Can We Compare Iskcon With Other Faiths?
By Kesava Krsna Dasa
Scholars and professors like to observe Iskcon and compare us with various religions. Devotees too, can feel that they belong to one of the faiths called Iskcon. Should we accept that we are just one of many, or is there something unique being neglected?
There is no doubt that scholarship can pass on useful information to us – how trust between devotees is required, how strictness might increase membership, how references can help Iskcon preservation and so on. We can benefit from others on how Iskcon social development progresses.
All this help largely centres around our human needs. We are all human beings and although taking to the process of Krishna consciousness, our behaviour and preconditioning mirror those of humans practicing other faiths or not. There is nothing unique in this, except that we are trying to spiritualise our needs.
Krishna consciousness essentially means to be Krishna conscious by dint of pure devotion, or Bhakti. While considering our Iskcon social needs and development we can minimise the value of Bhakti. Bhakti can then be subjected to scholarly observations as though She is just another faith or religion – is She?
If Bhakti is simply another faith or tradition, our connection or identification as Iskcon members looses true distinction. Bhakti ends up being confused with human behavioural phenomena and subsequent needs and development. Bhakti will then come under scholarly scrutiny. This mistake can pass by us without realising it. This happens when we fail to distinguish Bhakti from our human needs in general. What does Srila Prabhupada say of Bhakti?
“Therefore this bhakti word is applicable only in relationship with God, or Kṛṣṇa. In the material world, there cannot be any use of the word bhakti. Because here the so-called devotional service is motivated. So this bhakti word is monopolized by Kṛṣṇa, and nobody else.” (Vṛndāvana, October 28, 1972)
If Krishna has a monopoly on Bhakti it means that He and She are utterly independent standalone personalities. Their independence is none-negotiable. Of course, Krishna can be Bhakta-vatsala, being amenable to His devotees, but Bhakti has to be there first.
Can independent Bhakti be compared with other faiths that brew sectarianism and be conforming to the social needs of human beings? In reality, the useful information we gather for our Iskcon social improvement has nothing to do with Bhakti. We can try to create a mode of goodness situation and general conduciveness towards Bhakti, but She still remains aloof. Then how can Bhakti compare with or be compared with anything else?
“If you begin your bhakti-yoga, vāsudeve bhagavati… Bhakti-yoga can be applied only to vāsudeve bhagavati. Bhakti-yoga is not applied anywhere. The śāstra does not say.” (Delhi, November 13, 1973)
One may wonder how far we can go in comparative religion on an interfaith basis. Interfaith discussions will usually focus on shared interests and values of various faiths. The human need for peace, justice, harmony, alleviation of suffering and much more are suitable platforms for dialogue. But if we begin to compare independent Bhakti with mostly motivated forms of ‘Bhakti’ passing as religion, then we shall do injustice to Her.
“So these things are very nice. I will request you to study what is bhakti, what is pure devotion, what is Vāsudeva. Everything is there. It is a science, great science. It is not sentiment, neither it is so- called religious faith.” (Delhi, November 13, 1973)
Although we may engage in interfaith dialogue with other religions, we have to keep in mind that we are not a religion as Srila Prabhupada stated. We can easily make Iskcon a religion if we compare Bhakti in normal or mundane terms.
We can accentuate our sense of religiosity by identifying with or forming human preferences such as conservatism and liberalism for example, especially if we support one side or another merely because we agree without offering substance and merit. Such support is then counted as sentiment, not Bhakti. These sentiments can fuel sectarianism.
It could be that wise ‘outside’ advice and ideas can help improve the general practice of Bhakti, but in reality, Bhakti is independent from these. And social studies, scholarly observations and learned thoughts by professors on Iskcon are all of passing, incidental human interest only – as seen from an independent Bhakti perspective.
Another relevant statement like this might seem all too obvious for us: “The activities of the spirit soul, the activities of Brahman, is bhakti-yoga. Bhakti-yoga is not material activities. Bhakti-yoga is spiritual, pure spiritual activities.” (Delhi, November 13, 1973)
It can happen that information that is so familiar and so very obvious, is usually the type of knowledge we take for granted, and end up overlooking it entirely. This is where independent Bhakti can be obscured by mixing Her with human things of interest, however vital it may be for our needs.
This information may appear elitist or impractical for us. If we see how Bhakti, the holy names, sastra and sadhu sanga form the core of Iskcon existence, all of which help guide us to internal reality of service unto the Divine Couple, then we have to separate what is truly rare and unique from normal religiosity, as genuine mahatmas do:
“Mahātmā is not under the control of this material energy. He is under the shelter of spiritual energy, daivī-prakṛti. And the symptom is bhajanty ananya-manasaḥ: he has no other business than to serve the Supreme Personality. Bhajanti. Bhaja sevāyām.” (Delhi, November 13, 1973)
Even though this internal ideal appears light years away from us, it will remain so if we relegate Bhakti. If She is acknowledged with full unique distinction, no matter how much ‘outside’ help we get, or how many interfaith friends we have with all the wisdom that their traditions offer, we shall know that Bhakti belongs nowhere but through Her own independent desire to give Bhakti – let us pray for that.
Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa