The nose-thumbing spirit and community
mandaṁ bāndhava-sañcayā jaḍa-dhiyaṁ muktādarāḥ sodarāḥ |
unmattaṁ dhanino viveka-caturāḥ kāmaṁ mahā-dāmbhikaṁ
moktuṁ na kṣamate manāg api mano govinda-pāda-spṛhām ||
Let the sharp moralist accuse me of being illusioned;Actually, I don't think it is just "I don't mind." It is a kind of relish. We Hare Krishnas have been thumbing our nose at the Establishment since 1966. And they called us irresponsible and told us to get jobs, or to be good Christians, or philosophically coherent, etc.
the experts in Vedic ritual may slander me as misled,
friends and relatives may call me lazy and irresponsible,
while my brothers, no longer respectful or affectionate,
call me a fool. I don't mind.
The wealthy mammonites will point me out as mad,
and learned philosophers assert that I am much too proud.
Still, my mind does not budge an inch
from its determination to serve Govinda's lotus feet. (Padyāvali 81, Mādhavasya)
And then, as soon as ISKCON itself became another establishment, we started thumbing our noses at it. We seem to have something of a nose-thumbing spirit.
That may make it difficult to create a community, which is certainly a challenge for devotees. The fact is that by promoting absolute surrender to the guru, movements like ISKCON tend to attract authoritarian personality types, and quickly become ripe for "social dominators" to take advantage.
Bob Altemeyer's book linked here is a good guide to this phenomenon, especially in the context of the current American religious fundamentalism and the so-called Tea Party, but is applicable to "cults" of all kinds.
Investigation of the "true believer" and the "escape from freedom" is, of course, something that has been a source of interest primarily since the mass nationalist movements that led to the Second World War, and it received another boost with the rise of cults or New Religious Movements in the 1970s in North America.
For American devotees, Krishna consciousness was at its root always anti-conventional. As long as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami was present, he could command sufficient personal authority to keep most of his followers engaged and committed to his mission. As soon as he left and others took over, the nature of the authoritarian structure became transparent and 90% of his disciples left, at least abandoning the "hard" institution of ISKCON, though perhaps not their internal personal and emotional commitment to him as guru. Many of these obviously still felt the need for a guru figure and were later attracted by Shrila Narayan Maharaj and others; but it remains to be seen whether those other groupings will be able to resist the temptation to create another authoritarian society like ISKCON. It is just as likely that the same set of frustrations will become paramount and they will find themselves thumbing their noses again.
This is one of the reasons that could explain the drying up of ISKCON's spread in North America and Europe. Certainly in the United States there was a great return to conventionalism in the 80's and thereafter, from which America still has not recovered. With Prabhupada's departure, ISKCON stopped being a statement of open rejection and active refusal of the Western status quo, attractive to the few rebels left, and attempted to find a place in the conventional middle ground, appealing to mainly Hindus and perhaps mainstream liberals. I have noticed some American authoritarian types of the libertarian type, though most of those have flocked to fundamentalist Christianity.
Christian non-conformism in the liberal left also lost a lot of its power. Chris Hedges is to me one of the strongest voices in contemporary journalism to represent this point of view, but he is pretty much alone in the wilderness. Here is a recent example of his writing, and I strongly suggest his discussion of Kant and the moral imperative to "buck the system."
This is really where Western religious thought is strongest, in my opinion, and why religion really is or can be revolutionary. Too many people associate religion with mindless conformism, but true religion is true morality, where one surrenders to one's pure conscience, against the world. Some call this spirituality, but spirituality can also be escapism and a kind of impotent or self-indulgent individualism.
True religion is always revolutionary, janatāgha-viplavaḥ. As soon as it stops being so, it becomes just another vehicle for illusion and evil. To be one with God means to be one's self in Truth, a true person. And as Hedges quotes Hannah Arendt, “The greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”
It is rather encouraging to know that non-conventionalism is a part of our tradition, but that means constant self-critique.