Monday, April 15, 2013

Why This Devotee of God Doesn’t Think To Be Atheist Is To Be A Demon

There are two kinds of people in this world. Devotees and demons.
I think this is absolutely true.
But let’s parse this out a bit.
First of all, what is the source of my seemingly eccentric and dogmatic statement?
In the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-GitaKrishna speaks of two kinds of natures that exist in this world and in our being: the divine and the demoniac. After listing a number of qualities that are of the divine nature, such as charity, aversion to faultfinding, purification of one’s existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor, Krishna lists six qualities-pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance-which mark the demoniac nature. In the remainder of the chapter, Krishna unpacks further how the demoniac nature unfurls in our reality.
In the ninth verse of the chapter, Krishna says:
Following such conclusions, the demoniac, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.
In his commentary on this verse, renowned Vedic scholar/teacher A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes:
The demoniac are engaged in activities that will lead the world to destruction. The Lord states here that they are less intelligent. The materialists, who have no concept of God, think that they are advancing. But according to Bhagavad-gītā, they are unintelligent and devoid of all sense. They try to enjoy this material world to the utmost limit and therefore always engage in inventing something for sense gratification. Such materialistic inventions are considered to be advancement of human civilization, but the result is that people grow more and more violent and more and more cruel, cruel to animals and cruel to other human beings. They have no idea how to behave toward one another.
As a follower of the Gita, there is a straightforward-ness in Swami Prabhupada’s presentation which I find refreshing, important, and essential. It cuts to the rotted root of injustice, oppression, and hatred which exists in our world. It points to a deeper conception of why this injustice exists, in that without a conception of a divine reality, or a divine ethic, we all-too-fallible humans will all-too-often inevitably fall prey to the demoniac nature which surrounds us, and within us.
At the risk of appearing as a heretic (even more so than I appear to be already) to some more orthodox/literalist followers of the Gita, I want to critically examine what Krishna and Swami Prabhupada are saying in tandem in this chapter of the Gita. A surface interpretation of the dichotomy of the divine and demoniac here may provide a certain sense of clarity, but often what seems absolutely clear can lead to absolute expressions of theology and morality which can alienate and marginalize. This seeming clarity can also be at odds with people’s actual and visceral experience in the world, so I want to make a humble attempt to go a little bit deeper.
In thinking of my own experience doing Interfaith work in New York City, I have always made a sincere effort to be as open-minded and open-hearted as I can, with the appropriate respect and understanding of the natural boundaries that exist between different faith traditions. This mood has allowed me to develop wonderful relationships with Russian Orthodox priests, Reform Jewish rabbis, Wiccan priests, and just about everything else in-between. Being able to build, and walk across, bridges between faiths is one of the most important aspects of my spiritual journey. Real Interfaith work is a vehicle for creating the kind of deep and active compassion that is the most needed quality in this world at the present moment.
Yet as I went deeper into this work, I began to wonder what are the mechanics, as it were, of extending this joyful sense of communion towards those who identify as atheist/agnostic. More distinctly, I challenged myself to be as open-minded and open-hearted, with the same understanding of boundaries, with those I may encounter in my work and service who may not believe in God or a divine reality beyond the material reality we all inhabit together. This was a particular challenge for me, as I mentioned above, because to many within my tradition the terms atheist and demon go hand-in-hand. As usual, my innate sense of curiosity, or to put it more plainly, my independent streak, my desire to understand the truth beyond what may be “obvious” or “comfortable”, compelled me to question the basic assumption at hand: Does being atheistic mean one is inherently demoniac as described by Krishna in the Gita?
My opportunities to interact with serious and intelligent atheist thinkers were few and far between, so I was grateful to be invited to the 2012 World Faith Gala at the NYU Center for Spiritual Life this past December, with Chris Stedman as the featured speaker for the evening. Stedman is a unique figure in the world of Interfaith, as many of you already know. He is one of the founders of our esteemed community of thinkers here at State of Formation along with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and a prolific writer, including blogging gigs at the Huffington Post and the On Faith blog at the Washington Post. Last year, Stedman published his first book Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, detailing his journey from being a “born-again” Christian through the acceptance of his alternative sexuality and eventual turn towards identifying as an atheist, along with his concurrent work and experience organizing for justice with communities of faith, even as he became someone for whom faith as most religious know it no longer necessarily applied.
As I listened to Chris that evening, and had the chance to meet him, the thoughts I had been having about my desire to understand the humanity and reality of the atheistic perspective became more intense. First of all, the work that Chris is doing is indeed of an enlightened nature. He is someone who understand the values of wisdom, empathy, and compassion. These are indeed spiritual values, but to understand them as spiritual values in the context of the work and convictions of someone like Chris Stedman means that one has to take a much broader, inclusive, open, and truer understanding of what it means to be spiritual. Hearing Chris speak, meeting him, and reading his words, it struck me that one cannot automatically assume that someone who is an atheist is inherently demoniac. Chris Stedman, who he is and what he does, is proof enough to me that what Krishna is saying in the Gita has to be understood with discretion, intelligence, and compassion. It has to be understood beyond the surface.
As our human civilization faces a massive existential crisis in understanding that our consumerist way of life is no longer, and never was, a sustainable way for us to interact with the web of ecology that surrounds us, what is needed most is the kind of dynamic communication that builds a sense of community across not only the boundaries of different faith traditions, but across all unnecessary boundaries between people who sincerely want to create justice on this planet today, tomorrow, and going forward. There is a tremendous courage that is needed to cross through these boundaries, and the realm of Interfaith is a place where this cutting edge exists.  In Faitheist, Stedman writes:
I believe that change will come from within-that by participating in Interfaith work, the nonreligious will broaden the meaning of such efforts and that the language used to describe them will change accordingly…I cannot begin to recount all of the times Interfaith work has opened up a space for robust conversations on problematic religious practices and beliefs. In fact, it has been a hallmark of my experience working in the Interfaith environment. Furthermore, it has allowed me to engage religious people about atheist identity and eradicate significant misconceptions about what atheism is and what it isn’t
I regularly hear from atheists who are leading the charge for Interfaith cooperation on their campuses and in their communities, and their experiences echo mine. They too have found that Interfaith is expanding to incorporate them and that, when done well, Interfaith engagement doesn’t require that people check their convictions at the door; it invites people to try and understand and humanize the other.
This understanding, and this shared grasp of what it means to be human in this world, at this time, is immeasurable more powerful and effective in organizing, working for, and living by the principles of divinity than by any surface labeling of who is divine and who is demoniac.
Let us look again to what Swami Prabhupada said above, to truly understand what is demoniac. The demoniac nature is that which exploits the material nature simply for the selfish exploitation of the senses, an exploitation that invariable leads to violence and cruelty. It does not take a great leap to understand, through the examples of our shared history and also our contemporary experience, that those who may claim to have an obvious “concept of God” can easily become wrapped up in the demoniac qualities. This is not a black-and-white equation. There are “devotees of God” who act demonically. There are “demons” who act divinely. If we stay on the surface of this dichotomy, without diving deeply, without the kind of courageous thought and activism that someone like Chris Stedman is offering, we will add nothing to the equation but the kind of irrational hatred that scars our very existence.
As I said before, the Gita is straightforward, and everything I have said above is not to discount that there are people who are obviously divine and obviously demoniac, and that those categories can fall alongside certain accepted parameters of faith/lack of faith. But instead of condemning every atheistic/agnostic person to be inherently demoniac, I challenge anyone who is challenged by this to think a little deeper, to broaden their experience working with and knowing the non-religious, to try to understand that the religious and the non-religious have a lot to learn from each other, and to read Faitheist. The true arts of compassion and communication require much more than intellectual and theological complacency. They require a courage based in a divine sense of love that belongs to all beings regardless of what they identify as.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

When Saying "It's Just Kali-Yuga" Is Not Enough

Dr. James Cone is one of the formative personalities in the living history of liberation theology, the spiritual/religious framework of knowledge and practice based around the ideal that God, and those who are devotees of God, should be primarily concerned with the social/political/spiritual freedom of the oppressed, of those who are marginalized due to their race, sex, class, nationality, or gender. Through such courageous and groundbreaking works such as A Black Theology of Liberation, The God of the Oppressed and The Cross and The Lynching Tree, Cone has resounded a daring truth which says that God is intimately and particularly concerned and active in securing the freedom of black people in America from the shackles of bondage which have kept them and held them over much of the last five hundred years. While Cone did not invent the idea of Black Theology, he is considered one of its “founding fathers,” as it were, and is a historically important and vital figure in the field of contemporary Christian theology

Dr. Cone's work has inspired many other liberation theologians across the spectrum of race, sex, and gender to apply this ideal of God's care and love for the oppressed to their own particular situations of oppression/marginalization. He has been teaching at Union Theological Seminary, the oldest independent progressive Christian seminary in America, for much of the last four decades. Union, where I am currently working towards a master's degree in religion and ecological ethics, is where I had the good fortune of participating in Cone's Systematic Theology course this past Fall.

From the very first class, Cone was encouraging us to find our own personal theological voice, but he was also clear that there was an objective difference between good theology and bad theology. I came to understand that good theology, a working theology, must include understanding and realization of the transcendent reality of God, who speaks to us and acts within us beyond the boundaries of the material world, helping us to transcend our own limitations. Good theology must balance this understanding of the transcendent element with a clear acknowledgment and commitment to confronting, within the material world, the structures and expressions of injustice, discrimination, and oppression which deny people their material and spiritual freedom and dignity.

Bad theology is removed from this balance. A theology which doesn't work gives a framework which compels a community to think itself above the problems of the world. Bad theology commits the “sin of silence” towards the injustice of the world, either by outright ignoring the pain and suffering of oppression, or by misinterpreting how to deal with this oppression with antiquated and insensitive forms of praxis. Theology will also not work when it is too concerned with justice work at the expense of the transcendent element. Our link to the transcendent reality of God allows us, as expressed in the thought of one of Union's most influential teachers and philosophers Reinhold Niebuhr, to understand the original freedom of our own spiritual nature in relationship with God, while also making clear to us the finite nature of our material existence and our limitations within that nature to express that original freedom. Any theology, or any kind of justice work, which does not keep the transcendent relation of God at its center, will not be able to comprehend or transcend its own limitations and the multifarious flaws of human nature.

Dr. Cone was also very clear that all theology, and that our own theological voice, comes out of the element of contradiction. A major part of this element of contradiction comes from the the understanding that if we have the conviction, courage, and intelligence to wrestle with and examine how our faith tradition is expressing itself in relation to the world, we will be able to confront ideas and frameworks in that expression which do not work, which are not relevant. From the confrontation of that contradiction we will be able to shape new ideas and frameworks which insure that our faith, our theology, speaks of the reality and love of God in a way that is meaningful, powerful, compassionate, and effective to the actual time, place, and circumstance which surrounds it. The element of contradiction, when processed in a healthy, intelligent, sincere, and surrendered fashion, helps to insure the proper theological balance between faith and knowledge of God's transcendent reality with a commitment towards the active work and service that can bring the just love of God into reality to break the bonds of injustice and oppression in our world.

I am beginning to understand, as my own theological voice begins to form, as a devotee who serves within ISKCON and identifies, more or less, as a member of ISKCON, who identifies as a servant of Prabhupada's mission, that I am also dealing with a serious contradiction. This contradiction begins as I understand that while I accept the fundamental and essential tenets of sastra as given to us by Prabhupada, I have many problems with how this essential spiritual understanding is expressed culturally and socially by our society of devotees. Let us recall the words of Yogesvara Dasa, a long-standing and well-esteemed disciple of Srila Prabhupada, who in our previous piece expressed his feelings that the Hare Krishna movement is largely invisible and irrelevant to society today:

The most candid comment I can give about public perception of Hare Krishna in North
America is that I don’t think there is one anymore. The worst possible thing has happened,
namely indifference. There was a time going back 20 years perhaps when there was a public perception of the Hare Krishna movement in the sense that people felt accosted in  airports or read reports of abuses or saw devotees chanting in public. Devotees were a more visible part of the landscape of American culture previously.

Maybe then one could say there was a public perception because Hare Krishna was in the news, it was on television, it was in the papers for good or for bad...I believe that Vaishnavism as it has been historically will not be the same in the future for the simple reason that the world it lives in is not the same. There is a compulsion within Vaishnava faith to move into the larger society and to become relevant, and the Vaishnava community has yet to demonstrate its relevance. For 99.99 percent of the world we don’t matter. Krishna Consciousness is irrelevant to most of the world.”

I feel, and I am not alone in this feeling, that there is something wrong in how ISKCON, as the standard-bearer of Prabhupada's mission, relates to the world at large. Srila Prabhupada has given us the gift of a profound spiritual revolutionary movement which is to meant to strike at the very status quo of the oppression of material nature, yet our tendency is to speak in a overtly transcendent manner to the problems and complexities of the world, as if we are speaking down to people who are trying to spiritually work through these problems and complexities. It is difficult for us to speak to, to speak with, to speak along-side these sincere-minded and sincere-hearted people working for peace, justice, love, and meaning. As I wrote in my previous piece, this contradiction crystallizes for me when we communicate to people that “they are not their body” in such a way as to completely ignore or devalue their particular bodily or human existence in the world. Telling someone “they are not the body” when they are looking for spiritual shelter to help them work through and transcend their bodily situation of oppression is a particularly insensitive and irrelevant form of communication. This is compounded by the fact that when we consider the history and concurrent living experience of ISKCON in terms of how we relate to vulnerable and marginalized people, such as our women, our children, or devotees in our community in racial and sexual bodily constructs which are considered to be the “minority” or the “alternative” to the norm, we have a long and painful reckoning to deal with.

Let us consider two statements that Srila Prabhupada makes to us in one purport from the Madhya-lila of Sri Caitanya-Caritamrta:

“ ‘As far as religious principles are concerned, there is a consideration of the person, the country, the time and the circumstance. In devotional service, however, there are no such considerations. Devotional service is transcendental to all such considerations. Madhya 25.121
The transcendental service of the Lord (sādhana-bhakti) is above these principles. The world is anxious for religious unity, and that common platform can be achieved in transcendental devotional service. This is the verdict of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. When one becomes a Vaiṣṇava, he becomes transcendental to all these limited considerations. Madhya 25.121

Prabhupada is quite clearly expressing here that devotees should never define the essential values of Krishna consciousness, of bhakti-yoga, by the limitations of material consideration. The color of someone's skin or the nature of one's sexuality ultimately has nothing to do with anyone's eligibility to become a devotee. Therefore no one claiming to be a devotee should ever discriminate or prevent someone from approaching devotional service because of material or bodily considerations.

As Prabhupada mentions in the first passage, devotional service is transcendental to all such considerations, but the cultural principles which surround, express, and communicate the eternal, absolute values at the core of Krishna consciousness have to take time, place, and circumstance into account. Prabhupada did this himself actively in the grand spiritual/sociological “experiment” of bringing the tradition of bhakti-yoga from its original cultural context in India to the cultural context of the West. We know many of the alterations he made, such as allowing men and women to live together in the temple environment or initiating very young men into the sannyasa asrama, and we know the kind of push-back he received from his more conservatively oriented God-brothers. We know that every consideration he made around altering certain religious/cultural symbols was done with the exact and sincere motivation to maintain and enhance the free potential for everyone to properly encounter the eternal, absolute, and transcendental principles of Krishna consciousness.

To follow his calling for us, we need to understand that as devotees we are not to limit or define ourselves by material considerations in how we grow and maintain our communities and our society as a whole. Does this mean that we shouldn't be conscious of the material diversity of psychophysical situations we encounter in growing and maintaining our communities? Absolutely not. Prabhupada was also a tremendous genius at giving the reality of Krishna consciousness to each person as he consciously and compassionately understood the location of their being in this world, in the actual ground that they stood on. To have the capacity in our preaching, in our outreach, in our advocacy of the values and principles of Krishna consciousness, to learn and practice the art of revealing devotional service in the unique and palatable way that each person may desire it, is completely essential for us if we are to properly follow Prabhupada's calling for us.
Consider two more passages from this purport:

As far as different faiths are concerned, religions may be of different types, but on the spiritual platform, everyone has an equal right to execute devotional service. Madhya 25.121

The conclusion is that devotional service is open for everyone, regardless of caste, creed, time and country. This Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is functioning according to this principle. Madhya 25.121

How can we say our movement is functioning according to these absolute values when we clearly understand the legacy and ongoing reality within our movement of discrimination against certain types of body, nationality, caste, and/or sexuality? There is a contradiction which exists, which we must confront, between these eternal values of openness and equality at the heart of bhakti, and the way we either share or don't share these values with people because of the discriminatory lenses we carry with us. This contradiction is one of the core reasons, if not the core reason, why we struggle to be as relevant are we are called to be in the world around us. There are of course individual devotees and communities of devotees who are exploring this contradiction and creating outreach which truly speaks
openly and equally to the heart and mind of the contemporary human being in the 21st Century. 

One powerful example is the Gita Sutras ( program associated with the Bhakti Center community here in New York City, which is attracting a diverse and dynamic spectrum of spiritual seekers whose intelligent minds and compassionate hearts are being enlivened by a presentation of the essential principles of the Bhagavad-Gita as given by Prabhupada. It is a presentation which meets them powerfully and profoundly in their psychophysical locations and which doesn't discriminate against those locations.

ISKCON as a whole, as a global body representing Prabhupada's body, must now courageously and specifically ask whether its cultural presentation is something that is directly relevant to the world we live in. Do the elements of the presentation of Krishna consciousness in our communities and in our society as a whole contribute to the discrimination that exists in this world, or does it help to liberate people from that discrimination? What do we need to do to translate the eternal relevance of bhakti so that it is practically relevant to the way people feel, think, live, and suffer? What do we need to do to translate this relevance so that it is not a scandal to the intellect and experience of the people we want to reach, touch, and affect?

As individuals and as communities we have the tendency to participate in “spiritual bypassing”, or to become addicted to “spiritual heroin”, in which we consciously/unconsciously ignore the difficulties in our own hearts, in our own communities, and in the world around us. To offer a balm to this affliction, I ask this question: do you, do we, do I, really understand how terrible and how painful the effects of the Kali-Yuga are to people suffering those effects? In the same way we can say to ourselves or tell someone else that “you are not the body” without fully understanding the full spiritual import of that statement, when we pass off the tumult of our time by saying its just the “Kali-Yuga”, we are ignoring our sacred responsibility to understand, confront, and redeem the pain of our age. We have to ask ourselves: do we want to be confronted by the realities of our age, perversities of divine nature which most certainly manifest in our own heart, or do we want to be an insular, provincial, “Hindu” religious society which has little practical relevance or effect upon society?

I know it is my experience, and the experience of a good number of devotees in our communities, that once one sees and encounters the vastness of the injustice and suffering which permeates our age, there is no longer anyway to bypass it or ignore it. It changes one's entire identity and calling as a devotee. It strengthens that identity and calling. It deepens that identity and calling. Some of the most formative influences on the shape of my own spiritual journey has been books like American Holocaust by David Stannard, which detailed the mass extermination of indigenous Native American peoples and cultures upon the “discovery” of the “New World” by European settlers/conquerors. Equally as powerful is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which explores and reveals how the contemporary criminal-justice system has created a underclass of people, largely Black and Latino men, whose standing as citizens in American society has been traumatically torn asunder. I would encourage any devotees to read these books to gain a better and broader idea of the kinds of demoniac forces we encounter in this age and on this planet.

Let me also share some food for thought from my recent participation in the opening workshop of the 2013 Immersion Experience of the Poverty Initiative, a clear and committed social justice organization working out of Union Theological Seminary. The workshop was titled Conditions and Consciousness: The Current Economic Crisis, and in the opening session we were presented with a number of facts that were meant to challenge and motivate us to grasp and understand a number of elements of exactly why and how so many people face suffering and exploitation because of certain economic factors that exist in our societal infrastructure.

I hope that by listing below some of these fact/provocations/questions that like-minded and similarly concerned devotees reading this may be deepened and challenged in their own motivation and conception of what it means to serve in this Kali-Yuga. We must understand the nature of what the term economic means. It is a measuring and a conceptual understanding of who gets what and why. It is an examination of the principle of the quota from the Isopanisad and how that principle is/is not honored in our current time.
We must understand and confront in our ourselves and in our society the gap between the factual reality of certain economic conditions and our consciousness of these conditions.

To whit:

-The number of “Tent Cities” continues to rise since the 2008 financial crisis, exacerbated no doubt by the increase in environmentally related disasters. As devotees, how do we practically help the people living in these communities?

-Of course we tend to notice how machines/robots continue to replace human service/interactions in such places as the assembly line and the checkout line. What do we as devotees have to say to people whose livelihood has been replaced/is threatened by this effect of economic globalization?

-I am reminded of the time HH Devamrta Swami, in one of his visits to the Bhakti Center in NYC, showed all the brahmacaris the award-winning documentary Inside Job, which detailed the 2008 financial meltdown. He never explicitly explained why he was showing us this film, but the implication was clear: just down the road from the Bhakti Center, on Wall Street, are the kind of overt demoniac forces that Krishna spoke of the in the Bhagavad-gita, and that as devotees, we should be very aware of this and very clear about what they are trying to do.

-How much are we, as devotees, aware of how debt functions to keep this unjust economic system working? How do our own experiences of debt, as individuals and communities, define our viewpoint of how our society actually works? Do we understand that the current crises of debt inequality exist not because the system isn't working, but because that is how the system actually works?

-Through the combination of our own personal misuse and the ways the industrial food production systems work, half the food that is produced is eventually wasted/thrown out. This adds up to $165 million of food wasted per year, while 800 million hungry go around the world.
-Did you know that, despite the backlash that came after the 2008 economic crash, CEOs earns at least 185 times more on average that the workers under them at their corporations?

The main point of this workshop was to help us to begin to understand the structural and ideological roots of why our current economic situation is the way it is, from the most high corporate boardrooms on down to the people barely scraping by in slums left behind. As devotees, it is also our challenge to understand the roots of the way the Kali-Yuga is being expressed in the world around us. Understanding these roots will allow us to have a more accurate diagnosis of the problem, and it will compel us to offer the right prescription to help cure our ills as much as we possibly can.

What, according to Srila Prabhupada, is this right prescription?

Because of the increment in demoniac population, people have lost brahminical culture. Nor is there a kṣatriya government. Instead, the government is a democracy in which any śūdra can be voted into taking up the governmental reigns and capture the power to rule. Because of the poisonous effects of Kali-yuga, the śāstra(Bhāg. 12.2.13) says, dasyu-prāyeṣu rājasu: the government will adopt the policies of dasyus, or plunderers. Thus there will be no instructions from the brāhmaṇas, and even if there are brahminical instructions, there will be no kṣatriya rulers who can follow them. 7.2.11

Therefore, through the popularizing of hari-kīrtana, or the saṅkīrtana movement, the brahminical culture and kṣatriya government will automatically come back, and people will be extremely happy. 7.2.11

Having an effective consciousness and awareness of the suffering in this world will give us determination and courage to effect the change, to do what Prabhupada is calling us to do, to overcome this suffering. As devotees, we have a responsibility to always be asking ourselves if we are truly and comprehensively aware as we can be of the suffering in the world. We must always be critiquing and improving our understanding of our own responsibility and our own calling to free the world, as best as we can, from this suffering.
A few quotes to end, from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of course, and also from Jon Sobrino, an influential Jesuit activist and liberation theologian

"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr

Our theology has to be rooted in reality”

Jon Sobrino, S.J

The relevance of Prabhupada's mission as we move into the 21st Century depends so very much on standing firmly on the ground of suffering in this world, in this Kali-Yuga, and in giving effectively and compassionately the unique loving and spiritual balms and solutions that we have to give.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When Saying "You Are Not Your Body" Is Not Enough

This is the first in a series of essays I am writing based on my thoughts and experience as a devotee of Krishna, associated with ISKCON, in the 21st Century. These thoughts are mine and mine alone, resonant surely with other devotee's thoughts, but not representative of any community, temple president, or any other personality or spiritual master

I have submitted this piece to such websites as ISKCON News and Dandavats and so far it have not been published. While I hardly think the thoughts I have here are “radical” in any way, I have noticed a certain hesitancy to discuss some of the issues herein, like the place of LGBTQ people within our society of devotees, or to associate these issues in any kind of official capacity with the institution of ISKCON. This I find frustrating, because there are many devotees like myself who want to understand how our society can relate in a more honest and relevant way with our fellow brothers and sisters on this planet.

I hope that these words add to a fruitful and healthy dialogue as to the present and future shape of our devotional society. I intend no offense with these words, and if I cause offense by these words, I sincerely and humbly beg your forgiveness.

One of the most powerful spiritual experiences I have ever had in my life was when I had the chance to visit Srila Prabhupada's room at the Radha-Damodara Mandir in Vrndavana. It was, as you can imagine or may have experienced yourself, overwhelming to be so distinctly in the presence of Srila Prabhupada. His vibrations still filled the room so clearly, so mystically, if I may use that term with all sincerity, so long after his presence last filled that room physically. I immediately could sense my own place, who I was, who I wasn't, and what I was being asked to do, now that I had come this far, and committed as much as I could to becoming a servant of Prabhupada's mission.

All I could really do (all I can really do anyway) was pray, and beg. I begged to be given the chance to be a part, to be a servant, of carrying Prabhupada's mission forward into the 21st Century. Contemplating this responsibility felt like a two-ton weight on my shoulders. Everything I had considered serious in a materialistic sense up to that point in my lfe had the buoyancy of a riven cloud compared to the weight of this calling for Prabhupada. It was a frightening feeling in one sense, because I had never considered anything so serious, but it was also a liberation, a clarity that burned away the angst I had felt as a confused American kid in my twenties trying to find sense and belonging in the isolating substance of the material world which surrounded me.

With as much love and humility as I could muster, I simply asked Prabhupada for the chance to serve his heart. I asked for the chance to share the gift he had given me, that he had given all of us. Rarely before or since have I been able to find such a prayerful state. I felt embraced by Prabhupada for my efforts, trusted even to do what he needed me to do, despite the primary fault of my existence in this world. I've always wanted to be a revolutionary, and here the chance was being given to me in a way I never could have imagined. Every step I would now take, even if it was sideways, even if it was backwards, was to be shaped by this calling. To have any hope, I would just have to hang on to Prabhupada's lotus feet and never let go.

I was recently approached by a new friend over Facebook, a gay man who wanted to share his story and his anguish in approaching the bhakti tradition, and in particular ISKCON temples. He was clearly and deeply attracted in his heart to Krishna, and he wanted to walk forward in that resonance of his heart. Yet he had encountered prejudice because of his sexual persuasion when he had gone to his local temple. He was deeply affected by this, and he asked if there was anything I could tell him to help with his spiritual anxiety. I told him about the Bhakti Center community in New York City, where I had lived for over three years and how it was generally more welcoming than most Hare Krishna temples, but other than this, I had no easy answer for this obstacle of prejudice that he was encountering.

It broke my own heart to hear this. I simply wondered, on the level of common sense, how those claiming to represent the tradition of bhakti, those who claimed to represent the exquisitely magnanimous heart of Prabhupada, who have the obligation, as best as they can, to represent the pure and perfect love of Krishna, could look at someone from the vision of their body, and turn them away from the gift they themselves had been given.

This exchange shook me to my core, and left me with some serious and probing questions. What were these devotees missing or misunderstanding in the way they had related to my friend? How does this reflect what we may be missing or misunderstanding in our communication as devotees to the world at large today? What could I be missing or misunderstanding in my own conception and perception of Krishna consciousness? If we are telling ourselves, and if we are telling others, that “you are not the body”, how can we can judge anyone by their body? “You are not the body” is a saying every devotee has as an essential tool in their arsenal of spiritual communication, but I often wonder, as many devotees do, if we really understand what this means? Do we really understand that this saying, as essentially true as it is, can have an alienating effect upon others if we do not also know how to respond, comprehend, and comfort the bodily prejudice so many people experience in this world?

I am now a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which is one of the oldest and most prestigious independent and progressive Christian seminaries in America. It is a place where I have the great fortune of having my spirituality shaped through many different sophisticated, outrageous, and radical lenses. It is a place where I am able to see and experience the beauty, pain, and struggle of how so many others outside of the “traditional ISKCON” universe understand the nature of God and reality. It is a place where I can develop my identity as a progressive devotee. What does this mean to be a progressive devotee? For me, it is a conscious choice to live one's devotional calling by examining how the purport of Prabhupada's mission, and the culture and tradition of bhakti which comes from that mission, can communicate in the most relevant concert and concern with the contemporary time, place, and circumstances of the 21st Century. To be a progressive devotee is not to abandon the fundamental principles that Prabhupada has given us, but it is to consider, as Prabhupada himself did, how to make these principles realistic and relevant for the people of this age.

To be a progressive devotee is a precarious position. It brings upon the serious concern and even condemnation of those devotees who are deeply suspicious of anything labeled as such, who feel that to label oneself progressive is to commit the offense of abandoning Prabhupada's core teachings. It creates the opportunity to respond in a very offensive manner to the sincere concerns of these devotees. I know I myself must be careful to use this label, for the reality is that all sincere devotees of Krishna are truly the most progressive people on this planet. We have been given a revolutionary process which questions the very status quo of material existence itself. To label one set of devotees as progressive and another as conservative is a dangerous political game, yet for the nature of these essays, I want to highlight certain distinctions, perspectives, and proclivities that devotees share and don't share, as a way of highlighting serious issues and arguments which are shaping, and will shape, the future of Prabhupada's mission in the 21st Century.

There is nothing I can do in preventing devotees who are concerned with my position from expressing their concern. This is their sacred and natural right to do so, and I welcome any conversation that does not come from or lead to offensive attitudes and expressions. My response to their concern and their criticism must stand on the solid ground of the wisdom that Prabhupada has given us. I write this essay in that spirit, standing on the bedrock of the gift of Prabhupada's wisdom as much as I can, and in that spirit, I hope to contribute to a fruitful and much needed dialogue in ISKCON. In that spirit, I hope that my own misconceptions can be corrected, that our mutual unhealthy assumptions can be confronted and transcended, and that the practice and art of our spiritual communication can be brought to a more profound and relevant level.

The heart of my concern as a progressive devotee is a question of the engagement, and the relevance of that engagement, of our movement to society at large. There are two levels of relevance to be considered here: the ultimate relevance of bhakti and of Krishna consciousness to the existential situation of being in the material world, a relevance that is beyond reproach and even the vagaries of human reason itself. Then there is the theological and sociological relevance of Prabhupada's movement to the concerns of our contemporary society, concerns which include social justice, civil rights, poverty, ecological collapse, amongst so many other connected issues. Here is where I, and many other devotees, feel that our movement suffers in its communication and in its relevance. I was particularly struck by something that Yogesvara Dasa (Joshua Greene), an esteemed and long-standing disciple of Srila Prabhupada, said in an interview with an academic publication on “Being a Krishna Devotee”

The most candid comment I can give about public perception of Hare Krishna in North
America is that I don’t think there is one anymore. The worst possible thing has happened,
namely indifference. There was a time going back 20 years perhaps when there was a public
perception of the Hare Krishna movement in the sense that people felt accosted in airports or
read reports of abuses or saw devotees chanting in public. Devotees were a more visible part
of the landscape of American culture previously.

Maybe then one could say there was a public perception because Hare Krishna was in the news, it was on television, it was in the papers for good or for bad...I believe that Vaishnavism as it has been historically will not be the same in the future for the simple reason that the world it lives in is not the same. There is a compulsion within Vaishnava faith to move into the larger society and to become relevant, and the Vaishnava community has yet to demonstrate its relevance. For 99.99 percent of the world we don’t matter. Krishna Consciousness is irrelevant to most of the world.”

To be relevant, and to find relevance, is to always be considering how the prophetic voice of our movement is responding to the concerns of our fellow living entities on this planet. It is to be open to having a historicist approach to how we express our faith in the world. We are not raw historicists, in that we believe in an Absolute Truth that is beyond the relativism of history, yet our prophetic voice is best expressed with an intelligent application of our principles to the time, places, and circumstances which we are intimately connected to.

To find our relevance means to understand that we should not frame our communication to others in such a way that we ignore who they are and where they are coming from. We also have to prove our worth and pull our weight. We may not be of this world, but we are in this world. This we cannot ignore. We have to learn to give the gift that Prabhupada has given us in such a way that it makes sense in people's lives and to the concerns in their life. We may tell someone that they are not the body, and yet by doing so, we may completely ignore how we can relate our transcendental message to their particular situation of bodily marginalization, pain, and oppression. We may completely ignore the questions they have for us, as to how the heart of bhakti, of Krishna's love, speaks to the body they live in and the ground they stand on.

In our relation as devotees to the material world, to our own bodies, and the bodies of others, we must learn to be transcendent, and we must learn to acknowledge. To be transcendent is to truly understand that we are eternal spirit souls, lovers and friends of Krishna, whose true home is the spiritual world, and that our ultimate destiny is the liberation of pure devotional service. This is the goal and perfection of our existence, and all that we do should direct us and all others towards this goal. This is the gift that Prabhupada has given us.

One of the most powerful and eternally relevant verses Krishna speaks in the Bhagavad-Gita is this:

The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste]. (5.18)

This verse calls all devotees, all living entities, to a spiritual vision and lifestyle which has no room for bodily discrimination. For me, this verse gives us the foundation of equality and justice which underlies all movements for the same within the material realm. The vision of the sage is the essential and pristine vision which must be at the core of all movements for equality and justice in the material world, from the fight for civil rights for those who are marginalized because of their race, gender, or sexuality, all the way to the consideration of the right to life, decency, and sustainable health for the wide diversity of plant and animal life that this planet holds. As Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to this verse:

A Kṛṣṇa conscious person does not make any distinction between species or castes. The brāhmaṇa and the outcaste may be different from the social point of view, or a dog, a cow and an elephant may be different from the point of view of species, but these differences of body are meaningless from the viewpoint of a learned transcendentalist. This is due to their relationship to the Supreme, for the Supreme Lord, by His plenary portion as Paramātmā, is present in everyone’s heart. Such an understanding of the Supreme is real knowledge.

The vision of the sage sees reality as it actually is, but this doesn't mean that the sage ignores the reality that is right in front of him/her. When Prabhupada says that the “differences of body are meaningless”, he is not saying that those who claim to be a sage should treat everyone the same regardless of their bodily situation. The real sage does not discriminate according to the body. He/she gives the same grace of spiritual knowledge to everyone regardless of the color of their skin, the shape of their caste, or whatever their sexual preference is. The humble sage is able to use his/her intelligence to shape their message in such a way so that the mercy of Guru and Gauranga speaks specifically and intimately to each person's bodily/mental/existential situation.

The humble sage is able that to understand that to merely say “you are not the body” and not acknowledge the person's specific psycho-physical makeup is not enough. This acknowledgement is the supremely compassionate and intelligent awareness of the bodily, social, political, and sexual contexts that people come from, allowing the principles of bhakti to speak to them in such a way that it doesn't add to the injustice and oppression that they may face because of their body. To be able to acknowledge in this way is to give the gift Krishna consciousness so that it confronts this oppression and injustice and gives the ways, means, and inspiration to transcend it.

Frankly, in the general history of ISKCON, I feel that we not effectively learned how to transcend and how to acknowledge. I kneel and beg to be corrected, but I don't just base this statement on my own speculation, but on the experience and sincere feelings of many other devotees that I have encountered. Because we struggle so much to transcend and acknowledge our own bodies and our own standing in this world, we are left with a number of psychological and psychosocial hang-ups which have crippled much of our outreach. It has tended to harden our hearts, and with our hearts encased in the stone of our guilt, envy, and shame, how can we truly acknowledge and answer to those who approach us wanting to transcend their own pain and walk towards the loving embrace of Krishna?

As we try to mature in treating the subject of our transcendence with more compassion, patience, and common sense than has been the history of our movement, as we try not to “storm the gates of heaven”, as we understand that to purify our hearts is something that is the journey of a lifetime, or lifetimes, that must be done hand-in-hand and heart-to-heart with each other, we must learn to acknowledge our own bodies, our own material natures, and how these aspects of our existential situation can lead us further on to transcendence.

To be able to acknowledge means to not see our bodily and material situations as obstacles which should be smashed, but as aspects of our being which must be seen in the light of compassion and the wisdom of sastra, and also in the light of our common sense and natural experience of our lives in this world. We have to reach people at the point of how they live their own lives, in the reality of their social location, and not through any oppressive assumptions of meaning that we may have of what their lives and bodies represent. In the same way we have to meet our own experience as devotees in terms of who we actually are, and not through the frameworks of assumption others may place upon us.

In the next essay I hope to further develop these points, to acknowledge my own discomfort with identifying with ISKCON, and to ask a serious question of devotees: do we really understand how bad the Kali-Yuga is in the manifestations which presently surround us and which oppress so many of us.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Loving Ourselves, Part 1

One of the most wonderful aspects of our society of devotees in ISKCON is the tremendous level of diversity we all share. Within this diversity of race, nationality, and gender, there is a multiplicity of opinions as to how we should create and make enduring our culture of devotional service together. It is always my hope that within this diversity there is also the requisite respect towards the differences that do exist between us, but that is certainly not always the case, therefore I tread forward with what I am going to say carefully. I deeply pray that the sentiments and ideas I express here going forward does not offend the reader. If I do, I beg your forgiveness and understanding.

The foundation of what I want to say is that we need a deep cultural change within ISKCON. The substance of this change means moving from impersonalism towards personalism. This is not a philosophical issue, but rather an issue of relationship, of community. The history of our relationships, of our communities in ISKCON, have been marred by a deep-rooted impersonalism which has harmed many devotees' lives, and which has prevented ISKCON from being what it could truly be, from what Prabhupada wanted it to be. Many devotees of my generation, and many devotees of generations older and younger than mine, have also expressed this realization.

There is so much we have to do to insure that ISKCON thrives and grows as we move into the 21st Century, but I do not think there is anything more important that in improving the health of our culture of relationships and communities within ISKCON. Without addressing the stones of this essential foundation of our society, all of our aspirations will trend towards an inadequate and disappointing outcome.

I want to frame this essay around a lecture a good friend of mine recently gave. He titled the lecture “Presenting Our Best Offering to Krishna” and he based his lecture around a very wonderful and thought-provoking essay by HH Sacinandana Swami. The name of this essay is “From My Heart: Beloved of God” and can be found online via the Saranagati Newsletter.1

We must first understand that the purpose of our lives as devotees is to learn how to give the best offering of ourselves to Krishna. The very substance of this offering should be of love and affection towards Krishna, with intentionality and meaning in everything that we do.

The profundity of our offering can be so much greater if the love that is its substance is also directed towards our own self. HH Sacinandana Swami has us consider a line from “Prayer of a Lover of God” by Bhaktivinoda Thakur, in which the Thakur says "Let me also love myself who am inclined towards Krishna so that I may attain devotion to Him."2 What does this mean? To my own heart, this is a very common sense statement. If we are parts and parcels of Krishna, who is the ultimate object of our love, then we are also worthy of love. This love must be directed towards our personal reality as spirit soul and servant of the Lord, and not towards our temporary identities as body and mind.

We are called to love all of Krishna's parts and parcels, and that includes our own selves. We are not excluded. Spiritual life, in this sense, comes full circle. We are trying to transcend our narcissistic tendencies, and we have the tendency to do this in a very impersonal and unhealthy way, at the expense of our self, and at the expense of our relationships and communities. We complete the circle when we learn to include ourself in the package of love.
The very meaning of the deepest surrender is rooted in a pure and selfless love towards Krishna and His devotees. In the history of ISKCON, the meaning of surrender, and its practical applications, has often been something different. Often it is translated as “work until you drop.” Who is asking for this kind of surrender? Is it Krishna? Yes, sometimes Krishna is asking from us a surrender which tests and pushes back our boundaries, but is Krishna taking pleasure from the pain that results?

When we have the maturity to understand the bigger picture of our spiritual journey, we understand why Krishna is putting us into such a situation. We experience His love for us as the reason why, and the difficulties that we experience take on a different and deeper meaning.

If this kind of intense surrender is instead based on our own self-imposed expectations, or on the unrealistic expectations of others, then the tendency we have seen is that we will burn out. This is based as well on the tendency that we place on ourselves, and which is placed on ourselves by others, to act as if we were a pure devotee, but we cannot be a pure devotee until we are a pure devotee. Acting in this kind of charade is a big source of the pain we experience in our life as a devotee.

Often this concept of surrender means to forget our humanity. The joke I've heard is that first you become a pure devotee, and then you become a human being. To transcend our identification as a material human being doesn't mean to become inhumane in our devotional lives. The human nature we carry with us features many tools, such as the ability to be selfless and compassionate, which can only enhance our devotional lives if we choose to engage with them.

In his article, HH Sacinandana Swami quotes from an article by HH Bir Krishna Goswami, entitled “Love Yourself.” HH Bir Krishna Goswami writes:

I am writing about this subject matter because many devotees have contacted or talked to me about this mental state. When I hear devotees talking like this it causes tears to come to my eyes because I know that all the devotees are very, very dear to Krishna.

Even though ontologically we may be small-we are important to Krishna. We are not small in Krishna’s eyes.

Take the story of Gopa Kumar in the Brhad Bhagavatamrta for example. Krishna was feeling so much love for Gopa Kumar and so much hankering for his association in the spiritual world, that Krishna personally became Gopa Kumar’s spiritual master.

You may say that Gopa Kumar is a special devotee, and that is true. But, it is a fact that Krishna personally is the Caitya Guru of all of us residing in our hearts and personally takes the trouble to direct us to our spiritual master.

Even before we take to Krishna consciousness, Krishna is residing in the heart waiting for us to realize that our real happiness is in relating to Him rather than this external energy.

So, Krishna considers us significant, important, etc.

When Gopa Kumar finally goes back to Krishnaloka, Krishna faints in ecstasy upon receiving him. Even Krishna’s associates can not understand what is going on.

Krishna feels the same way about us.

There is an interesting statement in the Isopanisad (Mantra 6):

He who sees systematically everything in relation to the Supreme Lord, who sees all living entities as His parts and parcels, and who sees the Supreme Lord within everything never hates anything or any being.”

So we are parts and parcels of Krishna. Therefore we should not hate ourselves. On the other hand since we are supposed to love Krishna we should love all his parts and parcels and that includes ourselves too!

What does that mean, to love oneself?

It means to picture or visualize or imagine how you want to be. Forget about all the negativity; whether the negativity comes from yourself or from others.

If you think negatively that is what you are meditating on and those thoughts will impede your spiritual life.

Here are some things you can think about:

1. Radha and Krishna love me and want me to be with Them in the spiritual world!

2. Taking care of my spiritual needs will not impede my spiritual progress

3. Taking care of my material needs will not impede my spiritual progress

4. I am an eternal soul, full of bliss and knowledge!

5. I have an eternal relationship with Radha and Krishna and will realize this relationship.

And don’t remain in a situation where others are denigrating you. You owe it to yourself and to Krishna to reject situations that are unfavorable for Krishna consciousness and accept favorable situations. Have positive spiritual self-esteem!

It is not maya to take what we need in our Krishna conscious lives. It is not maya to find the proper situation in our Krishna conscious lives to make the best offering of ourselves. It is not maya to have a positive sense of self-esteem to ourselves in our Krishna conscious lives. Again, I feel very strongly that this is common sense, but sometimes it can be quite difficult to discern, either from our own perspective or within the expectations of our community, what we really need to be healthy and happy as a devotee.

We may fear that by taking what we need, we may take too much, and cross that fine line into selfishness based on sense gratification. What is essential for us, and which strikes at the heart of the need for healthy community, is having guides who we can trust, who are very attentive, introspective, and progressive, and who can help us to strike the balance between need and sacrifice in our lives.

Ultimately we have to, as the saying goes, “fly our own planes.” This is not to say that we become bereft or aloof of relationships to authorities in our lives, but that we must also develop a sufficient sense of self-discernment. We have to know, in the fiber of our being, in the shape of our consciousness on a everyday level, when a mood of indulgence may be taking us away from our sadhana and service. This may be a mood of indulgence in our bad habits and illusions. It may also be a mood of indulgence in trying to fulfill the unrealistic and impersonal demands of the devotees in our community.

We have to learn to give ourselves the time of day. If we are just jumping all over the place, trying to be selfless, we may become resentful, because we have deprived ourselves of our needs. If we don't fulfill our real needs, then we set up ourselves to fall back into these patterns of indulgence again and again.

If we can just see the good we have in ourselves, and addressing our relevant needs both material and spiritual will help us do that, then we will be more willing, and be more able, to make sacrifices and to enter into that mysterious realm of surrender. As HH Sacinandana Swami often quotes, from the mind of famed French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "If you want to build a boat, don't just drum up people together to collect wood and assign tasks. Teach people to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
2commentary on Bhajanamrtam, quoted in Bhaktivinoda Vani Vaibhava, volumes 2 and 3, p. 408.