“There must be some way to verify—before one dedicates oneself—that one is not wasting his time and money, or perhaps even risking his life.”
Guyana in Retrospect—”We’re Easy Targets for Cheaters”
by Jayadvaita Svami
The bizarre mass suicide-murder of 913 members of the Peoples Temple in Guyana has raised serious questions about unscrupulous religious leaders who exploit their followers, stripping their souls and pockets bare and sometimes leading them into sexual perversion, mental slavery, and even death.
Many citizens have cried out that the government must do something to stop these groups from manipulating and enslaving their followers. Pointing out that the most easy prey for such groups are naive, idealistic youth in the midst of personal or social perplexity, they urge that the government do something to protect vulnerable young people from ruthless psychological manipulation by quasi-religious cults.
The government replies that its hands are tied. We can’t discriminate between a religion and a cult, between a bona fide religion and a bogus one, the Justice Department says, without trampling on the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty.
There are those who maintain that if we accept one religion as valid, we have to accept them all. If someone believes he’s God, or the Messiah, or the mouthpiece for all the Great Masters of eternity, or that taking drugs or having sexual intercourse with disciples is the highest form of religious expression, who are we, to say he’s wrong?
But the members of the Hare Krsna movement disagree. We say that while many forms of religion are legitimate, some are just out-and-out frauds.
But the essential question is, how—without falling into narrow sectarianism—are we to draw the line between spirituality and shysterism, between ecstasy and exploitation, between religion and rip-off?
What we are looking for here is an objective standard—a definite set of criteria—not something any holyman who comes to town can melt and bend and shift. The criteria must be broad enough to account for different religious practices, yet precise enough to exclude the cheats and charlatans.
What we propose is that every legitimate religious process must be governed by an authentic body of scripture. Now, which scripture one follows is less important. One may follow the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-gita, or any other authentic scriptural authority. (To insist on anything more exclusive would be needlessly sectarian.) But, to be truly religious, one must actually follow the scriptural path of the religion one professes.
Of course, the scripture one follows must be a standard scripture recognized by saintly teachers from the past, not a recent concoction. A contemporary religious leader may express his own spiritual realizations, but these expressions, to be of spiritual value, must agree with the eternal truths revealed in the great traditional scriptures of the world.
At this point one may protest, why be so dogmatic? Why not admit new scriptures, new religions, new paths? In answer we say that religion is neither new nor old—it is eternal, just as God and our relationship with Him are eternal. To follow some self-proclaimed prophet on a newly discovered path is to invite oneself to be led into the woods and plundered. Of course, one is always free to gamble. But if one sincerely wants to reach God, one is best advised to follow a path traversed by the great souls of history who followed a reliable process of God realization and actually achieved success.
A further criterion is that the scripture must be followed without needless interpretation. To use a traditional scripture merely as a vehicle for one’s own recently manufactured doctrines or speculations is dishonest, and any philosopher or evangelist who does so should immediately be rejected. Let them at least have the honesty to write their own ideas in their own books. Scripture—to be meaningful—should be accepted as it is.
If we accept this simple standard—that traditional scripture, accepted as it is, should define the path of every legitimate religious process—we can immediately see past the corrupt legions of gurus, svamis, yogis, messiahs, Gods, and self-appointed masters who have invaded the modern world.
Apply this standard, and see how quickly the cheaters fail the test. The pudgy little boy from India who claimed he was God. The science-fiction writer who rigged up an electric meter to track down bad karma and give you liberation (for maybe five or ten thousand dollars). The Korean businessman who declares that he has succeeded where Jesus Christ failed. The innumerable svamis and yogis who proclaim that God is everyone and everyone is God. All hit the dust immediately, as soon as you apply this test.
The scriptures of the world describe the qualities of an actual saintly person. The Bhagavad-gita for example, explains that a spiritual leader must have control of his mind and senses, he must be austere, tolerant and simple, he must be conversant with scriptural knowledge and be able to apply this knowledge in his own life, and he must have firm faith in the Supreme Lord, the Personality of Godhead. Anyone lacking these qualifications is unfit to be a spiritual leader.
Unfortunately, however, in modern life we are afflicted by a poor fund of knowledge about spiritual affairs, and therefore we are easy targets for cheaters.
It is the duty of the responsible leaders of society—the teachers, government officials, authors, psychologists, journalists, and others—to protect the citizens from spiritual frauds, as much as from frauds in other spheres of life.
But lamentably our modern social and political leaders seem no more enlightened than anyone else. We can’t depend on such leaders even to balance the budget or contain inflation or crime, what to speak of aiding people in their spiritual welfare. In this sense, such leaders themselves are frauds too. And our religious leaders—are they truly qualified? Can we confidently turn to them for guidance? Do they actually practice what they preach? The Vedic literature calls our present era the Age of Hypocrisy. Further elaboration on this point hardly seems necessary.
But although some leaders, or even a majority of leaders, both spiritual and secular, may be frauds, this doesn’t mean that no spiritual teacher can be genuine.
If one is lacking in spiritual knowledge but desires to understand higher truth, one must approach a bona fide teacher. This is true in every religion—or, for that matter, in science, music, art, and any other field of human endeavor. And the way to avoid being taken for a ride is not to insist that the teacher demand only a minimal commitment. After all, a cheater may ask only a small offering—a few dollars, perhaps—whereas great teachers throughout history have called upon their followers to dedicate their entire lives.
Religion is necessary for human life. Animals have no other concern than eating, sleeping, defending, and mating—in animal society there is no religion—but a human being can inquire about who he is and who God is. As the Vedic authorities say, only when one asks these questions has he truly become a human being. In other words, human life without religion is animal life.
But there must be some way to verify—before one dedicates oneself—that one is not wasting his time and money, or perhaps even risking his life.
We suggest this criterion: don’t trust any teacher unless you find that his words never deviate from the teachings of reliable scripture, and that his actions match up to his words. Had those who died in Jonestown applied this test, they might still be alive today.