The election year has ended, but the debates continue. And one of the most controversial issues is the role of religion in government. The Hare Krsna movement takes no side in the political battle, but it can offer thoughtful advice to help solve a complex problem.
Our viewpoint is that government is responsible for giving the citizens moral and nonsectarian religious guidance. Legislation and court rulings all presuppose some kind of ethics, and the more enlightened and compassionate the lawmakers are, the better it will be for all citizens. In the Vedic literature, for example, both the leaders and the citizens are advised to rigidly observe four religious principles: austerity, mercifulness, cleanliness, and truthfulness. Surely a secular government could live with these guidelines, as they do not favor one religious creed over another. By following such principles, the nation’s moral vigor would greatly increase, yet governments take little or no responsibility in this crucial area. And what if the government leader is himself immoral or apathetic toward evil in his state? According to a Bengali proverb, “If the ruler of a state is sinful, the citizens will never be happy, just as in a family there can be no happiness if the wife is corrupt.”
A Krsna conscious person, however, is aware that spiritual conscience cannot be legislated. It requires a change of consciousness, a change of heart. And if the government fails in its moral duties, the citizens should still be able to avail themselves of spiritual example and higher knowledge. Consider the devotees of the Krsna consciousness movement: they did not need government legislation before giving up the sinful activities of illicit sex, intoxication, gambling, and meat-eating. They gave up these things on the basis of higher knowledge and the example of saintly persons, and in the spiritual pleasure of serving Krsna, they have found a higher taste. A devotee’s main efforts, therefore, are directed not toward seeking favorable legislation but toward seeking to purify people’s hearts. New York governor Mario Cuomo—though his position on religion or politics may be questionable—expressed this principle when he called on his fellow Catholics to take up “persuading, not coercing; leading people to truth by love.”
An interesting case of legislative failure in the matter of religious and moral guidance was the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the prohibition against liquor. Prohibition’s failure proves that legislation (even when used against a recognized vice), if not accompanied by a real change of heart, becomes a mockery of both religion and government. In Prohibition—Era of Excess, Andrew Sinclair writes, “With hope and sincerity the prohibitionists looked forward to a world free from alcohol and, by that magic panacea, free also from want and crime and sin.” But what happened? Despite the successful passage of the amendment, the people were not really prepared to give up drinking. Even the author of the Eighteenth Amendment, Senator Morris Sheppard, had a large whiskey still operating on his farm months after the amendment was passed, and judges who handed down sentences against bootleggers often had their own stock of wine and liquor in their cellars. Prohibition was a clear case of moral legislation with no accompanying change of heart, and therefore it failed.
We in the Krsna consciousness movement, therefore, stress that persons who claim to lead religious movements or who claim to follow the founders of great religions must be exemplary. By upholding the basic principles of spiritual life—austerity, mercifulness, cleanliness, and truthfulness—they should lead the way. They should fully engage in the transcendental occupation of glorifying God; only then can they expect to see a God-conscious nation.
In a country already filled with evangelists, party-line politicians, self-styled philosophers, and church-goers and church leaders, for the numerically small and recently-arrived Hare Krsna movement to offer spiritual advice might seem presumptuous. The Krsna consciousness movement, however, is based upon the eternal Vedas and upon the Vedic culture, which existed centuries before the advent of Christianity. So we are not exactly upstarts or members of a new religion. The bhakti-yoga process of devotional service to God, stressing the chanting of His holy names and strict avoidance of sinful activities, is a potent force for genuine theism and is beneficial for all. The auspicious presence of Krsna consciousness in America has been appreciated by Christian ministers and theologians who have seen in the devotees, ascetic and devotional practices that can be taken up by the larger religious denominations.
America will always be a pluralistic society, with freedom of religion for all people. Yet because America is predominantly Christian (130 million claim to belong to the various Christian sects), I would like to submit a Krsna conscious suggestion for how Christians (and other religionists) may increase their spirituality and thustheir potency for transforming others.
This was, in fact, the proposal of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada when he was touring through Europe and Australia and meeting with many church leaders in 1974. Getting an excellent reception from high church officials in Melbourne, Srila Prabhupada spoke hopefully of a united religious effort. He suggested that Christians chant the name of Christ (which is from the Greek Christos, and is philologically similar to “Krsna”) and that they stop animal slaughter. Both these principles are within the Christian scriptures and the scriptures of the other great religions as well.
Hymn singing is common to all religions, although the science of mantra chanting, and the particular emphasis on chanting God’s names is especially exemplified in the Krsna consciousness movement. When we chant Hare Krsna, we come to realize that Krsna, or God, is personally present in all His glory and fullness—just by the recitation of His name.
And as for the ban on animal slaughter, this should be readily understandable to those religionists who decry abortion. Unfortunately, the animal liberation cause is almost completely neglected. We feel this is because of widespread ignorance of the nature of the spirit soul in the hearts of all living creatures. A study of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, with special attention to Krsna’s analysis of the soul, is essential for anyone interested in refining his spiritual perceptions.
Finally, I would like to suggest that persons sincerely dedicated to God consciousness—including Krsna devotees, Jews, Christians, and others—develop the higher taste of spiritual life. There can be no real hope of religious values in government unless pure spiritual desire first exists in the hearts of the religious practitioners.—SDG