Serpents be Damned! Addressing ISKCON Concerns About My New Kirtan Book
By Satyaraja Dasa
Although the reaction to my newly published book on kirtan has been overwhelmingly positive, I have received several letters expressing an entirely predictable ISKCON concern. One letter in particular sums up the all-too-conservative reservation: “I love the new book but I wonder about ‘milk touched by the lips of a serpent.’ I refer, of course, to the non-ISKCON people represented in your book. Shouldn’t we only hear from authorized representatives who embody the mood of Lord Chaitanya?”
Akruranath Prabhu’s insightful comments on Dandavats and other ISKCON websites deal with such questions sufficiently, but since he has asked me to address these subjects in my own words, I will do so in the form of this present article. It is a rather long article, but I ask my readers to be patient and to wade through its several pages. After all, there are numerous dimensions to this subject, and I am trying to address them all, or at least a good number of them.
To begin, let us consider that a devotee might reasonably ask: “Why do I even want to know about these people outside of ISKCON? Why should I care about what they have to say?” My simple answer: Because their contribution and perceptions are now part of kirtan history and lore. There’s no avoiding it. If you’re alive and part of the preaching movement in the 21st century, you’re going to be confronted with their work. So you should know something about it firsthand, not from hearsay. The book in question can thus be seen as a comprehensive encyclopedia of everything kirtan, apprising devotees not only of sampradayic truths but of all related information, including that of our distant cousins on the contemporary kirtan scene. This in itself might serve as justification for the book. But for those who need more . . .
The kirtan book, in addition to conveying the history, philosophy, and devotional tenor of ecstatic chant, attempts to create certain bridges and pathways between our ISKCON chanting and that of others who are not in our lineage. To be sure, the lines drawn between these two camps are not always black and white, for there are numerous considerations in determining who is a serpent and who is not.
Indeed, there are only a small number of ISKCON conservatives who would deign to see “snakes” where there aren’t any, and they often make their assessment based on superficial differences. For these few who might be worried, I have a few words to say.
What is it that makes one a serpent anyway? Does a card-carrying member of ISKCON automatically eschew serpent status? Is anyone outside the parameters of the movement necessarily a serpent? Sometimes we call someone a serpent if they’re critical of ISKCON. But if we think about it, we insiders, too, are often critical of our beloved institution, and often with good reason. Let us consider, then, that maybe Krishna is sometimes speaking through our critics — to edify us, to make us more vigilant about correction and change. In these cases, such persons are not necessarily serpents. They might in fact be angels in disguise.
So let us reflect on just what it means to actually be a serpent — it might be slightly more nuanced than we at first suspect. To be fair, there are positive serpents, too: Sesaji is the bedstead of Lord Vishnu and Mucalinda shielded Buddha from the elements as he sat wrapped in meditation. Not all serpents are dangerous.
In all seriousness, though, when Srila Prabhupada uses the metaphor — “milk touched by the lips of a serpent” — he is referring chiefly to “nondevotees,” to people who professionally recite the Bhagavatam, to those who have no true feeling for spiritual subjects, and so on. The idea is that the holy name is as pure and as nourishing as milk. But even such prophylactic substances can be compromised by outside elements, indicating that the “milk” of the holy name should be taken purely, without “contaminating influence.”
As someone who has spent the better part of his life in the association of devotees, I naturally (and obviously) grappled with this question before embarking on the kirtan project, whose purposes, I determined, would best be served by engaging “outside” voices. I thought deeply about the people I wanted to include as part of this book, and I stand behind my decision.
All interviewees in my kirtan book are serious about the holy name and aspire to advance in spiritual life. They want to develop love for God; they are generally humble and sincere people. Readers may have heard other stories; but I know these individuals personally. Even if one doubts these chanters because they come from an alternate lineage or hold a different understanding of ultimate reality, is it not true that by associating with devotees this can all be rectified? Consider the words of the Caitanya-caritamrta: “When one is encouraged in devotional service by the association of devotees, one becomes free from all unwanted contamination . . .” (Madhya 23:10) Does this not speak to the importance and effectiveness of us working together, as we do in this kirtan book?
Along similar lines, readers might have faith in me, the editor of the volume, who is not only properly initiated in disciplic succession but has a modicum of experience in presenting ISKCON themes to outsiders. People like Akruranath Prabhu, who have actually taken the time to read the book, see clearly the purpose of my strategy. And make no mistake, the book IS strategy, not shastra. This book accomplishes something by virtue of NOT being shastra — it draws into kirtan people who are not necessarily inclined to the orthodox tradition, so that they might more easily see its value.
There are two ways of looking at kirtan, one conservative and the other quite liberal, and we draw on these diverse perspectives according to time and circumstance. It is something like how we view Vaishnavas: On the one hand, only pure devotees have the right to be referred to by that term; on the other, Mahaprabhu says that “those who merely appreciate the chanting of the holy name can be counted amongst the Vaishnavas.” (This latter perspective would definitely include all participants in the kirtan book.) A still more liberal definition is found in the writings of Bhaktivinoda Thakur: “All living beings are actually Vaishnavas, since all souls are ultimately servants of Krishna.” We use these different definitions for different purposes.
So, too, with kirtan: Chaitanya Mahaprabhu tells us that “there are no hard and fast rules for chanting the holy name.” If we think deeply about what these words actually mean: case closed. We need look no further for justification: Anyone can chant God’s names and spiritual benefit will accrue.
But let us look at the context of His statement, too. Mahaprabhu lived in a time when Brahmins were duly initiated into chanting mantras and would evoke these mantras for specific service, such as deity worship. One could not perform certain services without such initiation. Not so for the bearers of the holy name. To hear Mahaprabhu tell it, the yajna of chanting God’s names breaks away from such restrictions. One doesn’t need initiation to chant kirtan — one needs merely a mouth and a heart. One needs to be a soul yearning for God.
As Sri Satyaraja Khan, my namesake, tells us in the Caitanya-caritamrta: “One does not have to undergo initiation or execute the activities required before initiation. One simply has to vibrate the holy name with his lips. Thus even a man in the lowest class [candala] can be delivered.” (Madhya 15.108)
And yet there’s the other side of the tradition, which is based more on our legalistic Vedic background. Here we underline the importance of proper initiation and of receiving the holy name from the lips of a realized soul. This more stringent side of the tradition is particularly important for Westerners who might disregard the necessary qualifications for moving forward in spiritual life. For this reason, even though the Satyaraja Khan verse (above) makes it clear that initiation is not required (or that it’s merely a formality — “a necessary formality,” as Srila Prabhupada would often say), our spiritual master went to great pains, in his purport to that verse, to make the exact opposite point of what the verse itself was saying. That opposite point was simply this: that initiation is EXTREMELY important.
The philosophical background for this conception is based on the Padma Purana: sampradaya vihina ye mantras te nisphala matah (“A mantra not received through an authorized lineage will not bear fruit”). This is not to say that one cannot make spiritual advancement without the virtue of an authorized lineage. We know that people do — and have — throughout history. Nor is it to be understood that the holy name is rendered ineffective without proper connection to standard sampradayas.
Rather, it is only the “ultimate fruit” (phala) — pure love of God — that evades us if we neglect the proper channels through which mantras descend. That being said, one naturally develops all good qualities by chanting the holy name of God, wherever one might hear it, and, by the sincerity of that chanting, one might eventually be led to a bona fide spiritual lineage. So chanting is always helpful and spiritually nourishing. Nonetheless, the question remains: what if one hears from a lesser source?
Before answering, let us look at a few practical examples in Prabhupada’s own manifest lila: When Allen Ginsberg showed appreciation for Krishna Consciousness, and Prabhupada saw how the popular poet might help the movement, our beloved Gurudeva let him speak and even lead the chanting on several occasions. Prabhupada knew well that Ginsberg was not following the principles of Vaishnava life, nor did Ginsberg have the proper conception of the holy name, as he revealed in numerous lectures. Still, Prabhupada allowed the hippie icon to help to the best of his ability, mercifully engaging him in the Sankirtan Movement.
There is another incident: When I was on Radha-Damodara TSKP, we used to go out regularly for nagara-sankirtan, chanting through the streets, with Vishnu-jana Maharaja. On one such occasion, an elderly gentleman saw the chanting party and exclaimed, “What is this? Who are you guys?” And then he joined in, obviously completely taken by the effects of the holy name. Just then, he had a heart attack and passed away — right in the midst of an intense, rip-roaring kirtan. TKG, fascinated by this occurrence (as were the rest of us), wrote to Prabhupada and asked him about the destination of our newly deceased chanting partner. Prabhupada’s response: “He went back to Godhead.”
The man was not properly trained as a devotee; he had absolutely no authorized conception of the holy name; and he was certainly not initiated. Yet Prabhupada unhesitatingly told us that this man, merely on the strength of his enthusiasm for chanting at life’s end, attained the supreme destination.
One more story: When Srila Prabhupada was in Tehran, giving a lecture, he heard from the windows the Muslim “call to prayer” coming through tinny loudspeakers. He asked his disciples what it meant, and they explained what it was. In their explanation, they seemed to indicate that it was annoying, and they wanted Prabhupada to support them in their criticism: “It’s not like they’re chanting the maha-mantra, Srila Prabhupada.” His response: “They are engaged in glorifying the names of God. So it is alright. Do you want me to be sectarian?”
What we learn from these stories (and countless more like them) is the following: If someone is inclined to chanting God’s names, they should be encouraged, and their talents may be utilized in this way. If someone chants with sincerity and enthusiasm, those qualities can override one’s not being properly initiated or one’s lack of training in the theology of the holy name. Finally, we learn that chanting God’s names is a nonsectarian spiritual principle, more important than the particulars of a given religious tradition. I ask my readers to contemplate these truths and their various implications with respect to the “outsiders” in question.
As an addendum — though a very important one — I want to bring out a practical dimension about the non-ISKCON people in my kirtan book. By Krishna’s divine arrangement, these people took our work to the next level — popularizing the holy name in the West in a way that was unprecedented. We should remember that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is svarat (“independent”), and He will spread the chanting of Hare Krishna with or without us. If well-meaning chanters from outside His tradition show some enthusiasm for spreading the holy name, He’ll work with them — such people can easily become His instruments. And they have. They chant to audiences of thousands, filling concert halls and selling CDs in astronomical numbers. As Prabhupada often told us, you can judge something by the results. One might argue that material success doesn’t necessarily constitute spiritual authenticity, and that’s certainly true. But meager results don’t constitute such authenticity, either.
It is unquestionably advantageous to be properly initiated, to hear the name from the lips of a pure devotee, and to have the authorized Vaishnava conception of spiritual sound. But these things are not everything. If one has such advantages but is wanting in sincerity, his chanting will lack potency. And if one is devoid of these Vaishnava virtues but HAS sincerity, then Krishna can “carry what he lacks and preserve what he has.” (Bg. 9.22) Is this not, really, what our philosophy teaches?
Again, I know many of these “outside” kirtaniyas personally, and I know them to be good, sincere people, with a true appreciation of the holy name. That qualifies them to chant and to be heard. That’s why they’re included in the book.
In the end, if concerned devotees read my book, they’ll find that the most popular chanters today — whose names I need not mention here — were initially inspired through Mahaprabhu’s lineage, even if they took diksha elsewhere. The seed came from Gaudiya Vaishnavism — whether from ISKCON directly or from other Gaudiya chanters in India. That these chanters are indebted to Mahaprabhu is a unique revelation, unveiled in this book for the first time, and it will serve the purposes of Prabhupada’s mission.
It is to be remembered that this is a bridge book that accommodates all people, helping them to enter into the chanting process. The book utilizes known kirtan personalities, capitalizing on their fame and notoriety to spread the glories of the holy name. I, as editor, guide the conversations in the book so that the reader walks away with proper Vaishnava conclusions. There is much evidence already that the book accomplishes its purposes.
And so, overall, the book reveals a message that even our most conservative Godbrothers and Godsisters would be happy with — that perfection in chanting comes from Mahaprabhu’s side, from His influence, from His person, from His love. But readers must wade through the interviews and essays to see how this plays out. [See portions of the book and ordering info at www.yogaofkirtan.com] If they do, I make this promise: After reading the book — if they read carefully — they will not be disappointed. Serpents be damned.
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