Free Speech In Krishna Consciousness

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By Kesava Krsna Dasa

Does the liberty of free speech earn us the right to say what we please, on matters that bother or irritate us, even if our words sometimes hurt the feelings of other devotees? If free speech means to either like, or not like what we say - because we cannot please everyone - does it mean that the hard truths must be revealed, to appease the irresistible urge for information? Does vaisnava culture allow free speech? Are there limitations to what can be said at any time?

Sometimes, devotee advocates of unfettered free speech like to quote certain amendments to the American constitution, and thinkers like Chomsky. If we learn from history how the likes of Goebbels and Stalin also favoured free speech, that they liked, how can there be any consistent basis upon which to speak freely? Where does this freedom begin and end? If one man’s freedom is another mans imprisonment, how do certain devotees subscribe to free speech of this sort?

Yes, we devotees utilise our democratic freedoms to preach Krishna consciousness, and perhaps have a good old moan about irritable issues, but does free speech really exist? The answer is no. How can a world population governed by the three modes of material nature speak freely? To put it another way, how can people in general whom the intransigent chains of goodness, passion, and ignorance rigidly shackle, ever be free to speak freely?

Srila Prabhupada wrote, “…it is to be understood that the conditioned soul is tightly tied by the ropes of illusion. A man bound by the hands and feet cannot free himself - he must be helped by a person who is unbound. Because the bound cannot help the bound, the rescuer must be liberated.” (BG 7.14 purport). So clearly, vaisnava culture does not subscribe to bound speech.

There are unlimited relative things to talk about within this ‘endlessly mutable’ world, like assassinations, the clash of civilizations, earthquakes, war, soaring oil prices and so on, which make for grim, fearsome reading. These relative truths are indulgent for bound people who think they have the freedom to do so. Occasionally, we may read or hear vague ideas of truth like, “the truth is out there”, “born free”, or “the truth shall set you free”. However, who among the bound people know what these truths are?

The scientists will certainly stake a claim to truths that will free us form the evil bondage of religious beliefs and superstitions. The innumerable religious charlatans will claim their truths to be the one and only ways to bounden salvation. The truth is, these binding relative truths simply keep everyone imprisoned in this world of fear and death. Therefore, to appeal for freedom of speech based on bound thinking has no value in vaisnava culture.

Another inconvenience of bound speech is that a devotee is supposed to just grin and bear it, while a bound thinker vilifies and slanders all that is dear and sacred. So-called free speech cannot accommodate genuine truth in its fold; in fact, it belongs to the same league as the “all paths lead to the same goal” sentiment, which seeks to impose an artificial equality in society, which can never happen. However noble and accommodating these bound ideals sound, again, they have no place in a genuine truth culture.

Having come to Krishna consciousness, and following the regulative principles of freedom, while chanting in Nama-bhasa, our freedom path is paved, though not yet free in mind. As we inquire about freedom from this world, and perform devotional activities meant to free us, gives us a free-bound status, just like our tastastha constitution. How we communicate with each other as devotees can differentiate whether our speeches are free or bound.

If ever we read supposed devotional subject matter, which aims at addressing certain issues, but has some motivated reasoning behind it, or takes subtle swipes at individuals, or are offensive, critical, mundane and the rest, they are bounden speeches. An agitated mind is hardly a transcendental mind, and to plead with arguments on the basis of free speech, is to risk deriding other devotees, and lower the standard of dignified communication.

While hearing or reading questionable critiques, we should know if they are liberating, inspiring, and able to grant us freedom, or the opposite of these. If we are unable to distinguish, then our consciousness is quite bound. The great freedom manual, the Bhagavad-Gita even has austerity of speech as a requirement to surrender freely. This shows how vaisnava communication is highly evolved as it were, and restraints are obligatory to ensure boundless happiness.

What we say to our friends may not be said to the guru, and neither to the juniors, who should be given affectionate words. We can inquire without unnecessarily challenging, and we can follow certain protocols without publicising an issue. However, the irresistible urge to know about what is going on inside something we have given our life for, will always find a way out, even past attempted censorship. Again, we should think, “Do these things raise my consciousness?”

Being in Krishna consciousness should be a perpetual conscious raising engagement. In this regard, there is really such a thing as free speech. Though we may be bound ourselves, if we perfectly repeat what guru, sadhu and sastra says, we are engaging in free speech. Real free speech is that which frees us from fear and misery, and is the best medicine for us. This taste for continual Krishna katha is derived by loving and caring for our fellow devotees, and serving them. “O twice born sages, by serving those devotees who are completely freed from vice, great service is done. By such service, one gains affinity for hearing the messages of Vasudeva.” (SB 1.2.16).

It follows then, that if ever we feel flustered, down, irritated or whatever, that we create an excuse to serve a devotee, or group of devotees, and feel the difference. There is something special in serving a vaisnava, because it can change the heart. A clean heart wants to speak and hear of Krishna related freedom matters, and shun bound agitations. To serve is to hear, and to hear is to serve. It has the power to make us speak and hear genuine free speech.

“Whenever pure topics of the transcendental world are discussed, the members of the audience forget all kinds of material hankerings, at least for the time being. Not only that, but they are no longer envious of one another, nor do they suffer from anxiety or fear.” (SB 4.30.35). While this may sound like a temporary relief from misery, we can make it continual if we take to heart the instructions of those who are really “born free”, the pure ever free, unbound acaryas.

Ys, Kesava Krsna dasa - GRS.

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1 sita-pati

Dear Krishna Kesava Prabhu,

Having been the only one, to my knowledge, to mention Chomsky and free speech here lately I can’t help but think this is some way inspired, or directed at me.

I appreciate the general points you make in this article. I have some questions about the application of this understanding.

I think we can agree that ISKCON, a society with spiritual values and spiritual goals, is also a human society and is demonstrably made up of conditioned souls at all levels, including at the highest levels of formal leadership (Guru, Sannyasi, GBC).

This is a tangential but related point to the thrust of your article: given the above reality: what is the social dynamic by which the misuse of authority is protected against, or the conditioned tendency of the formal leadership is balanced? I assume that it is something as yet unmanifest, as we have experienced examples thus far in ISKCON where having such a mechanism of balance in place would have been to the benefit of all and it seems we have yet to fully develop the social dynamics needed to function as a human society.

Personally, my realization is that as leaders we must bear responsibility for the impact our leadership actions have on the people we lead. A workman shouldn’t blame his tools, and a leader shouldn’t blame his followers, demanding that they just “grin and bear it and simply eat their halava”, as someone once put it.

Each of us has our sphere of influence and our sphere of concern, and within that sphere, conditioned or otherwise, we have our responsibility to act. It is our dharma to act according to our nature in that area. For example, if mothers had spoken out more vigorously about the treatment of their children we might have avoided the tragedy that unfolded in our gurukulas. Philosophy was also employed at that time that obstructed that tragedy from been dealt with as it should have been.

What are your thoughts on balancing these considerations?

your servant,
Sita-pati das

Comment posted by sita-pati on May 19th, 2008
2 Kesava Krsna dasa

Dear Sita-Pati prabhu,

I am sure you gathered, that appealing to free-thinking ways to address issues of concern to us, is fraught with risks of speaking or tolerating vitriol or Sadhu-ninda, which makes for lowering the consciousness, thus binding the speaker and hearer. I am not one for conspiracy theories, but this encroaching mindset of secular tolerance, may work on a political level - but is harder to instill on the grassroot masses - is an attempt to equalise religion, gender, belief systems, and so on.

This means that the genuine truth of Lord Chaitanya’s teachings, get swallowed up in this impersonal merger, where nothing really sacred exists any more. For us who are trying to become vaisnavas, the balance you ask of, should always favour that which is beneficial, both for the speaker and hearer - anukulyena krsnanu silanam.

Of course, the degree of protest aired, usually matches that of corresponding errancy on the side of those we look up to. But if our premise is that everyone in Iskcon is ‘conditioned’ as you say, then our words directed at normal conditioned devotees, may as well just be the stuff of mundans free-thinkers. In other words, our speech reflects the estimation of our target - mere ‘conditioned’ devotees.

I would hesitate to generalise this way. Rather, would it not be better to see the devotees as ‘un-conditioning’ on this sacred path of Bhakti? If we have a little more respect for the devotees, this is a practical application of philosophy, not mere ‘philosophising’ as you say, then our words and speech will also become respectful. It is to our peril if all our communication is based on this premise, then impressionable minds will imitate, thus tilting the slippery slope towards bound thinking and speaking.

Vaisnava culture is all about respect for one and all, is it not? Sometimes it is easier to respect the opulences of illusioned people, and their philosophical dissertions, than it is to respect devotees. So the balance, as I said, favouring dignity worthy of respect, is what sets vaisnava culture apart from, noble, accommodating, secular impersonalism we see in the world today.

Once we have developed a culture of respect, then perhaps, even pertinent, dirty and scandalous issues can be dealt with more effectively. Besides, even for the sake of the larger devotee community, our standards should be high, as an aspiration.

To be continued.

Ys, Kesava Krsna da

Comment posted by Kesava Krsna dasa on May 20th, 2008
3 Kesava Krsna dasa

It is a perrenial set of questioning; how to react or behave, towards suspect leadership and the policies they espouse. It is quite certain that even if we had a perfect checks and balance system in place, there will always be opportunities to circumvent them.

It is one thing to get bound up in all sorts of issues, if only to set a precedent for future members of Iskcon. But there is also a tendency to condition our Krishna consciousness to events that happen around us. We often hear a weak, or neophyte devotee say he, or she, cannot practice their spiritual lives properly due to external factors discussed here. We have to admit, that circumstances affect the minds of devotees, but also offer a good excuse not to practice Krishna consciousness.

On this level, these scapegoates can fuel all matter of terse and binding debates. which can border on the unneccessary. They can suck out our enthusiasm and intellectual capacities, which could otherwise be trained on the neccessary - trying to reach Krishna Prema. There will always be the type of soul with a nature suited to managerial and strategic deliberations, and all things related. Acknowledging this, the Iskcon ship will continue plying the turbulent waves of Kali-yuga. There is only so much an individual can do. So while all these contentious issues arise before us, and we continually dwell on them, sometimes to the point of mundane’ness, there sometimes has to be a cut off point for us.

Will it help us get to Krishna Prema by dwelling on certain things, especially if we see devotees as conditioned? It usually happens that a self respecting person has respect for others. Perhaps an examination of why we may over react, or become highly strung in certain situations, can help us discover a misdirected use of energy. The point is, the potential to lose our resolve can begin with loss of respect for other devotees, however faulty they may be. Yes, we are all full of faults, and mistakes will be made, but let not this disract us from the desired freedom we all seek.

These things will come and go, but we cannot let them dictate our level of dedication to perfect our lives. Rather, our own Krishna conscious standard should prevail, of which respectful free speech is an essential part. Many dreadful things have happened, and we can only learn, and move on. Dealing with them is sometimes beyond our control, if someone wilfully desires to bend the rules.

Ys, Kesava Krsna dasa

Comment posted by Kesava Krsna dasa on May 20th, 2008
4 Suresh das

I don’t really enjoy engaging in critical speech of others. I would personally prefer to just focus on my self realization as the goal of life, and use whatever time I have to improve myself. At the same time I worry when free speech is curtailed or censored, because I fear that there is something to hide. I am always willing to give devotees the benefit of the doubt, but still there is a lingering apprehension in the back of my head, that I can’t dispel, that something is wrong or there is some conspiracy afoot, however unfounded it may be, when free speech is suppressed. I know places I can go, if I need to say something. Knowing that I have the freedom to speak, but not speaking unnecessarily, is great freedom in itself.

Comment posted by Suresh das on May 22nd, 2008
5 Akruranatha

>>If we learn from history how the likes of Goebbels and Stalin also favoured free speech, that they liked, how can there be any consistent basis upon which to speak freely?

Comment posted by Akruranatha on May 22nd, 2008
6 Suresh das

There is a saying: “a happy crew is a complaining crew. As soon as there is silence then mutiny is being planned”. If devotees are not allowed freedom to express themselves, as well as the ability to voice their doubts or misunderstandings of how to apply Krishna Conscious principles in their lives, what tends to happen then is expression may be spread through gossip. In this day and age of the internet, opposing websites might be set up, sometimes for the only purpose to defy and tear down authority. Compassion is needed towards persons who don’t understand Krishna Consciousness, bhakti-yoga, or Vedic culture. Devotees may also not understand the future direction or plans for the Krishna Consciousness Movement, or how they are to fit in or participate. The Krishna Consciousness Movement can sometimes be an overwhelming ocean of ever-increasingly complex rules and regulations, creating a complete culture shock for many potential devotees. Even the devotees, who may have taken initiation, might not fully understand how extensively they are meant to sacrifice their lives. There were many devotees for instance who joined Krishna Consciousness in its early years and stages, but who may have fallen away as the rules, philosophies, and sacrifices Srila Prabhupada introduced became more and more complex and daunting. Lord Nityananda preached Krishna Consciousness with great humility, offering His mercy even to the most fallen and envious of personalities. Great compassion will be needed to bring persons to Krishna Consciousness, not just new people, but existing devotees as well, and to encourage each person, according to his own individual capacity, to engage in devotional service, and work for the Sankirtan Movement.

Comment posted by Suresh das on May 25th, 2008

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