This exchange between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and an existentialist-socialist priest took place in Los Angeles during December of 1973.
Priest: Now, finally, we’re beginning to grasp the real, inner meaning of Christianity and of religion generally: God sharing in the sufferings of man; man learning to live with the inevitability of his pain.
Srila Prabhupada: That is rascaldom—why should God have to share the sufferings of man?
Priest: That way man can more readily accept suffering as an inseparable part of reality.
Srila Prabhupada: Very good priest. People are trying to become happy, and your theory is that they should accept suffering. The very proposition is rascaldom. As spirit souls, part and parcel of the Supreme Spirit, we are naturally trying to minimize suffering and reach His spiritual abode, where suffering is nil. Everyone is trying to be perfectly happy. That is our struggle; that is the meaning of human civilization. We are not submitting to suffering. We don’t want suffering. So if you actually believe in God, if you are actually a theist, then why are you talking like a rascal and saying that we must suffer—that even God must suffer?
Priest: Well, I’m what you might call an “atheist-theist.”
Srila Prabhupada: Hmmm?
Priest: An atheist-theist.
Srila Prabhupada: Atheist-theist? What is this?
Priest: My thinking is that God is essentially our own invention … an idea.
Srila Prabhupada: You think God is an “idea”?
Priest: Yes, though quite a necessary one. The idea of a supreme being or a supreme authority is something we have imposed upon ourselves, apparently because we find it consoling, comforting. Most people are ignorant. And so they need God, like Marx said, as their opiate . . . their assurance of a happy ending, their cure-all and cover-up for hopelessness and frustration.
Srila Prabhupada: You say God is just an idea. I say God is not just an idea—God is a fact. Can you prove otherwise?
Priest: Well, as I see it there’s no absolute necessity for a supreme being.
Srila Prabhupada: But even your Lenin accepted the necessity of a supreme authority. The only thing was, he wanted to become that supreme authority. Lenin wanted to become God.
Priest: Yes, and he was. For a time he was.
Srila Prabhupada: No, he could not become God. He was under the laws of God—he died. He died. He could not save himself from death. Therefore, he was not the supreme authority. Lenin was forced to die, so that means there must be some other supreme authority.
Priest: Well, everything is ultimately meaningless, anyway. So ultimately death is meaningless.
Srila Prabhupada: Why do you say “meaningless”? If death is meaningless, then why are you so afraid of it? If right now I were coming to kill you, you would be afraid. Why?
Priest: Well, that it’s meaningless doesn’t mean I can’t place some value on it at any given point.
Srila Prabhupada: But still, why do you say “meaningless”? Earlier you said you are fighting for “the revolution” and “social change:” Why are you fighting so hard to spread your meaning if ultimately everything has no meaning?
Priest: Take numbers. They can be useful, but they have no meaning except what we put into them. Actually they’re meaningless.
Srila Prabhupada: If everything is actually meaningless, then what you are doing is meaningless.
Priest: Yes, because ultimately everything is meaningless.
Srila Prabhupada: Then you are less than a rascal. If I called you a rascal I would be giving you some honor. You are working for meaningless things.
Priest: I’m saying everyone can introduce their own meaning … whatever they want.
Srila Prabhupada: Then why are you trying to recruit so many followers? Why not let people do whatever they want?
Priest: Well, doing whatever you want may include proliferating your own meaning.
Srila Prabhupada: No, no, no. You’ve got your own meaning—be satisfied with your own meaning. Don’t bother me.
Priest: Part of my meaning may be to bother you.
Srila Prabhupada: Then my meaning may be to beat you over the head with my shoes!
Priest: But take Lenin. No one ever beat him. He simply was not beaten.
Srila Prabhupada: No, no. Lenin was also beaten. By death. He was beaten, but he would not admit it. He was such a rascal that even though he was being beaten at every moment—even though he was becoming old and diseased, even though he was dying—still he felt, “I am not being beaten:” That means he was Rascal Number One. A sane man admits, “Yes, I am being beaten:” And a rascal will not admit it.
Priest: Well, we have to look at things existentially. As long as something exists, we can place value on it, but when it ceases to exist there is no remorse, nothing to lament.
Srila Prabhupada: If there is nothing to lament, why are you struggling so hard to live a long life and exist as long as possible? Why not simply let yourself die?
Priest: It’s like … if you have some money in your hand, then as long as you have it you can utilize it, but if you lose it, don’t worry. Nothing to worry about. That’s how I feel about death.
Srila Prabhupada: You may talk big words like that, but in practice you worry. You cry.
Priest: Well, I may just fall short of my philosophy. But the philosophy is ideal.
Srila Prabhupada: These are no arguments. No sane man will accept this philosophy. It is not philosophy—it is simply frustration. But frustration is not life. Frustration is frustration.
Priest: Perhaps frustration is the only reality. That’s what Albert Camus felt. He made it one of the main themes in his writings. Frustration, no meaning. And one night he was driving along in his car and reportedly just drove over a cliff. He may have been thinking that if life has no meaning, why not just drive my car over a cliff. Finished himself off.
Srila Prabhupada: Madman. He had to be mad, because he did not know who he is—an eternal soul, part and parcel of God. He went mad because he didn’t know what is to be known.
Priest: Well, millions and millions of people accept his books as practically gospel!
Srila Prabhupada: What is the subject matter?
Priest: The subject matter of his books is that life is ultimately absurd. There is no real meaning to it. We place our own meanings on it.
Srila Prabhupada: Then why was he trying to make sense out of the absurdity’? If everything is absurd, why write books?
Priest: Yes, that’s what Camus seems to have realized … that if everything’s absurd, there is no use speaking or writing or even living.
Srila Prabhupada: The thing is, you are saying that life is absurd, and I am saying that life is not absurd. Who will settle this? Who will settle it—whether you are right or I am right’?
Priest: I don’t think it can ever be settled.
Srila Prabhupada: It will be settled at death. That’s all. A rascal may think foolishly that life is absurd—but death will not be absurd. Mrtyuh sarva-haras caham: Lord Krsna says, “Everyone must finally accept Me—as death” Both of us will have to accept death. You don’t want to die, and I don’t want to die; but both of us have to accept that supreme authority. That is God.
Priest: But speaking of Camus … he didn’t care. He died willingly. He wanted to die.
Srila Prabhupada: He did not want to die, but he may have let himself die in that way just to keep his prestige, that’s all.
Priest: I think he wanted to die.
Srila Prabhupada: If you also want to die, then let me kill you now and you’ll be happy.