Each of the last few years before he retired, an elderly Professor of Missions used to invite me to address his class at the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, near Philadelphia. The professor, who had spent a goodly portion of his life seeking converts in Bengal, had the best manners I had ever encountered in another American. He would meet me at my car and escort me through the seminary. In the lobby, we would inevitably pause before a display of artifacts he and others had brought back from India; and with a bemused smile he would draw my attention to the prize exhibit: a worn gray plank, about two feet by five, bristling with rusty iron spikes—your standard Hindu bed of nails. He conveyed by this act a courteous imputation, demurely indicting my religion with this instrument of self-torture. Although he knew after my first visit that the contrivance had as little to do with my devotions as it did with his own, he never failed to linger before it as we went in.
I am sure this little maneuver was intended to divert both of us from the larger irony he and I were conscious of. There was no doubt that the reason he had invited me was to afford his students a firsthand look at what they would be up against in far-off India; odd that such an example should be so easily available locally; strange that these Baptists should discover, looking back at them under a shaven head marked with the twin clay lines of tilaka—the signs of a servant of Visnu—such a disconcertingly familiar American Protestant face.
The first time I entered his small classroom, I too felt the shock of recognition. There, looking up at me in wonder, in a ring around the table, were those same Sunday-school faces of my childhood, overlaid only slightly with a patina of age.
The professor opened class with a prayer, and hearing the suddenly familiar intonations of Protestant orison rising in that overheated room smelling of chalk and damp wool clothes, surrounded by the benign features of these ministers-to-be, I was transported back to Bible school, and with a pang I felt that old mellow glow of indistinct goodness. But then I was sharply brought back to present reality. As the professor gave a courtly introduction, his students stared up at me; I could see their minds ram into the brick wall of unintelligibility. What ever could have possessed a nice Christian boy to go and put on those robes and shave his head and … ?
To see yourself being received, by features you recognize so well, with a look of utter incomprehension can give rise to a certain uneasiness. Those faces radiated a wall of misinformation, misunderstanding, cultural conditioning, and sectarian prejudice. For them to hear what I had to say, I would have to find some way to outflank the ideological Maginot Line arrayed against me.
Having spent many years in their spiritual milieu, I had formed my own judgment of them. I felt that their religious practice was severely crippled by a lack of disciplined, progressive cultivation under expert guidance. Spiritual advancement depends upon such cultivation, just as athletic success requires a rigorous program of training under an expert coach. But they had little sense of that. Their belief (correct enough) that salvation comes from God’s grace became transmogrified in practice into a curious sort of spiritual passivity. They depended upon sudden emotional outpourings and flashes of inspiration (whose impact seemed to dissipate swiftly). Thus their spirituality had a haphazard, hit-or-miss character; it suffered from a lack of direction. It was immature.
As a result, they stagnated in a sort of bland, superficial wholesomeness. In the end, their religiosity simply gave a cachet to a kind of constrained, genteel materialism—to prayers in the locker room after football or golf, and to church barbecues where the girls from the choir managed to seem both sexy and pure at the same time. And even all of this was mostly for appearance. Since niceness is not enough, deviance was rampant, if covert. Yet their belief in inherent human sinfulness led to a passive acceptance of that, too.
On the other hand, I knew these Baptists would view me as espousing the error of Pelagius, the heresy that man can save himself by his own efforts. Enough evangelicals had approached me in the streets to announce, “I don’t have to work for my salvation,” to let me know that the party line on us was out. This charge had two sources. First of all, they saw any sort of regimen as smacking of works (although the “work” the evangelicals on the streets referred to was the exuberant dancing and chanting of a group of devotees—who’s working?). Second of all, they believed that every religion but Christianity, no matter what its particular practices, was Pelagian. To be more precise, all religions were Pelagian, but Christianity, strictly speaking, was not a religion. Religion they defined as the vain attempts of man to reach God on his own; all such attempts are tainted by man’s inherent sinfulness and so inevitably fail. Christianity, on the other hand, is God’s own reaching out to man. It is not, of course, tainted by sinfulness.
The bed of nails hanging on the seminary wall epitomized for them the folly of religion, of man’s unaided attempt to reach the divine. I had no doubt that they found my own appearance just as perversely strange, just as much an exemplification of the absurdity that ensues when man tries to save himself.
However, in my talk I was going to use another definition of religion. Religion, I began by telling them, means following the orders of God. According to the Vedas, “The path of religion is enunciated directly by the Lord.” No one else can found a religion. But, I said, a question naturally arises: There are many scriptures, each with different injunctions; how do we judge which is best? This same question, the Vedas report, was asked five thousand years ago of a great authority, and he replied, “The best religion for all people is that which leads one to unconditional love for the Supreme Lord.” The standard for such unconditional love, he went on to say, is that it is not motivated by any desire for personal gain, and it is uninterrupted. He did not mention any particular community. The standard is nonsectarian; wherever it may be realized—among Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, whatever—that must be accepted as true religion.
Other Vedic texts, I continued, elaborate on the nature of unconditional love for God. In Sanskrit, loving devotional service to God is called bhakti, but it can be contaminated in two specific ways—by jnana and by karma. (I wrote the Sanskrit words on the board.) Jnana refers to the process of empirical speculative knowledge, a quest that culminates in self-deification. Karma, “works” in Biblical language, refers to activities aimed at self-aggrandizement—whether in this life or in the next.
What most people have been taught to call “Hinduism,” I explained, is actually bhakti (devotional service to God) corrupted by jnana (the quest for speculative knowledge). Such corrupted religion has created a polymorphous profusion of gods to be worshiped, but with the understanding that ultimately the whole hodgepodge (including the so-called worshiper) paradoxically dissolves into an amorphous, featureless nullity. According to these teachings, although ultimately no individuals exist, in the meantime and for all practical purposes every individual, including oneself, is God. By an overweening negative theology, jnana strips divinity down to nothingness; while professing to preserve the divine transcendence, it is actually a disguised expression of enmity toward God. Although such philosophy is an evil fruit of Indian civilization, it is now even more at home in the West. As an example, I cited the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who said, among other things, that since the temporal, contingent entities we know all “exist,” it would be blasphemous to say of God that He also “exists.” The “death of God” movement of the sixties was inspired by such theologizing.
While karma denotes those religious and charitable activities one performs in expectation of a reward, bhakti is service rendered to God simply out of love, with no desire for gain. Just as the Vedas distinguish between karma and bhakti, I explained, they also distinguish between heaven and the kingdom of God. The Vedas identify heaven as a group of higher planets within the material world where enjoyment is extended and intense; nevertheless, one’s stay in heaven is circumscribed. Good deeds secure pious credit, but when that credit is exhausted, the heavenly sojourn ends. The kingdom of God, however, is beyond the material world, and there life is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. The activities there are not those of sense gratification but rather of loving exchanges with the Supreme Lord Himself, in varieties of relationships and degrees of intimacy. This is the supreme abode, the destination of the pure devotees, although they do not even aspire after it. Rather, they ask only to engage in divine service under any condition, in heaven or in hell.
The kingdom of God is our home, I said, our native country. All of us once resided there, engaging in the activity of our essential nature, our eternal religion: devotional service to God. But some of us perversely sought to deny our own nature and aspired not to be enjoyed by God but to enjoy as He does, not to serve Him but to be served, not to be controlled but to be the controller. In short, the original sin of the minute particle of God’s energy is the desire to become God. Therefore we are exiled to the material world, where we can play out our masquerade and finally, by the mercy of the Lord, be rectified.
For this purpose God Himself establishes the path of pure religion, but under the impetus of our sinful will, even that religion becomes twisted. The Vedas call it kaitava-dharma—materiallymotivated, cheating religion, religion deformed by karma and jnana. Desiring to become the enjoyer and controller, the fallen soul performs religious duties for the sake of material advancement, which he needs to enjoy the senses; when he finally becomes disgusted, having met repeated defeat in the struggle for supremacy, he rejects the material world and aspires for liberation, for becoming one with God.
Although God establishes true religion, in the course of time it inevitably becomes corrupted by karma and jnana. Therefore, whenever bhakti is in danger of disappearing, God Himself descends to the material world, or He sends His son, prophet, or pure representative to restore true religion. Real religion is always in danger of being corrupted, and most religion—most of the time—is karmic, with varying degrees of jnana added. Bhakti is very rare.
Then I reminded them that the other symptom of pure religion is that it is uninterrupted. A pure devotee makes no distinction between his religion and his life; he does not separate the activities he does for God from those he does for himself. I could make this point clear only by giving them some concrete examples. So I explained how, in the Krsna consciousness movement, even eating and sex are transformed from material activities into divine service.
To live we must eat, and to eat we must kill. But killing is a sin; therefore it seems that sin is unavoidable. However, in the Bhagavad-gita God informs us that if we lovingly offer Him a leaf, a fruit, a flower, or water, He will accept it. Of course, killing animals is never allowed; but if we collect vegetarian food and prepare it for God’s enjoyment and then eat, then there is no sin. Rather, God accepts the offering of love, and in reciprocation He allows the devotees to eat the remnants of such sacrifice, which are called prasada, or the mercy of God. It is karma-less food. Thus, even eating need not interrupt devotional service.
Similarly, marriage can also be part of devotional service. Marriage does not confer a license for sexual indulgence. It does not sanction a holiday from religious principles. Rather, according to religious principles sex is meant only for begetting God conscious children. Thus there is no need for indulging more than once in a month, when the woman is fertile. Children born of parents who are free from lust will be exceptionally pure and naturally inclined toward devotional service. So not even biological necessities like mating and eating need divert us from our religion.
Here I would usually end my talk and ask for questions. There would be a smattering of inquiries about specific practices, and then someone would finally voice what was on all their minds. “What religion were you raised in?”
“I was nominally a Methodist,” I would answer. “But the Baptists had a strong influence on me.”
Then they would get down to it. “Why did you change to this?”
I wanted to be both truthful and tactful, a rather difficult task under the circumstances. I would say something like, “In my childhood I was rather heavily evangelized. But I never made a full commitment. And I think it was because, well, I just never met anyone who sufficiently inspired me by his personal example to make that commitment.”
But of course there was more to it than that. And as I stood there before these future ministers, the memory that had been nibbling at my consciousness allmorning finally struck. The formidable machinations of their predecessors’ evangelical assaults rose before me—that amazing dramatic contrivance which, if anything, must be deemed the homegrown, all-American couterpart of a bed of nails.
During vacation Bible school, all of uswould be led each morning into the cool and dark interior of the Baptist church. Rank after rank of pews would fill with the small forms of children. We sang hymns, and then a well-spoken minister would begin talking to us. Although he seemed friendly, he did not let that stop him from telling us the truth about ourselves. And the truth was that even though we were only little kids and were supposed to be innocent, we were very sinful. He told us how we despised our brothers and sisters, hated our parents, envied our friends. Skillfully, he drew out all the evil of our small lives—until it was all there before us. It crushed down on us likean unbearable weight. He described how abominable, how foul our sinfulness appeared in the eyes of God, so great, so holy and pure. Such an affront were we to Him that it was only fitting and proper that we should suffer endlessly in hell for our sins. He evoked hell for us. We were going there directly, and that was only right.
But, he would say, God was not happy with mere justice. He loved us more than we could ever imagine; so much that he gave His only begotten Son, His own Son, who had never sinned, who was as pure as we were dirty, to suffer for our sins and die in our place. Eloquently, he would explain how Jesus had, in advance, without our even asking, undergone all the sufferings due us, and had already paid the price for us. The sins, which were likea huge weight about to shove us down to hell, were already atoned for by Jesus. And all we had to do to be saved was just accept Jesus in our heart as our personal savior.
Now his voice would drop and seem to speak to us right near our ears. He would tell us to bow our heads and shut our eyes. And then he said that anyone who had not yet accepted Jesus in his heart as his personal savior should raise his hand. A hush would fall over the church. With a pounding heart (for you could not lie now), I would raise my arm. The seconds crawled by as I would sit there, nakedly exposed, my arm as heavy as lead. Finally, we could lower our hands (but had to keep our eyes shut). Then he would say that all we had to do to accept Jesus as our savior was to get up right now and walk up to the communion rail. Then the organ would start to play soft, yearning music. With compelling hypnotic tones the minister would urge us forward, and then under the swelling surges of the organ you would hear the rustling sounds of children edging out of the pews.
Day after day I would sit in anguish, and then, when I was on the verge of bolting from my seat, I would suddenly seem to be high in the church vaults, looking down. From that distance everything would become clear, and I could see with a wonderful lucidity just what was going on, and their whole contrivance became transparent. When, so many years later, I was to hear the Krsna consciousness movement charged with being a new “cult” that converted through brainwashing, coercive persuasion, emotional manipulation, and the evocation of guilt, I was astounded; it was an eerily accurate description of just what I had experienced as a child in this most indigenous of American religions. Yet even as a child I could recognize that I was being played upon by some craftiness or artifice. It reeked of fraudulence; how could I trust them?
After church, we would be led to our separate classes, and on some days a face or two would be missing: they had gone up to the communion rail. They would come in later, looking a bit dazed. I would watch them carefully. For a few days they would be different—a bit remote, extremely peaceful, and very, very nice—but then their old selves would creep back in.
And that was the real problem. For all the anguish invoked, for all the high redemptive drama with its incredible emotional impact, there was a curiously meager result. As I grew older, I still looked for something more, something deeper than that benign wholesomeness, that always-smiling friendliness and relentless cheerfulness. It all seemed so superficial, and so many of them were, as my father put it, “on the quietus,” doing in secret what the unsaved did in the open.
The spirit of American Protestant Christianity became epitomized for me by a frequently replayed cultural scenario. Reporters crowd around the winner of the Miss North or South Carolina beauty contest, glowing with her victory in that competition which has degraded her personhood to the level of a commodity, in which the air of lubricity is all the more cloying for being disguised as a celebration of the value of wholesome, upright American womanhood. The winner flashes that wide smile, the same smile that daily arouses our desire for toothpaste and shampoo on the TV, and then she announces, with not even the slightest sense of incongruity, that the most important thing in her life is that she has accepted Jesus Christ in her heart as her personal savior. And, as I experienced, Christians—laity and ministers alike—all thought that was just wonderful! Iwould feel, with some relief, that I had been saved.
And now, looking down at these missionary faces, suffused with that expression of mild goodness, I understood clearly what I had discovered in Krsna consciousness that their religion did not provide me. It was integrity; it was religion without compromise. At first, I had sought integrity in uncompromising materialism. That failed, but when I was offered the integrity of Krsna consciousness, I accepted it without misgivings. To be sure, it was sometimes difficult. But it was the genuine article.
Yet, I realized suddenly, I was indebted to these Christians. For they had started me on the search for the divine, even though they could not provide the solution with the same efficacy with which they could expose the problem. It was unlikely that they could see the continuity between us that I saw, while I was standing so strangely before them in that different garb, a missionary to the missionaries.