I’ll continue with reflecting on the idea of “independently thoughtful” devotees. This time I heard it in a class, as I explained yesterday. There’s a background to this phrase being dropped and I spent most of yesterday’s post discussing various points raised there. Now I’m finally getting to the statement itself, there’s just one more thing left.
To recap, there was a question about new bhaktas being bossed around by unqualified wannabe leaders. It was framed much more nicely then I did here but the gist is the same and this question repeats itself over and over again. Devotees are upset with their temple authorities and complain to higher powers whenever they get a chance. It could be their guru, could be a visiting sannyāsī, could be GBC, or the question could be raised in places like Vṛndāvana and Māyāpura.
I’m not going to repeat the first part of the answer, I did that yesterday, but the next part is citing śāstra as a reference and I don’t think it was done correctly. The fifth verse of the Nectar of Instruction tell us how to deal with various grades of devotees but I don’t think it says what the speaker read out of it. Śrila Prabhupāda’s first line in the purport goes like this:
In order to intelligently apply the sixfold loving reciprocations mentioned in the previous verse, one must select proper persons with careful discrimination.
That is all, Śrīla Prabhupāda does not explain how exactly six loving reciprocations should be adjusted, he spends the rest of the purport explaining how to identify kaniṣṭha, madhyama, and uttama adhikārīs. It is a long purport and there are bits relevant to this particular topic everywhere but I don’t think the prabhu giving the class interpreted them correctly. I’ll get to it in due time, it’s a quite separate matter.
It is at this point that he said “Prabhupāda wanted a movement of independently thoughtful men, not a movement of sheep”. He said we should carefully discriminate with whom we associate and how, and use our intelligence. This is a subtle change of context, if one misses it and applies “independently thoughtful” to the bigger picture as I described the context earlier, which is easy to do because one’s mind is primed to hear the answer to one’s own question, one can easily misconstrue it to mean what it was not meant to mean. The phrase is memorable, I noticed it right away, and I applied it to that overarching context, not the one established in the preceding sentence – Kṛṣṇa gave us brains, we have to use them.
The devotee then further qualified what he meant by the “movement of sheep”, of blind followers, and I wish he didn’t because it could appear he urged us to disobey big leaders if we decide they are not following Prabhupāda properly. Accusing, or even suspecting our authorities of deviations should not be done lightly, even if we turn out to be correct we will commit grave offenses and ruin our spiritual lives, and all for what? To prove that we were right? Let proper authorities deal with these matters and let us follow the duties ascribed to us. Most of the time we should simply inform someone of some apparent impropriety, we don’t have the duty to start a revolution.
One more thing here – by crusading against our authorities we might actually increase our status and gain followers and so it won’t look like ruin, but spiritual life is an intangible asset in this sense, it’s the ability to open our heart to Kṛṣṇa and willfully submit ourselves to Him and His dear devotees. If that ability quietly disappears we might not notice it in the heat of the battle, with all the new fame and glory, but that’s what I meant by ruined spiritual life.
Now, the phrase “independently thoughtful” appears only once in the whole body of Prabhupāda’s work, in this letter to Karandhara. It’s over two pages long and here’s the relevant paragraph:
Regarding your points about taxation, corporate status, etc., I have heard from Jayatirtha you want to make big plan for centralization of management, taxes, monies, corporate status, bookkeeping, credit, like that. I do not at all approve of such plan. Do not centralize anything. Each temple must remain independent and self-sufficient. That was my plan from the very beginning, why you are thinking otherwise? Once before you wanted to do something centralizing with your GBC meeting, and if I did not interfere the whole thing would have been killed. Do not think in this way of big corporation, big credits, centralization—these are all nonsense proposals. Only thing I wanted was that books printing and distribution should be centralized, therefore I appointed you and Bali Mardan to do it. Otherwise, management, everything, should be done locally by local men. Accounts must be kept, things must be in order and lawfully done, but that should be each temple’s concern, not yours. Krishna Consciousness Movement is for training men to be independently thoughtful and competent in all types of departments of knowledge and action, not for making bureaucracy. Once there is bureaucracy the whole thing will be spoiled. There must be always individual striving and work and responsibility, competitive spirit, not that one shall dominate and distribute benefits to the others and they do nothing but beg from you and you provide. No. Never mind there may be botheration to register each centre, take tax certificate each, become separate corporations in each state. That will train men how to do these things, and they shall develop reliability and responsibility, that is the point…
The context in which Prabhupāda used it is very very different. In fact, if one wants to jump over his authority and appeal straight to the GBC, hoping that GBC will come down, take over, and purge unqualified local management, one will be greatly disappointed because Prabhupāda was very much against this approach. He wanted local authorities to have full power and work independently of GBC and no one should be able to override their managerial decisions. The phrase “independently thoughtful” here applies not to the complaining devotees but to their bosses and gives them full power of discrimination how to run their local centers.
Even in the context of local management, Prabhupāda didn’t mean “independently thoughtful” as questioning their authorities, the GBC. This independence of thought should be directed down the hierarchy, not up. One should be independently thoughtful about job given to him, responsibly managing resources giving to him, not second-guessing his superiors.
In the context of superiors this can be understood as “do not micromanage”, let people do their jobs, I don’t see any more in it than that. The question was “Should GBC authority be extended to managing each local temple centrally?” and the answer was emphatic “NO”.
Also note that this letter does not deal with spiritual authority and spiritual interactions between devotees. We can’t extrapolate it to mean that spiritual authority should follow the same rule and stop at the door of each local temple.
If we go back to the mistreated devotees, they rarely complain about spiritual knowledge being misrepresented and siddhānta being subverted, it’s always about some personal shortcomings. I suppose if one hears deviations being taught in our Bhāgavatam classes he must immediately raise the issue with the authorities because, unlike people’s personal conduct, we expect our siddhānta to remain pure and spotless. People will always be misguided by material nature but our teachings should be free from faults at all times.
So yes, Prabhupāda did want the movement of independently thoughtful men but in a very specific sense and we can’t extrapolate it onto the spiritual side of our lives.