If sannyāsīs are the heads of our movement then the rest of us are tails, the other side of the coin. Sannyāsīs, the “real” ones, are right-hand path people – those who truly renounce as much of the world as possible and see playing yukta-vairāgya as dangerous to their spiritual health. Those who go against traditional roles and accept all kinds of dangers for the sake of the service are left-hand people and there are no rules yet that have been written for them. Ordinarily, they should be a tiny minority, but not in ISKCON.
This is not unusual, it’s actually by design, as we are followers of the vāmācāra associates of the Lord starting from Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī herself. Our previous ācāryas, particularly Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, were revolutionaries and completely upended what was understood by Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism back then. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura was gentle, Śrīla Gaurakiśora Dāsa Bābājī thought it was hopeless and didn’t want to have anything to do with it, but Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī boldly grabbed the “righteous” Gauḍīyas by the scruff of their necks and threw them in the garbage bin of history. We’ve never heard of them again, accept when they come out to prey on fallen devotees.
That is not to say that there were no real devotees outside of Gauḍīya Maṭhas but somehow they either didn’t survive or excused themselves from the preaching mission and decided to keep an extremely low profile. And that was a four hundred year old institution starting from Lords Caitanya and Nityānanda themselves, as well as Advaita Ācārya and other eternally liberated souls. They also started as left-hand path, changed the face of Bengal, well established themselves, but then gradually faded away.
This is just the dynamics – old powers corrupt, new powers come in, break all the rules, establish the new ones, and then they also eventually corrupt and get replaced. Ordinary people learn to get their spiritual benefits at each stage, both during the renewal of the tradition and during practice of working methods and strategies. We just learn to cope with it all. Ready for a change but also valuing the status quo when the status quo is the only spirituality we know. We’ll make do, thank you for your care.
ISKCON was a major revolution for the westerners, we challenged the world on everything, we accepted a strikingly odd culture, we rejected all their axiomatic truths, and we simply refused to live by their old rules. That was then, now it’s somewhat different. New rules have been put in place, new codes of behavior, some of us are milking them for our spiritual sustenance while there are those who rebel against them, too, even if silently.
Take the morning program, for example. Officially, every ISKCON devotee must attend it without exception, many gurus make regular attendance as part of the qualification for discipleship. GBC is watching out for complaints about our leaders slacking off in their sādhana, everyone knows that. And yet all this commotion has come about only because plenty of our devotees thought that morning programs are for neophytes while seasoned devotees, fully engaged in their preaching service, don’t really have to go as they are above such silly regulations.
People would quote how Śrīla Prabhupāda put preaching and book distribution above rules about fasting, for example. I don’t think he ever said devotees could skip morning program but it’s a logical next step for those who come from book distribution very very late and don’t get enough sleep. They never say that morning programs are not important, they say that attending them affects their preaching and preaching can’t be sacrificed.
Those who moved out of the temples got a natural excuse and even if they are expected to conduct morning programs at home they can say they are not ready for deity worship yet and without deities there’s no real reason to wake up in such an ungodly hour, they just say they are not morning persons and it screws up their lives.
I’m not judging them here, my intention is to point out how our left hand affinity to breaking rules edges us to rebel against ISKCON itself. There are probably better examples than morning programs but you get the drift.
We do not see sense gratification as dangerous, sannyāsīs can think whatever they want, we aren’t them, they are special. After a while we might start to think that they are not special at all as we accept our new normal as true spirituality and forget that it might look very different to those who really gave up on self-indulgence. We think they are doing it for the status, we don’t see sannyāsa as particularly necessary for preaching anymore. When one of our fellow devotees applies for sannyāsa we accept that if he gets it we’ll have to take whatever he says more seriously and we are fine with it. We don’t think that sannyāsīs discover new spiritual truths, that’s just not possible. We all read the same books, study the same philosophy, come to the same programs, visit the same dhamas, so their experience must be the same as ours.
Of course we don’t say this out loud and we probably try to purge such thoughts from our minds, if we are sober enough, but that should be our natural reaction whether we approve of it or not (of course we shouldn’t).
And so we let our senses rip, they are not meant to be stopped, we argue, but merely directed towards Kṛṣṇa. This connection to Kṛṣṇa far outweighs all other possible concerns about rules and regulations, we think. It purifies us no matter what it looks like to outsiders, and there’s no other way to deal with them – it’s the only way. Personally, I don’t see any other way either, our ācāryas didn’t recommend any other alternatives and were rather strict against immature renunciation, so that’s it?
Of course not, this left-hand path might work great in the beginning but dynamics always change, people settle in their routines and soon enough problems start to appear. First they hit our sannyāsīs, who weren’t even practicing sannyāsa in the traditional sense of the word, but what their failures told us is that renunciation is bad and must be rejected in our age.
Well, they fell down because they weren’t renounced enough and gave in to the amount of sense-indulgence they couldn’t handle, all those perks that came with their jobs finally got them. We, however, took a completely wrong lesson out of it and blamed the wrong party – renunciation. Their fall strengthened our resolve to go along with our senses as much as possible and we started pushing boundaries anywhere we can, demanding spiritual recognition of our material urges. That doesn’t work, of course, and it bred a new wave of failures, but that’s something I will probably talk about tomorrow.