Vanity thought #1774. Another rant day

I think it’s essential to regularly change subject of one’s inquiry because it would protect us from unnecessary attachments. The only unchanging subject should be Krishna. Everything else in this world is touched by illusion and potentially dangerous. In discussing Sankhya, for example, we unavoidably step outside of what is given in Bhagavatam and even while we remain tethered to it we are still in a dangerous territory where we can easily fall victim to attractions of logic, reason, and our perceived rationality.

On our own we can see the world through Krishna conscious lens but when we engage with others and try to convince them of the errors of modern science we resort to using their own frame of reference and their own rules. This forces us to think like them and our Krishna conscious vision easily gets lost. Sankhya or not, we can’t reason people into accepting God.

Alternatively, our conviction in Krishna consciousness comes from being exposed to direct manifestation of the Lord in the form of the holy name or deities or through the words of our guru. This perception is primary and overrides all logic and reason. This argument follows from Sankhya where cit aspects of our being is subordinate to ananda, We don’t need logic to experience “good”, though we might need it to reconcile out feelings with the rest of the world around us.

Explanations of Krishna consciousness are no different from explanations of criminals in this respect. We justify our behavior to the public and so do they. We know Krishna consciousness is “good” and they know that their crime felt “good”, too. In both cases no one believes us because they have different perceptions of morality. We resort to justifying Krishna consciousness on the basis that it stops people from drug abuse or sexual misconduct but it does not convey the actual taste of serving the Lord. Criminal defense attorneys will equally find acceptable excuses like the need to provide for one’s family instead of admitting that stealing felt perfectly good on its own. We both try to appeal to what others consider good and moral instead of talking about our own perceptions of morality.

The point is that in order to preach we need to give people the same taste for God and “good”. We can’t express God in terms of sense gratification or renunciation, which are the only terms familiar to non-devotees. This means that whenever we argue science on its own ground we are not doing any preaching. At best we can seed some doubts but if they find someone who can restore their faith in science then all our efforts would be in vain and next time the same approach won’t work at all. They’ll know that proper authorities can easily refute our “conspiracy theories” and they won’t take us seriously.

Only actual taste of Krishna consciousness can open people’s eyes to reality, everything else can at best prepare them to take this opportunity when it arises.

Anyway, this isn’t what I was going to rant about today, but rather troubling developments over at Dandavats. It’s our official ISKCON’s site rather than a project by some individuals and so we expect it to maintain some standards. In fact, just as with Prabhupada’s books, we should learn to see the rest of the internet through Dandavats’ eyes. Of course, no one puts Dandavats on the level of our books but it’s perfectly reasonable for us to expect the site strictly follow our philosophy and serve as an authority on internet related matters.

What kind of content should be acceptable, which views and attitudes, what kind of discourse is encouraged and what is forbidden. How the site is moderated? What is the proper balance between news and articles on philosophy? How much space should be given to personal realizations? How much connection with the outside world should be visible?

All these questions are answered in Prabhupada’s books but mostly in principle. How they should be answered on the website is up to us, we ourselves have to accept the responsibility and make sure we do no deviate and do not take up the role of the acaryas.

Prabhupada’s books are all about Krishna related matters but sometimes he finds place for examples from the outside world, even more so in his lectures and conversations. He uses these examples as springboard to providing Krishna conscious answers to everyday problems and he does so without taking sides between capitalists and communists. We, on the other hand, often side with some materialistic views against others. Some see themselves as progressives and others as traditionalists and then our responses to female gurus or homosexuality issues are often driven by these positions in outside world rather than by pure Krishna consciousness. The very fact is that these became issues at all is the sign of external world intruding into our devotional lives. Veganism is another such issue.

Ideally, our official website should not fall for this but it happens. Srila Prabhupada also gave us principles of civilized Vedic debates where one should first of all represent an authority and not speak on his own but we often do not follow this and advance our own understanding of issues instead. Dandavats is actually pretty good in this area but there are exceptions, too.

Srila Prabhupada also showed us the kind of questions acceptable in vaishnava community and, most importantly, that they should be asked with proper attitude rather than be challenging. Once again, Dandavats is exemplary in this regards and it trains devotees to follow certain rules of a discourse. On the other hand, they don’t seem to be interested in devotees’ comments. After site redesign a few months ago comment section has been moved to the bottom of the page and I bet most visitors don’t even know it’s there. It looks like this is what site designers wanted rather than a simple oversight. Perhaps they don’t have the manpower to moderate active discussions, perhaps they don’t see much use for them at all. None of the articles that I read there have any comments either and I don’t recall article authors ever answering readers questions. It’s not like the Bhagavatam class where questions are a must and speaker ignoring them is unthinkable – we learned this from Prabhupada but don’t follow it outside actual Bhagavatam classes.

There are other aspects which I think need improvement on Dandavats and some of them are troubling for me. This rant will probably continue tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1540. Moving the anchor

I suppose moving the anchor is a difficult job for a small boat in a middle of a storm. If waves are too big and currents are too strong there’s no guarantee you’ll reach you desired anchoring place without being swept away, so the moment you lift it up you come at the mercy of the ocean, and slowly dragging the anchor along the bottom is not an option either. What to do?

We are more or less in the same situation but our anchor is Śrīla Prabhupāda. Losing our connection with him leads to immediate doom, you can’t move him – he is “guru”, heavy, but the preaching field might have shifted away from our anchored position. If it hasn’t done so yet it’s only a matter of time.

Our other anchor is books, we can’t deviate from them but if people need something else to reach their hearts we have nothing. Our corporate structure was designed around books, BBT prints them, ISKCON distributes them, and it hasn’t changed in the past half a century.

These days people read e-books, probably more than they read paper books, but out structure is not designed for distributing those. Our saṅkīrtana devotees do not walk around the malls giving out download links for a modest donation, that’s not how e-books work.

Internet has completely upended publishing industry and they adapted but we didn’t. Right in the beginning we caught “internet is free” virus and put all our books online. Not the BBT itself, they couldn’t be bothered, but volunteer devotees. For a while vedabase.net was a go to place for reading all Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books but that site had no formal affiliation with ISKCON, afaik, and then its owner got busted for keeping sexual slaves and eventually name lease expired, it’s inaccessible now.

Vedabase.com took over and it’s a site run by an official repository of Prabhupāda’s archives but it’s not BBT and if they printed their content on paper BBT would sue them, or GBC would order them to stop, whichever comes first. It’s also good for references but they don’t offer e-books for download, so it’s unreadable offline without some hacking. I doubt many people use it for actual reading rather than for quick look up and giving references.

The other big problem is that these archives were historically meant for devotees, they were not meant to attract general people, so their presentation is nothing like our printed books, it’s just a plain text on a background color from the 90s, plus a little texturing. It’s functional and absolutely perfect for devotees but if we had a print equivalent of this and tried to sell it to people on the streets Śrīla Prabhupāda would be outraged. He put so much effort in making our books look nice, he never compromised on quality. There are no pictures, no colorful jackets, nothing.

If someone asks us on the street if our books are available online we can certainly direct them to Vedabase or any other similar site hosting Bhagavad Gītā, but if it comes at the expense of not selling a book then it’s not saṅkīrtana the way Prabhupāda wanted it to be done. This is where it becomes complicated.

If we tell people to visit BBT site then there are two of those, one run by ex-ISKCON devotees who wrestled rights to works published during Prabhupāda’s lifetime but the correct one is BBTi, and it doesn’t offer any books for sale there.

If people want to purchase e-books they’d have to go to bbtmedia.com, or krishna.com, or krishna.org and follow the link to krishnastore.com. Oh, wait, that last one is run by another ex-ISKCON devotee and sells “original” books, not the current version published by BBTi. So, krishna.org is dodgy, but krishna.com is okay, you just go there, click on “store”, and can buy all the books there. Except for e-books, darn it, so you have to start again and go to Books menu and select e-books from there.

Our institutions are simply not designed for the internet age, and even proper e-books from bbtmedia.com come without illustrations, which is a shame. Well, maybe if you buy one it would be illustrated but I got mine when bbtmedia provided free downloads on request while there were still in the trial stage.

This turned into a long rant but the point was that we, as an organization, are firmly anchored to physical books. If people go swim around the internet we are not there, and we can’t move our anchor. What to do?

It’s the same question I left off with yesterday and I can probably think up some other ways to restate it.

How do we move forward? Wrong question – we should be moving to Kṛṣṇa, “forward” in the present context means going to hell. Should we follow people and try to catch them before they fall off the Earth? Yes, of course, that’s our given mission, but it’s in conflict with our commitment to staying with Prabhupāda.

We aren’t ācāryas in our own right yet and our inventions tend to backfire, there’s no one in our society who we can trust and use as a new anchor and we aren’t ready to tether ourselves to a new ācārya anyway, nor should we ever be, considering the way ISKCON defines itself.

The world, meanwhile is moving into a post-internet age of sorts where people have only apps and can’t be bothered to open browsers, type addresses, and use web interfaces. There are plenty of apps that bring websites to your phone to avoid this hassle but there are many big app names that first create apps and then add websites later, if anyone wants to use them at all. Mobile increasingly comes first, internet later.

Bbtmedia doesn’t offer any apps, to get their e-books one still has to go old fashioned way – go to website, download, read with an appropriate app for your device. Or buy them from official store for your platform. If you want apps there are plenty of them but they are all by other developers, often using BBT’s artwork. I don’t know if they infringe on BBT copyright there but it’s the same unholy mess as we have with books on the internet, only worse.

How can we catch attention of the people who not only never read paper books but hardly use their computers. Their lives are tethered to their phones and so are out of our reach. Should we move our anchor to be closer to them? I think it’s unavoidable, but, sadly, I only managed to state the case, not offer any solutions. Maybe tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1466. Resistance looks futile

Yesterday I discussed two alternatives to bhakti, karma and yoga, today it’s time to look at jñāna and I believe it requires deeper consideration because one way or another it holds a big sway over devotees, to the point that resisting it can be as frustrating as battling with lust.

Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī usually treated karma and jñāna as two sides of the same coin, bhoga and tyāga, as they define our attitude towards the material world. They are born of duality of “good” and “bad” experiences forced on us by the material nature. When things feel good, living entities get into bhoga, enjoyment, and so they get attracted to karma yoga. When things go bad they decide that this material world is an awful place and decide to reject it, tyaga, and go for jñāna.

Tyāga is generally good for spiritual progress because it frees one from the illusion that we can be enjoyers and so people following jñāna feel like they are genuinely progressing and finding peace and shelter in a higher reality. This, to me, is the main reason it’s so hard to defeat even for devotees, though we get plugged into this process in a different place and for different reasons.

In the begininng… wait, for us it looks like also in the middle and in the end, we do not have established spiritual relationships with neither Kṛṣṇa, Lord Caitanya, or our guru. We still see the world through our conditioning, deities still look like brass dolls, guru still looks like an ordinary person, and the Name still sounds like any other word. Nothing compels tears to flow from our eyes and nothing melts our hearts with devotion, and humility is still only a theoretical concept.

Deprived of truly spiritual devotional mellows we seek replacements anywhere we can find. Some of us dive deeper into books or get more books in hope to find the missing ingredient in the writings of previous ācāryas. Many of us take to the internet instead.

Maybe the truth can be found on facebook, maybe if we connect with devotees there we’ll finally fill the gaping hole in our hearts. Ditto for twitter. Pretty soon we find out that facebook is not used for devotional exchanges by anybody, it’s a place to share gossip and recipes, a place for prajalpa or gramyā-kathā – village talk in the global age. We can get the updates on who went where, visited who and ate what, but pretty soon we realize it’s a huge waste of everybody’s time. If some devotional topic gets everyone excited you can bet it will be some controversy and a huge fight will soon erupt leaving nothing but devastation in its wake.

Then there are blogs and personal websites and some of them are very very good and worth following but, usually, it’s just not enough, a lot of stuff there is directed at newcomers, and they are run rather impersonally by owners’ assistants, they offer institutionalized experience. The biggest problem is the scale, though. They just don’t have enough mass to keep us locked there forever, we need more.

The above describes an imaginary ideal path, most of us simply like the attraction of the internet and all the shiny things that are there. We go there to please ourselves and checking out devotional websites is only an excuse, and afterthought, a customary tribute to make us feel better and justify our addiction.

Could internet be a part of jñāna yoga? Yes, it can, we come here to learn new things, that’s a big part of it, and learning is jñāna. I’m not talking about those into staring at other people’s food, of course. Or porn. However, the learning potential here is very very small and there are way too many distractions to satisfy a genuine seeker, but we take good with bad, learning combined with pleasure, stay away from porn, and we are all good, right? Maybe, but it’s not enough.

We also seek genuine spirituality here, we check out religious boards and sites, try to find people with similar views on the world and try that “interfaith” thing on our own personal level. Sometimes we find them and when we succeed the contrast of experience invigorates us, it feels right and righteous and we want more of it. We want to find or build a genuine community of non-sectarian, level-headed truth seekers, free from trollish hoi polloi inhabiting most of the internet.

This experience gets us closer to real jñāna and it gives us genuine realizations about the nature of reality. We learn to see the error of humanity’s ways, the futility of most human endeavors, the arrogance and ignorance of our leaders, the bewilderment of our thinkers, the misguided passion of neo-atheists. It can be as eye opening and mind blowing as anything, and we collect lots of allies on the way.

In terms of jñāna yoga it should qualify as developing one of the four basic qualities, viveka, discrimination between spiritual and non-spiritual. The other three are renunciation, self control and development of other sattvic qualities, and intense yearning for liberation.

These are only qualifying stages, though, a student in advaita tradition is supposed to go through twelve years of training to master them before he gets to actual practice which might lead, if everything goes right, to real jñāna, which is realizations of the Absolute happening in one’s mind, not just learning things here and there.

Completing and succeeding in his entire process is obviously out of question, what we get instead is mere crumbs on the path of nondual realization but we get so excited about it that we think it justifies the existence of the internet itself.

Let’s make a few things clear. It IS a nondual, advaita realization, as it is inherently non-devotional and does not channel Lord’s mercy, it can’t lead to anything else but impersonalism. However much we might enjoy the communal spirit of this discovery, real jñāna is a solitary practice. What they call “satsang” is only a helping tool which should be abandoned as one makes sufficient progress.

Secondly, we’ll get a lot more buck for our time if we stay off these distractions and sincerely engage ourselves in devotional service. We can say that it doesn’t feel like we are making any progress but we should remember that success in our lives is remembering Kṛṣṇa at the moment of death. This alone will justify everything we did and everything we sacrificed to get there, and that includes giving up the company of non-devotees.

If we don’t feel like we are making progress it’s because we are not doing it right and we won’t make more progress if we stop doing it altogether either. Substituting service for hanging out with māyāvādīs is not a solution, it only deepens our problem.

Sometimes we feel like we did a great job if we managed to extend our hand, swallow our pride, and establish rapport with “fellow spiritualists”. What we really accomplish, however, is getting association of non-devotees of the most dangerous kind (well, Christians and Muslim probably shouldn’t count, but Buddhists should). Lord Caitanya was very emphatic about it – DO NOT ASSOCIATE with māyāvādīs, those attached to sex, and non-devotees of any kind. What do we hope to achieve by rejecting this injunction? More mercy?

Nope, all we get is crumbs off māyāvādī table and we will lock ourselves from making any progress in real devotional service altogether. Does that sound like an acceptable deal?

Finally, I think trying to establish a devotional community on the internet is like setting a temple in the middle of a seedy honky tonk district. Sure, there will always be some bar stool philosophers wandering over with beer in their hands to engage in lively “spiritual” debates but no sane devotee should ever step foot in this place in search of enlightenment and association. If we can’t avoid it altogether we should seriously think how to make the best deal out of it, and it’s hard, really hard.

Vanity thought #732. Internet addiction

Is it a real thing? Should it be included in regulative principles? Do we have to battle it or can we just ignore it as non-threatening to our devotional life?

Psychologists are still in two minds about this. Some call it a disorder, some say it’s not a medical condition yet. Actually, there are several kinds of this addiction – to the use of computers, video games, the Internet itself, online games and, most recently, using mobile phones. The last one surely is a “thing” and worldwide it’s getting out of hand (evidence).

What makes it special is that it incorporates normal, daily events rather than completely excludes them as when you spend all you waking hours in the basement battling other World of Warcraft addicts.

Last year it featured in the London Olympics opening ceremony as a feature of modern Britain, when a kid in a family hasn’t lifted his eyes off a phone for the whole episode he was in.

Generally it’s still considered rude but in some countries answering a phone call or checking Whatsapp messages during a job interview is perfectly normal, one guy even swears one applicant MADE a call during a job interview. People just can’t restrain themselves.

I should also mention Michigan University study that made rounds of the news sites this past week that shows that using Facebook makes people unhappy (see here).

So, should we be worried?

It’d be futile to search through our books for the answer – there was no such thing as Internet in Prabhupada’s time, there weren’t computers to speak of and there weren’t any video games. I don’t think Srila Prabhupada knew and spoke much about television. Example :

I have seen some television. People are learning how to smash, how to steal, how to harass people. Things are being shown like that. Not that “You are soul. You are spirit soul. If you degrade yourself, you then get this.” You make that television, that how transmigration of the soul is taking place. They have manufactured the machine, so utilize for your propaganda.

Generally he called it a frivolous activity, like prajalpa, and didn’t take it very seriously. In the eighties and the nineties, however, effects of watching too much TV have been noticed by karmis themselves and it became a “thing”, too, though, just like with the Internet, it’s not a real diagnosis yet.

Personally, I think it should be covered by “no gambling” rule.

Our books don’t deal with the subject of addiction in detail. Srila Prabhupada used this word just like everyone else and expected that people know what it means but actually there are several key symptoms that define addiction – mood alteration, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms and relapses etc.

If we transpose that on our rules than substance addiction is clearly covered by “no drinking” while behavioral addiction, like the Internet one, better fits with “no gambling”.

Why gambling is prohibited at all? I don’t think we have a definitive answer but mostly it’s because it quickly becomes addictive and one is prone to putting too much value on too trivial bets in order to keep his buzz going. I mean what is the significance of a number of dots on a die? Nothing, but Pandavas lost their fortune and their wife on a bet and they just couldn’t help themselves.

Well, as kshatriays they couldn’t shy away from a challenge but Duryodhana also counted on Maharaja Yudhishthira weakness for gambling.

Addiction to the Internet, TV, or mobile phones is less damaging in terms of actual loss but we have “no gambling” principle not to keep our money but to keep our heads cool and clear, and it’s impossible if you can’t finish a sentence without touching your phone because you are so close to completing this level in Candy Crush Saga. Or you can’t eat peacefully without instagramming your food first.

The mind becomes impossible to control, and that should be our “no no” threshold, and that is clearly a feature of gambling.

Unlike gambling, though, it’s impossible to live without phones or the Internet. With gambling we know what to avoid, what do we avoid when using our phones? Is it no more serious than prajalpa – need to avoid but it’s not a regulative principle we promise to follow at the time of initiation.

There’s also the fact that behavioral addiction doesn’t affect everybody equally. Not everyone becomes a compulsive gambler and only about ten percent of users become game or Internet addicts, there’s no agreement on this yet.

On the other hand the fist link in this blog shows that people value their phones more than supposedly best moments of their lives. Some of those were probably staged or taken out of context or plainly untrue but think of that as illustration, not as proof.

If a phone become more important to you than a girl you just met than something seriously dangerous going on here. It surely isn’t a sign of losing interest in sex, it’s a sign of replacing it with something even more powerful. Btw, the main problem with illicit sex is that it’s also addictive, not that it might produce less than perfect offspring. Sex addiction is also a thing and some treat it just as they treat alcoholism.

Anyway, it’s obviously a matter of personal discretion as modern addictions don’t easily map to our thousand year old rules. Sometimes you have your ISKCON authorities who can make such decisions for you but if you are not a temple resident they won’t even try to control you, you are on your own.

This is the area where we can try to behave like grownups and take some responsibility for our own spiritual development. When we see it that way we are not likely to simply indulge ourselves in whatever it is that attracts us, and that is a good thing already.

Vanity thought #369. Internet minus

We were discussing various ways to access Prabhupada’s books the other day and turns out there’s no better time in history than now.

No one can lug all the volumes of Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita around, it’s nice to have them in the library but I don’t have one. When computers became a part of devotees’ lives BBT came up with a Folio – a program that has all Prabhupada’s works in one place, not just books but letters, lectures, morning walks, room conversations etc.

Folio quickly became the standard mode for studying the books for anyone with a computer or a notebook. The problem was that it cost a significant amount of money and only “professionals” could afford it, and it wasn’t on the Internet. BBT then put all the major books online on Vedabase site.

Now anyone can not only read Gita and Bhagavatam but also check the usage of Sanskrit words and their translations all across Prabhupada’s works, and there’s Brahma Samhita there, too.

The problem is, however, that it’s not easily searchable. In fact there are no search boxes anywhere on the site. To get around this there’s a fairly easy way, you just have to know what the book you are searching in is called on the site – vedabase.net/bg is for Bhagavat Gina, vedabase.net/sb is for Srimad Bhagavatam etc. Then you can go to google and type something like “hell site:vedabase.net/sb” to find all occurrences of the word “hell” in Srimad Bhagavatam.

That makes the site very usable, but supremely merciful BBT went a step further – recently they converted all major books to e-format that can be read on any computer or a mobile device with generic e-book readers. Until the end of this month they are offering free downloads to anyone who registers at BBTmedia.

Now you don’t need to be online to read the books and they are much easier to search.

There’s one remaining problem, though – we still don’t have downloadable lectures, letters and conversations. There’s a lot of Prabhupada’s wisdom and rare insights in those. Luckily we have another website to provide us all the treasures from the chest of Prabhupada’s legacy – Vaniquotes. It is searchable and it’s very well organized by topics and is quickly becoming a default location for all my research on “Prabhupada said”.

So, with all these options, why am I calling today’s entry “Internet minus”? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I be satisfied with what I have instead of looking for faults? Maybe it’s because all this information, however easily available, is ultimately useless.

In the olden days if you wanted to know something you had to approach a senior devotee and ask a question. Even fifteen years ago, in the glory days of COM, the most successful ISKCON discussion board ever, you had to ask questions in order to find answers. You could also browse older topics and suddenly everyone had access to a lot of very exciting stuff. I thought that the manner in which you find those answers was not as important as answers themselves but now I’m starting to change my mind dramatically.

Now I think that it’s not important what you know, it’s important how you learned it. The import of Vedic knowledge opens up from within the heart to those who have firm faith in guru and Krishna – yasya deve para bhaktir yatha deve tatha gurau tasyaite kathita hy arthah prakasante mahatmanah. One implication is that it doesn’t open up without submissively hearing from guru or authoritative sources.

Reading stuff online does not guarantee submissive hearing, especially if knowledge obtained this way is used to argue with senior devotees or to protect one’s own position or reputation. We have an obligation to study Prabhupada’s books but this online education usually takes people a lot further than that – into works of the Six Goswamis and other esoteric literature. We don’t have an explicit permission to study those.

In fact I just did a quick search and found that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura thought that only one copy of intimate works of the Goswamis should be preserved for posterity and the rest should be destroyed, considering the paucity of the persons qualified to read them.

So this is one minus for the ease of access to practically unlimited volume of knowledge – it has the potential to be used not in service of guru and Krishna but for our own gratification, and the knowledge obtained bypassing guru and other authorized channels can be very dangerous to our spiritual lives.

The Internet is a great repository of knowledge but its users tend to forget that real knowledge lies in our hearts and unless it’s awakened in the hearts through submissive hearing all this knowledge is just information, it doesn’t bring us closer to God or make us better devotees, it only takes away our precious time.

This brings me to my main gripe today – self-learning online comes at the expense of the most important, in fact the only important activity in our lives – association with devotees. If you search for something you are not getting any association, you just take your answer and go.

In the olden days, before self-education become available, you had to get someone’s association, that was the only way to learn something, and they would give you an answer according to your context and their realization and that’s what made those exchanges into genuine sankirtana and hari katha.

Now we replaced Q&A way of learning and one of the reasons for this “development” is that we want to hear exactly what Prabhupada said on this or that subject or exactly how it appears in Bhagavatam because we don’t trust devotees anymore. In that aspect we think that sadhu sanga is dangerous for our spiritual lives and we avoid it if possible. We think we can go it alone and we think that we have the ability and authority to judge everything ourselves, just because we’ve got Internet connection.

Now even if you ask someone something you might get only a link to a page with information, people don’t bother with answering themselves, they don’t see the value in passing the knowledge of Krishna to others. I’ll discuss possible reasons some other day.

To sum it up – we got all spiritual knowledge at our fingertips but this is where it tends to stay because we don’t open our hearts to submissively hearing anymore and the availability of information is depriving us of the only process that awakens devotion in our hearts – association with devotees, even if in digital form.

Vanity thought #274. Bhaktivinoda Thakur. Conversion.

When Bhaktivinoda Thakur lived in Chapra he got attracted to eating improper food (don’t want to open the post with words “meat” and “fish”), and tasting local variety of pickles that gave him an ulcer. He later moved to Purneah where his disease went away. It appears it was the best method of maintaining health in those days – move to a more suitable place, even if it’s only a few kilometers away, it has always worked. Chapra is only five kilometers from Mayapur, for example.

From Purneah he moved to Dijnapur and, in his own words, “Vaishnava religion was fairly strong” there. Local rulers and influential persons maintained many brahmana pundit assemblies and there were many renuncitates living there. Apparently this is what could make all the difference for potential devotees. Bhaktivinoda Thakur wasn’t a potential devotee, he was a “hidden” devotee but I think the point still stands – support from the ruling classes is very very important for spreading Krishna Consciousness, or any other religion, for that matter. Without this support grassroots movements probably can’t survive at all, not in the long run. ISKCON needs to convince world leaders if we have any hope of creating a Golden Age.

Anyway, in Dijnapur, as was in Midnapur a few years earlier, there was some tension between followers of Brahmo and Hindu traditionalists who wanted to “put Brahmos out of their caste”. It’s at this time when Kedar Nath finally disassociated himself from Brahmo and declared allegiance to vaishnavism. He gave a very big speech in front of many local luminaries that was later made into a book “The Bhagavat: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics and Its Theology.” It wasn’t very pleasing to traditionalists but it was even harsher on Brahmos.

In that speech Kedar Nath criticized reformist approach of Brahmo founter, Ram Mohan Roy and he also criticized racist thinking among Calcutta intelligentsia, and his own, too. They have never ever gave Srimad Bhagavatam any credit and young Kedar wasn’t any different, but now he finally saw the light, so to speak.

To the Hindus he directed the part about non-sectarianism and open minded approach to all religions, looking at the substance rather than superficial issues. I’ll just give a quote from Mataji Nalini Kanta’s work here:

Both Brahmos and Hindus thus duly chastened for their narrow-mindedness, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura then systematically glorifies the Bhagavata, its categories of knowledge: sambandha, abhideya and prayojana, its universality, its profundity, the mysterious nature of Krishna’s sports with the gopés, etc.

This is indeed a remarkable transformation on his part. At this point I’m getting a bit tired of reminding myself that there are no transformations in the nature of an eternally liberated soul such as Bhaktivinoda Thakur. I assume that it’s true but it doesn’t mean there were no transformations to his external behavior while on this Earth, and by external I also mean his mind, intelligence and understanding. I’m also pretty sure he had no idea of his eternal identity at that point yet.

In fact I’m advocating reading his biography “as it is”, and same goes for his speeches, especially if he himself acknowledges deficiencies in his earlier understanding.

Now, the way these transformations happened to him does not mean they will happen to us in exactly the same manner so there should be no imitating and no “but you did this for Bhaktivinoda Thakur” pleas to Krishna, but in the context of his own life they worked as intended – he heard about Bhagavatam from a vaishnava but nothing happened until he moved to the area where he had a lot of vaishnava association. This proves that we can’t make progress on our own, devotion spreads only through devotees.

In his autobiography he also writes about his love for listening to kirtan. He goes about it in a curious way, though, he talks about Manoharshahi kind of kirtan that conquered his heart. Turns out Manohar Shahi is a traditional style of Gaudiya kirtan, actually not so much kritan as we know it but a style of music. I’m pretty sure he listened to glorification of the Lord Hari but when Bhaktivinoda Thakur heard it for the first time it was the style that made the biggest impression on him and he goes on to say that he would never listen to anything else anymore. This is pretty much as our neophytes fall in love with our style of kirtans, which is not quite the same as classical Bengali music and Manohar Shahi, afaik.

Who cares if he got distracted by style? Or that he couldn’t recognize that it was actually kirtan that made such profound changes in his heart, not the style. I bet he was too overwhelmed to notice the difference. In our practical life, though, it shows that proper singing is important, it’s not just a superficial aspect.

Another important point was that he finally procured copies of both Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita. The above mentioned lecture was the result of his studying both books, though it wasn’t a smooth sailing, too.

I don’t know how much it matters in this instance but he probably couldn’t read Sanskrit at that time as he mentions he got a translation of Bhagavatam. I don’t know whether that translation included Sridhar Swami’s commentary that he came to appreciate so much later on. Srimad Bhagavatam with Sridhara Swami’s purports was the main reference for Srila Prabhupada’s translation, too.

Maybe he could read Sanskrit then, maybe he couldn’t, he was good at learning languages anyway. Once he was assigned to an area where people mainly communicated in Urdu and he learned that language and even written a few books in it.

Anyway, his first reading of Chaitanya Charitamrita gave him a “little faith”, the second reading made him think that there was no other learned pundit as Lord Chatianya but that wasn’t the end of the road either because he still had doubts, and the nature of his doubts make me doubt that he understood much at all. I’m speaking from my perspective here, how I would imagine a person would progress through reading Chaitantya Charitamrita and Srimad Bhagavatam after being exposed to ISKCON preaching and Bhagavat Gita.

Again, in Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s own words about Chaitanya Mahaprabhu:

…being this sort of pandit, and having revealed the reality of love to such a degreee, how is it that He recomends the worship of the improper character of Krishna?

My question here is – how was that Kedarnath didn’t know the first thing about Krishna after reading Chaitanya Charitamrita? To answer this I think we need to realize that we come to this book from very different backgrounds. We first learn about Bhagavat Gita from Srila Prabhupada and his followers. For practical purposes his translation and purports give us all spiritual knowledge we will ever need in this lifetime. That includes all we need to know about Krishna, too. Of course there’s a lot more in Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita but for the vast majority of us those will remain “just books” for a very very long time, until we gradually cleanse our hearts to appreaciate their true spiritual beauty.

On the superficial level, though, any graduate from a bhakta program can tell Bhaktivinoda Thakur all about his doubts in Krishna, his character and his relationships with Srimati Radharani and other gopis. Many of us can give these explanations in our sleep. In our heads everything is so logical and organized.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur, however, didn’t have this kind of background. He probably knew all about Gita that there was to know at that time but he never heard its explanation from a devotee. Consequently he had no idea who Krishna was, just as in his childhood he had no idea what Deities were, he just worshiped them with faith and devotion. We know all about the Deities but have no devotion or even humility in our hearts. We are children of Kali Yuga, our path starts in different places and has its own set of obstacles.

In Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s case the obstacle was the lack of formal knowledge and he addressed it as a devotee – by praying to the Lord for intelligence, and the Lord provided.

When we want to know something we go on the Internet and in a matter of seconds we can find an answer to any question that is bothering us. In fact questions themselves don’t bother us anymore, our main concern is access to the Internet, it has become an external repository for our knowledge. Once we are online the difference between knowing an answer and not knowing it becomes very very thin. We might forget the answers with time but we always know how to retrieve them back.

Does it help us with our devotion, though? Does this outsourced knowledge make our hearts any softer? Do our question matter if the answers are so easy to find?

Bhaktivinoda Thakur had natural predisposition, he got a few books and that was everything he needed to become the greatest acharya ever. I should mention here that in addition to Srimad Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita he also got books by the Six Goswamis, he mentioned it in his speech which was obviously given after all his doubts went away in response to his sincere prayers.

Anyway, when he moved to Puri a year or two later he might not have been an accomplished acharya yet but he was an accomplished scholar of vaishnava siddhanta already. Next chapter of his life was about to be opened.

Vanity thought #209. And the Internet.

No report to Prabhupada and no request for advice should come without mentioning the Internet. The Internet has absolutely redefined our civilization and relationships between people and we don’t really know how to deal with it while trying to carry out Prabhupada’s mission.

Since Prabhupada’s departure we also had a TV revolution. There was television in his days, too, but it wasn’t nearly as important and all-pervading as it was in the eighties and nineties.

A lot has been said about television, its evils and brainwashing had been castigated by just about every religion. Family night together meant watching the same TV show but in different rooms, or some jokes like that.

We, as devotees, however, missed on all the fun. We blamed the TV alright but we didn’t have enough expertise and resources to utilize it in preaching. Our society was young, Prabhupada wasn’t there to give us definite answers, the medium was very dodgy, and we didn’t have access.

One thing about the TV is that it concentrates a lot of power in a very few hands, and those hands weren’t ours at that time. Even if we had access to some big network TV channel we didn’t have enough content to show to the world. Our life is pretty boring by world’s stadards – we have the same services every day, only lectures are a bit different. For us the routine is a safe heaven, for people outside it’s drub and off-putting.

We just didn’t have enough imagination, we weren’t mature enough to talk about things people understand and appreciate and get attracted to without losing our own ground. We could turn every subject into a preaching opportunity but people can predict our every next word. Once you hear one pitch you heard all others. It might be important to us and important for spiritual practice but people of modern age need variety and innovation.

It’s sad that we talk about Lord’s never ending pastimes but all we know ourselves is a few short stories from Bhagavatam. Sometimes I think that to compensate for this deficiency some of us made it a point to stress reading the same stories over and over and claiming they never get stale.

It’s puzzling to me – do we really see how they look to non-devotees? The stories, told as a matter of fact by non-devotees are rather ordinary. World mythology has seen better, more suspensful, more humane, more emotional stories than any of ours. What makes them alive and attractive for us is the devotion but not everybody can appreciate them in the same way and very few people have this gift to freely share, the rest of us are just imitating and it shows.

When the movie Matrix came out a decade ago many were blown away by how our philosophy can be retold in such generic sci-fi terms. Of course it wasn’t exactly our story but many still wished they could explain the existence of the spirit souls and the illusion covering them better than did the Matrix. I still think it’s impossible.

My point is that in the golden era of the TV we weren’t ready but that time has passed anyway, now TV has been replaced by the Internet, and we are facing the same questions – how to use this new medium in our preaching.

We started off very well, I think. Our COM was a very lively virtual place to keep our gurus connected to their thousands of disciples. It wasn’t perfect but anyone had a real chance at asking a question about either the personal life or philosophy and getting an answer within a day or so. It wasn’t as big as Usenet or Bulletin Boards that came earlier but for our small society it was really big.

It wasn’t the Internet as we know it now, though, it was basically an e-mail service, it wasn’t world wide web, and, unfortunately, it died, too. Maybe its descendant, pamho.net, is still going strong, I’m not a member, I don’t know, but sometimes when I search for things Google gives me archives of the old COM discussions, never seen pamho.

E-mail is so last century anyway, it’s too formal and official, to the modern online communication it is like letters to, well, e-mail itself. People are now constantly in touch, you could reach anyone immediately and share pictures or even videos. Sometimes I myself can’t be arsed to go upstairs and ask for something, I send a message instead.

Everybody who is anybody is always online, on Facebook, or reachable on their phones if they are away from the computers. For the new generation of people being in this constant, uninterrupted state of being online is the only reality they know. They don’t even watch TV anymore, it’s not interactive enough.

And into this world we come with our books. I don’t know, sometimes I feel that encyclopedia salesmen have got the point ages ago but we still believe that people get knowledge from books. Many do but many don’t and never will.

I don’t mean to say that our sankirtana is useless. Not at all, I’m saying that it is not as effective as it was in the pre-Internet age and we are leaving a lot of people out. Maybe they don’t deserve it, maybe if we at least get them to donate something and walk away with a book they might never read they would still get spiritual benefits. Maybe it is so, actually I’m certain it is so, but what’s bothering me is that we insist on not changing our ways for reasons other than saving people’s lives.

We can’t convince people ourselves and so we leave it to Prabhupada to preach to them through his books. Unfortunately, Prabhupada can’t adjust his message anymore. He adjusted it for us but he can’t adjust it for the generation of onliners, and we don’t have enough power to do it ourselves.

He didn’t leave us any instructions on how to preach on the Internet and so we are avoiding it. We believe that book distribution is what pleases him the most but we tend to avoid admitting that book distribution does not automatically mean attracting people to Krishna consciousness, it’s getting the message that does, and books are not the best medium anymore.

Of course we have massive online presence. Every temple, every community has got a website, we have chakra, we have dandavats, we have iskcon desire tree, we have vedabase, we have Mayapur webcams. I never got them to work but I’ve seen at least still shots of Pancha Tattva, so it’s a start.

Yet we don’t have COM anymore. For all the tens of thousands of devotees and a wider community we don’t have a successful discussion board in English. There are bits and pieces here and there and each guru is reachable via his own blog or website but there’s no community. I think it’s much better in non-English speaking countries.

If we attract people we don’t have much to offer them online, they can read up on the basics like cooking and ask questions about japa but I haven’t seen an engaging philosophical discussion in years. In fact digging any deeper would bring up endless flow of controversial stuff from ten years ago. Gaudiya Mathas, origin of the jiva, qualifications of the guru, ritvics – people are much more likely to find all that than seasoned devotees ready to explain our side of the story, there are a couple of official GBC papers and that’s all, no living persons.

Maybe I am unique that way, maybe vast majority of devotees don’t have time to hang out on the Internet, though my tweeter feed never sleeps. Maybe the reason is that there aren’t just enough of us – I was pretty active on our local politics board and it has fifteen thousand members. The tech board I’m following now has four million members. We can’t compete with that even if we get every devotee online.

We are too few and far between to set the agenda for the rest of the world, a little blip on the Internet radar. Should it stay that way?

Ebooks now outsell paper editions on Amazon but we don’t have anything from BBT there.

It looks like we got stuck firmly in the previous century and the world is simply passing us by as irrelevant and outdated. I don’t think Srila Prabhupada would settle for this. In his time we were on the edge or spirituality and his books were simply mind blowing, and they still are, but now they are more like a blast from the past, from the days when people read books and wrote their own drivers.

The drivers part is an old Linux folklore, in the beginning, if you wanted a printer or a mouse to work, you had to write your own drivers, no one prepared any installation programs yet. Now, of course, it’s just plug and play, we don’t even think about it anymore, just as people don’t read books.

I believe it’s time for us to adapt our message to the modern age. Simply copy-pasting stuff form books to the websites doesn’t work, we need an entirely new approach and presentation.

More on that to follow.