There’s one prominent feature in various ex-ISKCON circles – they seem to know everything better than us and they certainly know more than us in other areas of Hinduism. Sometimes, if we are not familiar with the topic and do not have time to research it, they can plant seeds of doubt in our minds. How do we deal with this? Here are some thoughts.
First the problem – we have our books and we constantly discuss their content in our classes but only very few of us can truly be called knowledgeable of the scriptures. Most us know only the conclusions and straightforward explanations as given to us by Prabhupāda or other devotees. The truth is that we never take a “critical” look at our books, we never even admit the possibility that they might be wrong and there could be different interpretations that are at least just as valid.
One can pick up any controversial topic to see examples of this in action. Take female gurus, for example – there are books written in support of it, all with quotes and explanations, both from Prabhupāda and previous ācāryas and even from earlier Vedic literature. It looks pretty convincing and yet it’s all hogwash, we know it but we can’t be bothered even to read that book let alone write a thorough critique of it, and hardly anyone can produce opposing quotes and expose propagandist nature of such publications on the spot. It’s just too much for our little brains.
This, btw, is a known propaganda technique, or a lawyer technique – swamp the opposition with largely irrelevant stuff and force it to wade through tons of garbage. Many would give up and accept your argument just to save their time and energy. I’m not saying that authors of our books did this knowingly, too, I don’t believe they are that cunning but it happens anyway.
When it comes to ex-ISKCON devotees we can take the jīva fall issue where they argue from books most of us never even heard of and give quotes from ācāryas we never knew existed. How can you answer that on the spot? Most of us can’t, but we know it’s hogwash, too.
Even outside these well-discussed topics there’s plenty material for them to challenge us with. It’s not that we don’t know our books at all but they approach them with critical mind and therefore are ready to exploit the possibilities that won’t even occur to us no matter how many times we read. Our reading is different from theirs, it’s all in the attitude.
We read to get association and appreciation of Śrīla Prabhupāda, hoping that some of his devotion eventually rubs off on us, too. The content is a secondary consideration for us, we just want to see the śāstra through his eyes. We know that he gives us the right understanding and that by doubting or questioning him we deprive ourselves of his mercy. No superficial knowledge is worth it, we just can’t read his books in such a mode. They can, and so they see a lot of stuff that we overlook, and overlook intentionally.
They also explore Hinduism at large. We go by what Prabhupāda told us but they read books from other traditions and so claim to know them better than our cookie cut answers. We know Śaṅkarācārya, for example, but we’ve never read any of his works ourselves. They did, and they can also say that Abhinavagupta was just as influential but Prabhupāda never mentioned that name at all. When they throw these things at us we can’t argue with them until we familiarize ourselves with the same sources, and who’s got time for that?
In my limited experience, checking their claims always proves that Prabhupāda was right and they are wrong, without fail, on any topic. Pretty soon I’ll lose all desire to argue with them. Partly because it always ends the same, partly because they never accept their mistakes as a matter of principle. They set out to read those books to prove Prabhupāda wrong, no amount of arguments is going to change that bias, it’s a waste of time.
Still, when they present these challenges in public we can’t just shy away, we need to come up with an adequate response. Adequate for our goals, not necessarily adequate by their standards. As I said, they will fight tooth and nail to prove themselves right, they have their own psychological reasons for it.
What we can easily challenge them back is their understanding of what knowledge is. They don’t have any, not if they continue criticize and diminish ISKCON. When they speak to us and to the public they imply that knowledge is familiarity and understanding of books and teachings and everybody tacitly agrees with this definition but it’s wrong, totally wrong. Here’s how Kṛṣṇa defines knowledge instead (BG 13.8-12):
Humility; pridelessness; nonviolence; tolerance; simplicity; approaching a bona ﬁde spiritual master; cleanliness; steadiness; self-control; renunciation of the objects of sense gratiﬁcation; absence of false ego; the perception of the evil of birth, death, old age and disease; detachment; freedom from entanglement with children, wife, home and the rest; even-mindedness amid pleasant and unpleasant events; constant and unalloyed devotion to Me; aspiring to live in a solitary place; detachment from the general mass of people; accepting the importance of self-realization; and philosophical search for the Absolute Truth – all these I declare to be knowledge, and besides this whatever there may be is ignorance.
There’s not a word there about knowing stuff, facts, quotes, theories etc. Kṛṣṇa explicitly calls all of that “ignorance”. It is easy to understand why – we are talking about transcendental knowledge arising in the soul and how it manifests itself externally, they are talking about records in their material brains which will get erased with each new birth. All these facts, dates, quotes, names, arguments, all of it will disappear in due course of time. Either Alzheimer’s will get it or death will. It can’t possibly last.
Once we ourselves understand this point about what constitutes knowledge we can easily counter all claims by our opponents as coming from ignorance and done in pursuit of ignorance. They are all irrelevant to the path of the religion. The truth is that ex-ISKCON devotees have given up that path and so they survive on rotting leftovers like jackals or hyenas. Unable to serve guru they serve their pride instead. Unable to extract real, soul nourishing advaya-jñāna they settle on memorizing names and quotes. Unable to follow the path they argue about directions.
All their arguments are basically about coming back to square one, making a different choice, and hoping it would turn out better. That’s all they ever tell us – forget what we know, start from scratch, fill our brains with teachings by assorted scholars, pretend that we figured it out all by ourselves, and make a knowledgeable decision. We are half way through already, why would we ever go back and start all over? Their chosen method does not even remotely look like development of transcendental knowledge, we get that they are attached to it but there’s nothing in it for us to consider seriously.
The argument could be made that their studying falls under “philosophical search for the Absolute Truth” but that’s not what they are doing. Philosophical search would be trying to understand the words of our guru, theirs is mental speculation. They are not trying to understand the truth, they just take whatever pops up in their minds and put a label “tattva” on it. Of course on some very basic level they are searching for the Absolute but it’s not the level we should be interested in, we must be so far past that already. Not in terms of how much we know, I would remind again, but in terms of how much o fwhat Kṛṣṇa put in his definition we try to practice with all our energy. Can they say the same for themselves? No, end of conversation.