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.

Walmart 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. Walmart 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 Walmart 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 Walmart 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 Walmart 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.


Vinode Vani d.d. said…
Bravo...I think we devotees pretend too mightily to be separate from materialistic society and its sufferings. We are very much a part of the problem and not helping to bring in a new era.

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