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Srila Prabhupada: Social Reformer

By: for ISKCON News on Aug. 27, 2018
Opinion

Srila Prabhupada having a discussion with Cardinal Danielou in France.

We first-generation disciples remember Srila Prabhupada as an innovator who made spiritual life relevant to the larger world. He presented Krishna consciousness neither as a sectarian religious tradition nor as a yogic panacea for reducing stress, but as the eternal nature of life itself and a dynamic force for change. 

When discussing how to apply Krishna consciousness in the world, he was quite clear: devotees should strive to become a “head” for the social body, a class of intellectually astute mentors capable of advising government, religious, and private sector decision-makers. Whenever he spoke with representatives from these sectors, he emphasized the need for such a spiritually qualified class to guide policy decisions and inspire good governance. 

In May 1974, for instance, he spoke with Mr. C. Hennis from the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva. His organization was incorporated into the United Nations in 1946, with the goals of eradicating worker exploitation and creating safe workplace standards worldwide. While appreciative of these goals, Srila Prabhupada counseled Mr. Hennis that workers are exploited by more than ruthless bosses and unsafe working conditions: Working without a sense of life’s higher purpose perpetuated imprisonment in the cycle of birth and death. Srila Prabhupada recommended that if Mr. Hennis’s agency wanted to achieve a lasting outcome, he should invite input from a spiritually educated advisory board that would not only help the ILO achieve their material goals but also educated workers and employers about life’s higher purpose, without which the results of ILO efforts would always be temporary. 

After Mr. Hennis left, a disciple asked, “During your conversation with this gentleman, you mentioned that there is nowhere any sanction by God for heavy industry. Does that mean that if people want to take to Krishna consciousness, they must stop working in factories and industry?”

“No,” Srila Prabhupada replied. “Our recommendation is that whatever position you are in, you can chant Hare Krishna. Workers can chant, what is the difficulty? Even in factories they take some leisure hours. So why not sit down for five minutes and chant Hare Krishna?” 

“But eventually,” the disciple asked, “must they stop their industry work?”

“No,” Srila Prabhupada repeated, “there is no question of stopping. If that is their livelihood, how they can stop it? That is not possible. But they can add this Hare Krishna mantra chanting. Then things will be adjusted. It is not possible to stop different methods of livelihood. If he is attached to this industrial activity because he is thinking, ‘I am getting more money for wine and woman and meat, let me enjoy,’—that is imperfect, but if he chants Hare Krishna his consciousness will be purified, and eventually he will no longer be interested in this kind of work.”

To encourage a bhakti-friendly workplace, on several occasions Srila Prabhupada recommended that businesses dedicate space where employees can congregate for free prasadamaccompanied by kirtan. When workers realize that management is concerned for their spiritual as well as material wellbeing, he described, they will gladly give the company their best efforts. The brilliance of this strategy, of course, is that it does not tear down factories or overthrow any existing structures but rather reforms from within, with increased spiritual as well as material results. 

That same week in May 1974—more than forty years before efforts by the current administration to impose economic isolationism and draconian border tariffs—Srila Prabhupada commented to Professor Richard Webster from the Societa Filosofica Italiana, “Why trade should be taxed? This is unnatural. Let there be free trade. The general public wants the best things at a good price. So if Japan or Germany can supply goods at cheaper price, why should they be restricted? Let the people take advantage of it. We say everything belongs to Krishna. We are all sons and daughters of Krishna. Let us live peacefully and utilize Krishna's property. The so-called politicians and leaders are saying, ‘No, you cannot enter here, no emigration.’ But there is enough land, enough water. Now utilize them and produce food grain, let everyone eat nicely, live peacefully, chant Hare Krishna and go back to home, back to Godhead. This is our philosophy.” Once again, he advocated a position that did not ignore the issues but rather proposed a solution that would benefit people both materially and spiritually. 

He applied a similar strategy in discussions with religious leaders, acknowledging the value of all true religions but forcefully arguing for improvement. In particular, he urged religious leaders to recognize consciousness in animals. This was critical, he stressed, not just for ontological reasons (the symptoms of life are found both in animals and humans) but also because human rights are linked to animal rights. Religions will never make a lasting contribution to a peaceful, nonviolent world if they continue to believe that only humans possess eternal souls. He insisted that it is the duty of religious leaders to imbue their followers with respect for the dignity of life in all its forms. 

In France, Srila Prabhupada spoke strongly on this point with Cardinal Danielou. On the drive back to the Paris temple, I asked him why he emphasized this point with religious leaders who would have preferred discussing higher principles of religion.

“If they cannot understand the basics,” he replied, “where is there question of higher principles? First let them accept that the symptoms of the soul are there in animals. We eat and the animal eats, we sleep, we mate and we defend, and so do animals. The soul is there. How can we discuss higher principles if they have not understood this basic point and continue to sanction animal slaughter?” 

When it came to the rights of women, he did acknowledge that historically women were prescribed traditional roles and advocated that women should be protected, but he declared clearly that historic attitudes had nothing to do with spiritual reality and that misogyny and discrimination were condemned by enlightened persons. Whenever the conversation turned away from the past and focused on the present, he emphasized the equality of all living beings, in particular equality of women in Krishna consciousness, and the need to honor everyone regardless of sex, race, religion, or ethnic origin. How tragic that this simple guideline of his teachings has been marginalized and ignored. He insisted on the equality of all living beings and argued with us, “How can you expect to make spiritual progress if you consider yourself superior to anyone? Caitanya Mahaprabhu recommended, ‘humbler than the straw in the street, offering respect to everyone and expecting none in return.’”

With regard to science, Srila Prabhupada pointed out the risk posed by scientists who downgraded consciousness to an accidental interaction of inert particles and blind forces. While political despots may intimidate citizens for some time, manipulative scientists posed a longer-lasting form of intimidation: scientific “proof” that life is a senseless tragedy, made worse they argued by people of faith who insist on investing it with meaning.

“We should not even see their faces,” he once commented about these prideful atheistic scientists, underscoring the criminal nature of their declarations.“They are not even gentlemen. A gentleman would be ashamed to speak such nonsense. A gentleman thinks twice before saying anything.” 

Then he pointed to his scientist disciples and said, “You must write very strongly, vehemently. Even if it is a little offensive, these rascals should be taught a good lesson. They are misleading others. As soon as you say ‘God created,’ immediately they become arrogant. That is our protest. We don’t deprecate their intention of advancing in knowledge, but we protest against their defying the authority of God.” 

 

SRILA PRABHUPADA’S ROLE as a social innovator is sometimes overlooked when we speak about Krishna consciousness. It deserves greater emphasis. “The heads of society,” he cautioned, “must be of ideal character. Otherwise the whole society will be spoiled. Just like in America, the president [Nixon at the time] is charged with so many offenses. Generally, politicians have got a particular motive, and when they cannot pull on, they declare war. They are creating this situation because they are not honest, they are not clean—and the poor citizens are suffering. That is due to these rascal leaders. They do not know what is the ideal of life, what is the aim of life. They are creating hodgepodge civilization and putting the mass of people in chaotic condition. This is the sum and substance. I do not know whether you’ll agree with me, but this is my study of the whole situation.”

Without naming him, Srila Prabhupada condemned the head of state as a selfish, ill-mannered demagogue who manipulated the law through cronyism, erased legal controls over greed (such as environment safeguards), and restricting civil and political rights. How timely when we look at current events. He had the courage to speak out—and so should we.

We first-generation disciples remember Srila Prabhupada as a visionary who elevated universal concerns to a place above manipulative politicians, confused religious leaders, and atheistic scientists. We remember him as a social reformer who boldly asked heads of state, CEOs of major corporations, and respected educators, “This Krishna consciousness can make the whole world happy, so why don’t you take it and join us?” 

We remember him as the person who raised our vision to see that societal progress can be achieved through intelligent application of Vedic teachings. We are carried aloft by that memory, and it is a memory all of us should pledge to honor.  

(Adopted from Yogesvara’s 2017 Vyasa-Puja offering)

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