"Only the Pure Devotees . . ."
Who can Adapt Vaishnavism to Modern Times?
Posted December 3, 2004
We have often heard the argument that we cannot do things that our predecessor acaryas have done because they were 'pure devotees' (and we are not). I believe that this one point is a major misunderstanding many Vaishnavas have and thus this point could be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the progress of Vaishnavism (whether that be via ISKCON or some other Vaishnava group). Since my participation has been primarily within ISKCON, that is where I have seen this 'pure devotee' card played. I don't know how much or if other Vaishnava groups suffer from this misunderstanding. I hope that they do not.
Srila Prabhupada did certain things that were quite innovative for his time, such as: giving women brahminical initiation, allowing them to serve on the altar, making Yamuna Dasi's (a woman devotee's) Govindam prayers song a part of ISKCON's daily functions, the four regulative principles, 16 rounds, etc. He considered himself liberal in contrast to his conservative predecessors and I believe he said something to this effect. To put it succinctly, Prabhupada made changes.
When we look at ISKCON today, there are many changes that need to be made -- changes in the management, changes in the guru system, changes in temples, changes in rules, etc. Yet despite the obvious need for change, little is changing -- or at least the important things aren't changing. Why? The explanation given is that Prabhupada was a pure devotee and we cannot and should not imitate him by introducing change. Another often played 'Prabhupada said' is that Prabhupada said we should not change things or that we change things unnecessarily.
Now if we look at Prabhupada and the definition of acarya, was Prabhupada an acarya? Of course he was. He taught by his example. Now if he taught by example (which is the definition of acarya that I'm referring to here), what part of his example can we follow? Can we follow his every example or only certain parts? When sastra speaks of an acarya as one who teaches by example, does sastra refer to following only parts of what an acarya teaches? I have never read or heard such an explanation.
So what are we faced with here? Prabhupada changed things and yet he said we shouldn't change things. That is an interesting point. I believe that this leads us to question the context of Prabhupada's saying that we shouldn't change things. I personally don't want to get into a whole Vedabase search of quotes supporting and counter supporting and all that (for 'Prabhupada saids' are yet another problem). I am making the point that this misunderstanding needs to be addressed, i.e. the misunderstanding of who and what a 'pure devotee' is, what he or she does and what we follow.
Looking at some of the changes Prabhupada made, what prompted him to make them? When reading the Lilamrita we find that SP decided to give women second initiation because they complained and asked to be given it. So essentially it was his disciples who inaugurated this change and he sanctioned it. The same applies with 16 rounds (instead of 64) and women on the altar and I'm sure there are many other similar changes. In other words, when these changes were proposed to Prabhupada, he didn't respond by saying, "No. You want to change things unnecessarily." So we see that Prabhupada was flexible and he did sanction changes when he felt them necessary and/or valid. More importantly a lot of these changes came from his disciples, and not from him.
Unfortunately today, Prabhupada is not here to sanction present and future changes. But based upon Prabhupada's track record, Prabhupada made changes as time went on to adapt ISKCON to the needs of his disciples and to modern times. I think it is safe to assume that Prabhupada would be continuing to evolve and change ISKCON for the better as he did when he was here.
Often in the management of ISKCON, Prabhupada himself would consult with his managerial and leading disciples as to what should be done to address certain issues and problems. Prabhupada often called together the GBC to discuss and resolve such issues. Prabhupada did not see himself as the all-in-all change factor. At times when ISKCON's leadership went astray he would intervene, but for the most part Prabhupada wanted ISKCON to be able to change and adapt as he himself personally made changes.
So when we talk about ISKCON needing to change things, for someone to use the excuse that only Prabhupada could do it because he was a pure devotee is really a cop out. It is an excuse to be lazy and maintain the status quo. In fact it may be a bit revealing when we look at what the status quo is, who benefits from it, and who are the people who resist change. Ironically the people who benefit from it are also the people who are against change and use this 'pure devotee' argument to back themselves up.
Our acaryas have set the example for us to follow with their every word and deed. Certainly some examples cannot be followed so easily like traveling around the world several times at the age of seventy, initiating thousands of disciples and establishing a worldwide movement with over a hundred temples. But that doesn't mean we can't try or that Prabhupada didn't want us to try to do so. In fact, he did want that from his disciples.
There are many examples of things that Prabhupada did that are neglected or ignored for obvious reasons. For example, in a temple I go to every now and again I see the managers of this temple literally forcing people to dance in the kirtan. Of course this is done in a nice way with a smiling face, but is this the example Prabhupada set? Certainly not! The example he set was that this is a voluntary movement and we are not required by rule or law to dance in the kirtan if we don't want to. Dancing is for Krishna, and like any other service should come from the individual, not because he or she is forced to but because he or she wants to. So why are these people doing this? It is an interesting thought that I may explore in a future article.
Another example is that Prabhupada was a member of a Vaishnava institution, i.e. the Gaudiya Math, at least while his guru was present. When Srila Bhaktisiddhanta left the planet and the Gaudiya Math became corrupt, what did Prabhupada do? What example did he set? He set the example that when his guru's institution is corrupt, he continued his guru's mission in his own separate way. He started his own extension of the Gaudiya Math, i.e. ISKCON. How often is this example looked at? In fact, the disciples of Prabhupada who have followed Prabhupada's example in this regard have been ousted by ISKCON, which goes to further show an element of corruption within ISKCON. This of course reinforces the ideas that corruption is present, and that starting one's own mission in service to Prabhupada may be the best way for some to serve him. Several of Prabhupada's disciples have been successful in following Prabhupada in this way (Tripurari Maharaja, Paramadwaiti Maharaja, Narasingha Maharaja and others).
And who is it that decides when an institution is corrupt? It is an individual decision as to whether or not ISKCON is corrupt, and individual decisions must be honored. And because we're individuals, the institution may be corrupt for some and not for others. In most cases an institution is not going to declare itself dysfunctional. Prabhupada wanted individuals to be independently thoughtful. Clearly Prabhupada showed that he was independently thoughtful in relation to the Gaudiya Math or ISKCON wouldn't be here today.
Another example to look at is that there was a time when Yamuna dasi and her husband Gurudas were heading up the Vrindavan temple. After some time Gurukripa arrived on the scene and kicked all the women out of Vrindavan. Yamuna, being upset by this, wrote Prabhupada and told him she was leaving ISKCON. Prabhupada didn't have a problem with her leaving ISKCON, but just asked that she maintain sadhu-sanga, which she did. To reiterate the point, Prabhupada allowed someone (and a big someone at that time) to leave ISKCON. Prabhupada also sanctioned Siddhasvarupa das (another big someone) to leave ISKCON as well.
Today in ISKCON many gurus have added a new vow at initiation which states that "I vow never to leave ISKCON." What does that mean? What is the purpose of such a vow? Again, I wonder what kind of motives are driving people who make up these things. Ironically this is a new change (obviously not a well thought out one), but it makes one wonder why are people so concerned about devotees leaving ISKCON? What is the motive behind this new rule, while other innovations that could be much more helpful to ISKCON are neglected?
Clearly, Prabhupada was not dogmatic about ISKCON being the 'only way' as is shown by the above mentality. In the Nectar of Devotion, Prabhupada writes, "There are many societies and associations of pure devotees, and if someone with just a little faith begins to associate with such societies, his advancement to pure devotional service is rapid."
Another essential point this mentality ('only the pure devotees can make changes') shows is that ISKCON is fostering an image of Prabhupada similar to the way that many Christian denominations view Christ. Christians have made Christ into such a divine icon, that they forget to see that Christ was a great teacher who set the example for his followers. Christ was an acarya and a person. Christ posed himself as an example for his followers to attain. Prabhupada set that same example. He wanted us to become like him as much as we possibly can. So to put Prabhupada up on a pedestal that is unattainable for everyone and to simply look up to that pedestal, worship it and attract other people to do the same is actually a major disservice to Prabhupada.
The legacy that Prabhupada represents is not one to be frozen in time. To freeze Prabhupada in time is to attempt to stop the current of bhakti. The attempt to stop it will not only be continually frustrating, but will never succeed -- the current, like a river, will have to pass through one way or another. If an institution attempts to stop this flow of bhakti by relegating it to only one teacher, we see that the current will continue to flow through other rivulets or channels. But since we see that Prabhupada had no intention to stop this current, we should do away with the mentality that the current can only continue through pure devotees, i.e. that these pure devotees are the only ones who can adapt the current to better suit its flow.
An example used in the Caitanya Caritamrita is to see the flow of devotion as a growing tree. The successful branches of the tree continue to thrive and grow with life, while other branches dry up and die. Although the dead branches continue to exist as many divisions of Christianity continue to exist, people can see that these Christian institutions are hollow or dead. Why allow ISKCON to become the same by not making changes that need to be made?
Prabhupada himself never said 'only the pure devotees can make changes.' Nor did he think that that was some sort of protocol to be followed. In fact if Prabhupada did believe that, he would have never made many of the innovative, cutting-edge changes that he did to spread Vaishnavism.
Actually Prabhupada followed the example of his guru in making innovative changes. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur was one of the first Vaishnavas to introduce radical changes to what we have come to know as Vaishnavism. Prabhupada followed his example in this regard and we as Prabhupada's followers should not be afraid to do the same. Our scriptures explain that we should preach according to time, place and circumstance and we should follow this instruction, even if it means introducing big changes (that are necessary). Prabhupada adapted Vaishnavism to modern times and we see that any movement that cannot adapt to modernity becomes irrelevant (at least internally).
I leave you with a quote from Bhaktivinoda Thakur's speech 'The Bhagavat', which is very revealing about how the Thakur felt about innovative change:
Thought is progressive. The author's thought must have progress in the reader in the shape of correction or development. He is the best critic, who can show the further development of an old thought; but a mere denouncer is the enemy of progress and consequently of nature. . . . Progress is certainly the law of nature and there must be correction and developments with the progress of time. But progress means going further or rising higher. . . . The true critic advises us to preserve what we have already obtained, and to adjust our race from that point where we have arrived in the heat of our progress."
I would just like to thank the various devotees who helped me with different parts of this article. It would not be the same or as effective without their input. They know who they are and I appreciate their contributions very much.
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