Q. Why is religion in such bad shape in Bengal? I recently visited the town of Navadvip, where Caitanya Mahaprabhu appeared, but unfortunately encountered there what appeared to be a very corrupt and unholy land. I was disappointed even at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) where monks smile for the rich, but are indifferent to everyone else. Is this the great spiritual revolution that was brought in by Caitanya Mahaprabhu?
A. There is indeed a serious problem with corruption in India’s places of pilgrimage, including the holy places associated with the pastimes of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Some lineages in these areas seem to be overcome by greed, at some sites coercing pilgrims to donate money through threat and intimidation. This holds true for holy places connected with other religious traditions as well. However, the problem seems to be particularly acute in India, where in many cases temples are owned by a particular family and serve as the family business.
Problems also arise because the Gaudiya tradition is very generous in its outreach, embracing people who may have difficulty adhering to standards or following spiritual practices. Most serious are offenses resulting from misapplication of our philosophy regarding the romantic life of the Absolute. In Gaudiya literature the love of svayam-bhagavan Sri Krishna and his svayam sakti Sri Radha is sometimes compared with the intensity of love found in this world between two young paramour lovers. Although Gaudiya theology clearly differentiates worldly love from spiritual love, still so-called devotees have abused the worship of Radha-Krishna by using the divine couple as a template for their illicit sexual relations. This is the most egregious corruption of Gaudiya Vaisnavism.
Nonetheless, my experience is that despite the problems I have encountered in Gaudiya Vaisnavism, the sampradaya of Caitanya Mahaprabhu remains vibrant and is always purely represented somewhere. Good things are often abused and spirituality is no exception, but misrepresentation implies that proper representation also exists. If you look hard enough you will find it.
Q. What is the characteristic of a madhyama adhikari?
A. Madhyama, or intermediate, devotees are characterized by proper discrimination. This means, among other things, that their intelligence is absorbed in their cultivation of Krishna consciousness. Discrimination is the function of the intellect. To regularly and deeply study Srimad Bhagavatam (nityam bhagavata sevaya) requires fully applying one’s intellect, and this results in divorcing the intellect from its unwholesome relationship with the senses, wherein it has become a servant of the senses. This enables one to become steady in practice.
Q. I was told that suicide is not sanctioned for devotees, but there seems to be exceptions to this rule. For example, scripture relates that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in some way approved of the suicide of Chota Haridasa, a sannyasi who was inappropriately involved with a woman. In light of this, I would like to ask if due to an accident a devotee were in a painful condition where his or her body could no longer be used for serving, would it be acceptable to commit suicide?
A. Suicide is not the appropriate response to life’s problems. It is true that the renunciate Chota Haridasa committed suicide after he learned that Mahaprabhu considered his conduct inappropriate. It is also true that Thakura Bhaktivinoda suggested that this example illustrated an acceptable means of repentance for fallen renunciates. However, Thakura Bhaktivinoda made that comment more than a century ago, and the suicide of Chota Haridasa took place in India more than five centuries ago. In that bygone culture the social norms were much different than they are today. In fact the rules for monks in those times were so numerous and stringent that no modern order would be able to follow them all.
Therefore, when discussing the question of suicide for fallen renunciates, Srila Prabhupada upheld the sanctity of the suicide of Chota Haridasa, as does Caitanya-caritamrta, but strictly forbade it for his own disciples, however fallen.
As for devotees outside the renounced order, they must accept the pain of their circumstances with tolerance, the fruit of which is liberation. As for their service, this is not dependent on a healthy body. One can serve as well or better with one’s mind.
Sannyasa in Modern Times
Q. I left Iskcon 24 years ago, but I always felt I would return to devotional service when I retired. That time is near, so I spent the day looking over the last 20+ years of Iskcon related web sites. Of all the writings, articles, and opinions posted online, I feel that you have the most objective viewpoint. Therefore I am looking to you for an opinion regarding the future of Iskcon. Please, no hype. Do you think Iskcon and Gaudiya Vaisnavism in general are heading in the right direction?
A. In my opinion, Iskcon has thus far been very slow in moving with the times. Apart from the support it has gained from the Indian immigrant community, Iskcon as an institution has not made much progress in being embraced by the American public, at least not in the same way that many other Eastern sects, particularly Buddhist sects are accepted. As Western as it is, Iskcon clings to a fair amount of cultural baggage in the name of being true or chaste to its founder, Srila Prabhupada. Thus its sense of following Srila Prabhupada is less than dynamic, and this shows not only culturally and socially, but spiritually as well. Iskcon also tends to be confused on issues of siddhanta (theology). Moreover, since Srila Prabhupada’s departure the group has made some serious spiritual errors, many of which they will remain haunted by for some time to come.
However, in Iskcon and in other Gaudiya missions active internationally you will find some dynamic thinkers and also some spiritually advanced devotees. What I feel is needed is to somehow bring these progressive devotees together—to thread a string through these gems and make them a force to reckon with. I write the above with regard to outreach, but if we are to talk of inner life alone as a meter by which to gauge the future of our tradition, this is another discussion. In brief, my experience is that deep inner life is still alive and well in the sampradaya.
Q. I am reading the biography of Srila Prabhupada by Satvarupa dasa Goswami, which I found to be a wonderful book. One part of the story puzzles me, and I thought that since you were there you might be able to explain it. According to the book, just before Srila Prabhupada passed away, his disciple Kirtanananda Swami offered him a sapphire ring, a check for $8,000 and a gold and precious stone studded necklace, all of which Srila Prabhupada is said to have rejected. Why on earth would Kirtanananda Swami make such an offering at a time like this? Is there something I am missing?
A. I think that Kirtanananda Swami came to Srila Prabhupada with gifts that meant something to him and offered them in that spirit. At that time he was building an elaborate residence for Srila Prabhupada at his asrama/community in West Virginia. Designed and constructed entirely by devotee artisans, the magnificently ornate structure named “Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold” was to be surrounded by seven similarly adorned temples of Krishna. The project, approved by Srila Prabhupada, was to serve as a showcase attraction to garner interest in Krishna consciousness.
In tune with building the palace, Kirtanananda Swami wanted to treat Srila Prabhupada like royalty thinking that this was the highest standard; thus explaining his gifts of precious stones, etc. However, his thinking in this connection was incorrect in that the Vedic tradition teaches that royalty are indirectly presided over by saintly brahmanas, who are devoid of desire for personal wealth and opulence. In this connection, Gaudiya Vaisnavism teaches that the Vraja-lila of Sri Krishna, in all of its simplicity and humanness, is transcendentally more complete than worship of God in awe and reverence.
Q. I never met Srila Prabhupada, but I find so much joy and strength in reading of how he spread Krishna consciousness around the world. Unfortunately, after Srila Prabhupada passed away in 1977, his International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) seems to have fallen lock step with other dogmatic religious institutions that are not a force for change, for progression, but are rather a force for regression and suppression. Thus I never became a member of Iskcon or sought initiation because of the massive disconnect I see between Prabhupada’s movement as he intended it and the current-day Iskcon. What are your feelings about this?
A. Iskcon should be acknowledged for its outreach. However, there are many devotees who came to Krishna consciousness through Iskcon but somehow or other lost faith in that organization. Those like you, who feel a disconnect between today’s Iskcon and the revolutionary spirit of Gaudiya Vaisnavism found in Srila Prabhupada, should by now be aware that Iskcon is not the only mission representing the teachings of Srila Prabhupada and Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Therefore, disaffected devotees like yourself must take the initiative to move ahead in Krishna consciousness by seeking sadhu sanga elsewhere, which is what I did when I was forced out of Iskcon so many years ago. Since then I have tried to help such devotees by offering them a positive alternative to Iskcon and because of this have endured considerable opposition from leaders in that organization and in many respects little support even from those who sympathize with me. This month I turned 60, with 12 years serving Srila Prabhupada within Iskcon and 25 years serving him outside of Iskcon. I was 29 years old when Srila Prabhupada left the world, one year older than you are now. Turning the discussion to you, it’s time to be the change you desire. If you want Gaudiya Vaisnavism to have life in the world today, start by giving your life to it. Find a guide and enter the eternal stream of krishnanusilanam. Change yourself and the world thereby. What on earth is stopping you?