The Right To Know – The Vaisnava Way
By Kesava Krsna Dasa
As a world body, how do the members of Iskcon – the devotees – deal with truth telling or the revelation of sensitive information in a vaisnava way, among themselves? Some believe there should be no restrictions while others urge caution due to aparadha. Is there a balanced way?
Compared with normal people in positions of power, and who are not very concerned with high personal moral character, there is less of a shock value when they succumb to human temptation. It happens all the time. We in Iskcon have high standards, and expect our leaders – and every initiated devotee – to embody them. Because our standards are high, the shock factor is much greater when human temptations fail us.
This enhanced shock value allied with elements of surprise, curiosity and sensationalism can lead us to react in ways unbecoming of normal human behaviour. Because our level of trust is full or very high, any shortfall usually triggers a deeper sense of betrayal and hurt in others. With heightened emotional reactions expected, it is tempting to hide or downplay the severity of an unfortunate event. This is where the “right to know” becomes an eagerly awaited outcome for many. More often than not, the truth of a matter usually gets out, albeit in different versions.
It normally takes a trustworthy official statement to put a matter to rest. In between the official statement and an incidental cause for emotion and betrayal, our vaisnava approach to how knowledge or information should be revealed, is tested. If the brahminical quality of truth rules in all of our dealings and interactions with other devotees and the public, then to what extent should truth be revealed – in different circumstances – that could possibly cause loss of faith, betrayal, hurt, emotional reactions and so on?
This is where disparate viewpoints offer information according to how they think truth or knowledge is revealed. Some ‘truth’ bearers offer information stemming from deviant philosophical positions. Others cite democracy or ‘brahminical truthfulness’ as a basis for indiscriminate information. Since much relative information is negative, befitting the quarrelsome nature of humanity, let us examine if there is a vaisnava way of expressing truth, both relative and absolute.
Realitive Vaisnava Truths
In reality, absolute truth is the real substance. Although we all have taken up the process of service to the Absolute Truth, (Krishna consciousness) we still use relative truths to help our senses function. On one hand, we are situated on an absolute path but are using relative shadow energy to proceed.
As we proceed, we have obligations to uphold as members of Iskcon. As a voluntary movement, we expect there to be hierarchical structures and lines of authority. When these relative frameworks are fashioned into the aim of mutual vaisnava association, then the energy generated by purity will assume an absolute nature.
Reality dictates that we are not all possessed of absolute or full Krishna consciousness – most of us are striving from sadhana upwards. This means there are many relative issues to consider for each of us. These will cover areas of commitment, service attitude, discipline, loyalty, cooperation and so on. We associate with each member according to necessity or shared friendship, interests, age, realisations, goals and the rest.
Within the broad area of service to Iskcon, under the strength of cooperation, the weaker relative side will always become a subject for relative truth bearing. How relative truth is told or published can produce different effects in those who hear or read them. Since the effects can be negative or positive, care is taken in how to tell or publish relative truth.
Straightforward and Honest Truth
Under the guise of ‘telling the truth,’ there is a perception that because stalwarts like Srila Prabhupada and ‘lion-like’ Srila Bhaktisiddhanta spoke boldly, critically in certain circumstances (i.e.; against religious cheaters and mayavadis etc.), and uncompromisingly – that we should do the same. Such imitation can cause us to be blunt, self-righteous and unpleasant with each other.
One striking quality stood out as they preached or spoke strongly – they were never indiscriminate with their ‘medicine,’ insofar as saying the wrong things to the wrong audience. We need to answer some questions first before we think we can adopt this behaviour towards our fellow devotees:
(a)Do we have absolute (pure) credentials to speak like they?
(b)If we are tainted with relative weaknesses, do we have sufficient power to dispense with the right ‘medicine’ each and every time?
(c) Are we sure that each of our own weakened relative doses of ‘medicine’ will benefit specific hearers or readers?
(d)Will our imitative ‘medicine’ be discriminately applied so as to uplift towards absolute reality?
(e)Are we certain of an absolute philosophical footing, before imitating lion-like prowess?
(f)Will our revelation of indiscriminate relative truth cause an increase in sraddha for all?
If we are unable to affirm any of the above questions, then we are not qualified to imitate even. Yet, there is relative information that swirls around in the name of ‘truth.’ Is the revelation of truth discriminate or indiscriminate? Surely, any information or knowledge has to be given to qualified recipients.
Withheld and Confidential Truths
Many things are kept ‘secret’ or confidential, and therefore are withheld from others. A vaisnava never displays his true spiritual worth; Srila Prabhupada didn’t want just anybody to have access to his personal locker or belongings, and we reveal our minds in confidence, and so on. There is an allowance for information to be discriminately withheld or revealed.
The Hare Krishna Maha mantra has an unlimited indiscriminate quality – it acts upon both moving and non-moving beings. Sunlight and moonlight also indiscriminately diffuse light to one and all. Even our sense of charity should be, “Kṛṣṇa consciousness should be distributed to everyone indiscriminately. In this way, the entire world will be peaceful and happy, and everyone will glorify Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, as He desires.” (CC Madhya 15.41) Can the same be said for relative knowledge and information?
Some devotees quote Srila Prabhupada as a justification, to divulge information to anyone and everyone – indiscriminately:
“According to social conventions, it is said that one can speak the truth only when it is palatable to others. But that is not truthfulness. The truth should be spoken in such a straight and forward way, so that others will understand actually what the facts are. If a man is a thief and if people are warned that he is a thief that is truth. Although sometimes the truth is unpalatable, one should not refrain from speaking it. Truthfulness demands that the facts be presented as they are for the benefit of others. That is the definition of truth.” (Purport, BG 10.4)
The real aim of truth telling according to the above quote, is “…for the benefit of others.” If we take this quote about speaking the truth, even unpalatably, it is used in the context of preaching, not speaking bluntly to our fellow devotees, or publishing indiscriminately about our fellow devotees, as many think. For instance:
“Satyaṁ brūyāt priyaṁ brūyāt ma brūyāt satyam abrūyāt. It is social convention that if you want to speak truth, you speak truth very palatable, flattering. Don’t speak unpalatable truth. But we are not meant for that purpose, social convention. We are preacher, we are servant of God.” (Prabhupada lecture, Seattle, October 20, 1968)
“And this is ardha-kukkuti-nyāya. I accept things which are very favorable to my understanding, and other things I reject. This is called ardha-kukkuti-nyāya. So people accept śāstras in that way, the Māyāvādīs.” (Indore, December 13, 1970)
It is worth noting that Srila Prabhupada’s rendition of the term “social convention/s” refers, not to devotee association, but rather to public or social norms that may hinder advancement in Krishna consciousness. For instance, he used the terms social convention in relation to the Gopis of Vrndavana being hampered by family and other restrictions. He also used the term to rebuke such impersonalist or mayavadi gatherings where the personal absolute is compromised.
In the context of the BG 10.4 truthfulness quote, serious devotees do not do social conventions among themselves in a conventional manner. However, the same social conventions should be used for speaking sometimes ‘unpalatable’ truth to distinguish illusion from reality, for the benefit of an audience or social gathering. This is different from ‘tusyanti ca ramanti ca’ Krishna katha unconventional devotee association.
How does Relative Truth Benefit Others From a Brahminical Perspective?
It depends on the orientation of the said brahminical source. There are impersonalist brahmanas, so-called tantric brahmanas and so forth. Not every ‘brahmana’ will be cultured the vaisnava way. Since a vaisnava brahmana is a personalist, he has discretion on how knowledge or information is given – palatably or unpalatably. Isn’t it possible one may even become a brāhmaṇa, a very pious man, without being a vaisnava?”
In this connection, our telling of truth should be more than a brahminical quality – it should be a vaisnava quality. There are differences in how a brahmana and a vaisnava reveals information. A cultured vaisnava brahmana is mindful of the feelings of others, so he will not indiscriminately tell a relative truth if it can cause loss of faith in some, but benefit others. He will be selective. If someone claims to benefit all without being selective, but is indiscriminate, then this is indicative of impersonal tendencies, which is opposed to telling the truth in a cultured, vaisnava way.
“Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead, who is the Supersoul in everyone’s heart and the benefactor of the truthful devotee, cleanses desire for material enjoyment from the heart of the devotee who relishes His messages, which are in themselves virtuous when properly heard and chanted.” (SB 1.2.17)
If when divulging information to others, will it cleanse the desire for material enjoyment from the hearts of an audience or readership? Will such truthful messages be carefully presented so as to be “virtuous when properly heard and chanted?” Shouldn’t our relative intentions and words point others in the direction of the absolute?
With these considerations in place, the BG 10.4 quote does not justify indiscriminate speaking or publishing of relative truth among devotees. When Lord Krishna’s Bhagavad-Gita request for austerity of speech curb is included, it becomes clear that truth should be divulged – even unpalatably – in a way that is pleasing to fellow devotees, and to uplift, inform, educate and benefit the hearer or reader. This is different from preaching unpalatable truths at mayavadi social conventions.
If these objectives are not met, then any source of claimed ‘truth’ telling that divulges information without regard for vaisnava sensitivities, are using social conventions in a conventional way, and the impersonal nature of such actions become evident.
Because Iskcon standards are very high, the shock and sensationalism associated with a fall, or similar event, becomes a social topic. This is natural human behaviour. Must the shock and sensationalism always add to the mix? Then it is not surprising to want to supress such information. Does this mean we are not yet mature to handle these things collectively?
Although we are prepared not to be surprised at who leaves or stumbles, there is the sense of shame, guilt, betrayal and annoyance, which further leads to suppression of truth. Perhaps if there were more compassion, sympathy, empathy and forgiveness, this might help cushion more falls and stumbles. We’d probably have a more open and trusting situation.
If we were to encourage the thinking that, “It’s alright Prabhu… there is a problem, but it is not a huge problem that you stumbled in your spiritual life. It’s not the end of the world… try not to be extremely guilt ridden… there’s always another chance… always. I understand… besides, it is how you finish your life…” In fact, if we held the general view that, “It’s not such a big thing… really…” – wouldn’t this lend more realism into our midst? Could it be that our expectations are too high?
Then there are transgressions, abuse of authority, dishonesty and other negative causes for withheld information. There are reasons for publicising certain motives, even if to serve as warnings for the rest of us. But still, such information is given in proportion to its worth, because other motivated individuals can use the same to bring ill repute for Srila Prabhupada and the rest of us. Measured information may get out, but some will indiscriminately use the same for motivated reasons.
What about situations where there are legitimate causes for concern, yet it appears there is some neglect in solving them… what to do? This is where management should be trained to deal with matters before they end up being indiscriminately publicised with added sensationalism. Sometimes the channels of communication – or the lack of them – add to the frustration. Transparency and urgency are essential for such happenings.
Unfortunately, even if all management protocols are followed, there will be unreasonable sections of our community who will indiscriminately divulge information based on their own sense of hurt, isolation, need for attention, and other reasons. In these cases, the importance of information and how it is given out loses its discriminatory status, and both the innocent and disaffected receive biased, often incorrect portrayals of Iskcon and its members. It becomes bad medicine.
Since genuine and serious vaisnavas are not interested in sensationalism based on human frailty, they are interested to seek compassionate resolutions. Meanwhile, vaisnava management has to deal with human relative issues that differ in every case. These challenges should earn more appreciation of the services rendered in diverse and difficult circumstances. If our appreciation covers all special souls who come to serve in Iskcon, we’d be talking less about ‘the right to know.’
Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa – GRS