When instructing Yudhisthira, Narada said that in any endeavour, one must start with the end in mind. In our case, it is always the same, to please our Founder Acharya Srila Prabhupada. I am sure all parties in any ISKCON conflict share this aim and are convinced that their desired outcome would be most pleasing to him. However, I would suggest that the overarching consideration is that we work together harmoniously. As we know, Srila Prabhupada famously said that our love for him will be shown by how well we cooperate. He warned us that in-fighting would “spoil everything”, and he repeatedly asked us to work together under the authority of the GBC as the ultimate arbiters of any managerial matter. While there are many services that will please Srila Prabhupada, I think we can all agree that none can be at the cost of destroying the institution he worked so hard to create. He gave the example of many disciples massaging different parts of his body in different ways simultaneously, causing him pain rather than pleasure. I would suggest then that the threat of a schism is not something we can entertain, no matter which side of the argument we support. This has already occurred with the vexed issue of ritvik initiations and, more recently, has again reared its fearful head over the contentious matter of Vaishnavi Diksa Gurus (VDG). I am not arguing for or against the latter but merely suggesting a way to approach the problem, and indeed any such debate, without tearing ourselves apart. Implementing VDGs may or may not please Srila Prabhupada but splitting the movement would surely displease him. We really can’t go there.
“It is disturbing news that the San Francisco president has secretly persuaded devotees to leave Australia and that they have not been returned. I have requested my secretary to write a letter on my behalf to Caru das in San Francisco. Now the matter will have to be taken up by the GBC at their general meeting and whatever decision they make, you will have to abide by. This business must stop. If you fight amongst yourselves what can I do? This fighting will spoil everything.” [Letter to: Bali Mardan, 8 February, 1977]
Apart from the immediate devastation of a schism, such an outcome would have far-reaching implications. It would set a precedent for future disputes. If we disagree with a GBC policy, we secede from their authority and form our own party. This being the age of quarrel, more conflicts are inevitable, and before long, we will go the way of the Gaudiya Math. I am sure that nobody wants to see this happening. This means we must cooperate, and that means finding mutually agreeable solutions. Cooperation is a two-way street.
What are the impediments to cooperation in this case? Each side may consider the other party the problem, ‘Western egalitarian attitudes’, or ‘fanatics adhering to anachronistic notions of varnashrama’. Various accusations are being levelled, but should we not start with self-analysis? How am I contributing to the problem? Thinking the problem is ‘out there’ is the first problem, as it takes away our power to find a solution. Srila Prabhupada often said a devotee is introspective.
“That is the Vedic civilization, that one is educated to become introspective.” NOD Lecture Jan 6, 1973
Introspection means asking searching questions. Am I being influenced by ignorance, lust, or envy? These, of course, are anarthas, and as devotees, we should acutely know their presence. The symptoms of one free of anarthas are given in Srimad Bhagavatam. The first thing is bhaktih bhavati naisthiki, irrevocable loving service is established in the heart. Then “the effects of nature’s modes of passion and ignorance, such as lust, desire and hankering, disappear from the heart. Then the devotee is established in goodness, and he becomes completely happy. Then mukta sangasya jayate, one is completely liberated and filled with bliss.
So, the test is there; am I free from nature’s modes, experiencing ecstasy, free of all asat sanga? Am I fully absorbed in Harikatha, or am I still attracted to enjoying my senses—tongue, belly, genitals, and mind—a bit of TV, YouTube, social media, politics, sport, gossip, etc.? If the latter is true, our anarthas are still present and will undoubtedly influence our minds when we disagree. If we can admit to the faults in our own hearts, we can take steps to make sure that these anarthas do not unduly influence our discussion of contentious issues.
Another question that comes to mind is how we can tell when we are discussing together in the right way. Again, we can get light from the Srimad Bhagavatam 3.25.25:
“In the association of pure devotees, discussion of the pastimes and activities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is very pleasing and satisfying to the ear and the heart. By cultivating such knowledge, one gradually becomes advanced on the path of liberation, and thereafter he is freed, and his attraction becomes fixed. Then real devotion and devotional service begin.”
Are our discussions pleasing and satisfying to the ear and the heart? Or do they end in fractious debate and disagreement? If so, we need to rectify this problem before we can resolve anything else. Srila Prabhupada gives us a clue:
“Birth is not always the criterion of goodness; unless and until one is trained in the culture of good association, one cannot become good.” SB 3.3.6 purport
“In order to become really learned, we have to associate with devotees. Then we can actually relish kṛṣṇa-kathā. When discussed among devotees, kṛṣṇa-kathā is pleasing to the heart and ear. This requires a little training, and this training is given by the devotees.” Teachings of Lord Kapila, chapter 12; texts 25-26
Training is required. How can we know if we are trained in proper sat sanga? The answer is in the Srimad Bhagavatam 11.3.30:
“One should learn how to associate with the devotees of the Lord by gathering with them to chant the glories of the Lord. This process is most purifying. As devotees thus develop their loving friendship, they feel mutual happiness and satisfaction. And by thus encouraging one another, they are able to give up material sense gratification, which is the cause of all suffering.”
If we discuss according to the correct culture of sadhu sanga, our loving friendships should develop, and we should experience mutual happiness and satisfaction. If we learn to discuss like this, we will become free of the tendency for sense gratification. There are still more benefits of discussing correctly, which we learn of in the next verse, SB 11.3.31:
“The devotees of the Lord constantly discuss the glories of the Personality of Godhead among themselves. Thus they constantly remember the Lord and remind one another of His qualities and pastimes. In this way, by their devotion to the principles of bhakti-yoga, the devotees please the Personality of Godhead, who takes away from them everything inauspicious. Being purified of all impediments, the devotees awaken to pure love of Godhead, and thus, even within this world, their spiritualized bodies exhibit symptoms of transcendental ecstasy, such as standing of the bodily hairs on end.”
And finally, it creates an atmosphere free of envy, anxiety, fear and hankering:
“Whenever pure topics of the transcendental world are discussed, the members of the audience forget all kinds of material hankerings, at least for the time being. Not only that, but they are no longer envious of one another, nor do they suffer from anxiety or fear.” SB 4.30.35 verse
If we learn how to associate correctly from Srila Prabhupada, Krishna will take away everything inauspicious. We will come to auspicious conclusions by His grace. All involved will progress toward pure love of God. This I think is our challenge: to learn to discuss according to the culture of good sadhu sanga.
Where is this training available? Srila Prabhupada speaks on this throughout his purports, letters, conversations, walks and lectures. Many of these instructions are collated on this website: www.improvingsanga.com
“I am very much stressing nowadays that my students shall increase their reading of my books and try to understand them from different angles of vision. Each sloka can be seen from many, many angles of vision, so become practiced in seeing things like this.” Letter to: Tribhuvanatha — Los Angeles 16 June, 1972
Since Srila Prabhupada says “become practised in seeing things like this”, it suggests to me that this is something we must work on. He often said that we should learn to see sastra from different perspectives.
In Bg 17.15 purport, Srila Prabhupada gives us two other important instructions: we should speak very pleasantly with each other and always provide sastric evidence to support our propositions.
“The process of speaking in spiritual circles is to say something upheld by the scriptures. One should at once quote from scriptural authority to back up what he is saying. At the same time, such talk should be very pleasurable to the ear. By such discussions, one may derive the highest benefit and elevate human society.” BG 17.15 purport
In conclusion, I would like to say that the process of discussion that I understand Srila Prabhupada to be recommending is not the same as hermeneutics. It is sankirtana, hearing and chanting together. It produces the above wonderful effects, bringing us closer together and advancing us toward Krishna. There are many quotes on the improving sanga website where Srila Prabhupada stresses its importance. I feel that following his directions in this regard could solve this issue and every other difficulty we face in trying to serve him together.
Hearing about and glorifying the Lord are identical with the transcendental nature of the Lord, and by so doing, one will be always in the association of the Lord. This brings freedom from all sorts of fear. The Lord is the Supersoul (Paramātmā) present in the hearts of all living beings, and thus by the above hearing and glorifying process, the Lord invites the association of all in His creation. This process of hearing about and glorifying the Lord is applicable for everyone, whoever he may be, and it will lead one to the ultimate success in everything in which one may be engaged by providence. SB 2.1.5 purp.
Jan 22, 2023
Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies