Friday, January 13, 2006

What’s the use of being a good boy?

Believe it or not, I have been living in Iskcon Montreal for the last two weeks. I was asked last night to leave by two members of the temple committee. It was expected, but it may well have been my recent article that set the bombs exploding.

I had no illusions that they would want to keep me around, even though I did, as promised, behave nicely and say nothing to anyone that would disturb their fragile faith. Now, however, that they have decided to call me an enemy in their midst, I almost feel obliged to oblige.

I have been in and out of the family home for the past year, trying to come to some resolution about what to do with my life. Finally, in a kind of desperate act, I thought that I absolutely had to be in an atmosphere of Krishna consciousness. In completely innocent and good faith I came to the temple and asked for shelter. The devotees, to my surprise, said yes, but it was clear in a short while that some of the members of the administration were not ignorant of some of my more controversial deeds (“rejecting Srila Prabhupada”) and vilifying Bhaktivinoda Thakur (the three texts thing, see my website).

Along with that, rumors of my being an adulterer were brought to the fore, which is rather ironic as the current temple president is under a rather light suspension notice after his third misadventure with young girls, while the young girls themselves are bustled of like pregnant teens to the convent in another century. Not only that, but a great favorite of one of the most vocal expellers is none other than Nitai Chand Maharaj hisself.

At any rate, I have to say that other than the gag order that was placed on me on about the third day and the studied avoidance of the temple’s three brahmacharis and three women, I had a pretty good and purifying time. With a few exceptions I attended mangala arati, chanted japa, did some yoga exercises and attended guru puja. After the first few days, I lost interest in the Bhagavatam classes, and in general I formed the opinion that 9.15 is a bit of a late ending for a morning program that starts at 4.30. I even went out on Harinam in the Metro twice, one time distributing small books and pamphlets while others chanted. I also washed a heck of a lot of pots, which was very good for the soul.

The highlight of the stay was the visit from Bhakimarga Swami. Montreal’s temple is handicapped by the fact that there are only a permanent core of three brahmacharis. There are no senior devotees, no Prabhupada disciples around. These young men, all in their early twenties, two of whom are Russian, are good lads; they take a lot of responsibility and try to execute their duties. All of them have some musical talent, so there is fairly good kirtan and so on. However, one feels the absence of leadership, especially in the atmosphere of pressing scandal noted above. Bhaktimarga Maharaja to the rescue.

He came alone, without the customary GBC entourage of servants and hangers-on, and staged a play with great enthusiasm, conducted several meetings with the concerned parties in the scandal, and also talked with me and Shalagrama Das, another Prabhupada disciple, at length.

He is a good listener, and I told him quite openly of what was going on in my life, even though my sahajiya tendencies were left unspoken. What can you do, you don’t want to ask for trouble. In the end, he did not seem averse to my staying, as the sankirtan and pot-washing activities did not go unnoticed. Yesterday, however, it seems as though something has tested his patience. He wrote from Toronto authorizing the committee to give me the boot.

The committee leader, Samir Babu, is a Bengali devotee, who ironically first came to the devotees in Ottawa when I was still a brahmachari, and I used to speak Gita to him. There was also a serendipitous incident where, as an Iskcon sannyasi in 1979, only a few months before I was to leave, I fell unconscious in front of Rupa Goswami’s samadhi and Samir Babu happened to be the one to find me and help me go to the hospital for malaria treatment. So my memories of him are fond.

However, during the entire time I was in the temple, he did not exchange words with me once. Of course, he is not often there, so chances were few. Nevertheless, he has read, at least in part, my article about Bhaktivinoda and the three books I claim he wrote. As with most of Iskcon’s shallow thinkers, the shock of such a claim was too much for him to bear. The arguments I gave are “those of a scholar, not of a devotee”—as though scholarship and devotion are necessarily exclusive. His anger and closed mind were evident.

Needless to say, there was no point in trying to discuss the subtle points of what I had been getting at in my essays. It was rather ironic that Samir called me a scholar, not a devotee, while I was chanting the Holy Name with a copy of Narottama’s songs in front of me.

The guru tyaga issue is also one they cannot see anything but black and white in. Why did you reject the name Prabhupada gave you? I took sannyasa and was given a sannyasa name, this is customary. Admit it, you have rejected Prabhupada. Srila Prabhpada gave me Harinam, have I rejected that? I said, holding up my beadbag. Have I been singing vande guroH zrI caraNAravindam? nama om visnupadaya, etc. Attending guru puja? Yes, but. Yes, but. Did Lalita Prasad Thakur not disagree with Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati? And I suppose everyone here is in constant, blissful agreement. Of course, since it seems that you regularly throw out anyone who might disagree with your idea of what “Prabhupada said,” there is no disagreement. In a temple where the committee is bigger than the temple population, you are dictators of a small state indeed.

Karuna Sindhu, a sweet lad of 23 who is currently the acting temple president, replacing the shamed Nitai, who gets to chant japa all day, said, “You are disturbing devotees’ minds.” Can you give any examples?

Everyone is too afraid to talk to me. They avoid me as if I had AIDS. They don’t come close enough to me to have their minds disturbed. Their minds are disturbed because you are telling them to be afraid of me, so everyone is wondering what this big demon is doing washing Krishna’s pots. What is my subversive motive? The management is afraid that I am chanting too loud and singing too many verses from Chaitanya Charitamrita. (On Sunday, while Sunday feast was being prepared, I was trying to get each person in the kitchen to learn a different verse from Adi 4.) What could be more dangerous than that they actually like me.

(The first few days I was here, I snuck in when there was no one around and gave Gita class after evening arati. The first day, the pujari, a Yugoslavian lady named Kritamala, came up to me and said, “Who aaarre you? I never heard class like thees before.” Two days later she was amongst the avoiders.)

I was suitably firy. I admit, I was expecting this meeting, though I would rather have seen at a more friendly hour than ten at night. I told Karuna Sindhu, the odds are that in five years you will be outside this movement. 95% of Prabhupada’s disciples are no longer interested in Iskcon. Do you think this kicking out policy is productive? This temple once had more than a hundred and fifty people living in it and in the immediate surroundings. Those people don’t even come to visit on Sundays. Could you give me a clue of how your policies are successful. “We are keeping the purity.” No, you are keeping the fear.

Democracy is messy, but it is creative. Totalitarianism is tidy—you only keep a few easily manipulated people around and the execute, put in prison, or expel, depending on your power and circumstances. I just read that in China, Wikipedia has been banned because the powers-that-be have decided they don’t like the articles on Taiwan and the Great Revolution, etc. They would rather handicap the millions of Chinese students who have become dependent on it than let some learn a non-propagandized version of history. This is the mentality. The only people allowed are those who will accept the parrot’s version of dogma, and the questioners, the bright thinkers, are excluded because they are subversive. This is a recipe for dullness and death.

We are the only Vaishnavas preaching in the West, they say. That we will grant—to an extent. Yes, they do Harinam and distribute those same introductory pamphlets on chanting Hare Krishna that we had in 1971. Preaching what, exactly? Where are the philosophers? Where are the people who can situate bhakti in 20th century North America? Those you attract, you immediately repel with those weird ideas about cosmology and literal truth that leave anyone who has actually got a bit of education completely puzzled.

O for the day when there is an alternative to Iskcon and the Gaudiya Math and all the rest of the literalists. History is full of those who have skimmed the curd off a tradition and ignored the whey. Jiva Goswami selectively quoted the Bhagavatam to give his version of its philosophy. Bhaktivinoda Thakur did the same. Rupa and Vishwanath read the Bhagavatam, decided Radha and Krishna were the essence and promptly ignored most of it. Krishnadas Kaviraj wrote the Chaitanya Charitamrita and Saraswati Thakur said that it’s the only book we need. This is called the evolution of a tradition. Time is moving so fast in the 21st century that we need to be dynamic in interpreting this tradition and making it meaningful to people in this world. It’s time for a little more revamping.

The goal of religion is to bring meaning into people’s lives. A religion that fails to provide meaning is an empty husk. If you don’t know why you are doing what you are doing, then your activity is wasted and you will soon be alienated. These three young brahmacharis are still being intellectually stimulated by the richness of the Vaishnava tradition.

One day, the details of stories from the various puranas and tales of the incarnations will cease to have any more fascination. They will no longer be thought of as true stories and more and more their pertinence will be sought. Once that has been found, they will (for the most part) be dropped like last year’s version of the Sega Playstation. Then they too will follow the exodus. There is no one there to give them another version. There are only people waving their arms and chanting, “Prabhupada! Prabhupada!”

Some will be attracted to the lilas of Vrindavan and the bhajan of the babajis. But this too must be given meaning in order to sustain interest. And what I mean here is that this too has to be shown as meaningful in this-worldly terms. This is not to deny its transcendental truth (as all myth IS reality), but like the Gita example of the inversed banyan, with roots growing both upward and downward, the myths have their roots both in the ideal or transcendent world and in this lumpy dream of a material world.

Of course, I exaggerate somewhat—most devotees leave because of other, non-intellectual reasons. Temple politics, boredom, a desire to get stoned or laid. I probably exaggerate the extent to which people are seekers. manusyananam sahasresu and all that. I am regularly astounded, for instance, by the general failure of people in Iskcon to think Sanskrit or Bengali have any importance. Oh well.

There is no reason to jettison Harinam, or the deities, or our respect for guru tattva, or our love for sadhu sanga, or for the pure life. These are indispensible. But for God’s sake, why can’t we bring our brains into the modern world? Kabe habe bolo sei dina amara ?