“. . . You have written, ‘When in recent memory has it been less a privilege to be young in America?”. . . But when has it been less a privilege to be anything in America?”
by Hrdayananda dasa Goswami
Harper’s magazine recently published an article called “Childhood’s End,” in which Scott Spencer, a novelist, argues that the postwar “golden age “of childhood has given way to a new era. Today’s child feels unwelcome in a society of economic instability, where parents view their children as financial burdens and as intruders on their present standard of living. Parental ambivalence and abuse are becoming commonplace, even in affluent families. And many public schools have closed on the plea of insufficient funds. These are symptoms. Mr. Spencer points out, of America’s new attitude toward her children, and the result is childhood alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, illiteracy. criminality, and, most alarmingly suicide. In the following letter, His Divine Grace Hrdayananda dasa Goswami responds to Mr. Spencer’s article.
Mr. Scott Spencer
c/o Harper’s Magazine Company Two Park Avenue
New York, New York 10016
Dear Mr. Spencer,
I sincerely commend you for your article “Childhood’s End;” in which you have stated, “History’s fair-haired flower children have passed … and in their place comes a changeling generation that may be the most disturbed and demoralized in this century.” I admit that being myself a former “fair-haired flower child” from Berkeley, and having spent the last five years doing missionary work in Latin America, I did not comprehend, till now, the sorrowful condition of America’s youth. Upon returning to the States, I find a number of excellent thinkers, yourself certainly included, pointing to the “deep steady undertow of the times:”
Throughout your discussion you apparently accept a clear distinction between man’s higher and lower nature, and call for a return to virtuous, meaningful life. Yet for those bereft of any tangible spiritual understanding, virtuous life is difficult to achieve, harder yet to maintain. We seem to lack a deeper awareness that might sustain us as a nation.
You have written, “When in recent memory has it been less a privilege to be young in America?” Granted. But might we not add, “When has it been less a privilege to be old in America?” Old age has been stripped of its last remnant of grace and wisdom. Again, when has it been less a privilege to be a white male in America, scorned by minorities, jilted by women? Is anything comparable to the constant pain of someone whose wife is unfaithful? For that matter, when has the status of the American woman been so bizarre as today? She sacrifices her innocence, her beauty, her chastity, and her security in exchange for the lofty reward of driving police cars and garbage trucks, punching computers, and laboring in impersonal factories and offices, precisely the things which have long alienated and depressed sensitive men.
In short, when in recent memory has it been less a privilege to be anything in America? Your expose of the growing crisis of youth is not at all unwelcome, nor does it lack special importance in the midst of many “crises,” yet if our main focus shifts from the infection itself to an admittedly painful symptom, the disease may not be cured. You state, “it is false—even wicked—to speak of the family in isolation … blame should not be isolated when the whole of society is withdrawing its commitment to children.” Yet “society;” en masse, is also not the real target. Egalitarian rhetoric aside, we are still a nation of sheep, though we be electronic sheep, retrenching sheep, or whatever. The mass of people cannot initiate or even conceive of the “good society” without the guidance of the strong and the intelligent.
In fact, it is precisely the so-called “guardians” of society, the learned, who have unleashed a withering two-hundred-year barrage on the people’s simple adherence to God’s law. A flood of Western “thinkers” have urged us to see ourselves as combinations of molecules pushing and pulling their way to consciousness. Thus, moral and spiritual issues are reduced to molecular interactions. Can we really expect ordinary men and women to withstand the combined onslaught of the biologists, physicists, sociologists, anthropologists, geneticists, psychologists, and so on, backed by the full weight of government support?
After innumerable Western thinkers have taken their best shot at the “myth” of God and religion, it is, rather, remarkable testimony to our piety that the least trace of decency remains. As we cry for virtue, the seraphic scientists, lusting after the Scandinavian “prize of prizes,” fall over each other, vying to explain the universe: without the nuisance of a “God.”
Meanwhile, ostensibly pious gentlemen beg out of the whole issue of life’s ultimate meaning with easy slogans like “There are so many ways;” Everyone thinks he’s got the answer,” “No one can know these things,” and so forth. How odd that educated Americans, the great exponents of the scientific method, are so unscientific in spiritual matters. Perhaps we are overawed or overbored by the prospects of extracting enlightenment from conflicting spiritual claims.
The proud, befuddled West might well take assistance in this regard from the Sanskrit Vedic literatures, perhaps the oldest on earth. Bhagavad-gita, the most popular Vedic text, assures us that pure consciousness, different from the mechanical body, can be distilled from our worldly mind, much as pure water is distilled from muddy water. Caught in the nightmare of modern life, we seek a peaceful dream. But the Gita urges that we wake up entirely.
For example, Mr. Spencer, you have described adult consumer madness. However, the desire to exploit the material world extends beyond gross consumption. Identification with material designations like nationality, family, and sex are also subtly rooted in the illusory physical concept of the self. Thus the voracious body and the body-centered mind coalesce in material illusion.
Despite popular versions of Eastern thought, pure consciousness—beyond body and mind—is not impersonal or egoless. As the Gita points out, ego-loss is simply an attempt to negate or eliminate the perplexities of material desire, whereas retention of pure ego entitles us to enjoy personal existence without the pain of illusion. The idea that “I am the greatest; everything is for my consumption” is surely false ego, but the conviction that “I am an eternal servant of God [Krsna]” is pure ego. Thus our ego should not be amputated but cleansed.
In recent centuries, both East and West have also subjected God to a strange type of inverse logic. Based on his tiny experience, man declares, “All forms are limiting; thus God, being unlimited, is formless.” Wearied with finite integers, man seeks infinity in zero. This peculiar logic has drained spiritual life of a personal sense of the Supreme. Reassuringly, the Gita describes superior and unrestricted categories of form and personality, beyond material experience. So one need not concoct a formless, impersonal God to transcend the chafing boundaries of material form and ego.
Thus, by recognizing the personal spiritual status of all life forms and simultaneously by recognizing the unlimitable Personality of Godhead, the Bhagavad-gita provides a clue for revamping and reunifying our aching society on firm spiritual ground. If we can comprehend that all bodies—whether of poets or insects, politicians or trees—house individual souls, and that all souls are spiritually identical in their potential knowledge and beatitude as eternal servants of God, then we’ve accomplished something. Such all-encompassing and realizable spirituality is the foundation upon which noble conduct can be molded. Bromidic appeals for decency for decency’s sake, or even for sanity, are already anachronisms.
Perhaps because Christianity and Islam sought so violently to reveal to the “barbarians” the “only way,” we tend to fear that all systematic appeals for enlightenment or love of God are blindly sectarian. It is platitudinous to state that we see our own faults in others. Yet we would do well to consider the vast monotheistic wisdom of the Sanskrit Vedas of India, especially the corollary Vedic literatures, known as smrti (including Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam), which are especially intended for this fallen age.
Limited programs such as ecology, disarmament, and social harmony are reactions to problems and, thus, defensive. To return to a more enlightened attitude toward children is difficult, since former relationships were based on a now-shattered Christian world view. With our very understanding of our selves and our world in shambles, our actions will continue to drift into the dark seas of irrationality. In our buckling condition, a piecemeal and defensive approach will bring little result. The logic of watering the root of the tree, not the branches and leaves, dictates that we build a free and God-centered society, one utilizing all available information.
Surrender to an unknown God is a chilling act of faith. Surrender to the partially known is also fraught with dangers. The Gita presents a unique alternative. We may learn, through primeval Vedic knowledge, the nature of the Absolute, His sublime transcendental personality, His energies, and His opulences. When our attraction becomes mature, surrender is spontaneous and ecstatic. Surrender to the Supreme does not entail neglect of worldly affairs. The parent, the scholar, the student, the businessman, the administrator can all effectively execute their duties while learning the art of surrendering to God. The result, in all spheres, will be wonderful.
Religious freedom, historically, meant the right to choose a meaningful way to worship God. If we redefine it as the freedom to defy God, then the deplorable condition of the young is only one of the many agonies we will bear in the breast of our nation.
Hrdayananda dasa Goswami
HIS DIVINE GRACE HADAYANANDA DASA GOSWAMI is one of the spiritual masters that ISKCON’s founder-acarya Srila Prabhupada selected to initiate new disciples. He came to the Krsna consciousness movement in 1969, and in 1972 he received sannyasa (the renounced order). He has lectured extensively at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Also, he speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese and played a pioneering role in bringing Krsna consciousness to Latin America. Currently he directs ISKCON projects in Brazil.