(Reprinted, by permission, from the Sunday Guardian, Trinidad, West Indies)
Surasrestha dasa is a 22-year-old devotee of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness who is now in Trinidad helping to establish a centre here.
Coming from an American Jewish family, Surasrestha—his former name was Arthur Swers—gave up his studies at a university in Vermont to become a disciple of Lord Krsna, whose teachings, he claims, were handed down intact through 6,000 years.
Surasrestha is interviewed by Sunday Guardian Writer Andrew Dopson.
DOPSON. When did the society start?
SURASRESTHA DASA. The name of the society—that is, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness—was given in 1966, but the teachings have been going on for many thousands of years. We are in a line of direct succession from Lord Krsna, who appeared 5,000 years ago.
Q. Who gave the society its name?
A. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a pure devotee of Lord Krsna—in other words, a teacher who shows us how to develop pure love for God because that is the purpose of our human form of life.
Krsna is a name for God. It is a Sanskrit word that means “the all-attractive one.” In other words, God is the one who has created all the qualities that we think of as being attractive. He has all these qualities unlimitedly, so He is the all-attractive one.
Q. What are you doing in Trinidad?
A. I am here with my Godbrother—we call each other Godbrothers and Godsisters—to spread the teachings and to set up a centre like those we have all over the world.
At present we are staying in Cunupia, but we have been moving from village to village. We have been in San Fernando, Marabella, Princes Town and St. James. Now we are about to come to Port of Spain.
I have been here for two months, but the society’s work was started sixteen months ago by my Godbrother Vaikunthanatha dasa and his wife, who are now in India.
Different organizations are sponsoring us in Trinidad. Many Hindus take an interest in our teachings because we study from the same scriptures. But we are not Hindus.
Q. Why aren’t you Hindus?
A. Because the teachings of Lord Krsna are not limited to one group of people. To be a devotee of the Lord is to be in the service of God, in loving relationship with Him.
But we have put up all kinds of false designations. We call ourselves Trinidadians, Americans, Hindus, Christians. All these designations are temporary and false because they are only in relation to a particular time and family situation.
The actual designation of the spirit soul is eternal. So that is what we must strive for—an understanding of that eternal nature—because as long as we identify with the bodily designation, we will have a tendency to fight with one another, to have prejudices against one another and things like that.
One set of people think that they are from one country and another group from another country; some think they are black and others white—all these designations cause disagreement and hostility.
Q. What then do the teachings of Lord Krsna offer?
A. We can see all over the world that people are looking for some mode of true satisfaction, for a true sense of happiness and peace, but who is finding it?
We must sincerely ask ourselves, if we are not finding this, how can we find it? What is the purpose of life? Who am I? Who is God, and what is my relation with Him?
The Vedic teachings—the Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavata Purana and all the different corollaries and supplementary literature—give us the knowledge not only that God is great but of how great He actually is, who is God, what are His energies, in what way are they working and what is our relationship to these different energies.
Many religionists are talking about developing a love of God, but where is the possibility of developing actual love of God unless we have some knowledge of the Lord’s personality and activities?
For example, in this world when one person loves another, this love develops after an understanding of each other’s character and personality. You cannot actually love someone you don’t know.
Q. How then do you view the teachings of other spiritual leaders?
A. We can understand that there have been many great teachers on devotional activities in relation to the Lord, such as Lord Jesus, Son of God, and Lord Muhammad, but they taught according to a particular time and circumstance. They, of course, were perfect.
We can see this in the example of Lord Jesus, who told his disciples, “There is so much that I have yet to tell thee, but you cannot bear to hear it now.”
According to that particular time and circumstance, the people to whom Lord Jesus spoke were not very accepting in spiritual knowledge.
Only a very small minority of the population took an interest in his teachings. And we can see, as a result, what they did to him.
But the Vedic literature, such as the Bhagavad-gita, was written down around the time of the appearance of the Lord Himself when there were many devotees. This enabled Him to give the teachings in all their completeness for the benefit of all human beings in this age.
Q. You say that the Vedic literature written some 5,000 years ago offers a complete guide to spiritual perfection. And you say that Lord Jesus Christ, who came roughly three thousand years later, was a perfect teacher. Yet Jesus never referred to the Vedic teachings. One wonders why.
A. Lord Jesus Christ taught exactly the same things contained in the Vedic literature—that is, performing activities that would help one develop a love for God.
It was not necessary for him to refer by name in order to identify any particular teaching. Lord Jesus Christ appeared quite obviously at a time when the world was lacking in spiritual guidance.
The people of those times studied the Old Testament and the Torah. The intelligent devotee who wants to make knowledge palatable to the people must speak in a language they will understand. The time has come about when there are many people all over the world, particularly young people, who are seriously endeavouring to search out the truth.
My guru, my spiritual teacher, by the mercy of the Lord, has made the original teachings available to everyone.
Q. Isn’t the Bible available to everyone, and does it not also offer a complete guidance to salvation?
A. If someone seriously follows the teachings of Lord Jesus as contained in the Bible, he will certainly advance spiritually.
The main difficulty is in translation and change. By nature everyone has a tendency to interpret what they see and hear and read. In order for spiritual knowledge not to be interpreted, it must pass down in a line of teachers without change, without addition, without subtraction.
Q. How do you know that the Vedic literature has not changed over 5,000 years?
A. The idea is that my guru is in a line of disciples coming directly from the appearance of Lord Krsna. His teachings have not changed one iota from when Lord Krsna spoke the knowledge 5,000 years ago. Therefore the potency remains.
Q. How well documented is this line of succession? Are the disciples of Krsna recorded in history?
A. We have a list of names. They are in Vedic history. But the greatest evidence of the potency of the spiritual path is the results of the activity. Are the disciples becoming purified? Are they stopping their nonsense activity? Are they developing a love of God?
And this must not be based on sentimental feelings but upon realization. We must see how the disciples are acting. Are they taking their knowledge to the people? How many of them are doing this?
Q. How worldwide is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness?
A. We have about 90 centres on all the continents. We have centres all over America, Canada, Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe.
Last week we were supposed to open a centre in Puerto Rico. This is the information I received in a letter.
Q. Do your teachings have any commandments; in other words, practical guidelines by which to live?
A. Yes, There are four regulative principles which we follow in order to become actual devotees of God. They are (1) no intoxication, and this includes all forms of alcohol, drugs, coffee and cigarettes; (2) no illicit sex life, meaning that if one is not married then he should have no sex life, and if one is married then only for the purpose of propagation; (3) no meat eating, including fish and eggs; and (4) no gambling or frivolous sports.
Hardly anyone is observing these principles; that is why life has become so degraded in this age. These four principles, if followed, are the pillars of religiosity, and neglect to follow is the pillar of irreligiosity.
Q. When did you become a devotee of Lord Krsna?
A. Fourteen months ago when I moved into the centre in New York.
Q. Since then what have you been doing?
A. Since then I have been studying under the instructions of my guru and my elder Godbrothers. I have been to different temples in America, to our farm community in West Virginia called New Vrndavana and from there to Columbus, Ohio, and now here.
Q. So you have not been to India?
A. No. I have found that many young Americans interested in spiritual life have gone to India and returned very disillusioned because by the nature of this age, which is called Kali-yuga—meaning the age of quarrel—every place, including India, has become degraded.
Q. Are there any prophetic concepts in your teachings?
A. Yes. The Bhagavata Purana and many of the other Puranas have explained this age of Kali-yuga. These books were written down about 5,000 years ago, and they explain that this age will become much more degraded, with people becoming more atheistic in tendency.
During this age, of which we are only at the beginning, there will be advancement in spiritual life for a certain segment of the population. But towards the end, spiritual life will practically disappear for the great majority of people, who will then be living like animals. Man will become three feet tall, his material intelligence—his scientific and philosophical knowledge—will disappear. He will live a life very similar to what we understand of the cave man. And then at the end of this age, which is 427,000 years from now, there will be a partial devastation, and then a new age will start.
There are four ages of time. Satya-yuga is the golden age, where people are generally in the mode of goodness. Satya is a pious and religious age.
This is followed by Treta-yuga, which is still a great age, but already things begin to deteriorate. Then there is Dvapara-yuga, which is also a great age, but things are degraded even more.
And finally comes Kali-yuga, which is the actual degraded age. Kali-yuga began 5,000 years ago; it is 432,000 years long, but it is the shortest of the four ages, which are in constant cycle.
Q. If everything is a cycle, what then is the ultimate destiny, the ultimate purpose of life?
A. The ultimate purpose of life is to understand first of all: I am not this body; I am a spiritual entity in direct personal relationship to the Supreme Lord.
Therefore I must perform those activities, which reawaken my dormant state of original consciousness, my devotional relationship with God.
In this way I will become purified in this life and can go back to the kingdom of God which is our home. This place is not our home because no one is satisfied here.
But we can work in the world following our particular abilities, propensities and responsibilities and at the same time develop towards spiritual perfection.
Q. Hindus believe in reincarnation. Do you?
A. We can understand from Vedic scriptures that life does not mean just one life.
The spirit soul transmigrates from body to body—though all the variour, 8,400,000 species of life—and on reaching the human form, he is then able to culture his spiritual development.
Q. Do you mean that there is a spirit soul in trees and plants?
A. Yes, not only plants but in all forms of life, animals, birds and aquatics. But the human form, which covers the last 400,000 on the list, is not classified with beasts. Even monkeys and apes are considered lower groups of human life, but only in the higher groups can spiritual life be cultivated.
Q. By what force then does the spirit soul progress from plant and animal life to human life?
A. By nature the spirit soul advances from one form of life to the next until he reaches the human form. That is the true process of evolution, spiritual evolution.
Q. What about Darwin, then? Do you agree with him?
A. The Darwin theory attempts to account for the evolution of the human form of life, and it does not enter into any relation with the soul. But the body does not endure; the spirit soul transmigrates from one form of life to another, and the change is determined by the activities of the living entity in a past body. That is the law of karma—action and reaction. Lord Jesus said, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”