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Letters — Is Hare Krishna a destructive cult?

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In Washington, D.C., on August 20th, a call-in radio show hosted Jean Merritt, who says that the Hare Krsna movement is a “destructive cult” with dubious religious status whose members are taught not to think for themselves.

I called Ms. Merritt and told her that about 13 years ago my brother and I experienced something cultlike when we were employed at a resort during our summer vacation—low wages, poor diet, and hard work. That fall my brother went to college at the University of Minnesota. He is a bright person, and he graduated with honors, but he felt something was missing. He had some contact with the Hare Krsna movement while he was in college, and he joined the movement in 1974. Although he reported that it was difficult to adjust to the rules—no meat-eating, no gambling, no illicit sex, and no intoxication—he pulled through. Since he is now quite a thoughtful adult, I informed Jean Merritt that I could not agree with her that the Hare Krsna movement is a “destructive cult.”

She said that the rule “no gambling” includes the idea of “no mental speculation.” She quoted Swami Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita. She said that he wrote in that book that devotees have to “suspend the ego function.”

I replied to her by saying that it seems to me that one sacrifices some of his ego whether he works for the above-mentioned resort owner and transfers one’s loyalty to him (although the benefit is negligible) or whether he serves Krsna, whom he considers to be God (in which case the benefit is spiritual and eternal).

Then the moderator ended my call. But as a reader of BACK TO GODHEAD magazine (my brother gave me a complimentary subscription) I want to know whether your rules or the Bhagavad-gita tend to restrict a devotee’s mental or intellectual range. And if so, how?

H. Gullen
Baltimore, Maryland

Your letter raises several interesting points. The first concerns the scope of the prohibition against gambling. This, as you know, is one of the four regulative principles that form the pillars of our spiritual life: no meat-eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, and no gambling. Gambling, however, refers only to wagering on the outcome of games of chance, sporting events, and so on. While on occasion Srila Prabhupada has added “participating in frivolous sports” to this prohibition, he also personally corrected someone who had added “mental speculation” to “gambling.” “No,” Srila Prabhupada said, “just ‘no gambling’. ” So the idea that “no gambling” includes “no mental speculation” is simply a speculation.

Nevertheless, Srila Prabhupada taught that a habit of mental speculation will impede a devotee’s spiritual development. Even though this rule lacks the weight of the four regulative principles, devotees take it very seriously. Ms. Merritt, however, is simply speculating on the meaning of this prohibition, which she doesn’t understand at all. Had she the good sense to inquire from a valid source, as you have done, she would have discovered the regulation’s meaning. She would then have seen that it certainly allows devotees to think for themselves and that it has nothing to do with some supposed “suspension of the ego function.”

“Mental speculation,” as we use the term, refers to the attempt to discover the nature of the Absolute Truth—the ultimate source of all manifestations—solely by the strength of hypothesis, reasoning, and arguments. In India, this endeavor has been formalized into a spiritual path called jnana-yoga, which leads to the understanding that God is impersonal, that the world is unreal, and that the individual is identical in all respects with God. This is a position known as kevaladvaita, or undifferentiated monism. Krsna consciousness, or bhakti-yoga, on the other hand, aims at establishing an eternal personal relationship between the subordinate individual and the Supreme Personality of Godhead through the practice of devotional service, which includes the chanting of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra.

According to the Bhagavad-gita, the personal feature of the Absolute Truth is higher than the impersonal, and the method of bhakti superior to jnana. The personal feature is called adhoksaja, beyond the range of mental speculation; He is knowable only through pure devotion of the soul. But pure devotion must be free from karma, the endeavor for material enjoyment, and jnana, the endeavor to become one with God by mental speculation. Therefore, jnana, mental speculation, is useless in developing love for and knowledge of the highest feature of the Absolute Truth.

This hardly means that a devotee should avoid thinking for himself. On the contrary, it is only by thinking for himself that a person can arrive at the conclusion to dedicate himself fully to the service of God. It is impossible for anyone else to enact such dedication for him. Accordingly, an aspirant has to apply all his mental faculties to understanding the philosophy of devotional service, explicated in works like the Bhagavad-gita. Moreover, a devotee also exercises his intelligence in logically establishing the conclusion of devotional service against the inimical teachings of voidistic and impersonalistic philosophies.

Devotional service entails not suspending the ego function but rather engaging the ego, intelligence, and every other faculty in the service of Krsna. It is the mental speculators, i.e. jnanis, who aspire after the destruction of individuality. We are opposed to such spiritual suicide; we wish to retain individuality, purified of selfishness, for the unending service of Krsna.

As Srila Prabhupada has written in his commentary to Srimad-Bhagavatam: “All sages and devotees of the Lord have recommended that the subject matter of art, science, philosophy, physics, chemistry, psychology, and all other branches of knowledge should be wholly and solely applied in the service of the Lord. . . . There is no use presenting dry speculative theories for sense gratification. Philosophy and science should be engaged to establish the glory of the Lord. . . . A great scientist should endeavor to prove the existence of the Lord on a scientific basis. Similarly, philosophical speculations should be utilized to establish the Supreme Truth as sentient and all-powerful. Similarly, all other branches of knowledge should always be engaged in the service of the Lord.”

In this way there is unlimited scope for the use of intelligence in Krsna consciousness. Avoiding mental speculation is no more a limitation on intelligence than avoiding ignorance is on knowledge. Someone may charge that our becoming intelligent has limited our freedom to be stupid, but we would rather leave that freedom to Ms. Merritt.

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