Let’s take a short break from talking about Haridāsa Ṭhākura and talk about something else before it leaves my memory forever. There’s this media personality, Reza Aslan, who is doing circles of TV shows and writing articles for major newspapers who happens to be a Muslim and who defends Islam and religion in general against bigotry and stereotyping. I’ve never read his books but followed some of the controversies he has been involved in. Last night he was interviewed by Jon Stewart and it was the first time I had a chance to listen to him presenting his views without big interruptions.
Aslan made several very interesting points I had never heard before and offered new perspectives on familiar topics, something we, as ISKCON devotees, can keep in mind, too.
Depending on your browser, you might need to “unblock content”, this wordpress page is secure while the video below is linked to an unsecure Daily Show page. If that doesn’t work there’s a link further down the post.
Sorry about autoplay, I can’t find a way to disable it for this video, embedding it into the blog is hard enough because WP does not provide facilities for flash embeds for security reasons.
Disregarding the opening joke about religion providing comfort amidst strive caused by religion, Jon’s first question was a pertinent one – why doesn’t God just stop this and settle it once and for all, who is right and who is wrong? It’s a totally legitimate question from an atheist pov – why, if there’s one true God, there are so many religions at each other’s throats? How can we hope to convince non-believers if we can’t decide on who is God among ourselves?
Typical ISKCON answer would be that we are indifferent to all the isms in the world and we are not against or pro any particular religion either, we are not even Hindu. I always suspected that people never really believed us and considered us a part of Hindu tradition anyway.
Reza Aslan provides a different answer. First, he said that religions are a matter of identity more that they are a matter of beliefs and practices. As an example he gave a recent survey result saying that 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christian but a much smaller number of them actually practice Christianity as expected – attending mases, reading Bible every day etc. Religious identification goes much much deeper than that and encompasses all aspects of human behavior – nationality, ethnicity, world-views, politics etc. Religious identification, therefore, is a description of who you are as a person rather than a statement about your beliefs and rituals you practice.
He was then interrupted by Jon and the discussion veered a bit off into problems with Islamic extremism but then Reza got back to his point. It’s a common misconception, he said, that people derive their values from their scriptures while in reality very often it’s the case of people inserting their values into their books.
His arguments in support of this observation are compelling. If that wasn’t true all Christians would interpret the Bible in exactly the same way, which is obviously not the case. He said that in the US not even two hundred years ago not only slave owners and abolitionists used the same Bible, they used the same verses to justify their diametrically opposite positions.
His next step was even more radical – without interpretation of the scriptures they are just words on a page. They require somebody to read them, to interpret them, to encounter them in their lives to extract any kind of meaning, and in the process of this transaction people bring their views, their opinions, their politics, their social ideas INTO the text.
How people read the scriptures has everything to do with who they are. God, ie reading the scripture, doesn’t make you a bigot, you are just a bigot, you were a bigot before you even heard of the book.
That wasn’t the end of the interview, however, you can watch the rest of it here but the topics they discussed later were about “solving Middle East”. I want to pause on Aslan’s observation about religions carrying the will of the people instead.
It goes against conventional wisdom, we are pretty sure it’s not how it works in Kṛṣṇa consciousness but the truth it is that it’s not supposed to work like that and yet it always does.
I’m tempted to use the term (and blame everything on) “organized religion” here but religious institutions are just one step in a process that starts much earlier, it’s just an external form that is loaded with all other kinds of meanings. The “original sin” here is infusing our own material experiences into spiritual life, spiritual instructions we are supposed to accept without tampering from our ācāryas.
In fact, this is what ācāryas do themselves – they adapt current circumstances to fit with eternal principles and we praise them for it because otherwise no one would survive in ISKCON. We can’t practice Kṛṣṇa consciousness like Lord Caitanya and His associates did. We can’t practice it even as Guaḍīya Maṭhas did. And even if we did everything exactly like GM, we wouldn’t be able to preach as widely and as effectively, so changes and adaptations are necessary and unavoidable.
It is tempting to think that Śrīla Prabhupāda, as an ācārya, knew exactly what he was going to do with ISKCON but if we look at our real history we will see that it wasn’t the case. He wasn’t literally throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks but we can find plenty of ideas that didn’t pan out when he tried them. Or we can go back to his pre-ISCKON history and see how his attempts at preaching weren’t successful at all.
It isn’t a spot on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s unparalleled devotion, it’s only an observation that in the material world even overwhelming spiritual power does not always manifest in full.
Before he became successful no one knew he was an ācārya. Or, to put it in other way, he didn’t succeed with ISKCON because he was an ācārya but he became an ācārya because of his success. You’ll never know if someone’s is “The One” until he tries, and most likely his first attempts won’t be impressive.
So, when devotees in our movement try something new we cannot assume they are acting on a whim, they might be genuinely trying to move our mission forward. We can’t say “don’t even try because you are not an ācārya”.
My point is that while it’s obvious that infusing our books with our own interpretations is dangerous there are cases where it might just work, in fact there WILL be cases where it will work and everyone would then agree that a new ācārya has been born.
Treating our books like sponges absorbing all kinds of nonsense from our lives is obviously bad, but not if a devotee is sincere and the Lord accepts his efforts. That’s how Kṛṣṇa’s glories, or rather glories of His devotees, become ever-expanding. That’s why there’s no limit to spiritual knowledge, no limit to Bhagavad Gīta interpretations, for example. I mean devotional interpretations, of course, not the ones produced by atheists or impersonalists.
The problem arises when there are various competing interpretations floating around at the same time and everybody starts arguing which one is correct. Why doesn’t Kṛṣṇa interfere? Why doesn’t He settle our debates?
Hmm, why should He? Why should debates be settled at all? Those who are right are engaged in proper devotional service already and their arguments enlighten everyone who listens, why stop the preaching? Those who are wrong need to purify their motives, too, and it can only be done by engagement, not by being idle. They need debates to cleanse their hearts even if they end up on the losing side. We are not Buddhists to seek cessation of all activities, we absolutely must try to serve Kṛṣṇa regardless of being right or wrong.
In the end, Kṛṣṇa will sort it out and everyone will get their spiritual benefits. All we see here is only an illusion, material gunas agitating material elements, and affected minds producing words, don’t take it too seriously as long as it’s connected to Kṛṣṇa one way or another.