Before Covid Mayapur festival was a showcase where leaders of our movement presented their latest ideas and realizations, and now it’s back. Excited with the opportunity, I started listening to daily Mayapur classes again. Vaisesika and Bhakti Vijnana Goswami are special cases, and the latest at the moment of typing is Bhakti Vikasa Swami’s class I haven’t listened to yet, so I’ll comment on three “liberals” instead – Devamrita Swami, Anuttama Prabhu, and Bhadri Narayana Swami. The last two are the names behind controversial NA GBC decisions so an insight into their thinking is valuable.
I’m not going to go through their lectures point by point, just summarize the “performance” of all three.
Their classes consist of two parts. First part is where they sing Jaya Radha Madhava, recite Bhagavatam verse, read out translation and purport, say a few standard words, and segue into what they really want to talk about, which comprises the second part. This second part has no connection to the first or to Bhagavatm in general apart from that segue. When talking about that second part references to Bhagavatam are scarce and at best supportive, ie they pick the evidence for their thinking, but this thinking itself is based on their personal experiences of living in the world, not on Bhagavatam per se.
I need to put a disclaimer here first – when people talk about their personal experiences they are going to be measured against experiences and realizations of others. Some would say “Wow! Never thought of it this way”, some would say “That’s what I’ve been thinking, too!”, and others would go “That was my thinking several lifetimes ago,” to paraphrase Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati.
We just can’t avoid this type of judgments but I think they should not be used beyond their scope – “this realization usually comes before that, and that realization usually evolves to that,” and so on. Krishna doesn’t judge His devotees like that, He judges them by how well they “perform” in their given position. Thus they can achieve full success from any step on the ladder of realizations.
Typically, there’s a progression through human forms of life until one become a fully realized brahmana, then one should become a vaishnava, but for those born in Lord Caitanya’s movement and dedicate their lives to chanting and preaching all these stages are understood to be in the past. They appear as members of this Hare Krishna movement to “do the needful”. In Anuttama’s case, for example, this “needful” includes interfacing on behalf of ISKCON with other religions, which means whatever deficiencies are there in the role itself are not necessarily deficiencies in Anuttama Prabhu as a devotee. They could be, but I would not indulge myself in these judgments. In other words, if anything in this article appears as describing faults – these are faults inbuilt into the roles these devotees play, not the faults in the devotees themselves. They have to do it this way for our society to function.
With that disclaimer out of the way, the second parts of their classes appeared to me as “Bhagavatam free”. Devamrita Swami went into extolling virtues of the UN and the panel of topmost scientists who calculate the position of Doomsday Clock. He just couldn’t stop talking about it. Srila Prabhupada was never impressed with the UN and its role has greatly diminished in this century, so why look at them with such awe and reverence?
Who knows any scientist who works on that Doomsday Clock? Even if some of us do – what are their big studies that demonstrate exceptional quality of their thinking? What is it about them that should impress us a students of Bhagavatam? Why should we pay so much attention to them? I mean travel all the way to Mayapur to hear our best spiritual leaders talk about something you can discuss for hours with total strangers on Reddit? Sounds like a waste of time.
Nevertheless, their latest explanation for moving their clock forward is notable – in the past we had institutions to hold back our hot headed political leaders but today there are no rules to keep them in check, they just do whatever *they* think is right, whatever they think at the moment, with no respect paid to their predecessors or customs or rules or anything.
Moreover, since even the Doomsday Clock people highlight the failure of institutions, why should we pay attention to the UN and quote UN Secretary General proclamations in our classes? That man is powerless and is often ignored by actual big powers like the US or Russia.
Anyway, Devamrita Swami’s segue to this part was “unity in diversity” and so he divided the world into two groups – “globalists”, who are obviously for unity in this thinking, and “territorials”. Globalists have one flaw – they don’t usually include animals into their vision, but Maharaj said that some of them have been noticing that and so, I think, they could become actual carriers of unity in diversity once they all go vegan. Okay, that’s an interesting classification, but it’s not based on Bhagavatam.
Bhagavatam offers all kinds of divisions for us to observe. If it’s in two then we have suras and asuras, if it’s in three we have three gunas, if it’s in four we have four varnas, if it’s in five we have Pancopasana – five types of religion, explained in detail by Bhaktivinoda Thakura. If it’s in six we have Six Darsanas. Some of these divisions are complimentary, ie varnas, some are evolutionary – first you go through this, then you evolve to that, as in case with Pancopasana or Sad-Darsanas. The point is that Bhagavatam gives are plenty of ways of looking at the world and classifying its elements. We just need to study them and become sastra-caksus. These would be real divisions, too – like Sankhya enumerates actual elements from which the world is made as opposed to modern chemistry.
But since we are not doing that, let’s talk about “globalists” and “territorials”. I would say that globalists are not for unity but for uniformity. They absolutely hate any meaningful diversity. Everyone should read the same news and discuss same topics on same phones after watching same movies while snacking on the same popcorn and same Pepsi. Everyone knows iPhone but when it first entered the market one of its big strengths was that it was just one iPhone, same size for all. I remember this argument very well – you go to Apple site and there is only one iPhone there, it was iPhone 4 at the time, and its beautiful. You go to Samsung site and there are hundreds of models there, all different, and you don’t know what to choose. iPhones had almost zero customizations by comparison, they all had the same ringtone and provided uniform experience to toddlers, grandmas, and top executives alike, and people loved it. That’s what globalization means – uniformity. Every country has to be a democracy, voting, elections, separation of powers, free press etc etc. When they join the EU, for example, every country has to update its internal laws and procedures to fit with EU’s and they have to embrace the same moral values, like LGBT rights. Globalization means uniformity, as I said.
Devamrita Swami might see it differently but I obviously think my description fits better. In any case – these are relative considerations. By Bhagavatam science I would go with “asuras”. I disagree with his description of the other group, “territorials”, too. They themselves talk about multi-polar world where everybody has the right to develop in their own way. Their concept is like Vedic mangala – several centers of power which thrive on their own and in cooperation. What they lack, for now, is the emperor to hold it all together, but such emperors were rare even in Vedic history. I mean even Maharaja Yudhisthira was not accepted as such by Kauravas after his Rajasuya sacrifice. This is something we should study very deeply ourselves first, but it’s not the time to do that here.
Anuttama Prabhu’s favorite topic is “Look how good Christians are!” This time he reminded himself not to quote from the Bible and sneaked only one quote only near the end, and the rest of the time he quoted his Christian friends. “This guy said this and that guy said that, look how humble they are, we can learn something from them, too.” Why not learn the same things from our Bhagavatam personalities? Why not learn from Caiatanya Lila?
At one point Anuttama Prabhu told an anecdote how he was with one of his Christian big shot friends, was left alone for a moment, and another Christian approached and tried to preach to him. When his Christian friend returned he apologized for the disturbance. Nice, right? Right, but this behavior is dictated by interfaith rules where everybody accepts that no one knows God and so shouldn’t talk about Him. NO PREACHING to each other. That’s their first rule. They cannot and will not select one of them the way sages of Naimisharanya selected Saunaka Rishi and Suta Goswami. It’s not that kind of community, which means no enlightenment can possibly take place there. Which means it’s a waste of time – unless we absolutely have to sit there for some political reasons, like getting government funding or seats on UN panels.
Besides, Christians are filled with “anyabhilasa” – desires other than pleasing the Lord. They all want to make *this* world into a better place, for example. Not a bad idea, of course, and we can find the same desire expressed by Srila Prabhupada, but it’s related to our behavior in *this* world – since we are already here we have to make the best deal out of a bad bargain, but not to the vision of perfect maha-bhagavata devotees who know that God is actually always in control, and whose ideas of what is better are very different from ours. It is better to make people hear Krishna’s name, for example. The name is absolute and no interfaith rules can override it. Of course we shouldn’t imitate these maha-bhagavatas and the name coming from our mouths would not normally carry the same power, but it’s a good point to always remember anyway. In any case, your average Christian ideas of what would be better should not be accepted at face value. They might think the world would be better if gays could marry each other, for example. Whatever, they are just not the best association to take, come to Mayapur and spread around.
Bhadri Narayan Swami’s pet topic is how God exists and science is wrong. He quoted this scientist saying something stupid and that scientist saying something stupid and another scientist saying something smart for a change, but it all was centered around the same old point – scientific explanation of the world is wrong. I don’t know how old it is, maybe starting with Easy Journey to Other Planets written before Srila Prabhupada came to America. To get the correct perception of the world, as it is described in Bhagavatam, we need to follow sadhana. That was Maharaja’s second point. He himself has been doing this for fifty years, got a sannyasa a few years ago, but didn’t display any actual insights that have been revealed to him as a result of his practice. It will definitely come in the future, we were assured. We just have to stay the course and eventually the right combination of chemicals that produces life will be found. Oh, wait, that’s what the scientists hope to find at the end of their so far fruitless practice. Our hopes are different. At the end of our so far fruitless practice we will discover something else.
Of course Maharaja would have something to say to this joke but I’ve recently seen it somewhere else, too – our Bhagavatam based but scientific model of the universe will be presented very soon and it will make perfect sense. We already have “Vedic Astronomy” book and the final result is just around the corner, maybe even tomorrow. This argument has been given for thirty years now, ever since that book had been published.
It wouldn’t be Bhadri Narayana Swami’s class if it wasn’t peppered with insightful anecdotes from Srila Prabhupada’s life. No one can possibly beat him at that. On second thought, though – what exactly makes these stories insightful or humorous? The choice is Maharajas. He sets the context and he gives a quote that stands out of *that* context, and that’s what gives it a “wow” factor. In other words, he shares what he finds insightful himself, but if he gets permanently stuck on “science is wrong and therefore God must exist” then his insights eventually become limited, too. Perfect for the role he plays but limited by the role itself. I mean how many times can you hear “the death rate in America is the same – 100%” and go “wow”? It would be like Ramananda Raya starting each conversation with Lord Caitanya with that same Padma Purana quote about varnasrama. He didn’t do that, did he? How many times are we expected to laugh at the same joke? I don’t think it’s what is meant by “talks about the Lord are ever fresh”. Thankfully, this one was not told in the class but I don’t think I heard any new Prabhupada quotes either.
It’s okay, we can’t make new quotes for the next ten thousand years anyway, but the same quotes shown in a new light would be appreciated – it all depends on our level of realization, on what it is we came to share. In this case it was “don’t believe the science, God must exist”. If you never heard Bhadri Narayana Swami give this lecture fifteen times before it might be interesting, but I am not one of these people. In fact, I stopped listening to his classes because they are all the same. I admit. Shame on me. I should probably go and drown myself somewhere for saying this. In atonement for this sin I promise I’ll listen to his next year class in Mayapur. Just in case I forget that science is wrong and Bhagavatam is right, which is always a real possibility (I mean me forgetting things). Actually, I will probably be missing Bhadri Narayana Swami’s voice and his jokes by then, so I will probably be delighted.
I should also mention that Risiraja/Ashish Daleela wrote at least a dozen books detailing how and why science got it wrong exactly if measured by Bhagavatam science, and another dozen books detailing how the same phenomena, ie universe or evolution, should be described in Bhagavatam terms. So I’m judging Bhadri Narayana Swami’s lecture against that lofty standard and I admit I can’t avoid this judgment. His ideas, however correct, are child’s play compared to the work done by Risiraja. They do not present the evolution of our thought, by which I mean progressively deeper understanding of the Bhagavatam.
All in all, I wish our leaders spent more time with our books than with their “outside” lives. That way they wouldn’t be lecturing us on the UN, Christians, or science instead of Bhagavatam, and it would come naturally. There’d be no need to remind them not to quote the Bible or anything like that. However, they behave and therefore speak according to their assigned roles in our society and the universe at large. It’s just how they are supposed to be, so what’s there to complain? “They are GBCs, we expect better of them,” one might object. Right, but GBC is a managing authority and management is not the highest thing in the world. If anyone wants something more they should look past this kind of leadership and transcend it, so to speak. Just like in that conversation with Ramananda Raya – “Yes, it’s true,” Lord Caitanya would say, “but it’s not enough so please tell me more.”
And, once again, I would avoid judging GBC devotees against the standards expected for their roles. I hope they are all doing better than fine, but whatever the correct answer is – it’s not my point at all.
PS. This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a question at the end of Anuttama Prabhu’s class. Someone sounding Indian said that we should accept Srila Prabhupada as our founder acharya whose words are absolute, but what to do about people who freely twist his words this way and that according to their whims? Anuttama Prabhu replied that to solve this problem SAC, headed by Urmila Prabhu, has developed a hermeneutics course. “I’m talking about this course exactly, that’s where the devotees freely speculate about Srila Prabhupada’s words!” the person counteracted. “Which course did you take?” – “The one offered by VIHE” – “Very strange, I took the same course twice and loved every minute of it.”
There was simply no easy way out of this situation. Effectively, Anuttama Prabhu had to prove to the devotee that his perception was wrong. On the spot. This kind of conversion rarely happens and it takes a lot of time and a lot of gentle persuasion, you can’t do it as the answer to the last question after the class. I didn’t take that course and have no intention of doing so, but I strongly suspect that devotee’s perception was correct, at least partially.
Anuttama Prabhu mentioned one episode with two sannyasis getting two opposite instructions as an example of Prabhupada’s statements that need reconciliation, but it depends on what one wants to see – there is a way to tell the same story without highlighting the contradiction. Hari Sauri Prabhu, who told it in his Transcendental Diary, was not confused by it, he found it mildly humorous, in a “wait a minute, did you notice that?” fashion. He didn’t need to create a hermenutics course about it and he didn’t see it as a problem that needs to be solved. To him Srila Prabhupada was wholesome at all times.
This needs a detailed explanation but my simple point here is this – hermeneutics was invented by and for people who need to justify their speculations. Like there is a famous instruction in the Vedas to perform agnihotra before sunrise, but then in another place it’s said that agnihotra should be performed after sunrise. There a system in Mimamsa that solves it but the larger point is that those who follow their gurus are never faced with this problem in the first place. Mimamsa solution in this case, btw, is to follow your guru, too. In other words – one would have to go looking for contradictions instead of doing his service, and when one finds them he’d need a system to resolve them, and the best way to resolve one’s doubt is to ask guru, is it not? But today we have these “hermeneutics” instead.