The Supreme Person sends many avatars—incarnations and prophets—to earth. Depending on the audience, different prophets and incarnations of God give more or less knowledge.
This is similar to how a math teacher gives different knowledge according to the grade level of the students. Beginning math has just numerals and symbols but advanced math, like algebra, employs variables represented by letters. Someone unfamiliar with algebra may protest, "What are these letters doing here? This isn't math!" But what they're seeing is only a higher level of math than what they're used to.
For example, Buddha teaches how material desire is a cause of suffering. Krishna also teaches this in Bhagavad-gita. But Buddha did not teach about God, the soul, and their relationship because His audience was not as advanced. Buddha is an incarnation of Krishna, He knows everything, but He only spoke partial knowledge in order to reach His particular audience.
We so often see disagreement between religions due to a lack of understanding of this principle. God is one, but He is infinite, and can be seen from unlimited angles of vision. One thing all religions have in common is the idea of developing love for God as the highest goal of life. Religious people who are focused on this goal have less trouble accepting the validity of others' religious beliefs. Religious people who are focused on lesser goals are more likely to find fault with the beliefs of others, since their understanding of the essence of religion isn't as developed. This is known as the inability to see the forest for the trees.
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Allen Ginsberg: How far beyond special study centers can a Krishna consciousness movement or any religious movement grow? Because the need is for a large single, unifying religious movement in America.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. So here is Krishna: all-attractive. You now have to find out as much as possible about Him. Of course, you can say, "Why shall I accept Krishna?" You can talk like that. But your first question is about finding the right unifying agent. So I say, "Here is Krishna.” Now we can analyze. You may ask, “Why shall we accept Krishna?” Then I shall reply, “Why shall you not?”
First, what do you expect from the Supreme Being or the perfect unifying agent? Everything is there in Krishna. Wealth—Krishna. Beauty—Krishna. Wisdom—Krishna. Fame—Krishna. Renunciation—Krishna. Strength—Krishna. You’ll find everything in Krishna. Whatever you want you’ll find in Krishna. He is the unifying agent, the center. And of that I will convince you. Krishna is the unifying center, actually.
And in the Bhagavad-gita He says, mama vartmanuvartante manushyah partha sarvashah: “Everyone is trying to come to Me.” Everyone is trying to come to Krishna. Then He adds, ye yatha mam prapadyante: “But some are realizing Me not directly but indirectly, through My various energies. Still, everyone is trying to come to Me.” We are talking about Krishna as the perfect unifying agent. Insofar as His unifying power is concerned, He appeals, in His various manifestations, to all varieties of truth seekers.
Essentially, there are three varieties of truth seekers: mental speculators, meditators or yogis, and devotees. The mental speculators are trying to understand the Absolute Truth in an impersonal way, without a personal form. And the meditators or yogis are trying to find Krishna within their heart, through meditation. Finally, the devotees are trying to find the Absolute Truth through personal activity, through reciprocation of loving service.
Now, all three of these manifestations—impersonal all-pervasiveness, personal presence in the heart, and active personal reciprocation—are in Krishna. And Srimad- Bhagavatam says that it is the only business of the human being to search out this Absolute Truth. Now, in the Bhagavatam’s second chapter, the Absolute Truth is explained, analyzed. Vadanti tat tattva- vidas tattvam yaj jnanam advayam.
First, the Absolute Truth must be one entity. The Absolute Truth cannot be two different entities. Two different entities would mean relative truths. No, the Absolute Truth must be one. Therefore the knowledge of the Absolute Truth is one. Vadanti tat tattva- vidas. Tattva-vidas means “those in knowledge of the Absolute Truth,” and the verse goes on to say that such persons confirm that the Absolute Truth is one. But He’s realized in three phases.
Brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti shabdyate. Brahman means His impersonal all-pervasiveness, through His effulgent energies; Paramatma or Supersoul means His personal presence within the heart; and Bhagavan means His overt personal presence as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. So, these are different stages of realization.
For instance, you go through different stages in realizing the sun. In the first stage, you experience the sun’s impersonal effulgence all over the sky. But that effulgence is not more important than the sun globe—because it is from the sun globe that the effulgence is coming. So anyone will understand, “This sunshine is not as important as the sun globe.” And if you approach the sun globe and penetrate into the sun—if you have really got the scientific power to go within the sun globe—then you’ll find there is a sun-god. That information we get from Bhagavad-gita.
Imam vivasvate yogam proktavan aham avyayam.
Krishna says, “I first taught this science of God realization to Vivasvan, the sun-god.” So, therefore, behind the sunshine and the sun globe there is a person. And why not a person? Our imagination is not the ultimate truth. We have to get information from Krishna, and He explains that behind these other manifestations there is a person, the sun-god. So, as far as sun realization is concerned, there is a person—he’s sitting there. Now, if we consider these different stages one passes through in realizing the sun—sunshine, sun globe, and sun-god—which is the most important? Which is the most important?
Allen Ginsberg: The person, the globe, or the sunshine?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Allen Ginsberg (laughing): I don’t know.
Srila Prabhupada: Why don’t you know? You cannot say which of these three manifestations is the most important? The sunshine, the sun globe, and within the sun globe, the sun-god. Now, which is the most important?
Allen Ginsberg: If we could apprehend it in terms of person, the person.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Allen Ginsberg: But if we could apprehend it only in terms of the globe, then the globe.
Srila Prabhupada: So that means your own realization may extend only up to the globe, but that realization is not complete.
Allen Ginsberg: Yes.
Srila Prabhupada: That realization is not complete. You have to go further. As we learn in the Upanishads, we should pray, “O Lord, please withdraw Your effulgence, so that I can see Your true face.” Sri Ishopanishad says this. You will see it in Sri Ishopanishad. The author, Srila Vyasadeva, is praying, “Please wind up this glaring effulgence of Yours, so that I can see Your real face.” So the Lord’s real face is there. And in Bhagavad- gita Krishna says, brahmano hi pratishthaham: “This impersonal Brahman effulgence is resting on My personal existence.”
And Brahma- samhita says,
yasya prabha prabhavato jagad-anda-koti- kotishv ashesha-vasudhadi vibhuti- bhinnam tad brahma nishkalam anantam ashesha-bhutam govindam adi-purusham tam aham bhajami
“I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who has great power. The impersonal Brahman is simply the glowing effulgence of His transcendental form.” And so forth. So this Brahman effulgence is nothing but the effulgence emanating from Krishna’s body.
You see, Krishna has a very powerful bodily effulgence. And within that bodily effulgence, all creation has manifested. Just as within the sun’s effulgence all these planets are moving and all this vegetation is growing—everything is existing within the sunshine—so, similarly, sarvam khalv idam brahma: Everything is existing within the brahmajyoti, Krishna’s effulgence. And in the Bhagavad-gita Krishna says, maya tatam idam sarvam jagadavyakta-murtina: “This impersonal exhibition of this whole manifestation—it is I.” Mat- sthani sarva-bhutani: “Everything existing is within Me.” But na caham teshv avasthitah: “And yet I am not directly there.”
So we have to study everything intelligently. I want some intelligent persons from America to study this great science and share it with the whole world. Then it will be nicely done.
from Back To Godhead Magazine #23-09, 1988
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
Almost all religions pursue some sort of exchange with other religious sects. They may do it to further the aim of their own sect, to quell violence among fanatics, to cooperate in efforts for humane work, or for many other reasons. Perhaps the purest and most worthy purpose for persons of different religions to come together is to help one another in the individual attempt at attaining love of God. Having taken part recently in conversations with Christian professors and clergymen in the United States and Europe, I would like to discuss some of the more positive aspects of ecumenism, and how the Krishna consciousness movement can contribute.
According to religions scholar Huston Smith, there are two kinds of religionists, whom he calls “lumpers” and “choppers.” Lumpers find the common element in different religions and bring them together, and choppers look for differences. But even among lumpers there are different opinions as to the real purpose of ecumenism. In Frankfurt, Germany, I met Professor Edmund Weber of Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, who said, “I am not as much interested in comparative religion as cooperative religion.”
Dr. Weber spoke of the need for religionists to cooperate to help solve world problems. He gave the example that many people in the world do not have the basic necessities of daily food, clothing, and shelter. One of the main reasons for this, he said, is that nations who enjoy a higher standard of living are denying, either directly or indirectly, those who do not have enough.
So religious leaders can set the example in this regard by living simply. Certainly Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did this throughout His life, as did St. Francis of Assisi and Gautama Buddha. Although religious persons are entitled to use wealth in the service of God, the money they receive should clearly be for Him, not for the sense gratification on the churchmen. Only if the religious people act in this way can they honestly preach to other that material wealth is not the highest sign of God’s favor and that we should share what we have.
Religious representatives can also cooperate by encouraging seminars among members of the different religions. In these meetings, they can discuss how to solve such down-to-earth problems as achieving successful matrimony, keeping faith in times of ordeal, and controlling one’s material desires. An immense amount of experience has been gathered by pastoral counseling, and religious workers of different traditions can share the viewpoints of the different scriptures.
The most important goal for a religious person is to develop love of God. This can also be a subject of ecumenical exchange. Although one must be convinced of the truth of one’s own religious path, one should be humble enough to admit the possibility of benefiting by a spiritual exchange with like-minded souls. It is in this area that the Krishna consciousness movement may be able to offer its most useful service to ecumenism. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada often met in this way with representatives of different religions, and he recommended it for his followers. He stated in a letter in 1974:
Just today we spoke at a seminary in Melbourne, Australia, and the young Franciscan monks listened very respectfully. When speaking to Christians we never say our religious system is better than theirs but we speak on the principles of love of God, sa vai pumsam paro dharmo. They become convinced and pleased to hear our explanations of God consciousness based on the Vedic conclusion.
When I used to travel with Srila Prabhupada as his secretary, I noticed two specific suggestions he offered to Christians. One was that they should worship God by chanting His holy name. The importance of singing and meditating on the names of God, especially in this age, is stressed in Vedic literature, and Srila Prabhupada took it to be a universal principle. He suggested that Christians could either chant the names of God as found in the Hare Krishna mantra, or that they could chant the name of Jesus Christ. Srila Prabhupada also pointed out an interesting etymological similarity between the names of Christ and Krishna.
Another suggestion Srila Prabhupada never tired of giving was that the Bible advocates refraining from animal slaughter, and that this is the real sense of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” Srila Prabhupada didn’t attempt to convince Christians to give up their religion, but he made suggestions like these, as to how they could become “better Christians.” And as he indicates in his letter about the Franciscans, Christians usually liked to hear these suggestion form Srila Prabhupada.
Some of the practices of Krishna consciousness may seem peculiar to the Vaishnava sect, such as offering all of one’s food to God before eating it, worshiping the form of Krishna on the altar, or studying the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita and other Sanskrit scriptures, but an intelligent “lumper” will be able to appreciate even these practices as carrying the universal essence of bhakti, or devotion to God. Similarly, how could a Vaishnava refuse to accept the great commandment of Jesus Christ: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with a all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbours as yourself”?
An in-depth study of scriptures will show that in every religion the essence is bhakti. Religions usually teach lesser forms of worship for those persons who are very much attached to material desires, but the scriptures always make it clear that the ultimate goal is devotion to God. The scriptures of the Krishna consciousness movement promote only bhakti. Although the Vedas do give prescriptions for those on the paths of karma (material desires) and jnana (mental speculation), scriptures such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita are meant for those who are after the highest goal of life, pure love of God. Thus it is stated in the beginning of Srimad-Bhagavatam, “This scripture completely rejects all religious activities that are materially motivated.”
And in the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna states, “This scripture completely rejects all religious activities that are materially motivated.”
And in the conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna states, “Give up all activities performed in the name of religion and just surrender unto Me. I will release you from all sinful reactions. Do not be afraid.”
Aside from the benefit religionists can gain from hearing one another’s scriptures, there is also the benefit of personal example. The symptoms of love of God have been analysed in the scriptures, and they include qualities such as humility, renunciation, kindness to all creatures, and being fixed in the Absolute Truth. To find these qualities in a devotee of God is always an inspiration for one who is aspiring to the spiritual path. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu states that personal example is the most important manifestation of religious truth: “The scriptures and great learned sages are not always in agreement with one another. Consequently there are different religious principles. But a devotee’s behaviour establishes the true purpose of religious principles.”
The same point is also stated in the Mahabharata:
Dry arguments are inconclusive. A great personality whose opinion is not different from others' is not considered a great sage. Simply by studying the Vedas, which are variegated, one cannot come to the right path by which religious principles are understood. The solid truth of religious principle is hidden in the heart of an unadulterated, self-realized person. Consequently, as the shastras confirm, one should accept whatever progressive path the great saints advocate.
One can associate with great saints through their writings and teachings. And although one may say that there are no great saints today, there are sincere devotees trying to follow the path of pure devotion to God. The Vedic scriptures declare that the association of such devotees, even taken in small amounts, is very beneficial.
Some religious leaders will continue to shy away from ecumenism, and some will indulge in it only for diplomacy, but the opportunity is open for deeper and more sincere exchanges. One should not be afraid that he will lose his own faith in such exchanges, but he should try to share whatever genuine God consciousness he has realized by serving his spiritual master and scriptures. We can use all the help we can get.
by Bhakticaru Swami
Lord Jesus Christ, Mohammed, and all the world’s scriptures emphasize glorifying God’s names. What is unique about this kind of prayer?
According to Vedic calculation, great time spans are measured in yugas, or ages. The Vedas describe four yugas-Satya-yuga, Treta-yuga, Dvapara- yuga, and Kali-yuga-which repeat themselves in cyclical order like the four seasons. The duration of Satya-yuga is 1,728,000 years; Treta-yuga is 1,296,000 years; Dvapara-yuga, 864,000 years; and Kali-yuga, 432,000 years.
In Satya-yuga people are very pious. They almost never perform sinful activities. In Treta-yuga they are more inclined to sinful life, and even more so in Dvapara-yuga. Finally, in Kali-yuga impiety is almost completely dominant. Kali-yuga is like the winter of the yuga seasons.
The Vedic scriptures prescribe a specific kind of religious process for each of these ages. In Satya-yuga the process is meditation upon the form of the Lord. In Treta-yuga the process is offering sacrifices to the Lord. In Dvapara-yuga the process is gorgeous worship of the Deity in the temple. And in Kali-yuga the process is chanting God’s holy name. Being merciful, the Lord makes the process easier in each successive age, as people become less qualified because of the increase of sinful life.
Now it is the age of Kali, the most degraded of the four ages. We can see in our own lifetime how people are becoming more sinful. Meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex-the four pillars of sinful life-continue to increase everywhere. We can see that as these activities increase, the world becomes more and more miserable. All scriptures recommend chanting Krishna’s holy names to get free of misery.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam says that chanting is the only good thing about this age. Lord Jesus said, “Glorify the name of thy Father.” Similarly, Mohammed said, “Allah alone should we glorify.” These instructions are given repeatedly throughout the world’s great religions.
The question arises: “What’s so special about God’s names?” God does not have names like ours, which are mundane sounds given to us for the sake of our physical identity. God has no need for such identification. He has no physical identity; He is completely spiritual. But according to His divine, unlimited qualities and pastimes. He has innumerable names.
For example, in the Bible He has names that describe Him as “Almighty” and “Omnipotent.” Similarly, in the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures He has numerous names. The name Krishna means “all- attractive.” The name Rama means “giver of supreme pleasure.”
Because God has no mundane qualities, His name is not a mundane sound. It is spiritual and nondifferent from Him. And because God is absolute, His holy name is also absolute. When one chants His name, one is directly in touch with Him. When we begin chanting, however, we may not immediately feel His presence, because of our materially contaminated consciousness.
But because He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, calling on His names is the most personal and intense form of prayer. If we practice chanting sincerely, we will soon feel God’s presence.
The Vedic literatures contain many mantras and prayers to the Lord, but only one maha-mantra. or great prayer. That prayer-Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama. Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare- addresses the Lord in His most sublime features: as Krishna, the all-attractive person, and as Rama, the giver of supreme pleasure. It means, “O all-attractive Supreme Personality of Godhead! O Supreme Enjoyer! Please deliver me from this material existence. Please engage me in Your loving devotional service.”
Prayers are appeals to God to fulfill our desires. In material consciousness we pray, “Lord, give me food; Lord, give me money.” But in spiritual life, instead of asking this or that for oneself, one wants to offer whatever he has to the Lord. One wants to serve Him. That’s why the Hare Krishna mantra is the highest form of prayer: it makes no selfish demands on the Lord. It is simply an appeal for engagement in His devotional service.
To teach the chanting of His holy name, Krishna appeared in this age in a wonderful form. Although He is the supreme proprietor, the supreme enjoyer, the possessor of all opulences, He appeared in this age as a mendicant-Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. He accepted the renounced order, traveled all over India, and taught everyone, from scholars to kings to beggars, to chant the maha-mantra with firm faith.
To say that Sri Caitanya is God is not mere sentiment, a claim I make simply because I am His follower. No. The Srimad-Bhagavatam, Mahabharata, and other scriptural sources describe His identity and predict His appearance in detail. They describe that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu descends to establish the religion of the age. During His appearance, Lord Caitanya predicted that the sankirtana movement of chanting the names of God would spread all over the world, and that has come true. Overlooking all sectarian conceptions, anyone who tries to understand Sri Caitanya’s real identity can easily recognize that He is the Supreme Person.
Now, it does not matter that Sri Caitanya appeared in India. God doesn’t belong to any geographical setting. He descends to bestow His mercy upon all. Wherever the Lord appears, it is for our benefit, if we follow His instructions.
Today, for example, most people in the Western world are followers of Lord Jesus Christ. They do not follow him because of where he appeared. They follow him because he is the son of God. Sincere devotees follow the Lord or His representative wherever they may appear. Devotees understand that the Lord and His representatives are actually from the divine realm and are not ordinary, mundane persons from a particular geographical area. Wherever such extraordinary persons appear in this world, that place becomes an extension of the spiritual world.
Still, if someone has difficulty accepting an “Indian” as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, that’s, all right. No one should accept blindly, just on our saying so. But at least he can study the life and teachings of Sri Caitanya and see for himself whether it benefits his spiritual life. That is a practical test.
If we understand that God is our original and supreme father, it isn’t difficult to understand that He wants us to go back to Him. Nor is it difficult to understand that He makes various arrangements to take us back. In this degraded Kali age, when we have all but lost our spiritual vision. His holy name is His merciful arrangement to take us back.
Through chanting the holy name one comes to understand God’s form, abode, qualities, activities, and associates. On becoming fixed in transcendental knowledge, one realizes that everything belongs to God and, therefore, engages fully in His devotional service. That realization is the perfection of religion in all ages.
by Garuda dasa
“Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the name of the Lord; praise Him, O ye servants of the Lord… . Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.” (Psalms, 135, 150)
Among all the practices of the Hare Krishna movement, the most prominent is the public chanting of God’s names, ecstatic dancing, and playing of musical instruments—a spontaneous street liturgy common in most major cities throughout the world. Yet upon first seeing devotees chanting and dancing on a busy downtown street of a modern Western city, many people understandably experience a kind of culture shock. Perhaps it’s the devotees’ uncommon appearance, or the unfamiliar music, or the mere presence of a group of people celebrating something right on the street. In any case, the spectacle of ecstatic dancing, chanting, and music-making certainly warrants an explanation, and we can begin with some historical background.
One day, in early sixteenth-century India, Sri Krishna Chaitanya requested the people of the Bengali town of Navadvipa to chant the Hare Krishna mantra in every one of their homes. Before long, these devotees became so overwhelmed and intoxicated by the chanting of the holy names of God that they burst out of their homes into the streets. One of Sri Chaitanya’s biographers says, “No one in Navadvipa could hear any sound other than the words ‘Hare Krishna! Hare Rama!’ and the beating of mridanga drums and the clashing of hand cymbals.” Accompanied by these musical instruments, Sri Chaitanya would chant with such devotional ecstasy that huge crowds of people would gather to chant and dance through the streets of Navadvipa and into the nearby villages.
Thus Sri Chaitanya, who is accepted by devotees as an incarnation of Godhead and by historians as one of the greatest devotional mystics in the history of the world’s religions, introduced this most dramatic expression of devotion, known as sankirtana. Although we can trace the idea of sankirtana back thousands of years, not until Sri Chaitanya was its full potential realized, for it was He who first demonstrated its universal attraction. For six years He traveled widely in India by foot, and wherever He went He introduced the practice of sankirtana. Thereafter, it was accepted by saints of various religious traditions and sects across the Indian subcontinent.
Nearly five centuries later, in 1966, sankirtana was introduced in the West by its foremost modern exponent. His Divine Grace A..C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (the founder and spiritual guide of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). Since then, its practice has spread throughout the world. It is precisely this ancient practice of sankirtana that the devotees of the Hare Krishna movement are presenting before the world’s plurality of cultures today. Now let us examine more closely the phenomenon of sankirtana.
We can understand what sankirtana is through a brief analysis of the word. The word sankirtana has a twofold meaning, indicated by two distinct translations of its root. The Sanskrit verb kirt, from which the word kirtana derives, means on the one hand “to praise” or “to glorify” and on the other “to tell” or “to call.” Thus the act of kirtana is meant to praise or glorify God while telling or calling man to participate in this glorification. Kirtana always takes place in a congregation of saintly people, as indicated by the prefix sam, meaning “all together,” or “congregationally.” The prefix sam may also act as an intensive, connoting “perfect” or “complete” kirtana. Therefore sankirtana carries the sense that when kirtana is performed congregationally, the glorification of God and the calling of man is perfect or complete.
Sankirtana is the performance of activities that in some way glorify God. There are various forms of sankirtana, such as chanting God’s holy names, offering and accepting sanctified food, and producing and distributing sacred literature. Each of these is a primary way a pure devotee may glorify God.
Glorifying God pleases Him, purifies the glorifier, develops one’s spiritual qualities, and attracts others to this glorification (thus pleasing God even more). How can one please the Supreme Being, upon whom everything is absolutely dependent? We can do this by giving Him the only thing He lacks—our love and devotion to Him. Sankirtana is the most complete and perfect way of giving God man’s devotion.
As chanting God’s name in glorification pleases God, so also do offering food to God and writing and publishing literature about God. When devotees offer food to the Supreme in worship, the food is spiritually transformed, and devotees gladly distribute it to all, for just by tasting such sanctified food one is purified and begins pleasing God. Furthermore, a book that glorifies the Supreme Lord, His name. His form, His qualities, and His manifestations is itself an embodiment of the divinity. Devotees therefore distribute such literature for the spiritual education of others. Sri Chaitanya advocated all three of these forms of sankirtana.
The chanting of the holy names of God is a religious principle that genuine prophets and saints of widely varied traditions have tried to promulgate, and therefore it should not be a practice completely foreign to the West. Countless verses in the Old Testament express the importance of the names of God: “So I will sing praise unto Thy name forever,” “Sing praises to His name,” “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” and so on. Many verses even ask us to sing the holy name of God with music and dance: “Let them praise His name in the dance, let them sing praises unto Him with the timbrel and harp.” And sankirtana should absorb one constantly: “From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, the Lord’s name is to be praised.” These examples illustrate that God’s name must not be ordinary; otherwise, why should a devotee of God occupy himself constantly with praising it?
There is something special about the relationship between God and His name that we don’t find between ordinary persons or things and their names. We should note that these passages from the Old Testament don’t directly mention God as the one being praised. Rather, it is His name. The praising of God takes place through the praising of His holy names, because they actually represent God in a form that enables one to associate with Him while in limited human life. Because God is the supreme absolute being, He is fully present in any one of His names. Therefore, by sounding God’s names one associates with the transcendent Lord Himself. Sankirtana, then, means to associate with God through the chanting of His sacred names in order to realize our eternal relationship with Him.
Describing the power of God’s names, Lord Chaitanya says that God has invested all His transcendental potencies in His names and that chanting these names enables anyone to easily approach Him. Although there are many names of God that one may chant, the especially potent formula given by Sri Chaitanya and His followers is the chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This formula is known as the “greatest chant,” or the maha-mantra, because it contains the most powerful names of God for the process of sankirtana. Anyone may benefit from chanting these names, regardless of sex, race, nationality, religious belief, or social status.
One cannot overestimate the potency of sankirtana, for in each of its forms it brings about a permanent spiritual effect. But sankirtana with sacred literature has a special quality. We have mentioned that devotees recognize sacred literature as an embodiment of the divinity, as they recognize the holy names and sanctified food. Such sacred literature is very dear to the devotees because it conveys the message of God and thus invokes His very presence. But although chanting God’s names and partaking of sanctified food have a powerful, permanent effect and these methods have their own special applications, they provide the purifying presence of God only during the time they are performed. The special quality of sacred literature, therefore, is that it provides continuous access to the Deity and association with Him, The Padma Purana says that if one just keeps such literature in one’s home, the Lord resides there. The devotee understands that sacred literature is the greatest gift, so he naturally tries to distribute this gift profusely for everyone’s benefit. *
Sacred literature plays an essential role in the Vaishnava tradition, from which the sankirtana movement emerges. For example, among the tradition’s many texts is the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in the world (eight times the length of the lliad and the Odyssey combined). One section of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-gita, the most loved sacred text of India. And many thousands of other works belong to this same rich literary heritage.
The distribution of sacred literature is not a new form of sankirtana. It was highly regarded even during Lord Chaitanya’s time, when literature was not mass- produced. Lord Chaitanya ordered His immediate disciples the Six Gosvamis of Vrindavana to write copious works on the spiritual science. And later, as printing technology developed, the importance of literary sankirtana increased. In the early twentieth century one great Vaishnava teacher called the distribution of sacred literature the “great drum,” or brihat mridanga; the sound of a drum may be heard for half a mile, but books can be heard around the world.
The process of sankirtana is so complete and powerful that while it glorifies God through its various forms, it spiritually uplifts all who participate or have even remote contact with it. Thus, as Lord Chaitanya states, it is “the prime benediction for humanity at large.” It is the direct and genuine experience of the soul proper. It is the outpouring of the most natural tendency of the human heart in its lasting relation with the Supreme Being. It is that for which man ultimately hankers in his higher self, after realizing the futility of trying to satisfy worldly appetites and passions. Sankirtana “enables us to fully taste the nectar for which we are always anxious.”
As demonstrated by the Hare Krishna movement, the worldwide spread of this powerful religious force can spiritually transform people from all cultures. This fact, along with evidence about sankirtana from other scriptural texts, points to the universality of sankirtana: sankirtana brings forth the ultimate religious dimension of human existence. Because sankirtana so thoroughly arouses man’s spiritual potential in his relation to the Supreme Person, it brings forth love of God par excellence. Indeed, in our materialistic society, which pushes us toward utter forgetfulness of God, sankirtana powerfully reasserts the genuine spiritual character of man.
A conversation between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg: If you’re identifying love, however, with the shabda [sound] Krishna, what of those people who identify love with the shabda Allah?
Srila Prabhupada: Well, of course, if that shabda identifies with God, we have no objection. As Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, namnam akari bahudha nija-sarva- shaktis: God has many names, in which He has invested His transcendental energies. God is attractive, and His name is also attractive, because He’s not different from His name. If you have got a name with exactly the same attractiveness as Krishna, we have no objection. We simply say, “You chant God’s holy name. Then you’ll become purified.” That is our program. We don’t say that you change your Christianity. No. We don’t say that. If you have got a nice name, an all-attractive name, in your scripture—don’t manufacture, but authorized—then you chant that. We simply request, “You chant.”
Allen Ginsberg: Well, then, how would you adapt the Krishna chanting to Christianity? By seeing Krishna as Christ or Christ as Krishna and sounding Christ’s image in Krishna’s name?
Srila Prabhupada: Krishna, Christ. Of course, this question has several times been put to me. I reply that Christ says, “I am the son of God,” and Krishna says, “I am God”—so there is no essential difference between the son of God and God.
We respect everyone. If I respect your father, I respect you, also. Do you mean to say that if I disrespect your father, you’ll be pleased with me? No. That is our philosophy. As Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, “I am the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of the servant of Krishna.” So if anyone perfectly loves Krishna, he must love Lord Jesus Christ, also. And if one perfectly loves Jesus Christ, he must love Krishna. If he says, “Why shall I love Krishna? I shall love only Jesus Christ,” then he has no knowledge. And if one says, “Why shall I love Jesus Christ? I shall love only Krishna,” then he also has no knowledge. If one understands Krishna, then he will understand Jesus Christ. If one understands Jesus Christ, he’ll understand Krishna.
Allen Ginsberg: Well, then, do you think that the Hare Krishna chant could serve as an intermediary to link the religious tendencies of both the Christian and Muslim religions?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Any religion. That is, if the individual is serious about religion. If he takes religion as a scapegoat, an excuse for doing all sorts of nonsense, that is different. If he wants to understand religion and takes seriously to religion, then he will understand. We want such serious persons.
Now, according to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, religion means the laws created by God. Dharmam tu sakshad bhagavat-pranitam. Religion means the laws of God. Who will deny it? Who will deny it? You may profess any religion—Christian, Muhammadan, or whatever—but who can deny that religion is the laws of God? Simple explanation. If you ask what is meant by religion, the answer is, “Religion is the laws of God.” That’s all. And if you want to know what God is, that is also simply answered: “God is the original source of everything.”
So one should try to understand in this broad-minded way. But if one wants to remain in his compact, sectarian ideas and does not want to go further, then it is very difficult. One should be open-minded and appreciative. Then everything is all right. We say—Caitanya Mahaprabhu says—it is not that you are abitrarily limited to simply chanting Krishna, but if you have no other suitable name, then chant Krishna. Why do you make a differentiation between the Lord’s names? Every name is the same.
Allen Ginsberg: So if you have no other suitable name, chant Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Chant Krishna.
Allen Ginsberg: That’s Lord Caitanya’s message?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Yes.
Allen Ginsberg: Did He feel there were other suitable names?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. He said the Lord has many thousands and millions of names. So if you are serious about God, then call upon Him by one of these names. For instance, your friends may call you by many names, but any one of those names will do.
Allen Ginsberg: O.K. So the problem I was posing before, which I leave open—I don’t know—is, What is the most attractive and suitable name for God here in this material country?
Srila Prabhupada: Now, take, for example, the Muhammadan name Allah. Allah means “the greatest.” Yes, God is the greatest. So that “greatest” conception is the preliminary Brahman conception that we have discussed. And as for the Christian conception, I don’t think they have got any particular name. They say God.
Allen Ginsberg: Yes. Lord or God. Those are the basic ones.
Srila Prabhupada: “Controller.” God means “controller.” Is it not?
Allen Ginsberg [to the disciples on hand]: What is the etymology of God? Do you know?
Disciple: I don’t know.
Srila Prabhupada: God is the equivalent of ishvara. Ishvara means “controller.”
Allen Ginsberg: Well, the Jews, which were my background, had a prohibition …
Srila Prabhupada: They say Jehovah.
Allen Ginsberg: They say Jehovah, but they had a prohibition against pronouncing the Lord’s highest names, because they felt that God was imageless and therefore should not be pronounced or painted. My background is, I guess, what would be termed impersonalist.
Woman: Yes. Impersonalist—just believing in the great Absolute and that’s all.
Srila Prabhupada: That was the difference when Jesus Christ appeared. He was a personalist.
Allen Ginsberg: The ancient Hebrew teaching—you must know about that—was that the name of God should never be pronounced. J-H-V-H. Pictures should not be made. Because it would limit God to human conception.
Srila Prabhupada: That is another thing. That idea is also in the Muhammadan tradition. Their essential idea is that God is not material. That is the idea. The idea is that when I make some image or picture of God, that is material. So there is a prohibition against accepting God as material. But if you go to a higher stage of realization, you’ll understand that if God is everything, then there is no such thing as material. That is Vaishnava philosophy.
If God is everything, then how can you say any of His energies is fundamentally material? God is spiritual. So in one sense, calling something material means you do not understand God. That is what calling something material means.
For instance, when part of this sky is covered by a cloud, we say, “The sky is cloudy.” But the cloud is limited and temporary; it has no enduring existence; it comes only to cover some of the sky for a short while. Actually, the sky is unlimited and enduring. Similarly, God is unlimited and enduring; God is eternal. When you are covered by some cloud of maya and you cannot see properly and cannot understand God, that is material. So any philosophy which does not help us understand God—that is material. That is material.
Otherwise, there is no such thing as material. Where is “material” if God is everything? Sarvam khalv idam brahma: Everything is the Lord’s spiritual energy. You see?
Disciple: All is spirit.
Srila Prabhupada: All is spirit. Everywhere is sky, but when some of it is covered, it is called cloud. Similarly, when God is “covered” by some nonsense ideas, then that is material. Otherwise, there is no such thing as material. Therefore, for those who are too much absorbed in materialistic views, there is a restriction—“Don’t attempt to say God’s name.” Because the person will tend to think, “God’s name is just like my son’s name or my daughter’s name.” Therefore, there is that restriction.
Disciple: Srila Prabhupada, we’ve got to tune some harmoniums.
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, we have to start material preparations for the evening.
Srila Prabhupada: That is not material. [Laughter.]
Allen Ginsberg: A shabda preparation.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Sabda, or sound, is originally spiritual. Sabda-brahman. You simply have to understand that there is nothing material; everything is spiritual. That is required. If I am controlled by the spiritual energy, that is my great fortune. Therefore, in the Bhagavad-gita it is said, mahatmanas tu mam partha daivim prakritim ashritah: The mahatmas, or great souls, take shelter of the spiritual energy. And what is their symptom? Bhajanty ananya manaso—simply engaged in devotional service to Krishna. That is required.
Srila Prabhupada: Hare Krishna.
Formerly, Muslims living in the regions of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia called the Sindhu (Indus) River “Hindu” and the people living in and beyond the river valley “Hindus.”
From its founding in 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been invigorated by the participation of the Indian community, both in India and the West, and by the endorsements of Hindu organizations around the world. Many of ISKCON’s Indian members, some of whom have leading roles in the Krishna consciousness movement, have worshiped Lord Krishna from their childhood and have followed all their lives, as part of their family or cultural traditions, the basic principles followed by all ISKCON members—total abstinence from non-vegetarian foods, and from intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling.
The Indians’ support of ISKCON never fails to impress me and to encourage me in my own practice of Krishna consciousness. In the West especially, people tend to look at ISKCON devotees as something new, strange, and threatening, but the large-scale participation of the Hindu community helps me to remember, and to convince others, that in joining ISKCON I have joined an age-old religious and cultural tradition that currently has hundreds of millions of followers.
I must honestly confess, however, that despite my growing appreciation of Hindu culture, I wince whenever I hear someone refer to Lord Krishna as “a Hindu god,” to the Krishna consciousness movement as “a sect of Hinduism,” or to the Bhagavad-gita, which ISKCON has published in more than thirty languages, as “the Hindu bible.” By convention, or common understanding, it may be OK to call us Hindu, but a closer look shows that the designation is not wholly appropriate.
Neither in the Gita nor in any of India’s Vedic literature will you once find the word hindu. Hindu comes from the Sanskrit sindhu, which means “river,” and which was specifically a name for the river that rises in the Tibetan Himalayas and flows nearly two thousand miles to the Arabian Sea, passing through present-day Jammu, Kashmir, and Pakistan—the river we today call the Indus.
Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder-acharya, explained that Muslims living in the regions of Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia, through a singularity of their native pronunciation, called the Sindhu River the Hindu and the people living in and beyond the river valley Hindus. Over the centuries, as Greek, Hun, Tartar, and Mogul armies marched across the Indus to conquer the subcontinent to the south, they brought the name Hindu with them and made it stick. Hindu, Hindustan, Hinduism, Hindi, and even the name India itself, all derive from a term coined by India’s conquerors. Today still, for what little is understood of Indian culture, you might as well broadly define a Hindu as a person living beyond the Indus River, and Hinduism, tautologically, as what Hindus do.
But what do the “people beyond the Indus” do? What were they doing before the repeated conquest of their land, during its occupation, and now after independence? What is that complex body of religion, philosophy, and culture—situated within a crumbling social structure known as the caste system—that we call Hinduism?
Srila Prabhupada answered that India’s actual culture is described in brief in the Bhagavad-gita, where Lord Krishna explains that He has created human society with four natural social classes, or varnas. These are (1) an intellectual class, (2) an administrative class, (3) a mercantile class, and (4) a laborer class. These classes, or occupational divisions, are recognized by the qualifications and activities of the individual, and they are present throughout the world, not just in India.
In addition to social classes there are four spiritual orders, or ashramas, which correspond to stages in each individual’s life. The spiritual orders are (1) student life, (2) married life, (3) retired life, and (4) renounced life. These spiritual orders too are visible to some extent in every human society. The first part of life is for education, after which one gets married and finds a job. Later, at the age of fifty-five or sixty, there is retirement. The renounced order is not so prominent worldwide, although in some religions men and women do renounce married life altogether to become priests, ministers, or nuns.
The entire system of social and spiritual orders is called varnashrama-dharma (dharma meaning, very loosely, duty or religion), and the Vedic literatures prescribe detailed duties for an individual according to his or her position in a particular social and spiritual division. Although this varnashrama-dharma system does indeed constitute a complex body of religion and culture, the aim of all prescribed duties is unified—to serve and please the Supreme Lord. Service to the Supreme is called sanatana-dharma, or the eternal religion. Sanatana-dharma is the common function or duty of every living entity, the thread that unites all world religions, and the essence of the varnashrama system. The Srimad-Bhagavatam ( 1.2.13) states:
"The highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to social divisions and spiritual orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead."
In the Gita also, the Personality of Godhead Himself explains that the purpose of all the Vedic literatures is to know Him. So the Vedic varnashrama system, though superficially complex, is essentially simple. To simplify further, Lord Chaitanya has taught that since in this age the Vedic prescribed duties are nearly impossible to follow in their exact details, the members of all social divisions should instead please the Lord by regularly chanting His holy names and by offering the fruits of their work to Him.
The Indian caste system is a perversion of varnashrama-dharma because caste is decided by birth, not by aptitudes and activities. Caste by birth is not supported by any Vedic text; nor is it a very practical idea. Can a judge’s son automatically be allowed to preside in court? Does the child of every IBM executive have natural business talents? Of course not.
Another important difference between the original varnashrama system and Hinduism that has developed over time is that Hinduism recognizes no ultimate goal or conclusion. Hinduism embraces worship of both the original Personality of Godhead and the subordinate demigods, and recognizes the practice of many yoga disciplines, the performance of an array of austerities, and the execution of assorted rituals—all without ever acknowledging that the original purpose of these varied activities is to bring the widest possible variety of individuals to the transcendental platform of exclusive devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
So is ISKCON a part of Hinduism? Well, yes and no. You decide.
What’s clear, though, is that the word Hinduism is an outsider’s term for what’s going on beyond the Indus. What’s going on there is a misunderstood, misapplied version of the Vedic varnashrama system, a system that ISKCON—with invaluable participation and leadership from the Hindu community—is working to establish everywhere. To establish, in other words, on both sides of the Indus.
A prayer in Istanbul's Blue Mosque leads a young Christian to Lord Krishna.
John, a slight, fair-complexioned traveler who'd left home to broaden his perspective on life, found himself stranded in Istanbul. With nothing to do until money arrived from a friend, he'd gone to the magnificent Blue Mosque, an awe-inspiring monument with huge stained-glass windows, to offer a sincere prayer to God—the first such prayer of his life.
The devout Muslims were used to sightseers visiting their mosque, but they were surprised to see this young man kneeling as they did, with outstretched arms and palms turned upward. While growing up in London, John hadn't concerned himself with the once-a-week affair of religion, but throughout ten months of travel he'd been moved by the God consciousness of people's lives. While in India, he'd heard worshipers of Siva, Visnu, Durga, and Buddha declare their god supreme; in Europe Jesus was the only way; and now in Turkey it was Allah. In his mind John had resolved the conflicting beliefs by deciding, "God is the creator." And so on that clear winter's morning he prayed, "O almighty creator, if there is a God, there can only be one. And if You are there, please give me a sign."
Living simply, carrying only a few possessions, abstaining from drugs and other intoxicants, and making friends as he went, John had lived simply as he traveled. After his prayer he continued in that way, but his perception changed. He saw that God was fulfilling his desires, protecting and providing for him: although he had no money and never begged, still he never went hungry. More significantly, from the day of his prayer he strongly felt God's presence within himself and others. But after just a month or two that feeling faded, and John returned to India to find the truth through spiritual knowledge.
My husband and I met John about a year and a half later. By coincidence the three of us had moved into the Calcutta Hare Krishna temple around the same time—July 1971. Everyone liked the affable, unassuming newcomer named John, who by then had traveled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. My first service in the temple was to oversee the publication of a book honoring His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual master of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). September 1 was the anniversary of Srila Prabhupada's appearance day, and all the devotees were writing appreciations of him. John wrote,
I left home for the holy land of India in search of the truth through spiritual knowledge. From the Himalayas to Cape Comorin I traveled, meeting sadhu and saint. Is my search in vain? Am I looking for something beyond God? For still I am not satisfied.
The devotees of Krishna showed me a version of the Bhagavad-gita by their master, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It was called "as it is," which was the way I wanted to hear it.
I opened the pages, and before my eyes there it was, as it is, as it always was, God, Krishna. Not shapeless, but God with a form, and a beautiful form at that. A form which I could give all my love to and feel that it was not going into an endless, empty void and soon exhausting me of love, but instead it was going to a personal God. Not only was He accepting my love, but also replenishing it a thousand times more.
A thousand salutations at the lotus feet of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. (When will I be blessed by bowing my head beneath your holy feet?)
A thousand million salutations at the lotus feet of Lord Caitanya for starting the sankirtana movement.
A thousand million million salutations at the lotus feet of my dearest Lordships, Sri Sri Radha and Krishna.
John told me that during his search in India he'd been influenced by impersonalists who led him to believe that the Absolute Truth was ultimately formless and without senses. Following that lonely path, he had tried to cut out all relationships. (Sometimes he had even been unable to bear to be with his twin brother, Roy, who was traveling with him.) After a year, all he had gained was a cold, hard heart, and in frustration he had finally given up his search. Then just two or three days later, he had met the devotees.
"From that I realized that by my own endeavor I could never understand God," he said. "Only when I accepted guidance from a pure devotee did God reveal Himself. As soon as I read the books of Srila Prabhupada, he broke all my ice, all my rigidness and speculation, and instead he showed me the beautiful person, Krishna. When you understand the supreme person, then there's love and reciprocation, sharing between others, and you become joyful."
In October John's wish was fulfilled. Srila Prabhupada came to Calcutta, and not only did John bow his head at Srila Prabhupada's feet, but he also heard him lecture, talked with him personally, and, in the beginning of November, received initiation from him. Srila Prabhupada gave John the name Jananivasa dasa, meaning "the servant of God, who lives in everyone's heart."
At that time the devotees were holding a festival in Calcutta's Desha Priya Park. Srila Prabhupada was speaking every morning and evening to a crowd of thousands (on the weekend, ten thousand), and during the day the devotees were chanting Hare Krishna, singing devotional songs, and performing ceremonies of formal worship of the Deities of Radha-Madhava.
Madhava is a name for Krishna meaning "He who surpasses the sweetness of honey," and Radha means "She who worships Krishna best." Radha is the Lord's eternal consort. These eighteen-inch, effulgent brass Deities were presiding over the festival from Their altar in the center of the festival stage. Along with the pujari (priest), Jananivasa slept near the Deities to guard Them at night, and during the week-long festival he assisted the pujari by collecting flowers and leaves to decorate Radha-Madhava's altar.
In the Bhagavad-gita Srila Prabhupada explains that the Absolute Truth may be worshiped with or without attributes. As the Deity in the temple, He is worshiped in His original, personal form, with attributes. But the form of the Lord, though represented by a statue made of such material substances as metal or stone, is not actually material.
To illustrate this point, Srila Prabhupada gives the analogy of a mailbox. We may find a mailbox on the street, and if we post our letters in that box, they will naturally go to their destination without difficulty. But any old box, or an imitation not authorized by the post office, will not do the work. Similarly, God has an authorized representation in His Deity form, who is an incarnation of God and who will accept the devotee's sincere service. Although God is unknowable and unlimited, He mercifully appears in a form just suitable to our vision, in the form of the Deity. So the Deity is not an idol but the all-spiritual form of the Lord Himself. That is the all-powerful nature of the Lord.
In March 1972 Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha-Madhava, Srila Prabhupada, and twenty devotees, including my husband and myself, went to Mayapur. This rural village, located on the bank of the Ganges ninety miles north of Calcutta, is Lord Caitanya's birthplace. Jananivasa had already moved to ISKCON's recently acquired land in that open, flat farming area, where all of us, along with Srila Prabhupada, celebrated the appearance anniversary of Lord Caitanya.
The beautiful Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Madhava were to reside in the peaceful, spiritual atmosphere of Mayapur, presiding over our fledgling project, which was destined to become the world headquarters of ISKCON. Twenty-eight-year-old Jananivasa was becoming increasingly attracted to the beautiful forms of Radha-Madhava. He felt that serving Them directly was an ideal way to become Krishna conscious, and within his mind he prayed, "My dear Radha-Madhava, please allow me to stay here and serve You twenty-four hours a day for as many days as I live. Please take over my life and guide me."
* * *
In the years that followed, my husband and I regularly returned to Mayapur for the annual festival on Lord Caitanya's appearance day, and Jananivasa was always there, as he had been throughout the year, devotedly serving Sri Sri Radha-Madhava by bathing Them, dressing Them, offering Them delicious meals throughout the day, and so on. Then in 1975, suddenly (so it seemed to me) there were two “Jananivasa”s: his identical twin brother (now named Pankajanghri dasa) had joined him in the worship of Radha-Madhava after being initiated by Srila Prabhupada in England. (Jananivasa started wearing white clothes and his brother saffron, just so we could tell them apart.) Srila Prabhupada told one of his Mayapur managers, "I have noticed those two brothers. They are wonderful devotees. They never speak nonsense, they're gentle, and they're always meditating on Sri Sri Radha-Madhava."
Jananivasa told me about a conversation he had had in the temple with a middle-aged Bengali guest who had asked him, "Are Radha-Madhava made of brass or gold?"
"Well, what are you made of?" Jananivasa replied.
After a pause, the gentleman answered, "Flesh and blood."
Jananivasa told him, "As long as you think you're made of flesh and blood, then you'll think the Deity is made of one metal or another. But if you can understand that you're not the body, that you're spirit soul, and also that the soul is part and parcel of God, then you'll understand that you're of the same nature as Krishna."
The man wasn't sure that he had understood, so Jananivasa continued, "Do you accept that God is in your heart?"
"So what's He made of there, brass or gold?"
The man didn't know.
"On the basis of the revealed scriptures," Jananivasa said, "we can understand that God's form is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge. That form, which is present in the heart of every living entity, is made of pure spirit, and that is what the Deity in the temple is also made of. You can't see the Deity in your heart," he explained as the gentleman nodded in agreement, "you don't know who He is. So the Lord comes in a form you can see. Radha-Madhava appear to be material, but They are purely spiritual, and to the extent that you realize your nature is spiritual, to that extent you will understand that Krishna Himself is personally on the altar."
The last time I met Jananivasa, it had been more than thirteen years since he first set foot in the holy land of Mayapur. In his usual thoughtful and unhurried manner, he attributed his steadfast service to the faith and conviction he got by reading Srila Prabhupada's books. Before Jananivasa became a devotee, he had been sincerely looking for the truth, but he'd been plagued with doubts and confusion. Prabhupada had answered Jananivasa's questions and cleared away his doubts as no one else had. So Jananivasa had embraced Krishna consciousness with heart and soul. "When a person comes in touch with perfect knowledge, he understands that he's an eternal servant of God', he's subordinate to God," Jananivasa said. "Then he asks God to engage him in His service. That's the meaning of the maha-mantra we chant daily: 'O my Lord, please engage me in Your service.'"
When John had offered a prayer in the Blue Mosque, he had asked God just for "a sign." But eventually he got many signs. He met the Lord's pure devotee, he heard the Lord's words in the revealed scriptures, he began chanting the Lord's holy names, and he became dedicated to His service. And Jananivasa's undeviating determination and growing enthusiasm for that devotional service are a sustained sign from God of His divine presence.
Toward the end of our conversation, Jananivasa said, "You should do an article a year from now. Then the temple extension will be finished, and we'll be installing the eight gopis [Radha-Madhava's personal and most intimate associates]. After that, I'm planning to hold a festival each day of the year for the pleasure of Radha-Madhava, Srila Prabhupada, and all the devotees and guests. We'll make it so wonderful that anyone who comes will forget his material problems and become absorbed in the Lord's pastimes. We can even have several festivals going on simultaneously—a swing festival, a procession, water pastimes, feasting ..."
A German theologian allowed bhakti to speak to him, to address him directly, even to challenge him—but only up to a point.
In this century, more than ever, Christian thinkers have been concerned with understanding other religions of the world. This concern arises from what, for Christians, is an important question: Should we accept that other legitimate religions exist, or should we deny the existence of other true religions and hold that God has only one revelation, namely the Christian one? Some Christian theologians have taken a liberal stance by saying that Christianity is just one among many religions of the world and that the others should be considered just as valid. Others have taken an exclusivistic stance by saying that although there are certainly many religions, there is only one true faith-Christianity.
Still other Christian theologians, however, have been somewhat willing to look closely for genuine value in other religions of the world. One such theologian, one of the most renowned religious thinkers of this century, was a German scholar named Rudolf Otto, who is known particularly for his book entitled The Idea of the Holy. As a Christian theologian, Otto was not content simply to compare world religions. Rather, he was concerned with the significance of these religions for Christianity. Even more than this, he was sensitive to a pluralism that contained a religion that was to confront him in his own faith. Indeed, he was concerned with that particular religion which he felt to be the “competitor” to Christianity.
What exactly did Otto mean by a religious competitor, and what might that competitor be for Christianity’? Such a competitor, Otto explained, would make a claim to be equal or even superior to Christianity, and would have a well-founded basis on which to make such a claim. According to Otto, a religious competitor is “whatever may seek a place in our hearts or control over our lives that is not our faith but in rivalry with it.”
Out of all the world’s religious traditions, the one Otto considered the competitor to Christianity was what he referred to as “India’s religion of grace,” or “bhakti-religion.” He discussed this competitor in his book India’s Religion of Grace and Christianity Compared and Contrasted. There he wrote:
In this Indian bhakti-religion there is presented, without doubt, a real, saving God, believed, received, and—can we doubt it?—experienced. And this is just why this religion appears to me to have been, and to be to-day, the most astonishing “competitor,” to be taken most seriously.
Here we are dealing with a genuine religion and religion of experience. Religion is here no mere fringe sentiment furnishing a border to the rest of our life, but is conceived as the true meaning of life itself.
Otto dedicated a good part of this book to demonstrating and appreciating numerous similarities between bhakti and Christianity. Later in his work, however, Otto mentioned that the two religions demonstrate a difference of “spirit”:
One feels that there in the Gita the spirit of India breathes, here [in the Bible] the different and, let us say at once, the incomparably more piercing and vigorous spirit of Palestine.
Of course, nowhere in his work did Otto demonstrate that he knew the “spirit” of bhakti, nor did he ever express just how that “spirit of India” breathes through the Gita. For this reason, his statement is hard to accept as being scholarly rather than emotional. How did Otto determine that a “piercing and vigorous” spirit is somehow better than some other kind? For that matter, did he actually show bhakti to be less piercing and vigorous? Finally, how could Otto evaluate bhakti and compare it to Christianity when he himself admitted, “Our [Christian] theology lacks categories for the evaluation and comparison of other religious types with our own”?
Yet although Otto never fully understood bhakti, and although the accuracy of the way he represented bhakti is highly questionable, he still wanted to make bhakti compete with Christianity in terms of the religious components peculiar to Christianity itself:
If [religions] are to be regarded as genuine competitors.... they must be considered with regard to that which Christianity has to offer as its deepest and most characteristic element, as its peculiar gift, the last and highest good which it has to give humanity.
To compare two religions by approaching and comparing the “peculiar gift” and the “last and highest good” of both would be sound scholarship, but Otto did not do this. Rather, he considered how a religion, as a whole, measures up to narrow expectations drawn from Christianity. Thus he complained, “India has no ‘expiator’ [referring specifically to Jesus], no Golgotha [the hill upon which Jesus was crucified], and no Cross.” This says merely that bhakti is not Christianity; it in no ways shows bhakti to be inferior.
Because Otto’s model for comparison was one of competition, and because in every competition there must be a winner and a loser, Otto was obliged to do whatever he could to have Christianity beat its bhakti finalist. Christianity would then reign supreme not only over bhakti, its most worthy competitor, but over all other religions of the world.
Unlike Christianity, however, bhakti theology does have many principles by which to evaluate and compare religions. An important verse from the Bhagavad- gita (4.11)explains the diversity and unity among religions:
ye yatha mam prapadyante
tams tathaiva bhajamy aham
manushyah partha sarvashah
This verse states that God reciprocates differently according to the different ways we surrender to Him, and that the manifold religions simply express different degrees and ways of surrendering to God. These modes of surrender, in turn, determine the diversity of relationships with Him. This diversity, however, does not negate the unity of religion, which rests solely on our recognizing God as supreme and ourselves as His eternal servants.
Since Otto recognized the “full deity” of bhakti, he could not argue that the supreme God of bhakti is somehow not the same God as in Christianity, nor could he argue that the same supreme God is more supreme in Christianity. Rather, Otto had to judge bhakti in terms of the forms that Christianity’s particular relationship with God takes, as though this relationship were something that could have a rival. What Otto was unaware of is this: Because the diversity in religions stems from the variety of relationships one can have with the one supreme Deity, there can be no competition between religions that leaves only one religion as true. So Otto’s erroneous presupposition—that religions can compete—led him ultimately into some rather peculiar theological predicaments.
Unlike his more exclusivistic contemporaries, Otto was willing to take a close look at other religions to determine their genuine religious value. He was correct in understanding bhakti to be a “genuine religion,” with a “real, saving God” who is truly “believed, received, and experienced.” He was also correct in detecting a difference of spirit between bhakti and Christianity, although he was unable to attribute this difference to the uniqueness of the relationship with God found in each religion. That Otto considered bhakti the greatest religious “competitor” to Christianity attests that he allowed bhakti to speak to him, to address him directly, even to challenge him—but only up to a point.
Here it is important to note that the idea of a competition allowed Otto to appear to accept the existence of a genuine religion other than Christianity; exclusivism does not even begin to admit a competitor. But the very notion of a competition, which requires a winner and a loser, allowed Otto in the end to act exclusivistically—to conduct the competition so that Christianity won.
For the comparative study of religion to genuinely accept the existence of several true religions, it must avoid setting up a competition among them. Rather, the real purpose of comparative religion must be to further our understanding of the simultaneous unity and diversity of religions: the oneness of God and the diversity of possible relationships with Him.
Otto was unaware that bhakti is not just a religion, but rather the very embodiment of the highest principles to which all religions ultimately point. Although historically bhakti seems to have arisen from within the “Hindu” complex of religions, it is obvious from a theological perspective that it represents something more than its mere historicality. The experience of bhakti presents a fullness of meaning far beyond that of a particular tradition or sectarian religion (which is how Otto treated bhakti).Rather, bhakti embodies the underlying meaning of religion itself. What then, does the term bhakti mean?
A look at the etymology of the word bhakti is revealing. Morphologically, the word bhakti is derived from the Sanskrit verb root bhaj. In a general sense, this verb means “to worship,” “to love,” or “to serve,” and these words define bhakti in a basic way. But the most literal meaning of the verb bhaj is “to share,” which indicates what is ultimately essential to all religions: man’s devotion to and love for God, and God’s reciprocation in the form of His grace and love for man. This idea is expressed in many places in bhakti scriptures. In the Gita, for example, we find this: “To those who are constantly devoted to God and worship Him with love, He gives, by His grace, the understanding by which they can come to Him.” (Bg. 10.10)
Indeed, bhakti embodies the very science of the relationship between man and God. But Otto did not recognize the true nature of bhakti, and thus he failed to recognize that the fundamental principle of bhakti is also basic to Christianity. Although not emphasized as much as in such devotional scriptures as Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, it can be found in the saying of Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” If Jesus Christ himself recognized this bhakti principle as the first requirement, “the great commandment,” of all religion, then we may justifiably ask, What is the meaning of Christianity’s expiator, its Golgotha, and its Cross if one overlooks this fundamental bhakti principle?
If the religious “cult “phenomenon has proved anything, it’s that the established religions aren’t providing our young people with real spiritual life. Of course, this is not to say that the “cults” are. To be bona fide, any religion—new or old—must pass a rigorous nonsectarian test....
The infamous “anticult” groups, who have attempted by kidnapping and “deprogramming” to break members of the Krishna consciousness movement, have failed to enlist the support of either the government or the general public. But the issues raised by the “cult” controversy are still with us. Most importantly, the very cause of the “cult” phenomenon—the spiritual void plaguing human civilization, and especially young people—remains. Only bona fide religion can fill that void, so it is essential that we learn just what bona fide religion is and how to practice it. But who will say which religion is false and which genuine, which harmful and which beneficial? What we need is not someone’s self- interested opinion but a reliable, nonsectarian standard for separating the bogus religions from the bona fide.
The problem of distinguishing true religion from false is not new. Some five thousand years ago the most learned sages in the world assembled in a sacred forest in India to solve just this problem. The Srimad-Bhagavatam is a record of their deliberations, which began with the question, “What is the essential or real religion?”
The chief sage in the assembly answered, “The essential religion for all people is that which brings a person to the point of pure, unalloyed devotional service to God. Such loving service, if it is to fully satisfy the self, must be both unmotivated and uninterrupted” (Bhag.1.2.6). Clearly, this definition of religion is nonsectarian. What Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or Christian would dispute that religion means to follow the orders of God and become His servant?
But the Srimad-Bhagavatam sets a high standard for this service. If we want to practice genuine religion, we must serve God without any desire for personal material gain, and without interruption. This statement of the Srimad- Bhagavatam finds support in the Bible, which commands us to “love God with all thy heart, all thy soul, and all thy mind.” So here is our practical standard by which we can test any purportedly religious group: Is it or is it not providing its members the opportunity to render pure loving service to the Lord?
Established Religions Fail The Test
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the new religions pass the test, we find that the established, mainline religions fail it miserably. Even the anticultists can see that the mainline religions must not be spiritually satisfying to their young people. Otherwise, why would so many be leaving to search out genuine spirituality elsewhere?
Louis Moore, religion writer for the Houston Chronicle,has observed that young people are joining these “cults” in reaction to “meaningless, dull sermons,” “the impersonalized nature of too many churches,” and “archaic depersonalized forms of evangelism and pompous, largely ceremonial church worship.”
Marc Silver and Barbara Pash of the Baltimore Jewish Times wrote, “The cults’ popularity is a reflection of the ills and failings of modern Western society and of that society’s established religions. Those religions, including Judaism, have to a large degree become sterile, and, and very unspiritual. Over and over, Jewish cult members say that ... they never thought it possible to find holiness within Judaism. That statement presents a tremendous challenge to the Jewish community.” The newspaper goes on to castigate contemporary Judaism for selling out to “secular humanism, Americanism, and modernism.” Significantly, the paper finds the Krishna consciousness movement, unlike some other groups, to be neither exploitative nor corrupt.
Recently a concerned Christian group made this assessment of mainline Christianity: “The ultimate spiritual counterfeit is a Christianity which has been squeezed so far into the world’s mold that all distinguishing authenticity has been squeezed out of it—a Christianity which is culturally co-opted, socially irrelevant, doctrinally correct, and spiritually dead.”
In All God’s Children, Caroll Stoner and JoAnne Parke discuss at length the established churches’ failure to fulfill “man’s search for transcendental experience.” They also attack American society as a whole for failing to provide ultimate values that young people can live by.
And finally, in a recently published book on the “cults,” Ronald Enroth writes, “The spiritual quest of hundreds of thousands of American youth indicts our society as a whole, but it raises urgent questions for the church in particular. Young people are highly idealistic; many have rejected the materialistic sham that passes for the ‘good life’ in America. Is the church speaking to the gross materialism of Western society, or has it been co-opted? Young people are asking the big questions—but are the churches providing more than fun- and-games youth programs in response?”
Thus, a consensus seems to be forming that there are serious deficiencies both in our modern materialistic culture and in the mainline religions that have sold out to it. That this truth is widely acknowledged, even by many anti-cultists, is perhaps the first step toward a reconciliation of the “cult” issue.
But precisely what is it that the mainline religions fail to provide? According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Bible, it is the chance to render “pure, unalloyed, devotional service to God” the chance to love God with all thy heart, all thy soul, and all thy mind.” So secular society and its secularized religions ultimately fail because they cannot fulfill the natural, inborn need of the soul—the need to serve the Supreme unreservedly. Religion, as we have seen, means to obey and to serve and to love God. Yet the hallmark of most followers of contemporary, mainline religions is that rather than trying to serve God,they try to have God serve them.This is the antithesis of religion.
Real religion does not aim at increasing our sense pleasure, but the pleasure of the Lord. A sincere servant of the Lord knows full well that since God is already maintaining every living creature, there is no need to petition Him for personal necessities or desires. Instead, a truly religious person simply trusts in God and puts all his energy into serving God. It is only the pseudoreligionists who believe life is meant for sense enjoyment and God is our order supplier—the servant of our senses.
Another kind of pseudoreligion says that each of us can become God. Especially today in the United States, many so-called gurus and swamis teach that they are God and that their disciples can also become God. Of course, to these pseudoreligionists the idea of becoming God’s eternal servant is anathema.
Thus, a “cult” or bogus religion is one that aims at the practitioner’s personal satisfaction—either by trying to make God the practitioner’s servant or by trying to make the practitioner into God Himself. A religion is pure to the degree that it is free from such taints.
Some Suggestions for the Pseudoreligions
The mainline religions—which have now seriously deteriorated into full-fledged pseudoreligions—could conceivably revive their original purity. Unfortunately, so deeply rooted is their involvement with mundane concerns that their leaders cannot imagine how to return to real spiritual life. We would therefore like to offer a few suggestions. If the leaders of today’s mainline religions take these suggestions to heart, then there is every chance that their groups will become pure religions.
First, stop killing.
Second, glorify God by chanting His names.
If the Christians and Jews take up these two practices, they can cleanse their minds and hearts of material desires and develop genuine love of God.
Lord Jesus Christ taught, “Thou shalt not kill.” If the Christians actually love Lord Jesus, then they should obey his commandments and refrain from slaughtering innocent animals simply to gratify their own tongues.
Jewish scholars argue that the commandment not to kill is actually one not to murder—not to kill a human being. However, the Jewish scholars also admit that God originally instructed Adam to eat only vegetarian foods. People began eating meat only later (after the flood), because they had become corrupt. So, ultimately, the Jews agree that slaughtering animals for food is not good, and that God originally prohibited it.
In the Vedic literatures we learn that all living creatures—not just humans—have souls. Since every soul is a spiritual particle of God (the Supreme Soul), all living creatures are God’s children. Thus we are not meant to inflict pain on animals by slaughtering them. Rather, we should protect animals as our brothers. This is one of God’s basic laws—and if we break it we can have no real religion.
The second requirement for practicing genuine religion is to chant the names of God. The Vedic literatures teach that in this age the only means of reviving God consciousness is to chant His names. Certainly no Christian or Jew can find any reason to object to the congregational glorification of God. The Bible is full of exhortations to glorify and praise the name of God. In Psalm 113 King David sings,
Praise ye the Lord. Praise, O ye servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore. From the rising of the sun until the going down of the same, the Lord’s name is to be praised.
In the Krishna consciousness movement we chant the name Krishna. Krishna is not a sectarian name; it simply means “the all-attractive.” By definition God must be all-attractive, since He surpasses all others in wealth, strength, beauty, knowledge, fame, and renunciation.
But we do not insist that everyone chant the name Krishna.Other names, such as Jesus Christ, Jehovah,and so on, can be chanted. The Torah forbids the Jews to pronounce the Tetragrammaton (Yahweh), but they may chant many other names, like Elochim or Addonai.The Supreme Lord has an infinite number of wonderful attributes and activities—and for each of them He has a name, which anyone can chant to purify his heart and attain the perfection of God consciousness.
So there is nothing in the scriptures of the Western religions that would prevent their adherents either from abstaining from killing or from chanting the names of God. And it is certain that if the mainline religions of the West take up these two practices, then currents of real spirituality will once again begin to flow within their congregations.
The failure of the mainline religions has indeed left a terrible void in the life of the American people. In desperation many young people have turned to drugs and sex. Others have joined the new religions. Unfortunately, almost none of these groups are bona fide religions, and some are extremely harmful to their followers. But the anticultists are too bewildered and too attached to their own rotting institutions to distinguish the true from the false. Thus they have quite mistakenly attacked the Krishna consciousness movement as a harmful “cult”.
On the other hand, we have seen that even some of the harshest critics of the new religious groups (the Jewish Times,for instance) are acknowledging that the Krishna consciousness movement is authentic. Clearly, no parents should object to their son or daughter’s joining the Krishna consciousness movement, for it is a fully authorized movement solidly based on the classical Vedic literatures and guided by a pure, selfless devotee of God—His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Nonetheless, if you do not want your children to join the Krishna consciousness movement, we don’t mind—as long as you teach them in your own religious tradition how to serve God without motivation or interruption. Then their spiritual needs will be fully satisfied, you will “keep” your children, and we in the Krishna consciousness movement will consider that our mission has been successful.
So the choice is simple. You can join us and learn to refrain from the sinful activities of meat eating, intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling—and you can also learn how to chant the names of God recommended in the Vedic literature, namely Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Or, if you find some insurmountable impediment to joining the Krishna consciousness movement, then you can remain in your own faith—but begin following God’s orders by becoming a vegetarian and chanting the names of God that appear in your own scripture. If you accept one of these alternatives, and if you engage your offspring in serving the Lord as well, then the problem of “pseudoreligious cults”—old or new—will be permanently solved.