An answer to the letter from a devotee
First of all, I want to express my sympathies to you for all you have gone through. Moreover, I would like to thank you, since it is clear to me that you were deeply affected by something I have written and wanted to share your experience with me. I was very moved. I will try not to disgrace myself by writing platitudes.
Who can count the ways, subtle and gross, in which Maya makes us suffer? Suffering is always personal, and reducing it to headers like adhibhautika, adhidaivika and adhyatmika or other categories seems to be of little help in unveiling its mysteries. But the miseries that come to us through nature, other creatures, or our own mind and body all contain, through the workings of the illusory potency, a mystification of agency.
Suffering comes to us through personal and impersonal agencies, just as do love and happiness, but the true and ultimate cause lies beyond them. All psychologists will tell you that forgiveness is an important step in healing, and forgiveness comes more easily when we realize that everyone is ultimately innocent of their crimes. They are merely agents, dealing out to us the cards that we are to play in this great game of karma.
The thing that we want to do more than anything is not to continue being unconscious agents ourselves, but we remain in the game by reacting to the reactions, as it were; we continue to participate in this ultimately unsatisfying dance. This is called samsara-chakra, the ever-turning wheel. What we must become are conscious agents of God's love, knowledge and works.
There are no doubt similarities between your situation and mine, or my situation and your father's. I cannot know your father's truest motivation for abandoning you, but we must all ask ourselves the question of where, in the final analysis, our responsibilities lie. Is there one morality for all, a one-size-fits-all universal morality to which we must always adhere? And to what extent do extenuating circumstances make breaking such universal laws or dharmas permissible? Can there be a hierarchy of dharmas?
Was it permissible, for instance, for your father to abandon his responsibilities to you and your mother for the sake of some higher purpose, known only to himself and to God? That is something that we can never really know. Humans judge according to laws based on purported universal principles and are often blind or deaf to motivations or fundamental good will.
You feel that you have been irreparably harmed. Personally, I don't believe that is the case. No doubt, the absence of love and guidance that a father could have given you in your formative years presents a great obstacle for your personal and spiritual development, but that is all it is--an obstacle, one that you were destined to face and, believe me, one that is not insurmountable. Perhaps you would never have had the same attitude to love, nor to your own son, if this had not happened to you. In the long run, your experience, no matter how painful, will have given you a richer understanding of life.
This is not a repudiation of or accommodation with evil. It is my faith in the ultimately benign nature of God and the creation, a faith that is needed for us to experience life most fully. This is rasa, for it provides the template for a story of triumph over adversity.
All that being said, I think we have to examine what our scriptures say about dharma and try to see what it means in this context. You were right to say that dharma is intrinsically related to karma. Our psycho-social makeup is the result of our karmas, and our dharma is dictated by this nature--even by, as the verse that I was meditating on last time said, our desires. The varnashram concept indicates that one's dharmas inevitably change even within a single lifetime--that is what is meant by ashram. But the Vaishnava dharma tries to put things into a higher perspective yet.
It is not that Vaishnava dharma rejects the kinds of moral imperatives that arise from social orientation and the familiar networks of obligations and duties that keep the social contract alive and make human goodness possible. Rather, it tries to establish a higher principle that places all other duties and obligations into perspective. This, however, does not make the values or the morality inherent in human society inoperative. Rather, it provides them with a rationale, and thereby offers a means to perfecting them.
Vaishnava theology begins from a very individualistic and subjective idealist premise. This is, in fact, the source of its revolutionary nature, which can lead to a host of problems from the standpoint of worldly morality. I alluded to this when I said that my entering household life (for the second time, quite different from the first) was in great part motivated by a feeling that it was necessary to acknowledge "worldly" concerns, which in our Iskcon experience had been neglected to the great detriment of the movement, despite Prabhupada's attempts to find solutions through establishing a Varnashram-type social system. However, the absolutist, non-compromising, what I see as kanishtha, understanding and attitude of Iskcon led to myriad abuses, the traumatic effects of which will be with Iskcon for as long as it exists, as much as the traumatic effects of your childhood has shaped and will continue to affect you. [Reading through Bryant and Ekstrand's collection of articles again showed me that: so many of those articles leave you trembling and heartsick.]
You comment that your father was a "romantic." Krishna consciousness, as most mysticisms, is very romantic. It is quite different in that sense from religion. I was just rereading Immanuel Kant's Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals in order to try to deepen my thinking on the issues of morality that are being brought up here. Kant presents a few basic concepts that are useful. Here is one: "The imperative of duty may be expressed thus: Act as if the maxim of your action were to become, by your will, a universal law of nature."
In other words, if you do something, you must test its moral validity by and its categoric nature by asking whether it is contingent, that is, whether it is contingent on circumstances or ends. When you write, "However, I know that a certain cowherd boy would see me sink into Maya and abandon Him utterly if I were to leave my family and my responsibilities to them," you are, in effect, saying that you find this moral imperative, the duty of staying and caring for your family, to be a universal principle, which by extension is applicable to all. This is your faith, and yo yac-chraddhaH sa eva sah. If I did not agree with you that there is a potent rationale behind this, I would not still be where I am, nor would I be able to empathize with you.
Another of Kant's dictums was extremely familiar, and I think shows the extent to which his ideas have penetrated into the very marrow of Occidental thinking on morality. It also can be seen as an influence on Buber, whose writing was mentioned earlier in this Blog. "...the practical imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only."
This statement, which might be considered a rephrasing of the Golden Rule, sets an almost impossibly high benchmark for morality. But it shows the danger of religious thinking in which priority of service to God is used to trump basic humanity. ["God uses the good. The bad use God."] This is the characteristic of fanaticism and fundamentalism, which I will need not elaborate on it. Suffice it to say that many of us who lived through an Iskcon experience can recall unsentimental dealings with individuals who were in some way crushed under the wheels of the higher purpose preaching steamroller.
My point is not to criticize or condemn Iskcon. I am simply restating something that is well known--we are all formed by our experiences, and those of us who by Prabhupada's grace came to love Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the Divine Couple also had many other formative lessons, which will affect us as much as your childhood affected you.
Nevertheless, I must return to the ultimate principle of sarva-dharmAn parityAjya mAm ekaM zaraNaM vraja and ask how this transcendental injunction jives with the worldly ones of duty to family and society. I already said that, according to the Hindu vision, dharma is and must be individual. This means that no matter how hard-wired we may be with universal principles of morality [Scientists are looking for a morality gene, I heard on a quite interesting report on the subject on the Australian Broadcasting System yesterday.], individual circumstances will inevitably challenge those principles. Sometimes to test our integrity as moral beings, and sometimes to test our integrity as individuals.
[In Arjuna's case, the external manifestation of mam ekam saranam vraja was exactly the same as acting according to social, psycho-physical, etc., imperatives. It was his consciousness that was different.]
This, then, is where adhikara comes in. Varnashram is an adhikara-based system in which one progressively and naturally transcends conditional and contingent duties to face that one duty that comes to us all--facing death, the most individual act of all.
This answer has already gotten rather long-winded, and I am afraid that I am not very close to fully answering what I see as the question here: Can it ever be right to abandon immediate worldly obligations for the sake of some higher purpose? Can the higher purpose be an illusion as much as the duties in which we find ourselves embroiled, even entangled?
In much Hindu discourse, family life, etc., are seen as the products of egotistical desires, or kama, and therefore always relative. The claim of individualistic, romantic, mystical religion, is that by attaining the greatest good individually, we automatically do the highest good for all.
To get back to the concrete here. I see bhakti as a process of cultivating love. Human love is both a revelation of God's love and an indication of our duty toward God. Hence the words "Where lies our kama, there lies our dharma." Vaishnava consciousness means cultivating prema through kama. The "worldly" way of applying the bhakti vision is to cultivate those loving relationships that have been given to us in tandem with the bhakti-yoga processes in order to create a dialectic that generates ever increasing prema.
This is why I am most troubled by your admission that your wife and your family circumstances are not devotional. Though this may not, at this particular juncture, be overwhelmingly pratikula or damaging for spiritual progress, I am afraid that it may eventually leave you increasingly alienated from your own being and your own calling, your own path.
I have been working with the idea of kama leading to dharma, but of course, we are more familiar with the concept of kama as the primary obstacle to dharma. (Which Kant would agree with.) Though pure kama is intrinsic to the jiva, the ignorance that covers self-knowledge makes it hard for us to see our real duties clearly. This leads to choices that have contingent and conditional empire over us. The obligations that result from such choices will ultimately become so alienating that we have no choice but to abandon them. An alienated person will only bring misery to those he should love and to whom he should bring joy. A sadhaka must be a sadhaka and cannot expect to be a siddha.
But, as I hope I have made clear, moving out of such conditions is very much a question of adhikara. To return to Kantian terms: We have to be able to see clearly the higher good that comes out of abandoning one thing for another. Until that comes, you are quite right, Krishna will send you back to complete the lesson you were meant to learn, which in this case is to love.
sthira hoiya ghare jao, na hao batul /
krame krame pay loka bhava-sindhu kul //
And, of course, in anukula circumstances, there is no need at all for tyaga. The problem comes when circumstances are so alienating that one is under obligation to save oneself first at the risk of going under with everyone else.
So thank you, my dear friend, for provoking in me an attempt to go deeper into this huge question of moral philosophy. I doubt that I have done the question adequate justice, but I found it a useful beginning.