America In The 1980’s
Not long ago Ray Ruppert, religion editor of the Seattle Times, visited that city’s Krsna center to talk with Srila Hamsaduta Swami.
Mr. Ruppert: One of the basic questions that people ask is, What is the attraction this kind of religious experience holds for young Americans?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: The attraction is that it is practical. Everything people do begins with someone else giving them a practical example. If my father is smoking then I smoke. If he drinks then I will drink also, in spite of what he says. Of course, in every country there is some religious community; there are priests and religious leaders. But almost everywhere the leaders have become deviated. They don’t follow their own principles, their own disciplines. So naturally the young people reject them. They are seeking some alternative, so if they find the right example they will accept it.
Mr. Ruppert: But in a sense the young people are not following the example of their fathers or of their religious heritage.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: That’s right. And I say they don’t follow because the priests don’t follow. The priests are smoking, drinking, and having affairs with women. How can anyone accept that? What is the difference between the priests and an ordinary man?
Mr. Ruppert: But this means the young person has to have some kind of discrimination. Otherwise he is going to follow …
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: . . . another false leader. So the difficulty in America now is that because no one has any discrimination, so many bogus religious leaders are popping up. But nevertheless there are genuine religious leaders. It is just that the government doesn’t know how to recognize them and protect them and at the same time root out those who are not bona fide, because the government leaders are themselves irreligious. This is the problem. The problem is with our leaders.
Mr. Ruppert: Do you believe that it would be a proper function of the government to sustain or to protect . . .
Srila Hamsaduta Swami:… the principles of religion. The principles of religion include truthfulness, mercy, and self-control. But our leaders are not truthful, not merciful, not self-controlled. It is taken for granted that public leaders will tell so many lies when they campaign, and when they are in office they’ll accept bribes and do so many other illegal things in the name of the law. It is taken for granted, and that means the people will also follow this example. They will become untruthful, uncontrolled, and selfish. The four irreligious principles are animal-killing, intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling, and all these things are being endorsed by the government—in the form of slaughterhouses, nightclubs, breweries, gambling casinos.
Mr. Ruppert: Returning to the young people . . .
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Young people by nature will search out higher ideals. That is always the nature of young people, especially in America, where there is so much freedom—they get education and religious freedom.
Mr. Ruppert: Yet many of them have been led astray, apparently.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Yes. Because the government is corrupt, and so even in this field of religion there is so much corruption. But nevertheless there are genuine spiritual leaders. This movement is a genuine spiritual movement. But one must examine it very carefully, rather than lump it together with everything else that has disappointed people.
Mr. Ruppert: Is this the only genuine movement?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: We have not been able to find anything more genuine or as genuine, and therefore we have accepted it. And it is being accepted by religionists, and scholars, and even the government is gradually recognizing it as something very genuine and not something faddish. It is based on a great tradition. We’ve published over seventy books, translations from the original Sanskrit. And our activities are all grounded in those time-honored books. We don’t do anything whimsically.
Mr. Ruppert: How does it happen that a movement which came out of the Orient is attracting and drawing to it Western young people almost exclusively?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Actually, our movement is spread all over the world, in Europe, Africa, South America—I personally preached in Hong Kong and the Philippines—and, of course, also in India. So it is not a fact that it is exclusively here; it is everywhere.
And the reason it attracts people all over (of course, especially in the West) is that its principles are universal spiritual principles that do not depend on any particular place, time, or circumstance. Otherwise, how could people accept it? We are not interested in being Hindus. We are interested in the science, the philosophy of life.
Western education teaches the sciences of medicine, economics, engineering, chemistry, politics, and so on. These are all material sciences. But the science of the self, which is the science of life, is not being taught. And that is the basic science, the one that gives all other sciences their usefulness.
For instance, medical science is applicable only to a living body, not to a dead body. A dead body has no value; medicine will not act on a dead body. So the question is, What is this living principle or living force which by its absence makes the body worthless in an instant? Modern science cannot satisfy us; it does not give us the answers to these questions.
Therefore, genuine spiritual science is needed, and people are hankering after that. There is a spiritual vacuum. Young people, especially, gravitate toward spiritual knowledge. And that is a natural tendency, because everyone is a spirit soul.
Mr. Ruppert: Would you consider going to countries like China?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Why not? A third of the world’s population is in China. They’re spirit souls like everyone else. We don’t think in terms of “friends” and “enemies,” either politically or racially. We think in terms of spirit soul. The American, the Chinese, the Russian, the black man, the white man—all of them are spirit souls. The duty of a spiritual teacher is to deliver everyone, regardless of his caste, color, or creed. So for us it is a field for teaching, that’s all. One billion people is a big field.
Mr. Ruppert: Yes, it is. But there are practical problems.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Those have to be overcome, because this is our duty. A fireman cannot say, “This fire is too hot. I can’t deal with it.” No. It’s his duty. Sometimes the fire may be easy to extinguish, and sometimes difficult and dangerous—he may even lose his life. But he has to do it. Similarly, a soldier has to go to the front. He may lose his life, but he has to go. So similarly, a real spiritual teacher has to go everywhere and deliver the message of Krsna.
Mr. Ruppert: What is happening to the movement in this country?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: It is gradually growing, as it always has. It won’t grow by leaps and bounds, because to participate in this movement, a person has to have real understanding. This movement is not for faddists. It is not just something fashionable. It is genuine, so one must be prepared to make a sacrifice. As you know, we follow four basic regulative principles. We don’t eat meat, fish, or eggs. We don’t smoke or drink or take any kind of intoxicants. We don’t indulge in illicit sex. And we don’t gamble. Most people are not ready to give up these things, so we can’t accept them. We cannot make any compromise in order to get large numbers of followers. We are not interested in large numbers. We are interested in a few people who can understand this philosophy and who can apply it in their everyday lives.
Mr. Ruppert: So you will have a smaller number but, in a sense, a purer number.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Yes, they will be purer, and purity is the force. Purity is the force, not just so many heads to count. There are millions of asses, and they still remain asses.
Mr. Ruppert: A person who comes into this movement—has he previously looked into other groups? Has he made a comparison?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: More than likely, yes. Most people have. First of all, practically all of us have Christian backgrounds. I was personally brought up very strictly. I went to church every morning and read the Bible. As a matter of fact, I was just reading the Bible this morning. Most of the men and women who join us have examined not only their Christian doctrines but other things also, and they have generally been educated in the university. They are informed.
Mr. Ruppert: I see. How is the movement financed?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: We finance practically all our activities by the publication, distribution, and sale of our books, which, incidentally, are used in universities all over the country.
Mr. Ruppert: Is that the only way?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: We also have an incense business, based in Los Angeles, but that’s much less significant. The real basis of our income is our books.
Mr. Ruppert: Generally speaking, it seems to me that the book business in this country has not been all that good.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Because we are spiritual teachers, as you know, we don’t depend on the normal distribution, but we go door-to-door or into the streets, and we approach people personally in the traditional style, as monks did years ago. A monk must confront the public and bring them the message, because people are not going to come and knock on the door. They are not going to stand in line like they do for bread.
Mr. Ruppert: I understand that since the passing of the founder, the movement is now headed by eleven persons. How is this arrangement working out?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Very well. Every year we have a meeting in India, and at that time we discuss the management and development of our movement. If some member were not up to the standard of total purity, he would be corrected. Or if he were incorrigible, he would be removed. So our movement is governed by a democratic system of checks and balances.
Mr. Ruppert: Do you have a chairman?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: We have chairmen for the sake of conducting meetings, but they have no more power than anyone else.
Mr. Ruppert: It seems that you are more open, publicity-wise, than you had been a few years ago.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: That may be; I don’t know. We are carrying on the same activities now …
Mr. Ruppert: Is this a decision you made—to be more open?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: I don’t think so. For some reason the press seems to feel that we are more open, and that might be because we have become more experienced in dealing with the press. But we never, at any time from the beginning, had any policy of being secretive or closed. I think it was just our inexperience in how to invite the press and how to host them and make them feel comfortable, and even how to answer their questions. But I think we are gaining more experience in dealing with the media. For example, we’ve published this little booklet, a request to the media, Please Don’t Lump Us In.
Mr. Ruppert: Yes, I have seen that.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: We’re appealing to them not just to take us as one of the group, but to intelligently study our movement in comparison to others and see if there isn’t a genuine difference. I think the press has been very understanding about our movement, perhaps because they see something genuine from their dealings with us in the past.
Mr. Ruppert: You spoke yesterday about deprogramming, and I gather that you don’t exactly approve of it.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: I don’t approve of it on principle. I’ve heard just recently that some man—I forget his name—has set up in Pennsylvania what amounts to nothing short of a concentration camp. It has electric fences, trained dogs, and watchtowers with guards, radar, and the whole works, in collaboration (or conspiracy) with the local sheriff and judge. That place is practically impenetrable, and they bring their deprogramming victims there. I don’t find this to be at all American; it is not what America stands for. I find it quite wrong.
Mr. Ruppert: Have you lost any of your members that way?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: We have lost a few, but not many. Deprogrammers generally don’t deal with us, because as I explained, our members have to be mature. They have to possess a philosophical understanding, rather than a sentimental attraction or a mood of vague rebelliousness. We don’t accept members so easily.
Mr. Ruppert: What does it take to become a member?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: First of all, one must follow these four principles or restrictions: no meat-eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, and no gambling. And if a person is going to live in the temple as a brahmacari, in other words as a celibate student, he will have to shave his head and wear a dhoti, the simple monastic robe that we wear. He’ll have to follow the daily schedule, which includes rising at 4 A.M., bathing, and meditating. And there aren’t too many people who are willing to do these things.
Mr. Ruppert: What does he do the rest of the day?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: That depends. If he’s a carpenter he’ll probably be building something, or if he has a knack for cooking he may be cooking. If he knows how to type he’ll quite likely be typing. In other words, just as in any other organization, we have so many practical engagements.
Mr. Ruppert: Would he hold a job outside?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: No, generally those who live in the temple are engaged in full-time teaching work. But other devotees who are married and have children will probably have an ordinary job.
Mr. Ruppert: Do you ever see the day when this country might accept this movement as …
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Yes, I see the day when America’s leaders will be thoroughly versed in the principles of Krsna consciousness, and they will rule the citizens on that basis and people will be happy. Actually, our spiritual master envisioned that all the countries of the world will follow. If Americans take up this culture and philosophy, then the whole world will take it up. Prabhupada said that the Americans should take up this movement, they should destroy atheistic communism, and they should spread God consciousness all over. Americans still enjoy the greatest freedom, especially religious freedom, but if they want to keep their freedom, then they must come back to a God conscious way of living. That will insure their freedom and strength. America is now deteriorating. The young people are degenerating due to godlessness. That is the real reason for the decline. America’s popularity is declining all over the world, because the leaders are becoming godless and the people are losing faith in them.
Mr. Ruppert: Yet we have a president who makes quite a statement of his own religious conviction.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Statements in themselves are not convincing. Actions speak louder than words. As I explained, there are four basic principles, and one who is actually religious will follow them. We don’t care whether he follows this faith or that faith; he may be a Christian or a Jew or whatever. But he has to follow these four basic principles. That is, he must be free from intoxication of all kinds, including smoking and drinking; he must be free from illicit sexual connections; he must be free from gambling; and he must be free from eating meat, fish, and eggs. Then he becomes an effective leader.
Mr. Ruppert: But we have not seen any such leader.
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Not yet. But if our book distribution is successful—and it is conceivable that within the next ten years every person in this country will have one of our books—then that will be a great foundation upon which we can request the people to vote for or to demand a God conscious leader.
Mr. Ruppert: That would be in the next ten years or so …
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Ten years is not a long time. If you think back ten years, it’s just like yesterday. This movement only started twelve years ago. And it has won the acclaim of religionists and scholars. Our books are being used in university classes, and this is a very encouraging sign.
Mr. Ruppert: Then what you’re concerned with is not the conversion of huge masses of people but the spreading of these principles, regardless of the person’s religious affiliation?
Srila Hamsaduta Swami: Yes. If he follows these principles, then that’s what we care about. For instance, a humanitarian wants to see that everyone is receiving sufficient food. He doesn’t care exactly what style of food it’s going to be, as long as everyone is getting well fed. Similarly, we want to see everyone following the principles of religion. It doesn’t matter whether they are Christians, Mohammedans, Jews, or whatever, because all the scriptures of the world are one in principle. As I said, just before you came I was reading the Bible. I don’t find that the Bible is contradictory to the Bhagavad-gita. Not at all. I find everything Jesus taught to be completely harmonious with what Krsna taught.
His Divine Grace Hamsaduta Swami is one of the spiritual masters that ISKCON’s founder-acarya Srila Prabhupada selected to initiate new disciples. He is ISKCON’s director in the north-western United States, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, and Sri Lanka.