Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Part 2 What the Students Really Thought

Dear Global Leadership Students,

I really enjoyed reading all of the papers. They were thoughtful and candid, and even humorous at times. I’d like to address a few of the points that cropped up in your reflections on your visit to New Vrindaban. I’ll try to keep my responses brief.

Student: “I still think the events of the 80’s and 90’s were beyond creepy, but I don’t think they define the religion.”

Thank you. Yes, the Movement allowed a lot of dumb and illegal things to go on. It is unfortunate and embarrassing. We were very na├»ve. Prabhupada had asked the devotees not to do anything that would embarrass the Movement. Most of these things happened in the 80’s and were brought to light in the 90’s. I think that devotees are working to right the wrongs and give people a better understanding of the Movement, but it will take a while.

Student: “One must remember that the Hare Krishnas follow Vedic law, and as such, their ideas on women’s roles in society are not exactly up to date.”

There has been, and perhaps still is, some confusion about the role of women because of the contradictory quotes found in Prabhupada’s writings. I think the role of women in the Movement has greatly improved since the 70’s. I don’t know what the official ISKCON position is or if there is one. I think Prabhupada himself broke the mold, so to speak, because he was the first to give brahman initation to women, making them priests. This was never done before.

Here in NV: the GBC rep is a woman; the temple had a woman president for a time; women sit on the executive and managerial boards; they give classes; the two gift shops, the health food store, and the thrift shop are all managed by women. I know several women who also successfully manage their own businesses outside the temple environment. In the devotee marriages that I know, the husband and wife view themselves as equals and share responsibilities of the household. Friendships and conversations do exist between men and women.

Student: “The devotees say you are ‘not your material body’ and ‘gender really is irrelevant,’ then why must men and women separate for kirtans?”

In the temple and in the presence of the monks, the women’s behavior is an indication of modesty, and should not be confused with being subservient. The Vedic understanding is that men have an obligation to protect the women, and women have an obligation to protect the men. Of course that “protection” should not be abusive, obsessive or paranoiac. But mutual protection is necessary to curb the tendency for promiscuous behavior which is blatant in the culture at large.

Student: “I could not understand why such a peaceful group of people would base so much of what they believe around stories of violence.”

The Krishna tradition is by nature peaceful, but it is not against violence per se. The Mahabharata and The Ramayana both describe monumental battles. Both books chronicle the victory of good (dharma) over bad (adharma). Krishna (God) actually treats everyone as a friend. So if someone approaches Him to fight, He will accommodate that person. If someone comes for enlightenment, He’ll enlighten. In whatever way you want, Krishna will reciprocate. Krishna’s activities are like a movie or a dramatic play. The drama creates some tension and conflict to get our attention, and the author will use that as a means to provide us with some food for thought.

Same student continues: “I felt the same way when I went to the farm for cow protection. (he protects the cows but his dog kills groundhogs).”

The Vedic injunctions allow one to use violence to protect one’s family, home and property. Balabhadra, in charge of that project, uses a dog to protect his garden from other animals. At our house, my wife tried having a vegetable garden but it was ravaged by deer and groundhogs. She gave up after two years. But Balabhadra’s lifestyle is more dependent on the land, and for him a vegetable garden is vital. The dog is their family’s assistant and is acknowledged as such. As everyone knows, living and working in the material world is not an easy proposition. So devotees have to utilize their intelligence in applying the Vedic understanding to their particular situation.

Student: “It (the slaying of Ravana) reminded me of something out of Lord Of The Flies or the KKK burning of the cross.”

The festival in question commemorates the slaying of Ravana by Sri Rama in the pastime of The Ramayana. The burning of the effigy of Ravana celebrates the victory of good over evil. A devotee relishes this event somewhat in the same way Bob Dylan, in his song Masters of War, relishes the death and burial of a wicked man:

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave'
Til I'm sure that you're dead

The main difference is that a devotee doesn’t really hate or condemn anyone. While seeing Ravana burn, a devotee prays that the sinful elements in his own heart will also be burned up and destroyed. A devotee knows that even a wicked man like Ravana, who was chastised by God, is ultimately benefited and purified. So it’s totally inappropriate to compare the festival of the slaying of Ravana to Lord Of The Flies or the KKK burning of the cross, which are acts of fear and hatred.

Student: “The Krishna lifestyle provided stability to the unstable, spirituality to the skeptic, and love to the lonely.”

I can’t disagree with this statement. I also like the way it’s put; its rhythm and balance. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains that the material nature is endlessly mutable. We are eternal beings seeking happiness in a temporary realm. It’s a paradoxical situation. Before I joined the devotees, I was perplexed as to why people struggled so hard to get ahead. I thought, “Even if you’re successful, so what? Is that it?” When I was 20, I sat with a 40ish year old friend in a bar. He was lamenting. He was the editor and publisher of a magazine and he was hoping to be rich and established by 40. He was still struggling. He felt that providence had passed him by and that he was over the hill.

People are desperate to get wealth, sex and fame. Sometimes they compromise whatever principles they have to achieve their goals. But even if you are successful and become rich and famous, the material world is not necessarily going to deliver the happiness you want. There’s a certain allurement to material nature, and the conditioned living being is enamored by the prospects, but they can (and often will) vanish in an instant. It’s no surprise that when people begin to understand the dynamics of the material nature they feel a sense of instability. And yes, Krishna provides stability to the unstable.

Student: “In Judaism one is not supposed to worship anything other than God (and not the statues of Prabhupada and the deities) which may be why I had such a hard time with these two practices.”

I think the hardest thing to understand about Krishna Consciousness is Deity worship. It was for me. But if you look at any religious tradition there is a point where the ‘spiritual’ spills into the ‘material.’ In every religion the church, mosque, and temple (even though made of bricks and timber) is a sacred place or a house of God. The Jews pray at the Wailing Wall. They leave notes there for God. Also, in Juadaism the Torah is kept on the alter. And just as the devotees adorn the Deities of Radha and Krishna with crowns and elaborate dress, in many synagogues the Torah is also adorned with a crown and wrapped in beautiful cloth. And when the Torah is paraded through the congregation everyone wants to kiss the cloth in great reverence, and sometimes they even get on their knees. Some one may look at this and wonder “What are these people doing? It’s just a scroll with some ink on it, wrapped in a piece of cloth!” But the devotees won’t say that this activity is wrong. Actually, it is correct. This is the claim of the Hare Krishnas (as stated in Gita and Bhagavatam) – that God is non different then His scripture, His temple, His name and His form. God is manifested in the material realm through these, and by serving these manifestations of God, one serves God directly. Thus, the Deities, etc, are revered and worshiped.

As for the spiritual master, that person is an ambassador of God. When an ambassador goes to a foreign place, he brings the presence of his own country with him. And the way that ambassador is treated and honored is an indication of what the people think of the country (and its leadership) from which he comes. In such a mood is Srila Prabhupada honored and worshiped.

In closing, I would add that Krishna Consciousness is very deep. You can’t understand everything over night. It’s an ever unfolding adventure and a journey. It’s like going down a wild river or crossing over a mountain range. Don’t let it pass you by so easily. Devotees who have been around for 30 and 40 years are still learning. Lord Brahma, the creator of this universe who has been around millions upon millions of years, still can’t fathom the full extent of Krishna’s personality and powers. If you are inclined, I simply suggest that for this coming year you take some time and continue to study Prabhupada’s books, especially Bhagavad Gita. And chant and meditate upon the Name. Hare Krishna.