Thursday, August 13, 2009

Progressive and Liberal Ideas and Krishna bhakti

One thing I have noticed about the Western Krishna conscious movement is that most devotees (older ones at least) are progressive politically, due to their radical stance as youthful hippies against the "establishment culture."

This is unusual, on one sense, because Srila Prabhupada was VERY conservative, politically as well as socially. At one time or another, he said things that showed racist, fascist, anti-feminist, libertarian, anti-taxation and corporatist leanings. His preaching in India was geared towards business elites.

How hippies came to adopt leadership from this quarter is a curious matter in itself and worthy of investigation. Let us say that they were in search of a radical alternative to the established dominant culture in Western society, and the hedonistic and libertine counterculture of the time had proved an abject failure experimentally.

Prabhupada also fed conspiracist and apocalyptic tendencies amongst devotees--the coming of WWIII, the moon landing hoax, anti-science and what have you. These ideas would place you even on the fringes of the American survivalists, as was shown around the Y2K frenzy, when these elements in the KCM became a little more visible for a while.

But over time most of the old devotees have either tacitly returned to their progressive roots or have quit Iskcon when the cognitive dissonance between what Prabhupada stated on all these issues and the spiritual nourishment on offer became too great.

This is a very uncomfortable situation, because the most conservative elements still have the official upper hand. They are the ones who can appeal to loyalty and traditional authority. (“Prabhupada said” still rules.) The dissonance is worsened because one has what is often a rather hypocritical leadership--giving public voice to conservative ideals on the one hand, and turning a blind eye to the most egregious manifestations of liberal attitudes. A good example is, for instance, Bir Krishna's ritually sanctioning a gay relationships while publicly opposing Hridayananda Maharaj who at least had the courage to publicly defend his doing the same thing.

In practical terms, this means the de facto marginalization of the most conservative elements like those promoting a return to Varnashram or keeping women in their place, or polygamists, what to speak of other issues. On the other hand, groups like GALVA are given a voice, even though they are fairly radically opposed to the most conservative values.

But this leaves us with a serious hiatus between official doctrine (Sadhu, shastra and guru) and what is being lived and experienced by devotees. The KCM in the West is NEVER going to be a Hindu version of the Amish or Mennonites--socially conservative separatists leading an anti-modern agrarian lifestyle in the name of simple living and high thinking.

For socially liberal and politically progressive devotees to lead intellectually in a way that will bridge this disconnect will require a great deal of effort because such a stance requires reinterpretation of traditional knowledge and authority. And all KCM groups without exception say this is fundamentally wrong.

Since these philosophical battles have been fought in the West since the Enlightenment, we have a lot of catching up to do in understanding the philosophical value of progressive and liberal ideas and defending them in terms of our spiritual tradition. Philosophical atheists have been attacking organized religion since the time of Voltaire. And the heirs of the Enlightenment were not fools who can be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Their ideas must be encountered, and where they are right in their criticisms of religion, believers must be able to recognize it, in the humility of their faith, and take corrective measures.

The rejection of the "Establishment values" of the 1960's in America is the fertile soil in which the seeds of Krishna consciousness were planted. A plant's growth reflects not only its seed, but its soil also. Conservative Christianity today, in its most virulent forms, whatever its positive offerings may be, seems to me to be totally regressive and inimical to true spiritual progress.

For Krishna consciousness to become a mirror reflection of the Southern Baptist Convention does not seem like a desirable option. But if you have a gut reaction that matches my own, then you have to recognize that being intellectually lazy or dishonest is not going to cut it if we want Krishna consciousness to become something more than an odd footnote in the religious history of 20th century America.

Anyway, today is Janmastami and I realize that this is not a very devotional post. But let me claim that it is a devotional offering. Krishna says in the Gita that a person who studies theology worships him with his intellect. We are bound to serve and worship with the gifts that Krishna himself has given us. The evolution of the Vaishnava tradition is a service that is as real and important as every other aspect of this lovely religion.

Jayati Jananivaso Devaki-janma-vado!


Anonymous said...

And are liberal ideas in the world out there always, necessarily, progressive? This is what I, an old devotee, am questioning these days as I push, to may left, concepts such as abortion as far away as possible from me. To my right, I push away as hard as I can concepts such as varnashram, i.e., the caste system, and all its derivatives in society.

Anonymous said...

Progressive is really a word without much meaning since it is used as an ornament by mainly left, but also right.

Liberal has lots of meaning. We should be totally liberal to the extreme as long as it doesn't conflict with the life of other living beings. So tolerating murder is not liberal, rejecting varnasrama is liberal and so is starting a small open-door community on the basis of varnasrama-dharma. It must stay small though in order to be liberal.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Hmm, funny, I was thinking its the other way around: 'liberal' is the fluff while 'progressive' would be the term conveying meaning. You see, something may be liberal, but unless its progressive, its redundant. Like the example of abortion: in political circles to be pro abortion is considered liberal. But it isn't liberal enough to be called progressive. But if something is progressive it automatically is liberal in the sense of liberality being generosity, no concern with the exhausting of the source - giving as generative of giving. So progressive becomes synonymous with meaning.

Now, the concept of varnashram-dharma may indeed be called liberal - its a concept as superficial as its defining adjective. What is meaningful and therefore progressive is sanatana-dharma - sanatana-dharma is affectual action, while varnashrama-dharma is value-rational action.

Jagat said...

My point was really that we Westerners were brought up in a society that had adopted many progressive and liberal ideas already. We went a little overboard as hippies and then became convinced of the benefits of self-discipline and austerity.

But personal discipline and austerity are individual or voluntary actions and cannot be imposed. To some extent they can be imposed on children in the name of education, and to a certain extent on adults and society in the name of law and order, but the point of liberal society is that a certain freedom of thought and action is ultimately beneficial in a fomenting experimentation and creativity.

Religion is generally a conservative force and atheists are often dominanant or at least more vocal amongst progressives. This is of course not an absolute. And, certain values that are traditionally religions -- like solidarity with the less privileged -- are the very basis of progressive thought.

This is a big subject and would take a great deal of analysis. I was simply writing from an intuition that of American Hare Krishna devotees, I would bet that the proportion who voted Democratic Party last year, of the ones that voted, of course, would far exceed Republican. It is a very broad coalition, but in terms of political values, devotees tend to be more like New Agers and Yoga types.

A lot of sociological research could probably be done on this line of questioning. Particularly where Indian immigrant supporters of KCM are concerned. I assume Indian immigrants all vote Democratic Party as well, but they are probably much more socially conservative than Western devotees.

Anyway, the above is pretty much all speculation. Just some thoughts.

Socrates said...

Both progressive and liberal must be confirmed with clear acts, with clear new insights and views.

Many simply recycle old stuff, but there's no new spark, no new insight. There's lots of cognitive dissonance hidden under the fluffy words, lack of personal revelation, lack of inspiration, as Jagat cleverly recognizes.

For example, a progressive mind would try to reconcile what is faith and what is belief in KC, how to inspire new faith, how to live now, in this time and circumstances and offer something refreshing, inspiring and yet connected with that beautiful idea of devotion.

A myth must continue now, using new language, new lights, new stage, new actors, and the idea is, ah, the same -- a story of love chase that goes on forever.

When you enter a florist's shop, there's a new flower posing in a vase every day, sparkling ever new imagination in the eyes of lovers.

But GV's florist's shop looks more like a desert.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Actually, statistically I think most Desis vote Republican. Indian Americans are amongst the most financially successful groups in this country and the rich tend to vote Republican.

Radharani Sarkar Zindabad!

Satya devi dasi said...

Socrates said:
"But GV's florist's shop looks more like a desert."

Not the one I go to!

Anonymous said...

"Actually, statistically I think most Desis vote Republican."

Indeed. Shah Rukh Khan for US president!

Blink said...

Political involvement is not a bad thing.
Some devotees in Holland are involved in the "Partij voor de dieren", which translates as "Party for the animals".
They have 2 seats in parlament and have put many things on the agenda in both Holland and Europa.....
-The cruelty of pig transport
-Castration of pigs
-Vegetarianism and reduction of bio-industry as a serious solution to global heating
- and the list goes on and on.

Not all members are vegetarians, most are though. Parties for animal rights are trying to get into parlament in many more European countries.

I am an enthousiastic voter since they are around.