Vanity thought #1785. Pioneering value

This whole series of posts about pioneering came out backwards. At first I wanted to write something about a conversation on the value of these memories but then realized that retelling the memories themselves would be useful, too, so that’s what I have been doing for over a week now.

Once a had a chance to talk to one of ISKCON’s traveling sannyasis and initiating gurus. It was a little weird because I was sitting next to him while his disciples came in and offered full obeisances. It was some sort of a spiritual fair where ISKCON got a booth so I thought it would be okay if I don’t offer obeisances on seeing a sannyasi for the first time during the day, which is the rule best followed inside temples or dhamas, I think.

Because it was a fair I remembered Kirtiraja’s story of Moscow International Book Fair of 1979, which I covered here in one of the previous posts. I showed up there on a weekday, which was slow, and so there were only few devotees there, hardly any visitors, and there was no prasadam. The plan was to bring prasadam for distribution on weekend.

One story led to another and pretty soon I told maharaja everything I ever heard of those days, though sometimes he’d say “Oh, yes, this was told by Bhakti Vaibhava Svami” so I didn’t repeat that which he already knew. I genuinely thought he’d be impressed but all he said afterwards was “That was pioneering days, now our mission is different”. This has struck me.

At first I tried to argue: “But there are no official ISKCON temples in China, isn’t preaching there pioneering, too? – I’ve been going there for thirty years,” maharaja replied. Okay, what about this country and that? “Been going there for twenty years.” Okay, but China is such a large country, how many places have you visited? “About a hundred.” It was impenetrable so I had to think about this back at home.

Is there a value in these memories when tasks and goals of our society have changed? I’m not sure we are doing very well with nurturing existing devotees but that is also beside the point – what is the current value of our old preaching efforts?

I realize that people reading this blog might be bored to death with stories about Russia and sankirtana devotees they’ve never met and whose names I didn’t disclose on purpose. It’s not something I think about day and night either. Should I just let it go and concentrate on our current lives instead, talk about something relevant to people of this day and age?

I don’t think I will ever abandon my memories, or even memories I received from other people and which I cherish as if they were my own. There are two ways I justify this attachment.

One is that these pastimes are as transcendental as those of Lord Caitanya and His associates, and later of their followers. Someone might find it somewhat blasphemous but that’s how Lord Caitanya’s mercy has been manifested before my eyes and so to me it feels even more transcendental than pastimes from several hundred years ago I can’t easily relate to.

Anything related to spreading Lord Caitanya’s mission and attracting people to Krishna is legitimately transcendental. I didn’t see much of it this way when I lived through it myself but appreciation has been growing gradually over the years. It might be the case of me romanticizing my past but I think it’s a wrong way to look at it.

When we romanticize the past we assume that there’s past as it really happened and past as it has been reconstructed. What “really happened”, however, does not exist as objective reality. We are still talking about personal perceptions, either as they are remembered or recalled by others and stored as memories. When we access them now we decode meanings that exist either in these memories or existed at the time of the events themselves and this process is subjective, too, and the perceptions we recreate now are as real as any other. It’s these current perceptions that carry value to us which we want to share, not the events themselves.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what “real past” was, what matters is whether we are able to see it as transcendental now and whether we can share these realizations in the present, whether we can make them inspirational. The ability to inspire others depends not only on us but on their reception, too. If we are making stuff up and others clearly see that we are exaggerating than we can’t expect them to be inspired, so memories need to have firm foundation in actual events. It’s complex theory of how much you can get away with and you can spot it in some storytelling about Krishna or some other well known events. I swear my stories are all true, however.

Another way I see value in these “pioneering memories” is because they make an excellent object for meditation and, all said and done, I don’t mind being reborn in the same position of service to sankirtana again. I hope next time I’ll appreciate it even more.

It’s a pet theory of mine – do we really expect to become closer to Lord Caitanya after death? What about our gurus and all the acaryas between us? Are we going to become closer to the Lord than them? Isn’t our position in hierarchy of Lord Caitanya’s army permanently fixed? If these were just temporary roles of no significance then positions could be changed but does anyone see Srila Prabhupada’s position as temporary, for example? I hope not.

In retrospect, I see those days as the best service of my life, I haven’t done even remotely close to that since. How can it ever lose value then? It’s unthinkable to me. Maharaja that made me think about all this is busy spreading Krishna consciousness despite his advanced age but I’m not as lucky or as pure. He is like Uddhava who was with Krishna until the very end and I’m like.. Wait, this comparison is inappropriate. What I wanted to say is that there were plenty of devotees who had only a few moments of service to the Lord, both in Krishna and in Caitanya lila, and recollecting these moments for the rest of their lives is a perfect meditation. We are even taught that such meditation in separation is more intense than when being in Lord’s presence. Which is another argument why recalling these memories might feel sweeter than living through them in real time.

As I was typing this my blood test came in – all clear, I’ll have another round of chemo soon and on that my treatment should be over. I expect full recovery, that is recovery from chemo and all related side effects, to be complete by March. Whether I’ll have my old energy levels back or not I don’t know. I’ve been out of it for so long I don’t envision my new healthy life yet.

Vanity thought #1783. Pioneering success

Yesterday I wrote about Kīrtirāja’s Prabhu efforts to penetrate behind the Iron Curtain and place our books into the hands of Russian (Soviet) people. One event that was truly seminal in nature in this regard was Moscow book fair of 1979 and it deserves its own mention.

First Moscow International Book Fair was held in 1977 and Gopāla Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī went there on behalf of Indian BBT. It was the first time for everyone and so no one had a clear idea how to extract most benefits out of it. I mean even the potential buyers didn’t know how it would all work. In retrospective it could be said that all Gopāla Kṛṣṇa (not Svāmī yet) got was a certificate of participation, which he presented to Śrīla Prabhupāda, but the real benefit was in laying preparation for the next visit. That’s where Kīrtirāja came in.

Second fair was in 1979 and he was representing Indian BBT again so as not to look like spreading American propaganda. He also knew the rules and how to use them to full advantage. One such rule was that publishers couldn’t sell books at the fair but the workaround was that they could take orders so Kīrtirāja had BBT supply him with order forms with prices printed in roubles. During the fair he would collect the money and BBT filled this orders later, totally legally. Hundreds of books were sent into USSR that way.

Another rule was that there had to be an official interpreter but Kīrtirāja protested that our books contain so many technical terms that an ordinary interpreter wouldn’t be able to translate them correctly. He persuaded the organizers that his own interpreter, Ananta Śānti, was already perfect and their official interpreter can take a break. It worked.

Ananta Śānti brought half a dozen devotees to help him and it’s them who did most of the talking. They were preaching there non-stop even if they hadn’t read the books themselves yet.

Another rule was set by Kīrtirāja himself and it was that their booth should always have prasādam to distribute. He told the devotees to prepare “simply wonderfuls” and they rolled them day and night in shifts. Somehow they rolled them into small balls the size of M&Ms, they would wake up before sunrise, roll the sweets, and bring them to the fair with their hands covered in blisters.

Kīrtirāja’s rule was that there was only one ball per person and when they run out of sweets and new trays weren’t in yet he’d collect crumbs on small pieces of paper and people would eat them with a great deal of respect. To fully appreciate the kind of impact it had consider this – by Kīrtirāja’s own calculations they had distributed 26,000 thousand sweetballs. Twenty six thousand, roughly four-five thousand per day. Can you imagine what king of buzz was going on around their booth?

It certainly attracted organizers attention – so many people and instead of one official interpreter there were half a dozen Russian speakers. To smooth things out Kīrtirāja gave the boss a gift of Bhagavad Gītā. At that time they only had English books and this Bhagavad Gītā came from a special pack Kīrtirāja brought with him which will feature in the story a little bit later.

Another rule was that all the books presented at the fair had to be either taken back out of the country of given to some official Soviet charity. None of the devotees knew of any charity that would take a set of English books so it was a kind of a problem – Kīrtirāja didn’t want to go back, well, full-handed. Towards the end of the fair, however, a shy but inquisitive woman showed up, asking about this and that but never stating her purpose. Turned out she was a representative for Lenin’s Library, which was like a Library of Congress for the Soviet Union. They certainly had the means to purchase the books but she wanted to get them for free as charity.

Once Kīrtirāja realized what was going on he thought that it was a perfect charity placement of all – in the biggest library of the entire Soviet Union and they quickly organized the official transfer. There was only a small matter of that pack of Bhagavad Gītās, originally there were twelve there but now there were eleven, and Kīrtirāja was not in the mood to take them back either. They were specifically meant for distribution among the devotees, translation etc.

He and Ananta Śānti came up with a plan.

On the day of leaving they went to the airport together with Bhagavad Gītās packed in a separate bag. Ananta Śānti took a strategic position in a cafeteria right outside customs and Kīrtirāja went to the farthest custom officer and tried to make himself noticeable.

He had custom’s declaration with a set of BBT books and so he had to produce his charity paperwork and explain everything that happened. His customs form also had twelve Gītās on it but there were only eleven left so Kīrtirāja had to plea with customs agent that it was a gift to the fair organizer, there was nothing sinister about it etc etc. It worked.

As soon as Kīrtirāja passed the customs and got his stamp he quickly ran around the row of customs booths towards the end of it that was next to the cafeteria and begged the guard there to let him out because he was so thirsty and his papers were already in order and he loved Russian tea and that worked to.

When he entered the cafeteria he left his book bag at the table and went to get his drink. Ananta Śānti picked it up and hurried outside, just like in spy novels. Kīrtirāja waited until Ananta Śānti was in the taxi and taxi left the airport and returned to the custom agent who checked him in only a few minutes ago. “You again!” he exclaimed, and Kīrtirāja gave him the same excise about tea and the officer couldn’t be bothered to go and check with the guard on the other end whether Kīrtirāja had his bag when he was going out for tea or not. Everything worked perfectly.

That fair marked exponential growth in Soviet community. Before that visiting devotees had programs with less than ten people attending but after the fair, on their next visit, they were already hundreds, but that is a story for another day.

Vanity thought #1782. Pioneering days

I once watched a long video of Kīrtirāja Prabhu telling stories of the time when they tried to open up the Soviet Union. I’ve never heard these stories before, nor did I have any idea of the extent to which he was involved. I’m not going to retell them all, the video was several hours long, but a short recap is in order anyway.

In 1973 Śrīla Prabhupāda visited Moscow and met with a young man who later got initiated and who became the first Russian devotee. It’s so easy for to say “Russia” nowadays and it’s hard to remember that modern day Russia had something like half the population of Soviet Union and that many Hare Kṛṣṇa communities sprang up in places like Armenia or Latvia. To reduce them all to Russia now would be unfair to history.

There was no stable channel of communication between western devotees and that Ananta Śānti but devotees from Europe would often fly to India via Moscow and meet him at the airport. Better idea was to arrange a marriage with a female devotee who would then be able to live in or at least and visit USSR freely. One of the French devotees accepted the service, got the blessings of Śrīla Prabhupāda, but the marriage didn’t work out and only a couple years later she wanted out.

Meantime, Śrīla Prabhupāda initiated a Hungarian devotee in Germany in 1974 and that devotee learned Russian at school like any Hungarian of his generation would. He translated Easy Journey to Other Planets into Russian, and also into Polish, I think, and then BBT published it in the US. That’s where Kīrtirāja started his service in promoting Hare Kṛṣṇas in Soviet Union. I think his family has Russian roots or something but he had a natural interest and affinity for all things Russian. He couldn’t speak the language well but didn’t need an interpreter for simple tourist talk either. So he went to LA where BBT offices were.

LA has a huge port, of course, and plenty of Russian cargo ships docked there. At first Kīrtirāja tried to approach Russian, sorry Soviet, sailors while they were on leave but Soviets were prepared – they let them out in groups of three with one older guy chaperoning two younger ones. There was no way those older dudes would be duped into looking at American books, it was not going to happen.

Kīrtirāja then found another way in – he would approach the ship and ask for a tour, feigning a genuine interest in Soviet shipbuilding. After a short consultation with authorities he would be usually let in and taken around by a guide. Kīrtirāja had his coat pockets stuffed with that Easy Journey and he would leave copies in hidden places, behind TVs or radar screens, or he would take a book from a bookshelf, flip over few pages, try to read something aloud, and then would put it back in with an Easy Journey tacked behind it. Someone would eventually find our books, he thought, maybe a week or maybe a month later, but the books will find their readers. And then he got caught and kicked out of the ship.

If he found cargo crates getting loaded on Soviet ships he’s sneak in and stuff the books under plastic wraps, but that wasn’t very effective, obviously.

He became a member of some US-Soviet friendship society and that gave him access to visiting Russian dignitaries who went to the States on official trips. That way he could even give them prasādam but talking about straight Kṛṣṇa consciousness was still off limits.

Then he moved to London and eventually Sweden. From Europe it was easier to visit Russia as a tourist and he could even go on camping trips there but that was done by other devotees. He still continued his “book distribution” program, though. In Sweden he’d hunt Soviet cargo trucks, overtake them on highways, turn emergency lights on and wave them down to stop. Drivers were very scared that they did something wrong and stopped. Kīrtirāja then would approach them and start in his broken Russian: “Have you watched a documentary about Indian yogis?” Drivers could not believe what was happening but by the time they figured out there was no danger they were happy to receive a small gift of a book.

Meanwhile, other books got smuggled in and properly translated into Russian and then BBT published a compact Bhagavad Gītā As It Is. They were printing them in Germany, I think, and Kīrtirāja arranged for an extra run of “primer” or what it was called, but the result was that he had thousands printed copies of Introduction where Prabhupāda presented the essence of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. From the days in the US Kīrtirāja got a list of Soviet organization from some Soviet dissident and he thought it would be a good idea to mass mail this Introduction in ordinary envelopes.

It was a big operation with devotees in several countries buying different colors and sizes of envelopes, putting the Intro in, and then sending them to Soviet addresses from different post offices in different cities. The idea was that even if KGB found some of these subversive letters they wouldn’t be able to find all of them, coming from different countries and all different from one another. It’s hard to say how effective this campaign was but they did get some replies asking for more. KGB couldn’t stop it all.

How they smuggled copies of Gītā and other books for translation is another story but I don’t think Kīrtirāja was a part of it. Devotees went on a camping trip through Russia and put dozens and dozens of books all around the van in plain sight – in glove compartments, under the seats, in the back, everywhere they could think of. Custom’s agent was curious about that but it wasn’t illegal to bring books for personal reading. When in Moscow devotees swapped these books for those bought in Russia and exited from a different location altogether. Their customs declaration only had “63 religious books” with no list of titles so to the officer on the exit it looked all legitimate. Otherwise their car was practically taken apart and they even dismantled the fuel tank. I can’t even imagine how devotees felt through this ordeal.

Hmm, this is getting longer than expected and so I should leave the rest for tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1781. Tribute to devotion

My previous post was actually typed up before New Year but with holidays sapping away my energy and time I was able to publish it only yesterday. I think I’ll say a few words before I continue.

Cancer visibly affects the extent of my prāṇa, which manifests in how far my interests in the world go. The effect was prominent when I started the treatment and it was heavy and when I physically felt that I had to grow up into my normal persona. For weeks my consciousness was confined to hospital bed and then I was driven home and the city seemed alien. Roads, grass, buildings, other cars, neighborhood, people, too – I had to indict all these things back into my consciousness and arrange them in some sort of order.

As I recovered my prāṇa extended itself, too, but one thing is clear – my overall universe has shrunk and it will never recover. There will be no mountain climbing or sky diving or traveling to far out places. At this point I realize that I won’t ever visit any new shopping malls in the city, nor will I ever go and see newly completed tallest building here. I don’t even want any of that.

I don’t know what will happen if I fully recover, I can’t see myself restarting a career, for example. I just don’t have that much interest in the world. I can’t even fully resume my usual blogging because it requires energy, time, and dedication. Donald Trump is seventy and he wants to be a president. I feel like I’m ninety compared to him.

It’s not that my senses have become weaker, if they did I haven’t noticed, but my prāṇa, my interest it the world, the extent to which I want to express myself here and sense objects I want to consume has diminished greatly. At this point I can see how one’s prāṇa might start withdrawing from outsides of one’s own body, losing control and awareness of limbs and senses, and it’s not that you become any less alive, it’s just that you are withdrawing from the world and kind of curious what will happen next.

In any case, next week I’ll have new tests and it will be clear whether I’m on the path to full recovery or cancer got a winning hand.

Back to the topic.

There were two devotees in our saṅkīrtana ashram who were out of this world and functioned on devotion alone. One was a disciple of a guru I couldn’t understand at the time. There was nothing wrong with him but I just couldn’t understand what other people saw in him. This guru wasn’t very inspirational, he wasn’t good looking, he wasn’t charismatic, he was a bad singer. So what if he said all the right things – everybody else said them, too, and so I couldn’t understand why people devoted their lives to him no matter how I tried. It took me years to get over this offensive attitude and now I think I can look past all that and see people’s devotion only.

This book distributor was very austere looking, which wasn’t generally attractive at all, and he was objectively a bad speaker. I don’t think he ever produced a long, complicated sentence, usually taking a break after every few words to think what to say next. How could he ever sell books was a mystery, but he did and he still does. The key was devotion to the orders of his guru, nothing else worked for him.

He was a kind of disciplinarian in the saṅkīrtana ashram. You would never see him leaning against the wall after a Sunday feast, for example. He always finished fast, never talked about anything, and when he got up everybody felt that they should stop their sense enjoyment, too. It worked for everybody – we felt glad that somebody straightened us up and he felt that his attitude towards sense enjoyment was validated – there’s no time for this in our lives, we should think only about saṅkīrtana.

I don’t know how people reacted to him on the streets. His pitch was very simple, he could read their minds and say what they needed to hear, but the main point was that he was absolutely convinced that he had to sell them books on the order of his guru. He wasn’t doing it for fun and he wasn’t promising the Moon, he just had this air of supreme importance of the mission that he carried. People could sense that urgency below small talk and usual sales pitch and they had no power to say no.

If you asked him why and how he was selling so many books for so many years he would say that it was the order of his guru and that’s what Prabhupada wanted and that was that. He had no other considerations in his life. Later he got sannyāsa, too.

Another devotee, our absolute best, was similar in his dedication but he was a very different person otherwise. They plucked him out of a math department of a big university and there was some nerdy look about him. Like Harinama Nanda I talked about in the previous post, you’d never notice him in a group photo but if you get to look at him closely you’d notice that he was not only shy and naturally humble but also very beautiful. He had beautiful eyes with long eyelashes, perfect skin, nicely rounded cheeks and do on. He also didn’t have any macho air about him like many others in our ashram.

I can’t say that he was austere, he never seemed to be making any conscious efforts for it and never forced anyone around him to cut on their sense enjoyment either. What we consider as austerity came naturally to him and he was actually very happy about it. For most of us, when it’s time to finish the feast and go read some books, we know that it’s not what our bodies want to do but for him the very thought of it was inspirational.

He distributed tons of books and so he had to have a helper team and there was a stiff competition to get a place on that team so devotees who served with him were similarly excited and enthusiastic and didn’t need anyone to whip them up to keep with their sādhana and this created an atmosphere very conducive to ecstatic service and no one ever left disappointed.

People often asked him how he distributed books but he never had solid answers, save for one, which he rarely shared. One should always, always pray to the lotus feet of his guru in his heart. By the mercy of the guru one can get mercy of Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityānanda and together they will make the books look very attractive and inner voice in people’s hearts impossible to resist. They also will take control of you body and mind and they will put right words on your tongue or direct your feet to go in the right places.

As a saṅkīrtana devotee you have only one job to do – pray to your guru. Your mind, your eyes, your mouth, your feet – forget about trying to control them, leave this to your guru. When your prayers are sincere then, by his mercy, the Lord will become the owner of your prāṇa and the Lord will take care of everything. You are not this body, you are a tiny spirit soul, and lotus feet of your guru is your only treasure.

That devotee was the embodiment of this principle. That was the only secret, and somehow or other no one else could come even close to his level of samādhi in this regard.

Vanity thought #1780. From personalities to transcendence

Yesterday I talked about various personalities in our old sankirtana department. There were many devotees there, it’s impossible to describe every successful book distributor but there were remarkable in that their personality traits were distilled and I think that’s what made them relatively better distributors than others. This is only half of the story, though, so I’ll continue.

In those days the best in the world were Navina Nirada and Harinama Nanda and they were used as a point of reference in our sankirtana ashram. We shared stories about them but never had them visiting us personally until a couple of years later.

Navina Nirada was young, tall, handsome, and Swiss. It was a lethal combination and the word “charisma” doesn’t even begin to describe the effect he had on people. He was like a celebrity and everyone who saw him fought for the opportunity to do something for him and get noticed. If he said people needed to buy books they couldn’t refuse. Of course he said lots of other words as well but that was just a small talk around the real connection he established by simply paying attention to people.

Three kinds of attractive traits I mentioned yesterday were basically of the same type – something given to us by karma and something that would work in any circumstances, not limited to sankirtana. In that sense you looked at these devotees or at Navina Nirada in particular and your mind would tell you that if you had his looks you could distribute thousands of books, too, try to do it in your wretched and unattractive body.

Personality wise, Harinama Nanda was the opposite. He was smaller, somewhat hunched from carrying heavy books clutched to his chest for many years, and you would generally not notice his presence in the crowd. Navina Nirada was a natural center piece of any group photograph and Harinama Nanda was that forgettable face in the back row.

I’m exaggerating the contrast, of course. Navina Nirada also happened to embody “sankirtana is the soul of ISKCON” we adopted in our temple. It was he who taught us that every devotee in the temple was a sankirtana devotee, they just served in a different capacity.

We had one kitchen devotee who was handicapped. He didn’t just have a limp, he had to drag his leg like no person I’ve ever seen in my life. Walking for him was a big challenge and he had his share of mental problems, too, but when it was decided that book distributors need to eat bread to keep their stamina and not get hungry half an hour after a meal he too this task personally and started baking bread program in the temple, eventually getting a professional oven and everything.

And yet every time he had a chance he would load a traveling bag full of books and drag it out even as he could barely walk himself. This could fill one’s heart with pity but it was the moment when he had the happiest face in the world because finally he had a chance to bathe in the ocean of sankirtana. He didn’t distribute much but that time was his and his alone, between him and Lord Caitanya and everyone saw that it was REAL. Navina Nirada and his sankirtana seminars were one of the main sources where he received this attitude, so it’s not just looks, far from it.

Harinama Nanda was/is not the man of this world. Whatever body he got is irrelevant, his consciousness was never here and people could sense it right away. Turns out I don’t remember many actual sankirtana stories about him but the strength of his dedication is still vivid for me. It gave him a real mystic power of controlling other people. One story I do remember (probably wrong) was that he was standing outside and hunching over books in his car, putting dust jackets on them or something, when he sensed someone passing by. He straightened up, turned around, and told that man that he needs to buy these books right now because it’s more important than life or death, and the man obliged without a question.

Harinama Nanda was the one who revealed to us that “I don’t have money” is not an acceptable excuse to avoid buying books. Everybody has some money, they just don’t want to give it to us. The way to overcome this is to convey to the people the importance of donating money for knowledge about God, and the only way to impart this realization is to fully understand it yourself. It’s not even a matter of belief – because people might think “you believe this but I don’t”, but a matter of realized knowledge.

Srimad Bhagavatam verses spoken by a pure devotee reveal the Superme Personality of Godhead and so words uttered by a pure book distributor reveal the spiritual beauty of our books. It’s not a game, it’s not an empty promise. People could see God in Prabhupada’s instructions and people can see God in the presentation of a book distributor. The power is there, we only have to become perfect conduits.

When people see this spiritual light engulfing their souls they will give you everything they have for these books, it’s not an exaggeration. The key, however, is to remember that you are not in control of this process, Lord Caitanya is.

Just recently I read another sankritana story on Dandavats. A devotee was going door to door and met a nice gentleman, a Christian with appreciation for others devotion to God, too. When it was clear that the man wanted the books the question of price came up and suddenly the man’s face lit up. “You know,” he said, “I was driving today and for some unknown reason I felt compelled to stop by the ATM and withdraw some cash. I never keep cash in the house and I had no idea what it was until I met you but now I know!”

Perhaps the bigger lesson here is that we are only participants in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana pastimes, we do not cause them, they already weaved into the history of the universe. We just have to beg to be placed in the right place at the right time, to be given the opportunity to be engaged in this service, which, incidentally, is the meaning of our Hare Krishna mantra.

Vanity thought #1779. Casting

Yesterday I discussed how physical reality affects our ability to distribute books, to conduct saṅkīrtana. There’s a lot more to this relationship between nature and our lives and our service, too. Eventually I’ll get to a chapter from Mystic Universe which explains importance of physical features of certain places and why scriptures pay so much attention to it. I won’t go into it today, however, but expand on our “old school” saṅkīrtana.

To recapitulate – our temple then was physically structured in such a way as to keep everyone in their perfect spiritual position as servants of the saṅkīrtana mission. There was no fraternizing, there was always physically enforced respect, there was no familiarity to breed contempt, and saṅkīrtana devotees themselves were forced to be no more but servants of their master – their saṅkīrtana leader.

A couple of words here – one would normally expect saṅkīrtana leader to be an inspirational figure, one to give speeches and pep talk, like a football coach or something, but in our case it was different, and that difference proved helpful, too. Incidentally, his name was Yamarāja and it fit him very well – strict, feared, but respected for his fairness, and you’d always want to keep your distance, and Yamarāja is not known as an inspirational speaker either. By delegating philosophy and speaking to gurus, visiting devotees, and Prabhupāda, our saṅkīrtana leader firmly established himself as no more than a servant so no one could really challenge him on anything – he was just doing his job making sure that saṅkīrtana spirit found its full manifestation within his domain. He also never failed at anything we expected him to do. One can put it down to his personal qualities but the arrangement where you must be a servant at all times helps, too – Lord Caitanya’s mercy stops flowing the moment you think you are the boss and no one in the temple at the time could reasonably claim that position, not even the temple president.

Temple president’s position was curious. On one hand he was officially the boss, on the other hand saṅkīrtana department was so big and important and financially profitable that his own service seemed utterly insignificant by comparison. He could not control or direct saṅkīrtana so he naturally saw himself as its servant, too.

All in all, it was a perfect physical and administrative arrangement for facilitating book distribution in every possible way. Is it possible to repeat that? I don’t think so, I think you need to start from scratch – make book distribution your main goal, build a community of like minded people, and then hope that a suitable temple manifests itself. Our current temple was not designed for that purpose and I don’t see how it can be reconfigured. It does what it does well, though.

My main point today was to describe prominent saṅkīrtana personalities of that time. Their names are not important, some are no longer with ISKCON, and I don’t mean it as a comprehensive catalog of book distributors qualities and characters. These were the guys who were at the top, it just happened, and they were all attractive in their own ways but it doesn’t mean that these are the only options and one must always emulate one of them.

I happened to be with the guy who was intellectual. He had dark eyes and his stare would drill into people’s souls while he delivered one unbeatable argument after the other why we are not these bodies, why God is not Indian or Christian, and why everyone needed to buy our books. I’ve never seen anyone successfully challenge him on anything even as many tried. Perhaps people were not yet familiar with Hare Kṛṣṇas, perhaps they didn’t know winning arguments yet, perhaps they didn’t know our history, but whatever they did know he could immediately refute and leave people stumped.

I’ve tried that myself, having heard his presentation so many times, but it didn’t work for me. Why? Looking back I think it’s because I didn’t have firm faith in these arguments myself yet and people sensed it, and maybe because my voice and demeanor didn’t convey that sense of urgency, no could I stare down into people’s eyes without blinking and my mind wondering off somewhere else. There was no single-mindedness in me so “intellectualism” didn’t help.

Another devotee was just a bundle of joy. When he talked about Kṛṣṇa consciousness he could barely contain himself, he was so excited. People couldn’t pass on that kind of happiness and wanted to experience it, too. I don’t remember how he preached, I doubt anyone could – it was his emotional state that attracted people and they forgot anything else. You can’t imitate this kind of excitement, I certainly could and still can’t, and it’s probably impossible to maintain it for a prolonged period of time. Maybe so and maybe later story of this devotee turned very different but he WAS very excited then and it lasted for several years during which he distributed hundreds of thousands of books. So if you have some temporary personality trait that helps – use it to the full advantage while you can. That would be the best possible service for it ever.

One of the top distributors had a similarly attractive personality but of a slightly different kind. He was a kind of man you expect to come to rescue any time something goes wrong. He’d show up to change you tire or pull your car out of mud or catch you when you slip and fall or pull you out of the fire. It’s the kind of man that when you are in trouble and you see him you think “Thank god, now I’m safe.” When he talked to people they could instantly relate to him and trust him in every way and when he told them that they needed to buy his books they obeyed unquestionably. If he said so it must be true.

These three devotees had some personal traits that helped in their book distribution, one had a strong intellect, a broad knowledge base, and quick thinking, another had a contagiously joyous personality, and the third immediately elicited trust. You can’t emulate that, you either have it or not, but then everyone has these qualities to some degree anyway and any saṅkīrtana devotee can utilize them in his preaching. Trust, happiness, and knowledge – these three qualities will always attract people no matter how they are mixed together, hopefully enough to sell them a book.

There were two other devotees who always stood apart from the rest of saṅkīrtana crowd and they deserve their own post, so tomorrow, holiday schedule permitting.

Vanity thought #1778. Reality matters

As I was watching Prabhupāda marathon pledging procedure at our local temple and wondering why we can’t bring back years of record saṅkīrtana numbers I realized that the situation is completely different today and our current reality is simply not conducive. So let’s take a trip down memory lane and see what I mean.

First, most our temple devotees then were brahmacārīs. Gṛhasthas were only in management positions, like temple treasurer and temple president. They didn’t live in the temple, couldn’t come to maṅgala ārati, left before the evening program, and so weren’t really part of temple life, plus their rank kept them above the main body of devotees, too. That way everybody had a brahmacārī spirit in them and there were no gṛhastha contamination at all. To book distribution this mattered a lot.

We tend to think that gṛhasthas are allowed to associate with women and have sex but that’s not the difference here. For the purposes of saṅkīrtana the main problem with gṛhasthas is that they had to make money. Brahmacārī, on the other hand, is completely transcendental to money matters. Book prices were set by the temple, the book distributor didn’t even think about keeping anything to himself, and his only concern was that collected lakṣmī matched with the number of sold books exactly. There was no question of discounts, no free giveaway materials, every book had its price and that was it, it was non-negotiable.

When a gṛhastha is expected to make profit from books all sorts of things enter into his consciousness and pollute it. People sense that a mile away and they see buying a book as a typical trade – I want this, you have a weakness for that, so let’s exchange something to mutual satisfaction. Late in the day, for example, both the buyer and the seller think that it’s time to give a discount. The buyer senses that he can get something cheap and the seller thinks that he can reduce his price so that he doesn’t have to carry books back. This reduction in profit is the price he is ready to pay for the comfort of not having to carry books back and look like a bad distributor, even to himself. The buyer senses this desire for comfort and this is what he wants to trade on – you get your comfort and I pay you less money. It’s tempting, and temptations pollute our minds, we lose the focus and single mindedness of our service.

Sometimes a book distributor might forego the profit altogether and chalk the books up as his personal donation to the temple where he got them from. He might then choose to give them away or keep them until next time, or practically forever. This correlation between personal well-being, well-being of the family, and saṅkīrtana does not help at all. Brahmacārīs don’t suffer from that.

Next, our temple at the time was a large two story building which previously housed some offices, I think. The point was that it had many completely separate units with separate entrances and they have been converted to āśramas. BBT had it’s office there, too, and it was completely off limits to ISKCON devotees. They shared a ground entrance but had a lock with a door code even before you got to second floor landing. You couldn’t walk in there unless you have been invited in and most of temple devotees have never been inside, like ever. BBT had its own kitchen and they brought their supplies separately, too.

To us, temple devotees, it was a practical demonstration that BBT is the heart of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s movement and serving there is more important than anything else. Printing books comes first, distributing them comes later.

Book distribution for us was the heart of ISKCON and saṅkīrtana āśrama (well, we called it “ashram”, not “ashrama”, so I’ll drop diacritics here) was the biggest ashram among temple departments. Temple room was the single biggest room in the temple, of course, but pūjārīs quarters and paraphernalia rooms behind it were incomparable in size to saṅkīrtana ashram, though it wasn’t much bigger than others. It had a door and, unless you lived there, you’d have to knock, but it was never locked, like BBT’s, and they didn’t have their separate kitchen. They did have their separate prasādam room, however, which helped book distribution.

Temple prasādam was a long drawn affair and in marathon times saṅkīrtana prasādam was served during Bhāgavatam class, for example, so that saṅkīrtana devotees could leave for book distribution right after the class was over rather than wait until temple room was prepared for serving and then wait until everybody is served. All in all, they left for saṅkkirtana a full hour earlier and their lunch time wasn’t fixed either, unlike lunch in the temple room, so they didn’t have to worry about making it back on time.

This physical separation and privileges made everyone treat saṅkīrtana mission as special and superior. The rest of the temple thought of themselves as no more than servants to that mission. Temple itself was more like a service pit on race tracks – saṅkīrtana devotees stopped there to recuperate and recharge themselves spiritually, their real life was on the streets, not in the temple.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in that ashram and the atmosphere there was very different from the rest of the temple. The kind of topics they raised during prasādam, the small talk they made while waiting in line for a shower, it was all strictly Kṛṣṇa conscious, there was no prajalpa whatsoever. Down in the temple room and temple devotees ashram it was free for all, even saṅkīrtana drivers had to be given their own place where they could let themselves go, like drivers do. These devotees formely drove taxis and trucks and those habits were always with them. They were free to enter saṅkīrtana ashram at any time but they had to restrain themselves there.

It’s not like saṅkīrtana devotees thought of themselves as gods, they had their saṅkīrtana leader for that role. They obeyed him unconditionally, they were his subjects and did not even think about going against his instructions. Even temple president wouldn’t dare to approach them without consulting with saṅkīrtana leader first. They were his servants in every practical sense and he was the only person responsible for their maintenance – he made sure they had food, shelter, clothes, cars – everything. If he didn’t provide something they had to accept it as austerity and no one has ever rebelled, in my memory. It was unthinkable.

The point is that this physical arrangement was the key to growing healthy spiritual relationships between devotees in different departments. Everyone then knew his role, who he had to serve, and who he had to take care of. Every relationship was personal on the spiritual level, not on some mundane character compatibility, and everything worked like a clock. That’s how we were able to break records then.

With current setup at our temple it would simply be impossible. We don’t have a single brahmacārī there, for starters, only visiting ones. Most of the congregation is visiting, too. There’s simply no place for cultivation of single-mindedness there, no facilities for maintaining a proper inner attitude necessary for successful saṅkīrtana. I’ll write more about attitudes of saṅkīrtana devotees tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1689. Single purpose

I wonder if my recent speculation about single flavor experiences through an apparent variety of services can be applied elsewhere, in particular to Kṛṣṇa līlā? It’s not how we imagine it, that’s for sure, but there are good arguments in support of it, too.

The starting point was our possible connection with Lord Rāmacandra – we don’t seem to fit in His epic story with Sītā and then war with Rāvaṇa but if we think of Him as a perfect king then varṇāśrama could be our way. Lord Caitanya wasn’t interested in it, Kṛṣṇa wasn’t interested in it either, but Lord Rāmacandra seems like the perfect patron Lord of performing our varṇāśrama duties.

When we talk about varṇāśrama duties we can talk about our real life experiences and that’s where it might get real speculative but I don’t think that there could be a big disagreement here. We seem to do a lot of things under the aegis of varṇāśrama and going to work feels very different from relating to one’s wife or children but once we get over the duality of our experiences we can all see the underlying driver – desire to serve the Lord to the best of our ability.

I’d argue that it’s the same motivation regardless of external engagement. It doesn’t matter whether our duties are pleasant or stressful at each given moment, we still have to perform them because doing so would please the Lord. I’d argue that it’s the only way to find a real connection between our activities here and Kṛṣṇa – everything we do must be done for His pleasure only regardless of our feelings and regardless of the results. Our guru wants us to be perfect little soldiers in this battle, too, though following varṇāśrama rules is not very high on the list of things we should be doing for Lord Caitanya’s mission.

Speaking of Lord Caitanya – everything we do for Him must somehow be connected to saṅkīrtana, to spreading the glory of the holy name. I’ve written a couple of posts about this back in December – it’s entirely possible to build our entire society around this single preaching mission so that every devotee, from temple pot cleaner to best book distributor to temple president see themselves not as cooks, managers, or salesmen but as servants of saṅkīrtana. It’s a beautiful attitude to have, the best ever possible, and we have had experiences of implementing it successfully. Maybe now is not the time for it, I don’t know, but when it worked it worked wonders.

Once we learn to see that connection in each bit of our service we should realize that it is driven by one and the same “rasa”, just like following varṇāśrama. We want other people to appreciate Kṛṣṇa, that’s our single motive behind everything we do. I put “rasa” in quotes there because we don’t have a name for it – it’s not exactly dāsya, even though we are servants. Lord Caitanya’s mood is described as audārya, meaning magnanimity or generosity, and it could be a sub-rasa under mādhurya or something, I wouldn’t delve into Six Gosvāmīs literature just yet to find out exactly – if they even mentioned audārya it might have been in different context anyway.

The same attitude was displayed by Prahlāda Mahārāja, btw, who is in dāsya mood but there’s an argument that his compassion towards other living beings was manifestation of compassion of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī. There’s an argument that rasas are not building up from śānti to mādhurya but rather spread down from Śrī Rādha to all other devotees who display parts of her complete spectrum of devotion. Some get this audārya and some choose to serve the Lord without it (if it’s even possible).

I’m not a sucker of compassion, a word I believe is generally abused in our movement, but that’s what Lord Caitanya’s mercy is – compassion. It’s what drives His saṅkīrtana movement even though saṅkīrtana itself can contain any other rasa. The best place to feel this magnanimity is in Māyāpura, it just permeates the whole atmosphere there and it is clearly different from the atmosphere of Vṛndāvana. To feel real sweetness of Vṛndāvana is impossible without being qualified for it but no one can escape the audārya of Māyāpura.

That’s probably why Śrīla Prabhupāda made us come to our annual festivals to Māyāpura so that we can recharge our batteries and return to preaching with full enthusiasm. It just doesn’t happen to those visiting Vṛndāvana where the most common reaction is to withdraw and dedicate oneself to chanting and recollecting Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes.

Anyway, it is possible to see all service under varṇāśrama as driven by one single motive, one single rasa. It’s possible to see all service under saṅkīrtana as driven by one single rasa, too. Is it possible to see all service to Kṛṣṇa in a similar way?

On the surface of it – no, because Kṛṣṇa has a variety of devotees serving in a variety of rasas. That is not the case with Lord Rāmacandra as the king of Ayodhyā and it’s not the case with Lord Caitanya. We reject Gaurāṇga-nāgarīs who pretend to have various relationships with Mahāprabhu from His pre-saṅkīrtana days and accept only serving to His preaching mission as legitimate means of relating to Him. Relationships with Kṛṣṇa are not so restrictive.

What could be restrictive is our personal relationships with Him. In the spiritual world we might indeed be a one trick pony. Even those devotees playing in manjarīs focus on one single aspect of their service, afaik. Usually it’s decorating something in preparation of the visit of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. From description of other gopīs we can see that they are all expert in one particular field. Some are good a putting tilakas, some are good a cooking, some are good a playing musical instruments and so on. It is quite possible that they do not know how to do anything else and can’t care less about Kṛṣṇa’s relationships with calves or cowherd boys, it just doesn’t occur to them because they are too busy doing their own thing.

We also have examples of seemingly inanimate objects that serve only one single purpose – like the rope and the milk in Dāmodara līlā. They might be aware of everything else that is going on but all their lives they wait for that single moment when the Lord finally interacts with them.

Another argument is the fact that devotees on higher stages of progress are given one single mantra to worship the Lord and these mantras disclose one single devotional sentiment. From Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s commentary on Brahma-Saṁhitā I remember that everyone worships the Lord with mantras there. It’s only for us there’s a difference between mantra and the “real life” but in the spiritual world the sound and the reality are non-different.

One mantra, one sentiment, one rasa, one service – seems logical. It does not allow for personal variety but it should allow for variety of actions to express that sentiment, just as saṅkīrtana or varṇāśrama.

The only problem is pastimes where gopīs and Kṛṣṇa interact in unpredictable ways, especially when other devotees are involved, too. In those pastimes there aren’t any restrictions on what each and every person would do. Within limits, of course, because gopīs behave as gopīs and gopas behave as gopas. Still, some of these personalities are very versatile in their service. To this I could answer that we are never going to reach their platform, and that even with this versatility there’s always one single motive behind it anyway. Gopīs do not have any other interest but Kṛṣṇa or Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, as the case may be, everything they do serves this singular purpose in one single mood.

Hmm, it seems my new speculation is holding up very nicely. It would be great to check it out personally but for that one would need to visit the spiritual realm which is not on the cards, unfortunately. Maybe one day…

Vanity thought #1662. A touch of envy

Maybe my memory is very selective but I can’t remember if there’s a simple answer to a question why modern civilization is so successful at what it does. We can easily dismiss this success as heading in the wrong direction, we can blast it for not paying any attention to the spiritual side of life, but we don’t have an answer to why it works at what it does when, in Kali yuga, it should fail miserably instead.

Well, Kali yuga isn’t over yet and current period of prosperity is still only a short blip on Kali’s five thousand year history, but still – why are these atheistic materialists so successful? It’s this success that lets them declare that they don’t need God anymore and they’ve been on this godless path for about a hundred years now and are still going strong. What’s the matter?

My answer is that their atheism is phony. They might declare that there’s no God but they still vehemently defend God’s laws. Things have changed since approximately the turn of the century and the millennials are not sticklers for the rules anymore but then the millennials haven’t produced anything of notice so far and probably never will. It’s the old school science that still carries the burden and they know the difference between right and wrong better than anyone else, sometimes even better than us – as in cases when we in ISKCON failed by their standards in areas like child or women protection.

These days there’s a serious push for alternative, non-religion based morality but all they are doing is offering non-religious justification for the same rules, they are not inventing anything new. There are cases now where they use a completely new rule book, like sexual relationships, but so far they have nothing to show for it and they can’t built a sustainable society that generates enough new members with the way they practice sex now. Everything else, as I said, is just another justification for the old, God given rules of no kill and no steal.

As I said yesterday, from the point of view of the universe and the law of karma acknowledgement of God is not necessary for the kind of results they need, simply following the rules would be enough. They are not going to discover God or attain self-realization but they are not aiming for those goals so it’s not considered a failure in their view. They can completely detach the rules from God and the rules would still work because the universe is self-sustaining that way, it has everything it needs to maintain its human population without drawing on Kṛṣṇa’s resources – pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate – it’s complete.

We, as devotees, should know this as we should know that these rules work precisely because they are originally God given, no matter what the atheists say. Kṛṣṇa personally set up the varṇāśrama system, He said so in Bhagavad Gītā (BG 4.13). Outside of India it’s not called varṇāśrama, of course, but the human societies all over the world naturally divide themselves into four varṇas and aśramas.

There are students, there are householders, there are retired people, and there’s no sannyāsa because no one in Kali yuga is capable of following it. There are rulers, there are businessmen, there is labor, and there are academics and consultants. Soviets tried to create a classless society but they still had their workers and farmers and their intelligentsia, and they also had their untouchable ruling class and plenty of ideologists to oversee every section of the society. Soviet Union collapsed anyway and with it their classless experiment.

In any society there are clear traditional rules for everyone to follow. Everyone knows who to seek safety and protection from and who to give protection to. Everyone knows when to get up and what to do during the day, everyone knows when it’s time to work and when it’s time to relax. Everyone knows the duties of the fathers, mothers, husbands, sons etc, and they are remarkably similar all across the world. Farmers everywhere get up before sunrise, for example, while the rulers tend to overindulge in sense gratification and sleep late, while teachers and academics are natural moral examples for everyone else to follow.

When we talk about Bible based rules we instantly remember the ten commandments but these commandments do not explicitly describe how the society should function, I’m not even sure it’s possible to trace the duties of kings or farmers to Biblical origins. This gives an opening for the atheists to propose evolution as the root of our rules but every religious person unquestionably attributes them to God anyway, whether it’s actually said in the Bible or Koran to get up early or not. Procreation is a clear God given order, on the other hand, and so are other duties for the āśramas. We know varṇāśrama is God given, Muslims and Christians know it’s God given, so let’s not waste time on exploring the possibility that it’s the product of gene mutation and natural selection.

And here is the deal – people following their prescribed rules naturally please Viṣṇu and they know when Viṣṇu is pleased or not because Lord’s satisfaction registers deep in their hearts. Mothers know that raising their kids is ultimately satisfying even against all the arguments about lost sleep and missed career chances. Husbands providing for their families also know that it makes them happier than thoughts of running away from this unnecessary burden.

When it comes to their professional lives people also know that doing their jobs is what brings them the ultimate happiness, not their remuneration packages. Things gradually change, of course, but there are still billions of people in the world who would prefer to honestly do their jobs and would not sell out no matter what. People know when Viṣṇu is pleased and nothing can replace that odd feeling of deep satisfaction, they don’t need to know His name to feel it.

A coupe of days ago I argued that democracy as a system of government is a form of saṅkīrtana, too, because it’s congregational and it’s dedicated to perfecting God given rules for the society – if done with the attitude of jointly considering how to better implement Lord’s will.

These people aren’t nominally devotees but their engagement with the Lord through following His rules is to be admired, which we never do in our society. We never appreciate the kind of sacrifice these non-devotees perform and we do not acknowledge how it might actually please our Lord. We claim the Lord all to ourselves and we can’t accept the possibility that other people, especially our sworn enemies – atheists, might please Him, too.

We shoot for the stars, as I said yesterday, but we measure our progress on the material level by the same standards as atheists and this means that we must engage in the same type of sacrifice – strictly following God’s rules, which we don’t like to do because we consider ourselves very special. Or maybe we even hope to avoid honestly performing our duties because we expect the holy name to compensate for our shortcomings. Since we pursue the same materialistic goals – building big temples, collecting big money, and attracting a big number of followers, this attitude becomes offensive because it means we maintain our material attachments despite of chanting.

So, when atheists succeed in whatever endeavor our reaction has a mixture of it all – envy that the Lord favors them and not us, laziness to follow the same rules and procedures, and an offensive attitude of desiring the same success for ourselves. And what we don’t normally see is how this success is ultimately attributed to serving the Lord even if attained by avowed atheists.

Vanity thought #1583. Lines of authority

For a week now I’ve been talking about the departure of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, his last public address, his last days, and his actual last words. However, despite knowing all this I still stick by the version I’ve heard many many years earlier from a devotee whose name I don’t even remember. Lines of authority are funny that way.

Modern people pride themselves on being logical and rational but one of the most obvious areas where logic fails them is their irrational allegiance to their first authority on any subject. Everything they hear after that is viewed through the prism of their first “guru”, turns out I’m not an exception.

One can easily find confirmation of this phenomenon in people’s mundane lives, I don’t want to waste time on proving that. One’s political views on the value of the free market, for example, are usually so long held that it’s impossible to actually trace them to the first person who asserted that capitalism is good, or capitalism is evil, both utterances pronounced with the air of the authority around the speaker. Everything else that comes after that would still be forever judged according to that first premise. Another example would be one’s opinion of historical figures – you hear it once and it will stay with you for the rest of your life. Unless it’s something you take a keen interest in and mentally prepare yourself for fundamental changes in your understanding you are stuck with your guru forever, it’s just how our minds work.

What interests me more is how this phenomenon manifests itself in people’s spiritual lives. Sometimes you just need to hear a few words from a person to determine where he comes from and how far he can possibly progress in a foreseeable future. You can also easily determine how much interest he takes in the subject and how important it is to him, but more importantly – how it will affect his next life.

If you talk to Indians you can spot traces of “yata mata tata patha” planted in their minds so long ago they are not going away – all paths are good, all are spiritual, and you can worship all gods equally. The plus side is that they are less offensive at least in their external behavior. Likewise, they have absorbed their knowledge of Kṛṣṇa with their mothers’ milk, no matter what anybody ever says about Him they will still see Him as God.

If you talk to non-Indian Hindu wannabes then the first thing they know is that you are Brahman and God doesn’t really exist, Kṛṣṇa being simply a tool to achieve higher understanding. No matter what they read after that they’ll always think of themselves as Brahman and as being above such silly concepts as devotion. It just doesn’t wash off.

On the plus side there are people who got their first spiritual lessons from our books and you can spot them a mile away, too. The way they might talk about māyāvādīs is a dead giveaway, and also the way they talk about things like reincarnation or yoga, or Sanskrit, or elements of varṇāśrama. We, the Hare Kṛṣṇas, are known for having immutable and easily recognizable views on such topics. The way Śrīla Prabhupāda presented them makes them unique even so many years later and in people who can hardly remember his name. These things stick.

Sometimes I wonder why it is so and whether it has any spiritual value behind it. With Śrīla Prabhupāda it’s easy – even a small knowledge attained on our path can save one from the greatest danger, but what about this subconscious allegiance to all kinds of bogus gurus? Does it make people spiritually crippled for the rest of their lives?

In some cases it does because it makes people carry their attachments and upādhis. Eventually they have to overcome those but it takes a very long time, which is obviously not good. OTOH, this allegiance can be seen in a positive way, too – a guru is a guru. You surrender and he teaches you and you can never ever give him up. Objectively speaking he might be a bogus guru but it’s the one given to you and so you have to stick with him no matter what.

“Stick with him” doesn’t mean you can’t recognize errors in his teachings but it means you should never ever lose respect. It’s like with your father – no matter what he does he is still the one who gave you life, nothing will ever change this simple fact. So yes, I’m prepared to appreciate people allegiance to frauds like Ramakrishna if it’s done with the spirit of always honoring your ācāryas. I believe one can, and should be encouraged to, keep this gratitude in their hearts even if they moved on to better understanding of God and devotional service. More likely they will never be able to move on but if they did gratitude is still in order.

Oh, and about Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s last words – I was told by a devotee, in great confidence, that he said that we should always chant the holy name and it will save us no matter what happens in our lives. Things will get messy, mistakes will be made, falldowns will be experienced, relationships torn, institutions ruined – but if we keep chanting through it all our lives will be spiritually successful. Chanting is the only thing that matters.

As it’s recorded in Bhakti Vikāsa Svāmī’s biography, the actual last words were: “All of you, present and absent, accept my blessings. Remember that our sole duty and dharma is to propagate service to the Lord and His devotees.” Not exactly what I was told, but I still stick by my remembered version. How? By explaining it away, by refusing to see the contradiction.

Fine, he didn’t say “..our sole duty and dharma is to chant the holy name”, but I didn’t understand it to mean only chanting and not saṅkīrtana either, and saṅkīrtana is nothing else but “propagate service to the Lord and His devotees.” There’s no contradiction here. He didn’t say build temples, distribute food, or even distribute books, he meant perform saṅkīrtana in a broader sense – as preaching, which is discussing the Lord in the company of others, chanting the holy name is included. This is what “propagate service” means – talk to others about glories of the service to the Lord. It’s still the same thing as chanting.

I’m not going to give up my eternal gratitude to that unknown devotee just because there’s an apparent inconsistency. Spiritually, the message is the same, it’s advaya jñāna, which is another great subject taught by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta.