Srila Prabhupada is Our Martin Luther
Posted December 29, 2009
I'd like to thank Hare Krishna Dasi for her insights into ISKCON's current problems and their resolution (Waiting for Iskcon's Martin Luther, Chakra, Dec. 25). Although people like Hare Krishna Dasi have much in common with Luther — thoughtful, concerned, creative, dedicated and courageous — and although I don't want to minimize in any way her hefty contribution to reform, I would like to humbly point out that Martin Luther is already here in the words of Srila Prabhupada on the topic of varnashrama, which I have reproduced in my article, "Varnashrama as a Means to Freedom" (Chakra, Dec. 9). If she won't mind scrolling past my waffling on about the topic, to the words of Srila Prabhupada, she will find that Srila Prabhupada was acutely aware of the many problems his institution was facing, and was convinced that the answer was varnashrama.
In these conversations, Srila Prabhupada doesn't recommend making another movement, but making ISKCON all-inclusive. Indeed, he recommends the breakdown of the barriers between "us" and "them," which he called "the kanistha mentality." Let there still be a brahmana class in ISKCON; that need not change; but let all those who are struggling with the brahminical principles no longer suffer under their guilt and feelings of inadequacy. Everyone can be a Vaisnava. All that is required is the desire to be one. And is not ISKCON simply about being a shelter for aspiring Vaisnavas?
ISKCON was once described by Srila Prabhupada as a hospital. In a hospital there are certainly healthy people such as the doctors, who can, through knowledge, see to the root of the problem; these are the brahmanas. There are also nurses who may be compared to ksatriyas in their caring and empathy. Then there are the sick, who are not looked down upon, but treated with much compassion and friendship, for there is the knowledge that at any time I could also be sick, by the influence of maya: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
According to Srila Prabhupada, those who join our movement should not be expected to follow principles that are contrary to their conditioned nature. If a person is not naturally austere — a symptom of a brahmana — then let him be something else. If he is caring and compassionate, let him be a ksatriya, so that people can be listened to, their problems taken seriously, their anxieties shared with another. That is evident from the sastra which describes the ksatriya as feeling as strongly about his subordinates as his own family members; for him, there is indeed no difference. All are family.
Or if he has a certain feeling for plants and animals, then let him be a vaisya. Let him produce crops in a way that upholds his respect for all things living, according to the principles of ecology. Let him care for his cows, like one would care for children. Thus, the conditioned nature of different people can contribute to the overall welfare of society.
Everyone should be included, and everyone can benefit and be benefited, not only those who can afford to give 10 percent of their income. Such a requirement spells out to the people that we regard a person's money as more important than the person himself. Such a mentality has also resulted in a duality of vision: seeing big donors as more important than little donors. This is certainly not the outcome Srila Prabhupada wanted when he recommended we give, actually, 50 percent of our income. The recommendation was to encourage turning work into karma yoga, but for many of us, with the current economic meltdown, even 10 percent is not possible. For many of us, 10 percent to 50 percent is only possible in varnashrama, whereby vaisyas donate 50 percent of their produce to the temple, which is very easy because they are living on the property with all necessities supplied. Varnashrama is thus about "making bhakti easy," in Srila Prabhupada's own words; it is about coming to the mode of goodness by eschewing pretense and artificiality, and by living amidst God's own Nature, 24/7.
Hare Krishna Dasi mentioned financial corruption as one of our scandals, but that is to be expected when we put profit-minded people in leadership positions. We put profit first, but it is the mentality of the vaisyas at best. Similarly, the child-abuse scandal could have been averted if we had regarded character (guna) as the basis for position (karma), and thus had put only loving and mature people in charge of children. If the abuse had still happened, at least it would have been dealt with effectively and immediately, for varnashrama is not about hiding problems, whether they be personal or institutional, for such is what Srila Prabhupada called "showbottle spirituality." Varnashrama is about being true to self and true to society, about cultivating honesty and recognizing one's conditioning, as opposed to pretending it is not there. It is also about overcoming the anxiety of guilt that may come from not being able to accept another's standards. Furthermore, it is about soaring with one's own strengths, as service to the Lord: karma yoga.
Srila Prabhupada had observed the inability to follow rules in his society, and the havoc it was wreaking on his devotees, with so many going away discouraged and others failing to join. But, he argued, accepting brahminical standards is not a requirement to be a Vaisnava. In whatever is one's honest position, one can be a Vaisnava and "be perfect" just by being dedicated to serving the Lord in whatever capacity one is attracted to.
His message was, and is: stop thinking "us" and "them" — or, in other words, "a member of ISKCON" and "not a member of ISKCON". Such duality of vision exists only in the world of illusion, perpetrated by the kanistha mentality. In reality, all are servants of the Lord, but some have forgotten it. ISKCON's only purpose is to revive the memory.
ISKCON is thus beyond boundaries and divisions. It is a transcendental society, even to divisions of faith, encompassing the understanding that there are many Vaisnavas in other faiths. There is no duality in ISKCON, only what we impose upon it with our materially affected vision, but such was not present in Srila Prabhupada. As its founder, he knew its purpose. He was thus the ideal reformer of his own institution, and being still fully present by his vani, he remains so to this day.