India is a big country and, apart from Indians themselves, there are plenty of people attracted to Hinduism and Hindu way of life. Among those there are students of philosophy and yoga and by the look of things they should be our best friends – they say the same words, eat the same food, go to the same temples, read the same books, even listen to the same music. Why doesn’t it always click, however?
Many of our devotees came from those circles and many went back there when they dropped off the map. They open same bog standard new agey shops, they go to the same mantra concerts, they are certainly not averse to Govindas or Sunday feasts, sometimes it’s hard to say whether one came from ISKCON background or any other branch of Hinduism. Some of our devotees joined other Hindu traditions outright, too. I’m not going to write about them, though, I’m just making a point that we and all other “Hindus” have quite a lot of commonalities and sometimes are virtually indistinguishable, never mind the current “Hinduinisation” of ISKCON.
There’s one irreconcilable difference, though – they are not devotees and probably never will be. Ours who went that way should still be treated as devotees, of course, and that makes it hard to relate to these people appropriately. In the future life everyone will eventually get another chance but probably not in Kali yuga. We might have only one shot at joining and then it will be gone if we decide to follow some other path.
We can still talk about Bhagavad Gītā, for example, and discuss the importance of guru, yoga, bhakti, śāstra and so on. We can talk about Sanskrit and Vedic history, we can talk about ego, māyā, all the stories from Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, we can talk about Śiva and Śakti, even Tulasī, we can appreciate spices and incense and temple architecture, and yet we will always be on the opposite side of the spectrum.
The more we talk about these things the more we realize that instead of bridging the gap all this talk only contaminates us with their godless, atheistic attitude. It’s all māyāvāda, as we like to brand it in ISKCON, though they would object to such a broad classification.
First thing we should really ask – have they accepted a guru? Have they accepted their guru’s orders as their life and soul, or is he merely a teacher whose name they won’t remember twenty years from now. Well, many people remember their favorite school teacher’s name but what about all others? Do you really remember everyone who has taught you at middle school or college? What about all the training seminars and courses in this and that? Sometimes we only remember faces, sometimes only a general impression, but are we going to say that we have taken their words as our life and soul? Of course not – they are just teachers, and after many years even their authority in their subjects could be questioned.
It is a certain bet that none of these “Hindus”, for the lack of a better term, have fully surrendered to their gurus, assuming they even accepted one. At most they have met someone at an “aśram”, maybe stayed there for a while, and moved on to expand their horizons. We can look at an autobiography of one of our prominent ISKCON gurus who went through a whole gamut of gurus before finally landing at Prabhupāda’s feet. All these gurus undoubtedly helped and all of them deserve respect, but how many of them do you remember? They were all only steps on the path. You take the step, put you foot on it, and push yourself up, raising your another foot to look for the next one. That’s exactly what these people do.
Out millions who walked this path in the past fifty or so years it has been popular, how many reached their destination – the feet of a vaiṣṇava guru you would never ever even think of stepping on? Very very few, and it was in the days when we, the Hare Kṛṣṇas, weren’t widely present in the West. I seriously doubt that anyone who went through this “eastern trail” would ever come back and surrender himself at a local ISKCON temple. Why? Because of a non-devotional attitude of everyone on that ladder to hell – māyāvada.
Externally, they might agree with us on a lot of things but in their hearts they cannot bring themselves to surrendering, it’s not how they relate to gurus at all – they will forever see them as stepping stones and nothing else.
Many of these people, as well as ex-ISKCON devotees, too, take full advantage of easy access to a big library of Vedic literature, much of it translated into English, and they try to make sense of it using typical academic methods – with dictionaries, for example. They also buy into the academic delineation of Vedic ages and would object to us using the word “Vedic” without specifying whether we mean real Vedic or Puranic or Brahmanic or Upanishadic. That seals their fate, as far as I’m concerned – they are never ever going to be devotees in this lifetime, and probably in the next one, too.
I think I’ll write another post on how exactly this mechanism works but for now I’ll just say that most of what they read comes from māyāvādic sources. The influence of Śaṅkarācārya on Hindu thought should never be underestimated, he and his followers are all over the place and they have been dominating government supported way of thought for a century, roughly from Vivekananda on.
What is remarkable about māyāvāda is that it matches very well with atheism and the marriage between academic studies of Hinduism (since they don’t accept “Vedic”) is made in heaven. They perfectly complement each other and feed of each other’s ideas. Take Śaṅkara’s prasthānatrayī – the three most important texts – Upaniṣads, Vedānta sūtra and Bhagavad Gītā. It automatically categorizes Vedic periods into those worth learning from and those that can be largely dismissed. Vedas themselves are not studied and so real “Vedic” period in Indian history can be dismissed as the age of early ignorance. The Purāṇas are not accepted either so the later part of Indian history is dismissed, too, as the age when people became foolish again and started believing in silly stories. Only the “golden” age of Upaniṣads and Brahma sūtras, which can be categorized by the rise of philosophy, is considered worth studying.
Brahma sūtras are also considered a logical foundation of Śankara’s teachings and that’s why this emphasis on logic and philosophy is so welcome in modern academic studies. There isn’t really difference between these māyāvādīs and modern wannabe academics, they all come to the same conclusions regarding the nature of the world, God, and Brahman. And they are never ever going to surrender, but the exact mechanics of it will have to wait for another day.