The Uncommonness of Common Sense
Posted May 3, 2011
"We should tax our brains as to what is the best way to present Krsna consciousness to a particular people at a particular time and place." (letter, 13 November 1970) These words of Srila Prabhupada remind us that reaching out to a suffering world is high on his priority list. His call to spread Krsna consciousness is legendary. We risk no heresy by asking the obvious; in fact, preachers should be the first to ask: why doesn't our presentation resonate with more people? And what can we do about it?
Problem. Identifying a problem is always the first step toward solving it. So I'll begin with a blunt fact: the Krsna consciousness movement (at least in the West) has little impact on the public. The vast majority of people, if they know we exist at all, ignore us as they would any insignificant oddity. To most people, Krsna consciousness is irrelevant or ludicrous.
There, I've said it. Call me a troublemaker, but I wish to God I were wrong. Unfortunately, it's the math. Self-help, Buddhism, meditation, yoga, alternative health and many other movements create genuine public demand. Even atheism now enjoys a robust market. But the numbers (those little things that don't lie) prove that comparatively few people care about Krsna consciousness.
This is not to demean devotees and their many well-earned successes; I point no fingers. I make only an artless plea that we take the issue seriously. The public's lack of response is an elephant in our room, and we all need to admit and discuss it. The facts are telling us something. We are in possession of life's ultimate success formula, yet we have trouble giving it away for free. Is it really so brash to suggest that something might be amiss?
This invisibility isn't because we haven't preached enough; in fact, as we try harder, others skate past us to popularity. We distribute millions upon millions of books and magazines. Every day thousands of devotees, public exhibitions, media outlets, temples, preaching centers and other venues around the globe freely exhibit Krsna consciousness for all to see. And it's been going on for over forty years. The worst problem isn't that we haven't preached enough; it has something to do with how we preach. Please consider a conspicuous but embarrassing possibility: Maybe it's a matter of simple miscommunication. Maybe we make Krsna consciousness unnecessarily hard to understand. Maybe we need to make more sense to people.
When stated rationally, basic Krsna consciousness philosophy is overwhelmingly sensible and convincing; it towers above other ideas with transparent, self-evident validity; yet after forty-five years of our trying to present this open-and-shut case, people have no idea what it is. Is it possible we bottleneck Krsna consciousness by not presenting it in a way that our audience can understand and appreciate? If not poor communication, then what is it that prevents the exchange of such plain and obvious facts?
It's easy to blame the audience. Too often we skirt our need for better lifesaving skills by blaming the poor drowning victims. Yes, the public is conditioned, distracted and smug, but don't we need to be introspective too? Maybe we're also in denial. Maybe we're also in need of a paradigm shift. Have we said all that can be said of Krsna consciousness? Have we exhausted the explanatory power of the infinite? Or is Krsna consciousness bigger than that? Is the infinite truth an endless repertoire of explanatory potential that can impress people in ways we haven't begun to explore or even imagine?
Suggestion. I think we'd all agree that the more an idea makes sense to people the easier it is for them to accept. Unfortunately, few people see a connection between such sensible statements and Krsna consciousness.
The test of an effective statement is that it leaves people convinced they've heard a truism. It checkmates opposing ideas. Undeniably good sense is powerful; it turns lights on, and if our words don't consistently do this, we need to rethink them. Srila Prabhupada even compared Krsna consciousness to the crystal clarity of simple mathematics: "Two plus two equals four; this is science.... The science of Krsna consciousness is not speculation. It is exactly science.... One should try to understand God scientifically." (lecture, 10 February 1975 [also see SSR5, lecture, 17 April 1972, etc.])
Basic math is absolute; it's not a belief or matter of opinion but an indisputable science with verifiable, universally accepted answers. Such axioms leave no room for guesswork. They are inarguably true, and anyone who hears such an obvious fact has little choice but to agree or look foolish. Prabhupada saw Krsna consciousness as similarly conclusive, and he urged that we present it as such.
Sooner or later, every person will want to know one overriding thing about Krsna consciousness: is it true or not? This inescapable question demands inescapable answers. The easy-sell of the 1960s and '70s is gone; if we expect people to embrace a foreign doctrine full of myth-like stories and unfamiliar words and ideas, we'd better offer some pretty good reasons. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Good evidence, good reasons, good explanations are a big part of today's landscape. Throughout a 24-hour news cycle — Internet, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books and so on — pundits are everywhere touting evidence. In the marketplace of ideas, credible information is king; it's how serious people make up their minds. No one wants to look foolish, embracing something they can't defend. Even a child wants good reasons. How many times does a three-year-old ask, "Why?"
Most people know that irrationality causes problems. When they shop for consumer goods, they try to be rational; when they balance their chequebooks, they try to be rational; when they drive their cars, they try to be rational. People value facts and realistic demonstration. "I'll believe it when I see it." "If it feels good, do it." People have faith in the world around them, in experience, in materialism, in the physical sciences, all because of one thing: evidence. Every serious exchange of ideas aspires to some kind of confirmation. Verification, good reasons and sensible explanations are a universal language, at least for those who think. A claim can have many good qualities, but if it sounds irrational, few will listen.
In the midst of this paradigm we sit on the motherlode. The rationality factor of Krsna consciousness is off the chart; it has no comparison. No one can coherently argue with absolute facts (if they are well explained).
- Something can't come from nothing. Period.
- Matter can't produce consciousness. Period.
- An all-inclusive God "includes" its own personhood. Period.
- Love is the archetypal tendency of all life. Period.
These are only thumbnail samples, but they represent a corpus of inescapable truths — Krsna philosophy — and if it is explained rationally, all arguments evaporate. Such a conclusive analysis of reality, a flawless body of necessary facts, actually exists; but, even more amazing, people have no idea it exists. How could they? These axiomatic truths sit in our hands, and we haven't spelled them out well enough for others to notice. The most sensible, believable and convincing parts of Krsna consciousness sit camouflaged in a fog of unfamiliar ideas that few people will ever wade through.
The solution is simple: Extract, clarify and showcase these ironclad truisms in the forefront of our presentation as the face of Krsna consciousness.
Facts that people find hard to deny are a powerful incentive. Only such conclusive facts will explode people's fears that Krsna consciousness is foreign and fanatical. Only such facts will give Krsna consciousness credibility. People tend towards what is believable. Unless we rationally demonstrate that Krsna consciousness is the leader in this field of believability, they will always lump it in as just another creed in the queue. And who can blame them if they see nothing to distinguish it?
What really distinguishes Krsna consciousness? Many ideologies have their sincerity, their buildings, their culture, their stories, their saints, their processes, and even their kirtans. But only Krsna consciousness has demonstrably accurate explanations for the most important questions of life. By any standard, Krsna consciousness offers the world's most coherent and convincing analysis of the facts. It's a preaching slam-dunk. Yet with all our writers, orators and media-savvy talent, we haven't singled out and illustrated these axioms so people will recognize them. Isn't this a colossal oversight?
A short essay can't address every concern, but here are a couple you might have.
Question: If good explanations make Krsna consciousness so self-evident, why don't more people agree with every word in Srila Prabhupada's books?
Response: Lawbooks benefit anyone, but most readers won't grasp the details of legalese at first. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada's books benefit anyone (even those who touch them), but like all lawbooks, they are also reference books designed to be best understood through long-term study and discussion. If readers have doubts, that's where we come in; we encourage them to read by walking them through the hard parts. This is why we answer questions, why we give classes, why we write, why we speak up at all. Naturally, Srila Prabhupada expected us to defuse people's doubts by drawing lines of reasoning from his pregnant words.
- "I am very much stressing nowadays that my students shall increase their reading of my books and try to understand them from different angles of vision. Each sloka can be seen from many angles of vision. Become practiced at seeing things like this." (letter, 16 June 1972 [also see lecture, 21 January 1972, lecture, 9 June 1974, etc.])
- "Remain true to the authorities — Krsna, the great saints and acaryas — and everything you say will come out nicely. People are of different natures, so we have to use our talents to convince people in different circumstances. That's all." (letter, 15 November 1971 [also see conversation, 22 April 1972, letter, 20 November 1971, etc.])
- "The process is simple. Read the books and learn the purports, and then speak them in your own words." (letter, 27 January 1975 [also see letter, 6 January 1972, letter, 15 November 1975, etc.])
The more convincingly we do this, the more we show the explanatory potency of Srila Prabhupada's books, thus encouraging people to purchase and study them. His writings form the most valid body of information on the planet, but if this isn't immediately clear to the untrained eye, we must do our part. Without adulterating, we should mine his words for their countless insights and explain them as he would have wanted — as cogently and conclusively as possible.
Question: Rationality isn't the only feature of Krsna consciousness; many traits distinguish it. Shouldn't we present Krsna consciousness in many ways?
Response: Of course. Krsna consciousness will always offer a variety of presentations. Nevertheless, very few people will seriously embrace Krsna consciousness without being convinced of its validity.
Despite our sincerity and our chanting, prasadam, history, art, culture, camaraderie, and so on, most people will note that other ideologies have their unique features too. They won't see how these things set Krsna consciousness apart. Despite everything we offer, we won't make much impression if we don't make much sense. If people find no level-headed, sensible foundation on which they feel safe exploring Krsna consciousness, most will ignore it as just another odd belief system. At best they will tolerate us with a polite smile (or chuckle).
Our idealism can blind us to how enigmatic Krsna consciousness looks to others. The general public disdains what they see as foolish or farfetched. Anything that resembles cultish following and naïve acceptance turns them off. We are sitting ducks for these stereotypes, unless we pre-emptively diffuse them. Fortunately, all these complaints melt away once a person sees that Krsna consciousness is by far the most rational, clear-headed analysis of life. Krsna consciousness is extraordinary in many ways, but to reach large numbers of people we must show that it is extraordinary in the most important way of all: it is extraordinarily true.
Conclusion. We are blessed with a soaring advantage: the most sensible, coherent ideas in all existence. Why don't we spotlight this sleeping giant? Where is our introductory material focusing on the unprecedented rationality of Krsna consciousness? Obviously, we've left a monstrous hole in our preaching!
This essay prays that devotees will pool their writing, speaking and other resources in a gallery of mass-distributed, introductory common sense that the world cannot deny. Let the public finally see Krsna consciousness for what it is: inescapable facts making sense of life with one-of-a-kind accuracy and clarity, a wall of eye-opening explanatory power too persuasive to ignore.
(Please contact brijbooks -at- gmail.com for more discussion. Please also consider submitting a copy of your reply to Chakra for possible publication.)
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