Sunday, September 04, 2011

Anti-intellectualism and Anti-Semitism join forces in the Krishna consciousness movement

Somehow, while surfing the Internet, I came across an article, ISKZION, which caused me some concern. The author asks questions about the preponderence of Jews in ISKCON leadership positions and speculates about the Vaishnava society and Jew-related conspiracy theories. The author even cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a book that has passed into the annals of racist defamation as one of the most pernicious [and successful] examples of its kind; this is certainly the red flag of anti-Semitism par excellence.

Now, even though I myself am not of Jewish extraction, I would personally argue that since Jews are disproportionately represented in almost every field of merit... music, science, the arts and cinema, political commentary, finance, philosophy, etc... it would perhaps be more of a problem if Jews were underrepresented in ISKCON and Krishna consciousness. Since Jews seems to know a good thing when they see it, that would almost prove that they have no merit whatsoever!

And if Jews were truly engaged in a great conspiracy to infiltrate other religious organizations in their furtive quest for world domination, one would wonder why so few of them have risen to the upper echelons of Southern Baptism or the Jehovah's Witnesses, or indeed the Catholic Church. On the other hand, there appears to be no shortage of Jews in Buddhism, Yoga, New Religious Movements, or indeed, the Hare Krishna movement.

I personally do not know what Jews do to rise to positions of primacy and influence wherever they set their sights: Is it because they are "God's Chosen People," or because they have extraordinary intelligence, are better at networking, are ruthless power seekers, or possess magical powers that accrue to them through nefarious rituals? Or is it because they are part of a global conspiracy in association with extra-terrestrial forces? These are questions I am not equipped to answer.

Nevertheless, vaguely recalling that I had seen other stirrings of anti-Semitic thought in the Hare Krishna movement some years before, I did a quick Google check on "Jew Krishna" and "Jew ISKCON," and came across a couple of articles from the Sampradaya Sun from two years ago, which show a little more how such kinds of discourse arise in absurd contexts, revealing anti-Semitic biases that in all likelihood arise everywhere Jews rise to positions of disproportionate influence and power. And it is really this article that prompts me to write here.

Tamal Krishna Goswami
The first article, submitted by a certain Mukunda Das with a few introductory comments, is in fact the reprint of a paper ("Constructive Theologizing for Reform and Renewal") published by the now departed Tamal Krishna Goswami (Thomas G. Herzig) and Krishna Kshetra Das (Dr. Kenneth Valpey), which appeared in in The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant (ed. Edwin Bryant and Maria Ekstrand, Columbia Press, 2004).

Mukunda Das's introductory comments contain the deliberate but entirely irrelevant mention of both authors' Jewish extraction. In response to a subsequent accusation of anti-Semitism, Mukunda Das makes his point much clearer, associating Judaism with a kind of scholarship that is he feels subverts the entire ISKCON movement and is furthermore offensive to Srila Prabhupada himself.

The issue is that when you analyze the movement’s development towards academia, liberalism, pluralism, corporatism, and impersonalism, you will find devotees who hail from a Jewish background. The real issue is that these [Jewish background devotees] JBD's are steering the movement into becoming a generic religion and using academia and interfaith ideologies to do so. These JBD’s don’t make public their papers and ideas, which are well guarded by the walls of academia and cries of Anti-Semitism by apologists and uneducated disciples and associates...

How many of our leaders who are JBD’s promote pluralism, academia, secular education, interfaith and liberalism? Then see if I am being Anti-Semitic, or am I being realistic. Diacritical theology is the main thrust of the various religious academic Institutions and interfaith dialogues. This form of theology demands an academic approach to scripture and its implementation. Diacritical theology, put simply, means that one must use one's intelligence to critically analyze scriptural text and the word of the guru or theologian.

And of course, he makes the familiar accusation, the argument ad hominem to end all arguments: "They think they know better than Srila Prabhupada."

At least here Mukunda says what it is that is bothering him. In the first article, he seems to expect everyone to understand immediately what he is getting at. His language is uncompromising and inflammatory, but in fact reveals not only his own ignorance, but the great intellectual poverty at the heart of ISKCON conservatism, which is perhaps the most serious problem it faces. He writes of Herzig and Valpey's article,
...this piece of literary dribble is nothing short of the most offensive material ever to be produced by an alleged ISKCON devotee. Every line in this material I found to be most offensive and depreciative to our Srila Prabhupada, even though they hide behind pseudo-academic word jugglery.

Dr. Kenneth Valpey
Mukunda derides the two authors for calling Prabhupada a "'charismatic' personality that used a top-down (vertical) authoritarian approach that did not allow any room for questioning or intelligent independent thought." The irony of this comment is that Mukunda then proceeds to insist on an authoritarian approach that does not allow for questioning or intelligent independent thought.

Part of Mukunda Das's criticism of Tamal's argument is yet another ad hominem argument, that he himself was "authoritarian" in his "rule" as an ISKCON guru, so what right does he have to criticize Srila Prabhupada for authoritarianism? Such comments are disingenuous at best. It seems that, if anything, Tamal Krishna's experience as a guru in ISKCON had opened his eyes to the disastrous nature of authoritarianism. He had been struck by the necessity of modernizing Krishna consciousness, and it is not unlikely that his own experiences playing the authoritarian cult leader had some influence on his perception of the way forward.

Now, to be honest, I personally don't care about what happens in ISKCON or what its leaders do. I have been out of that organization for more than 30 years and have developed a way of thinking that I see as being at least three steps removed from ISKCON through my contacts with (1) traditional orthodox Gaudiya and rasika Vrindavan Vaishnavism; (2) with Sahajiya Vaishnavism; and (3) with the Western academic study of religion, all three of which have altered my understanding of spiritual life considerably. But since none of these influences has altered my self-identification as a Vaishnava [for which I continue to pay my undying obeisance of gratitude to Srila Prabhupada], it is in the last capacity as an academic that I feel I must condemn Mukunda Das's slanderous and malicious articles with all my heart. In fact, the only meritorious thing he did was to publish Krishna Kshetra and Tamal Krishna Goswami's paper in full. And on rereading that paper, I have to say that I support entirely the exercise in which they were engaged.

I was actually quite sad at Tamal Krishna's untimely demise in 2002, as I saw in him a possibility for a rational revision of Krishna consciousness. At the very least, he was instituting a dialogue that recognized the evolutionary nature of all religion, what to speak of Vaishnavism. It is no accident that the two authors cite some of Bhaktivinoda Thakur's most liberal passages about the progressive nature of devotion, passages that most progressive devotees hold to their hearts as breaths of fresh air in the stifling enclosure of the current Krishna movement, and how they also condemn the conservative ISKCON position, represented by no less a hypocrite than Hridayananda Goswami, who after a too long sojourn in academia has himself apparently changed stripes to submit to the all-conquering rule of "diacritic theology."
The members of ISKCON, who live perpetually at the feet of Shrila Prabhupada, may speculate how Shrila Prabhupada’s statements are true, but they may not challenge his statements, or claim that they are false. This is precisely what it means to accept Shrila Prabhupada as the founder-acharya.
I have always sensed that the basic problem in the Ritvik camp or the other anti-ISKCON die-hard Prabhupada-as-he-is-don't-change-one-dot-or -iota arch conservatives that were spawned by Prabhupada's preaching is precisely their idolatry of Srila Prabhupada, their absolute conviction of his untouchable perfection in everything he did and said. Since this seems to be the teaching, the "guru-tattva," they are left with nothing but a dogmatic negative reflex to anything that calls anything he said or did into question. And like Mukunda Das here, they may pretend to have understood, use big words and accuse their opponents of "pseudo-academic word jugglery," while in fact they can do nothing better than fake it themselves.

And then, of course, the ultimate ad hominem, the suggestion of a Jewish conspiracy! So, the sum and substance of Mukunda's argument is a serious of ad hominem arguments meant to distract everyone from the substance of Tamal Krishna's paper and to whip up a frenzy against intellectuals, Tamal Krishna personally, and finally Jews, by accusing them all of being offenders to Srila Prabhupada. All red herrings meant to distract people away from the paper's content. Way to go, quite a feat.

At any rate, I will not go into any further discussion here, except to say that research along the lines suggested by Valpey and Herzig is the only long-term hope for the Krishna bhakti movement. I hope that all ISKCON devotees will read it carefully and consider seriously the implications of Tamal Krishna's intent here. Indeed, I hope that they will take up the challenge implicit in the paper to apply their intelligence to the study of Krishna consciousness, rather than simply parroting the words of the previous acharyas without deliberation.

Unless Krishna consciousness can be made meaningful to people of the modern world, it will never interest more than a small coterie of misfits, who will go on arguing about obscure points of guru-bhakti and dream of world domination and "10,000 years of world peace" with everyone prancing around like ISKCON devotees from the 1970's.







3 comments:

Vivek said...

Thanks for your comments.

Vivek said...

Thank you Jagat ji for your elaborate and thoughtful comments.

Jagadananda said...

Rereading this only three years later, I would object only to the comment that academics are the only hope for long term salvation. I think bhajan is more important now.