No exception to the rule: “To every rule there is an exception”
Recently I heard about a devotee who had been rendered dumb by an accident. That devotee communicated through writing on a laptop and conveyed that after the mishap initially his greatest regret had been that he was no longer able to chant his daily sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mahamantra that he had vowed to chant at the time of initiation. But after talking with senior devotees, he had understood that the essential purpose of the rule of chanting was to cultivate remembrance of Krishna, something which he could still continue to do internally while also trying to develop the habit of chanting in his mind. The understanding of this principle had inspired him so much that he felt he now had a deeper, richer and more dynamic inner relationship with Krishna.
The Principle Underlying the Rules
This story brought to my mind a famous Padma Purana verse about the universal principle that underlies all rules:
smartavyah satatam vishnur vismartavyo na jatucit
sarve vidhi-nishedhah syur etayor eva kinkarah
Always remember Vishnu; never forget him. All the rules and prohibitions mentioned in the scriptures are the servants of these two principles.
On our devotional journey to Krishna, rules are like roads. Roads provide a clear, uncomplicated and relatively comfortable pathway for us to proceed towards the destination. Similarly, rules that tell us what to do and what to not do form the clear, uncomplicated and relatively comfortable pathway for us to advance spiritually.
However, roads are not always the best pathways for the journey. Sometimes, the roads may get congested by vehicles, spoiled by potholes, or ruined by landslides. At such times, moving towards the destination by a particular road may take more time and trouble than moving by an alternative road or even moving across the countryside.
Similarly, rules are not always the best pathways for our devotional journey. The material world tends to inflict upon us three major types of miseries: adhyatmika (bodily), adhibhautika (sociocultural) and adhidaivika (environmental). Due to these miseries, our bodily, sociocultural or environmental circumstances may make some rules so troublesome and time-consuming to follow that they slow rather than speed our journey to Krishna. At such times, alternatives to those rules may become desirable or even essential.
That’s why more important than rules are principles. If rules are like roads, principles are like compasses; they point the direction where we need to go. The roads are normally the best ways to go where the compass points, but not always. Similarly, the rules are normally the best ways to reach where the principles direct, but not always. To aid us in our spiritual journey, the scriptures provide us not only specific rules, but also generic principles.
Sticking to the rules, missing the principle
The inability to understand the principles underlying the rules can cause a significant obstacle on the devotional path. Srila Rupa Goswami in his Upadeshamrita (Nectar of Instruction, verse 2) calls this obstacle as niyamagraha, insistence (aagraha) on following the rule (niyama) without understanding its purpose. For example, if the disabled devotee’s spiritual guides had been sticklers to rules, then they would have considered his or her devotional prospects doomed. Their negative attitude would have, sooner or later, rubbed off on him. Consequently, he would, in addition to being physically disabled, have also become emotionally disheartened, precipitating thereby a tragic and unnecessary breakdown of his spiritual practices.
This example illustrates how we need to understand that just as there are rules, there are exceptions to the rules. And when it comes to cultivating remembrance of Krishna, there is no exception to the rule that “to every rule there is an exception.” Material circumstances can make it impossible for us to follow specific rules, but they can never stop us from remembering Krishna if our desire is strong enough, as it was for this physically challenged devotee.
No doubt, that devotee’s example is extreme, but something similarly extreme happened to the great devotee Bhishma during his last days. He became immobilized due to innumerable arrows piercing through his body. So, he couldn’t offer physical obeisances to all the great sages who had come to see him off on his final journey. But, as the Srimad Bhagavatam (1.9.9) describes, he was dharma-jna: he understood the principle of offering respect that underlay the rule of offering obeisances. That’s why according to time-place-circumstance (desha-kala-vibhagavit), he served the purpose of the rule by offering mental and verbal respects to the sages.
Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to this verse, “Expert religionists know perfectly well how to adjust religious principles in terms of time and place. All the great acharyas or religious preachers or reformers of the world executed their mission by adjustment of religious principles in terms of time and place. There are different climates and situations in different parts of the world, and if one has to discharge his duties to preach the message of the Lord, he must be expert in adjusting things in terms of the time and place.”
Srila Prabhupada himself demonstrated a keen awareness of the principle underlying the rules. For example, during the early days of ISKCON in the 1960s, he started centers or temples without adhering to all the traditional rules that govern temple construction such as that the temple structure should have spires. The purpose of these rules is to enhance people’s remembrance of Krishna; a spire serves as a reminder to people that the particular place is a house of God. Srila Prabhupada went to America with practically no money at all; he had just forty rupees with him, that too in a currency that was nearly impossible to convert to American dollars in those days. And the first batch of people who became devotees comprised mostly hippies, who too had meager financial resources. So, if he had considered acquiring or constructing a building according to traditional temple rules indispensable, then the effort required would have been huge and impractical. Moreover, it would have deprived or obstructed many interested seekers the opportunity for remembering Krishna till the time such a temple became possible. Being a sara-grahi (knower of the essence), Srila Prabhupada utilized whatever places were available and transformed them into working temples. That’s why many of the initial ISKCON temples were converted storefronts in a hippie neighborhood. It is testimony to Srila Prabhupada’s expertise that these improvised temples not only became potent, vibrant spiritual centers that aided and shaped the spiritual journeys of thousands of seekers. They also became the launching pad for a global spiritual movement that has eventually built all over the world some of the most magnificent traditional temples that have been erected in modern times.
Another example of understanding the principle relates to a standard cultural rule for sannyasis (renounced monks) forbidding them from traveling overseas. The purpose of this rule is to maintain the glory of the sannyasa ashrama by ensuring that sannyasis don’t go to impure places where their purity is likely to become compromised. (The lands across the seas are considered in traditional Indian culture to be godlessly materialistic and so likely to contaminate sannyasis). But Srila Prabhupada was instructed by his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, to go to the West for sharing Krishna consciousness there. Both these visionary spiritual leaders – exalted master and dedicated disciple – recognized that in modern times the glory of the sannyasa ashrama would be enhanced and the broader purpose of Vedic culture to enable everyone to return to Krishna would be served by a committed sannyasi going overseas and inspiring people living in the West to adopt Krishna consciousness. Why? Because due to changed sociocultural values, Indians tended to imitate, even ape, the West in the name of progress. So if Westerners became Krishna devotees, then seeing their example, Indians would also imitate the devotional lifestyle and values adopted by Westerners and thereby take their own national devotional legacy seriously. And this visionary strategy of subordinating the rule for the principle succeeded spectacularly. When Srila Prabhupada brought his Western disciples to India, their example sparked a devotional revival in India that is continuing, even expanding, to this day.
Based on Vedic wisdom, Srila Prabhupada instructed all ISKCON devotees that in order to grow devotionally, they need to rigidly abstain from four activities that are violently anti-devotional: meat-eating, intoxication, illicit sex and gambling. In most situations, the rules to avoid these activities are inflexible, as is indicated in Srila Prabhupada’s calling these rules “regulative principles.” But extreme situations may warrant even putting these aside for fulfilling their purpose. Once, as described in his official biography, Srila Prabhupada was told by a disciple that he couldn’t go to communist countries to share Krishna consciousness because there was no vegetarian food available. Srila Prabhupada responded emphatically, “Eat meat, but preach.”
In his books, he also mentioned another situation when meat can be eaten: as an apad-dharma, in the case of emergency when survival is itself at stake. The human body offers the unique opportunity for self-realization that is not offered by any subhuman body. That’s why sacrificing a subhuman body for the sake of preserving a human body is allowable if that is the only way for preserving the human body.
The underlying purpose of all prohibitory rules is to protect us from damaging our devotional prospects by indulging in anti-devotional activities. But preserving life is fundamental for pursuing any kind of devotional prospects, hence the exception in emergencies. Similarly the higher purpose of improving the spiritual prospects of thousands of people by enriching their life with Krishna consciousness can offset the contamination that results from eating meat for survival – provided, of course, such a course of action is enjoined by an exalted acharya.
Fortunately for us, over the last few decades science has increasingly vindicated the medical and ecological benefits of vegetarianism. Due to this and other reasons, today vegetarianism is no longer considered un-nutritious or old-fashioned; it is often acknowledged as a healthy, even trendy, alternative dietary choice. So, nowadays we are far less likely to find ourselves in the extreme kind of situations that are mentioned above.
Rejecting the rule and the principle
It is critical to underscore that all this talk about exceptions to rules shouldn’t become our justification for nonchalantly tossing aside rules in the name of following the principle. If we neglect or reject rules thoughtlessly, we become trapped by another obstacle on the devotional path. The same compound word niyamagraha, when separated differently, indicates this obstacle: non-acceptance (agraha) of the rule (niyama) for whimsical or concocted reasons. Rules are usually the best way to remember Krishna, so, if we toss aside the rules, we are likely to become unable to fulfill the principle of remembering Krishna and may even become more forgetful of him. For example, if we eat meat just because we don’t want to displease a friend who has offered it to us, then we perpetrate the serious transgression of violating a regulative principle and even an initiation vow for those who are initiated. In terms of the road metaphor, we leave the road just for the sake of sight-seeing and find ourselves on a U-turn that slides us rapidly away from the destination.
That’s why it’s safe to err on the side of caution and follow the rule when in doubt. But, by studying the Vedic literature given by Srila Prabhupada, by understanding his personal example and by seeking the guidance of mature devotees, we can develop our own awareness of the essential, indispensable principle and learn to abide by it, even when we can’t or don’t abide by the letter of the rule. The more we advance spiritually, the more our inner compass will become clearer and we will be able to cultivate remembrance of Krishna under all circumstances and thereby make further spiritual advancement. Following the rules may not be exciting, but abiding by the underlying principle makes life exciting and fulfilling.
Fulfilling harmony of rules and principles
The essential point of this article is that we can save and utilize a lot of our emotional energy if we understand the spirit of the law in addition to understanding its letter. Sometimes we become emotionally strained and drained due to inner resentment and outer obstruction in following rules. The four regulative principles, for example, are standards for those who want to advance spiritually. Resenting them or seeing them as obstacles is due to our lack of culture. Put succinctly, in this case the problem is with us, not with the rules.
Anyway, whatever the cause of our emotional exhaustion, it causes us to miss largely or entirely the purpose of the rule: cultivating remembrance of Krishna. Without such remembrance, our practice of the rules becomes boring and burdensome. Even if we succeed in following the rules strictly, we tend to become proud of our strictness and look down upon those who are lax. Both ways, our emotions keep us away from Krishna even when we are following the rules.
We have a far better alternative: focus on the principle.
If we strive to remember Krishna with a positive devotional attitude, no matter how difficult our inner or outer situation, then we will gradually get the taste of the higher joy of Krishna consciousness that will make the struggle far less difficult. Moreover, as Krishna promises in the Bhagavad-gita (10.10), seeing our sincere endeavor he will guide us internally how to make the right choice to come closer to him: how to follow the principle, irrespective of whether following the rule is possible or not.
On most occasions in our devotional life sticking to the principle will require sticking to the rule and sticking to both will require an intense struggle. A standard example of this may be our daily chanting of the sixteen rounds. Following the rule itself may seem a struggle and additionally striving to remember Krishna may seem like an increase in the struggle. But by going through this dual struggle, our mind will gradually become attached to Krishna, as he reassures in the Gita (12.9: abyasa-yogena tato mam icchaptum dhananjaya). When our mind becomes thus attached, when the fundamental scriptural principle becomes internalized as our foundational guiding principle, our life will become joyful – constantly, eternally, supremely joyful.