Vanity thought #1275. Off the chest

I’ve been collecting some grievances for a while now and can’t resist the temptation to spill them out in the open. It’s probably not the right thing to do but I’m going with modern psycho therapy here – it’s better to articulate your issues and start dealing with them then keep them bottled up only to have them spring out on you when you least expect it.

Practically, this means that next time I talk about these devotees my perception of them could be colored by long held biases and this might lead to some serious misunderstandings and breaks in communication.

So, in no particular order and without any names…

There’s one devotee whose dedication to service of our mission has always fascinated me. He is steadfast, unpretentious, austere, and does nothing but preaching. He also regularly runs massive kīrtana melās. It’s these long kīrtanas that I could never get so I decided to give it a go and listen carefully, maybe I missed something due to a lack of concentration.

Maybe I got the wrong recording but I it started with mahārāja constantly telling people how to sing. Turns out he has an accompanying kīrtana group that has been playing with him for some time and they have certain standards to uphold. Devotees in the audience just couldn’t get it and were out of sync (not out of tune). They were less enthusiastic when expected, overly enthusiastic when kīrtana was supposed to be slow and quiet, something was always wrong and mahārāja had to correct them nearly at every step.

All in all I got an impression that it was all about perfect performance rather than singing and listening to the Holy Name. Then there was a long riff without any singing at all that left me totally convinced that it was more of a concert than a kīrtana.

Yes, his band has mastered musical instruments and is very pleasing to the ear but I’m not sure it was equally pleasing to the Lord. I can understand playing music in front of the deities but even that is not usually practiced in our tradition. In this connection I always remember Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarsvatī interfering during one kīrtana where the lead singer extended syllables of the Holy Name to make them fit his beautiful melody. “You could have sung three mantras at the same time and gotten three times more benefit,” said Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta. I don’t think he would approve no singing at all.

And then the kīrtana went into singing Rādhe Śyāma Rādhe Śyāma Śyāma Śyāma Rādhe Rādhe instead of Hare Kṛṣṇa mahāmantra. To me it was totally unacceptable because Śrīla Prabhupāda was very srict about inventing our own mantras or copying them off god knows who.

One could say that these are still the Holy Names and so no harm is done but this argument ignores the point that the Holy Name descends to us from the lips of our guru. Our guru is the one who channels Lord’s spiritual energy for us. Whatever we imagine ourselves or take from unauthorized sources might look like a Holy Name but it will never be revealed to us. We will be trying to access the Holy Name with our mundane mind and senses and in that position we will never be able to touch even the drop of the actual spiritual truth that is fully transcendental and imperceptible for such mundane empiricists.

The idea that singing Rādhe Śyāma was somehow expressing spiritual longing for their association does not hold against “only by the mercy of the guru” principle. It is artificial just as producing sweet melodies for their own sake or for the sake of our own enjoyment. Imagining that this mundane sweetness is somehow infused with real spiritual potencies is sahajīya. We should not fall into this trap. I don’t think I will willingly listen to this kīrtana group ever again, they are off my list until they change their ways.

In ISKCON we also have no shortage of devotees who are accused of some form deviation or other. What I usually do in these cases is listen to the devotees themselves. Sometimes their honesty and devotion beat all the opposing arguments, which could be likened to compaints about foam on the surface of the Ganges. Sometimes this contrarian approach works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes, after listening to devotees, I realize that our complaints are mostly products of our imagination or results of our unrealistic demands about what it means to be “pure”. Today I’m talking about cases where it didn’t work.

There’s one mahārāja who is regularly accused of taking wrong association so I’ve downloaded a couple of his lectures to see if there is anything really wrong with him. On the plus side is the fact that he has only Kṛṣṇa on his mind, there’s nothing else there, safe for usual crap that we are forced to endure to survive in the material world. He somehow turns everything into using it for Kṛṣṇa’s service and that is enough for me. I still can’t listen to his classes, though. His expectations of how Bhāgavatam classes should go are very different from mine.

He always, always asks questions of his audience and he expects everyone to answer or raise their hands, it looks like he does actual hand counts and the concept of “rhetorical question” is foreign to him. If, in the middle of the class, he asks devotees what’s on their minds right now he’d expect everyone to immediately give an honest answer. Needless to say, it doesn’t work, and that makes him frustrated.

I’ve heard him lamenting that devotees in the audience lack concentration, then he goes off to reflect on possible reasons for it, he talks about being hungry or sleepy and he preaches against succumbing to these natural urges. He tries to wake everyone up by asking more questions or raising his voice and if people do not respond his frustration only builds up.

All we want is to sit and listen to Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. It’s time for hearing, not for talking. It’s not the time to have a conversation about it, it’s not the time to express our own, inherently mundane feelings, we just want to listen to Bhāgavatam, please don’t vex our memories, please don’t demand us to guess ślokas you are going to quote, it’s no the right time for that.

During Bhāgavatam class we are supposed to sit and absorb it like sponges. Then we have to process the information and internalize it. We might not have questions worth asking until we fully digested the subject and made it part of our own intelligence. That’s when we might ask for clarifications. Either way, question time is reserved for the end of the class and it’s supposed to be short and to the point. We all know that asking relevant questions is not as easy as it sounds, certainly not when you are demanded to speak up in the middle of the lecture.

These “interactive” Bhāgavatam classes is our tribute to the modern culture and its fascination with powerful presentations. Not trying to be sexist, but it’s our female devotees who are always after innovations and improvements. Whenever I see or hear a mātājī giving a class I resign to it being presented in some new and improved format. Some introduce power point presentations illustrating the subject, some use guitars during singing Jaya Rādhā Mādhava. Some bring gurukulīs to stage short plays on the topic and so on.

Many of these mātājīs are gurukula teachers, I guess, and so they treat the audience like a bunch of six-year olds. They expect us to finish their sentences for them, for example. “And then Kṛṣṇa went to..? And the second principle of devotion is..?” I somehow find it very annoying. If I knew all the answers I wouldn’t need to learn, and if it’s a Bhāgavatam class then I’m not here for answers, I’d rather have my mind and intelligence dissolve in the background and forget they even exist. Bhāgavatam should be speaking directly to our hearts and the less interference from material body is there the better.

There’s another case that worries me and I still don’t know how to properly respond to it so I don’t want to talk about it yet, it touches on pretty serious subjects and involves probably untouchable personalities, so I’ll keep quiet for now, I’ve said enough for one day.

Vanity thought #866. Case study in liberalism

Yesterday’s speculations need examples to see if they make sense in real life. Pretty much everything could be considered but I thought it’s better to start with some contentious issues of the day, of which we have way to many. FDG has been my favorite for some time but I’ve grown tired of it. Among other issues there aren’t clear favorites and I decided to start with “ISKCON infestation by kirtaniyas” that I haven’t considered before.

There are, as usual, two sides to the story. To my knowledge, “pro-kirtaniyas” never engage in any public debates and I’ve never discussed this issue personally with any of the proponents, just heard a few excuses here and there and tried to fill the gaps.

The main argument is that these kirtan singers bring in the crowds, people who otherwise would never have come to ISKCON chant the Holy Names, and really, what other arguments are needed?

Fair enough. Now, the opponents, who are disproportionally vocal – they charge that this kind of kirtan is polluted, that there’s too much association with neo-mayavadis, that in Prabhupada’s time being on the same stage with hardcore impersonalists would have been unthinkable, as was inviting impersonalists to sing at our festivals.

Hearing Holy Name from the lips of mayavadis is poisonous, there are examples from Chaitanya Charitamrita if Srila Prabhupada’s own instructions are not enough. Associating with mayavadis is prohibited, too. All valid arguments that have no retorts, afaik.

How to be liberal about this then?

Let’s just step back a little and determine the context. Liberalism requires looking at a bigger picture, then what is unacceptable in one situation for a certain kind of devotees starts to look quite okay elsewhere for a different group of people.

For example, taking vegetarian non-prasadam is a no-no for temple devotees but for those outside it’s often a matter of necessity, and for non-devotees it’s certainly a progress towards a cleaner life. Veganism is certainly better than meat-eating but if someone has been coming to a temple for a while and still hasn’t given up his vegan ideas about milk then progress is not being made.

What we need to see is a vector – where the person had started and where he arrived. If a temple pujari eats a non-offered pizza on ekadashi he is going down, if a meat-eating karmi decides to have veggy pizza on the same day he is going up.

For devotees of Lord Chaitanya associating with mayavadis, listening to their kirtans or reading their literature is a spiritual suicide but I know devotees who were very well read in all kinds of impersonalism before taking up Srila Prabhupada’s books. Whether we like it or not, impersonalism is a natural and even necessary stage before becoming a devotee.

Some get causeless mercy, that’s true, but most living beings purify themselves through thousands and thousands of lives before coming in contact with devotees. Impersonalism is unavoidable.

How can we say with absolute certainty that it is dangerous and undesirable in such non-compromising terms?

Where opponents see mission drift, dilution of our philosophy and spreading the poison, we could try and see thousands and thousands of people coming to hear the sound of the Holy Name. Why would we turn them away unless they read up on philosophy? What do they know about drinking poisonous milk and how would they learn about it if they never come to our programs?

Being liberal in this case is looking at the issue from a different perspective. There are thousands and thousands of vaishnavas who look at “pure” ISKCON and think we are deviating and poisoning people, too. This kind of perception is not absolute, it’s never absolute.

The only real standard is the view of our guru and that’s what we should embrace in the face of all criticism but it’s a standard for US, not for our critics. They’ve never signed up for our program and we don’t expect them to gain mercy of Srila Prabhupada either. We can say that they are missing so much and wasting their lives on worthless pursuits but it’s their lives and their choices. Even as preachers we should not be trying to convert everybody, we should only look for people favorable to our ideas, so we can leave our critics alone and don’t worry too much about them.

So, the critics of “kirtaniya infestation” must be wrong then? No, not at all. We can look at them and see their genuine strive for the purity of our mission and preserving the legacy of our founder acharya. We might dismiss their criticism or decide to take it seriously and reform ourselves but that is not important atm. What is important is to see their sincerity even if their efforts might bring undesirable results, like vaishnava aparadha. Every effort in this world brings about undesirable results anyway, we can’t waste our lives focusing on those.

If we were to ask a paramahamsa which side to take in this dispute he’d tell us exactly the same things – both sides are doing their best for Krishna, and that would overwhelm him with respect and appreciation. He wouldn’t take sides at all and he’d be seen as a well-wisher of all living beings, in short, as paramahamsa.

Is it really that hard to theoretically visualize this kind of response? I don’t think so, it’s very simple, actually. Maybe I need a better case or maybe I’m missing something important, either way, not too bad for the first try, I think.