Injunction to become independently thoughtful is fairly widespread in our society, I’ve wrote about it a couple of times but recently heard it again and I feel the need to address it once more.
I’ve heard it in a class given by a non-English speaker and I have no way to contact him and ask for clarification so I don’t want to mention the name or quote directly. He might not have meant what I heard and so should be blameless, but the impression created in my mind is real, too, and even if the source of this impression could be my own imagination it has to be dealt with anyway.
This is what I heard: “Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted a movement of independently thoughtful men.” The context was as follows. The Bhāgavatam speaker was taking questions from the audience, one was about dealing with imperfections in other people’s service. The follow up was about new devotees, being in vulnerable position, often being bossed around by unqualified people who assume authority simply because they’ve been with our movement a little longer.
A very common problem, new devotees are very sensitive to the length of their stay in ISKCON, often joining only two weeks later means being cast as junior forever. If such flimsy authority is being used to order others around it will surely lead to problems.
The answer started on a solid note – we come from the material world, our desire to control is still with us, and since we are not given facilities to control anything yet we direct it towards juniors. If we tried to take over a kitchen department, for example, then kitchen commander would immediately come in an kick you out, making sure you never come near his turf again. If you try to take control of deity worship they’ll kick you out of the temple forever. Taking control of new bhaktas, otoh, is easy, they’d listen to you because you are senior, and they often have no minder around to protect them from your advances. Once the word gets out that you are abusing their trust you might get kicked out, too, but you still have a lot of leeway to indulge your propensity for control.
So this stuff naturally happens, what can bhaktas who feel they are being taken advantage of do? The question specifically had the word “vulnerable” in it. We can easily see why new devotees might appear so or themselves feel this way, but Kṛṣṇa’s devotees are never vulnerable. The new ones are even less vulnerable than salted veterans because they explicitly entrust themselves into Kṛṣṇa’s hands, they have no other protector. Who can possibly harm them?
They see the entire world around them, including potential abusers, as Kṛṣṇa’s energy meant to protect and nourish them. This is what makes them appear as vulnerable but only if you are neophyte yourself and think you have free will to take advantage of them. You don’t see them as Kṛṣṇa’s property, as Kṛṣṇa’s servants, and so you feel like you can enjoy their service yourself. I mean you might ostensibly engage them in service to Kṛṣṇa but I’m talking about gratifying your desire to control, to issue orders and see them followed.
When the word “vulnerable” in the question wasn’t challenged everybody immediately assumed a neophyte perspective of the situation and so the solution was bound to be flawed.
Next, the speaker said that the beautiful thing about spiritual life is that we choose our guru and our spiritual authorities by our free will, they are not imposed by anybody, so if someone, out of his free will, tries to impose his authority on you it’s his right but it’s also your right to reject him. I’m not comfortable with this line of thought, mostly because “free will” concept is murky here.
We have free will to surrender to Kṛṣṇa or to take shelter in illusion. While in illusion we are given the appearance of free will but all our decisions are actually controlled by the material nature. This kind of free will is useless. If we want to exercise it we’d have to take shelter of the illusion, absorb ourselves in māyā, and then we can discuss various stages of material conditioning and argue who gets to give orders to whom and in what areas. That’s what inevitably happens to neophytes and sorting out resulting reactions is a mess no one wants to clean.
The speaker, however, advocated precisely this path, giving new bhaktas the facility to determine who should and who should not be accepted as an authority. They are absolutely going to misuse it. We also don’t get to choose our gurus, only recognize them. Kṛṣṇa sends someone to save us and if we choose someone else because that person sings better and being in his posse increases ours status, then we are doomed. In ISKCON it’s a bit safer because all our gurus represent Śrīla Prabhupāda at least to some degree so not all is lost, but if you give a total neophyte the power to decide level of spiritual advancement of his seniors he is bound to screw everything up because he’d do so from the platform of total ignorance.
There’s a reason we demand that new devotees spend at least a year simply looking around before they decide who their guru is going to be (not sure about exact number now). It’s supposed to a very serious decision, we, as an institution, recognize that, so advice “it’s your free will, use it” goes against our general policy.
Our temple authorities might ask new bhaktas for their preferences, what service they like and under whom they prefer to serve, but they aren’t giving them free will in this matter so new bhaktas shouldn’t take it for themselves either. Everyone should have an understanding that these are only indications, whether following them would be spiritually beneficial for everyone involved is a decision assigned to the authorities, not to new bhaktas.
I mean as soon as a newcomer start going “I don’t like this, I don’t like him, I don’t like her, I think he is wrong and also unqualified” you know there’s going to be trouble. Kṛṣṇa consciousness is a gift, ISKCON is a gift, our temples are a gift, devotional community is a gift, and you don’t look gifted horse in the mouth.
That saying about gifted horse doesn’t stop anyone from looking, though, and so we have to somehow manage our desire to check, then manage the fallout, it happens, but it doesn’t mean it should be recommended. Hmm, I could also take it a bit further and say that in order to see the truth in this saying you should probably give it a try and see negative results for yourself, that’s the only way to actually learn – through personal realization.
Anyway, it’s time to finish this post and I haven’t gotten to “independently thoughtful” part yet. I hope I didn’t waste time on discussing inconsequential things, though.