Chakra Discussions

ISKCON leaders should encourage free thought

by Gaurav Mittal

Posted March 2, 2005

The basic flaw in early ISKCON days is that they tried to do too much. They tried to control the lives of people and teach them "How to lead their lives." To facilitate this, they formed ashramas, gurukulas, etc. In these ashramas and gurukulas, people were dependent upon ISKCON management. If management were misguided, uncompassionate or lacked human values, the people under them became unsatisfied and, therefore, problems started.

One example is child abuse. They tried to control the life of the children and also tried to control how parents should relate with their children. Ultimately, it was a disaster.

The main premise in current ISKCON thinking seems to be that people are not intelligent enough to decide what is right. What is right should be decided by a spiritual elite class (called as guru, GBCs, preachers,etc). Logic and reason are discouraged and, instead, sabda or statements from the elite spiritual class are supposed to be followed.

Fortunately, the ultimately guru or teacher is Krishna Himself and He resides in everyone's heart as their eternal well-wisher. He is also called ceta-guru. Philosophically, ISKCON should accept that everyone has the ability to access ceta-guru and hear from Him if one is serious in developing a relationship with God. (People with psychological and emotional disorders may be exceptions.) They should trust that the person seeking the Absolute Truth can make right decisions with the aid of teachers (gurus), books, inspiration or knowledge from ceta-guru etc. Therefore, people's lives do not need to controlled. They can come to right knowledge, a right path or right action if they find a person pointing to right direction.

Once ISKCON begins to trust people or to accept that their followers are intelligent, then they don't need to fear from ritviks, popular non-ISKCON guru, etc. Even if their followers are exposed to other philosophies, their followers should be able to make a right decision. Philosophically, then they will not feel threatened by other people, and therefore they can live harmoniously with them. Ultimately, spirituality should lead to harmony or unity.

The role of society should be to provide spiritual guidance to people when required or when requested by them. Implementation details should be left to members or followers. For example, a follower may request advice of a spiritual teacher about education of his children. The spiritual guide advises to send the children to the school which is God conscious. Now, it is the responsibility of the parent to accept the advice and find a good school or create a good school. ISKCON, as a spiritual society, need not get involved.

The spiritual principles in many religions are very similar: love God, surrender to God, etc. Unfortunately, the followers misapply the principles. For example, Islam means 'surrender to God'. Terrorists kills themselves to kill thousands of other people and consider it as surrender to God (Islam). If the spiritual body which imparts principles keeps a distance from the followers who implement them, those principles will not be tainted by misapplication.

Society should also let people decide what job to take, what to eat, etc. For example, there was an article in Chakra which blamed Iskcon for sickness of Iskcon leaders. The article attributed their sickness to lack of proper diet, i.e., a diet devoid of fruits, vegetables, etc. Ultimately, each person is responsible to eat right food and to take proper nutrition. ISKCON, as a spiritual society, advises food offered to Krishna and vegetarian food without onions or garlic. But each member should make sure that they are getting proper nutrients. Similarly, each follower or member should take responsibility of their own lives and the lives of their family members.

In essence, leaders should do what they are good at. They are good at spiritual guidance. Let them do that, but let them not control the lives of others. Let them take responsibility for their actions, livelihoods and their whole life. Act as a guide and teacher but not a dictator or monarch. Give people the freedom to make mistakes and not to follow their guidance. Don't limit people's journey of self-realization to one life and but see it as a continuum of past and future lives. In this way, when leaders have a correct vision of truth, they won't feel any need to force people to follow their way of life or to convert them to their principles. Our most beloved friend -- who is the Lord of whole universe and who is always accompanying us, hearing us, observing us and guiding us -- also does not force us but gives us freedom to act.

When people don't follow your views or don't agree with you, don't label them as non-devotees or people unworthy of your members' association. Ultimately, understand that everyone has ability or can become a devotee of Lord and, therefore, see everyone with the utmost respect. If people sincerely call upon the name of God, God will hear and advance the sincere caller of His names. Therefore, ritviks, other Gaudiya followers and followers of other sects or groups have the ability to connect to God. Everyone, including big gurus, should accept that these groups can have people much more advanced than they may be. Therefore, it is better to appreciate others than to contend with them, even spiritually.

Don't claim that your spiritual guidance is perfect. Many gurus have made mistakes and given wrong advice. Give followers the freedom to decide the correctness of spiritual guidance.

I have found one statement by HH Hanumatpresaka Swami very helpful in appreciating others: "There are many people who know what is right. There are very few who know what is right and act on what they believe as right." What I understood was that those who act on what they believe as right should be respected and appreciated. If this principle had been accepted by ISKCON, then many people -- for example, those who joined Sridhar Swami, Narayan Swami, etc. but acted according to their conscience -- wouldn't have left ISKCON, but would have been integrated into the society.