For a week now I’ve been talking about the departure of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, his last public address, his last days, and his actual last words. However, despite knowing all this I still stick by the version I’ve heard many many years earlier from a devotee whose name I don’t even remember. Lines of authority are funny that way.
Modern people pride themselves on being logical and rational but one of the most obvious areas where logic fails them is their irrational allegiance to their first authority on any subject. Everything they hear after that is viewed through the prism of their first “guru”, turns out I’m not an exception.
One can easily find confirmation of this phenomenon in people’s mundane lives, I don’t want to waste time on proving that. One’s political views on the value of the free market, for example, are usually so long held that it’s impossible to actually trace them to the first person who asserted that capitalism is good, or capitalism is evil, both utterances pronounced with the air of the authority around the speaker. Everything else that comes after that would still be forever judged according to that first premise. Another example would be one’s opinion of historical figures – you hear it once and it will stay with you for the rest of your life. Unless it’s something you take a keen interest in and mentally prepare yourself for fundamental changes in your understanding you are stuck with your guru forever, it’s just how our minds work.
What interests me more is how this phenomenon manifests itself in people’s spiritual lives. Sometimes you just need to hear a few words from a person to determine where he comes from and how far he can possibly progress in a foreseeable future. You can also easily determine how much interest he takes in the subject and how important it is to him, but more importantly – how it will affect his next life.
If you talk to Indians you can spot traces of “yata mata tata patha” planted in their minds so long ago they are not going away – all paths are good, all are spiritual, and you can worship all gods equally. The plus side is that they are less offensive at least in their external behavior. Likewise, they have absorbed their knowledge of Kṛṣṇa with their mothers’ milk, no matter what anybody ever says about Him they will still see Him as God.
If you talk to non-Indian Hindu wannabes then the first thing they know is that you are Brahman and God doesn’t really exist, Kṛṣṇa being simply a tool to achieve higher understanding. No matter what they read after that they’ll always think of themselves as Brahman and as being above such silly concepts as devotion. It just doesn’t wash off.
On the plus side there are people who got their first spiritual lessons from our books and you can spot them a mile away, too. The way they might talk about māyāvādīs is a dead giveaway, and also the way they talk about things like reincarnation or yoga, or Sanskrit, or elements of varṇāśrama. We, the Hare Kṛṣṇas, are known for having immutable and easily recognizable views on such topics. The way Śrīla Prabhupāda presented them makes them unique even so many years later and in people who can hardly remember his name. These things stick.
Sometimes I wonder why it is so and whether it has any spiritual value behind it. With Śrīla Prabhupāda it’s easy – even a small knowledge attained on our path can save one from the greatest danger, but what about this subconscious allegiance to all kinds of bogus gurus? Does it make people spiritually crippled for the rest of their lives?
In some cases it does because it makes people carry their attachments and upādhis. Eventually they have to overcome those but it takes a very long time, which is obviously not good. OTOH, this allegiance can be seen in a positive way, too – a guru is a guru. You surrender and he teaches you and you can never ever give him up. Objectively speaking he might be a bogus guru but it’s the one given to you and so you have to stick with him no matter what.
“Stick with him” doesn’t mean you can’t recognize errors in his teachings but it means you should never ever lose respect. It’s like with your father – no matter what he does he is still the one who gave you life, nothing will ever change this simple fact. So yes, I’m prepared to appreciate people allegiance to frauds like Ramakrishna if it’s done with the spirit of always honoring your ācāryas. I believe one can, and should be encouraged to, keep this gratitude in their hearts even if they moved on to better understanding of God and devotional service. More likely they will never be able to move on but if they did gratitude is still in order.
Oh, and about Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s last words – I was told by a devotee, in great confidence, that he said that we should always chant the holy name and it will save us no matter what happens in our lives. Things will get messy, mistakes will be made, falldowns will be experienced, relationships torn, institutions ruined – but if we keep chanting through it all our lives will be spiritually successful. Chanting is the only thing that matters.
As it’s recorded in Bhakti Vikāsa Svāmī’s biography, the actual last words were: “All of you, present and absent, accept my blessings. Remember that our sole duty and dharma is to propagate service to the Lord and His devotees.” Not exactly what I was told, but I still stick by my remembered version. How? By explaining it away, by refusing to see the contradiction.
Fine, he didn’t say “..our sole duty and dharma is to chant the holy name”, but I didn’t understand it to mean only chanting and not saṅkīrtana either, and saṅkīrtana is nothing else but “propagate service to the Lord and His devotees.” There’s no contradiction here. He didn’t say build temples, distribute food, or even distribute books, he meant perform saṅkīrtana in a broader sense – as preaching, which is discussing the Lord in the company of others, chanting the holy name is included. This is what “propagate service” means – talk to others about glories of the service to the Lord. It’s still the same thing as chanting.
I’m not going to give up my eternal gratitude to that unknown devotee just because there’s an apparent inconsistency. Spiritually, the message is the same, it’s advaya jñāna, which is another great subject taught by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta.