Chakra Discussions

The Poison of Exclusivism

by Bhaktisiddhartha das

Posted November 14, 2003

Neophyte devotees too readily misconceive that only certain people are, or can become, Krsna-conscious, and reject the association of devotees and groups meeting (or failing to meet) arbitrary criteria. Elitism, prejudice, unwarranted criticism, blasphemy of devotees, sectarianism, power politics and other ills in devotional society are symptoms of exclusivist contamination and distortion of Vedic philosophy.

Krsna consciousness or sanatana-dharma is universally inclusive:

"A devotee of Krsna is friendly to everyone. Therefore it is said here that he has no enemy." [Bg. 11.55 purport]

"Just worship Krsna and become a devotee of Krsna. That is real knowledge, and anyone who follows that system becomes perfect without a doubt." [Bhag. 3.24.18 purport]

"A devotee sees all living entities with spiritual vision and does not discriminate on the platform of the bodily concept of life. Such qualities develop only in the association of devotees." [Bhag. 4.12.37 purport]

Srila Prabhupada fought against exclusivism, directing that GBC members would be elected from among temple presidents for three-year terms, and that a temple president could only be removed from office by a majority vote of the temple's congregation [Direction of Management, 1969]. He had seen the preaching of the Gaudiya Math weaken from exclusivist tendencies in its management. In fact, he, Srila Sridhar Maharaja and Srila Kesava Maharaja left the Gaudiya Math precisely because they foresaw the negative results of such tendencies.

Prabhupada did not want to create a spiritual aristocracy. If Krsna consciousness is the province only of an exclusive elite, it cannot be the yuga-dharma, a universal spiritual process everyone can practice.

In the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira Maharaja approaches Bhismadeva after the Battle of Kuruksetra, and asks, "What mantra should one chant to become free from the bondage of birth and death?" Bhismadeva replies, "The best of all spiritual activities is continuously and devotedly to worship lotus-eyed Lord Krsna by reciting prayers glorifying Him and describing His Holy Names."

Emperor Yudhisthira is inquiring not for himself -- he is already a pure devotee and eternal associate of the Lord -- but for the welfare of all living beings -- both citizens who follow Vedic principles and those who do not. Bhismadeva's answer foreshadows Kali-yuga, revealing the ascendancy of chanting the Holy Names as the emergent yuga-dharma.

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu emphatically taught, by precept and example, that nama-sankirtana is open to everyone. To deny access to the pure chanting of the Holy Names would rob this religious practice of universality and recast it as ordinary, sectarian religion. Yet this is precisely the effect of exclusivism -- a terrible blasphemy against the eternal Absolute Truth.

We read in the Harinama-cintamani that anyone can become free of offenses to the Holy Name by taking shelter of the Holy Name. Any sincere person can reach the stage of pure chanting simply by taking full shelter of the yuga-dharma. This inclusive philosophical foundation, firmly based on the teachings of Mahaprabhu, is the bulwark upon which Prabhupada built his expansive preaching mission.

Nevertheless, the dark side of human nature leads materially-motivated people to misconstrue even inclusive transcendental religion as a field of competition. Neophyte devotees, still influenced by material consciousness, mistakenly accept warped constructions as Vaisnava philosophy. Eventually, exclusivists fall under the spell of their own deception, and lose the thread of universal Krsna consciousness. Then the blind lead the blind into the ditch.

Unfortunately, the same mechanisms that let us accept counterfeit philosophy also induce us to disregard the warnings of realized souls who perceive the fraud.

Elitism, class struggle and disharmony among devotees

Contemporary devotional organizations tend to separate sharply into rank-and-file and management. Management tends to keep its decision-making secretive, allowing little input or oversight from members. Here is the root of the exclusivist phenomenon: leaders desire to solidify their positions, and propagate exclusivism as a political device. Unfortunately, the social context of a traditionalist religious organization scarcely interferes with this.

Leaders are often less devotionally advanced than many of the people under their charge. Yet, they may use their positions to portray themselves as advanced, and demand uncritical acceptance as such. Their motivation is to benefit themselves, rather than their constituency. They are afraid of participatory management, where congregational will could correct their excesses.

Leaders strive to limit debate, quench dissidence, discourage searching questions, and stifle anyone threatening their fragile hegemony. This strongly limits the appeal of current devotional organizations to intelligent, resourceful people and creates a negative emotional atmosphere of artificial controversy and political tension. Devotional organizations increasingly become populated by unintelligent, uncreative people content to be part of a herd and unaware of their exploitation.

Secret inner circles and emphasis on charisma

With no penalty for political maneuvering, corrupt, deceptive and secretive manipulators have an unfair advantage over open-hearted, sincere and truthful devotees. Anxious to fund expanding empires and lacking commitment to truth, leadership fragments into secretly warring, Machiavellian factions.

Corollary with the exclusivist leaders' descent into deception, sincere devotees remove themselves from the contaminated association of leaders or are driven out, leading to a downward spiral in which devotees cannot discriminate between spiritual advancement and the empty show of ambitious leaders.

Devotees are expected to accept other group members unconditionally, rejecting non-members regardless of their devotional advancement. Strict censure awaits those who try to cross institutional boundaries. The threat of ostracism, backed up with visible examples of those who stray, keeps members in line.

Loving mood lost to group political dynamics

After truth is lost, the next casualty is the ecstatic loving mood of devotion. The atmosphere becomes strident and turbulent, instead of peaceful and loving.

Classes become political diatribes instead of carefully guided open discussions and sober reflections on profound truths. Contemplative devotees who would rather chant, read and think about sastra than engage in fund-raising to support the leaders' materialist excesses are stigmatised. Intelligent discussion outside of polemics becomes impossible.

Political issues begin to outweigh careful understanding, analysis and preservation of siddhanta. Biased classes have so minimized the original teachings, and indoctrinated devotees in exclusivism, that most have never clearly heard the actual philosophy. Ill-trained devotees cannot distinguish actual Krsna consciousness from the warped misinterpretations of leaders, whose goal is not to propagate Krsna consciousness, but to cement their own positions.

Manipulation, character assassination and material viewpoints

Decisions significantly affecting devotees' lives are made without consultation. There is no recourse from harmful management decisions, based on politics rather than spiritual benefit. This is both unfair and bad policy, but exclusivist leaders, intent on maintaining false positions, will not accept constructive criticism or improve their management skills to benefit all.

Rather, they twist questioning or criticism into an 'offense,' and seek to marginalize the 'offender.' Anyone who brings up issues inconvenient to the leadership risks having personal matters, factual or not, made public knowledge. Although this is a considerable breach of trust, loyal group members will not question this behaviour, or realize that the same technique could be used against them later.

Fundamentalism leads to blanket rejection of minorities, fanatical adherence to ideologies justifying hostility, unwarranted criticism and wholesale denunciation of differing individuals and groups. Such materialist positions are against the inclusive spirit of sanatana-dharma.

Entitlement, lack of contrition, schism and negativity

Exclusivist leaders manipulate and exploit others, ignore morality and ethics, and have no care for consequences. False leaders caught in nefarious activities seldom express repentance or remorse. Even if they make some confession, they may soon resume exclusivist attitudes. We should build safeguards into our devotional organizations to eliminate such individuals from influential positions, as Prabhupada did by including democratic mechanisms in his Direction of Management.

As devotees seek safe devotional advancement, religious schisms occur, but the same scenarios recur in their new group, because devotees bring their exclusivist conditioning with them.

When do we hear glowing reports of devotees becoming fully Krsna conscious? We often hear of devotees falling down, because it supports the exclusivist theory: A devotee who claims to have realized Krsna will not be believed, because it is 'impossible.'

In truth, we should be very concerned that we do not hear of devotees realizing pure Krsna consciousness. The possibility that, in the 35 years since Srila Prabhupada came to the West, none of his disciples has realized Krsna consciousness for himself or herself is extremely unlikely. If we have not heard of any such person, our communication system has become biased against good news, which is filtered out by uncharitable, exclusivism-contaminated attitudes.

Lack of recognition and harassment of advanced devotees

Genuinely advanced devotees remain unrecognized, because we are conditioned to confuse spiritual advancement with political ability. The symptoms of spiritual advancement are subtle, and only ascertained by similarly advanced souls. Devotees who actually realize the pure Holy Name, and attempt to spread their attitudes and realizations, are rejected and harassed.

Sincere souls who want to realize Krsna consciousness feel their efforts are in vain, no one wants to help, and no one will recognize them even if successful. They may lose their determined enthusiasm to become Krsna conscious, and fall down from the devotional path, because it ceases to be supportive and rewarding enough to sustain an intelligent person's interest.

Science of Krsna consciousness

We can understand the cause and cure of this condition by investigating Krsna consciousness in an unbiased, scientific manner. Srila Prabhupada often refers to Krsna consciousness as a science:

"This knowledge constitutes a great science, and each and every living being has to hear it for his own interest." [Bg. Preface]

"There are many so-called spiritualists who outwardly pose to be advanced in the science, but inwardly or privately are completely under the particular modes of nature which they are unable to surpass." [Bg. 3.33 purport]

Prabhupada's use of language is extraordinarily precise; when he uses the word 'science,' he uses the term strictly, not in some limited, esoteric sense. As a competent, successful pharmacist, Srila Prabhupada has experience with scientific formulas and with scientific method.

Scientific method is a rigorous procedure for investigation of natural phenomena. In its general formulation, attributed to 14th-century philosopher Francis Bacon, it consists of four steps -- observation, hypothesis, prediction and confirmation.

If experiments confirm a hypothesis, it may become a reliable theory; otherwise, it must be rejected or modified. The power of scientific method is the predictive ability of the theory, as tested by experiment. In science, there is every possibility that a new observation or experiment will conflict with a long-standing theory. Every theory contains provisions that define its falsification; otherwise it is not strictly a scientific theory. By this methodology, science advances.

With the understanding that Prabhupada saw his work as scientific, let us apply scientific method to Krsna consciousness.

  1. Observation: Sages have observed, in themselves and others, a phenomenon called Krsna consciousness or self-realization. This process is spiritual, eternal and transcendental to material conditions.
  2. Hypothesis: Krsna consciousness consists of bhakti-rasa, a combination of five transcendental ingredients: Sri Bhagavan or the object of love, the jiva soul or the container of ecstatic love, the permanent mood (sthayi-bhava), the transitory mood (sancari-bhava) and the impetus (uddipana). Various laws apply to the proper combination of these ingredients. Under appropriate conditions, chanting the Holy Name without offense leads relatively quickly to realization of bhakti-rasa.
  3. Prediction: Anyone who follows the procedure authorized by the acaryas should be able to attain bhakti-rasa.
  4. Confirmation: Numerous individuals and groups have performed this process in the past and attained complete success.

Repeating the original experiment

Anyone who performs the original experiment according to the authorized process will receive the same result. It should be possible to learn the process and apply it within a single lifetime. Although Krsna consciousness is subtle, it is not overly complex; anyone can learn the essential principles in an afternoon. If devotees are not experiencing success in self-realization or attaining bhakti-rasa, there is a mistake in their practice or an error in the theory. However, the theory of Krsna consciousness states that it is absolute and eternal knowledge; therefore, lack of success must be attributed to improper understanding and application.

If few devotees seem to be attaining success in Krsna consciousness, the conclusion is that a lack of rigor in the study of the scriptures, compounded by exclusivism, distorting devotees' understanding and damaging their faith. Under current conditions, even if some devotees succeeded in attaining bhakti-rasa, we likely would not hear about it.

Srila Prabhupada defines faith as "unflinching trust in something sublime" [Bg. 2.41 purport]. To accomplish anything, we must desire it and believe we can accomplish it. If someone does not believe he can learn French, no one can teach it to him. Faith is necessary in any undertaking, especially in the spiritual realm.

Exclusivism undermines devotees' faith that they can attain full Krsna consciousness. It makes the unflinching trust described by Prabhupada impossible. Devotees cannot duplicate the psychological conditions required to perform the experiment of bhakti-yoga according to the authorized procedure. Lacking faith in their ability to attain Krsna consciousness, they cannot reach success, no matter how hard or long they may try. Ultimately, they wrongly conclude that the process of Krsna consciousness itself is flawed; this is exclusivism's tragic result.


Exclusivism obscures Krsna consciousness, making accurate performance of the scientific procedure very difficult. It is hard to understand how anyone could attain complete realization without separating politically-motivated misinterpretations from the actual message of sastra.

Exclusivists keep changing the rules, moving goalposts and creating artificial issues to distract devotees from deep sadhana and clear understanding of sastra. Esoteric knowledge of rasa and familiarity with obscure pastimes are not required, nor elaborate puja or mental exercises of scheduled meditation, such as asta-kaliya-lila-smaranam. All that is required is to take complete shelter of the Holy Name, and chant with love and devotion. The sectarian division, political agitation and schismatic controversy over little issues of contemporary Vaisnava society is useless.

Organizational leaders have a vested interest in fomenting a high 'noise level' of exclusivist discussion to distract their followers, and to secure advantageous positions. If some devotees were to attain Krsna-conscious realization, exclusivist leaders predictably would invalidate their attainment, even when the procedure is performed correctly and the result is as described by the scriptures.

Currently, Vaisnava society is contaminated with exclusivism. This influence is largely unconscious, even in those who devote much energy to propagating it, and it effectively sabotages preaching. No person with experience of healthy democratic social institutions or well-managed businesses will participate in a group saturated with exclusivist attitudes and run by unqualified dictators. No conscientious person will encourage others to participate.

Pure sannyasa is also impossible under the current regime. Sannyasa has become a political position, contaminated with requirements for strong leadership and managerial ability. Sannyasis from one organization are not recognized elsewhere. These material considerations go against the very spirit of sannyasa. Under the circumstances, no intelligent, discriminating devotee will desire to accept a position tantamount to becoming a political football.

A reformation is necessary: our understanding of Krsna consciousness needs clarification, and our institutions need to meet contemporary standards of openness, accessibility and fair play. Until that happens, it will remain difficult for most devotees, let alone the public, to identify the wholesome, scientific message of Krsna consciousness. The door to Vaisnavism stands open; it is up to us to pass through and taste spiritual life free from the poison of the distorting, discouraging, exclusivist misinterpretation.