In defence of Sadhu Sanga

As I mentioned recently, I have been in contact with a new Facebook page that is attempting to reunite cyberspacially all of Srila Prabhupada's some 4500 initiated disciples. As of this writing, some 560 people have joined, for the most part the "less important" folk rather than the ones running ISKCON these days. It is turning out pretty much as I expected, a lot of nostalgia, reminders that we are coming closer to death and many of us have already left these bodies. There is also a bit of stirring up of old controversies. Today, one devotee posted the following Prabhupada letter:
I am in due receipt of your letter dated September 3, 1975 with the enclosed statement about Van Maharaja. So I have now issued orders that all my disciples should avoid all of my godbrothers. They should not have any dealings with them nor even correspondence, nor should they give them any of my books or should they purchase any of their books, neither should you visit any of their temples. Please avoid them.
Though one responder cleverly observed that he was not aware of even a single Prabhupada godbrother who is currently living, some others were quite happy to continue the controversy in the spirit of ex ecclesia nullum salus. My answer there went as follows:

When a particular instruction is given that contradicts a general principle, does the particular instruction become a general principle or not?

The general principle is sat-saṅga, which is one of the five most important aṅgas of devotion. Jiva Goswami says that if the guru stops you from seeking advanced association, he should be rejected.

śrī-gurv-ājñayā tat-sevanāvirodhena cānyeṣām api vaiṣṇavānāṁ sevanaṁ śreyaḥ. anyathā doṣaḥ syāt.

It is best if one serves Vaishnavas according to the order of the guru and without any obstacle in one's service to him being disturbed. Otherwise there will be a flaw.

yaḥ prathamaṁ śābde pare ca niṣṇātaṁ [bhā.pu. 11.3.21] ity-ādy-ukta-lakṣaṇaṁ guruṁ nāśritavān, tādṛśa-guroś ca matsarādito mahābhāgavata-satkārādāv anumatiṁ na labhate, sa prathamata eva tyakta-śāstro na vicāryate | ubhaya-saṅkaṭa-pāto hi tasmin bhavaty eva |

The question here is not of one who has taken shelter of a guru without the qualifications described in 11.3.21, and then does not receive permission from such a guru to greet or honor great devotees, due to enviousness or whatever, because such a disciple already stands in contradiction to the scriptural injunction. The poor guy is in trouble no matter what he does.

ata eva dūrata evārādhyas tādṛśo guruḥ. vaiṣṇava-vidveṣī cet parityājya eva. tasya vaiṣṇava-bhāva-rāhityeṇāvaiṣṇavatayā avaiṣṇavopadiṣṭena ity-ādi-vacana-viṣayatvāc ca.

In such cases one should worship his guru from a distance. But if he is inimical to the Vaishnavas, he should be rejected completely. This is because he demonstrates that he is without the natural spirit of a Vaishnava and is thus the subject of the verse, "Instructions given by a non-devotee, etc."

yathokta-lakṣaṇasya guror avidyamānāyāṁ tu, tasyaiva mahā-bhāgavatasyaikasya nitya-sevanaṁ parama-śreyaḥ. sa ca śrī-guruvat sama-vāsanaḥ svasmin kṛpālu-cittaś ca grāhyaḥ.

In the absence of a guru with the characteristics described earlier, it is in one's greatest interest to constantly serve an individual mahā-bhāgavata devotee. He should have the same spiritual mood as the guru and be merciful and kind to you. (Bhakti-sandarbha 238)

Then Jiva Goswami goes on to describe the two kinds of service, a very important distinction, as prasaṅga-rūpā, paricaryā-rūpā, hearing Hari katha from him and performing direct service of other kinds.(Bhakti-sandarbha 238)

The above passages need to be read carefully because clearly, as already stated by some above, one may have a different take on almost every line above in different situations. But the upshot is that ultimately you need to make the decision yourself, but that advanced satsaṅga is a fundamental and necessary principle of devotional service. If you yourself feel that you are in need of svajātīyāśaya, snigdha and svato-vara association, and if one is capable of recognizing for himself the qualities of a mahā-bhāgavata, then to not follow the direction of God within the heart is going to slow one's progress.

What are the qualifications of the mahā-bhāgavata who should be served?

śuśrūṣayā bhajana-vijñam ananyam anya-
nindādi-śūnya-hṛdam īpsita-saṅga-labdhyā
If one gets the desired association of a person who is expert in bhajan, who is undeviating in his dedication (ananya) and whose heart is entirely free of the tendency to criticize others, then one should serve him. (Upadeśāmṛta)
Prabhupada was no doubt afraid that his disciples were going to apparently knowledgeable and advanced godbrothers who were envious and would create confusion. But there is little doubt that the above passage makes it clear that the primary instruction is to associate, to learn to recognize the advanced devotee and if possible to hear and serve advanced Vaishnavas. To not do so is to stifle the growth of your devotional creeper and to fall into the trap of enviousness oneself.

And here is an article I wrote at least ten or fifteen years ago on some forum or other, "In defence of Narayan Maharaj." Since it is no longer available on-line, I am reposting here, as is. I doubt that I would write like this today, but still there are some good points.

K. wrote:
In order to satisfy Jagat, we would all have to disregard very stern orders from our spiritual master and go accept the association and concepts of all the sahajiyas, Gaudiya Math sannyasis and bogus babajis all over India.
Certain commands were made to be broken.

āsām aho caraṇa-reṇu-juṣām ahaṁ syāṁ
vṛndāvane kim api gulma-latauṣadhīnām
yā dustyajaṁ svajanam ārya-pathaṁ ca hitvā
bhejur mukunda-padavīṁ śrutibhir vimṛgyām
Ah, would that I could become
one of Vrindavan's herbs and plants
which are regularly sprinkled
with the dust of the gopis’ feet,

for the gopis abandoned their families
and their religious principles,
both of which are extremely difficult to give up,
in order to worship Mukunda,
the ultimate objective of all the Vedic literatures. (SB 10.47.61)
One of the big problems in Iskcon is that so many devotees have come to the point where they say, “Is this all there is? Where is the rasa?”

And even when they try to talk about Radha and the gopis amongst themselves, they do so self-consciously and embarrassedly, as though they don't know if they really should be doing this or not. And no wonder, they have never met anyone who was absorbed in that rasa.

And the discourse is nearly always political: Follow, surrender, work and everything will come—all Varnashram Dharma instructions. Where is the sanga that converts karma into bhakti?

It becomes like a bad marriage. Eventually the wife says, “What am I doing here? I wash the floors and cook the meals, bring up the kids, and all I get in exchange is abuse.”

So is it at all surprising that despite all the exhortations not to associate with Narayan Maharaj, as soon as a long-suffering devotee gets a little nectarean Harikatha from this lifelong sadhaka, he says, "So this is what I've been missing!!"C

cittaṁ sukhena bhavatāpahṛtaṁ gṛheṣu
yan nirviśaty uta karāv api gṛhya-kṛtye
pādau padaṁ na calatas tava pāda-mūlād
yāmaḥ kathaṁ vrajam atho karavāma kiṁ vā??
My mind and my hands, which were so happily absorbed in household duties, have been stolen away by you. Now my feet cannot step even a foot away from your lotus feet. How can we go back to Vraja as you instruct us? And even if we went back, what would we do?? (11.29.34)
In other words, something serious has changed. Once that invisible lobha barrier has been broken, there is no going back. Once milk has become curd, how can it become milk again?
The philosopher Simone Weil, after many years of grappling with her faith in Christ (she was born a Jew), she had to decide whether to be officially baptized a Catholic or not. She thought about it for some time before rejecting the option because, she said, that the Church was a social institution and "insofar as it remains a social institution, it belongs to the prince of this world (i.e. the devil)." That’s pretty heavy language. Even though she admitted that the Church did do good work, she felt that religion was ultimately about spiritual experience and not about social relations.

Now I don't entirely agree with this, but Simone Weil was only 34 when she died, not long after she made that decision. I too was only 29 when I left Iskcon with pretty much the same attitude. After all, Krishna puts the onus on the individual to determine what he wants in spiritual life. In the last instruction of the Gita, Krishna comes clearly down on the side of the individual in the “What is more important, society or the individual?” debate.

Ultimately, even the spiritual master is only a means to the end. That is why the shastra says there can be more than one spiritual master. The diksha guru you have taken determines the path you are to follow; the siksha gurus take you further along that path. Sometimes, the diksha guru is no longer present--as is the case in Iskcon (for Prabhupada’s disciples); sometimes the diksha guru is inadequate as a siksha guru--as is also often the case in Iskcon (for disciples of Prabhupada’s disciples). There is no need to abandon the diksha guru because he has directed you to the correct goal—Yugala-sevā—but Jiva says that he can be abandoned if he prevents you from associating with more advanced devotees who will help you reach that goal. (See Bhakti-sandarbha 238)

In any case, the order sarva-dharmān parityājya does not come up once or twice in a lifetime. It comes up constantly, from moment to moment. The ecstasy of surrender (or conversion if you like) is not a one time thing, after which we can sit on our hands. On the other hand, a major call, the sound of Krishna's flute, may only come a few times in our lifetime. If we don't heed this call, for whatever conventional reason, that is our loss. When we stop moving forward, we generally start slipping back.

These conventional reasons are generally social in nature, but even Iskcon is ultimately "of this world." As we have heard Puru Das say, “Prabhupada said Iskcon was his body; he also said he was not his body.”

This was one of Siddhanta Saraswati's brilliant realizations. When he created the "daivi varnashram," of which the Gaudiya Math with its "daivi" Brahmins and Sannyasis was the vanguard, he never intended for it to be the last word in spiritual life or commitment. Varnashram is a vehicle that is necessary for gradual spiritual development, but it ultimately needs to be discarded, in principle if not in fact. Bhaktivinoda Thakur said that if household life is conducive to Krishna consciousness, there is no need to abandon that life--indeed it would be an error. By the same token, if math/ashram/temple life is conducive to bhajan, then one can remain, otherwise not.

Narayan Maharaj has put his finger on the problem and Puruji, in his spirited and aggressive manner, is merely conveying the message. Naturally, Iskcon does not like the message, nor do the Ritviks, for to them, Iskcon IS Prabhupada. This is not an ignoble sentiment and, as that is their nishtha, it is perhaps wrong to disturb their minds.

The Bhagavata says:

tāvat karmāṇi kurvīta
na nirvidyeta yāvatā
mat-kathā-śravaṇādau vā
śraddhā yāvan na jāyate

One should engage in one's Varnashram duties and not renounce them as long as one does not develop strong faith in hearing about Me. (11.20.9)
Iskcon devotees, who have surrendered so much by converting and committing themselves fully to serving Srila Prabhupada, may find it strange, even absurd, to hear this instruction being applied to them. To me, however, it seems that they have been doubly cheated: on the one hand, they have been deprived of the bhajan and Harikatha of a fully committed life, and on the other, they have been deprived of even a "Varnashram dharma."

Iskcon has consistently alienated its devoted householders by denigrating their vocations and service. They have done this to their own great detriment--all that money those householders could have given if they thought they were getting their spiritual money's worth. Instead, they mostly get kirtans that are noisy and untidy, lectures that are dull and uninspired or aggressive and haranguing, and to top it off, condescension from arrogant leaders. (And that is not even mentioning all the other, unmentionable stuff.) Only the most desperate loyalty to Srila Prabhupad could keep them coming back, but even that eventually is insufficient for many.

By giving Varnashram Dharma a spiritual value, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was implicitly giving householder life a meaningfulness within the whole spiritual scheme of things. Srila Prabhupada also said, "Establish Varnashram Dharma." This instruction has never worked in Iskcon because of the society’s consistent marginalization of householders.

Meanwhile, the temples demand full commitment and "service," especially "book distribution," from their brahmacharis. It's a wonder that any of them even know anything of Prabhupada's books. I have found that very few lifelong Iskcon devotees I meet know much about even Chaitanya Charitamrita or the Srimad Bhagavatam, what to speak of the hundreds of books that Srila Prabhupada never translated.

Most of you should be ashamed when you see how well Puruji knows Prabhupada's books, and those of so many other acharyas. Heaven knows he is indiscriminate in his cutting and pasting. I hope that one day he becomes a little more judicious in his quoting—less is sometimes more—but I would still bet that he gives a pretty decent Bhagavata lecture. And I'd also bet that Shyamarani and many of Narayan Maharaj's preachers are far more inspired and inspiring than G. Maharaj (for example) could ever be. I could probably even sit through one without squirming and getting an unbearable urge to run screaming out of the temple room. In Iskcon, I usually have to hold myself back by remembering Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakur's reminder that advanced devotees do not discriminate between good and bad Hari-kathä, but I confess that such good counsel is generally insufficient. It does matter.

Narayan Maharaj preaches to Iskcon devotees. And well he should. Prabhupad made them hungry and now they are without nourishment. How kind of Narayan Maharaj to give them what they have been hankering for, sometimes without even knowing what it was. He is giving water to those who were thirsting in the desert. He is moving the Krishna consciousness movement back towards the Radha Krishna consciousness of Srila Rupa Goswami.


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