Friday, December 21, 2012

Me and Santa Claus

Teaching Sanskrit in the winter sun at SRSG.

Ever since I arrived at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama ashram a couple of months ago, people have been suggesting that I take the role of Santa Claus in the annual Christmas celebrations.

Now it is a strange fact, perhaps mostly due to the presence of numerous American and European residents here that Christmas is probably the most celebrated festival on the calendar. Deepavali, Janmasthami, Shivaratri and other important holidays do not go unnoticed, but Christmas is celebrated with a tree and many other familiar trapping, as well as a kind of "talent" night with different ashramites putting on performances of various types.

In past years I have participated. One year I told the Dickens' story "A Christmas Carol" in Hindi, another time I attempted to tell O.Henry's "A Gift of the Magi," with much less success. But the groundswell of requests to have me play Santa this year made me progressively uneasy. Perhaps the five years I have been in India, especially the last two in Vrindavan, have changed me to such an extent that the very memory of the treacly carols that bombard the average Canadian for the two months from Halloween to Christmas day give me a feeling of nausea..

Finally I wrote the following on Facebook:

Dear friends as SRSG. I know I have grown a big white beard, but that does not mean I am Santa Claus. I refuse to play the role of the incarnation of Western Consumer Culture. I came to India to get away from Christmas. Whoever St. Nicolas may have been originally, or even as recently as a generation ago, to me he is no longer a saint. I see him as a symbol for the root problem of modern civilization. I will not play along. Sorry.
I do not doubt that the Santa symbol has many positive aspects, and I certainly can sympathize with the highest ideals of Christianity, but I felt and still feel that dressing up as Santa is not my role.

At one point I had been thinking that perhaps I could dress up as jolly old Saint Nick, and put on some kind of one-man play about how he had been transformed from a kindly saint giving to the poor into the poster boy for conspicuous consumption. But I quickly realized that dampening others' innocent fun is not my style either.

Although many people understood and approved this comment, there were several others who found it curmudgeonly, and the usual words associated with a lack of Christmas spirit -- "humbug" and "grinch" -- were soon in appearance. But the more that others defended Santa, saying that I was being selective in my understanding, projecting my own negativity onto the symbol rather than seeing its original positive aspects and trying to redeem them, the clearer my sense of revulsion for the entire consumer culture that this figure represents sprung to my mind, and I responded that he is in fact irredeemable.

You have to look at what he represents in today's world. Practically speaking there was no Santa 100 years ago. Take a look at Dickens' Christmas Carol... there is no Santa there. Practically speaking, Christmas itself is a construct of the consumer culture. And Santa Claus was the creation of marketers and advertisers, who made use of the positive connotations of kindness and giving to sell ever more useless stuff.

At least it seems that the Jesus symbol has not been degraded to quite the same extent, even though I must say that the disfigured merciless Jesus of the Christian Right in America, the one who is barely distinguishable from Ayn Rand, may have put even him beyond redemption.

I am a Vaishnava. I left North America precisely because I rejected the the rajasik and tamasik ethic of hard work, competition and sense gratification that it idolizes. I see the Western civilization, which unfortunately is being blindly copied by the rest of the world, including India, as engaged in a helter skelter rush to destruction. I cannot support this misguided civilization and I won't put lipstick on this pig by pretending that Santa Claus represents something other than the wasteful world of modern capitalism.

The British environmentalist writer George Monbiot writes in a recent article that the level of consumption in western society has become pathological. In other words a kind of collective madness. One that has become so normalized that to oppose it is to "expose yourself to opprobrium and ridicule."

But the consequences of this "collective madness" are apocalyptic. Is it not madness when an entire civilization is so convinced that insane levels of consumption are the only way that societies can progress economically?

Yet this destructive course is symbolized by Santa Claus, a harmless looking jolly elf, but whose one purpose and one purpose only is to suck you into this vortex of consumption, making you buy things nobody needs, which leads to environmental degradation, and simply supports the cycle of more and more consumption.

If you are spiritually minded in any tradition--Christian, Buddhist, bhakta, yogi, environmentalist, whatever--even if you just have a little bit of common sense, you should see through this scam and realize that it is destroying the world itself, which means it is demoniac. You may dress it up with a jolly "HO HO HO!" but that won't fool me and it should not fool you, either. It is the symbol of a progressively self-destructive, demonic world view.

You cannot separate the symbol from the symbolized. It may seem commendable to try to redeem St. Nicolas, but my position is to just say, "No more!"

Perhaps if Santa Claus did not exist, there would only be something else to take his place to push us to consume, but let us begin our revolution by removing this Santa's mask. I am pessimistic about efforts to turn back the clock on this monstrous distortion, this appropriation of religious figures to justify a demonic course for civilization, well meaning as they may be.

I favor the revolutionary approach. The situation is drastic and it is time to speak loudly against the symbols that drive the world in this direction.

Most likely we will have to wait to see what remains after the apocalypse, when the smoke has cleared and the cinders have cooled. In the meantime, I say it is time to change the gods. Silence the infernal repetition of "Santa Claus is coming to town" and chant Radhe Shyam nam.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Ecstasies of the Yogi

Swami Veda quoted this Bhagavata verse last night in Yoga Sutra class while discussing sutra 4.25.

vāg gadgadā dravate yasya cittaṁ
rudaty abhīkṣṇaṁ hasati kvacic ca |
vilajja udgāyati nṛtyate ca
mad-bhakti-yukto bhuvanaṁ punāti ||

One who is united with me in bhakti yoga, whose words are choked with emotion, whose mind has melted, who cries constanty and sometimes laughs, who shamelessly sings alound and dances... such a devotee purifies the entire world. (11.14.24)

Swamiji does not usually quote full verses in his classes, though he makes a point of teaching his disciples the Sanskrit terminology used in the Yoga Sutra. Needless to say, it was a pleasure to hear him recite this sweet verse so nicely. And he pointedly said that he was doing so for me. Because "Jagat knows the Bhagavata."

The context here was the following sentence from Vyasa's bhashya,

yathā pravṛṣi tṛṇāṅkurasyodbhedena tad-bīja-sattānumīyate,
tathā mokṣa-mārga-śravaṇena yasya romaharṣāśru-pātau dṛśyete,
tatrāpi asti viśeṣa-darśana-bījam apavarga-bhāgīyaṁ
karmābhinirvartitam ity anumīyate |

"As the existence of seeds is infered from blades of grass shooting forth in the rainy season, so it is infered that he whose tears flow and whose hair stands on end when he hears of the path of liberation, has a store of karma tending to liberation (apavarga) as the seed of recognition of the distinction [between the puruṣa and sattva]." (B.D. Basu edition, 1912).

Swamiji said that here was evidence of the presence of emotional bhakti in the Yoga Sutra. He also said that there was a time when he was young whenever he heard the word "God" or īśvara, even in a bus or train, he would be overcome with tears and trembling. This, he said, went on until he met his spiritual master, Swami Rama. Indeed, the sutra itself, in the context of the concluding portion of the Yoga Sutra, describes a first rung of sadhana (viśeṣa-darśana) that then proceeds through
  • viveka-khyāti (2.26-28)
  • prasaṅkhyāna (3.55)
  • dharma-megha samādhi (4.29)
  • kaivalya (4.34)

You will have to look those terms up yourselves, dear readers. I put the relevant sutra numbers in there. But I thought the Bhagavata verse preceding the one he cited is perhaps even more appropriate for the context:

kathaṁ vinā roma-harṣaṁ
dravatā cetasā vinā |
śudhyed bhaktyā vināśayaḥ ||

"How can one's storehouse of karma (karmāśaya) be purifed without the hairs standing on end? Without a heart that has melted, or without streams of tears flowing with joy from the eyes? Without bhakti, devotion?" (11.14.23)

Of course, there may be a small technical difference here... between the Bhagavata and Yoga-Sutra. Nevertheless, the language of Vyasa, simply by virtue of touching the language of ecstasy, does indeed ring the bells of bhakti.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Human typology and Religious Institutions

Many people criticize and condemn religions and religious institutions because of the evil done in their name. This is often based on a predisposition to anti-religious sentiment. One should recognize that religion is a human institution and subject to the same frailties as all human institutions. Those who are in such institutions should recognize these frailties and take steps to control and counteract them.

According to Patanjali's Yoga-sūtra (4.7), there are four kinds of people. Patanjali does try to estimate what percentage of human society fits into each category, no doubt since modern ways of enumerating populations was not yet devised. In any case, such percentages no doubt change as societies change.

Patanjali divides people according to the kind of work they do in relation to the goal of enlightenment. The first three are (1) kṛṣṇa (black, or dark karmas), which are the actions performed by the evil; (2) śukla-kṛṣṇa or mixed karmas, which evidently are the kinds of activity performed by the greater number of people; and (3) śukla-karmas are the activities of sincere sādhakas engaged in the kriyā-yogas described in YS 2.1, etc. The commentators say that these types correspond to the tamas, rajas, and sattva guṇas respectively.

The fourth category, which is the specific object of sūtra 4.7, is called akṛṣṇāśukla, neither white nor black. This is the activity of the the yogi or the perfected transcendentalist. Such liberated transcendentalists, though engaged in activity in the world, are not bound because they are nirguṇa, beyond the guṇas of Prakriti.

Any religious group will have representatives of all these four kinds of people. Though obviously Patanjali was not thinking in the same ways that modern psychologists such as Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba do, there is some interesting correspondence between them, as well as with the Bhagavata Purana's division of kaniṣṭha, madhyama and uttama bhāgavatas.

Patanjali's first group correspond to what Altemeyer calls "social dominators." They are the most dangerous humans because they are ruled by the "demoniac nature." They can be identified primarily by their thirst for power, their holding on to that power, and what they do once they have it. Such persons can be most expert in playing the role of a saintly person and using religion or other kinds of idealism for social manipulation, especially of those that can be grouped in Altermeyer's "authoritarian followers."

They are the asuras of Bhagavad Gītā 16. Though the Bhāgavata-purāṇa's kaniṣṭha is not an asura, he has tāmasika tendencies as described in Gītā 18.22. If these become dominant in his religious life, he can become very destructive, either as a leader or a follower.

The second group, because they are mixed, are easy fodder for the manipulations of the first group. Paradoxically, this happens especially if they are more pious, with a tendency to superficial religiosity, foolishness and wishful thinking. They are easily led into hypocritical behavior, mainly because they deny the tāmasika half of their nature and like to pretend they are better than they really are. These people can be salvageable in the right circumstances, but the danger is that they may just as easily become Nazi foot-soldiers if the circumstances are changed.

But there are also sincere sādhakas and real yogis also. And for them, the religious symbols reveal their true meaning. So critics should be careful not to mistake the religious system, the practices and symbolic meanings as exploited by tāmasika and rājasika practitioners for the true meaning of these things. By the same token, it is always dangerous in principle to over generalize about people.

Institutions tend to create an environment wherein Patanjali's kṛṣṇa-karma people, the asuras or social dominators, find it easy to rise to the top. They in turn eliminate the śukla and akṛṣṇāśukla people because these are not good institutional types. The śukla people generally are forced out one way or another, while the latter group usually shun institutions by nature.

So, it is not that complaints about religious institutions are unfounded. The kṛṣṇa- people will dissimulate their real motives and in order to maintain power and position, they need at all cost to preserve the appearance of religiosity. Hypocrisy is their trademark; it is their bread and butter in the religious institution for it is the way these power grabbers dupe their weak-minded followers.

Though criticisms of defective institutions that have come under the influence of such leaders, even if relatively benign, are thus well-founded, it is still my opinion that a critic would be well-advised to become a simple saint first before trying to play the role of an Old Testament prophet. Worse yet are those who make blanket criticisms of all religion or one specific religious institution without understanding the mixed nature of all social groups, including religion. We have enough prophets, each proclaiming hell-fire and damnation from their pulpits on the mountain tops of their own idiosyncratic belief systems. Better one should first climb to the top of the mountain of love and teach by example before condemning the fallible.

The truth generally lies between extremes. I do not believe you can become an uttama or advanced sādhaka by skipping the beginning or kaniṣṭha stage. You can get stuck in the lower levels of spiritual progress, but that does not mean you can avoid them. You can't jump to the top of a ladder. That is why we have ladders.

The ekāgratā or single-minded purpose of mind of all yoga systems is also adored in the cultic form of religious institution as well as in totalitarian political ideologies, since that is the way they accomplish their goals. We must learn how to manage ekāgratā in order that we progress to higher stages of spirituality and not get led into tamas.

In other words: sādhanā may give the impression of creating stress, but this is actually good stress. In the beginning it is hard to manage and results in the cult-like symptoms that one sees in some religious institutions. If one is fortunate, one does grow out of it, without losing the ekāgratā, or single-mindedness that is its principal feature. And all the rewards of sādhanā arise from ekāgratā.

The real test is what the goals of such ekāgratā are. If the goal is prema, as we say in Gaudiya Vaisnavism, we have to be on our guard for symptoms of "not-prema," which are the consequences of an institution that is dominated by asura types. If we are told that we are "not ready," etc., for prema, as in dicta like "Work now, samādhi later," then in all likelihood we are getting the wool pulled over our eyes.

On the other hand, it is not enough to just stick it out with an institution (as some say) as though the institution itself is the bestower of prema. Rather you should stick it out with your own original ideals of purpose, and the meaning of the symbol system and fundamental practices that you were given, if they match that ideal purpose.

The great conundrum for religions is how to preserve the essence of a tradition without becoming prey to the anarthas that institutions tend to produce.

Joseph O'Connell introduced me to the concepts of "hard" "soft" and "medium" institutions. Hard institutions have strong lines of authority with strict guidelines of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and centralized power to censure and excommunicate non-conformists. Soft institutions include the books, literature and sādhanā practices of a tradition, where there is a great deal of individual freedom of interpretation. Medium institutions in the pre-modern era were usually concentrated around festivals and informal sat-saṅgas. The paramparā or disciplic succession was also considered a medium institution because the lines of authority are looser than in a hard one.

The hard institution is that which is most subject to anarthas. But other kinds of institutions will still have to exist, even if it is something as simple as two people meeting for a shared friendship in relation to spiritual progress, such as internet discussion groups.

Human institutions, saṅghas, are an inevitable feature of human life, for we crave like-minded human association. Therefore we need to apply our intelligence to the best, or least damaging, ways of managing this need.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The gopis insult the banyan tree

We have been reading about the gopis in separation and how they are madly asking the trees for Krishna's whereabouts. In 10.30.4, the first trees the gopis approach to ask for Krishna's whereabouts are the ashwattha, plaksha and nyagrodha, all variants of the banyan or sacred fig. This is ostensibly because they are the tallest trees and would have been best able to see Krishna from their lofty height.

They are also the kings of the forest, representing Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma respectively. But when these trees don't answer their polite request, which is accompanied by a confession of their distressed state of mind ("the son of Nanda has stolen our minds and run away!"), Vishwanath paraphrases the gopis' reaction, saying that they insult them, saying, "You are just dirty-minded men and, besides, you just have small fruits!"

When I read this, I burst out laughing because of the implications of this insult.

Some people suggested that the gopis are pointing out that the devas and the three presiding deities of the three gunas who only give lower or small fruit and cannot really give Krishna himself, who is beyond the gunas.

This interpretation is appropriate, but here [I think Vishwanath intends to say] the gopis first approach the male trees, the "big shots." But as in the next verse, they don't trust them because they are men and Krishna is a man, and so they will naturally take his side over theirs. Besides, such important personages don't really understand or sympathize with the plight of women in love. Moreover, they are Krishna's friends or servants and do not dare to offend him.

So the gopis say they are duṣṭāntaḥkaraṇa, "polluted in mind," since they put other concerns ahead of charity and empathy. And furthermore, because they lack the courage to betray Krishna by helping them, they make use of a popular insult that refers to the roundish, seed-bearing entities that males possess.

This of course is my own dirty mind seizing on the implications. But I suspect that these forest dwelling milkmaids (āraṇyā) are not necessarily above such things! Since the meaning is somewhat ambiguous, and they only said it to each other, and since they are under great stress, we may forgive them.

In the next verse, they go to the flower bearing trees like the ashoka, thinking that they will be more sympathetic, even though they too are males. The flowers are representative of smiles and a lighthearted, purer and kinder nature. But unfortunately, those trees also let them down. But at least they shake their heads by way of a slight breeze that moves their uppermost branches to let them know that they cannot answer or do not know.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Only Bhakti is the path of joy

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna describes the joy that a devotee feels in the execution of devotional service. Those who emphasize the jnana, karma and yoga practices described in the Gita have no understanding of how the bhakta experiences such joy in his love for the Lord and the association of other devotees.

mac-cittā mad-gata-prāā
bodhayantaḥ parasparam |
kathayantaś ca mā nitya
tuṣyanti ca ramanti ca ||

Their minds fixed on me, their lives totally dedicated to me, they spend their time in explaining the path of devotion to one another. Speaking of me constantly, they feel intense delight and pleasure. [Gita 10.9]

The Bhagavata Purana also describes the joy the devotee feels in the company of other devotees.

satāṁ prasangāt mama vīrya-saṁvido
bhavanti hṛt-karṇa-rasāyanāḥ kathāḥ
taj-joṣaṇād āśv apavarga-vartmani
śraddhā ratir bhaktir anukramiṣyati

If you have the good fortune to be in the company of devotees, you will hear of my glories, which are like magic medicine for the ears and heart. By becoming absorbed in these talks, you will quickly traverse the path of liberation, from faith, to joy, to love. (SB 3.25.25)

Swami Veda Bharati paraphrases Vyasa's Bhashya to YS 2.14, "For ordinary people, pain is felt to be discordant with one's own nature, whereas the yogi has this feeling of natural discordance whether he experiences either pleasure or pain."

The bhakta experiences a similar discord whenever he even hears of the notion of kaivalya or mukti, where consciousness and the object of consciousness are so merged as to make any awareness of an Other impossible.

Is it possible to have being without an object of being? Perhaps... But what is the meaning of being if it be like that of a rock or a lump of clay?

Is it possible to have consciousness without an object of consciousness? Perhaps, but what is the meaning of such consciousness? What is its purpose? What is its joy?

Is it possible to have bliss without love? And is it possible to have love without an object of love? And the supreme bliss must come in relation to the Most Complete Being, the fountainhead of all being, consciousness and bliss.

No wonder Prabodhananda says that being "solo" (kaivalya) is hell. My apologies to all my yogi friends and to Swami Veda himself. I cannot stop feeling this way. I love yoga and I love my yogi friends, but for me, kaivalyaṁ narakāyate. Or like our Raghunath Das says, kathā mukti-vyāghryā na śṛṇu kila sarvātma-gilanīḥ: "Don't even listen to the talks of liberation. They are like a tiger which will surely swallow your soul."

Bhakti is the natural condition of the soul. One must cultivate BOTH Oneness and Otherness. But recognizing the Other is in itself a path to the Oneness of love. Oneness without Otherness contradicts the natural relation of the part to the whole.

Some say that to become Brahman means to become Love itself. This is actually closer to the Vaishnava view, but is still inadequate. Yes, Love is the all-pervading Ground of Being, but if the Supreme Truth is Love, then variety, distinction, even that of God and individual soul, must be eternal!

The proper understanding of aham brahmāsmi is that we become Love, and that we become one with the object of Love in love. In his inconceivable nature, God is the one, undifferentiated Absolute, who in order to fully manifest his potential for love, divides himself into the infinite multiplicity of human experience. To describe or experience the former without the latter is an inadequate description or experience of the Absolute.

If you have become love, then have you lost your personhood or kept it? Does love exist without a subject and an object? As soon as there is love there must be both! And such love can only exist within the matrix of the individual soul's love for the Supreme Soul and the reciprocation of that love through grace.

Please don't take offense. I believe in the sincerity of all seekers. And I respect each and everyone's niṣṭhā. But I was taught long ago that the desire for liberation was the "last snare of nescience," and I cannot give up the conviction that this is the truth. The desire for liberation is the trap of sattva-guna; it is the refusal to give up the last latent bahir-mukhatā or reluctance to serve God, in other words, to give up one's own claim to actually be God.

But what kind of God must we become to become God!! On the way we accumulate a few mystic powers, but those too we must give up to become the salt dissolved into the ocean, the ghaṭākāśa become paṭākāśa, or to become floating monads in a sea of undifferentiation. To become god we must give up the very jewel of our personhood.

And even when we pretend to try to attenuate our egoistic desire for liberation by a Bodhisattva doctrine of delaying liberation or nirvana until "all souls are liberated", it is still a false love, because we only seek to make them too "negative" Gods in the same image: "the-grapes-are-sour-gods" "sore-loser" gods.

Enlightenment without service to the personal God is darkness. You can be one with God, but you cannot BE God. Freedom from suffering is only half of the hen, the other half, the positive half, is love of God. The bhaktas have things to learn from yogis and jnanis and karmis, but the fundamental Truth is that we are eternal servants of God, and liberation from anarthas only serves to makes us more perfect servants. If we abandon the positive half, what does it gain us to be rid of the negative?

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Rasa and theodicy

Without situations there are no stories. Without stories there is no rasa. Therefore, the existence of evil in the world is only to create situations. With no obstacles to overcome, love is unrealized in its scope.

Someone may object: What about horrendous evil?

Evil is not being condoned. Simply it is being said that the greater the evil, the greater the potential for heroism. And love shines all the brighter in the darkness.

This of course requires accepting the world-view of the Bhagavad Gita which says that there is no true death, no true suffering. We are engaged in a play in which the only reality or value is Rasa. raso vai sah.

This of course includes the karma doctrine, which means that everyone answers for their evil. But the law of karma does not answer ultimate questions about evil, for it too faces the problem of infinite regression.

There is a hierarchy of rasas, which are arranged in order from horror (bibhatsa), fear (bhayanaka), anger (raudra), pity (karuna), heroism (vira), wonder (adbhuta), the comic (hasya) and romantic love (shringar). Without evil, without obstacles, none of these rasas can manifest in their purest form. Take, for example, Schindler's List as a tale of heroism in the face of horrendous evil.

I understand heroism to be the primary male rasa, shringar the primary female rasa, with shringara being the overall primary rasa. All rasas are not equal.

I am of course refering to the classical eight rasas here. But if we use Rupa Goswami's model, then the five kinds of relationship in love, or the five kinds of love become the real emotional backdrop in which the other rasas are played out

I am not really saying anything radically original here. Theodicy is always a dicey game to play. For someone who views evil with the conviction of its existential reality, i.e., as a force that actually has or can have the upper hand in absolute terms, in other words, someone who has not completely given up the belief that evil is a winning strategy, the problem is intractable.

Rasa is just an extra dimension to understanding the problem. Rasa is the way we give life meaning. Everyone, including the evil person, is looking for rasa. Rasa includes external sense gratifications etc., but it mostly includes the meaning that we invest in that sense gratification. Rasa is about the story of our own lives. Rasa does require a certain distancing, the ability to see oneself as an objective character, a player in the play.

Great evil also requires this kind of framing of one's one heroism. Like Ayn Rand, who admired a serial killer for his complete indifference to the rules; she thought of him as a kind of superman. Or a Hitler or Stalin, whose acts of barbaric evil were contained within a vision of radical heroism, framed as they framed it.

Although narcissism is not what rasa is about, nevertheless, no one can stop being the center of his own universe. We create ourselves as an author creates the character in a story. But the difference between volitional evil ("the demoniac nature" or pathological narcissism) or the saint, and the common person, is in the strength of the story line.

Yet, we all exist in relationship with the "other" however we conceive of it, through our upbringing and predispositions from other lifetimes and our natural instincts that are a result of our particular species of life. Our lives are about the relationship of self to non-self, the other.

The other is conceived of as either personal or impersonal. This is the difference between love and evil. In Martin Buber's language, this is called "I-Thou" and "I-It". Impersonalism reduces people to objects, Personalism elevates all things, all others, or rather it _recognizes_ all others as the Other, the Divine Conscious Being, present in infinite variety in relation to ourselves.

"I am That" means that I and That are together in the same story. His/her story. We are engaged in a dance. A love story.

The world and the presence of evil are there for the dramatic contrast.

Bhakti and Social Activism

India has recently passed a law that will allow mass retailers to enter the Indian market. This is ostensibly to make the retail sector more "efficient" in the way that Western retail markets are efficient. We should be wary of the effects such a move will have on the Indian economy. The opening of the Indian economy in the last 20 years has resulted in great increases of prosperity for a large number of people, but the limits of such prosperity are currently being experienced in the advanced economies.

Walmarts' presence in North American towns has resulted in the gutting of the shopping districts of entire towns as its "efficiency" in exploiting economies of scale makes competition impossible. Walmarts is famous for its reduction of labor costs by shifting the burden of health care and so on onto the taxpayer, paying the absolute minimum in salaries, avoiding hiring full time workers as far as possible. In many markets, because they have driven all competition into bankruptcy, they are among the only potential employers, with the result that employment in the United States, for example, has become increasingly low-salaried work which barely covers the cost of living if at all.

Moreover, recent fires in Bangladesh in "sweat shops" producing garments for such big box stores in the American market were being blamed on refusal by Walmarts and other buyers to ante up for safety protections for the workers. Though there are still some doubts that this was actually the case, it would fit into the history of the company's style.

It should be remembered that the owners of the Walmarts empire, the family of the founder, Sam Walton, include four of the richest people in the United States, even the world. Their wealth, which now has reached extents that are beyond the imagination of even many countries, has been built on this take-no-prisoners capitalism. Though such entrepreneurship is the hallmark of modern capitalism, we have to ask ourselves whether it truly benefits the larger society, in particular one such as India, where low paying work is still the backbone of the new economy, which benefits a small portion of the society, not everyone.

As devotees of Krishna, we have been trained to think that worldly happiness is illusory and that the real sources of happiness are spiritual.

Our goal is Krishna prema: Love of God and love of others. Devotees should keep in mind that a human society that does not promote justice is not conducive to prema. Therefore worldly concerns about justice are favorable to the culture of prema, even though it is not considered to be bhakti directly.

Anyone who believes in varnashram in the way intended by Srila Prabhupada should oppose the kind of exploitative capitalism that results in Walmarts and its many imitators. Someone who is reducing the consumption of worldly goods as a part of his or her devotional practice should never support this capitalism by shopping at such places.

Buy local. Grow your own. Stay away from the consumerist ethic. Let's follow Prabhupada's dictum of simple living and high thinking and drop out of the consumerist economic system, which destroys the planet and kills people so that a few people can become so filthy rich and powerful they are like modern-day Hiranyakashipus and Hiranyakshas.

Too many devotees have compromised with the "American way of life." They have not succeeded in presenting an alternative, spiritually-based way of living, but only a low class version of mundane religiosity. But still, who do we have besides the devotees? Let us encourage each other with kindness in our words and gentleness in our manner.

The Hare Krishna movement has too many branches and phases and has become too splintered for anyone to make blanket judgments about any of them. There are individuals in all these groups who are attempting to find a mature spirituality, while others indulge in enmity and foolishness. This goes on on nearly all sides. We all need to grow. Encourage people as individuals to progress, but do it intelligently. Or leave them alone.

A lot of the problem arises from institutional loyalties and suspension of judgment. Even as an outsider, it sometimes seems to me that some of the bigger Vaishnava institutions' world leaders would like to become a bit more like the Walmart of religion. A similar philosophy governs their management style: Treat their devotees the way that Walmart treats its workers. Sell their product cheap at a big markup by cutting costs; let the profits accrue to those at the top. And whenever the lowliest servants ever have the temerity to need help, abandon them. And if any devotee starts to rock the boat by pointing out injustices, purge them like Walmart purges its unionizing activist employees.

Read the 16th chapter of the Gita. Remember Prabhupada gave no quarter to the demons. Demons are sociopaths, power hungry lizard people who would destroy the world for the sake of increasing their power and wealth, beyond all reason.

And American society has become complicit in this culture of arrogance and thus shares in the evil. We devotees cannot close our eyes to it. We cannot condone it, and we certainly must not support it. Indeed, the future of the planet depends on it.

Prabhupada told us to learn to live simply and to find happiness in prema, love of God and our devotee relationships and in the pleasures of high thinking... and perhaps we can add a little heroic activism against the machine.

For those who are active by nature, let them be militant devotees and fight in whatever way they can, following the spirit of Arjuna in the Gita. For those who are less activist by nature, let them show by example what a life of simple love is like, minimizing their involvement with the materialistic society, which is hellbent for destruction, as far as possible.

In either case, we can be allies with a broader spectrum of similarly minded people in society, thereby elevating their estimation of devotees and making the devotional message attractive.