Founder Acharya His Divine Grace
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Unity in Diversity
By Visakha Dasi   |  Nov 05, 2022
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Image: ISKCON Dallas, 2019 (ISKCON News Archives)

 

We would especially like to hear from you about Unity in Diversity in terms of your experiences and understanding of Srila Prabhupada. Perhaps how you heard him talk about this, or how he put it into practice. 

 

Srila Prabhupada Evokes Unity in Diversity

When dissimilar individuals or concepts are harmonized, it’s called ‘unity in diversity.’ Such unity isn’t based on a mere tolerance of psychological, personal, or ideological differences but is based on an understanding that differences are natural and can enrich us. Discovering how we’re united despite our differences can make us more fulfilled, broader devotees of Krishna. This sort of unity doesn’t mean uniformity and this sort of diversity doesn’t mean fragmentation. In Srila Prabhupada words, “In the material world there are varieties, but there is no agreement. In the spiritual world there are varieties, but there is agreement. That is the difference. The materialist without being able to adjust the varieties and the disagreements makes everything zero. They cannot come into agreement with varieties, but if we keep Krishna in the center, then there will be agreement in varieties. This is called unity in diversity.” (Letter to Kirtanananda Oct. 18, 1973) 

Srila Prabhupada wanted his diverse followers to cooperatively practice the principles of Krishna consciousness and to offer Krishna consciousness to all others. Since his followers came from the entire spectrum of society, as well as from different cultures and different religious, educational, and economic backgrounds, they sometimes had quite different understandings of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and desires.

Correctly or incorrectly, all of us tend to consider our understanding of the right one and others’ differing understanding as mistaken in some way. When Srila Prabhupada noticed his followers displeasing each other and fighting, he said it gave him “too much agitation” in his mind and he reiterated a verse vital to solving this difficulty: “One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige and should be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.” And Prabhupada commented, “We must always remember this verse and be as tolerant as the tree, as we execute the Krishna consciousness movement. Without this mentality, we cannot be successful.” (Letter to Kirtanananda, Oct. 18,1973)

 

Srila Prabhupada Speaks About Unity in Diversity

In the same letter to Kirtanananda quoted above, Srila Prabhupada also wrote,Material nature means dissension and disagreement, especially in this Kali yuga. But, for this Krishna consciousness movement its success will depend on agreement, even though there are varieties of engagements. … if we fight on account of diversity, then it is simply the material platform.” 

Variety can be an asset for it can enhance our attraction and appreciation of something. The beauty of a vase with many types of flowers and greens, for example, is greater than that of a vase without such variety. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada explains that Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, wants us to do what He says and what He says is variegated. His purpose is individual for everyone. In Srila Prabhupada’s words,

Varieties of purposes. Krishna is asking Arjuna to fight with the Kurus, or He’s asking me to preach. I am not fighting. So Krishna, being all pervasive, He has got varieties of order, and your duty is to carry out the order of Krishna, that’s all. What kind of order He’ll give, you expect, just like you are doing, all my disciples. It is not that you are all doing the same thing. Somebody is pūjārī, somebody is preaching, somebody is collector, somebody is Messiah, somebody is this, somebody is that. So there are different varieties, but your duty is to carry out my order. Surrender means, whatever is favorable for Krishna we apply, that’s all. You cannot say, just like Arjuna, he first of all declined, “Krishna, I am not going to fight.” That is not surrender. You cannot deny Him. That is surrender. Then, when he understood Bhagavad-gītā, he said, “Yes, I shall do that.” So long I deny Krishna, that is disunity, and as soon as I agree, “Krishna, yes,” then this is unity. This is unity. Unity does not mean that Krishna and Arjuna become united, homogeneous. No. Krishna is distinct, and Arjuna. They continue to exist. In the beginning Arjuna was denying to fight. That is disunity, and at the end when he said, “Yes, kariṣye vacanaṁ tava [Bg. 18.73], my illusion is now over,” that is unity. Unity does not mean one’s self loses individuality. That cannot be. Krishna says that “Both you and Me and all these soldiers and kings, they existed before, now we are existing, and we shall exist in future.” So that individuality is always kept. So unity means agreeing with the order of Krishna, and disunity means not agreeing with the order. Otherwise, your existence, mine and Krishna’s existence, always will be.” (Room conversation, Vrindavana Feb. 13,1974)

 

Srila Prabhupada, the Personification of Encouragement

In the 1960s and 70s, Srila Prabhupada’s burgeoning Hare Krishna movement attracted many diverse individuals, unified by their ongoing devotion and submission to Srila Prabhupada. To study how Srila Prabhupada evoked unity in diversity among his young followers we can look at his dealings with one of his early and prominent students, Hansadutta das (1941–2020). For ten years – from 1967 to 1977 – Hansadutta received great encouragement and many instructions from Srila Prabhupada, as well as great chastisement, making a unique and instructive tapestry of insights. 

Srila Prabhupada’s early letters to Hansadutta were nurturing. In one such letter, Srila Prabhupada wrote, “Your appreciation of my Spiritual Master is very commendable. One who understands and appreciates the disciplic succession is certainly advanced, and we should always be very careful to give full respect to those who have so carefully handled this Divine Fruit of transcendental knowledge before us. Even a slight change will spoil it. That is why I have always been so careful to give you only those things which I have heard from my Guru Maharaja.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Aug, 1967)

When Hansadutta revealed that he felt disturbed, Srila Prabhupada responded by combining coaching with instructive encouragement: “Yes, it is very good if you can chant 64 rounds; this is very nice if you can do it. But first of all we should not be disturbed by any circumstances. If you do become disturbed then this means you are still deficient in reaching the point. In Bhagavad-gita it is said that when Krishna is within our view, at that time one is not disturbed even in the midst of gravest calamity. Anyway, even if we are disturbed, then the only resort is to chant and concentrate one’s mind in Krishna. There is no other alternative. Chanting and dancing make one relieved of all material burdens.” (Letter to Hansadutta, March 23, 1969)

In his exchanges with Hansadutta, Srila Prabhupada emphasised the importance of imbibing Krishna’s teachings: “I want you leaders especially to become very much absorbed in the philosophy of Bhagavad-gītā, Śrīmad-Bhagavatam, and become yourselves completely convinced and free from all doubt. On this platform you shall be able to carry on the work satisfactorily, but if there is lack of knowledge or if there is forgetfulness, everything will be spoiled in time.” (Letter to Hansadutta, June 22, 1972)

Srila Prabhupada understood Hansadutta’s psychological situation and used that understanding to encourage him in Krishna consciousness: “Now you appear little restless, I know that is your nature, you like to do big things and you are very capable and intelligent young man for executing tremendous tasks on behalf of Krishna… however you manage it, that you know best, my only point is that I do not like to see you become discouraged as you are indicating, because there is no actual cause for such discouragement. Rather there is all encouraging prospects ahead.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Jan 2, 1973)

 

Srila Prabhupada Deals with Differences

Although Srila Prabhupada’s thousands of followers had his teachings in common, wanted to please him, and were willing to cooperate with each other, from time to time they disagreed. Srila Prabhupada dealt with this distressing fact in a variety of ways. Often, for example, Srila Prabhupada encouraged his followers to consider the divisive issue themselves. “I have not made any decision, but I would like you to discuss this amongst yourselves and send me your conclusion.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Feb. 17, 1973) 

Other times Prabhupada supported democratic decision making. “The majority vote and my opinion should be taken. When the majority opinion is present, my opinion will be yes or no. In most cases it will be yes unless it is grievously against our principles.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Aug 20, 1971)

And Srila Prabhupada didn’t want Hansadutta or anyone else to defy that majority opinion: “Regarding Madhavananda being the president, if he received the vote, why you have opposed? You must be impartial. My recommendation is that he must be the president. He has been chosen by the vote, and I am giving the casting vote for him. He is doing things very nicely there, so he must be the president.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Sept 12, 1974)

Although Srila Prabhupada said he supported Madhavananda and voted for him, when Madhavananda criticised Hansadutta Srila Prabhupada would have none of it and instead inspired unity through cooperation: “Regarding Hansadutta, you cannot criticize him. Hansadutta is liquidating the debts. You were there but you could not liquidate, but Hansadutta has come and he is liquidating… We should utilize our talents without being envious of others. You should do your best, but you should not be envious of others. In material life there is simply envy of others progress, but in spiritual life one encourages another, ‘Oh you are doing very nice.’ That is Radharani. She says, ‘Oh here is a very nice devotee. Please Krishna, you accept him.’” (Letter to Madhavananda Oct 6, 1974)

 

Srila Prabhupada Mediates and Tolerates

At times Srila Prabhupada would mediate a compromise with differing devotees: “I don’t think that Hayagriva [a book editor] is at fault. He has not changed the meaning or the philosophy in any way. But if you like to use the original manuscript, then if it is possible, you can use it.” (Letter to Hansadutta, June 8, 1975)

At other times Srila Prabhupada supported independent pursuits rather than conflict: “You have expressed some new ideas to improve BTG of the English Back To Godhead, but I think that there is no need to interrupt their way of thinking. Now you have a chance for your own edition so do it nicely and according to your own ideas.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Dec. 12, 1968)

To foster unity, Srila Prabhupada tolerated discrepancies as a father does with his children: “A father can not be displeased with his sons, but sometimes the sons create disturbances, and the father has to tolerate. Constitutionally, the father is always affectionate and pleased with the sons. But it is up to the sons to obey the father and keep the relationship natural.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Feb 9, 1969)

And Prabhupada consistently emphasised remaining unified around our common goal: “We have to keep Krishna always in the center, and then although there are disturbances and sometimes fall downs we will be able to work together and keep our society intact.” (Letter to Hansadutta, June 8, 1974)

When conflict arose, Srila Prabhupada strongly appealed to his followers to overcome their differences: “I have appointed the GBC not to fight amongst yourselves but to manage. If there is fighting then how will you manage? So the whole GBC committee must decide if there is fighting.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Sept 29, 1975) “I appoint GBC for peaceful management of affairs and now you are creating disturbances amongst yourselves. So how can I be peaceful to translate my work. So all these things should be kept in abeyance for the time being and when we meet in Mayapur we can discuss amongst the entire GBC. …On the whole why there should be difference of opinion amongst the GBC? If there is some difference of opinion how is it that it can not be adjusted amongst you?” (Letter to Hansadutta, Oct 16, 1975)

Prabhupada urged his disciples to find common ground on which to agree in friendship: “It is not at all desirable that there be any factions amongst yourselves. Try to settle up amicably and correct yourself. One man is trained up with great difficulty especially in spiritual life. Everyone has got some weakness and deficiency. It is better to correct or mend it than to break it.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Sept 29, 1974)

“For the time being work with Hansadutta and stop the bickering and conflicting camps.” (letter to Puranjana April 7, 1974) Srila Prabhupada wanted his followers to overcome their small mindedness and their tendency to create factions.

 

How did Srila Prabhupada Practice Unity in Diversity?

Diversity may be due to personality differences and dealing sensitively with those differences can lead to unity. Sometimes Srila Prabhupada guided his disciples in accommodating others: “I understand that Hansadutta works best when he can be in charge of the situation, so when he arrives he may act as the temple president and you shall be his assistants.” (Letter to Bhagavan, Krsna Bhamini July 13, 1969)

At other times Srila Prabhupada suggested that devotees serve in separate places: “I am also aware that sometimes Hansadutta will be very stubborn, but he is also doing something there, so why not let him go on, and you take charge of opening branches in those northern European countries like Sweden, and that will be very much appreciated by me.” (Letter to Krsna das Feb 24, 1972)

And Srila Prabhupada encouraged his disciples’ good behaviour: “Regarding your trip to U.S.A. you say that you will be tactful and respectful in your dealings. That should be the motto of all GBC. Be tolerant, and if there is any deficiency, rectify it. All our men have volunteered good service, so the background is good will. So everything should be done on the basis of good will.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Sept 7, 1974)

 

Srila Prabhupada’s Boundaries

Regarding diversity, Srila Prabhupada had clear limits to what he was willing to put up with and when that limit was crossed, he made it clear. “It was brought to my attention that our Sriman Hayagriva das has become deviated from the four basic principles which I have given to all my students for adherence to when they are first initiated. I do not know why he is living in such a way but I feel that he must be brought back to the standard immediately.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Feb 17, 1973)

When Hansadutta did something whimsical, Srila Prabhupada’s response was direct and to the point:  “I do not know how you could dare to do this without asking me or any other GBC members.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Aug 17, 1971)

Prabhupada sometimes thought issues over and rejected them: “I have considered this matter of record distribution and have decided that it should be immediately stopped. It has simply caused havoc. It should be stopped everywhere. The stress must be on books, nothing else needs to be sold.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Jan 6, 1975)

The limits of what Srila Prabhupada would accept regarding diversity also extended to financial matters. “The BBT collection should be spent 50% for publishing and 50% for construction of temples. … Not a single farthing should be invested in any business enterprise. Formally it was so done without any sanction. So be careful.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Sept 7, 1974)

When Hansadutta whimsically switched some devotees’ services, Prabhupada didn’t like it: “The women are doing nicely, so why are they being changed from the pujari to the Sankirtana? These things should be done by the President. These are internal things, and you should not interfere. I do not approve.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Sept 12, 1974)

On a couple of occasions Srila Prabhupada became exceptionally strong with Hansadutta: “Why did you close Edinburgh without asking me? Paramahamsa reports that you have closed the Edinburgh temple. Edinburgh was doing nicely. You can’t close a temple without asking me? Is this too much to do this? … I made the GBC to give me relief, but if you do like this, then where is the relief. It is anxiety for me. This is the difficulty, that as soon as one gets power, he becomes whimsical and spoils everything. What can I do? If anything has to be changed, that can be decided at the annual GBC meeting, but not whimsically. I am not in favor of closing even a small temple. It is not a plaything to close a temple or to start a temple. When we open a temple we are inviting Krishna. So you can’t say to Krishna, go away. You have no feeling what are the ideals of a temple. ” (Letter to Hansadutta, Sept 12, 1974)

Just seventeen days later: “Regarding the closing of the temples, no temple can be closed for any reason. You have done a great mistake… We have to consider very carefully before opening a center, and once opened it cannot be closed. It is disastrous. What you have done is not at all allowed. I am very disappointed that you have done this. Even you did not consult me. Why? Now you want to purchase a farm, but can you manage? Why are you closing all the temples and then opening a farm? do you have sufficient men to maintain a farm? Why are you purchasing a farm?” (Letter to Hansadutta, Sept 29, 1974)

And two days after that: “I have heard that there is some worship of yourself by the other devotees. Of course it is proper to offer obeisances to a Vaisnava, but not in the presence of the spiritual master. After the departure of the spiritual master, it will come to that stage, but now wait. Otherwise it will create factions.” (Letter to Hansadutta, Oct 1, 1974)

Hansadutta was a talented, intelligent, competent and energetic devotee who, in his zealousness and misunderstandings, needed Srila Prabhupada’s consistent guidance to  remain united with Srila Prabhupada’s Hare Krishna mission. And Srila Prabhupada was forthright and generous with that guidance.

 

“YOUR MATERIAL LEGAL FORMULA WILL NOT HELP US ONLY OUR SPIRITUAL LIFE CAN HELP US I HAVE NO APPROVAL FOR ANY THESE PLANS STOP YOU REMAIN GERMANY DON’T LEAVE AGAIN.” (Telegram to Hansadutta, April 6, 1972)

 

Srila Prabhupada, the Indomitable Preacher 

Srila Prabhupada’s clarity of purpose and purity enabled him to attract everyone from high school dropouts to PhDs, pickpockets to CEOs, introverts to extroverts, atheists to theists. The extreme diversity of his adherents didn’t affect Prabhupada’s equanimity. He listened, thought over others’ views and, understanding their psychophysical natures, gave his followers the space, guidance, encouragement, and facilities they needed to develop in their unique ways. Prabhupada didn’t suppress individuality (“If we lose individuality and simply become mechanical, what is the point?” he wrote in a letter to Hansadutta, Feb 14, 1972). Along with the diversity of individuality, Srila Prabhupada unearthed the ways and means to be unified through communication, cooperation, and collaboration.

From Srila Prabhupada’s dealings with Hansadutta, we can see that creating unity among diverse devotees isn’t an easy task. That Srila Prabhupada was able to do so points to his respectful and humble dealings combined with the rigour of his firm conviction; his kindness toward his disciples’ weaknesses combined with his courageous and revolutionary vision. 

As mentioned, the basis for unity in diversity is humility, and we evoke that humility through genuine respect. “The devotees of Krishna are the most exalted persons on this planet, better than kings, all of them, so we should always remember that and, like the bumblebee, always look for the nectar or the best qualities of a person… you should consider that anyone engaged in Krishna’s service is always the best person.” (Letter to Atreya Rshi 72-02-04) Mutual respect among devotees of Krishna increases the devotees’ morale, improves their relationships, teamwork, and sense of fulfilment and happiness. Mutual respect creates unity.

Srila Prabhupada expressed it this way: “Please try to maintain the philosophy of unity in diversity. That will make our movement successful. One section of men have already gone out, therefore we must be very careful to maintain unity in diversity, and remember the story in Aesop’s Fables of the father of many children with the bundle of sticks. When the father asked his children to break the bundle of sticks wrapped in a bag, none of them could do it. But, when they removed the sticks from the bag, and tried one by one, the sticks were easily broken. So this is the strength in unity. If we are bunched up, we can never be broken, but when divided, then we can become broken very easily.” (Letter to Kirtanananda Oct. 18, 1973)

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