This is not about our devotee community, thank God, it’s about other kind of association we take in our lives. Specifically, the myth of the middle class.
Devotees living outside temples make up the majority of ISKCON and this means they spend the biggest part of their lives living by the standards imposed on them by the outside world. They follow regs, chant, maybe even have deities at home, but it all comes with a bit but – they make it appear as if they are ordinary members of the society. Most do so voluntarily and most have come to like it and be proud of this “achievement”.
You can see signs of it everywhere you look, except maybe saṅkīrtana devotees who cannot afford to see themselves as part of the crowd. You can hear stories of middle class life in our Bhāgavatam classes, you can see it in posts about dangers of fanaticism and how living at peace with materialistic society is a sign of maturity. You can see it in bhakti-fest movement where devotees do not dare to mention names of Kṛṣṇa for fear of offending middle class sensitivities. You can see in Kṛṣṇa West movement where they don’t hide Him but present us as totally normal people, not weirdos in orange bedsheets. Once you know where to look you’ll start noticing these familiar patterns elsewhere, too.
Is it dangerous? Not on its own and not immediately but it’s the lack of awareness that constitutes probably the biggest problem for us. We cannot successfully cleanse our hearts if we don’t see the contamination or even try to argue that it’s a good thing everyone should adopt.
What’s wrong with middle class? What is middle class? I will use this term loosely here to refer to that part of the population that achieved reasonable level of material comfort and prosperity by buying into democracy, freedom, human rights, and capitalism. Communists wanted to overthrow the ruling elites and give power to the proletariat but middle classes made a deal instead. They dutifully went to work for capitalists and they got their rewards, much better ones than that of communists, and so Cold War was won, Berlin Wall was down, and democracy marched on. Middle class I’m talking about is the part of the society who made it all happen through their hard work and dedication, the pillar of western civilization.
When everybody wanted to copy America they wanted to copy this middle class – jeans, coke, and MacDonalds, shopping malls and two cars per family, and practically unbearable stench of superiority and self-confidence. They’ve built themselves comfortable lives, as I said, and so they assumed that their way of life was a gold standard. Devotees coming off temple austerities bought into it as well, and devotees who never made it to the temple never knew anything better to begin with, so it’s everywhere now, taking over India by storm as we speak.
Criticism of this middle class is not new. Just a few weeks ago I saw a review of a book describing faults of this middle class mentality in detail. I don’t remember the name and I’m not going to read it but quoted points were persuasive. While on the surface middle classes are all for democracy and freedom and ready to help developing countries in any way they can, in reality they strip recipients of their help of precisely the same values they hold dear at home. In Africa, for example, they might push for a developing project that strips villagers of their land without even asking. They assume that replacement jobs would certainly be better than subsistence living these villagers are used to. To middle classes it seems self evident to the point that they would not hesitate to use force to get what they want African villagers to do.
In places like India middle classes assumed that only they understand the danger of corruption and so they can go around and preach against it to everyone else. While BJP is on course of winning current elections the newly found voice of the middle class and their anti-corruption crusade cannot be ignored.
In other countries, like Bolivia or Venezuela, middle class support pro-western politicians because they are democratic and for freedom while local choices of pro-people presidents are denigrated and not taken seriously. Locals are obviously upset about such stereotyping. In Thailand middle class has been linked with conservatism and royalism, two ideologies that are a no no in this enlightened age and so pro-royalist protesters are getting a bad press even in western media.
This demonstrates a feature of this middle class that is often overlooked – what unites these people is not common values but common enemies, common hatred.
Look carefully around you, look at how people interact with each other, look at how they introduce themselves – first thing people need to do is to establish some sort of superiority over common enemies. You have to appear smart enough to criticize the same things others hate to be accepted. If you were a sociopath then being able to confirm people’s biases against something should be the first skill in your book, it opens all the doors everywhere.
Do I need to remind that this position of superiority is decidedly nondevotional? The moment you agree, even if internally, that some things or people are bad and need to be corrected you destroy humility in your heart and lose all chances of success in spiritual life? Do you see how acceptance into the society demands you to display non-devotional attitudes of not only criticism of others but also of the illusion that we know how to make the world a better place?
Poor, downtrodden people do not go around telling people what to do, it doesn’t even occur to them, somebody else’s corruption is the furthest thing from their minds and it starts to matter only if they want ascension into the ranks of middle class. Similarly, they don’t care for democracy and freedoms and some abstract rights.
From our perspective their position is better suited for practicing devotional service but we all want to be in the middle class, sadly.
Upper classes don’t care about others’ faults either. Nor do they care for middle class values because they have their freedoms and opportunities already. All these discourses are middle class hangups only so, as devotees, we should be careful about accepting them as some sort of universal, self-evident truth.
Why do they insist on equality and rights so much? Because they want to create a world where they matter, a world they an control. Poor people accept their subordinate position, rich people do not need to prove anything, they are already enjoying the spoils, so it’s mostly the middle classes who carry the torch of materialism.
By saying that everybody is equal they deny personal relationships we naturally develop with each other. These relationships are mostly of seniors and juniors, service and protection, deference and patronage, dependence and care, subordinates and superiors. Middle classes don’t want any of that, they do not want to submit or surrender to anybody and they do not want to take responsibility for anyone else either.
This completely destroys their dharma. They have only one obligation left – to themselves. For the sake of their self-fulfillment they are ready to sacrifice their partners, parents, and even children, it’s not even a question anymore.
No wonder that middle classes do not live in big families – too many relationships to maintain, too many obligations, too little time for themselves. First they shrunk to nuclear families and now most of them live as singles, at least those that are forward looking and progressive. They enter into boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, of course, but only until it’s convenient for both parties, they are not going to make any sacrifices to maintain them. I mentioned that the other day in one of the posts about movie Her.
Without such commitments and without accepting traditional roles they demand complete symmetry in all their relationships, not just sexual ones, hence calls for equality and rights.
When you see it that way our fascination with middle class becomes very suspicious. Why do we want to be a part of that bunch? Just because it promises better creature comforts? Not a very devotional attitude to take. We should rather stay away from these people, they are bad association, their wrong values are contagious, and we certainly can’t build a devotional society based on their model, it’s just the wrong fit.
I don’t know if we have alternatives in our own lives but at least we should be aware that it’s not only their fascination with bacon and obsession with sex that are dangerous for us. Their whole attitude towards life is rotten even if they do not consider themselves materialistic and might even be members of some religious organization.
When this attitude gradually sneaks in into ISKCON it will make our lives here as unbearable and pointless as they were before meeting Śrila Prabhupāda’s books and devotees. Even if it becomes a norm in our society, we should still seek personal relationships with devotees who are not affected by it and who see their superiority as a duty towards neophytes like us and not as a reward for years of service as it happens with middle classes.
Ultimately, if we unite ourselves around those middle class values we are bound to fall.