Yesterday I talked about complex roles sannyasis play in modern times. There are traditional, vedic rules and expectations, there are rules introduced by Lord Chaitanya, there are rules and goals introduced by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, there are certain alterations that happened over the time under his guidance, there are differences in sannyasa order as it was given to us by Srila Prabhupada, too, and there are changes that happened over time since the seventies.
While sannyasa as it’s practiced in modern Gaudiya vaishnavism is based on the example of Lord Chaitanya and the essence of the order hasn’t changed since Mahaprabhu’s time, the difference with the vedic tradition is huge, especially as it is understood by modern Indians.
With all these different exectations, as a sannyasi does something there are so many angles to judge his behavior from one can easily get confused. Simple, iron cast rule – does his behavior comply with GBC regulations or not? If yes then he is above criticism.
On a more subtle level, however, there’s a leeway to judge sannyasi’s behavior even within GBC standards. While we should avoid criticizing perceived deviations we should be always think what lessons we can learn for ourselves.
Take a hypothetical example – a sannyasi in karmi clothes is photographed hugging a young woman, presumably a disciple.
- Vedic point of view – fail.
- Modern society’s point of view – no big deal, there’s nothing sexual about this.
- Lord Chaitanya’s rules – he should drown himself in the Ganges.
- Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s vision – unacceptable
- Srila Prabhupada’s rules – he shouldn’t do that but it’s not Lord Chaitanya’s times.
- ISKCON vision – is it a part of a preaching effort? If yes, then it’s not a big deal.
- GBC rules – unless there’s a gross transgression we can just shake our heads and move on.
- Preaching mission – we need to appeal to modern society, if we are too prude they won’t listen to us, no big deal.
- ISKCON deviants reaction – he should go to hell.
You see my point? Each one of these reactions is justified according to some but maybe not all rules. Okay, Lord Chaitanya recommended drowning in Ganges when there was some sexual motive involved, if it’s an innocent photo hug without sexual context it probably doesn’t qualify for drowning, but still unacceptable.
What position should we, personally, take? I think the main criteria is the advancement of the preaching mission. If our target audience doesn’t mind then it isn’t a fail.
Lord Chaitanya was pretty clear about it – the problem is not so much the transgression itself but the loss of respect. Remember – the only raison d’etre for taking sannyasa for Him was forcing people respect His message at once.
Having said that, the other role of a modern ISKCON sannyasi is to serve as a role model for junior devotees, and appearing in the photos like that can be classified as a fail. We are not karmis, we don’t need to see sannyasis behaving just like us to trust them, we’d rather see them behaving very very different. There might be nothing really wrong with hugging a girl for a photo but it’s a kind of disappointment.
Or, perhaps, we should adjust our expectations of what sannyasis should do and what it should mean for us.
Our fail here would be taking the side of deviants and going into a full blown fault finding mode.
Another example is meeting with dignitaries. Some of those, like professors, are okay, but meeting people like presidents and prime-ministers used to be forbidden. Nowadays a year doesn’t pass by without news of that or this swami meeting this or that president.
Preaching excuse shouldn’t work here – Lord Chaitanya refused to meet with the King of Jagannatha Puri even when He knew the king was a devotee. The king eventually earned His darshan but we shouldn’t forget the dynamics – it was the sannyasi who “played” hart to get, the king was seeking sannyasi’s audience, not vice versa. Lord Chaitanya Himself had absolutely no interest in preaching to the King.
On the other hand, this was the case when He was concerned about ruining His own reputation. Before taking sannyasa He had no problems in visiting and preaching to the Kazi, maybe not as an important person as a king but a no-no for sannyasi anyway. So, if Lord Chaitanya had been a sannyasi at that time, would He had talked to the Kazi? It was kind of important conversation that started massive sankirtana parties all through the land.
In defense of our swamis – we get so much more out of preaching to the presidents now than five hundred years ago that we cannot miss the opportunity. “They” cant talk all they want, but access to presidents gives us enormous leverage in our preaching mission. Off the top of my head – if not for cultivating relationships with the highest echelons of India’s power it’s quite possible that Bhagavad Gita would have been banned in Russia altogether.
Funny thing – these days there are no “they” to condemn our swamis for mixing with presidents. I think we should be worried about that. Preaching opportunities are okay but who is there to check that our swamis are not searching for a spotlight in the fame of modern royalty?
The danger of associating with powerful people is the same as the danger of associating with women. Somehow we forget about that aspect of traditional sannyasa vows. As a society we are just starting to get foothold in power office doors so we haven’t had any negative reactions yet but they might come. Rules are there for a reason, breaking them is bound to have adverse effects, it will certainly come back to us.
There was also a case of one swami meeting with one VIP and no preaching going on, no gift of Bhagavad Gita, nothing. Apparently the meeting was arranged without even specifying that it would be a meeting with Hare Krishna representative. I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe it’s a “long con”, deep undercover spying mission, maybe that would make it legit, but it’s a very feeble excuse I just imagined myself, no one offered this explanation from the swami’s side.
The worrisome part is that no one in ISKCON batted a lid, too. I think it was an innocent oversight not deserving any punishment but it was an oversight nevertheless.
All I can think for myself is to keep watch without being judgmental, so I’ll leave it at that.