Ideally, respect should be given in full knowledge, in appreciation for someone’s devotional service and devotional qualities, but that is not always possible or practical so we offer respect to devotees “just in case”. It’s better be safe than sorry, the logic goes. Offering respect won’t break you neck so what’s there to lose? This kind of respect, however, is necessarily offered out of ignorance – we necessarily don’t know what exactly is being respected. Does it matter? Let’s see.
Let’s say someone’s face lit up when you offered them a book on the street. You don’t know anything about this person but immediately you respect them. Is it respect based on ignorance? Or maybe “mixed with ignorance” is better. The answer is no – we respect people’s interest in Srila Prabhupada’s books, not the rest of their lives. This is comparable to devotees’ accounts how Srila Prabhupada looked straight into their soul and they felt immeasurable love and compassion in that one glance. At this moment the rest of their lives just melted away and was forgiven. That was not a look of ignorance but a look of perfect knowledge – Srila Prabhupada saw the very essence, the most valuable part of our beings – our inherent and eternal connection with the Absolute Truth. Compared to this connection everything else in our lives has practically zero value and therefore looking past it is not ignorance but knowledge. Perfect knowledge – all these things are not worth anything. We might talk about ourselves and our problems and achievements 24/7 and become cautious if someone doesn’t take interest in them but this one look from Srila Prabhupada and suddenly you yourself see that they have no value compared to what Srila Prabhupada had just discovered in you, hidden and unappreciated. So ignorance has nothing to do with this.
More often book distributors comment on people themselves, saying things like “You look like an intelligent man” or “I see that you have a good heart” or “You look like someone who knows how to tell BS from a real thing” or something like that, latching onto whatever aspect of their personality people advertise themselves. There is an art to it and I don’t want to discuss how to do it properly, but this kind of respect is not given out of ignorance either. It’s an “educated guess”, and the correctness of this guess should be judged not by whether it is true or not but by whether the person gets hooked and takes a good look at our books or not. Sometimes a devotee would deliberately say something untrue just to shake people up and grab their attention: “You really think that about me? Well, why? But never mind, I guess I like that feature you just pinned on me, so what do smart/sensitive/discriminating people do? Look at your books? Fine, I’ll play along.”
Ignorance comes into play in situations where you are unsure what to do and decide to follow etiquette instead. Etiquette is given to us for a reason and it’s indeed better to offer respect “just in case”. So you see a devotee and automatically say something like “Dandavat pranams” or an extended version of it (because “dandavat pranams” is really the least respect you can offer). This won’t hurt anybody but what do you say after that? Would you say “All Glories to Srila Prabhupada” to a Narayana Maharaja’s follower, for example? Visually, they are indistinguishable and they won’t mind glorifying Srila Prabhupada, but their understanding of what this “all glories” mean in this case is different from ours. So now ignorance raises its head – you didn’t know and you shared a sentiment that is not actually shared, not shareable.
So now we have two kinds of respect in ignorance – one is controlled by etiquette and another is when ignorance is our own and we keep on going with it. That’s where things can get really messy.
Imagine a Prabhupada disciple coming to the temple for a Sunday feast. He is immediately shown respect, offered a prominent seat, and served first. Then he opens his mouth but instead of putting food into it he floods the assembly with unimaginable kind of nonsense. He might have a go at GBC for ruining ISKCON, or he might go talking about his own glorious achievements – there are plenty of topics that should not be discussed in public and there are plenty of devotees who just can’t contain themselves. In this situation you can be sure that 5-10% percent of those present WILL take this garbage seriously and plant seeds of doubts deep within their hearts. As Srila Prabhupada’s disciples get older and mellow out it’s not that big of a problem but I remember days when it really was and every guest had to be vetted first. Today, when someone new is invited to speak, they are usually informed what topics to stay clear of and in this way ignorance is dispelled and knowledge is established. Then respect can be offered in full, and in full knowledge, too.
There is another kind of respect as well – for people’s mundane achievements. Doctors get it automatically, for example, or rich people, or people of power – anybody who displays any of the opulences of the Bhagavan. Seniority is also automatically respected. By itself it’s not dangerous and it’s appropriate, but when it’s put next to one’s devotional qualifications things can get messy again. As Prahlada Maharaja prays to the Lord in Srimad Bhagatam (SB 5.18.12): all good qualities of the demigods automatically manifest in the devotees while “person devoid of devotional service and engaged in material activities has no good qualities.“ Whatever good appears in them is a product of “manorathena”, product of mental speculations, as Prabhupada translates it. Ratha is a chariot and mana is the mind. What’s there to respect? This is how Sanskrit phrases it, too – kuto mahad-guna – where (kutah) are their gread qualities? It’s all mental.
The point is that mental creations deserve their appropriate level of respect but it can’t be placed next to respect offered for someone’s devotion. Not even close. Incomparable. Do not even try.
What happens if you do? This means you are placing value on things like one’s position in the society (janma), one’s wealth (aisvarya), one’s education (struta), or one’s attractiveness (sribhih) – this list is from the famous prayer by Queen Kunti (SB 1.8.26). What happens when you do that? In Srila Prabhupada’s words – you can no longer approach the Lord with sincere feeling. So what happens is that you just thought that these other things have a comparable value to devotion and immediately you disqualify yourself from being a devotee. You can still have your kanthimala but you can’t chant the pure name any longer. Gone. Sanskrit words, not explicitly put into the translation by Srila Prabhupada are “na arhati” – you don’t even deserve the ability to chant sincerely. It’s gone. “Incapable”, as Prabhpada says in the purport. He also stresses the power of the Holy Name to demolish a mountain of sins, but only if one pronounces it with a sincere feeling, which you can’t do any more.
What is left for you at this point? Nothing, really. You observe that the Holy Name does not work for you anymore and you might go on on the strength of your sadhana or previous impressions, previous samskaras, but the reality of your life is that the Holy Name doesn’t work and sooner or later you will start acting on this realization. You’ll start thinking that the glories of the Holy Name are exaggerated and so on. Because there is no big power in the Holy Name you won’t pay much attention to guru’s orders either – one thing always leads to another.
How to avoid this predicament? Simple, but not easy – always respect only the pure devotion and never ever allow to place your faith into anything else. You let those other things in and you are done, so don’t. It’s not easy because discrimination between pure devotion, show of service, sincere efforts, half-hearted efforts, misplaced efforts, misplaced devotion etc is not so easily attained. You have to know the real thing himself first and then compare all those other propositions to it – there is no other way. Etiquette can give us initial guidance but no one can apply or even understand prescribed rules perfectly so in the end it always comes to your own heart and your own judgment, which you should never betray – assuming you know your heart is true. If you betray your heart for the sake of etiquette or for the sake of your own reputation then you are done, too – Krishna will just stop talking if you do not listen.
Disclaimer: I obviously don’t mean that you can just go on with your own mind and discard anything else. You obviously have to find your heart first and you have to learn to listen to your own honest conscience. This is how Krishna talks to us and once you find this voice you can’t turn away from it without suffering serious consequences.
Practical question: Today is Srimati Radharani’s appearance day and there is naturally a lot of talking about Her, much of it sentimental. Do you allow this sentimentalism into your own heart or not? On any other day you wouldn’t, but is it allowed today? You know, it’s Her birthday and She is very merciful, so don’t be fanatical, right? Relax a little, right? Don’t be so uptight. Right? Or wrong?