Effective, Mature Outreach
By Karnamrita dasa
There are different conceptions of outreach, and we may not agree with another view. I am giving one perspective here, and contrasting with what I don’t feel is effective outreach. Some presentations appear to me to be overly conservative, even fundamentalist or fanatical. In some circles our movement can be perceived that way — as narrow and provincial. However, I don’t think this is a proper way for the broad campaign of Prabhupada, his predecessors and Lord Chaitanya to be thought of.
As Prabhupada was the original example in the West of a preacher or outreach person, what can we learn from him? In trying to understand him, someone may question, “Was Prabhupada conservative or liberal?” We might rightly say he was transcendental to labels. Still, he could be seen variously according on the particular context. For example, from the perspective of India at the time of his coming to America, he was very liberal even among other Gaudiya gurus, whereas from the perspective of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, he was very conservative.
In addition, our conditioned nature or personality type colors the world, and how we see Krishna consciousness or Shrila Prabhupada! I am sure this is obvious enough to many, though I am not sure we are able to look at this fact in regard to our self, and the views or perceptions we hold. Another way of saying this is to question how much we see the world through the theory of K. C. or through realization of it practically. It is important to understand our conditioned bias when we view our guru and his teachings. Merely repeating his words without knowing how to apply them to different circumstances may do more harm than good. Sometimes I read pages of quotes given to “prove” someone’s argument, that don’t apply to the person or circumstances, and where there is much more or at least equal evidence to the contrary. Truly Prabhupada is like the Vedas: we can find quotes from him to “prove” whatever our point is.
This is both a simple and complex subject, as even pure devotees relate to the world and Krishna lila differently. For example, if we evaluate the writings of Prabhodananda Sarasvati, he would not be a person for interfaith dialog or inclusiveness, though surely his association would bless us! (It is also interesting how much more ecumenical or inclusive devotees are to other religions than with other Gaudiya groups with whom they have much more in common.) Prabhupada showed both sides—the universal as well as the exclusiveness of pure devotion, to make different points. The amazing, though sometimes confusing and misunderstood, aspect of preaching is that the same view or example can be presented to make different, even opposite points.
The so-called liberal or broadminded perspective seems to be more in line with my understanding of what Krishna Consciousness is—that is my subjective, though I believe well reasoned opinion.(I don’t know if true objectivity is possible, though we may endeavor for it.) Thus, I see that our presentation should be on the one hand, inclusive (to not disqualify everyone in advance), respectful, and accommodating, while on the other, remaining true to the essence.
Often we have to harmonize such different, apparently contradictory concepts (like inclusive or exclusiveness). Harmonizing means as far as possible to not be one sided—the worst example being fanatical religionists who in the name of their prophet or aspect of God, condemn others as one of their primary tenets (or so it may seem). Usually that is not all they are about, but it is by this fanatical face that the general population perceives them. Unfortunately, such fanatics in any group are usually the loudest voices, since they don’t believe in diversity, or that differences can co-exist. They need to make others wrong to feel “right”—which means to me that they are not really convinced, and are threatened by different views. Our evaluation of others says as much about ourselves as those we may be critiquing, and it is useful for our maturity as a person to be able to look at that.
To me, the primary challenges for the Krishna consciousness movement is to both preserve and understand the essence or spirit of the teachings, and to be dynamic in our outreach to stay relevant to the times we live in. If we study the history of Gaudiya Vaishavism (and we don’t at our peril)—from the six Goswamis to our great acharyas in the more modern world—Bhaktivinode Thakur, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta, and our Prabhupada—they have all adapted the presentation to resonate with and speak to the times. Do we think that this shouldn’t continue to be done?
We have to be very clear what the foundational principles are and what the adjustable details are that foster them. From reading books by Prabhupada, his disciples and our previous Gaudiya teachers, I understand that a relevant devotee is a compassionate, introspective, thoughtful, and broadminded person who understands the current of the times, while teaching by his example. He or she looks for the good in all, while sharing the truth of Krishna in a way that is accessible and practicable for the audience. This is pragmatic, dynamic and effective outreach—not compromise.
When I was a new devotee I often used the “smashing” technique to put other paths down (as I thought this was the proper way), and sometimes I hear devotees still using it. However, I don’t think this is at all useful or effective in promoting the ideals of Krishna consciousness. That is my experience anyway. Great acharyas like Prabhupada and Sarasvati Thakur could use it, but they knew how to use it effectively. Following and imitating are different. We have to judge a thing or any type of presentation of Krishna consciousness or Gaudiya Vaishnavism by the results!
The topic of various types of outreach and conceptions of Krishna consciousness came up to me when I heard about Satyaraja’s book, “The Yoga of Kirtana.” The first thing I heard was a devotee’s critique which appeared to be reactionary and not well thought out. I wondered if they even had read the book. To me their criticisms were a type of endorsement of the book and it made me want to read it! I remember Prabhupada saying that if there is no response to our preaching, then it is not effective. Of course, one would hope that criticism wouldn’t come from devotees, yet in today’s polarized world, it seems unavoidable. My experience is that whenever we stand for something and follow our natural inspiration to support it, there will always be both criticism and appreciation.
I have valued Satyaraja’s other writings, and I know he is very good at connecting with people and exposing them to Krishna consciousness in a way that they can appreciate. I endeavor to use a similar though less sophisticated way to connect with others. It involves establishing rapport with others as human beings, and genuinely appreciating and respecting whatever spiritually or good qualities they have. Every success in life is about establishing favorable relationships—whether with our Gurus, the previous acharyas, the holy name, Radha Krishna, Lord Chaitanya and Nitai, our godbrothers and sisters, devotees or with the people in general. In addition, we can understand the success of our presentation of K. C, by asking our self, “Am I joyful?” “Can people understand me?” “Are they inspired by or at least appreciate what I am saying?”
No one likes to be preached “at” by someone who appears to not listen or care about them or their views. Who we are spiritually and materially speaks loudly. (Example is better than precept.) We can remain convinced about our tradition, yet be respectful and open to others. We don’t have to speak in absolutes or shout to be heard. If we close people’s hearts, they will never hear us! However, if we consider what they have to say with respect and if our behavior and qualities attract them, then they will be more apt to try to understand what we are saying. That is effective “preaching”, a natural outgrowth of our spiritual practices.
“The Yoga of Kirtan” is an example of mature, respectful outreach. Why? For starters, the whole philosophy of Krishna consciousness is presented in brief, as is the mission of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and the philosophy behind the chanting of Hare Krishna. There is also a good sprinkling of our Gaudiya Vaishnava brothers and sisters throughout, which is part of the point of the book: to showcase them and to also respectfully allow us to meet the primary movers and shakers of the modern kirtan world. (who I might add are doing what followers of Lord Chaitanya should have done — namely popularize kirtan and the holy names).
I personally love biographies and here we have a rare opportunity to hear how devotees — many of whom we either know or have heard of — have come to take up KC and/or their love of kirtan. We read how Karnamrita dasi and Shri Prahlada, both second-generation devotees, have found in different ways how to build on their Krishna consciousness childhood foundation. We also hear from Agnideva and Dravida about some of the history of ISKCON in the early days when street sankirtana was king—at the time it was our main outreach and activity. Hearing how devotees have come to Krishna is always inspiring and magical — the Lord works in mysterious ways!
In addition, we now have a face to put to the other kirtaniyas from a wide range of groups. I found it a fascinating read in so many ways. I learned so much useful information! I now have an appreciation for Krishna das, Syamdas, and others, for example, since hearing their stories. We don’t have to accept everyone’s philosophy, yet we can appreciate their sincerity in coming to a spiritual path — how they were obviously guided in taking up chanting with such enthusiasm. In this, I am sure they have much more than I. It is convenient to put people and groups in boxes, yet there is much more complexity to people and groups than labels.
For me one of the most informative interviews was with Shyamdas. He first came into contact with Neem Karoli Baba who was the guru of Ramdas (of “Be Here Now” fame) and Krishnadas (also interviewed in this book). Shyamdas is a learned devotee of Krishna in the line of Shri Vallabhacharya. It is his opinion that contrary to the perception of some of Neem Karoli’s followers, the Baba is actually a Vaishnava! He had the heart of a devotee, lived in Vrindavan, gave his followers prasad (with no onions or garlic), followed Ekadasi, and chanted the name of Krishna and Ram — though he allowed a wide range of understandings to emerge around him.
Shyamdas learned Hindi and some Sanskrit, studying the Vaishnava literatures, and because of this came to see Neem Karoli Baba as a Vaishnava. It seems the Baba was quite an avadhuta. You will have to read it to see it all in context, and decide for yourself. Rather amazing, actually! Perhaps Shyamdas is speaking out of the bhava of a devotee, though his opinion is based on his study and experience.
Counting the devotees already mentioned, there are 21 total biographies, including Yamuna Devi, Patrick Bernard, Bhakti Caru Swami, Rasa, and Vaiyasaki das among our Gaudiyas, as well as famous kirtan singers who have popularized kirtana, like Krishnadas, Jai Uttal, David Stringer, David Newman and others. It is quite interesting that many of these kirtaniyas were first exposed to kirtana from our Gaudiya lineage, so it that sense we can see the hand of Lord Chaitanya behind their singing.
From what I have heard and read, “The Yoga of Kirtan” has been well received in the modern Western yoga world and more. It also shows a broadminded and progressive face of Krishna consciousness which many devotees have appreciated. This is wanted!
The bottom line for me regarding outreach or introducing people to Krishna and/or our spiritual practices like kirtana: We don’t need to beat them over the head to reach them. That’s certainly one way of presenting the philosophy, which I used for years. In my experience, I don’t find that the people I meet respond well to this approach. There is also a step-wise technique, getting them there gradually if they want that. We shouldn’t give people everything at once—it may overload or alienate them. Prabhupada’s early preaching in New York is a perfect example of that.
Satyaraja’s book might be seen as a manual of style for those devotees who want to gently help intelligent people see the wisdom in Krishna Consciousness. Intelligent people are the kind of folks who don’t respond well to bullying of any kind. They want to see the data and make up their own minds, or feel if Krishna is right for them. Isn’t that what we did?
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