“Buddhafication” is not so bad


This is in response to Krishna Kirti Prabhu’s article “The “Buddhafication” of Srila Prabhupada” – Part 1 and Part 2.

Central to his argument is the observation made by Dr Thomas J. Hopkins that when we disagree with each other we all back ourselves with contradictory “Prabhupada saids” and have no way to move past that. This is so true, but the observation comes from the book published in 2007 – some thirteen years ago, and thirteen years is a lot of time so it’s a bit outdated. For several years now our answer to this problem has been “unity in diversity”. Personally, I don’t understand how it’s supposed so solve anything but there are plenty of devotees who are quite happy with this strategy. So, for better or worse, but we have moved on and disagreements are not seen as stumbling blocks anymore.

But let’s talk about Buddhafication itself – Buddhism happens to be one of the world’s oldest religions. Hinduism as culture is older but it’s rather a collection of religions and none of extant ones are as old as Buddhism. The point is that Buddhism displays an impressive staying power without relying on any non-Buddhist scriptures and explicitly rejecting Vedic ones. Somehow it still works.

Come to think of it, Christians also do not see any other way to salvation but through Christ. They accept Old Testament but there are many among them who believe Gospels are perfectly enough and they all interpret Old Testament through the teachings of Jesus. Islam also famously says that only Mohammad is the prophet and so he is the lens through which they perceive the Bible.

And what about Mormons? Looking at their set of beliefs one can come to a reasonable conclusion that they have one extra “m” in their name but they are also known as the fastest growing religion. Their allegiance to their founder doesn’t seem to be a hindrance. And what about BAPS? Recently in the news from the US there was an interfaith service organized by the White House and Hinduism was represented by a local BAPS priest, not by one of ours. Swami Narayan in their name doesn’t refer to Lord Narayana but to the name of their founder and in their manuals I’ve seen on the internet they do not rely on any other sources of knowledge. Technically, they can be considered as a branch of Sri Vaishnavism but they don’t care much for their larger tradition. So, once again, Buddhafication of Swami Narayan didn’t do them any harm. We don’t want ISKCON to become like BAPS or Mormons but I just want to say that even if we do it doesn’t spell immediate disaster.

Or consider “people of the book” – Judaism – they have no special allegiance to any historical personality apart from messiahs of the olden days but their allegiance is to seminal lines and one has to be born in a Jewish family first, so it’s not just accepting “the book” that qualifies one to become a Jew, and opinions of anyone who hasn’t accepted proper birth are not valued as much. Jews are not really “people of the book” in that sense, they are people of proper birth. In Vedic terminology it means one has to belong to their particular gotra and so the founder of that gotra is, effectively, their “Buddha” even if they forgot his name. One could argue that Judaism allows for conversions but it’s not an easy or widespread or universally accepted practice.

Besides, even as some of us rely more on Srila Prabhupada’s letters or anecdotes from his life, it would be a gross exaggeration to say that scriptures do not play any role whatsoever. Srila Prabhupada gave us Bhagavad Gita (“let there be one scripture only, one common scripture for the whole world” – quoted in BG Intro), Srimad Bhagavatam (“What is the need of any other scripture?” – SB 1.1.2), Caitanya Caritamrita, and The Nectar of Devotion. We used to boast how we have more than eighty volumes of translated scriptures and we all remember the warning not to read too many books. These four titles are perfectly adequate to answer all our questions but probably not in the way we are doing it now – not by arguing and throwing quotes at each other. Here is what Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura had to say about pulling quotes out of context:

“Whenever you read a literature you should read it completely otherwise you will fail to abstract the actual meaning and ultimately become a logician.” (Caitanya-śikṣāmṛta 3/3)

Is there a need to demonstrate that logicians, those who engage in tarka, do not attain Krishna prema and are not counted among devotees?  I myself recently gave a few examples of selective quoting, it’s a known problem and we also know the solution – don’t do it. Maybe not everyone in our society follows this rule but the solution exist and we don’t have to argue it into existence. I would rather argue that any sincere devotee who studies our books daily, who chants sincerely, and who engages himself in Krishna’s service 24/7 knows answers to all our problems of the day by heart. He just knows – because, as Srila Prabhupada often quoted – yasya deve parā bhaktir yathā deve tathā gurau tasyaite kathitā hy arthāḥ prakāśante mahātmanaḥ – the import of Vedic scriptures opens automatically from within the heart, no quotes necessary.

If, however, this prescribed process fails for one reason or another then whatever arguments we build will be unavoidably wrong. These errors cannot be fixed by legislating what evidence should matter most – guru, sadhu, shastra, which shastra etc. People suffering from this condition will misinterpret any and all evidence to fit with their views and correct understanding can be established in only one way. Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes about that as well:

The eternity of the spirit soul and the existence of Brahman cannot be established through logical arguments, because arguments have no access to the subject matter that is beyond material universe. Direct self perception is the only establisher of such truths. By direct perception or spontaneous samādhi the saintly persons constantly realize the eternal abode of Vaikuntha and service to Krishna.” (Śrī Krishna Saṁhita 9/5)

Direct self perception. Not arguments.

One could note that I’m quoting from Bhaktivinoda Thakura and not Srila Prabhupada here. That’s because these are my recently saved quotes, no other reasons, really. Otherwise there’s “Krishna Consciousness is not an artificial imposition of the mind” message from the earliest days of our society. One who understands it and knows it to be true will fully agree with Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s quotes, too. Or how about “licking bottle from the outside” analogy Srila Prabhupada also used from the very beginning? It explains the same thing – we can’t argue truth into existence. No one can, it has to reveal itself to us. There’s also svayam eva sphuraty adaḥ. I have another relevant quote from Srila Bhaktivinoda:

“No one can attain the mercy of Krishna simply by studying the scriptures or hearing their conclusions. To give up endeavor for karma and jñāna and become fully surrendered to the Supreme Lord is the root of pure bhajana. As a result of this, one achieves the ultimate goal of life which is love of Krishna.” (Sajjana-toṣaṇī 11/7)

I’m not disagreeing with Krishna Kirti Prabhu here, problems he mentions clearly exist in our society and they have to be dealt with. I’m merely pointing out that we can’t convince our opponents into accepting guru-sadhu-shastra in the same way arguing over Trump on the internet has never ever convinced anybody to change their views. Sankirtana devotees know the method – one has to fully surrender to guru and Krishna and then Supersoul within people’s hearts will direct them to buy the books, and the Supersoul will also put the right words into distributor’s mouth. Likewise, our disagreements can be solved only when all impurities from our hearts vanish and Absolute Truth will shine through on its own. No one can argue against the appearance of Absolute Truth, especially the devotees. We just have to manifest it, which is not easy, of course.


We absolutely need Varnashrama, but for an entirely different reason

An interesting point I heard about varnasrhama recently but it might take me a while to get to it,  I’ll try to be brief. We have a long history with varnashrama. Srila Prabhupada wanted it, others say we are a preaching movement and can’t be wasting time on what Lord Caitanya rejected as “external”, but all these concerns deal with the mechanics of it, with brahmanas, cows, land, self-sufficiency etc. This point, however, is very different.

When Ramananda Ray proposed varnasrama to Lord Caitanya he wasn’t talking about first step in self-realization, he was talking about the ultimate goal of life and so varnashrama as he meant it was far far above our level of realization and is an absolutely necessary step on our path, we can’t go around it. This is the verse he quoted (CC Madhya 8.58):

puruṣeṇa paraḥ pumān
viṣṇur ārādhyate panthā
nānyat tat-toṣa-kāraṇam

varṇa-āśrama-ācāra-vatā — who behaves according to the system of four divisions of social order and four divisions of spiritual life; puruṣeṇa — by a man; paraḥ — the supreme; pumān — person; viṣṇuḥ — Lord Viṣṇu; ārādhyate — is worshiped; panthā — way; na — not; anyat — another; tat-toṣa-kāraṇam — cause of satisfying the Lord.

“ ‘The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Viṣṇu, is worshiped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varṇa and āśrama. There is no other way to satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One must be situated in the institution of the four varṇas and āśramas.’ ”

Please note “there is no other way to satisfy the Lord” line in it, it’s very important – he talks about varnashrama as the way to satisfy the Lord, the way to serve the Lord, and he speaks of unalloyed devotion here. We speak of varnashrama as a way to conduct our material affairs and to satisfy our material propensities and it means we speak of pursuing our selfish desires. The system itself might be the same but the consciousness of participants can’t be any more different. But there is more.

We can accept varanshrama as a way to organize ourselves – a bunch of selfish individuals at their core – into a cohesive society, and we accept it in the same way Americans accept existence of federal government. For us it’s a pact between thieves, it’s the way we can continue misusing Lord’s material energy without stepping on each other’s toes too much in the process. Ramananda Raya’s proposition is entirely different – the way to happiness lies in happiness of the Lord and to make the Lord happy one must submit his personal ambitions to rules and regulations of society.  He is talking about varnashrama not as a way to fulfill our material desires but as an arrangement to completely subvert them.

It’s not “I want this, you want that, let’s make a mutually beneficial arrangement” but “Lord wants us to act this way so forget about what you want”. Even though Ramananda Raya says the word varnashrama he means absolute and unconditional surrender to the Lord and he talks about what one should do after surrendering himself completely. Our surrender depends on the Lord appearing before us and personally telling us what to do, otherwise we don’t trust anyone, but Ramananda Raya here tells us that surrendered devotees submit themselves to otherwise totally external rules and regulations meant to materialistic people – because the Lord is in charge of everything and because everything is under control of the Lord. In effect, he talks about vision of a paramahamsa.

This is also a very “Gaudiya” mood of surrender – gopī-bhartuḥ pada-kamalayor dāsa-dāsānudāsaḥ, as Lord Caitanya put it, and the meaning of it is that we are not Lord’s servants but we are servants of His agents and we surrender to them, not to the Lord directly. It could be gopis, it could be guru, or it could be the system of varnashrama. Okay, guru we can accept, but these days we don’t expect him to meddle in our lives, we expect him to engage us in accordance with our nature, which is another way to say in accordance with our ambitions. Gurus should discover that special spark in us and enable us to achieve our full potential, or they should recognize how special we already are and engage us accordingly (example). We can, at least the best and the most humble of us, recognize the authority of a temple president or authority of senior devotees, but authority of a faceless “varnashrama”? Nope, we’d rather negotiate our relationship with it, accept some, reject the other, but not surrender ourselves unconditionally. We should be independently thoughtful, as we love to quote.

If you recognize yourself in the above paragraph then you should also recognize that Ramananda Raya is asking the impossible and even something irrational. It appears so because we still have our own plans on how to become happy, our own visions of our perfect situation in life, and that’s what makes us totally unqualified for that very first among Ramananda Raya’s proposals. Unless we give up all our plans for our happiness and entrust ourselves entirely to the Lord’s appointed agents we are unqualified to move beyond this point in the Ramananda Raya and Lord Caitanya’s conversation.

I hope you see now why it’s not about cows and brahmanas at all. I hope you can also see why our varnashrama projects do not go anywhere except in a few exemplary communities – we still make it about ourselves, about our own benefits, and we do not recognize varnashrama as the way of full surrender, specifically set up by the Lord, as He says in Bhagavad Gita. I admit that I can’t offer a practical solution here. It used to be “go to the temple, shave up, do whatever they tell you to do” but we don’t have temples like that anymore, generally speaking. So I don’t know what could be practically done in a current situation, but the underlying understanding should still be present – we must accept an outside authority as absolute. The bosses themselves might be imperfect but their material arrangements can’t hurt our souls. Whatever they do, they can’t hurt our spiritual progress. They can affect our bodies but we should be beyond bodily consciousness already, especially when we argue that varnashrama is external and not really necessary in our society.

Just think of it, it’s a very very high level of surrender and, unless one had reached it in previous lives, it’s a very very high stage of observable advancement. There ARE devotees who come to it, who come to an understanding that compared to the spiritual opportunities presented by ISKCON all ISKCON’s faults and imperfections are immaterial. I hope we all have seen it when a devotee takes up most menial services not to practice humility but because he genuinely sees the benefit of being of service, of any kind of service, and he sees this service as absolutely higher than his personal considerations of status and honor. That is surrender. Surrender is not putting on the armor to protect ourselves from untrustworthy elements but opening up our souls knowing that the Lord is always in full control of all His energies and therefore they all can and should be trusted no matter what. At all times.

Trusted with what? Not with preservation and comfort of our material bodies, of course, but that every blade of grass moves according to Lord’s will and for our ultimate benefit. The Lord wants the world to behave this way and our acceptance of “varnashrama” is the acceptance of this fact. When the Lord is happy that the world moves along according to His desire we become happy as well. Our happiness depends entirely on His and on happiness of His agents and energies. That is the mystery and this is what Srila Prabhupada taught us from the very beginning. But sometimes we think we know better. All the time, actually – I’m speaking for myself.

So the point is that advice to follow varnashrama in that conversation is not about the system itself but about accepting Lord’s authority and unconditionally submitting ourselves to it.

I’m afraid American pathos of freedom and rights, which has been spread all over the world, is wholly incompatible with this point while communism is about half way there – because communists put happiness of the community over their own and see community’s well-being as the root of personal happiness. Not God’s happiness yet but at least happiness and well-being of something outside of ourselves. They were die hard materialists but somehow they accepted reality of “party” and “community” and ascribed personal features to these concepts even though empirically there are only molecules and atoms. They considered ideals as reality and as reality higher than reality of everyday individual perceptions and concerns. But this article is not about communism.

One could object that ISKCON started in the US so something must be wrong in this analysis. Maybe, but Tamal Krishna Goswami and Vishnujana Swami came from a commune, if you remember. Naked hippie commune but nevertheless. Also hippies – they were not big on selfishness underlying mainstream society. Also Srila Prabhupada attracted people who grew up hearing “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” inspirational speeches. Now that the US is hopelessly divided we don’t hear it anymore and it affects our society as well. Everybody has to look after himself first and foremost, fly his own airplane, as we also love to quote.

That might be the reality but it doesn’t exempt us from the necessity of a full unconditional surrender to “varnashrama”.

This getting too long, however, so I don’t want to go into proving this point any further and will simply reiterate – we need varnashrama not to organize ourselves but so that we could surrender unto it. This was spoken five hundred years ago and today we have to find an equivalent of that suggestion. Temple devotees need to surrender to temple rules, for example, but everyone must surrender and stop making his own “spiritual” plans from that moment on.

Since I’m not sure I represent the views of the devotee who I heard this explanation from I won’t give his name here.