Vanity thought #1284. Importance of Levant

For all the bad publicity that ISIL generates, they are actually trying to do the right thing – establish a society concentrated exclusively on service to God. In that sense it’s not just varṇāśrama, it’s daivī-varṇāśrama that they are after. But let’s start at the beginning.

I can’t stress enough how important the fact that they got control of the land is. In the absence of central authority, like a Pope for Catholics, possession of the land is practically all the proof they need for their legitimacy.

Every Muslim can worship their Allah, everybody can read their Koran, everybody can argue about scriptures, everybody can display some level of purity and dedication, everybody can make sacrifices, everybody can claim having followers, but nobody controls the land in the name of Allah.

Sure, there are lots of Islamic societies and even states around the world and there are lots of individual Muslims who own land but the crucial point is that ultimately all these lands are given to Muslims by infidels and they manage these lands with infidels’ permission. No one has it as a gift from God Himself.

We, ISKCON, usually lease our properties. In best cases we own them and we have deeds to show but these deeds need to be recognized by the state, the secular government. We “own” the land only by the state authority. Theoretically, the state can nationalize it at any point and there would be nothing we could do about it. We could take our case to some international court that has jurisdiction over these matters but even that court would draw its authority from the UN – a secular organization. There’s no higher authority than that in the modern world.

I’m not saying UN represents God, because if God ultimately owns everything and appoints agents to control things on His behalf then all secular rulers must draw their ultimate power from God. There were times in history when the entire universe was ruled by demons and the UN is just a milder version of that. We might recognize its authority but we do not see UN as God’s ministry. Still, materially speaking, we depend on atheists for our survival, they are the ones who give us stuff to live on, not Kṛṣṇa, who is invisible anyway.

ISIL and their Caliphate, otoh, bypass control over the world given to atheists and own their land directly, there are no other agents between them and God, they do not need anybody’s permission and they do not answer to anyone but God and their version of paramparā. This, and the fact that they were able to find a leader with ancestry leading back to Mohammad, gives them all legitimacy they need.

Others might not recognize it, and they don’t, but the principles on which ISIL claims their power are solid. All arguments against it are just details and interpretation of the rules.

We, children of the modern world, might not realize the immense power the idea of Caliphate should have over Muslims and Muslims themselves are not ready to deal with it but eventually they will come around. I don’t think ISIL will become any more acceptable any time soon but when the weight of its claims eventually sinks through Muslim world will be shaken to its very foundation.

Caliphate, basically, is a kingdom ruled by successors of Mohammad and, by extension, Allah Himself – through the prophet and his followers. ISIL is not the first caliphate by any means, various caliphates existed for well over a thousand years. Some traced directly to the prophet, some made rival claims, some were regional outfits which had taken over governing duties from Islamic heartland in Arabian peninsula. Ottoman Empire was the last such caliphate. They wrestled the power from Egyptians at the end of 15th century and they held Islamic torch for almost five hundred years. During the WWI they made a mistake of allying with Germany, lost the war, got conquered and partitioned, and the seat of the Caliph was taken over by secularists and that was the end of it.

So this caliphate declared by ISIL resumes the tradition that was interrupted almost one hundred years ago. No other Muslim state had any rights to claim the caliphate status since then, they all drew their authority from their former colonial powers and they all had to accept all kinds of authorities beside Allah and His prophet, they didn’t even try.

The idea didn’t die, however, and one could argue that Saddam’s Baath party was an attempt at reuniting Muslim world once again. It was trying to become a secular pan-Arabic institution but it obviously failed. ISIL brought religion back into focus and capitalized on Baath experience and aspirations.

Al-Qaeda also talked about Islam conquering the whole world but, as I mentioned yesterday, there’s a gulf of difference between them. Al-Qaeda were just daydreamers comparing to ISIL. Bin Laden might have talked about Muslims taking over New York, London, and Paris but no one had any idea how any of that could have come through. Al-Qaeda couldn’t even unite Muslims in Arabian peninsula itself and no one had any idea how to bring all those Gulf monarchies under one government. And all Bin Laden’s grandiose talk was coming from some unknown cave god knows where and he couldn’t show his face in public because he always had to hide from local authorities. He was no Caliph and no ruler of anything.

ISIL, otoh, is very real, down to earth and back to roots organization. They have their core areas with really really long history and that’s what forms their heartland and that’s where they build foundations of their state. They are not after New York or Europe, their hands are busy at home. They do not care about Saudi Arabia or Arab Emirates, they care about land under their feet, land they lived on for thousands and thousands of years, and land they see as blessed by Allah through His prophet.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, they do not tell Muslims to rise against their rulers and take over their cities, they ask them to come to this historic Levant and make their living there. It’s like a dhama for them. Leaving Levant is not an option, it would be a failure.

Having said that, ISIL gradually spreads its influence but it does so in the Vedic way – by accepting pledges of allegiance from Muslims in outside lands. The biggest such place is now in Libya, that’s what Egypt bombed a week ago, and the farthest such place is Philippines.

Naturally, only terrorists submit themselves to ISIL authority and as such they are not recognized by local governments and to not represent anybody. ISIL affiliated groups were badly beaten in Afghanistan, for example, and by no one else but Taleban, but the principle still works. Some pledges are anonymous but they are still coming. It might not actually expand the Caliphate but it might serve another very important purpose – draw away the fire coming from ISIL neighboring states.

Militarily, ISIL is still in no position to defend itself and with enemies on all sides it’s only a matter of time before it collapses, so creating diversions in Libya or Sinai peninsula or Yemen gives ISIL a space to breathe and the time to build its defenses. If, through its affiliates, ISIL manages to engage Arabs and Turks in fighting elsewhere it might just get lucky.

ISIL also has its own apocalyptic story in which it is all but wiped out so they do not worry too much about their survival, and even less about conquering the West itself, so we are actually quite safe, more so than from Al-Qaeda threats.

Will it succeed? I don’t know. It grew in vacuum left after overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Neither Syria’s Assad nor Iraqi’s “what’s his name” are in the position to assert their authority over ISIL lands. Americans are not eager either, Saudis, Turks, and Jordanians haven’t decided what to do about ISIL, too. The longer they wait, the stronger ISIL would become, and, more importantly, it will become less fanatical and less murderous, it will naturally mellow out like all revolutions do. Without brutal beheadings in the news the sentiment might very fast change to “just leave them alone”.

Now, about those beheadings… It’s a big and difficult topic for us, westerners, to discuss, and I am not about to start it now.

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Vanity thought #1283. Islamic mess

The Atlantic article I discussed yesterday sparked a lot of debate, lots of people appreciated it and lots of people written against it, too, which is not surprising – no one sane likes this ISIS thing and so any attempt to “whitewash” it is going to be met with opposition.

The reactions from westerners are predictable, but also probably the most sympathetic to the author. Some of us, from “scientific” background, are wired to understand things and their internal logic even if we do not approve them. We are not satisfied with simply calling ISIS a monster, we need to know what kind of monster it is, what are its strengths and what are its weaknesses. We want to know what attracts people to ISIS and how we can counteract its influence.

Majority of us, as usual, are not into such subtlety and simply want blood. More bombs, more boots on the ground, more violence – we think violence solves everything. If we can’t bribe them, kill them. We cannot comprehend the religious aspect of ISIS, we cannot comprehend that it could be so important to its followers. As Graeme Wood put it:

    ..if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.

I think this is a very astute observation of western approach to Islam, or to any religion for that matter. “They can’t be serious!” we say, but they are. I’m speaking as a westerner here, devotees obviously understand how important religion could be to people.

It’s the reactions from other Muslims that are most interesting, however. It seems ISIS has truly united Muslim world but united it against it, or maybe it’s just an official, politically correct reaction. No sane Muslim would go into mainstream media expressing his adoration and support for ISIS, it’s just not what people say in public.

There’s an Open Letter to Baghdadi, the Caliph of the new ISIS Caliphate, signed by hundreds of Muslim scholars that doesn’t mess about and apparently leaves no scope for ISIS legitimacy. It’s quite long and wants to be scholastic and I can’t force myself to read through pages and pages of Koranic arguments. I wouldn’t read that even if it was about some ISKCON controversy, but I believe the samples I looked at represent the whole paper.

I can’t possibly take sides in those arguments, there’s no way for me to know whose interpretations are right and whose are wrong, but I do know this – it won’t convince anybody but those who signed under this paper already. Well, it will probably convince those who have no idea what to believe but I’m sure ISIS would have plenty of counter arguments and will not take this paper as any kind of authority. Their very first page, the executive summary, is worded in such a way as to make it wholly unacceptable to its opponents. It lists two dozen dictums, most starting with “It is forbidden..”

They do not even try to establish the authority of their proclamations, just state things as self-evident law of God, no interpretations necessary. ISIS, obviously, doesn’t think “it is forbidden” and have an ace argument to beat them all – “We’ve got the power and we’ve done it already”.

In this sense, ISIS drives its legitimacy from its own existence as a caliphate, The Caliphate. They’ve got the land, they control it, they have their Caliph descending from a blessed family, it’s all kosher. They augment this power with their purity in interpretation of what caliphate means, and that rules out ISIS accepting advice from practically any other Islamic leader.

As I said yesterday, ISIS does not recognize any other authority but Koran and the prophet. Practically every other Muslim in the world, otoh, submits himself to secular authorities of some kind. If not the secular state then secular organizations like the UN. A true believe has no obligations to anyone but the prophet and the book, he would never submit himself to the jurisdiction of infidels.

This is remarkably close to our position as well, but I don’t think I’m ready to draw parallels just yet.

So, when somebody like king of Jordan rants against ISIS they are not going to listen. Jordan is one of the worst traitors to Islamic cause, they completely sold out to the westerners. Saudis have no legitimacy either, we’ve learned this even from Bin Laden’s speeches. Bin Laden himself is respected but is not taken seriously. His vision was too idealistic, too Utopian and he didn’t have the land to govern, meaning he wasn’t recognized by God.

We should not underestimate the strength of the “land argument”. Those who get the land and get to govern it are blessed by higher powers regardless of their current views. We, as ISKCON devotees, respect the secular governments precisely because of this – their power must have approval from higher authorities, they earned their position, and so we accept it s given. Besides, having land to rule is the prime goal of any kṣatriya, without the land there would be nothing.

In ISIS case, it’s the land of their ancestors, the land they’ve been ruling over for thousands of years, they haven’t stolen it from anybody. US puppet regime in Baghdad doesn’t count.

So, Islamic criticism of ISIS appears to be too confrontational to be taken seriously but that’s not all of it. What I see it ranting against ISIS obvious excesses – beheadings and torture, but that is only a side point. ISIS leaders do not spend days and nights plotting ever more barbaric ways of killing people, they probably do not concern themselves with such trivial things at all. Any criticism of it, therefore, would be taken in as mildly annoying and irrelevant.

What the Islamic world should challenge ISIS on instead is their core legitimacy, their dedication to their cause and the purity of their motives. To reduce criticism only to beheading would betray the same bias as I quoted from Wood’s paper above – “they can’t be serious about their ideals, can they?”

But they are. They are building God’s kingdom in God’s name and they don’t seem to have any ulterior motives, no personal interests. Muslims who dare to challenge them should display a similar kind of purity. Arab sheiks have obviously no clout there. Muslims who do not follow their regs have no right to speak either. ISIS demands pure, unadulterated devotion to Allah, Koran, and Mohammad. Those who do not possess such devotion have no right to speak, and those who make compromises with atheists in exchange for comforts of modern life have no right to speak either.

This makes challenging ISIS very difficult. We can easily condemn them in our own circles, sure, but they won’t accept our arguments for the reasons outlined above, and why should they? If we were in their place we would behave in exactly the same way, but I already said that I’m not going to draw parallels today, so I’ll leave it at that.

Vanity thought #1282. To war or not to war?

That is the question which has occupied media space for about a week already, since US president Barak Obama publicly refused to fight a war with Islam and refused to address ISIS as Islamists. Unfortunately for him, The Atlantic published a long, informative, and, apparently, very influential write up on ISIS that made Obama’s position indefensible, and that was in addition to president’s usual enemies from Republican party.

What does it have to do with us? Not much, really, but if we want to see ISKCON as a relevant part of the world society then ISIS offers an invaluable case study. Even if we’d prefer to withdraw from worldly affairs there’s something for us in ISIS story, too.

I’m not sure that Graeme Wood’s description of ISIS is accurate or complete. It looks like he concentrated on the ideological aspect of that organization and overlooked the role played in it by old Saddam Hussein’s cadres. They were the ones who turned ISIL, as it was known then, from one of the average terrorists groups into a formidable military machine. They were released from Iraqi jails (thanks Obama!) in 2010 and, through knowledge and experience, quickly reorganized all aspects of ISIL management – command structures, supply chains, coordination, governance of the occupied territories etc.

Military victories gave legitimacy to the ideologists and so the caliphate was born. Saddam’s Baath party was, by contrast, secular and ISIL top military commander wouldn’t even grow a beard like a Muslim should, he had to be persuaded to fall in line. Ideologists recruited more fighters and by now it’s not clear how much actual weight old Baathists carry there, it’s all about Islam now.

So, assuming Atlantic’s article is correct in that aspect, Obama’s denial of war with Islam looks out of place. Sure, the sentiment is nice enough and might go down well with regular Muslims but regular Muslims are not eager to run off to Syria. He is preaching to the choir in that sense. Those who do want to join the jihad would only laugh in Obama’s face, as far as Twitter allows, of course. As a non-Muslim born to a Muslim father he has no right to lecture Muslims on Islam and no right to declare jihadists non-Islamic. He is an apostate who needs to be put down if he doesn’t correct his ways.

Wood’s research shows that ISIL is as Islamic as it gets, these people take the scriptures very seriously and its ideologists are very learned and scholarly. If one assumes their premises they appear to be very rational and persuasive and defeating them on their own ground would be practically impossible. I mean defeating them intellectually here.

The premises are rather simple – Koran is absolutely correct, everything that is said there is true, and it’s a duty of every Muslim to work towards its goals. All Muslims must live in one Caliphate under Sharia law, for example. It looks like every Muslim knows that but not many are serious about it.

That’s why declaration of the Caliphate was such a big deal – when there’s no caliphate to pledge allegiance to individual Muslims could mind their own business but now it’s not an option anymore. That’s why lots of ISIL victims are fellow Muslims – anyone refusing to live by Caliphate rules is considered an apostate and needs to be put to death, it’s as simple as that.

ISIL is no fan of al-Qaeda, they consider al-Qaeda as deviants who were not true to Islam. Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIL followers do not embrace western way of life and, importantly for us, are not concerned with world politics – Israel, Palestine etc. They are not out to punish the Great Satan, either, not at this time anyway. Caliphate needs to grow where it is, not stage terrorists attacks thousands and thousands of miles away. People who return home from ISIL are seen as failures, not as jihadis on the mission. They are not going to be used as terrorists, not by ISIL command anyway. If one day ISIL and al-Qaeda make peace, however, it will be bad, really bad.

Likewise, ISIL reject Afghani Taleban for their acceptance of the present world order, exchanging ambassadors with various countries etc. ISIL is not planning on joining community of nations and it is not going to recognize UN. Caliphate has no other authority than Koran and the prophet.

Caliphate does not believe in borders either – it supposed to grow until it overtakes the whole world. It can’t live in peace with its neighbors, it’s theologically impossible because everyone must be subjugated to its authority. They can have temporary peace treaties that can be renewed but Caliphate MUST wage a war at least on one of the neighbors every year.

Interestingly, ISIL appear to be more gentle in dealing with Christians. They only require their official submission and they can live free whereas deviating Muslims must be killed without mercy. ISIL are also big on slavery, every infidel is a potential candidate.

The horrific execution videos, I understand, are meant for a shock and awe effect to deter enemies from challenging Caliphate’s orders. That’s the justification its ideologists gave to Wood. Once the enemy stop resisting life should become easier. Everybody is free to convert to Islam anyway so from ISIL perspective it’s their choice to die rather than to submit to the authority of the Caliph.

On the plus side, things like social welfare are not a policy choice subject to a debate, like in the West, but an obligation of the Caliphate towards its citizens. Health care must be absolutely free, for example, no two opinions about this.

Once a caliphate is in place and there’s a caliph everything must move according to absolute rules and without any compromises. It should be automatic and very predictable.

Another interesting thins is that while the caliphate is supposed to take over the world they also have certain predictions in their books and they end with the Apocalypse. There are certain key battles to be fought, caliphate would be on the verge of being wiped out completely, and then Jesus would return to Earth and lead Muslims to victory.

I’m not sure how uniform these predictions are but it is also a fact that ISIL recruits often go there to fight and die, not to seek an easy life. Until apocalypse comes there will be nothing easy about it.

There are different ways to react to this ISIL thing. Policy makers have their priorities. Obama might calibrate his statements more carefully, Fox News commentators might concentrate on existential threat that ISIL poses to modern civilization. Ordinary Muslims must somehow come to grips with its existence and with their commitment to their faith. We can look at it as an example of what happens when a religion gets a chance to implement the pure way of life.

I think I should leave that for another day, though, it’s enough information for one day.

Vanity thought #1281. Infinitesimal to infinity

Last week there was a bit of a sad news – Jñānagamya Prabhu has left his body in Māyāpura. I’ve never met him but I somehow knew the name, so I checked with the recordings I listened to and there it was – he a regular Bhāgavatam speaker in Māyāpura itself. The class I have downloaded is from October last year and there was no indication he suffered any debilitating illness.

There are no reports of what was actually wrong with him, except the usual ISKCON haters who declare him a pseudo-devotee guilty of child abuse and several attempted murders, but, I mean I don’t know what was wrong with his body. It was a quick turn for the worst, just in a few months he was gone. I liked his own attitude towards it – don’t take me to hospitals, leave me in a dhama, chant and wait until I become cold and smell worse than usual, the cremate and toss me into the Ganges. I have no doubt he absolutely meant it.

I don’t know his history but as far as his classes are concerned – they were perfect. Not in a sense of Prabhupāda level perfect but in the sense of brutal honesty about him. When his material conditioning showed through (he was unashamedly American) it was also easy to dismiss because it looked so simple and innocent. He couldn’t help it but he also clearly knew his conditioning and Kṛṣṇa consciousness were a separate matter. Well, I should probably listen to more of his lectures but that was the impression I got, the memory I have.

This last class I have is remarkable in another way – he spoke about his utter inability to manage his own spiritual life. He said he had trouble with getting up for maṇgala-ārati and he prayed to the Lord to force his body to be engaged in Lord’s service. He spoke quite a lot about it, describing his condition, his prayers, how he went about it, and about their results. His attitude was very different from self-help gurus who urge us to take charge of own progress. Maybe he was wrong, or not quite right, but now he is with Kṛṣṇa already while I, if I followed self-help advice, would still be forcing my body to comply with my superior will-power.

Actually, I still do, and still without much success. A while ago I wrote about this little trick I’ve been using – to forcefully direct my mind to listening to every syllable of the mahā-mantra on my last round. Later I expanded it to the last two of my daily rounds. It worked in the beginning and I can’t say the efforts were in vain, but lately I started noticing that this exercise of mental power destroys whatever attitude of devotion and humility I might have, too. It turns me from a beggar into a conqueror. I master my chanting, I force the Holy Name to be heard, I control my mind, I have power of control, all the doors must open to me now. It doesn’t feel right but, sometimes, if the proper attitude is not there to begin with, it’s a step in the right direction – the Name must be attentively listened to, after all, can’t go wrong with that, but I digress.

There are compelling arguments, backed with compelling quotes, that we should take charge and responsibility for our spiritual health. We must take vows and follow them, beginning with initiation. Some things we just have to put our foot down and not budge, no matter what happens. Otoh, there’s no argument against a devotee feeling utterly helpless in the face of the Lord’s external energy and her dangers, and Jñānagamya Prabhu expressed this point very nicely in that class.

He might not have cited śāstric support, didn’t give quotes from Śrīla Prabhupāda, but he spoke from a platform of utmost humility and his heart appeared clear of all traces of duplicity. These are the qualities that surely attract the Lord, and the Lord took him already. Isn’t that nice? Even if he was still alive, his simplicity was disarming, I can’t argue against that.

His example illustrated our approach to the Absolute. We don’t know how big Kṛṣṇa is, we have no idea how big the universe is and He is much bigger than that. Kṛṣṇa is infinite in every respect. The moment He decides to manifest Himself in whatever form, the sense of His greatness would be the first thing to notice, it should be the first step in realization of the Supreme – it’s called Supreme for a reason, after all.

So, unless Kṛṣṇa shows up, we have no idea how great He is, but what we can realize now is how small we are ourselves. Whatever we know about Kṛṣṇa, the smaller we become, the greater He would look to us. I suppose that would be the actual first step in self-realization – realizing our own size, that we are infinitesimal comparing to the Lord.

Unlike comparing ourselves to Kṛṣṇa Himself, who we don’t know, we can always compare ourselves to the world around us, which we can see. If we are deluded by the illusion of our power the world would appear small and manageable. Our abilities might extend quite far and if we look at other people we might aspire to lay stake to even larger slices of the cosmic pie. The movie director Jame Cameroon has been to Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. Google founders are avid sky-divers. The world is always your oyster if you play your cards right.

Devotees, however, do not see it that way. It’s not there to be conquered, it’s not there to be submitted to our will, it’s not there to be manipulated or even understood. Our bodies are not ours and we are not their controllers. As conditioned souls we definitely see them as our fields and ourselves as knowers of these fields but what do we really know about them? I think this point was raised in Jñānagamya’s lecture, too. We don’t know what’s going on inside us, we don’t know our blood pressure or the heart rate or the load on our liver or the acidity in our stomachs. We can surely feel it when something goes wrong but until it does it’s like Apple – “it just works”.

Devotees do not have the illusion of control over their fields and they are not in the least excited by their ability to control them. They know that trying to do so only strengthens the illusion. “I can raise my hand, I can move my fingers and count the beads, I can move my tongue and lips and chant japa – I can do so many things, I must be the controller.” Well, we aren’t. Kṛṣṇa makes it all possible through His external energy.

When devotees see the world around them in this light they immediately feel helpless and they immediately seek Kṛṣṇa’s shelter, and they get it. Kṛṣṇa is not going to take in someone who thinks he can stand for himself, who does not think of himself as infinitesimal as he really is. Kṛṣṇa does not take those who want to exercise control over matter, He’d just keep us down here to fulfill this wish until we finally give up.

That’s what I heard, anyway. The sad fact is, we can’t imitate this realization, we can’t simply talk ourselves down, we must learn to really see the world this way, and this knowledge comes from actual progress in our service, it’s our “reward”, so to speak. We cannot replace this genuine Kṛṣṇa’s gift with mere mental constructions.

Either way – whether Kṛṣṇa shows up and we see ourselves as infinitesimal comparing to His greatness, or Kṛṣṇa grants us actual knowledge and we see ourselves infinitesimal comparing to the usual world around us, the realization must come by the Lord’s mercy, we can’t claim it ourselves. So, whatever we do, we must keep doing it, an patiently wait our turn, It will come, and in that sense Jñānagamya Prabhu was a great inspiration.

Vanity thought #1280. Discomfort

Noticing strange things said by our Śrīmad Bhāgavatam speakers is unsettling. Normally, they shouldn’t be corrected, for all sorts of reasons.

They are sitting in Vyāsa’s place, after all, they speak with authority and their authority cannot be undermined. We can’t interrupt the class, we have to wait until the end, and the time at the end is reserved for questions, not corrections, not even comments, strictly speaking. Usually, corrections come as comments from senior devotees, and that’s great, when expressed properly they sound very sweet and caring, but unless you have that kind of seniority you better shut up, and it still undermines the authority of the speaker. Quite often people have genuine questions and interrupting the flow of the post-Bhāgavatam discussion with corrections doesn’t sound right. There could also be different views on the matter and some people might disagree with the comments and then discussion would turn into a debate, no one wants that.

I simply don’t know what to do, I just hope Kṛṣṇa personally controls everything that is said by the Bhāgavatam speaker and He takes responsibility for whatever harm is done afterwards.

There could be an argument made here that what we see as slight deviations from the siddhānta might not affect vast majority of the listeners, and those who do notice them are not going to be affected either, so no harm done. I mean sometimes the deviations are too subtle to notice unless you look for them specifically and sometimes they are only theoretical in character so we might just let them go. There are cases, however, when things can go very wrong indeed, and we had plenty of bad experiences in our history already.

I still think that Kṛṣṇa knows all these side effects and He either accepts them as unavoidable in our lowly condition or He uses them to teach us lessons further down the road. He is the boss, we are His puppets, we cannot blame each other without casting some blame on Kṛṣṇa, too, and, by extension, on His representatives, from current Bhāgavatam speakers up the entire paramparā.

It’s all discomforting but there’s not much we can do, we should have faith in Kṛṣṇa and His loving supervision over all His devotees, even deviating ones.

There are cases, however, when our authorities need to be abandoned. GBC usually tells us when this or that devotee loses this or that kind of authority. It disqualifies gurus and sannyāsīs, for example, but it can’t catch everybody and there’s always some time between the disqualifying offense and GBC ruling, and there are “lesser” authorities and seniors who might never get on GBC radar at all. We need to exercise our own discretion, too.

I once listened to an informal talk by one of our stalwart devotees whose dedication to Śrīla Prabhupāda and our mission has never been challenged. He is considered a standard in many many ways. He is not a big fan of GBC but he never considered leaving ISKCON either.

The talk was about guru-tattva, so controversy was sure to follow but, surprisingly, there wasn’t any until the very end. He basically said all the right things as far as pure, mahā-bhāgavata devotees are concerned. He outlined their qualities, he explained our expectations, he set out standards we need to raise ourselves to, everything was going just fine. Then he dropped the bomb.

“I gave up any hope of finding such a devotee among Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples long time ago,” he said. I was dumbstruck. It felt like a slap on the face. I’m in no position to correct him, however, and I can’t speak for Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples themselves. Maybe they would not feel offended and so I have no right to raise objections on their behalf, but something is definitely not right here.

There were uninitiated devotees in the audience and for them it probably sounded like an invitation to seek shelter outside of our movement. I simply cannot accept this and I sure have plenty of reasons why.

Giving it a second thought, though, this devotee might be factually right – we do not have self-evident mahā-bhāgavata ācāryas in our movement at the moment. I don’t think any of our gurus are qualified to personally introduce us into Kṛṣṇa līlā, disclose our spiritual svarūpa etc. It might be technically correct that such devotees do not exist among Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples. Still, it doesn’t sound right.

My main objection, I guess, is to the implied suggestion that these devotees should be sought elsewhere. I do not have much of experience myself but none of the devotees outside ISKCON, be from GM or Vṛndāvana bābājī club, inspire any confidence in their spiritual abilities either. They sure talk a lot and they have built a reputation but there’s always something off about it. Mainly it’s their followers, I think. They go there when they fail our fairly simple ISKCON standards and I don’t believe they suddenly become so spiritually realized there. They certainly do not look so from the outside.

I also don’t think Kṛṣṇa would manifest such a pure mahā-bhāgavata devotee outside of Lord Caitanya’s preaching mission. In this age no one can approach Kṛṣṇa without the mercy of Lord Caitanya and no one can obtain Lord Caitanya’s mercy without paying tribute to saṅkīrtana. Most likely, such a devotee would be at the forefront of spreading Kṛṣṇa consciousness, there’s no other reason for him to appear in the material world. And for those who achieve perfection through their service here rather than descending from Goloka, the path to perfection must lie through preaching, too.

Our branch of Lord Caitanya’s tree is not immune from drying out and becoming useless and so it’s quite possible that someone else, outside of ISKCON, would pick up the slack, but so far it hasn’t happened, fact is that ISKCON is the only recipient of Lord Caitanya’s mercy so far. Seeking it elsewhere is futile.

Another argument is that uninitiated devotees shouldn’t worry themselves with meeting mahā-bhāgavatas. They should humbly accept their contaminated condition and work up the ladder of devotion. That’s what we all do here. We should have enough humility to realize that we are far from being ready to be anywhere near Kṛṣṇa or from realizing our svarūpa, for that matter.

Those who are initiated already shouldn’t even think about seeking shelter outside their guru’s feet. Guru is Kṛṣṇa’s representative, if he doesn’t introduce us into Kṛṣṇa līlā or if he doesn’t lead us to someone who can it would be foolish of us to try and get there ourselves, not to mention offensive.

Kṛṣṇa sends us our guru and we say we are too advanced for his guidance? It’s such a hellish mentality, I once heard that one who rejects his guru will be forced to live seven hundred lives locked out completely, seeking a guru and being unable to find him lifetime after lifetime. Sounds about right, even if I’m not sure about the exact number.

So, what should I do about this devotee who is exemplary in any other way? I wish I never heard that statement at all, it somehow poisons my every memory of him, everything I hear from him now is taken against this unfortunate background. It’s like dealing with an unchaste woman – you can’t really trust her, ever, no matter what she says, does, or swears to do. You always account for eventual betrayal. Same with listening to damaged authorities. No matter what they say, one would always wait for the next slip, knowing that it would eventually come. The bond of trust is broken forever.

But maybe it’s a good thing – we shouldn’t put trust into anything material. Kṛṣṇa might shine His light of knowledge through our guru but sometimes even that would fail. We shouldn’t become despondent and we shouldn’t think of the guru as fallen, it’s just something we should ignore in favor of the big picture.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect to be comfortable in our spiritual lives as long as we live them on the material plane. Discomfort, therefore, is beneficial.

Vanity thought #1279. The third side

For a couple of days I talked about inescapable material conditioning that must interfere with our transparent windows in the spiritual world. I spoke about opacity of a guru but I didn’t mean only gurus, the same principle applies to all speakers and preachers in any capacity.

Generally, we should overlook whatever such bodily filters impose on the honest presentation of the Absolute Truth. Generally, they do not contain the Absolute the way the principal message does, and arguing about them is a waste of time. Mostly it would be about our personal likes and dislikes and various other relative points. The whole platform is unreliable, especially in the long run.

Imagine a devotee joins our movement at a ripe age of twenty one. In some countries he just earned himself a right to have an alcoholic drink. He probably has a right to vote but not a right to run for any office. He spends a year or so looking for a suitable guru, finds one, gets initiated, and starts his climb in devotional service. Ten years later he is a different man, twenty years later he can only smile remembering himself at twenty. Thirty years later he smiles if he can remember anything at all. How do you think his relationships with a guru which he liked back then go? Not very well, I suppose.

His tastes in music and kīrtanas have completely changed, if he chose his guru for the best singing it probably doesn’t impress him anymore. If he chose his guru for the best, most inspiring dancing then the guru probably can’t dance at all due to his age. If he chose his guru for brilliant intelligence then, as time goes by, he might notice that his own brains are pretty cool, too, and in some ways he might feel he has surpassed his guru altogether. As time goes by, the guru’s memory might start to fade, verses need a significant efforts to recall, and the guru might lose touch with modern reality at all – what with facebooks and ipads and pinterests – can’t keep level with these things forever.

There’s a very good chance that everything a young devotee liked about his guru when he was twenty doesn’t impress him anymore. Some learn to deal with this change and keep the same or even deeper respect for their spiritual masters, others don’t. We have people who take even Śrīla Prabhupāda less seriously as they grow up. No one would admit so in public but you can see changes in their attitudes anyway.

The whole platform in unreliable, as I said.

There’s a third side to this issue – deviations. It’s one thing to overlook our particular guru’s way of thinking or his educational baggage, it’s quite another to learn to deal with deviations from our siddhānta. We can overlook Indian accents, lame jokes, or inappropriate cultural references, though it might take a great deal of an effort, but what can we do when we hear something that goes against what we have learned from our books or other devotees?

In our society we have no shortage of examples like that. Recently, for example, I heard a class where the speaker advocated value of emotional attachments to Kṛṣṇa and to our service. I think everyone knows that there are some days when we feel strong attachment for Kṛṣṇa and there are days when it’s nowhere to be found. Personally, I tell myself not to pay attention to it and just soldier on. Emotional upheavals are just something registered in the mind and therefore they are inherently unstable, they are not indicative of the actual progress. I also came to know that my attractions to various aspects of devotional service are alternated by equally strong feelings of aversion. Certain types of music or food, smells, flavors, topics of everyday discourse – sometimes my mind likes these things and at other times it feels it has enough and longs for a change. I would not put any value on such temporary feelings.

The class I heard, however, argued otherwise. It equated what I accept as only mind matters with genuine devotion. When such attraction disappears it is explained as a lack of stability rather than fluctuations of the mind. It isn’t a deviation per se, and it was only a small part of the class, but that demonstrates the difficulties we might face perfectly – nothing is truly black and white, we can’t reject everything we hear just because something might sound a bit off. We also can never be sure whether it’s the class that is off or it’s our own understanding that is lacking.

In that particular class there was a moment when the speaker referred to some amazing realizations by other devotees which they consciously tried to suppress because they seem inappropriate for their stage of development, ie they don’t want to be sahajīyas. The speaker advocated embracing these moments instead and trying to milk them for all pleasure possible. It’s given by Kṛṣṇa, it was said, and therefore we are obliged to enjoy it.

I’m not so sure about that. If this pleasure is experienced through our material senses then enjoying it is inappropriate. We can be thankful for it but we can’t treat the body as a source of pleasure, it would lead to wrong kind of attachments. In most cases these same kinds of pleasure can be derived from purely material sources. It’s not only our kīrtanas that can make our hair stand on end, for example. It’s not only our speakers who can make mind altering, revolutionary comments. There are tons of things that can impress us just the same, and, in my experience, devotees who appreciate such things tend to appreciate them outside Kṛṣṇa consciousness, too, which proves that they are material and not spiritual. I don’t buy “Kṛṣṇa is everywhere so it’s all good” argument from non-paramahaṁsas.

Let’s take another case. There was a perfectly acceptable class by an exemplary devotee who I respect very much. It had everything a class should have and everything went very well, until the very end. There was time for one question and the devotee who asked it expressed his gratitude and appreciation for the class. The problem was that this devotee mentioned himself and how he felt at least ten times. “I think”, “I believe”, “I am impressed” and so on. It’s natural for an embodied soul to judge things from his own perspective but we should also realize that we are not qualified to judge anything and other devotees might have very different opinions which are just as valid. The eulogy ended with “I’m glad that Kṛṣṇa consciousness is based on pure common sense”.

This is where I, personally, disagree. It’s “pure common sense” that is based on Kṛṣṇa consciousness, not the other way around. We don’t get to judge Kṛṣṇa based on what we think is “common sense”. We cannot make compliance with our common sense as a precondition for surrender. Bhāgavatam speaker didn’t say anything about it and it was probably not worth mentioning, but the reply didn’t sound kosher to me either.

We’ve been told an anecdote from speaker’s own experience. When he was a brahmacārī he used to give classes that made women and married devotees very uncomfortable and his temple president had to “broaden” his horizons afterwards. Then, a few years later, he attended a class by a vaiṣṇava outside of our lineage and was impressed how everybody in the audience was left thoroughly satisfied. “Why can’t I give classes like that,” he thought to himself.

Why would we want to learn how to give classes from outside of our sampradāya? Just because people loved their speakers there? How much has he eventually learned from the outsiders to make his own classes as attractive as they are now? Who IS this other guru, after all?

He then spoke about Prabhupāda and how everyone felt satisfied and enlightened by Prabhupāda’s classes. Even when Śrīla Prabhupāda chastised someone they felt enlightened, so yes, it’s possible to be universally liked and still speak the truth, but I have a couple of objections here. First – why not learn this skill from Prabhupāda, not from non-ISKCON devotees, and second – Prabhupāda’s way of satisfying everybody cannot be imitated. His approach was very simple – first please Kṛṣṇa and then everybody will be automatically pleased, too. People felt enlightened because Śrīla Prabhupāda was their genuine well-wisher and whatever he said made genuine positive impressions on their hearts. Unless we have the same kind of purity we can’t achieve this effect no matter what we try.

Is it a “deviation”? Probably not, nothing to worry about, but it’s also something I cannot accept without a proper explanation, and so it’s another example of how dealing with “deviations” might be difficult. There is at least one example in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam itself, when Prajāpati Dakṣa was given the task to populate the Earth but Nārada Muni would convert all his children into renunciate devotees. Both Dakṣa and Nārada where doing their duties in their service but there was a friction. Who was right and who was wrong? How to please everybody?

Śrīla Prabhupāda took Nārada’s side, but I should probably read what exactly he said about Dakṣa, too. In that episode Nārada was cursed never to stay in one place but Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t argue against it, he admired how Nārada Muni accepted the curse with proper humility. So, it appears that if someone doesn’t like what we have to say we should be humble and keep going, not necessarily adjust our message for everybody’s pleasure. Let’s please Kṛṣṇa first and not worry about anything else.

We should also remember that we please Kṛṣṇa through pleasing our superiors so we cannot ever ignore our authorities. This approach works only on those who are relatively inferior, those who we preach to, not anyone else.

Vanity thought #1278. Heads and tails

Yesterday I argued that transparency in our “via medium” is only one side of it and it must be complemented by opacity. That’s how things work in the material world but there’s absolutely no reason to extend this metaphor as far as I did, and there’s no reason why it would work when applied to spiritual reality which deals with absolutes and infinities. I might have a lot of fun with this idea but I should check that I do not deviate from our siddhānta at any step, especially when it comes to conclusions and advice. Its purpose should be a more complete understanding of guru-tattva as presented by our ācāryas, not inventing anything new.

So, generally, a visible object is characterized by two values – its transparency and its opacity. The portion of light that passes through it determines its transparency and the portion of light that doesn’t pass through is its opacity. I suppose some light might also get scattered around if the object has reflective surfaces but I’m talking about a principle, not details here. Most objects we see around us are 100% opaque and 0% transparent, meaning we can’t see through them. Windows and objects made of glass are, by comparison, transparent and quite often we don’t even realize their presence. We consider air to be fully transparent but it isn’t. It’s close to 100% but we can notice that it’s less than fully transparent when we look at things far away from us and whatever little opacity atmosphere has starts adding up. We consider our eyes transparent, too, but sometimes we notice that they aren’t, even if temporarily. They are like photo lens in this sense – transparent enough for everyday use but not 100% so.

My argument was that 100% transparency is impossible or we wouldn’t know that there was any “via medium” between us and the object of our observation. As soon as we know there’s a medium we should know that it introduces at least some opacity and distorts the picture.

This is where I shouldn’t assume that I can extend this rule to include spiritual objects like guru tattva. As a physical object, guru’s body is certainly opaque but as spiritual entity he is fully transparent. Technically, not only our guru is transparent but all our paramparā is fully transparent and will stay fully transparent in the future no matter how many gurus will be added to the chain. Despite external appearances, there cannot be any weak links, no opacity whatsoever.

Otoh, spiritual knowledge always gets lost with time and Kṛṣṇa has to restore it Himself millenium after millenium. Should we put it down to opacity, or to simple breaks in the chain? Or to deviations from the message? Śāstra doesn’t say. Physical breaks are certainly possible when qualified devotees do not meet qualified candidates to pass the spiritual knowledge to. Deviations are the fact of life, too. I would argue that these cases do not constitute “opacity”, however.

Lack of candidates into discipleship could be down to universe reshuffling the world as we know it, especially during yuga-sandhyās. The knowledge gets lost but if we look carefully at it – not completely. Kṛṣṇa was passing it on to Arjuna but it doesn’t mean no one in the entire universe or even currently on the planet at the time knew it. Śrīla Vyāsadeba certainly knew it, Śukadeva Gosvāmī knew it, and any number of sages knew it, too. Problem was that these personalities either didn’t have Kṛṣṇa’s reach or weren’t preaching it at all. It must also be said that without Vyāsadeva’s efforts even Bhagavad Gītā would not be as widely known as it is. Lord Caitanya also didn’t create our siddhānta out of nothing, He mostly propagated the knowledge that was already there. Śrīla Mādhavendra Purī is credited with introducing conjugal love or love in separation, for example.

In any case, spiritual knowledge doesn’t need material containers or material vehicles so having a physically present guru is not absolutely necessary but that’s just how it usually works and it’s also the most effective way to reach millions and millions of people. It would also be offensive to reject a physically present guru in favor of imaginary spiritual revelations. Only few souls are qualified to receive those and we can safely conclude we are not one of them even if possibility is always there.

“Opacity” comes into play when we talk about dealing with ordinary souls trapped in their material existence. We just do not see transparency, like, at all. Our faith is weak and our realized spiritual knowledge is non-existent. We cannot perceive spiritual energies at all, only their external manifestations through matter. We are constitutionally incapable of recognizing pure devotees or seeing their message as spiritually transparent. Somehow or other they attract us and that’s all we can say about our capabilities.

Truth is, we are attracted by what makes them “opaque”, not so much by the spiritual value of the message itself. The need to become familiar with our potential guru during a trial one year period of close association has been a law for some time now. I’m sure intentions are good and practically it makes a lot of sense when managing the whole society but it also introduces opaqueness. Let me explain what I mean.

A year spent with a person would test our material compatibility, it would reveal our material attractiveness or repulsion from each other. It will reveal differences in temperaments, tastes, intelligence, aspirations, experiences, likes and dislikes, and even location of so called “buttons” pushing which could destroy the relationship. Making a decision to accept a person as a guru in light of all these discoveries has absolutely nothing to do with transferring spiritual knowledge and would rather cloud the matter. We would necessarily filter out the spiritual message through all these perceptions.

Familiarity brings contempt, Śrīla Prabhupāda used to say, but in this case familiarity would create opacity, a set of filters that we would find compatible or incompatible with our particular material conditioning. We would then start choosing between different available gurus for the best fit, even if the message stays the same. It’s not just that we would be looking at the spiritual world through rose-colored glasses, we would be actively seeking the best pink glasses for our use. It would be nothing else than the search for a more sophisticated self-gratification.

Theoretically, we should be mature enough to seek the spiritual component in guru’s words over the presentation and we should take shelter of a devotee who most inspires us spiritually but practically it’s not very wise to expect neophyte devotees to make such choices, it’s simply beyond our capabilities.

At the end of the day, from our POV, it all comes down to luck because we simply do not know enough about our karma and why it forces us to prefer one person over another even if both say exactly the same thing – chant Hare Kṛṣṇa, read books, engage in service under local authorities. We cannot tell if this preference is due to our desire for material comfort in our devotional service, or due to a genuine desire for spiritual progress. Typically, there’s always mix of the two and this makes the matter even more complicated.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to the Holy Name, it’s only by the Name’s grace that all these things could all work out for our ultimate benefit. It’s only the Holy Name that can purify our desires and inspire us to take shelter of this or that guru, and it’s the Holy Name that manifests ANY guru for us, after all. It’s also only the Holy Name that can give us patience to wait for these results to manifest, and it’s only the Holy Name that can give us enough humility not to worry about our situation in our society’s hierarchy in the meantime.

So, in this sense, anyone who simply repeats words of our ācārays is a pure, fully transparent “via medium”, and it’s our own imperfect vision that adds opaque filters for us when we concentrate on guru’s physical body and appearance.

Vanity thought #1277. Transparency

Spiritual master is “transparent via media”, as Prabhupāda used to say, a phrase that he said came from his guru, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. I’m not sure it’s properly constructed in modern English and BBT editors never left it in the books, it’s “transparent medium” there. The meaning, however, is clear, or is it?

I’m not going to debate qualifications of a guru, it’s a thankless task that would never produce an answer acceptable to everyone in our community, I just want to reflect on the meaning of “transparency” here.

There are two parts to that phrase, “transparent” and “via media”. The second part is easy – we can’t approach or serve Kṛṣṇa directly so the spiritual master is a kind of broker between us. Śrīla Prabhupāda also used to give an example of marriage negotiations because in India you are not supposed to approach the girl directly, there needs to be an interlocutor (and it’s between families).

I’m not sure it’s a good example because I can’t imagine anyone being able to fully convey the feelings of two people supposedly falling in love. This broker might talk only about general things – status of the family, career prospects etc. What looks supremely important to the parties themselves – feelings – could be expressed simply as “interest is there”. Nor should one expect that his relationships with the guru will be anything like his relationships with marriage broker. I’m inclined to think that Prabhupāda meant it only as “one must go through broker” and nothing more than that. There needs to be “via media”. Okay, onto to “transparency” then.

For us it means invisible, or practically invisible because even if might realize the medium is there it’s not supposed to interfere with our perception. If we think about it this way, absolute transparency is impossible because then you would not even know it’s there while the guru is obviously visible. Or we could say that on the stage of absolute perfection this is exactly what happens – we experience direct relationships with Kṛṣṇa without realizing that the guru is still there. That would make sense but that is also not how Prabhupāda explained relationships with the Lord to us. They are supposed to be direct and the guru is supposed to only introduce us and guide us on initial stages. Then it would lead to speculations about life in the spiritual world, to arguments that not everyone there directly associates with the Lord at all times, especially in our tradition where we identify ourselves as a servant of a servant. Let’s get back to Earth, though.

Perhaps we should think of transparency as a complement to opacity. In photography, this is exactly what it means. Transparency is a proportion of the light that passes through and opacity is the proportion of the light that gets absorbed on the way. If we sense that there’s transparent medium between us and the object it means we simultaneously realize that the medium is also opaque, but not to a significant degree.

It means that while we should see guru as transparent it would also mean that we would see him as somewhat opaque, or we wouldn’t notice that there is a medium at all. We never talk about this opacity, however, but, perhaps, we should.

One way to deal with it is to realize that some opacity would always be there but it shouldn’t be big enough to prevent us from seeing Kṛṣṇa, whatever that means on our stage. Another way is to accept this opacity as an enhancement, that guru, while being a distinctly different soul, enriches our relationships with the Lord. Personally, I like this second approach because Kṛṣṇa is never supposed to be alone, He should always be served and worshiped together with His associates. If no one else is there we accept His flue and His peacock feather as His ever present servants.

Initially, however, we would always go for the first approach – that guru is expected to be somewhat opaque but not opaque enough to ruin our spiritual experiences, so it’s always a question of a degree. In the material world it’s understandably unavoidable because it’s called material for a reason – faults will always be here, so let’s leave “opacity as enhancement” for a moment here.

So, when we talk about degree of opacity we mean difference between our perception and our expectation. In photography the amount of available light is an objective reality, a scientific fact, and opacity can be expressed in undisputed numbers, but our spiritual experiences cannot be quantified in the same way. We approach the limitless Absolute Truth and so we cannot know how much Absolute Truth is there to determine what proportion of it couldn’t get through.

Gopīs famously complained about existence of eyelids and the need to blink which interfered with their experiences of the Lord. Eyelids are not transparent, however, they block the vision completely. That is another kind of opacity – temporary blindness, but I don’t think we should worry about that when we approach our guru because his service to us is transcendental and guru would work even when he is sleeping, or long after his departure from the material world.

Back to my point about the Absolute – there’s no limit to it and so we can’t talk about proportion that gets lost in the process, only theoretically. For us, eighty percent of infinity should feel exactly the same as ninety or even one hundred percent of it. I mean that if we see Kṛṣṇa we forget that we could be missing anything and that there’s any opacity at all, Kṛṣṇa would always exceed our expectations, there’s no “proportion that is lost” here. There could be no such proportion also because Kṛṣṇa’s “limbs” are interchangeable. The function of whatever it is that is missing from our view can be performed by whatever it is that is visible.

This is probably why we never talk about opacity, for those who experience the Lord it doesn’t exist and so only transparency remains, which leads me to the second approach I mentioned earlier – guru’s presence and his transparency would ultimately enrich our experience, not diminish it.

It’s not, however, how it feels for most of us at the moment, and it gives our critics unlimited grounds for criticizing our gurus. They are not qualified, they say in an unlimited and ever growing variety of ways.

Well, perhaps the problem is that we can’t see Kṛṣṇa yet, not with our eyes not through our ears. If we did we wouldn’t be complaining. Is it a guru’s fault, however? Or is it a result of our anarthas? We ARE holding onto them with all our beings, the guru is not supposed to pry us from our desires, it’s the decision we should make ourselves. “He should have given me more taste,” one could complain, but wouldn’t it mean that we expect a lot more than just transparency here? Guru is not God and so, just like the rest of us, he proposes and God disposes. The “missing” taste is withheld by the Lord, not by the guru.

How could a sincere, humble devotee say things like “he should have given me more” of anything? At the very least, guru gives us the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra, what more could we possibly want? Guru is not the one who infuses the Holy Name with power, it’s already there. But, more importantly, a sincere and humble devotee should never feel qualified for getting more stuff, should never feel entitled, and would certainly not complain about not being serviced enough.

This whole approach is selfish and demoniac, and it’s understandable and even expected, but we should grow out of it.

Vanity thought #1276. Willful ignorance

They say that ignorance is bliss and they don’t mean it in a positive way. I think the phrase might be right and they might be wrong if ignorance is managed properly, though in that case it won’t be ignorance anymore because management means knowledge and awareness.

Yesterday I talked about some minor complaints about Śrīmad Bhāgavatam classes but I didn’t say a word about how to deal with them. Generally, I think we should close our eyes and practice a kid of “conscious” ignorance. There might be other ideas but nothing good comes to mind.

One way would be for us to try and convince ourselves that black is white because everything is good in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Another way would be to reject improper behavior altogether and avoid the offenders. I don’t like either of these solutions and I see both of them as impractical.

Let’s take the case of gurukula teachers treating audience as six-year olds. It’s slightly annoying but totally understandable. What can they do? It’s their conditioning, I might just as well complain about their accents. We all are bound to speak from our experience and much of it hasn’t been purely transcendental. For the vast majority of devotees their basic education was materialistic and that will always show in how they construct their arguments, form their sentences, or the words they choose. Some have learned English only through ISKCON and Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books but their native language would still carry traces of their formative years.

If someone’s public speaking involves talking to six-year olds for five-six hours everyday then there’s no surprise they continue what they think works in Bhāgavatam classes. Sure, we should be aware of our conditioning and clean up our language of swear words, for example, but it would always be a matter of degree. Speaking in English itself means corruption of the original message of the Bhāgavatam.

They say that Chinese language doesn’t have the word for “God” but I’m sure Chinese have a way to refer to either Christ or Allah. What they mean is that culturally it doesn’t carry the same meaning and significance, but this is exactly the argument that can be used against our attempts to translate Bhāgavatam into English. This is also the argument māyāvadīs use against existence of the eternal form of Godhead. Everything expressed through mundane terms must carry mundane contamination and once you strip transcendence of all of it there would be nothing left, they say.

On our level it’s simply unrealistic to expect fully transcendental presentation of the Bhāgavatam from our fellow devotees. Even if someone managed to do so we would have no facilities to perceive it as such, we would always filter it through our mundane lenses and designate mundane labels to purely spiritual concepts. “Prasādam is food” is one such label, for example.

What I’m saying is that trying to completely avoid mundane influences in our speakers is impractical. We would be throwing a lot of babies with such bath water. To deny existence of these influences is not a right way to go either because what is born out of desire to enjoy and control the material world is unfavorable to Kṛṣṇa consciousness and should be rejected, not embraced. Once again – our language is born of the desire to control the world, to measure, classify, and understand it. It’s māyā by definition. Sanskrit is different, of course, and even if can also be corrupted its original meanings are fully transcendental and meant for glorification of the Lord, starting with Oṁ and other bīja words.

If one says that Śrīla Prabhupāda spoke English so it’s good enough I would point to the fact that many of his lectures are often incomprehensible to young, modern speakers, mostly due to his pronunciation. They make a lot more sense with subtitles and simply sitting and listening to them requires a great deal of familiarity with his language.

Another example of this is our choice of musical instruments, like guitars, either acoustic or electrical. In both cases guitar comes loaded with baggage. We just have one look at it and we know what it means, and not just as an instrument but how it was used before, what sounds it used to make, what emotions it used to convey. Electric guitars might remind us of rock music while acoustic might be viewed as intimately romantic. There are certain common chords that elicit certain human emotions, and devotees are not shy to use these chords to assist in their singing even if they sing the mahāmantra or other bhajanas. This way expressions of our devotion get colored in mundane emotions. Sadness, happiness, longing, joy, domination, submission – guitars are very versatile in that sense, but all these emotions are still human and therefore not transcendental, they only cover, nor reveal the Holy Name.

This is where I can’t think of anything better than simply filtering it all out and seeking only the core message of either the Bhāgavatam or the Holy Name. In case of the mahāmantra it’s just the name, no extraneous messages. It can’t be even properly translated, what we have are only hints at what it means originally, and there’s still no definitive answer to who exactly we are calling for when we say “Hare”.

With Bhāgavatam we more or less know what the message is, we know the philosophy, and so that’s what we should look for. It might not be easy to listen to the same call to surrender to the Lord over and over again but that’s what we should learn to do. The spiritual meaning of it is forever young and it always nourishes the soul, just like repeating Hare Kṛṣṇa thousands of times every day. The good news is that once we learn to appreciate the simplest expressions of devotion it would become a lot easier to overlook any particular speaker idiosynchrasies.

That’s what I mean by willful ignorance, and ignorance here would stem from the word “ignore”, I don’t mean “absence of knowledge”. We just have to learn to overlook people’s tributes to their conditioning. It’s not as hard as it sounds because we already do a lot of overlooking, we just don’t pay much attention to it. We don’t mind devotees taking breaths, for example. We don’t mind devotees sipping water either, or burping, for that matter.

None of it can affect the message we come to hear unless we ourselves decide to become affected. It is our choice to notice, concentrate, and then dwell on these things, and nothing good will come out of it.

I should also say that it’s not the same thing as ignoring willful misinterpretation of our philosophy. Filtering out guitar chords is one thing but if the speaker insists that these chords are carriers of actual devotion then it’s another matter altogether. Taking shelter in mundane emotions is not the same as manifesting one’s devotion.

One could say that playing guitar IS manifesting one’s devotion and, therefore, is transcendental, but not if it’s expressing our devotion from the false position, from the position of identifying ourselves with our bodies. We just love our bodies and so when we decide to become devotees we want to be “body-devotees”, we want to keep our attachments and preferences just the way we are, we are not prepared to let them go. Well, some bundles of matter are closely engaged in Lord’s service and some just aren’t. We aren’t paramahaṁsas yet to see material energy as intimately connected with Kṛṣṇa, we still see it as separated, so there’s no justification for our attachment to it.

It is true that a pure devotee can speak in any language and play any instrument and it will always be purely transcendental and pleasing to the Lord but that’s why they are called ācāryas, a position we should never feel qualified for ourselves.

I better stop before I drift even further. In short, foam exists not only on the surface of the Ganges, we should learn to see beyond it and don’t become dogs. When dogs enter a new place they immediately start looking for smell of dog urine or excrements, cleanliness does not exist for them, they just don’t see it and they can’t appreciate it. We shouldn’t be like them.

Vanity thought #1275. Off the chest

I’ve been collecting some grievances for a while now and can’t resist the temptation to spill them out in the open. It’s probably not the right thing to do but I’m going with modern psycho therapy here – it’s better to articulate your issues and start dealing with them then keep them bottled up only to have them spring out on you when you least expect it.

Practically, this means that next time I talk about these devotees my perception of them could be colored by long held biases and this might lead to some serious misunderstandings and breaks in communication.

So, in no particular order and without any names…

There’s one devotee whose dedication to service of our mission has always fascinated me. He is steadfast, unpretentious, austere, and does nothing but preaching. He also regularly runs massive kīrtana melās. It’s these long kīrtanas that I could never get so I decided to give it a go and listen carefully, maybe I missed something due to a lack of concentration.

Maybe I got the wrong recording but I it started with mahārāja constantly telling people how to sing. Turns out he has an accompanying kīrtana group that has been playing with him for some time and they have certain standards to uphold. Devotees in the audience just couldn’t get it and were out of sync (not out of tune). They were less enthusiastic when expected, overly enthusiastic when kīrtana was supposed to be slow and quiet, something was always wrong and mahārāja had to correct them nearly at every step.

All in all I got an impression that it was all about perfect performance rather than singing and listening to the Holy Name. Then there was a long riff without any singing at all that left me totally convinced that it was more of a concert than a kīrtana.

Yes, his band has mastered musical instruments and is very pleasing to the ear but I’m not sure it was equally pleasing to the Lord. I can understand playing music in front of the deities but even that is not usually practiced in our tradition. In this connection I always remember Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarsvatī interfering during one kīrtana where the lead singer extended syllables of the Holy Name to make them fit his beautiful melody. “You could have sung three mantras at the same time and gotten three times more benefit,” said Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta. I don’t think he would approve no singing at all.

And then the kīrtana went into singing Rādhe Śyāma Rādhe Śyāma Śyāma Śyāma Rādhe Rādhe instead of Hare Kṛṣṇa mahāmantra. To me it was totally unacceptable because Śrīla Prabhupāda was very srict about inventing our own mantras or copying them off god knows who.

One could say that these are still the Holy Names and so no harm is done but this argument ignores the point that the Holy Name descends to us from the lips of our guru. Our guru is the one who channels Lord’s spiritual energy for us. Whatever we imagine ourselves or take from unauthorized sources might look like a Holy Name but it will never be revealed to us. We will be trying to access the Holy Name with our mundane mind and senses and in that position we will never be able to touch even the drop of the actual spiritual truth that is fully transcendental and imperceptible for such mundane empiricists.

The idea that singing Rādhe Śyāma was somehow expressing spiritual longing for their association does not hold against “only by the mercy of the guru” principle. It is artificial just as producing sweet melodies for their own sake or for the sake of our own enjoyment. Imagining that this mundane sweetness is somehow infused with real spiritual potencies is sahajīya. We should not fall into this trap. I don’t think I will willingly listen to this kīrtana group ever again, they are off my list until they change their ways.

In ISKCON we also have no shortage of devotees who are accused of some form deviation or other. What I usually do in these cases is listen to the devotees themselves. Sometimes their honesty and devotion beat all the opposing arguments, which could be likened to compaints about foam on the surface of the Ganges. Sometimes this contrarian approach works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes, after listening to devotees, I realize that our complaints are mostly products of our imagination or results of our unrealistic demands about what it means to be “pure”. Today I’m talking about cases where it didn’t work.

There’s one mahārāja who is regularly accused of taking wrong association so I’ve downloaded a couple of his lectures to see if there is anything really wrong with him. On the plus side is the fact that he has only Kṛṣṇa on his mind, there’s nothing else there, safe for usual crap that we are forced to endure to survive in the material world. He somehow turns everything into using it for Kṛṣṇa’s service and that is enough for me. I still can’t listen to his classes, though. His expectations of how Bhāgavatam classes should go are very different from mine.

He always, always asks questions of his audience and he expects everyone to answer or raise their hands, it looks like he does actual hand counts and the concept of “rhetorical question” is foreign to him. If, in the middle of the class, he asks devotees what’s on their minds right now he’d expect everyone to immediately give an honest answer. Needless to say, it doesn’t work, and that makes him frustrated.

I’ve heard him lamenting that devotees in the audience lack concentration, then he goes off to reflect on possible reasons for it, he talks about being hungry or sleepy and he preaches against succumbing to these natural urges. He tries to wake everyone up by asking more questions or raising his voice and if people do not respond his frustration only builds up.

All we want is to sit and listen to Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. It’s time for hearing, not for talking. It’s not the time to have a conversation about it, it’s not the time to express our own, inherently mundane feelings, we just want to listen to Bhāgavatam, please don’t vex our memories, please don’t demand us to guess ślokas you are going to quote, it’s no the right time for that.

During Bhāgavatam class we are supposed to sit and absorb it like sponges. Then we have to process the information and internalize it. We might not have questions worth asking until we fully digested the subject and made it part of our own intelligence. That’s when we might ask for clarifications. Either way, question time is reserved for the end of the class and it’s supposed to be short and to the point. We all know that asking relevant questions is not as easy as it sounds, certainly not when you are demanded to speak up in the middle of the lecture.

These “interactive” Bhāgavatam classes is our tribute to the modern culture and its fascination with powerful presentations. Not trying to be sexist, but it’s our female devotees who are always after innovations and improvements. Whenever I see or hear a mātājī giving a class I resign to it being presented in some new and improved format. Some introduce power point presentations illustrating the subject, some use guitars during singing Jaya Rādhā Mādhava. Some bring gurukulīs to stage short plays on the topic and so on.

Many of these mātājīs are gurukula teachers, I guess, and so they treat the audience like a bunch of six-year olds. They expect us to finish their sentences for them, for example. “And then Kṛṣṇa went to..? And the second principle of devotion is..?” I somehow find it very annoying. If I knew all the answers I wouldn’t need to learn, and if it’s a Bhāgavatam class then I’m not here for answers, I’d rather have my mind and intelligence dissolve in the background and forget they even exist. Bhāgavatam should be speaking directly to our hearts and the less interference from material body is there the better.

There’s another case that worries me and I still don’t know how to properly respond to it so I don’t want to talk about it yet, it touches on pretty serious subjects and involves probably untouchable personalities, so I’ll keep quiet for now, I’ve said enough for one day.