Should devotees vote in elections? What is the devotional perspective of democracy?
From Abhijit Toley Prabhu:
Should a devotee vote during political elections? A devotee knows that the candidate he is voting will be running many sinful institutions like liquor bars. By voting for him, is a devotee responsible for that sin? But at the same time that candidate might be representing a political party who is against cow-slaughter and so voting for him is better than voting for someone else. The question comes up because voting is considered a social responsibility and if devotees categorically ignore it, it gives one more reason to people to stay away from Krsna Consciousness. Does ISKCON have clear guidelines about this issue?
In the Mahabharata, Krishna says: na hi sarvam vidhiyate. ‘There’s not a rule for everything.’ (Mahabharata 8.49.49)
Answer: In the Mahabharath, Lord Krishna describes in 8.49.49 that nahi sarvam vidhiyate, there is not a rule for everything. So scriptures give us broad guide lines for how we need to act in lives but every individual has his own circumstances, his own psychophysical nature and accordingly that individual will have to act accordingly taking into consideration his or her nature and circumstances. So there cannot be any standard legislative sort of answer for the question of whether devotees should vote or not.
In general the Krishna conscious way of live gives us broad principles for guiding our life but there will hundreds of decisions that we will have to make in our lives which to the extent we have internalized the scriptural principles, to that extent we will be able to understand, this is the way I should act and this is why may be it is not in the best interests to act so what the scriptures offer us is a general map but each of us has to in a sense tread a path that is individual to us, the general compass and the direction in which we have to go and the overall terrain is given to us because everyone is individual and in individual circumstances the path to some extent that we have to follow is individual.
So we can observe the political situation around us and may be look at the candidates who are there and based on that whoever is endorsing principles that are conducive to devotional service, we can vote for them. So it’s not a general endorsement to vote for one particular party but we will may have to make a issue based or stand based decision based on the particular desha kala patra that is there. So in general there is a candidate or a party that is broadly supporting or atleast allowing devotional principles to go on, then in general devotees will naturally want to endorse that through their own vote. So the broad principle again is anukulye sa sankalpa praticulye sa varjana, accept what is favourable, reject what is unfavourable. So of course the practical application may vary according to time place circumstance.
Additionally to understand this answer more clearly we also have to see it in the broad perspective, voting is considered to be a public responsibility and negligence of that may also alienate intelligent people or thoughtful people in society, making them think that devotees are socially irresponsible they lack a sense of civic conscience or civic accountability so depending on our specific friends circle we don’t have to make a issue. We don’t have to become campaigners that all devotees should vote or all devotees should not vote. We have to see the specific circumstance that we are in and then we decide that and as far as the karma is concerned some devotees have the idea that if we vote for a particular political candidate and if that candidate sets up enterprises that involve breaking the regulative principles then will we also get a part of the karma, I feel that this whole idea of we getting karma from others is a slippery slope and we don’t have to bother too much about that. That way if we start going down that slope, next thing we may ask is if a baby is crying does the mother by offering the breast feed to the baby and then the baby grows up and becomes a law breaker, does the mother get the karma for having offered the breast milk, no that’s the mother’s duty.
So the karmic consideration need not be a primary consideration over here because that way in society whatever we do is having some sort of karmic implication unless it’s a explicit violation of the four regulative principles we don’t have to bother too much about the karmic considerations. We can focus primarily on the devotional considerations and see whatever is favourable for our own practice of devotional service, for the continued practice and possibly of expansion of the devotional culture in the broader society and based on that we can decide whether we should vote and if we vote for whom we should vote.
So regarding the democracy some devotees have a simplistic sort of dismissal of the whole democratic system by saying that Srila Prabhupada said democracy is demoncrazy, so some devotees may also say that democracy is government of the sudras, for the sudras and by the sudras and this is actually a caricature of Abraham Lincoln’s famous statement, government of the people, for the people and by the people. So now these sort of statements represent only the most high octane, high decibels, sound bytes that Srila Prabhupada has spoken. Srila Prabhupada has also given in His purports a more ____________ balanced understanding of democracy also and if we look at the way Srila Prabhupada implemented things, Srila Prabhupada established the GBC which operates on democratic principles. Whenever there are issues to be discussed and if there is not a general consensus that comes then the GBC votes and that voting is based on democratic principles. Now of course sometimes it is said that among educated intelligent people if there is voting then all of them are thoughtful and based on that thoughtfulness they are voting. So a council of brahmanas, if they vote then a democracy among them is meaningful because they are moving the issues properly and after moving the issues then they are voting where as most of the time generally people neither they know the issues nor they understand the broad principles of life and therefore their votes are not so valuable. This is a valued argument, at the same time this doesn’t mean that the whole system of democracy is negated, the same Abraham Lincoln who said that democracy is the government of the people, for the people and by the people, he also acknowledged that democracy is a terrible form of government but the best among all terrible forms of government.
There are various ways of looking at it one is certainly people can become corrupt but because they know that they don’t have perpetual power, so they can’t become absolutely corrupt and continue on the corruption for a whole life time. If we had a system for training and developing principled leaders like Maharaj Yudhistir, Maharaj Parikshit then the system of royal monarchy was certainly the best but in the modern society democracy does seem to be the form of government that is the most conducive for the practice and the propagation of Krishna consciousness. What are the alternatives to the democracy as a political system in today’s society. We have theocracy and we have communism so theocracy is present primarily in the Arabic world and there, there is no possibility for outreach of Krishna consciousness, even the devotees when they practice their own Krishna consciousness who are there for work or whatever they have to practice it mostly indoors, so they cannot practice, do any public practice of devotional service and even in communalism which was also not democratic so we know from books like salted bread how much devotees were tortured and had to suffer persecution under the communist government, even today in china with the communist government, sharing of Krishna consciousness is illegal.
On the other hand in the countries in the world where there is democracy is America, Europe, South America, Australia devotees have the facility to share Krishna consciousness with the world. So of course generally democracy is also associated with materialism but the point is that we do have the facility for practicing Krishna consciousness and sharing Krishna consciousness much more in a democratic setup than in any other alternative political system that we have. So that’s why from the realistic point of view. So I gave Prabhupada’s example first that He introduced GBC from the practical analysis of the whole situation that the democratic system that is helping us to share Krishna consciousness and Srila Prabhupada also talked about how eventually the hope is that we would have some sort of Krishna conscious government of course in modern society there is a great fear of theocracy because theocracy means the government by religious principles and people feel afraid that this would become religious fanaticism and that’s because the majority religions in the world, especially Islam and Christianity, these are the two main religions based on which people have seen in recent history religious governments and Europe has been plagued for centuries from the 15th , 16th centuries onwards to the 18th century there was a hundred year war between the protestants and the catholics and thousands and thousands of people were slaughtered just based on the religious faith and similar there were the crusades between Muslims and Christians.
So whenever religious governments has been there in the recent historical memory that has been accompanied by unfortunate excesses and that’s why many people shuddered at the thought of a theocracy in the world. So of course Krishna consciousness recognizes various religions and criteria is not affiliation with a particular faith but alignment with broad universal spiritual principles. So Srila Prabhupada said that if in the future we have a Krishna conscious government there will be different religious faiths and they will also be allowed to practice and they would be facilitated in their practice also to some extent. So Srila Prabhupada would give the example that just as there are different businesses and when the government is there the government oversees and facilitates various businesses. So various religions are in one sense spiritual businesses not in terms of making commercial profit through the spirituality but it’s spiritual pursuit that they achieve through the various religions and there has to be a broad overseeing facilitation by the government so that people can practice, people are actually practicing what their sacred religions are telling them.
So in that sense a broad god conscious government which is based on the universal principles of the four pillars of dharma as we know which are actually universal qualities that is kindness, forgiveness basically that four qualities that are associated with no meat eating, no gambling, no intoxication, on illicit sex. So those qualities are the four pillars of dharma and a god conscious government will uphold those principles. So if there is a god conscious government like that how will that come up. So Srila Prabhupada basically gave two examples in general in His books, one is He said that we may have a significant number of people in the society becoming devotees and then they may elect a devotional government or they may atleast have some legislators who are devotees and they can influence the policy to some extent and alternatively He said that there may be a powerful head of state who may become devotionally minded and through him the devotional culture can also spread and Srila Prabhupada actually in His own life tried both.
In America and Australia Srila Prabhupada inspired His disciples to start a political party, it was called “In god we trust party” and there were several devotees who joined in that party and they did a good amount of campaigning and Srila Prabhupada was very positive about the whole thing but eventually Balavanth Prabhu was there, Amarendra Prabhu was there all these devotees were there and they did some campaigning and they said that if we get elected actually we will actually___________ the four regulative principles and Srila Prabhupada told them one advantage of having politics is that you can criticize people as much as you want and nobody can criticize you for criticizing others. So Srila Prabhupada in that sense encouraged those devotees to be in politics but then eventually the financial implications of being in politics were too much and the shear amount of expenditure required to launch effective campaigns and do promotion. Srila Prabhupada decided that the lakshmi that could be used for direct outreach of Krishna consciousness should not be directed towards political purposes. So then later on Balavanth Prabhu came and met Srila Prabhupada, Prabhupada are you no longer enthusiastic about our devotee political party. Prabhupada said I am more enthusiastic but don’t ask me for any money and then that was the end of the whole thing but the devotees did get some experience over there and Prabhupada encouraged it.
So Srila Prabhupada’s idea if we understand from the experiences that He wanted Krishna consciousness movement to primarily focus on sharing Krishna consciousness with the world and along with that some devotees if they have the vigor and the resources can also try to enter into the political system by which they can share Krishna consciousness with the world through creating political reform and appropriate long term spiritually harmonized governing principles. On the other model, so here Srila Prabhupada said that we can use the democratic system and thereby campaign get votes and try to have devotees elected and Srila Prabhupada when He had the opportunity to meet Indira Gandhi He came to India. He dropped of His tour from America partially and came back to India and because Indira Gandhi at that time was under stress because of the recent assassination of Mujibhur Rehman and she was apprehensive that she might be assassinated, so she was distracted and so Srila Prabhupada couldn’t talk much with her but in whatever He talked with her, whatever He had planned to talk with her, He had written in a small diary and in that diary the contents were eventually available for devotees and that is also given in Lilamrt and Srila Prabhupada basically was encouraging her, was going to urge her to use her power to bring in god consciousness in the administration of India.
So in that sense Srila Prabhupada was open to both models of sharing Krishna consciousness through the political system either going from bottom up through elections or going from top down through influencing the top politicians. So either way Srila Prabhupada was open for that and that’s why we don’t have to minimize or deride democracy as demoncrazy. What alternative do we have in the current world society for us. So overall Srila Prabhupada’s attitude in sharing Krishna consciousness is pragmatic. Pragmatic means use whatever works. So we are not here in this world to capture power or impose our own religion on others but we want that there should be broad respiritualisation of society so that people don’t get their spiritual inclinations and spiritual prospects don’t get slaughtered by rampant materialism and whatever is required for that, we will do that. So with this broad principle and mind devotees can individually decide how best they can use their small but significant votes to further the long term vision that Srila Prabhupada had. So that may be by voting for a particular political party, that may be by voting for some other party at some other time or that may be by choosing not to vote. Actually according to the Indian constitution atleast according to some interpretations of the clause there is suppose to be in every election, a clause that if the voters don’t like any of these candidates then they can tick that option and if a substantial number of voters tick that option then actually none of the candidates will be selected and the parties will have to nominate other candidates who are respectable enough to attract the trust of the voters but usually that clause is not applied for whatever reasons and that’s why that option is not there but eventually if that option comes up then devotees can even use that option to ensure that parties feel candidates with some basic level of moral integrity and in this way whatever be the specific situation for a particular devotee using desh kala patra the time place circumstance devotees can arrive at individual decisions about how they should arrange to use the power of their vote in Krishna’s service.
Thank you for giving a very clear answer
Thank you for this article. It is such a relief for me to hear these views, so well thought through and substantiated by Srila Prabhupada’s practical approach to building viashnava society. On Facebook, we are constantly approached by very many causes to support. What is the vaishnava position to social responsibility causes such as protection of women, sexual abuse of children, etc. Also there is a view that if we do not support these causes we share in the karma of both the victim and perpetrator. Is there scriptural support for this frightening position? Could you discuss this further.