Society Looking Forward

On New Year’s eve Mahatma Prabhu had a zoom session with Bhakti Vijnana Goswami where they were answering questions about the problem of criticism in our society. That was the stated topic but in the beginning BVGS asked to start with something a bit more auspicious to discuss and they never got to “criticism” questions specifically. All in all they were both concerned with how to move our society forward, beyond the state of current split. They didn’t state so explicitly but this concern was punctuating all their answers, occasionally openly discussing the legacy of the current generation and what will happen in the future. So “society looking forward” is an appropriate title for this article, and it’s appropriate for another reason which I will discuss later. The video itself is at the bottom.

My conclusion, after carefully listening to this two hour talk – our society is not going anywhere nice anytime soon and conflicts will remain unresolved for the foreseeable future. Why so pessimistic? Do I disagree with all their arguments? No, not at all. Everything they said was reasonable and rational and I see nothing to object. I’m pessimistic because they are not addressing actual problems, not even acknowledging actual problems, and, consequently, go in a completely irrelevant way while trying to solve what they think is a problem.

First thing that should be noticed – they are both from the liberal camp and so do not have any disagreements with each other. This makes the discussion basically into an echo chamber where they don’t have to deal with the opposition but only with their perceived images of what the other side thinks. They got together and jointly defeated their own straw man. Real world, however, is filled with real people who act in many unpredictable ways and solving our differences with them is a categorically different kind of problem. In other words, the way this discussion was set up was not conducive to any productive outcome.

I will say that BVGS should not be easily labeled as “liberal” because, to his credit, he stays out of debates as a matter of principle. After FDG resolution, however, he did record a video where he called GBC presented quotes conclusive. That was not my impression at all, but I’d refer to Sivarama Swami’s more recent analysis where his conclusion was that GBC presented quotes do not support even their own position, what to speak of defeating the opponents. Sivarama Swami can be counted as conservative but his argument has nothing to do with this division – it points out bipartisan lapses in logic.

This is an interesting point – both speakers encouraged everyone to step outside of liberal-conservative designations but, as it happens everywhere over and over again, failed to see how they themselves are conditioned. Doctors should heal themselves first, or otherwise we slip into “do as I say, not as I do” territory. In the end, the entire discussion sounded like two liberals telling what is wrong with the conservatives, demonstrating how conservatives are uncultured and disrespectful. They didn’t say this outright, of course, but all the recognizable examples they used were of conservative faults. Again, even though all the points were totally legitimate, their underlying attitude was not that of respect for the opposition.

I would agree that conservatives are not the most cultured group in our society and their conversations are often seem as straightforward, unfiltered sadhu-ninda, but it absolutely doesn’t help when their entire set of grievances is dismissed just because someone somewhere said something unacceptable. Bhakti Vikasa Swami, who is a conservative, often gives examples of liberals using unacceptable language against himself and others of his persuasion, with examples and quotes, too, so, by the logic employed by the speakers here, conservatives also have the right to dismiss the entire liberal agenda on the strength of one or two examples of bad behavior. And so both groups end up dismissing each other which, naturally, does absolutely nothing for reconciliation.

Another thing that I noticed immediately was soft, soothing, and reassuring voices, especially that of Mahatma Prabhu. I don’t think he turned it on specifically for this occasion the way a cult leader takes a moment to prepare himself before addressing his flock, I think he genuinely believes he has all the answers and feels pretty confident in his position, a position where he thinks he knows how to solve or at least how to avoid running into problems, but here is the thing again – he is not part of a solution, he is part of the problem itself. His confidence rather signifies unwillingness to change, which means inability to become a part of the solution – because, and I can say it with a hundred percent confidence – our divisions will not be overcome by everybody coming to my point of view (or Mahatma’s for that matter). We all need to change something in ourselves, and change is frightening and doubtful, not soothing and reassuring.

Speaking of avoiding problems – one way to do it is to declare current chaos a new normal. That way nothing needs fixing. This technique was applied throughout the discussion. In the beginning they both talked about diversity and how it is an avoidable and even a desirable thing. They also talked about unity and cooperation as the new siddhanta trumping everything else. I would agree, but this description of the situation redefines the problem into the new normal. Lots of devotees feel very real pain in their relationships with the society but it’s dismissed as something totally expected and even desirable. That it’s THEIR problem for not accepting this new status quo and they would be better off if they just accepted it instead of standing firm and arguing. Why do they do so? Easy answer – because they feel sure and confident in their own position, too, and they are not going to give it up against their own logic and reason.

This “normalize the problem” technique completely avoids the possibility of real problems developing in our society, which means some things do need to be rejected and changed instead of embracing them in the name of “unity in diversity”. There was a very good opportunity presented when someone asked a question of how to reconcile Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s uncompromising behavior with the current situation but Mahatma Prabhu did not use it and rather avoided it by saying that most or many, I don’t remember exact wording, of today’s compromises are related to details, not the principles. That may be true, and it’s also true that details are always open to adjustment, but what about compromises in our principles? That’s what the opponents complain about all the time – today’s ISKCON has compromised on principles. The possibility of that happening was not discussed, but that is exactly what we, as a society, need to address and need to solve. This is one more reason for my pessimism – they avoid mentioning the problem, let alone try to tackle it.

To simplify it, this whole “unity in diversity” and “cooperation above everything else” preaching becomes “I’ll do whatever I want and you have to be cooperative”. The option of you telling me that I’m nonsense is not provided – you always have to cooperate with me. Because “Prabhupada said that…”

This is actually another reason I’m losing my hope – all throughout the discussion they relied on “Prabhupada once said…” arguments. We’ve been throwing them around for fifty years, they never solved anything, and there is no reason throwing a few more “Prabhupada saids” into the discussion will magically change anything for the better. Why? Because it’s not about what Srila Prabhupada said, it’s about what YOU think is more important right now, and so you are not channeling Prabhupada, you are using him as your own crutch. Quotes are a dime a dozen, there isn’t a single position that can’t be supported by a couple of “Prabhupada saids”.

Moreover, it’s not about what was actually said – we should move beyond words, because they are “details”, and get to the underlying principles. Something like “Srila Prabhupada always considered this to be … and on one occasion he said…” Then we can deal with ideas, not with quotes. This would elevate the discussion considerably, but, in my opinion, we, as a society, still require every idea to be firmly rooted in quotes – we don’t deal with ideas as reality. We still think ideas grow from quotes and therefore are secondary, when, in fact, it’s the other way around. Ideas are eternal, they existed before quotes and they will exist after quotes, and they are the same ideas that can be reflected in Srila Prabhupada’s and in our own consciousness. Our guru opens them up for our perception, but guru does not invent compassion or austerity or whatever it is being considered. So our relying on “Prabupada saids” displays lack of our actual realization, our blindness to any reality other than sensually perceptible. This is not a platform where rifts can be healed.

This gets me to one possible solution to our current conundrum, but I want to mention another first – if we talk about the house for the whole world to live in then the first thing we should understand about houses is that they have different rooms and each room has its own use, has its own mood, has its own set of rules, and has its owner, too. Similarly, in the house called “ISKCON” there should be many many different rooms, almost everybody should get his own room, and externally perceptible behavior in each room will be different. KW devotees can wear baseball caps, Indian “conservatives” can tie their dhotis in their conservative ways, in the western part of the house devotees can eat and do other things at the same time without feeling the need to wash their hands and mouths. In the Vedic part of the house they would drink water “Prabhupada’s way”, without glass touching the lips. What this means, and I would argue that it’s inevitable, is that there will be gay marriages in some rooms but not in others, there will female diksa gurus and female sannyasis in some rooms but they won’t be allowed into others.

When the idea of FDGs being allowed in some locales was first floated there was a collective gasp in our society. “Split in the sampradaya”, it is being argued. But it’s not a split if you really really talk about the house for the whole world. This “house” thing goes to the very root of our existence as ISKCON devotees, of what “ISKCON” is and why do we even need it, if we want to stuff the whole world into it. Why not just call it “world”? That’s a discussion for another day, however.

Second solution to how we should try to solve our differences relates to “looking forward” in the title. Looking forward means we imagine ourselves to be the seers and the world in front of us as our field – ksetra and ksetra-jna from Bhagavad Gita. Both the speakers thought of it this way – I’m here, ISKCON is in front of me, and I can solve problems by manipulating it. It’s totally natural for us to think this way, but, if we accept and realize that the universe is one giant tree, then this model of “looking forward” becomes absurd. If you noticed that you branched out, as it happens on the trees, then you cannot possibly solve the created difference with the trunk or with other branches by growing your branch further and further, which is what “looking forward” is as you develop your given ksetra.

To solve the problem, to find unity again, you need to move backward to the point BEFORE branching has occurred. It might mean going back in time to remember the moments of unity. That would be a valuable exercise but not always possible because memories fade. More important, however, is to trace the appearance of our differences on the universal tree itself, and this tree has a hierarchy which is currently present, though not easily accessible.

Early on in the discussion Mahatma Prabhu made an observation that we come to dislike people we disagree with and he repeated this point several times, as if our personal dislikes are related only to the trivial need to defend our pride. That may be so, but this is not the only root of our disagreements, and this is another example of avoiding the problem and not acknowledging it even exist. We dislike people, including our opponents, because they remind us of our own qualities which we are trying to reject. Sometimes we dislike things due to our conditioning, like cats dislike swimming, but dislike based on rejection of things unfavorable to devotional service plays the central role in our disputes. I would insist on that. We reject certain values in our lives as anarthas and we rebel when others come around and shove them in our faces again, especially in the early stages of separation when anarthas are not totally eradicated from our consciousness. We lash out at others because we still struggle within ourselves, like when we blame women for dressing provocatively because we still feel sexual attraction.

Ha, this is actually one of the popular arguments – instead of controlling how women dress male devotees should control their own sexual urges. A lot can be said in response, but I would remind the reader that even Lord Caitanya admitted to experiencing bodily changes when seeing women. It was in the chapter about glories of Ramananda Raya in the Antya lila.

Not to be distracted – dislikes are not related to other people, nor are they related to our wounded egos, but they have a very real foundation as unfavorable things that need to be rejected. When we say rejected it doesn’t mean they have no place to exist – in a house there should be a room for passing stool, too. There is another dimension to it, too – things become rejected as we move our consciousness up the hierarchy of the tree, leaving unfavorable things where they belong.

BVGS should know it very well as he often cites the advice given to four Kumaras in the 11th Canto – don’t try to disconnect the mind from sense objects but rather disconnect yourself from the mind. In our case it means we should not be “looking forward”, which on the tree means taking the focus or our consciousness from the heart and outwards to the intelligence, to the mind, and to sense objects, where our “forward” actually is. For us it means going “backward” or “upward” or “inward” – I can’t select one word because moving up the tree towards the heart and the Lord is not a spatial movement with directions. Once this is understood it becomes clear that our rifts can be solved by philosophical debates because philosophy is discussed by the minds but we need to move above that to intelligence, then above intelligence to moral values, which reflect the state of our ego, and then to the heart/self, which is the point of our connection to Srila Prabhupada and Krishna. Unless philosophical debates serve as a method of yoga to elevate our consciousness from mundane reality to Srila Prabhupada and Krishna in our hearts they will be fruitless in the search for unity.

The speakers know this – they very clearly mentioned that the point of unity for us is acceptance of Krishna as God and Srila Prabhupada is His representative, but the problem is that we don’t want to stay there, at this point of unity, we want to move forward and create more things and put them all into one shared space, which is currently like a one room house. And then people start screaming that this cr*p doesn’t belong here, pardon my language. Of course they would say that. Get your own room to do your own KC Zumba, people are trying to meditate here.

Staying in this one point of unity is not easy, of course. We would need to keep our consciousness focused there and do not let our mind deviate to observe all other kinds of things. It would require us to be in samadhi, and, of course, it’s not something we propose as a practical solution. I mean what would be the reaction if somebody proposed that unity in our society is only possible when everyone will be in samadhi? Totally impractical – we can’t keep our minds on the holy name for one round, what to speak of samadhi. Fair enough, but this is what is necessary. Who said that we can solve our differences by remaining ourselves? Not me. We really really need to get into a samadhi and there is no other way. For one thing, once our consciousness if firmly fixed as Krishna’s feet (or on Prabhupada – same thing), we will actually see how everything every devotee has ever done is connected to this same point and therefore everything will become instantly respectable. It would also mean we will have an infinite variety of things to appreciate so samadhi will not be boring. It would also mean that, because our consciousness does not slide down into mundane reality, the variety of other people’s services, however imperfect individually, will not affect our concentration and will not throw us off balance. In other words, we will see differences but we will leave them where they belong without taking them personally.

Who has ever said that duality can be overcome by absorbing our minds in the Supreme? Oh yeah, Bhavagatam. We all know that, but we are trying all other different ways first. And that’s why I’m not hopeful at all. But at least I know what would work for me so I know what I have to work on myself.

PS. One other thing, not related to the topic itself – during the discussion it was said that bhakti is a synthesis of the best things taken from karma and from jnana. In the same way it is said that Gaudiya Vaishnavism took two of the best things from each of the four other sampradayas. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but I would point out that all the best qualities seen in this world are “divisions” of Krishna and in the same way karma and jnana TAKE their best qualities from bhakti. Neither bhakti nor Krishna are a synthesis of various things which are neither bhakti nor Krishna. They are not an emerging phenomena in the same way modern science says consciousness emerges from interaction of matter.

4 comments on “Society Looking Forward

    • Thank you for sharing that article. Those are all valid questions and I could try to answer them in my own way but I’m not sure it will be satisfactory. I do relate to your frustration with these things and it took me a while to get over them myself. Personally, I don’t listen to people who preach like that, or at least ignore these speeches when I can’t get out of it.

  1. I’ve only been around ISKCON a few years, but previously (and currently, long story), I was in the Catholic Church, which has its own liberal / conservative split. In fact, the Catholic version makes ISKCON’s problems look like a garden tea party. The factions pretty much follow the same script: the conservatives think the changes have gone too far, the liberals that they have not gone far enough. The conservatives seem to have a very wooden and simplistic view of Magisterium (shastra), while the liberals barely refer to it at all. And so on. Mainly, the issue is that once one takes a posture on either side, the other side becomes the problem, but honestly, pretending to be above the fray just makes you more a part of it. Ultimately I “left” Catholicism because I thought the whole dispute proved that the whole ordeal wasn’t divine in origin, though I do think it is a legitimate path to God, just not mine.

    In terms of ISKCON, I think there is a healthier view at least of the legitimacy of “ecclesiastical authority,” than is present in the Catholic Church. I suppose those non-first generation devotees see their guru being as good as God, and that has to inform how they view the GBC and leadership, but I don’t think anyone views a GBC declaration at the level of a Papal encyclical coming out of the Vatican. As you indicate here, Prabhupada said we should stay in ISKCON and work it out, and that there should be many rooms in which the whole world can live. But that doesn’t mean ISKCON’s shape and organization is divine in origin, it’s just a stop-gap measure for Kali Yuga. I guess the difference between ISKCON and the Catholic Church is that one can be “doing the right thing” but still be wrong: there are many such instances in shastra and Gaudiya history to indicate this. If KW wants to go off and “gay marry” people, that’s probably not a deal-breaker, but it isn’t necessarily exemplary behavior either. Same with FDG. Maybe those devotees need to work it out and get it “out of their system,” that doesn’t mean it won’t be judged to be erroneous one thousand years from now. In a hundred years, it’ll all be different, probably.

    I guess my point is that, in Kali Yuga, we’re all just messing up. I am not initiated yet, not sure if I ever will be at this rate, but I remember how many senior devotees and Prabhupada himself has stated that chanting the Holy Names is the actual initiation. Other things are important, and I will not fail to avail myself of them should the opportunity arise, but they’re not truly essential. If anything, they help us in our chanting of the Holy Name. I am not sure if I am 100% right here, but it works out for my circumstances. I suppose the question is, and the reason why you are pessimistic, is how far you can bend that stick before it breaks? I don’t know either, but I guess the overall conditions aren’t good for this to improve anytime soon.

    • I’m not pessimistic about the future of ISKCON, I’m pessimistic about our current leadership being up for the challenge. The solution simply lies somewhere else or with someone else. Or the leaders might change with time, too. One thing is certain – everything changes and everything goes in circles.

      ISKCON being “transcendental” doesn’t mean it won’t go through the same stages of development and won’t make the same mistakes. “Going forward” in this way is one thing, but ISKCON exists for going inward, it exists for facilitating people’s spiritual progress, and our personal progress, which is inward, does not necessarily translates into forward movement, too.

      People will do whatever they have to do, be they GBC or non-GBC – this is just the universe rolling out its own plan. Who really cares? That’s not at all what we should be looking at or looking for. Quoting an old song from ISKCON’s 80s – “Look into the heart of existence, look into the spirit soul.”

      If we make a list of what we need and what helps – ISKCON provides plenty. Or rather Krishna provides, and most of it straight through ISKCON. What is there to complain? That someone somewhere wants a female guru for himself? Do I have to follow their example? No. Will it beak my back if I offer obeisances to some designated female guru? No. Do they care what I think? No, so how is that a problem for me? Why would I want to make it my problem? Will I help anyone by constantly raging against this FDG thing? No.

      It’s natural part of any growth – first there is one thing but then it starts sprouting offshoots. The process of branching out may bring confusion and even pain, but once this birthing is over things will be fine again, and probably even better. This happens all the time on all imaginable levels. No big deal.

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