent sannyasis asserting that all but one of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s disciples failed to appreciate their guru’s innovation of an organized institution for systematically propagating the teachings of Lord Caitanya. Therefore, he said, they all became either mayavadins or sahajiyas. (And he made such a blanket condemnation of Srila Prabhupada’s Godbrothers by way of ostensibly glorifying Srila Sarasvati Thakura on the anniversary of his disappearance.) Or we find ourselves embroiled in endless squabbles with members of another mission, who seem to regard everyone who does not share their degree of faith in a particular sadhu as the lowest of offenders. And recently I was involved in an online discussion with a number of my Godbrothers and sisters in which a couple of participants conducted protracted campaigns of vilifying another Godbrother and everyone who associated with him in the harshest imaginable language because he declines to submit to ISKCON’s GBC in all matters, including ISKCON policies contrary to Gaudiya vaisnava siddhanta.

Srila Prabhupada sometimes told us that one definition of a brahmana is liberal, broadminded, generous, as opposed to the narrow-minded kripana, who is miserly and grudging—at best—in appreciating others with whom he does not closely identify. And he made it abundantly clear throughout his teaching campaign that the dominant attitude in our movement should be that of the brahmana.

We should note carefully, though, that the generosity expressed should not be a kind of Pollyannaism that pretends away the differences between different groups of devotees. I suggest, rather, that we behave, as Srila Prabhupada often exhorted, as a society based on love and trust. The problem is that leaders too often insist that we love and trust them, but they treat us as if we had little intelligence or sincerity. Love, trust, and cooperation are reciprocal activities, two-way streets. But if love and trust seem too lofty, too inaccessible, perhaps we could begin with simple mutual respect.

We need, of course, to be able to discuss the issues that seem to divide us, but we should discuss them respectfully. We can only do that, however, if we begin to turn away from a Manichean view of the world, including the world of devotees. That is a black-and-white view that my perspective, my approach, my mission, my guru, is good, and all others are inferior, if not bad, perhaps even evil. We see that, in American political discourse, this perspective has led to such toxic rancor and demonization that government has been all but crippled. And the same thing has happened in discourse among devotees. Embracing unity in diversity, on the other hand, means accepting and openly acknowledging that devotees whose approach to service may appear more liberal or conservative, or different in any way we find significant, may also desire to make the perfection of Krishna consciousness available to everyone. It means moving from black and white to shades of gray, but also beyond that to a full-color spectrum of approaches to preaching and practicing, as long as they don’t challenge the siddhanta established by our acaryas.

We should note that even discussed in a more civil manner, some ideas and policies will be rejected. As much as I may respect your sincere desire to serve Mahaprabhu’s mission, I may still find a particular policy ill advised, or even contrary to siddhanta established by our acaryas. You may also find my reluctance to bow to your institution’s leaders’ authority narrow or short sighted, even obstinate. And we may very well feel compelled to say so. Moreover, our discussion may be quite vigorous because of the strength of our convictions. But we should be able to discuss these issues vigorously without casting aspersions on each others’ faith, denigrating each other’s accomplishments, or calling each other names. We should be more interested in generating light than heat. Perhaps we need fewer lessons in logic and argumentation and more guidance from Miss Manners!

So let us by all means discuss those differences, but let us strive to do so with a more nuanced approach than we too often see these days. After all, discussion aimed at understanding the conclusions of the scriptures strengthens our faith. Moreover, the focus of our disagreements is usually how to serve guru and Gauranga. I hope we devotees can learn to discuss with real respect, not the sham respect we see among today’s politicians. Doing so would be easier, of course, if we learn to respect each other’s service and contributions, regardless of institutional affiliation or differences in approaches. We must respect boundaries, as well. Good fences, the proverb says, make good neighbors. How far this is true is another discussion altogether. Where I’m from, on the island of Hawaii, we build rock walls, but they’re usually only a foot or two high, not sky-scraping walls topped with broken glass or razor wire. It’s easy to step over them to visit, as the mood there is “e komo mai”: come on over. My kuleana (responsibility) is taking care of what’s on this side of the wall, and yours is what’s on that side. And if bananas, avocados, or mangos from trees on my side hang over the wall, they’re yours. We devotees of Caitanya Mahaprabhu should be able to behave similarly, accepting responsibility for our own service, sharing generously, respecting, but not worshiping, boundaries. Intruding on other missions’ affairs simply to break devotees’ faith should be avoided.

In our attempts to create a discourse of love and trust, we may recall Krsna’s praise of speech that does not cause distress, is truthful, agreeable, and beneficial as austerity of speech. And, bearing in mind that Krsna repeatedly praises nonviolence in Bhagavad-gita, devotees may want to consider approaches such as nonviolent communication. This helps us both express our own perspective honestly and clearly, while at the same time paying others respectful, empathetic attention. And when we do write, whether a book or an email, we should consider carefully a couple of things all conscientious writers learn: how we want to present ourselves, who our audience is (both our intended audience, and, given the reality of the digital world, who our audience is likely to become), and our purpose, what we hope to accomplish by writing a particular text. If we can do such things, we may find it possible to work together and realize Srila Prabhupada and Mahaprabhu’s ambitions for the sankirtana movement. Otherwise, we’re likely to find ourselves as divided by recrimination and name calling as the leaders of the two main political parties in the US are today. And our efforts will likely prove no more effective.

I don’t intend that this brief essay serve as a manifesto, or that it be read as a comprehensive treatment of the problem I identify here, which not that we devotees disagree among ourselves, but that the manner in which we publicly express our disagreement poisons our relationships and undermines the culture of bhakti. This is merely an essay, in the more formal sense of an attempt—here, an attempt mainly to begin a conversation. Read it as an opening gambit, if you like. It will also likely serve as the beginning to a longer, more comprehensive project I have been considering for some time. Meanwhile, I hope devotees will feel free to continue the conversation by offering their own insights and experiences.

Let us imagine together how much more easily the world may be able to appreciate the teachings of Lord Caitanya when his followers no longer publicly bicker like eight-year-old children. I hope we can all become humble enough to accept that devotees with perspectives different from ours may certainly love and honor Srila Prabhupada, our guru varga, and Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu as much as we—and to treat them as such. A broader vision, colored by the love and trust that should come naturally to progressive vaisnavas, will show that diversity of perspectives and approaches to be an asset, not a liability. At least addressing each other as if we had such a vision may at least be a step in the right direction. We may then begin to see how Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana movement is enriched by that diversity, which may provide a broader range of appeal to the larger society, which is in such dire need of the vaisnavas’ mercy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Prayer to the Lotus Feet of Lord Krishna

I should have posted this yesterday, which was the anniversary of Srila Prabhupada's writing a poem that many of my friends and I consider to be very significant. It was written aboard the Scindia freighter Jaladuta on September 13, 1965. Srila Prabhupada was faced with the practically unprecedented task of introducing the teachings of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to the West. To that end, he had gotten passage on this freighter and had survived seasickness and a couple of heart attacks during his journey. On the 13th he wrote in his journal, "Today I have disclosed my mind to my companion Lord Sri Krishna. There is a Bengali poem made by me today in this connection." Here the Bengali is first, followed by a translation.

Bhagavan Krsner Pada Padme Prarthana
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

kṛṣṇa taba puṇya habe bhāi
e-puṇya koribe jabe rādhārāṇī sukhī habe
dhruva ati boli tomā tāi

Dear brother, Krsna, you will find virtue only when Srimati Radharani first becomes pleased with you. This is as fixed as the Pole Star.

śrī-siddhānta saraswatī śacī-suta priya ati
kṛṣṇa-sebāya jāra tula nāi
sei se mohānta-guru jagater madhe uru
kṛṣṇa-bhakti deya ṭhāi ṭhāi

Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who is very dear to Lord Gauranga, the son of mother Saci, is unparalleled in his service to the Supreme Lord Sri Krsna. He is that great saintly spiritual master, most magnanimous within this universe, who bestows devotion to Krsna in various places throughout the world.

tāra icchā balavān pāścātyete ṭhān ṭhān
hoy jāte gaurāńger nām
pṛthivīte nagarādi āsamudra nada nadī
sakalei bole kṛṣṇa rāma

His desire is very powerful, and thus he is causing the Holy Name of Lord Gauranga to spread throughout all the countries of the Western World. In all the cities, towns, and villages on the earth, extending to all the oceans, rivers, and streams, everyone may chant the names of Krsna and Rama.

tāhale ānanda hoy tabe hoy digvijay
caitanyer kṛpā atiśay
māyā duṣṭa jata duḥkhī jagate sabāi sukhī
vaiṣṇaver icchā pūrṇa hoy

Thus all directions will be conquered by a flood of transcendental ecstasy flowing with the excessive mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. When all the miserable living entities that have been corrupted by maya become happy, then the Vaisnava's desire is fulfilled.

se kārja je koribāre ājñā jadi dilo more
jogya nahi ati dīna hīna
tāi se tomāra kṛpā māgitechi anurūpā
āji tumi sabār pravīṇa

Although my Guru Maharaja ordered me to accomplish this mission, I am unworthy to do it, being very fallen and incompetent. That being the case, O Lord Krsna, Your mercy is today arising in a befitting manner to make me become worthy, for You are the wisest of all.

tomāra se śakti pele guru-sebāya bastu mile
jībana sārthak jadi hoy
sei se sevā paile tāhale sukhī hale
taba sańga bhāgyate miloy

If You bestow Your divine power, then one attains the factual substance which is service to the spiritual master - and life becomes successful. If that service is obtained, then one becomes truly satisfied, and ultimately received Your association due to good fortune.

evaḿ janaḿ nipatitaḿ prabhavāhikūpe
kāmābhikāmam anu yaḥ prapatan prasańgāt
kṛtvātmasāt surarṣiṇā bhagavan gṛhītaḥ
so 'haḿ kathaḿ nu visṛje tava bhṛtya-sevām

(As stated by Prahlada Maharaja to Lord Nrsimhadeva in the Srimad Bhagavatam, 7.9.28:)
"Thus, by associating with material desires one after another, I was following the general populace by falling into a blind well full of snakes. My dear Lord, O Supreme Personality of Godhead! Then the great sage Narada Muni kindly accepted me as his disciple, and instructed me how to achieve the transcendental position similar to his own. How could I ever leave the service of your servant?"

tumi mor cira sāthī bhuliyā māyār lāthi
khāiyāchi janma-janmāntare
āji punaḥ e sujoga jadi hoy jogāyoga
tabe pāri tuńhe milibāre

O Lord Krsna, You are my eternal companion. Forgetting You, I have suffered the kicking of maya birth after birth. If today the chance to meet You occurs again, then surely I will be able to rejoin You.

tomāra milane bhāi ābār se sukha pāi
gocārane ghuri din bhor
kata bane chuṭāchuṭi bane khāi luṭāluṭi
sei din kabe habe mor

O my dear brother! In Your company I will experience great joy once again. Wandering about the pastures and fields, I will pass the entire day with You in tending the cows. Joking with You and frolicking throughout so many forests of Vraja, I will enjoy pastimes of stealing and eating one another’s lunch. When, oh when will that day be mine?

āji se suvidhā hala tomāra smaraṇa bhela
baro āśā ḍākilām tāi
āmi tomāra nitya-dāsa tāi kori eta āśa
tumi binā anya gati nāi

Today that remembrance of being with You came to me in a very nice way. Feeling great longing I called out for You, O Lord Krsna! Only because I am Your eternal servant do I desire Your association so much. Except for You, I have no other refuge.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Vyasa-puja 2010

(Today was the 114th anniversary of the appearance of our beloved spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, among us. This is the homage I wrote to mark this occasion.)

namah om visnupadaya krsna-presthaya bhutale
svami sri bhaktivedanta prabhupadaya te namah

I offer my humble obeisances to His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who is very dear to Lord Krsna on this earth, having taken shelter of His lotus feet.

gurvajnam sirasi-dhrtva saktyavesa sva-rupine
hare-krsneti mantrena pascatya-pracya-tarine

Taking the order of his guru on his head, he became empowered by Nityananda Prabhu to act as a saktyavesa avatara. He distributed the Hare Krsna mantra all over the Eastern and Western world, uplifting and delivering all fallen souls.

visvacarya prabharyaya divya karunya murtaye
sri bhagavata-madhurya-gita-jnana pradayine

He is the best of millions of gurus because he is the personification of divine mercy. He has distributed the sweet nectar of Srimad-Bhagavatam and the transcendental knowledge of Bhagavad-gita all over the world.

gaura-sri-rupa-siddhanta-sarasvati nisevine
radha-krsna-padambhoja-bhrìgaya gurave namah

He is constantly engaged in exclusive devotional service to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, Srila Rupa Gosvami, and Sri Gauranga Mahaprabhu. I offer my humble obeisances to Srila Prabhupada, who is like a bumblebee always tasting the nectar of the lotus feet of Sri Sri Radha and Govinda.

(These prayers of praise for our beloved spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, were written at his request by Sripada Bhakti Sundara Govinda Maharaja, under the direction of his spiritual master, Sripada Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara Maharaja. Sripada Govinda Maharaja left our vision earlier this year.)

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati wrote that at the beginning of every new year, at the beginning of every new month, at the beginning of every week and every day, and at every moment, we should progressively remember the Supreme Personality of Godhead. I have sometimes said that Vyasa-puja is an opportunity for us to remember the spiritual master and dedicate our lives anew to his service. I want to do so this year with a particular focus on one aspect of the guru’s place in a disciple’s life.

Devotion to the guru is absolutely essential to spiritual progress. Krsna das Kaviraja says in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta that the spiritual master’s instruction is “the active principle in spiritual life”: acaryera mata yei, sei mata sara. The Bengali word Srila Prabhupada gives as “active principle” here is sara. Another way to understand this word is essence, or essential principle. Consequently, we can see that surrender to the guru is itself the essence of spiritual life, and failure to do so means we completely miss the point of spiritual endeavor, which renders our attempts at progress useless. Srila Jiva Goswami says in Bhakti Sandarbha that satisfying the guru is the main cause of attaining divine love and service.

In each of the centers Srila Prabhupada and his followers have established around the world, devotees begin each day with a meditation on the guru by singing Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti’s Gurvastakam. In the eighth verse, Cakravarti Thakura says,

yasya prasadad bhagavat-prasado
yasyaprasadan na gatih kuto 'pi

“By the spiritual master’s mercy, one may receive Krsna’s blessings; without the guru’s grace, no one can make any spiritual progress.” From the beginning of his mission Srila Prabhupada established the central position of the spiritual master in the lives of spiritual practitioners.

We see in Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu that practical spiritual life is built on the foundation of taking shelter of the spiritual master, which includes several items. Srila Rupa Goswami explains the first items of sadhana: guru-padasrayas tasmat krsna-diksadi-siksanam/ visrambhena guroh seva. A sadhaka takes shelter of a guru, accepts initiation, takes instruction from, and serves the guru with faith, with trust. Sometimes we see the word visrambha translated as respect, or reverence, but a quick exploration of that word reveals that the relationship with the spiritual master should be much more than the kind of distance implied in words such as respect and reverence.

Srila Rupa Goswami himself defines visrambha later in Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu, in the context of discussing the mood of friendship. He says that deep, familiar trust, free from any sort of restriction or control. Srila Jiva Goswami further explains that deep trust implies not only freedom from excessive reverence and fear, but also a sense that friends are in no way different from each other. Elsewhere, Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti says it is a sense that one’s own life, body, mind, intelligence, clothes, and everything else are one with those of the object of love. So visrambhena guroh seva seems to point to service based on a real sense of identity with the guru to the extent that the disciple has no doubt whatsoever that the guru has only his or her best interests in his heart.

So just how deeply does this confidence based on identity run? How far does this intimate trust extend? Visvanath Cakravarti seems to answer this in a commentary on a verse in Srimad-Bhagavatam’s fourth canto:
A devoted and chaste wife, while absorbed in the service of her husband, may ignore even her own children. Similarly, a disciple who is deeply absorbed in the service of the guru may even ignore practices such as hearing and chanting, knowing that by guru-seva alone he can easily attain complete perfection in devotion. And just as a devoted wife ignores her own pleasures and home comforts, so too does a disciple completely absorbed in guru-seva ignore even the divine bliss arising out of hearing and chanting, nor does he seek out the kind of secluded place suitable for such bhajan. That is the instruction in this verse. The Vedas also proclaim the supremacy of service to the guru.

Visvanath Cakravarti Thakura’s analogy in no way minimizes the practices of sadhana bhakti. Our experience, in fact, is that the guru teaches us to engage progressively in cultivating those practices. Rather, it points out, as Visvanatha says himself, “the supremacy of service to the guru” over all else.

The essence of devotional service for a disciple, then, seems to be dedication to the service of the spiritual master without any reservation, with complete confidence that such service will carry us to Krsna’s lotus feet. This confidence finds support in Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura’s assurance that those of us who regularly chant his eight beautiful verses of praise for the guru during the brahma-muhurta will certainly attain direct service to Vrndavana-natha, Sri Krsna.

With this in mind, then, I beg that I may be able to continually increase my dedication to the service of my eternal spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, without which my life has no meaning.

Babhru das

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gender-Specific Pronouns in Srila Prabhupada’s Books

(I wrote this note some time ago for a BBT Web site dedicated to discussing contentious issues in Srila Prabhupada's books.)

From time to time we hear, or hear about, complaints regarding Srila Prabhupada’s use of gender-specific words as if they were generic. We find this throughout Srila Prabhupada’s conversations and books. For example, in his introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is he writes, “The purpose of Bhagavad-gita is to deliver mankind from the nescience of material existence. Every man is in difficulty in so many ways, as Arjuna also was in difficulty in having to fight the Battle of Kurukshetra.” In his translation of Bhagavad-gita 3.23 he has Lord Krishna say, “For if I ever failed to engage in carefully performing prescribed duties, O Partha, certainly all men would follow My path.” And in another place in the introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is Srila Prabhupada writes, “For instance, a child may think that an automobile is quite wonderful to be able to run without a horse or other animal pulling it, but a sane man knows the nature of the automobile’s engineering arrangement. He always knows that behind the machinery there is a man, a driver. Similarly, the Supreme Lord is the driver under whose direction everything is working.”

What we see here is typical of Srila Prabhupada’s writing and speaking throughout his preaching career. He consistently used man as a generic term for person, regardless of gender, mankind for the whole of human beings, and masculine pronouns such as he and his as generic. This raises the question in many minds today whether Srila Prabhupada’s language is sexist, whether it reflects a sexist attitude in the author, and whether it perpetuates sexism among his followers. And it makes some wonder further how someone who lives on the transcendental platform and preaches the equal vision (sama-darshanah) Lord Krishna teaches in Bhagavad-gita could be unaware of the effects such sexist language might have on the minds of readers. Actually, this narrow slice of the gender issue should be an easy one for Srila Prabhupada’s thoughtful followers to deal with. Compared with some of Srila Prabhupada’s comments about women’s relative intelligence, place in society, etc., this hardly seems a substantive issue.

Until very recently, some time in the 1970s and more prominently in the 1980s, such usages were accepted as conventional and standard. Srila Prabhupada grew up in Victorian and Edwardian India in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was educated, as we know, at Scottish Church College in Calcutta. There he received a prestigious British education, studying English, Sanskrit, and Philosophy. We would expect, then, that he certainly learned the conventions of spoken and written English then current. And we see evidence of this in the poetry and essays he wrote as a young disciple, especially in the poem and speech he offered on Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura’s Vyasa-puja in 1935.

And just what was standard in those days, not only in India but throughout the English-speaking world? Since the earliest recorded uses of English until the last 25or 30 years of the 20th century, what we consider masculine personal pronouns (he, him, himself, his) were used generically and were accepted as referring to any person of either sex. This was especially the case after indefinite pronouns such as anyone, someone, anybody, etc. The same was the case for words such as man, mankind, and words ending in –man. In Old English, man’s principal meaning was “human.” Wer and wyf were the gender-distinct words, “a man” and “a woman,” respectively. The language, alive and fluid as it is, changed through Middle English and modern English, but this is where man comes from. This is how Srila Prabhupada learned English in the early 20th century, and it’s how his disciples learned English in the middle of the 20th century.

These conventions came into question in the middle of the 20th century with the rise of feminist ideas, at first in academia, then in the broader society. The problem is the ambiguity that has arisen in the evolving use of man sometimes for “the human species” and sometimes for “male humans,” and a perception of excluding female humans from any discussion using man generically. Similar problems arose regarding generic use of masculine pronouns. As academics discussed these issues in conference papers, articles, and books, they also brought the issues to their students in the colleges and universities where they taught. Publication of Miller and Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Language in 1980 brought these issues to the public and helped many both articulate and understand the arguments. Many even today see the issue as “political correctness” (a term I personally abhor for a catalog of reasons) run amok; nevertheless, the innumerable discussions over the years have drawn new attention to language’s power to both influence and reflect the way we think and feel.

So should readers consider Srila Prabhupada’s use of so-called generic masculine words as sexist? If so, we would also have to judge the writing of some iconic feminist writers as sexist, too. Here’s Mary Wollstonecraft, considered by many the mother of modern feminism, at the beginning of her landmark essay, Vindication of the Rights of Women: "In what does man’s preeminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole; in Reason."
More recently, Virginia Woolf wrote such things as “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” It would be awkward to accuse such writers of promoting or acquiescing to any notions of male dominance. What explains these constructions is convention: at the time these writers wrote these words, it was simply the standard to refer to human beings generically in such terms.

Because this was the standard for so much of the history of English, most usage experts suggest that we simply accept that this was the case and judge the writers’ intentions somewhat generously. Here’s how Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, a contributor to The Chicago Manual of Style and editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, says it:
Those committed to nonsexist usage ought to adopt a statute of limitations that goes something like this: in quoted matter dating from before 1980, passages containing bland sexism – such as the use of the generic he or of chairman – can be quoted in good conscience because in those days the notions of gender-inclusiveness were different from today’s notions.

So how might we deal with the criticism we may hear of an apparent inclination to male dominance in Srila Prabhupada’s speech and writing, at least as evidenced by his grammar? Those who are concerned about expressing gender-inclusiveness in a way that educated people today may appreciate it should feel free to deliberately use gender-neutral language in their own writing. It should, however, be done gracefully, not in ways that are obtrusive or call attention to themselves. (I have edited a couple of books by a sannyasi godbrother who does consider today’s conventions, and with considerable grace. And I tried to bring a similar graceful awareness of gender issues to the writing of the more than 6,000 college and university students to whom I’ve taught writing over the last couple of decades.) At the same time, we should be able to quote such passages as this topic addresses confidently. And just understanding a little of the history of these things may help us deal with any apparent disjuncture with the manners of our own time. If we understand that history and have firm faith in the equal vision we see in Srila Prabhupada’s character, it shouldn’t be hard to help others understand it as well. If they then honestly consider the contributions he has made to the world’s spiritual progress, they will no doubt find it strikingly wonderful.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A comment on some ISKCON leaders' struggle to define membership

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of a PowerPoint presentation arguing for certain standards for ISKCON membership. More recently, an ISKCON news site published some audio accompanying this presentation, along with some editorial comments. Perhaps against my better judgement, I posted a comment on this presentation.

I haven't had a chance to listen to the audio yet, but someone sent me Sivarama Swami's powerpoint presentation a couple of weeks ago. At the moment, I can only respond to that. Although I understand the perceived need to define membership, such definition should be in line with Srila Prabhupada's standard, as suggested by others here and elsewhere.

With regard to specifics of his presentation, I can share a couple of my initial, immediate responses to reading his ideas.

He suggests that membership requires accepting the GBC as one's "ultimate managerial and spiritual authority." What's the basis for such an assertion? Certainly not Srila Prabhupada's instruction. We know he told us that the GBC is the Society's ultimate managerial authority, but spiritual authority? Bullet Point One, and I'm already out.

He says that members must "be connected to ISKCON's line of authority." That reads to me as an empty claim. What does it even mean?

He writes that members may "only accept initiation from member of ISKCON." Well, I guess I'd be okay, if I hadn't already been excluded by Bullet Point One. But we might ask about the status of those serving in ISKCON who are initiated by preachers working outside the GBC's authority. Perhaps he means that they should be purged, however valuable their service may be and despite the fact that they follow all the other requirements. I'm not sure that's a good idea.

He says that members of ISKCON "do not divorce." It appears that certain members of the GBC, as well as other officers in the Society, be they local, regional, or international, must be exempt from this requirement.

He writes that "[t]he laws and bylaws of ISKCON determine devotees’ values and conduct in all aspects of their live; work (varna), social status (asrama) and spiritual practice and aspiration." I'm certainly further excluded, it seems. I have chosen for the last 40 years to shape my values and conduct according to guru, sadhu, and shastra. ISKCON's laws and bylaws change too frequently, and on the basis of too many factors other than guru, sadhu, and shastra, for me to take that seriously.

This strikes many devotees as an outline of a plan for further reducing ISKCON's membership and consequently its influence. I'm looking for a reason to disagree with that assessment. Can someone throw me a line?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sri Vyasa Puja: Celebrating the Spiritual Master's Appearance

nama om visnupadaya krsnapresthaya bhu-tale
srimate bhaktivedanta svamin iti namine

namaste sarasvate deve gauravani pracarine
nirvisesa sunyavadi pascatya desa-tarine

In our folly, we conditioned souls vacillate between two endeavors which can only end in frustration: exploitation and renunciation. You show us the futility of trying to exploit the resources of material nature and the senselessness of denying its existence. Out of your infinite, causeless mercy you have come to show us a third way of living. This third way is the path of surrender, of dedication to the Supreme Personality, Sri Krsna. We could compare these choices with possible responses to finding someone’s property lying in the street. We may pick it up and use it for ourselves, which is simply theft, or we may ignore it, not wanting to become implicated in someone else’s business, which is simply stupidity. But the third way, that of an honest, responsible person, is to pick the item up and return it to its rightful owner.

You have taught by your example how to act on the understanding that, as we learn from Bhagavad-gita, Krsna is the rightful beneficiary or enjoyer of all activity, the real proprietor of everything in existence, and the dearest friend of all beings. We express that understanding—that faith—through the sixfold process of surrender taught by Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu:
anukulyasya sankalpah pratikulyasya varjanam
raksisyaiti visvaso goptrtve varanam tatha
atma niksepa karpanye

Although these six aspects of surrender—accepting whatever favors spiritual culture, neglecting whatever doesn’t favor spiritual culture, feeling confident of Krsna’s protection, accepting Him as our exclusive maintainer, foregoing any sense of separate interest, and humility— may strike the less experienced as some grim spiritual practice, it’s nothing other than recognizing our own real nature as beings dependent on Krsna for everything. This dependence is much like that of a child’s dependence on a parent or a domestic animal’s on its owner. It’s just that natural, and it fosters love.

And, Srila Prabhupada, you showed us what it’s like to live a life of surrender. After all, it is your utter surrender to Krsna’s will and the service of sri guru that seems to account for the success of your mission. Sometimes we hear devotees speak of some grand plan you had as you embarked on the monumental task you inherited from your spiritual master. It appears from your own words, though, that the essence of that great plan was nothing more or less than utter surrender to Krsna, absolute dependence on Him for your success. We see that in the song you wrote on arriving at Boston Harbor, and we see it in your “Prayer to the Lotus Feet of Krsna,” written aboard the Jaladuta as you crossed the Atlantic. In both, your humility shows in your feeling of a lack of qualification for presenting Mahaprabhu’s gospel to us westerners. At Boston Harbor you wrote,
How will I make them understand this message of Krsna consciousness? I am very unfortunate, unqualified and the most fallen. Therefore I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own. Somehow or other, O Lord, You have brought me here to speak about You. Now, my Lord, it is up to You to make me a success or failure as You like. . . . O Lord, I am just like a puppet in Your hands. So if You have brought me here to dance, then make me dance, make me dance, O Lord, make me dance as You like.

That’s your secret, your big plan: acknowledge that only Krsna can make this happen. And how might you induce Krsna to help you? Here is the measure of your devotion—you struck a bargain with Krsna. In your “Prayer to the Lotus Feet of Krsna,” addressing Krsna directly, you remind him that all good fortune is possible only by pleasing Srimati Radharani. If Krsna were to ensure the success of your mission, given to you by your spiritual master, who is an eternal associate of Radharani, you suggest, He may be able to gain Her favor.

In other words, surrender is really just another expression of ecstasy. You showed that further on several occasions, when you talked of Krsna’s playing with his cowherd-boy friends, and especially of their taking their lunch together at midday. You sometimes told us how the boys would steal each others’ lunches, including Krsna’s, and play keep-away with them. Ultimately, the other boys would end up with Krsna’s lunch and would enjoy the laddus and kacoris Mother Yasoda would pack for Him. “I just want to go back to the spiritual world,” you would say longingly, “and have laddus and kacoris with Krsna.”

Our charge—my charge—is to follow your example of utter dependence on Krsna and surrender, as Krsna says at the conclusion of Bhagavad-gita, without any other consideration. You have been beckoning me follow you in surrender, to make spiritual progress and sharing your gift my sole business, at least now, as my life draws near its end. I pray that I may be able to answer that call some time soon. Then, perhaps, I may some day become eligible to taste some of those laddus and kacoris.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Announcement for a New Web Site

A New Gaudiya Vaisnava Web Site for Ideas and Discussion

by Babhru das

We live in times best characterized by the need to define the spiritual, times ripe for the resurgence of metaphysics. Not only has science failed to retire the “why” questions that arise spontaneously in human consciousness, but philosophy has also thought-drained its well dry. Bridging the metaphysics of the East and the philosophical traditions of the West, we propose a return to active discourse between humanity and divinity, which is the essence of revelation. This holds far more potential for fulfilling humanity’s essential needs than unbridled intellectual exercise and the licensing of technology to change the nature of nature. In such dialogue, reason shines as an aspect of faith, and faith itself is the illuminating embrace of truth, rather than mere belief. Science, technology, and philosophy should all be harnessed—tied to revelation—in pursuit of improving the quality of life and knowing well the truth of material impermanence, which facilitate not only the betterment of our material conditions as long as they last, but our quest for enduring happiness as well.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce the launch of The Harmonist, a Web site dedicated to bridging the gap between East and West, between mind and spirit, between philosophy and revelation. The Harmonist publishes articles illuminating the philosophical conclusions of Gaudiya Vedanta, often by way of interfacing with other spiritual and philosophical traditions in a way that honors these traditions in their own right. It also publishes articles commenting on
issues of the day, both within the Gaudiya Vaisnava community and the world at large. It focuses as well on news articles relevant to the greater spiritual community and the importance of sustainable living, which it views as the best way of living in this world while pursuing transcendence.

The Harmonist seeks to both facilitate and take part in this discussion—the conversation that is the human response to revelation grounded in Vedanta. Our focus is also devotional Vedanta and the school of Sri Caitanya—Gaudiya Vedanta—in particular. We publish articles illuminating the philosophical conclusions of Gaudiya Vedanta, often by way of interfacing with other spiritual and philosophical traditions in a way that honors these traditions in their own right. We also publish articles commenting on issues of the day, both within the Gaudiya Vaisnava community and in the world at large. We focus as well on news articles relevant to the greater spiritual community and the importance of sustainable living, which we view as the best way of living in this world while pursuing transcendence.

In addition to articles, a classroom, videos, and comics, the Harmonist encourages lively discussion among members and visitors with a robust comments feature. Check out and join the discussion!