The Lib/Com Discussions
By Kesava Krsna Dasa
We see yet another example of right and left opinions being expressed – this time about Food for Life. We have seen them before on women’s issues, on whether to innovate or not, and on Srila Prabhupada’s way forward for Iskcon. Do these interpretations reflect our unity in diversity, or are they potentially frictional?
If we want to get to the real core of our combined spiritual orientation, then we need look no further than Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s most conservative expression as He says, “…no other way, no other way, no other way,” than the chanting of Hare Krishna – Hari-Nama. And Srila Krishna Dasa Kaviraja wrote: “In this age of Kali, there are no genuine religious principles. There are only the Vaisnava devotees and the Vaisnava devotional scriptures. This is the sum and substance of everything.” (CC Madhya 9.352)
These absolute statements summing up our own way forward are divinely conservative. There is no argument against such ‘bluer than blue’ facts. So straight and narrow are these edicts that our razors edge finesse really does determine whether we are correctly poised or not on the path of Bhakti. In that sense, we are all ultimately conservatives at heart.
But the knack of a preacher of Krishna consciousness is how best to make this straight and narrow of no compromise, palatable to conditioned mentalities. Even though one may be liberal as a preacher of Krishna consciousness, it does not make one a compromiser of our ultimate aim to attain pure love of Krishna. This is of course, for those who are sincere and philosophically attuned.
We know that our previous acaryas did innovate, and did bend certain traditional rules in order to attract people to Krishna consciousness, and Srila Prabhupada was no exception. Now we are left with Srila Prabhupada’s instructions, and we will interpret them according to our own liberal or conservative preferences. It appears that our checks and balance dependence on Guru, Sadhu and Sastra are not exempt from blue or red leanings either.
If we consider how far Srila Prabhupada compassionately did ‘bend’ many rules for our sake, do we, as his followers have the authority to ‘bend’ them even more? Or must we actually undo these acts of compassion to revert to a standard that Srila Prabhupada originally would have liked, before having to be so accommodating?
These ‘bending’ of the rules did not distract from the “everything-summing up-no other way” facts quoted earlier. They were actions of a sympathetic willingness to get us on the path of devotion to the Lord, and eventually lead us to the same exclusivity of faith and love in pure Bhakti. These ‘bending’ necessities earned much criticism from traditionalists and sceptics alike, and even from some ungrateful followers.
We have our different outreach programs appealing to a broader section of people through yoga, inter-faith conferences, chill-out lounges and the rest. Those who prefer the straight and narrow do not always look upon these favourably. The fear is that such outreach will attract sub-sincere seekers who may latch on up to a certain level of dedication, then fall away.
These types of outreach are usually measured by how many people become devotees – they are results driven. With Food For Life, we cannot attribute the same measurements in terms of recruitment. Prasada is liberally distributed to one and all regardless of caste or creed, yet the method of distribution is questioned in some cases, and for good reason.
Already we can see quotes of Srila Prabhupada used for or against limited or unlimited prasada distribution, as well as for other contentious topics. The same pattern of interpretation prevails, and the same left and right tendencies clash – both for good reasons. Then what should be the deciding factor in such differences of opinion? Naturally, we would judge something by its results.
Ideally, such results should be favourable. Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that prasada distribution causes negative reactions from the public? Helping the homeless in downtown London might anger the city councillors, or it might offend others who think such food is offered to idols. Then we have questions raised about borderline mundane or bona-fide methods of distribution.
One could bring up an argument that the late Steve Jobs, who did take prasada, never used his billions earned to help the Hare Krishna movement with even a pinch of gratitude. Do we have to be straight and narrow to expect such financial gains? How about seeing the great potential for Food for Life to be our saving grace in times of need or difficulty?
We always need money for preaching or expansion. We’d like to have friends in high places who can enable favourable advantages for us. Our book distribution is going on. But still, to date, millions of people are not becoming devotees at the pace we want. Many people find that high devotee standards of spirituality are too narrow and straight. Many other people remain unconvinced that we have their best interest at heart – purity is the force.
Books are the basis for us, but they are not the basis for average fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews, traditional Hindus or doubtful atheists. Only a small number of liberal minded adherents of these faiths will agree to inter-faith dialogues. The aggregate sukrti of these people does not allow them to appreciate us as we would like – yet.
Our prasadam distribution – when done nicely – can enable those same people of other faiths to like us. This Food for Life can cut across suspect and perceived barriers. It can reach even where our books cannot. Would it be true to say that prasada distribution – in the form of nutritious foodstuff – is more merciful than our books?
People can appreciate acts of humanity, and Food for Life is more than humanitarian. This Food for Life can form the basis of appreciation for us that they would otherwise not have. These feelings of appreciation – which means they are making spiritual advancement – will increase because, if Food for Life is there to feed an increasing number of people losing their jobs and homes as economic hardship bites, they will remember us for it. This sort of help induces the wealthy to help financially.
Here is a real scenario that could face us all. If the economic downturn continues and more people are left underprivileged, there is a tendency to turn to extremist politics. Being poor or poverty stricken can cause a desperate need to seek help from extreme right or left wing populists who promise ‘emancipation.’ If such populists observe how Food for Life helps ‘their’ people, we’ll have friends in otherwise potentially difficult circumstances, if ever they come to power.
If we are able to see the advantages of prasada distribution and the potential to form the basis of friendly interactions with people who see our compassionate, humane side, then soon they will want to know what we are about. This friendship will help others to more easily ask of us our goals and aspirations on the path of Bhakti. Eventually, the ‘straight and narrow’ truths will be easier to bear for them.
Wouldn’t this be a better approach for all of us? Is there a danger that if we retain the straight and narrow, and become rigid and inflexible, that this will limit our outreach to people who are not ready yet? If Srila Prabhupada had remained rigid and inflexible when coming to the West for us, how many of would be able to chant 64 rounds a day, and tolerate a ‘male only’ deity department and so on?
It is worth remembering that apparently being liberally inclined does not mean that one has lost ones core conservative values. The values remain. The differences lie either in the extent of innovation or humanity to reach out, as opposed to retaining core principles on the basis of keeping purity intact. These are two sides of the same goal.
There is much spiritual capital to be made out of this, and it requires patience for the longer term if need be. If the discussion helps to determine a consistent quality of prasada distribution, we can all benefit. If Food for Life becomes our basis for making preaching gains, and having friends in unlikely places, it is an essence worth refining. Give Food For Life a chance.
Other areas of difference lie in the interpretation of quality versus quantity, in terms of devotee numbers, membership of Iskcon, temple standards and the rest. While there is no disputing the need for quality, we can yet reduce or inhibit our effectiveness in attracting others to Krishna consciousness by insisting on the straight and narrow in all circumstances.
For instance, if a favourable person begins to chant one round a day, this is a glorious, most rare achievement for a human being. A straight and narrow conservative mind would likely frown upon this ‘minimalist’ liberality as a sub-standard deed. How many people have left Krishna consciousness because it is too difficult?
If offences and inattentiveness do cause difficulties for us all – must that be the end of any involvement with Iskcon altogether if someone, leaves? As Iskcon grows into the future, it may be necessary that it be a multi-layered setup, and the implementation of varnasrama-dharma will see to this. It will become apparent that Iskcon membership will populate these different layers according to varying levels of commitment.
Let us think of the thousands who were members of Iskcon and have left, with no further contact. What if there were some facility or membership role given for those who found the 16 rounds, four regulative principles standard too tough? With continued membership and involvement, all these could be engaged in some capacity to serve Iskcon.
If this is too liberal for the razor-edge type, then we had better reduce our preaching and the building of temples. Only a relatively few are going to live the conservative way both in theory and practice, and there will not be enough to become pujaris in our temples. Srila Prabhupada warned us to never be put into a situation where our deities, or the worship of them, become a burden for us.
If at present there is a need to import pujaris for several temples around the world, is this an outcome of liberal over-endeavouring falling short on – sattva – maintenance preparedness? In this way we can present arguments for and against being liberal or conservative.
Since there are merits for both sides of preference, this can help us find common ground reflecting the social realities of the world around us, without being utopian. Huge quick expansion of Iskcon can incur the risk of compromising standards for the sake of maintenance alone, especially if we lack purity. And wishing to retain high standards without unnecessary expansion can appear as being bereft of innovation and movement.
Just as any act of policymaking requires input from diverse perspectives, we are not any different on a human level. If we all share the conservative need to spread Krishna consciousness to as many people as possible, then the logic of increasing liberally more and more, with conservative, cautious sage advice, must be the best possible outcome, as both are mutually beneficial.
Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa – GRS