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Defining The Religious Principle

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Dr. Harvey Cox leads a group of scholars and theology students in an examination of Krsna consciousness: How can what is apparently an Indian cultural package claim to represent a universal religion?

Srila Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada

Srila Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada

This past summer, a group of graduate students from Harvard Divinity School and local West Virginia universities visited New Vrindaban, the Hare Krsna rural community near Wheeling, West Virginia. There the students, led by Professor Harvey Cox of Harvard and Professor Mary Lee Daugherty of the West Virginia College for Graduate Studies, met with Srila Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, the community’s spiritual leader

Dr. Cox: I first met Kirtanananda Swami in 1970, when I invited him and a group of devotees to come to Harvard Divinity School to do some chanting and make a presentation in the newly opened Rockefeller Hall. That was a memorable occasion. … So we’re very happy you’re here with us this morning.

Srila Bhaktipada: I’m very happy you’ve been so kind as to come visit us here at New Vrindaban.

Student: I’d be interested to know how you felt about your reception in 1970 at Harvard and in general how you see things as changing. Have you seen more receptiveness to the Hare Krsna movement from educated people?

Srila Bhaktipada: Amongst educated people our reception has really always been quite good. People who are familiar with the tradition of Lord Caitanya, Vaisnavism—they immediately understand that we are an authentic, bona fide movement. And in general the further you get away from that position of knowledge, the more they’re susceptible to suspicion. Even in this area [W. Virginia] the neighbors that know us, that have dealings with us, they all like us. And the ones that have never had anything to do with us have the typical reaction of one who doesn’t know: “Something strange has come into our environment.” But certainly if one understands the religious principle—from any religion—then immediately he recognizes that same religious principle here. The religious principle is love of God.

Student: Right. I don’t think a lot of people see that.

Srila Bhaktipada: Because they don’t recognize the religious principle in their own faith. We have to make a distinction between religious faith and religion. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism—these are faiths. You can change your “faith.” You may be born a Christian and then decide to become a Jew. But you cannot change your religion. The Sanskrit word is dharma, and that refers to inherent nature. The dharma of fire is to give off heat and light. You can’t take that quality away. Our actual nature is that we are part and parcel of God. That cannot be changed. And to develop that relationship -that is the religious principle. So one may be born a Christian, and if he actually understands this principle, then he’ll recognize it anywhere. And if he doesn’t recognize it other places, that means he doesn’t recognize it in his own religion. He is simply following rituals and dogma.

Dr. Daugherty: Would you be willing to share with us something of your own personal journey? I think you told us once before when I was here that you had been raised in a Christian tradition.

Srila Bhaktipada: Yes. My father was a Baptist minister.

Dr. Daugherty: How did you get from there to where you are now?

Srila Bhaktipada: Sometimes it’s difficult to look back and see how you came. Except you know that by the grace of Krsna you came. But then again … As a child, of course, I was always very much absorbed in God consciousness. I remember as a child I used to get my playmates together and I would preach to them. When you’re a child, people are always asking what you want to be when you grow up. I always said I wanted to be a missionary. So I guess I am a missionary.

Dr. Harvey Cox

Dr. Harvey Cox

Dr. Cox: Still getting your friends together and preaching—here we are.

Srila Bhaktipada: But as a teenager I went through a period of doubt and disillusionment and agnosticism. But that also was not satisfying. In graduate school I was working on my doctorate in American history. Still, I couldn’t get away from the religious aspect. I chose as my dissertation topic “Religious Revivalism in the Old South.” So the same thing was still there. But I was simply approaching it from the academic point of view, like trying to know the taste of honey by licking the bottle on the outside. So in the end I decided that rather than simply recording religious history, I would make religious history.

Religion is something you participate in; it’s not a spectator sport. Because it is based on faith, there’s no question of understanding it from the outside. Of course, it is not blind faith. It is reasonable faith. I have faith that you had a father and a mother, although I’ve not met them. That’s certainly not unreasonable. Similarly, to understand that God is the cause of all causes is not unreasonable. We can see that everything is based on a cause. So there must be an original cause. Govindam adi-purusam tam aham bhajami. Govinda, Krsna, is the cause of all causes. Adi-purusam—the original person.

Dr. Daugherty: Are we to understand that you perceive in Krsna consciousness, in the Vedic scriptures, a fuller revelation of what it means to be a devotee of God, a revelation that preceded the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that this is why you now find it more meaningful?

Srila Bhaktipada: It’s a question of developing intensity of love. In the Bible also: “God is love.” But how to develop that loving relationship? You see? How do individuals develop a loving relationship? By association. It’s developed by getting to know each other. If a person’s actually lovable, the more you know him the more you love him. God is the most lovable person, so naturally the more we know about Him the more we love Him.

And the Vedic revelation is the most complete. In the Vedic revelation you will find thousands of God’s names, you’ll find a description of God’s form, you’ll find knowledge of God’s pastimes—you will find everything about Him. In the Bible you will find a synopsis. For instance: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” That is a fact. But exactly how did He do it? In the Vedic scriptures you will find an exact scientific analysis—how the whole creation takes place. The knowledge is not contradictory. It’s like the difference between a pocket dictionary and an unabridged dictionary. There is no conflict, but one presents the information completely.

Therefore, on the basis of this Vedic knowledge we can become free from all material entanglements. We can see God as He is, as the most lovable person, and when our love has fully developed, there’s no problem in giving up this material world. Our attachment to this material world is simply due to our not knowing Krsna.

If a child is holding on to something and you want him to give it up, the best way is simply giving him something that he wants more. Then he drops what he was previously holding on to so tightly. This material world is not very relishable—birth, death, old age, and disease. Anything you have, it’s only temporary, and as soon as you see its temporary nature, immediately you lose your attachment for it. You have to give it up anyway. So when we see the nature of Krsna, when we see the eternal beauty of Krsna, Krsna’s eternal form, then we become attached to Krsna. There’s no question of having both at the same time. Just like Christ said, you cannot love God and Mammon at the same time. Developing attachment to God means detachment from matter.

Student: I have a question. You had mentioned that within the Judaic and Christian traditions if one realizes that what it’s all about is love of God, then that’s a legitimate way of approaching God. But why was it that within your experience within the Baptist tradition you missed that sort of consciousness?

Srila Bhaktipada: Because there was no spiritual master in that tradition who could present it to me. You have to learn at the feet of one who knows. By Krsna’s arrangement, I met a pure devotee. He is a devotee of Krsna. So I’m also a devotee of Krsna.

Student: Is reality in our perception or in things in themselves?

Srila Bhaktipada: Reality is defined in the Bhagavad-gita. Krsna says, “Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent there is no endurance, and of the eternal there is no cessation.” So reality means “that which is eternal.” The happiness of sense perception is not eternal. But the happiness that is derived by serving Krsna—that is eternal.

Student: Then the reality is in the things in themselves?

Srila Bhaktipada: The reality is God. Everything that is in relationship to God has reality. Actions which are performed without relationship to God—they are material; they are unreal. Actions which are performed in loving relationship with God—they are real; they are eternal.

Student: What I’m trying to get at… Immanuel Kant says we can never know a thing in itself. And it seems that you’re saying that perhaps we can.

Srila Bhaktipada: We can know everything if we know Krsna, because Krsna is the center of all existence. All things exist in Him; therefore in Him you will know all things. Suppose on this side of the room we have a mirror and on the other side of the room we have so many objects. When we look into the mirror, we see all of these objects, but they are not real; they’re only real reflections, not the real thing. The real thing is over here, on the other side. In God we see the reality, but in material life we see the reflection.

Student: You spoke about knowing Krsna, knowing God. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seemed to indicate before that you can know God completely? Is that what you said?

Srila Bhaktipada: Well, it’s like knowing the ocean completely. You can take a sample of the ocean. So we can know God by His qualities, but we can never know the extent of God.

Student: All right, so in applying that to the way you lead your life, your everyday life . . . Recognizing the fact that while you are a creation of God you are not with God but are still apart from Him—this to me creates some sense of doubt about what the will of God is, and that leads me to a sense of faith and of doing the will of God, although never knowing completely what that will is.

Srila Bhaktipada: Therefore Krsna is very kind. He comes personally, He leaves His instructions in the form of scripture, and He is present as guru. Guru is also an incarnation of Krsna. He’s not God, but he’s a representative of God. After all, God is within your heart, within the heart of every living entity. But so long as we have material desires, we cannot perceive Him. In that stage, one must take instructions from the external manifestations of God—the guru and scripture.

Therefore Krsna says, tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya: “Approach a bona fide spiritual master and inquire from him. He will instruct you in the matter of the Absolute Truth.” Truth is not a matter of speculation. There’s no question of speculating about how to go to New York. Consult the road map. Not that I can set out anywhere, in any direction, and go to New York. I can’t go to the airport and buy any ticket to any place and think I’ll end up in New York. You pay your money to go to the right destination, and you get on the right plane and you go. So in spiritual life the same principle applies. The idea that you can do any old damn thing you want and you’ll get the same result in the end—this is not logical. Nor is it confirmed by Krsna in Bhagavad-gita. If one has all kinds of material desires and he performs materially motivated worship he gets a material result. But if one becomes a pure devotee, he can go to the kingdom of God.

Student: What I still cannot really understand is the relationship between your theology and Indian culture, which obviously seems very important for your whole endeavor. I was talking to some Indian people who were recently here. They feel there isn’t too much difference between what they have in India and what they find here, and I understand that this comes close to what you intend. Could you explain how you perceive the world of Indian culture and how you reconcile the emphasis on the cultural issue with what you previously said about the religious principle which is, so to say, underlying the different forms of faith?

Srila Bhaktipada: First of all, we’re not trying to institute Indian culture. We’re after Krsna conscious culture. We want culture that makes us think of Krsna. That’s all. We don’t care whether it’s Indian or American or whatever. If we think of Krsna, that is what is important. Now, a policeman wears a uniform, but actually he’s a policeman whether he has his uniform on or not. In one sense, the uniform’s not at all important. But in another sense it is important. What is the importance? The importance is that he immediately identifies himself with a certain role, and other people can also identify him with that role. So it is important. A doctor is a doctor whether or not he has his white uniform on, but it is important. If you’re looking for a doctor and it’s an emergency, it’s important—there he is. He’s right there in the hall in the white suit. You see? A devotee is not a devotee because he wears this cloth. But it is helpful to a devotee to wear this cloth, because it helps him remain Krsna conscious. It helps him to understand, “I’m different.” God’s people are always a chosen people, a separate people”! have called you out from among them, saith the Lord.” “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Because only a few respond to the call. By the response they have been chosen.

So we’re not at all attached to any national culture. But we’re creating an atmosphere which makes it easy to remember Krsna. That is the injunction of Rupa Gosvami. “Things favorable to devotional service should be accepted, and things unfavorable should be rejected.” Herein lie all the rules and regulations of Krsna consciousness.

Dr. Cox: Well, yes, but that doesn’t quite answer the question, I think. I mean, it’s not just vegetarian food that we’re eating—it’s Indian-style vegetarian food. It’s not just a beautiful Krsna temple—it’s an Indian architectural expression.

Srila Bhaktipada: Because this helps us to think of Krsna. When Krsna appeared five thousand years ago, Krsna actually did come to India.

Dr. Cox: So the fact that Krsna came to India and that His tradition is an Indian tradition makes it important to make this an Indian cultural package.

Srila Bhaktipada: The importance is the relationship to Krsna, not the relationship to India. For example, we read in Bhagavad-gita about the Battle of Kuruksetra. We’re not interested in Kuruksetra because it’s a battlefield—we’re interested in Kuruksetra because on that battlefield Krsna was personally present driving His devotee’s chariot.

Dr. Cox: Would you say that the Indian flavor and quality here is a means of—

Srila Bhaktipada: Of remembering Krsna. If you go and look at our temple, it is not strictly Indian architecture at all. You’ll also find a lot of Renaissance architecture in it. But it creates this atmosphere of remembering Krsna. Therefore we accept it. We use so many modern things We use tape recorders, movie projectors. Why? Because they’re useful for serving Krsna, for remembering Krsna. So you can’t say that we’re simply trying to create an Indian environment or Indian culture. It is selective, to produce a Krsna conscious atmosphere.

Student: You distinguish between the Indian culture and the Vedic culture.

Srila Bhaktipada: Yes. Vedic culture means the culture arising out of this transcendental knowledge.

Student: Could you discuss that?

Srila Bhaktipada: After all, you’ll find so many things in Indian culture that we don’t have anything to do with. The whole realm of demigod worship and all the holidays connected with that—we don’t have anything to do with it. The Indian system of caste is not at all our system of varnasrama-dharma, the Vedic social system. The Vedic system is not at all based on birth; it is based on qualification.

Dr. Cox: So it’s a selective use of those elements in Indian culture which help in—

Srila Bhaktipada: In remembering Krsna.

Dr. Cox: And if there are elements in the cultural ambiance or environment here that would be helpful, you would—

Srila Bhaktipada: We’d incorporate those, yes. Over and over in Bhagavad-gita, Krsna says, man-mana bhava mad-bhaktah: “Always think of Me.” So whatever is useful for thinking of Krsna, that we want.

Dr. Cox: I’d like to raise one point. It’s a point that keeps coming up when I find myself in philosophical discussions with members of ISKCON. From what I’ve seen, it seems to me that the Krsna consciousness movement generally focuses upon the need for the individual to attain a form of purity or transcendental status and doesn’t hold out very much hope for the transformation of social or corporate structures in the historical world. But I think there are many of us here who think of ourselves as representing a tradition in the Jewish and Christian perspectives in which we would hold out more hope for the action and presence of God in the redemption of corporate, historical structures of human existence, rather than a more individual notion of deliverance. I think that reflects an attitude toward the material which is in some ways different.

Let me illustrate by going back to a point you quoted from Jesus on not being able to love God and Mammon at the same time and your interpretation of that, which was that you can’t love God and material at the same time. The more accurate translations of the New Testament, the more recent ones, put it very bluntly and say you can’t love God and money at the same time—which is really what Mammon is supposed to mean. Now, money and matter are not the same. A very, very important point. Money and matter are not the same. Money is in fact in some ways a denial of and a rejection of the possibilities and beauty and significance of the earth, of matter, of the material, the flesh. It’s an abstraction. Money is an abstraction. It’s a paper or, say, a piece of silver or gold that has no significance whatever except as it’s used for exchange purposes, usually for one’s own selfish profit, although not always. And the idea that money is a diversion from our love and care for the material world, our devotion to—our affection for—the material world, I think, is more what Jesus was driving at when he talked about God and Mammon. Especially in view of the constant use of material things as the central focus of devotion—bread, wine, the human body. Now, I don’t want to provoke an argument here, but I wondered if that resonated in any way with your perspective on things. I’m one of those people who believe it’s most useful in an interfaith discussion not to avoid differences of opinion.

Srila Bhaktipada: No, of course not. I think that you’ve put us a little too much in a niche, though, because factually we don’t say that society cannot be redeemed in a corporate way also. But it has to come by changing the heart. There’s no question of having a changed society without changed hearts. So therefore our movement is a movement for congregational chanting. This is actually meant to be a very wide movement to affect the whole of society. And in that way we are very optimistic, because it is Lord Caitanya’s prediction that for ten thousand years this congregational chanting will become dominant all over the world and usher in a social change that is worldwide and will affect all areas of corporate society.

Dr. Cox: That will come at the end of the Age of Kali?

Srila Bhaktipada: No, that comes now.

Dr. Cox: During the Age of Kali?

Srila Bhaktipada: During the Age of Kali, for ten thousand years. Then, after that, Kali resumes its dark feature.

And I’d like to make just one point about the passage about Mammon and money. It seems to me the meaning of money is control. Money is the means by which one lords it over matter. And if you take out this idea of controlling matter then matter can be used in God’s service Now that is perfect. Therefore the Lord is correct in saying you cannot love God and Mammon.

Money means control. It is the mean by which-the whole world is controlled. So it is this idea in the heart of the conditioned soul—”Let me be the controller”—that alienates him from God, because God is the only controller. And when we surrender our control to Him, then we use the so called matter in His service, in which case it is no longer matter; it is spirit. The only difference between matter and spirit is its relationship to God. Our proposition—ISKCON, Krsna consciousness—is to spiritualize this whole material world. Then we will have the kingdom of God. The definition of kingdom of God is “the place where God is king.” If we make God king here, then why isn’t this the kingdom of God? And if God is not king, whatever you want to do here, it won’t be the kingdom of God. So first of all we have to recognize that God is king. That means a change of heart. One has to give up the personal tendency to want to be controller to think, “I’m the king. I’m the lord of all I survey.”

Student: But money doesn’t always mean control, doesn’t always mean power.

Srila Bhaktipada: Certainly, money can be used in God’s service also. We go out and collect money.

Student: That’s right, you do.

Srila Bhaktipada: But we are not using it for ourselves. I’m not saying that money can’t be used in God’s service. Anything can be used in God’s service. All right?

Dr. Cox: Yes. I liked this exegesis better than the one I’d heard first. I very much liked your elaborate interpretation.

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