Self-righteousness is easy. Self-examination is a lot harder. Understanding the difference between the two makes a tremendous change in one’s ability to communicate his or her message to another person.
Of all the definitions and descriptions I looked at, I think the following from Wikipedia expresses it best, “Self-righteousness (also called sententiousness) is a feeling of smug moral superiority derived from a sense that one's beliefs, actions, or affiliations are of greater virtue than those of the average person.” Contrast this with the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary definition of Self-examination, “An examination into one's own state, conduct, and motives, particularly in regard to religious feelings and duties.” It’s certainly easy enough for any spiritually minded person to identify with self-examination over self-righteousness in the abstract world of dictionary definitions, but what about in real life? Which comes most easily to you?
One of the most interesting experiences I had in working to spread Srila Prabhupada teaching was while showing the Srimad Bhagavatam to a college professor. During my presentation somehow the book opened to the following passage:
“O King Yudhisthira, many persons with varied experience, many legal advisers, many learned scholars and many persons eligible to become presidents of learned assemblies fall down into hellish life because of not being satisfied with their positions.” SB 7:15:21
The professor could so relate to this verse based on his experience with the intensely political side of academia that he immediately asked me if he could make a copy of the verse to put up on his office door (a place where professors typically post things of meaning to them) for all to see and contemplate. Obviously he had had enough of self-righteous administrators and Srimad Bhagavatam gave him a unique way to put it back in their faces.
I must admit that I too felt good about the use of Srimad Bhagavatam to put down mundane educational institutions. Thus, although this incident took place over thirty years ago, when I read the following headline in the Gainesville Sun last week I was ready to jump again, “Ex-Med School dean gets $517,000 in settlement, UF had accused Bruce Kone of sending e-mails defaming school officials.”
Staff Writer Nathan Crabbe’s article revealed some of the dirty little secrets going on at the University of Florida:
Kone was removed as dean in May 2008 in the fallout over his admission of a medical school applicant from a politically connected family. He continued to stay on as a faculty member.
In April, UF gave Kone notice that he would be dismissed for allegedly sending e-mails to candidates for UF positions in order to undermine those searches. The e-mails were unsigned and sent from a Gmail account.
One e-mail said UF "is in a classic death spiral" and referred to UF President Bernie Machen as a "dictatorial ass." Another passage contained detailed commentary on 16 university officials, calling one "an imbecile" and another an "uncooperative prima donna."
"The UF administration has the sorriest group of average, bureaucratic, hangers- on as administrators who are obstructionist, conniving, and just look out for their own jobs," one e-mail said. "There is zero innovation, leadership, or guts."
UF declined comment on why it concluded the e-mails had come from Kone, citing the settlement's restrictions.
Over the past year, Kone has sent letters making allegations of impropriety to university trustees, state and federal officials and the Florida Board of Governors. UF and an outside firm it hired found no merit in most of the complaints.
What a golden opportunity to point out the faults of the materialists! These so-called highly educated persons were acting just like kids. I immediately gave a class at the temple citing this incident, explaining how the Srimad Bhagavatam verse accurately describes such behavior, and poking fun at the fact that it is the taxpayers who will have to bear the burden of half a million dollars because of these personality quirks.
Yes, self-righteousness is easy. But, that’s not the end of this story. A day after my class self-examination set in. Wait a minute I thought, isn’t the society of devotees also supposed to be the type of “learned assembly” the Srimad Bhagavatam verse was speaking about? And, aren’t we supposed to qualify ourselves in such a way that interest in name, fame, and position are absent in our behavior? Yes to each of these questions is certainly an easy response for any spiritually minded person. But the question now became how my behavior comported with the standards set by the Srimad Bhagavatam. Unfortunately, I did not fair too well on this examination. I had gone straight to self-righteousness.
Embarrassed by my own shortcomings, next I began to look more critically at issues faced by devotees in the preaching field as well as in our relationships in the society of devotees. As a society of learned persons how do we measure up to the standards of the Srimad Bhagavatam?
On the Vaishnava Blog Feeds website I read the following question and answer exchange:
Q: How are we supposed to relate to the people that we are preaching to?
A: You have to think about presenting the information in such a way that they will be interested to hear. Most people would be willing to consider that they are lay people and a practicing spiritualist may have something to offer them, so that is not the problem, although often we think that is the problem. Generally we do not have a problem with the philosophy but with the culture of relating to people. Once in America there was a poll taken about religion. It came out in the poll that millions of people identified themselves as Hare Krishnas. They thought that the Hare Krishnas had the best philosophy, but that they had the worst attitude.
I remember that poll. It was back in the 70’s. But apparently the attitude problem persists. The latest issue of Back to Godhead has an article which addresses this topic by Arcana Siddhi Devi Dasi entitled, Cultivating an Empathetic Heart. Listen to what she has to say addressing an attitude the editors evidentially feel is still problematic:
When we form opinions of people and their situations, we should do so with the desire to be of assistance and to please our guru and Krishna. That kind of thinking will help us advance in spiritual consciousness. But if we evaluate others with a mentality of exploiting them or putting them down – to elevate our own sense of importance – that kind of judgment will hinder our spiritual progress.
Still more broadly, as a member of the ISKCON Governing Body Commission I am often faced with the task of resolving very contentious issues in the society of devotees. Unfortunately, I must report that the behavior of devotees in conflict often do not look that much different from the folks at the University of Florida. Too harsh a judgment you say. Well, just search the internet for any of the current hot issues raging amongst the devotees and tell me if you think I’m wrong.
After observing this decided tendency toward self-righteousness my search turned to finding an answer for the question, what excuse do we have? As spiritually minded people our tendency should naturally be more toward self-examination than self-righteousness. The answer I found is simple. Self-examination is harder than self-righteousness. However, just because something is hard doesn’t mean it should not be aspired for, especially by learned persons, and especially in terms of communications with others. Self-examination is the spiritual encouragement offered to learned persons in Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto 7, Chapter 15, Text 21.
[ academic ]
For spiritual advancement, one should be materially satisfied, for if one is not materially satisfied, his greed for material development will result in the frustration of his spiritual advancement. There are two things that nullify all good qualities. One is poverty. Daridra-doṣo guṇa-rāśi-nāśī. If one is poverty-stricken, all his good qualities become null and void. Similarly, if one becomes too greedy, his good qualifications are lost. Therefore the adjustment is that one should not be poverty-stricken, but one must try to be fully satisfied with the bare necessities of life and not be greedy. For a devotee to be satisfied with the bare necessities is therefore the best advice for spiritual advancement. Learned authorities in devotional life consequently advise that one not endeavor to increase the number of temples and maṭhas. Such activities can be undertaken only by devotees experienced in propagating the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement. All the ācāryas in South India, especially Śrī Rāmānujācārya, constructed many big temples, and in North India all the Gosvāmīs of Vṛndāvana constructed large temples. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura also constructed large centers, known as Gauḍīya Maṭhas. Therefore temple construction is not bad, provided proper care is taken for the propagation of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Even if such endeavors are considered greedy, the greed is to satisfy Kṛṣṇa, and therefore these are spiritual activities.