Disclaimer: One might require some background information to get on the same page first. You can scroll down to the very last paragraph for directions where to find it. Please keep this in mind if you find something hard to process in this article.
I’m fully aware of Srila Prabhupada’s demonization of democracy and I’m not going to argue that he was wrong. There is another angle to it, however, which should enrich our understanding (at least it did for me) and it accommodates Srila Prabhupada’s condemnation of democracy as well.
Any social structure follows people’s religion. In ages when Vedic sacrifices or temple worship were the main dharmas they were naturally accompanied by corresponding social structures. Yajnas and temples were not cheap and so those who had the means to pay for it were at the top, together with those who knew how to utilize these assets, which means kings and “brahmanas” in Vedic speak or “clergy” in western languages. They performed the worship, they got the benefits, and they distributed these benefits down the hierarchical pyramids. Apart from graciously accepting these benefits streaming from the top, other people’s roles in performing these dharmas was also very well defined and this means there were qualifications to be attained, which means there was training, which means there were rules to follow, which means there were social structures controlling the society, and these structures were hierarchical.
To illustrate further, in Satya yuga, the age of meditation, there were no varnas and in Kali yuga there is no varnashrama to speak of either, which brings me to the main point – harinama sankirtana, yuga dharma for this age, does not need kings and brahmanas. Everyone can chant simply by himself, there are no rules and regulations to chanting and no price attached to it either. “Price” means somebody has to give you the money and so you become dependent. Not so with sankirtana – you really don’t need anybody else to succeed.
What it means in practice is that people have discovered that various goodies associated with following dharma in the categories of artha and kama can come to them without reliance on kings and clergy. In addition, since kings and clergy were engaged in dharmas which lost their efficacy, it became pretty obvious that the old system stopped working and no benefits trickled down from the top either. In the end, hierarchical social structures became redundant and people started valuing individual achievements instead, which gave us democracy and elections.
One could object that developement of democracy, invention of constitutions, and, of course, elections were all happenings in the west while Lord Caitanya appeared in India, which is still not a place one would think of when searching for examples of successful democracies. Rather the opposite – and that’s what Srila Prabhupada noticed as well – democracy only made things worse there.
This objection works only if we constrain Lord Caitanya to a particular time and place and strip Him of His universality. What do I mean by that? We don’t deny His universality, we are just waiting until His movement spreads all over the universe! Well, this understanding of universality does not satisfy me. I’d rather argue that Lord Caitanya was universal from the very beginning and He doesn’t have to come to possessing it in due course of time.
Moreover, I’m against dividing universe geographically where something has to spread from one physical location to another. Vedic universe spreads from ego to intelligence to mind to senses to sense objects. Each of these elements has a corresponding planetary system, ours being Bhuloka, of course. When we talk about changes observed in our geographical locations in a classical, western way, it’s like thinking that flowers on a tree spread from to another rather rather than growing out of their respective locations on twigs and branches. Even better example if we think that flowers spread from one to another in a garden rather than growing out of their own roots, but universe is compared to an inverted tree so let’s go with that.
What I mean to say is that Lord Caitanya introduced harinama sankirtana not “in India” but at the top level of the universal tree. It was fundamental shift in how the entire Vedic universe worked, and then “flowers” started appearing out of this common root even though they appeared to us as being in disconnected geographical locations, so sometimes we had to carry them from one country to another where they haven’t appeared yet.
In the West these flowers were in the form of people sitting at home and thinking about God, and thoughts are also a form of sound, just as chanting in the mind. With Lord Caitanya’s blessings, suddenly these thoughts started to produce tangible results. People who were thinking about God in the Middle Ages, too, but they didn’t have these blessing and so produced nothing notable. During Renaissance, however, these same people became capable of expressing themselves in all kinds of marvelous ways – writing, painting, sculpture, music, and, of course, science, and all these fruits have suddenly become abundant. It suddenly started working – just around the time of Lord Caitanya’s appearance in India.
Stepping back a little – we are not connected to people directly, we are connected through the Supersoul – every sankirtana devotee knows that. If you want people to buy your books you have convince Krishna first, and then they will buy them. Same happened with harinama sankirtana as universal dharma – when Lord Caitanya, as yuga avatara, inaugurated it people accepted it all over the world as being dictated from within their hearts as well. Just as the decision to buy a book comes from within the heart – I’m not inventing anything new here.
So it’s in this sense that Lord Caitanya “invented” democracy. In a sense that he made individual practice of religion possible, and from dharma comes artha and kama, and people realized that old ways need to be replaced to reflect this new reality, as I already explained.
Now back to Srila Prabhupada’s “demoncrazy” observation – it surely looked that way in India where democracy was a foreign import rather than a home grown realization. It surely looks that way in the West, too, but that’s because any religion is open to abuse. It wasn’t meant that way but, after a few hundred years of practicing anything can become corrupted – just look at the state of Lord Caitanya’s own movement at the time of Bhaktivinoda Thakura.
I could discuss the exact ways of this corruption in some detail but I don’t want to waste time on this. I’ll just point out that underlying power behind democracy – individual achievements in practice of religion – are used to rebuilt hierarchical structures which are known to fail. That’s what elections are for, after all – to rebuild hierarchies and force people to obey “the law”. How’s it even supposed to work? It’s a mismatch from the get go.
Another interesting point is “Srila Prabhupada brought Lord Caitanya’s movement to the West” – is my presentation here contradicts this? I don’t think so. I’d rather say that Srila Prabhupada gave the final impetus to people who were already on the precipice of “fructifying”. Conversely, those who were not ready through the process of development and evolution within their own cultures couldn’t accept Srila Prabhupada’s message. Hippies got it, yuppies couldn’t (if anyone remembers what “yuppie” means) . In other words, we don’t have to look at Srila Prabhupada as bringing something from the outside, from India to America, but as someone who lightened up people from the inside, from hippies to happies, as they used to say.
One could object “but he brought Hare Krishna mantra from India!” To this I would answer that this misses the main point – he brought pure chanting of the holy name, the mantra itself was just the container and Srila Prabhupada didn’t even insist on people chanting Hare Krishna specifically. Today we can give people the same mantra but because we don’t have the purity it does not have the same effect. We think that this horizontal transmission, from one place to another, is the key, but, as I said – no, it’s not, the key is bringing changes to people’s consciousness and it happens from the inside of their hearts, just like the mercy of Lord Caitanya – it illuminates one from the inside. External triggers, like books or devotees, matter only when they carry the same internal transformation, and they don’t always work. When Lord Caitanya illuminates one’s consciousness from the inside, however, then even a simple “Hare Krishna” greeting can trigger all kinds of powerful emotions.
To sum it up – please don’t constrain Lord Caitanya to empirically observed events of this world. He appeared in India five hundred years ago – true, but that’s not all. Not all at all.
If you click “Lord Caitanya” tag on this blog top two posts discuss this different understanding of what “Lord Caitanya” means in some detail. It’s not a recent thought in my mind and I here I built on that previous understanding.