Discussing discussion: a Vaisnava approach to rhetoric
Posted January 7, 2005
This discussion is about discussion. Since quite a few of us spend a significant proportion of our daily lives in various discussion groups, either online or in person, we should ask, "How to get the most out of it?"
Even if a discussion is centred on Krsna-conscious philosophy, it is not always as fully illuminating as it should be, as verified by Lord Sri Krsna in Bhagavad-gita 10.9. The problem is we are not always acting on the basis of sambandha, as a servant of the servant of the Lord and His devotees.
Sometimes -- in fact, very often -- we are acting on the animalistic propensities of sex life and defense. How this is so is that these propensities are not always gratified on the gross sensual level, where they are easily detected as anarthas to our spiritual development. Particularly in the human form of life, they can be gratified on the more subtle levels of sensual activity: the mind, intelligence and false ego. That is when these anarthas are very hard to detect, and yet they cast a dark shadow on the illuminating face of the philosophy as we discuss it.
One common example of a so-called Krsna-conscious discussion where the propensity to defend is used to gratify the subtle senses is as follows: someone points out a flaw in my argument -- a contradiction to what is stated in sastra -- and, rather than honestly admitting the mistake, I desperately try to counteract it. My goal is not enlightenment, but defeating the opposition. To this end, I use various slokas or statements of Srila Prabhupada that, taken out of context, support my position.
Even if my position or belief is based genuinely on the sastra itself, the method to resolve apparently contradictory statements in sastra is not to choose a side and defend it at all costs, but to try to research the conclusion. If the conclusion makes me look like an ass for previously asserting something fallacious, then so be it. That is what a devotee is, or tries to be: someone detached from the ego and attached to the service of the Absolute Truth. Even if he is a guru, he is willing to admit, "I am sorry, I was wrong." Thus he sets the example of humility and absolute surrender to the truth at all costs, and his disciples respect him for that, not for an assumed position of infallible, unjustified perfection. Such disciples fulfill Srila Prabhupada's direction "not to accept anything blindly" and to avoid "blind faith." Consequently, discussions amongst such honest souls are full of light; they "separate truth from illsion for the welfare of all."
This is certainly not possible when we make assertions that are either groundless, or perversions of sastra (such as proposing that nitya-siddhas fall down). The only way to defend such a position is to show how a sloka supports it. Even if one can do so, one must resolve it with the many apparently contradictory sastric statements. To ignore all contradictions to one's position is to show oneself to be uninterested in the truth and interested only in defending one's subtle senses of mind, intelligence and ego.
Similarly, sex life can also be present in so-called Krsna-conscious discussions and thwart their objective. When sex life is gratified subtly, one may seek to use his intelligence to attract a following, and get adoration and praise as a learned scholar. He may even display showbottle symptoms of spirituality, be exceedingly humble and so forth, for the same purpose. He is exposed, however, when it comes to the test of his actual humility, when his assertions are challenged and -- instead of welcoming a different perspective on the truth -- he is defensive and thoroughly unwilling to admit he made any mistake.
If we really want to do good to others and please Krsna by "preaching
among ourselves," then we have to watch out for these animal propensities,
particularly defense. A discussion may not reach the point of being
outwardly offensive, still the purpose of illumination can be thoroughly
missed and replaced with the purpose of defeat at all costs. We have to
constantly align ourselves with the pursuit of truth, and catch ourselves
whenever we are deviating from that purpose.