They say that history repeats itself and Vedas agree. Of course Vedas talk about cycles lasting millions of years while they talk about modern recorded history which is only a couple of thousand years old. Their observation of historical cycles therefore has nothing to do with Vedic chronology of the universe, and they are nobodies for the Vedas to serve as a supporting argument. Our knowledge is eternal, whether they agree with it or not is immaterial, but we can easily fall into the trap of using Vedas to confirm modern scientific observations, we shouldn’t do that.
Kṛṣṇa consciousness is not about proving them right or wrong, they can go to hell if they so desire, Kṛṣṇa consciousness is about restoring our loving devotional service to the Lord. “They” matter to us only in as much as they are useful to Kṛṣṇa. If we can make them glorify Him then great but if not then Kṛṣṇa is not interested in anything they have to say. Hmm, it’s seems a catch 22 situation for them – they either serve the Lord and so agree with us, or we are not interested in their opinions. We give them no choice. In practice, however, we can tolerate a certain degree of deviations and the more advanced we are the higher the threshold of tolerance. Those who have even once sincerely tried to surrender deserve being offered obeisances, though often not for all the stuff they had done since. Kṛṣṇa won’t disown then completely and neither should we, but it might take hundreds of lifetimes to rectify certain kind of offenses – like rejecting one’s guru.
At the first glance such punishment might appear unnecessarily harsh but nothing is unjust in Kṛṣṇa’s universe – by accepting a guru the soul develops humility and patience and for such a soul time flies faster than for others, so a several hundred lifetimes delay in returning to the path is tolerable, probably just the right amount to teach the soul an important lesson. This shouldn’t be our concern, we can’t apply our human time scale to relationship with Kṛṣṇa. Time has no influence over His decisions because it exists only on the material platform, and so we can’t bind Him by some time related rules. There could be no “too long” or “too short” there.
So, history… A hundred and fifty years ago Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura lamented the state of contemporary Gauḍiyā vaiṣṇavism. Since then we had a revival and unprecedented spread all around the world but things might be coming back the full circle and the word “Gauḍiyā Vaiṣṇava” might become a joke again. Some of it is our fault – we do a fair amount of pandering and if we allow women to initiate freely we might be dismissed as a tool of western materialism and its love of rights and freedoms.
That won’t be a big sin comparing to what was done in the name of Gauḍiyā vaiṣṇavism in the 19th century. I once read a vivid description of it by a perceptive Britisher, it was from around the turn of the century and he wasn’t into “Indians are primitive, Christianity is great” propaganda, he really tried to discover true spirituality as much as he understood it. He looked at how Guaḍiyā vaiṣṇavism was organized, how it functioned, what kind of relationships people had with their gurus, what kind of services gurus rendered to the population and so on. What he found was appalling.
Bengal was separated into fiefdoms which were inherited and no guru could step outside his zone or there would be war. Gurus spent their time traveling from one disciple’s house to another but their visits weren’t about disseminating spiritual knowledge but collecting dakṣiṇā. They had staff hired to calculate how much everybody owes and to make sure nobody was left out of the itinerary. Gurus expected to be treated like gods and often used female members of the families to serve them sexually, sometimes even tasting brides before their marriages. It was all a sham. I wish I could remember the name of that author or the book itself, I tried to find it again but couldn’t.
Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura was no less blunt in his assessment. He lived in the time of Indian revival when people were seeking their roots and tried to present a worthy opposition to Christian philosophy. Bengal led that intellectual effort but vaiṣṇavas were not only missing but any association with them was seen as a permanent disqualification. They were all seen as frauds leaching off the less intelligent section of the society. They embodied everything western intelligentsia found disgusting in religion – hypocrisy, greed, deprivation, etc.
We are nowhere near that level of bad, not even the worst of us, and I don’t mean only ISKCON but the rest of Gauḍiyā vaiṣṇavism, too. What is still true is that no one takes us seriously. However, who is that “no one” and why should we care about his opinions? It’s not like India or the rest of the world is brimming with religious aspirations and people are clamoring for restoration of religons’ rightful place in the society. What do we care what they think? It’s not that they are wrong but they are not even trying to be right.
Motivations of modern day opinion makers are centered around gross materialism and their patriotism is of chauvinist, not enlightened nature, too. 19th century revival brought about Brahma-samaj, an imperonalist but still a spiritual movement, now they have Bollywood and middle classes marching against corruption. 19th century produced a challenge to the western views, nowadays they embrace them wholeheartedly and the only backlash is led by Hindutva fanatics.
Still, there are plenty of people who are not satisfied with the way Gauḍiyā vaiṣṇavism is developing. Some think it’s too progressive, others think it’s not progressive enough. Some think we don’t preach enough, others say that these critics with their poisonous attitude are the obstacle to preaching themselves. I don’t want to judge who is right and who is wrong but I would say this – discontent is a sign of not performing our saṅkīrtana as well as we expected by the Lord.
Luckily, our internal discontent is not that serious and those who have left our movement are not going to find peace anyway so their gripes can’t be taken as a serious barometer of our health. We are nowhere near collapse, ISKCON might not be as influential in the West as we expected in the early days of our movement but in India it’s undeniably big. No one can ignore us there and no one has offered any alternatives for spiritual advancement in this age.
If we look at the internet, however, the picture is different and there’s another, rather loud group of people who give Gauḍiyā vaiṣṇavism a bad name. Not as bad as a hundred years ago but still. I guess I’d have to continue with concrete examples another time, sorry.