Image Source: Wylly Suhendra
I want to share some reflections on the role of scripture (śāstra) and theology in the context of ISKCON’s ongoing efforts towards accountability and justice related to sexual misconduct. The last few years have brought a new wave of attention to sexual misconduct and accountability in ISKCON. While this has been a welcome cultural shift for many, it has brought the reopening of old wounds. It’s also brought conflict over what accountability should look like, the role of survivors in justice processes, and how we envision our society and culture. Conflict is not necessarily bad. Moments of conflict can be inflection points. While stressful, conflict provides a space where latent cultural shifts are actualized.
Śāstra and theology have been utilized to play both helpful and inhibiting roles in this process. In particular, I’ve observed the use of BG 9.30 (api cet sudurācāraḥ…) in popular dialogue around accountability. I want to share some perspective on this verse and its use.
BG 9.30 is a classic “hard verse.” Hard verses in scripture are those which persistently present as stumbling stones to the community of practitioners. Hard verses are not just “tough love” verses, such as, for example, those which talk about the nature of attachment. Hard verses are confusing, consistently difficult to interpret, and cause conflict. The Gīta has a handful of such verses. In some cases, Śrila Prabhupāda’s purports make these verses a little easier. In others, they don’t.
There are a wide range of approaches to hard verses. Some practitioners may feel obligated to accept the entirety of a sacred text, or the entire corpus of authorized literature in their tradition. Others may approach hard verses with sensitivity, acknowledging the difficulty and confusion they create while acknowledging that they are part of the text and need to be taken seriously. Still, others will prefer to write off hard verses as relics of a particular historical context, and not seek to engage with them in contemporary practice. These are all valid approaches. Where I take issue is in the weaponization of hard verses.
BG 9.30 is weaponizable – more than almost any other verse in the Gīta. It has been utilized time and time again to excuse misconduct, including sexual harassment or abuse, misconduct that rises to the level of felony, and other grave breaches of social responsibility. For members of ISKCON who feel burned – and burnt out – by years and years of misconduct, and the arduous struggle for accountability, even hearing the mention of this verse is a trigger for anger and pain. Invoking this verse during charged cultural moments implicitly tells survivors that their stories don’t matter; that the reputation and spiritual health of the perpetrator matters more.
Given this history, any treatment of the verse, and of topics related to accountability in general, warrant the utmost sensitivity. The trouble is, too often, this verse and its purport are quoted without careful analysis of what they are saying, how they apply to the present moment, and whether they should be used at all.
Historically, Vaiṣṇava scholars have approached this verse with sensitivity. Jīva Gosvāmī’s discussion of the verse in his treatise Bhakti-sandarba is worth noting [note: the same passage was discussed in another recent editorial published on social media]. In this passage, Jīva Gosvāmī is discussing a portion of the Padma-purana on offenses against the Holy Name, which states, “A person who commits sinful acts on the strength of hari-nāma cannot be purified even after being disciplined by multiple Yamarājas.”
Jīva Gosvāmī comments, “One should know that this offense applies not only when committing sinful acts on the strength of hari-nāma, but also on committing such abominable acts on the strength of any limb of bhakti… That verse of the Gītā (9.30) is meant exclusively for highlighting the fault of criticizing a person who has become a dharmātmā-sādhu free of all previous sinful tendencies and has become one-pointed in bhajana, having given up everything else. That verse is not meant to encourage or justify the commitment of abominable acts by anyone.”
I appreciate Jīva Gosvāmī’s careful treatment of 9.30 and how seriously he takes misconduct and its consequences. He and his colleagues certainly witnessed their fair share; Jīva himself underwent serious penance for offenses which, to the contemporary eye, seem merely like breaches of social etiquette.
The trouble is, though, how do we know someone “has become a dharmātmā-sādhu free of all previous sinful tendencies” – and, more to the point, how is this relevant to how we engage a person who has committed serious misconduct, sādhu or not, in accountability and justice? Questions of how to fairly apply justice, accountability, forgiveness, and pardon are perennial challenges to justice systems around the world. The personal transformation of a person who has committed misconduct is notoriously hard to measure, and often generates intense debate (case in point: Jarvis Masters).
However, when we initiate conversations about justice and accountability by talking about pardon and forgiveness, we are really missing the point. When a case of misconduct arises, fact-finding, justice and accountability are the questions for today. Pardon and forgiveness are questions for the future. BG 9.30 has presented a stumbling stone to justice and accountability in ISKCON because it creates confusion about the order of operations. It has been too readily weaponized by allies of an accused party, or by people who know that they themselves are ethically wandering, to confuse people and ask for forgiveness (read: impunity) before justice has a chance to occur.
We can’t know now whether a person accused of misconduct will transform spiritually in the future. That’s not really our problem. Our problem is to ensure safety and healing for those harmed and accountability for those who have committed harm.
It’s also not our problem that a person’s reputation for misconduct will stay with them. The slate of worldly deeds is not wiped clean even if a person achieves spiritual healing. Remembering harm that was done in the past helps society in the present to enact proper safeguards. We never want to erase the stories of survivors.
Theological discussions of forgiveness often end with the conclusion that “forgiveness is between a person and God.” In a sense, that’s true. But there’s more to the story. How we enact justice and accountability in society actually does impact our spiritual selves. Our spiritual wellness is tied to the ethics of our lives.
Seeking justice and accountability is helpful not just for survivors. It’s helpful, also, for the potential of redemption for a person who has committed misconduct. This is called the reconciliation or restorative justice approach. The reconciliation approach is based on the fundamental belief that people have the capacity to take full responsibility for what we have done. We have the capacity to truly look at pain – and to take practical action to heal that pain.
One example sometimes given in this context is of Rāvaṇa, who continues to be known as a bad actor, although he is believed to have been redeemed and to serve at the heavenly gates as Jaya. Use of this example suggests that Rāvaṇa should be respected for his ability to repent and reform, rather than for the harm he caused to millions of living creatures.
Other examples have a different conclusion. Once upon a time, the irascible sage Durvāsā
Muṇi went with his disciples to visit Ambarīṣa Mahārāja. As the king was waiting for them, the hour for breaking the ekādaśī fast arrived. The king’s advisors advised him to take one tulasi leaf, so that he could complete the fast, but avoid causing the offense of dining before his guests. Just then, Durvāsā Muṇi returned – and reamed out Ambarīṣa for taking the tulasi leaf. He cursed Ambarīṣa and cast a spell, sending a demon to attack him. However, Ambarīṣa Mahārāja had been graced with Viṣṇu’s sudarśana chakra for protection. The chakra destroyed the demon and chased Durvāsā Muṇi all over the universe. Viṣṇu Himself refused to call off the chakra, telling Durvāsā, “You must repent and seek forgiveness from Ambarīṣa; only then can your spirit be saved.”
Accountability and repentance are fundamental to human nature. Even young children will carry a burden of guilt for small misdeeds unless they tell what they have done and assist in “fixing” it.
The same logic is part of twelve-step programs, which have helped millions become free from addiction. The twelve-step process includes taking a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself; admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another person the exact nature of our wrongs… and making amends to each person one has harmed, except when doing so would cause them further harm. People I know who have found support and healing in twelve-step programs tell me that the fourth step is the key to unlocking real change. Honestly taking stock of the harm one has caused, without making excuses or bypassing, is essential to freeing oneself from the veil of illusory energy.
What accountability, repentance, and reconciliation look like in practice will vary. Dr Howard Zehr, a restorative justice practitioner and a Mennonite, puts it this way: “Restorative justice reflects three basic assumptions: (1) Crime is a violation of people and relationships; (2) violations create obligations; and (3) the central obligation is to put right the wrongs” (The Little Book of Restorative Justice, p64). Some wrongs can’t be put right. We know all too well the toll that sexual misconduct has taken. But accountability and reconciliation can get us a long way towards healing, and towards ensuring a safer and happier future for ISKCON society.
Let’s also remember that, in a context of an entire society that has experienced harm, healing is an ongoing process. Theologian Chanequa Walker-Barnes writes, “Reconciliation is not a destination or a fixed point in time, but is rather a developmental process—a journey—that requires (i) confrontational truth-telling; (2) liberation and healing for the oppressed; (3) repentance and conversion for the oppressor; and (4) building beloved community” (I Bring the Voices of My People, p163).
In closing, I want to return to the phrase dharmātmā-sādhu introduced in the passage by Jīva Gosvāmī. What is a dharmātmā-sādhu? There are multiple possible translations, but the gist is a sādhu who is fully fixed in dharma. This is often translated as transcendent dharma, but that’s not the whole picture. Let’s not forget that one meaning of dharma is justice (or ethics). Ethics means doing right – doing right by God, by one’s inner compass, and by the people to whom one is responsible. Each person in ISKCON society has the opportunity to be a dharmātmā-sādhu when we practice compassion, when we hold one another accountable to the ethics of our souls, and when we set aside the illusory energy of excuses for our own behavior and for one another. That is our responsibility.
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