Self-Identity, Conflict and Commonwealth within ISKCON
A response to Babhru Prabhu’s early notes
By Krishna Kirti Das
March 14, 2012
Dear Babhru Prabhu, please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
Thank you for your essay on the need for pursuing a more elevated rhetoric of Krishna Consciousness. I remember that eight or nine years ago when I wrote regularly for my own web log, siddhanta.com, you used to frequent it as a commentator and offered me the same advice. I like to think that I took your advice back then, though I have not always succeeded in following it. At the very least, I think it improved my own ability to get my point across to others. I remember having thanked you over the years for having reached out to me, despite our otherwise different outlooks.
As to your essay, and your desire to have a conversation about rhetoric (and eventually about “unity in diversity” itself), I do not think that at as a society at this time that we want either an improvement in public rhetoric or unity in diversity, however much some of us ask for it. I believe this overall lack of desire for either has much to do with the way we think of others. A brief example of a failure of polite discussion will illustrate why.
Years ago I had approached another devotee to discuss a matter that was of concern to me, and I had also requested another devotee to moderate the discussion, which he kindly did. After some email exchanges with the other devotee, which were mainly to ascertain more accurately his perspective, I finally presented to him my specific objections to his point of view. His response, however, was a brief dismissal. He wrote that he was “flooded with devotional service” and that he had no time to continue with our correspondence. What is more, the devotee I had requested to moderate the discussion openly supported the other devotee’s rationale for ending it. Although I had anticipated this kind of response, it still left me deeply disappointed. My only consolation from that failed discussion was that I had made a good faith effort to conduct my side of it politely. Indeed, the other two devotees in their closing remarks had thanked me for my politeness throughout the exchange. At the very least, I knew that further discussion, however polite, would be impossible.
This story is a permutation of the surgeon’s infamous declaration: “The operation was a success but the patient died.” It suggests that the doctors misunderstood the patient’s condition and tried to fix the wrong thing. Or it suggests that the patient’s death was inevitable. Similarly, an improved rhetoric will not necessarily lead to better relationships among devotees, for the ill rhetoric itself may instead be the symptom of deeper, underlying factors that produce it, much as how a persistent, high fever is still the effect of an underlying, life-threatening disease.
As the story illustrates, once the ill rhetoric had been stripped out of the discourse, the true causes for dissension became apparent: our differences were so deep that one or the other among us found the other’s position to be so morally out-of-bounds that his proposition was beneath discussion. Discussion, what to speak of cooperation, became impossible on account of difference. Insofar as difference and diversity refer to the same categories of thought and experience, the problem of rhetoric and of other kinds of deep dissension are directly failures to realize unity in diversity.
Thus while I believe that the advice you give in your essay is valuable—we all should strive to use words that are satyam priyam hitam, truthful, pleasing, and beneficial to others—the fact that more refined forms of condescension and disregard for others co-exist with cruder name-calling means that attempts to improve rhetoric society-wide are unlikely to succeed. It could just as easily produce a more refined expression of envy. My proposition therefore is that rather than approach the problem indirectly through a long process of enculturation, the better way to approach the problem will be to make direct progress toward finding unity in diversity.
If diversity without unity is a reflection of our separation from Krishna, then it is also a representation of our envy. We are envious of others if and only if we are disconnected from Krishna. Consider this prayer by Prahlada Maharaja,
svasty astu visvasya khalah prasidatam dhyayantu bhutani sivam mitho dhiya
manas ca bhadram bhajatad adhokshaje avesyatam no matir apy ahaituki
“May there be good fortune throughout the universe, and may all envious persons be pacified. May all living entities become calm by practicing bhakti-yoga, for by accepting devotional service they will think of each other’s welfare. Therefore let us all engage in the service of the supreme transcendence, Lord Sri Krishna, and always remain absorbed in thought of Him” (SB 5.18.9).
Important in this verse is the proposition that the bhakti-yoga counteracts envy. As Srila Prabhupada says in the purport, “If the Krishna consciousness movement spreads all over the world, and if by the grace of Krishna everyone accepts it, the thinking of envious people will change. Everyone will think of the welfare of others.” It is easy to see how the ill rhetoric will go away if devotees in general are nicely worshipping the Lord through bhakti.
Conversely, if devotees are not thinking of each other’s welfare, it means there is some discrepancy in their devotional service that accounts for continued, envious dealings amongst themselves. Every devotee in our society who is not free from the four defects of a conditioned soul has some measure of envy left in him. If given an opportunity, that envy will manifest in one way or another. Although we are on the path of bhakti, we still have a long way to go before we are finally free from maya. And because much of our behavior is social, envy is not merely a personal shortcoming. It is a social problem as well.
Managing envy at the level of society is the goal of varnashrama-dharma. Though bhakti-yoga is the true and only medicine for reviving our lost relationship with Krishna, varnashrama-dharma’s relationship with bhakti is something like this: If someone has an acute fever, his temperature might kill him before the disease itself ever does. To prevent that from happening, wet towels are placed on the sick man’s body to bring his temperature down. The wet towel will not cure him, but it will keep him alive long enough to give the medicine a chance to act. In the same way, varnashrama-dharma through its culture and social structure helps to keep our envious tendencies in check long enough for the bhakti process to purify us. As the Lord says in the Gita,
yesham tv anta-gatam papam jananam punya-karmanam
te dvandva-moha-nirmukta bhajante mam dridha-vratah
“Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life and whose sinful “actions are completely eradicated are freed from the dualities of delusion, and they engage themselves in My service with determination” (BG 7.28)
Although I think your proposition is a positive move, I think it will at best achieve only marginal improvement, if any at all, in the overall quality of rhetoric. That is because I see proximity rather than lack of refinement to be the more immediate problem. Sometimes to keep two or more people from fighting they have to be kept far apart. And within our society there are some differences that probably cannot be solved any other way than by distance. A necessary first step toward resolving them will first be to at least acknowledge we have them.
But acknowledging them at all is not an easy thing to do. And I think a difficulty with your own analysis is that you give insufficient weight to the nature of existing differences. The particulars do matter. For example, you wrote, “Sannyasi A rips into Sannyasi B for being too liberal, and Sannyasi C goes after Sannyasi A for being too medieval in his approach.” But despite the even-handedness of your reprimand, it is too abstract. It gives the impression that Sannyasis A, B, and C are “ripping” each other over some picayune matter. But that is not necessarily true. The matter may be important after all.
For example, a sannyasi recently told me that he had been invited to Mayapura to participate in some planning committees around the time of the GBC meetings, and he replied that he did not want to participate in them because they involved interaction between men and women. Another sannyasi I know, however, thinks there is nothing wrong with mixed-company meetings as long as they are public and the participants deal with each other like ladies and gentlemen. “Why waste the talent of so many qualified women?” In response, the traditionalist sannyasi narrates an incident in which an otherwise decent devotee went to an ISKCON management seminar and at the meeting fell in love with another devotee, who also fell for him. He ended up divorcing his wife, who was born to devotee parents, and left her to raise their newborn infant on her own. (This is a true story, by the way.)
Thus once we get beyond abstractions and consider particulars, we find that not only are there substantial points on both sides, but that different groups of devotees are deeply passionate about them. This partly accounts for the rancorous nature of some disputes. Furthermore, since questions of self-identity are involved, resolution of differences between devotees on such issues is typically beyond discussion.
To the extent that our self-identity is a manifestation of our material conditioning, it is a function of the false-ego, the ahankara. Being a man, a woman, or someone from one country or another are some obvious manifestations of false-ego, which may also take on an overtly religious identity. In North America, for example, members of the Amish community are so fastidious about repaying money they owe that banks will guarantee their loans without any of the usual credit reports or background checks. For the Amish, to miss a payment is such a personal and social shame that none dare be late. Devotees, for example, consider being vegetarian an integral part of what it means to be a devotee. If some devotee is found to be addicted to eating meat, the entire devotee community will reject him. Whether that self-identity is grounded in false-ego or is a mixture of false-ego and true identity, conceptions of “I” and “mine” are very strong and typically beyond the reach of rationality. That matters because mind and intelligence are subservient to the ahankara.
An existential conflict is a conflict in which one or more parties are fighting for their lives or self-identities. It may be a single person in a life-threatening situation, or it may a situation where his world has been turned upside-down in other ways. In mortal terms, a cornered and wounded animal baring its teeth is fighting for its existence. A small nation-state surrounded by larger, more populous enemies is always anxious and ever-ready to stave off the next invasion.
In more ideal or spiritual terms, an existential struggle involves the threat of a fundamental change to one’s self-identity. If someone in our society, for example, seriously proposed that we started cooking meat in our temples, continued to insist on it, and somehow through propaganda gathered a following that continued to advocate it, the conflict between that group and others would indeed be a major upheaval. That is why existential conflicts are the most fiercely contested—one is literally fighting for his life or identity. That is also why the term “culture war” is applied to conflicts which involve shifting values that are fundamental to a population’s shared self-identity.
The disputes over which we in ISKCON have had some of our nastiest exchanges have been significantly existential. Perhaps the grandmother of them all has been conflict over the social status and role of women in ISKCON. That in itself has indirectly or directly touched deeply almost every contested issue from guru-tattva to varnashrama-dharma. That is probably never going away, and yes, it remains existential.
Sometimes it is perversely refreshing to come upon a bitter conflict that does not significantly involve women at some level. The fall of the jiva (or not) from the spiritual world was one such past issue. That conflict especially involved issues of authority. Some devotees had a lot to lose in that debate. Others might argue we all had a lot to lose, which could explain why that dispute had an existential dimension to it (at least for some).
A more recent conflict involves the role and nature of charity within ISKCON. That conflict has an existential dimension because it involves the question of whether large-scale charity is moving us toward success in preaching or toward failure through a reorientation of ISKCON toward karma-kanda. Again, questions of fundamental identity are involved, and it has therefore been significantly bitter. Attempts to improve the rhetoric in these conflicts will hardly make a difference. They are the stuff that schisms are made out of.
Not every conflict, of course, is so strongly existential. They typically involve bad interpersonal dealings. For example, a devotee who does not return a loan to another devotee gives rise to conflict. Perhaps someone is proud of being the one to make Krishna’s garland and won’t let anyone else make it, and conflict arises. False-ego is involved, of course, but the question of whether it is worthwhile to make the garland does not arise. The question involves who gets to make it. Or someone just gets thrown out of a temple and then blasts his indignation on any number of websites. In terms of frequency, these more private conflicts are the most common.
What seems to distinguish these more pedestrian conflicts from the larger, schism-producing conflicts is that a fundamental, shared communal value is not being questioned within the former while it is being questioned within the latter. No group of devotees is going to have a schism because, as sad as it may be, such-and-such das and his family got kicked out of a temple. But having a schism over women’s roles? It’s typical.
In order to reduce tensions between groups of devotees who have significantly different outlooks on Krishna consciousness, it is probably necessary to grant them a greater degree of autonomy than is currently allowed. That might mean, for example, giving these differing groups the authority, or adhikara, to decide who their gurus and sannyasis will be. For example, a significant number of devotees have been disappointed that women in ISKCON have not been allowed to become initiating spiritual masters. And even when a few are allowed to initiate, these devotees will probably continue to be disappointed with what they will see as a low representation of women among the ranks of ISKCON’s gurus. More and more of these devotees have come to think of having more autonomy as the means of rectifying what they see as a spiritual injustice.
Thus two high-level proposals have been proffered to correct the problem: the 2005 Shastric Advisory Committee’s paper on female diksha-gurus directly supports this. Indirectly supporting the 2005 paper is the committee’s 2010 paper advising the GBC to give more authority to individuals to select their own spiritual master. There is little doubt that some of the authors of the 2010 paper, while writing it, had in mind the fact that not one woman had been given the authority to act as diksha-guru since the 2005 paper, despite the GBC’s public endorsement. Granting more autonomy in spiritual matters to individuals and to communities is an idea that some reputable devotees have already expressed, and for reasons similar to mine.
In order to facilitate this at a political level, ISKCON would function more like a commonwealth. A modern commonwealth like today’s British Commonwealth, for example, connects many countries and cultures that are quite different from one another. India, Pakistan, Australia, and Nigeria, to name a few, have very different cultures and histories, and they manage their own affairs and governments. Some of these countries have done quite well on their own, like India and Australia. Other countries not so well. Yet despite the diversity there is a common recognition among them of a unity (however limited) that contributes toward a common good (hence the name “commonwealth”). In order to allow unity and diversity to find its own level among different groups of devotees, they need the kind of autonomy a modern commonwealth might give to its member states.
ISKCON as a commonwealth would help alleviate dissension among devotees in two ways: it would help keep far enough apart devotees whose differences inevitably bring them into conflict, and it would give an opportunity to each community to develop their own way of life in pursuance of the Krishna conscious ideal.
As regards to giving devotees who are inclined to disagree more distance from each other, that is a Vaishnava solution. Lord Balarama and Shri Vidura went on pilgrimage instead of staying to face the heat of dissent. Lord Shiva left the sacrificial arena when his followers and the followers of Daksha began to quarrel. We should be willing to encourage more separation at times. Indeed, sometimes permanent separation is required. And we should be more open to encouraging that too. They are Vaishnava solutions and should therefore never be off the table.
This greater autonomy will provide different groups of like-minded devotees an opportunity to develop their own way of realizing the Krishna conscious ideal, which they otherwise would not have to develop into coherent spiritual communities. Take for example the problem of child abuse in our own society. In order to combat it, we have within ISKCON a strong institution to protect children, and it has popular support. However, while some devotees see this development as a remarkable achievement, others see it as a remarkable failure.
Why a failure? There are several reasons, some of which include:
* ISKCON’s first purpose is to teach the techniques of spiritual life in order to reverse the imbalance of values in life within society at large. Our current child-protection regime, however, relies primarily on techniques taken from an already misguided society.
* Western society in particular is already way over-sexed, and that is in no small part due to the psychology profession’s efforts to valorize sex life we have always defined as illicit. Why should we trust their solutions when the profession and the academic discipline in important ways are against our ideals?
* From a preaching perspective, the more we adopt mainstream society’s way of life, the less we have that is unique to offer to people interested in an alternative.
Some devotees will undoubtedly roll their eyes at reading this brief list of objections to the current regime of moral policing within our ranks. But that kind of condescending response underscores my point that important differences like this are rarely settled by discussion. In such cases, separation may be the best spiritual choice.
Like you, I believe that the character of rhetoric in our society is dangerously belligerent. It is the cause of much offense that will check the spiritual lives of many devotees, and it is all but impossible to remain aloof from it. However, I differ from you in that I do not attribute the primary cause of this to a lack of maturity or lack of refinement. Even devotees who are advanced in good manners have made their own polite contributions to the present malaise.
Instead, I see that devotees have deep disagreements about non-trivial matters and that the differences in some cases are so stark that it has become all but impossible to discuss them. Thus over the years I have advised many devotees that it is better to keep themselves at a distance, if not leave entirely, in order to peacefully build the kind of Krishna conscious society that is more according to their realization and liking.
Separate communities with their own internal, spiritual authority structures and loose affiliations with each other fostered within a commonwealth would allow communities of devotees that have deep differences to pursue their own solutions in tandem and with far less risk of committing Vaishnava aparadha.
Respectfully, your servant,
Krishna Kirti Das