This weekend there was a presentation in our temple by a devotee from ISKCON’s Congregational Development Ministry and it was called “Gita for everyone”. I didn’t think much about it and sat down to listen just like everybody else.
The class was illustrated by PowerPoint slides and right in the beginning the devotee said that we should present Bhagavad Gita in a way that is easy, practical, and fun. There was a slide for that as well and it was repeated quite a few times. These Gita meetings should be held regularly and were compared to book clubs, with an appropriate slide of what book clubs are expected to look like – several women lounging about.
Somehow I just don’t see myself as part of that scene, though. I don’t know anyone who goes to book clubs, I understand it’s something bored American housewives do when they need an excuse to start drinking early. I assume they talk about books, of course, but what attracts them to this activity is not what attracts people to Bhagavad Gita, which is certainly not “easy” or “fun”. Or maybe it is now – perhaps I’m completely out of touch with times.
When I joined we were replicating ISKCON of Srila Prabhupada’s time. If we said Krishna Consciousness was easy we meant “drop everything and simply move into the temple”. When we said it was “practical” we meant there was always something to do and we could take part in the most exalted activity – sankirtana mission of Lord Caitanya. When we said it was “fun” we meant uninterrupted flow of nectar of sankirtana pastimes. None of that is compatible with book club settings.
Does it work elsewhere? I remember a devotee who hosts a local bhakti-vṛkṣa program shared her realizations once and her speech was heart rending, not “easy, practical, and fun”. In my view devotees should take Bhagavad Gita way more seriously than was suggested, and they already do.
I’m afraid we substitute real values we should be attracted to in the Gita by values common to modern society – “easy, practical, and fun”. It means we seek low effort (easy), we seek personal profits (practical), and we seek personal enjoyment (fun). I’m afraid all sorts of things will go wrong if we approach Krishna Consciousness with these expectations.
Maybe for some people making donations or offering food immediately brings undeniable prosperity but I’m not one of them. Even if it works it’s still only a karma-miśra-bhakti. I’m sure it’s very attractive to many but weren’t we supposed to propagate pure devotion, not get rich quick schemes?
There was a senior devotee who took interest in me once and the first thing he asked was about what attracts me to Krishna Consciousness. He was visibly relieved when I didn’t say “I like the food, the kirtans, the clothes – the culture”. I know it works for some but there are way too many people who aren’t in the least bit impressed by it. I mean we have the entire Krishna West, after all.
Anyway, from this point in the presentation I realized that I’m not going to be the part of this congregation, it’s just not for me. I have nothing against the devotee doing it, he was very sincere and very sure of what he was saying. As his personal service to the Lord it was certainly great – for him. The sad irony – for me – was that his service is officially called “outreach” and his stated goal was to turn every house on the planet into Krishna temple, and there I was not feeling it at all.
That is not to say I had no interest whatsoever – the biggest part of his presentation was showing how to make sense of Bhagavad Gita – 800 pages, three sections, eighteen chapters etc. When he was asking for each chapter’s title, for example, I tried to volunteer answers just like everybody else – it WAS fun, but it was fun of showing off your memory skills or the fun of showing off your erudition. I’m actually somewhat ashamed I fell for this old trick.
Making sense of the Gita is a big project and it brings the sense of accomplishment, plus it gives you an “inside knowledge” against which you can test anyone you meet with your “do you know that?” questions. I’m too old for this, however, and I know first hand that this kind of knowledge doesn’t last. Chapter titles, verse numbers, Sanskrit and translations – all these things gradually get washed away from the memory, they are impermanent and, therefore, they are not what we should focus on in our studies of Bhagavad Gita.
Actually, the clues were right there in the presentation itself – one verse, even remembering one single word from Bhagavad Gita can relieve the soul from all material contamination. But “remembering” here means something different. It’s not being able to repeat “sarva dharman parityajya” and then claim that you are free from sins, it’s the actual experience of giving up everything and actually feeling weight coming off your shoulders. You don’t even have to remember words for it to happen – this process of surrendering to Krishna comes BEFORE its expression in thoughts and, subsequently, in words. It’s not a mental activity for our minds.
If you say “sarva dharman” but then seek easiness, practicality, and fun it means you haven’t actually abandoned all those other religions and haven’t embraced surrendering to Krishna as your only activity, as your only life and soul.
If the presenter only paused and considered the import of the quotes he included in his presentation he would have realized that it came out as inconsistent – there was a Prabhupada’s quote that during these regular Bhagavad Gita meetings we should chant its hymns and slokas we reverence and devotion, not ease and fun. How did they miss that?
My answer is that this understanding of Bhagavad Gita and what is attractive about it is superficial. Or that they say these things to the larger audience and therefore do not share their personal realizations. Which is another way to say “it’s superficial”. I hope it works and they can attract and maintain a very large congregation. I’m just not going to be a part of it.
PS. One other thing – supplementing your talks with PowerPoint presentations was cool twenty years ago and being attracted to these “marvels” of technology indicates another anartha. Proper sharing of realizations goes straight to the heart of the listener and so relying on visuals is a poor substitution when the real thing is absent. Do it for iPhones, not for imparting transcendental knowledge.
PPS. I didn’t have the heart to express my doubts about that talk publicly, everybody thought it was a success and this is where the future lies. Devotees have become so hopeful I don’t want to discourage them. I can’t pretend I share their enthusiasm either. I hope it won’t become a problem.