Voting in elections – Clarification in response to HH Bhakti Vikas Maharaj
I deeply respect His Holiness Bhakti Vikas Maharaj as an exalted Vaishnava, a dedicated leading follower of Srila Prabhupada, a meticulous scholar and a vigorous writer. Especially through his writings, he has also been one my most important shiksha-gurus. His books on brahmacharya and Prabhupada were vital guiding lights that shaped my convictions in the formative years of my Krishna consciousness. His three-volume magnum opus, Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava, is arguably among the best offerings that ISKCON has made to the Gaudiya sampradaya, forming a precious link to our glorious past and illumining the way to the future. I was so inspired by that book that I wrote a long appreciative review of his book and sent it to Maharaj, and he posted on his site as well sent on his egroup. Moreover, I have served Maharaj as an editor on a few occasions.
Given this background, I am dismayed and appalled at the impression being circulated in some circles that we are embroiled in some controversy due to our seemingly opposing stands on the issue of voting in elections.
Elections are integral part of the democratic process. They take up a fever of their own. During this time the media itself is filled up with ads, analysis, reports of elections, the trends and predictions.
From spiritual perspective there may be different responses possible to this social situation:
Three attitudes towards the world
There is the idea that all this is temporary and nothing is going to change in this world full of miseries. Ex. One may quote Srila Prabhupada here, when congress lost power in the 1970s, that time elections were coming up, at that time Srila Prabhupada told that ‘this is not going to make any difference. Adhyatmik adjustment is what is going to solve the problem. Not the social Adjustment.’ That may make some devotees dismissive towards the elections. From Transcendental perspective it is true that the material changes don’t make much difference. But Srila Prabhupada himself was not indifferent towards the social situations. At one time Srila Prabhupada encourages devotees to form a political party called ‘in god we trust’. There were devotees who campaigned in America as well as Australia. Srila Prabhupada said that one advantage of this democratic set-up of elections is that you can freely criticize others. So as to bring the people towards the awareness of the core issues and make healthy choices.
So Srila Prabhupada had both these attitudes. Rather to say we may find Srila Prabhupada quotes for whichever attitude we may have. So if we look at the Vedic philosophy at large there are 3 ways to look at the world:-
- ‘Demonize the world’ —–> Gyan Marg (everything in this world is dangerous, distracting and entangling so there is no need to indulge in it)
- Romanticize the world’ —-> Karma Marg (If only a few things change, then everything will be so wonderful in this world and we will be happy. Changes at material level can bring happiness)
- ‘Utilize the World’ —-> Bhakti Marg (Everything belongs to Krishna and should be used in the service of Krishna. Principle of Yukta Vairagya i.e. whatever is usable in Krishna’s service, shouldn’t be rejected)
Bhagwad Gita doesn’t endorse 1st and 2nd interpretations, but supports the 3rd way.The way Democracy works is that the way citizens can express their power is through voting. There is a material level and there is a transcendental level to it. Within the material level (made up of Goodness, Passion and ignorance) there are things that are Pro-spirituality and there are things that are anti-spirituality. For example Excessive passion and ignorance would be anti-spiritual.
For Bhakti, out of these material elements, what is Pro-spiritual is encouraged and what is Anti-spiritual is discouraged (lower modes). At one level devotees are meant to practice spirituality without getting entangled in this world. But at the same time Srila Prabhupada told devotees to contribute to the world by raising the consciousness of the society. So by the principal of Yukta-Vairagya whatever principle we can use for raising the consciousness we should use. And government is vastly useful and powerful machinery in today’s society. Whether that government is in the hand of those who are pro-spiritual or anti-spiritual that is something that is significantly going to determine if spiritual message that can be practiced and shared.
Fanaticism – secular and religious
There are irreligious fanatics which make practice of spirituality impossible. We had in Soviet Russia where devotees were tortured and persecuted because they were practicing religious principles. Communism which rejected all the religions as opium of the masses is irreligious fanaticism.
Similarly there are theocracies that encourage practices of one religion and ban the practices of other religions (at least publically).
Indian Tradition has been a tradition of plurality and broad-mindedness. There have been different paths for different people, according to their traditions/ mentalities/ psycho-physical natures. That’s why there are gyan marg, karma marg, and bhakti marg. So in today’s society this plurality is being endangered in the name of secularism. Often secularism should broadly mean that different religions to be allowed to practice without any interference by the state. But unfortunately in India, secularism often leads to reverse-discrimination against the majority. So what it ends up doing is in the name of being Secular the minorities are given disproportionate favors and majority is disproportionately disfavored. This sort of secular intolerance makes the practice of the mainstream Vedic culture more and more difficult. That is undesirable. That has to be avoided.
Of course at the other extreme is the religious fanaticism that is also not a part of the Vedic tradition. The Vedic tradition was that different people can propagate their ideas. There can be intellectual debate and the one which is intellectually strongest would triumph. But there are religious fanatics who do not tolerate any intellectual debate and they go into aggression. So both secular fanaticism and religious fanaticism are very dangerous for the plural culture of India for sharing the spiritual wisdom. Of course the mainstream media today highlights the dangers of loss of secularism far than the dangers of religious fanaticism in terms of the disproportionate favor to the minorities.
Three concentric circles
That’s why devotees who at one level wants to practice their spiritual life (the innermost circle) and want to share it with other and help them to come to the devotional level (the outer circle), and the outermost circle are people broadly who are not practicing spiritual life but are appreciative of the spiritual life, that what the spiritual culture would spread broader and broader. If the government is anti-spiritual or is run by those who are anti-spiritual or anti-Vedic religion can have injurious effects not only for the core practitioners or those who want to share the devotional culture but the outer culture can also be harmful. So devotees have to be very intelligent and responsible recognizing that just as we practice Krishna Consciousness, while doing so we use technology and so many things that were not used in the past because we understand the principle of Yukta-Vairagya, that whatever can be used in Krishna’s service must be used in Krishna’s Service.
Similarly the process of democracy and elections can also be utilized by the principle of the Yukta Vairagya for making the choices that will help in establishment of broad socio-cultural governance that is favorable to India’s broad-minded tolerant and pluralistic spiritual culture. So that’s why the elections provides the devotees the opportunity to exercise their social responsibility that by participating in the electoral process, casting one’s vote to those candidates who will promote the spiritual values, who will not reject spiritual values in the name of secularism, and who will gradually enable the establishment of socio-culture administration that raises people’s consciousness, in that way the devotees can help in re-spiritualization of society as Srila Prabhupada desired and wrote in his preface to Srimad Bhagwatam.
In response to several questions about this topic, I gave the following talk as as a clarification:
Someone asked the question to HH Bhakti Vikas Maharaj and he gave the following answer that led to the perception of a controversy.
To remove the misimpression of controversy, I wrote to Maharaj, clarifying my position. He also felt that the controversy was unnecessary and has posted his clarification here.
My clarification (This talk is an expanded version of the below text, which is an edited version of the letter I had sent to Maharaj – edited so that it addresses the readers instead of Maharaj)
In my talk, “Voting in elections is the social responsibility of devotees,” my using this term ‘social responsibility’ may have conveyed that I was saying that devotees have to vote in elections. That was not my intention at all.
I gave my talk because I had come across some devotees who were insisting that, as a matter of principle, devotees shouldn’t vote. Is that sort of insistence warranted by the teachings of Srila Prabhupada? No doubt, he disapproved democracy. But does his disapproval amount to an eternal ban on voting for devotees?
Only if we divorce his words from his actions.
In his practical example, Srila Prabhupada was dynamic in responding to changing social realities. For example, in the initial days of our movement, he stated that there was no need for varnashrama – just Krishna consciousness was enough. But later, seeing how the contemporary culture made sustainable practice of serious bhakti extremely difficult, he emphasized that varnashrama was needed.
This social dynamism was evident even in his approach to democracy.
For example, though Lord Chaitanya refused to meet King Pratap Rudra when the king himself was desperate to meet him, Srila Prabhupada went out of his way to meet Indira Gandhi – he cancelled a world tour to meet a democratically elected leader who was a politician and a woman. And he did that after he had repeatedly stated and written that democracy was not a desirable form of government, that politicians weren’t trustworthy and that a female being a head of state wasn’t appropriate.
How do we understand this difference between Srila Prabhupada and Lord Chaitanya – and even the difference between Srila Prabhupada’s words and actions?
By understanding the context.
Srila Prabhupada lived in a socio-political situation substantially different from the one at the time of Lord Chaitanya. Whereas Lord Chaitanya’s reputation would have been sullied by meeting a king, in the modern situation Srila Prabhupada’s reputation would have been enhanced by meeting the Indian Prime Minister.
In his writings, Srila Prabhupada declared as ideal a government headed by a spiritually enlightened monarch. But he also recognized that today’s practical reality was radically different, necessitating a pragmatic response that made the best use of a bad bargain. One such response was meeting and influencing a democratically elected head of state.
Srila Prabhupada’s context-sensitive response demonstrates that his practical actions in relationship with democracy were far more nuanced than mere condemnation. And ISKCON’s global history confirms that devotees too need to adopt carefully considered socio-political positions.
In today’s socio-political situation, overall countries with democratic governments have been far more conducive for sharing Krishna consciousness than countries with non-democratic forms of government.
Had it not been for devotees’ contacting politicians who had been elected democratically and who therefore had to be responsive to public opinion,
- We might have had no temple at Juhu (An influential democratic leader intervened to stop the demolition),
- Bhagavad Gita As It Is might have been banned in Russia (India’s democratically elected Parliamentary leaders vehemently opposed the proposed ban and sent a strong message to the Russia government).
In contrast, non-democratic governments have often been hostile to devotees
- The non-democratic communist governments in USSR persecuted devotees.
- The non-democratic theocracies in the Middle East ban the public practice of devotional service to this day.
- Countries with nominal democracies such as China are similarly hostile.
So, in a world when there’s no enlightened spiritual form of government, ISKCON’s history testifies that democracy appears the best option for us.
In a democratic setup, there will be karmic reactions in voting for a government that doesn’t correct wrongs like cow slaughter. But is not voting necessarily a karmically safe option?
Given the choice between a party that may curb cow slaughter and others that most certainly won’t curb it, not voting may also lead to karmic reactions. How? Because by our inaction we may have neglected doing what was in our power to try to stop cow slaughter. After all, the Bhagavad-gita asserts that inaction is also a form of action; and the Mahabharata demonstrates that Bhishma and Drona became culpable during Draupadi’s disrobing because they didn’t do anything. As His Holiness Bhakti Vikas Maharaj has stated in his talk, the social situation today is extremely complex and there are no easy answers or quick solutions such as “all devotees should vote” or “no devotee should vote.”
Of course, if we had a devotee-candidate, or better still, a political party formed by devotees was contesting, then naturally the answer would be: “devotees should vote”. Srila Prabhupada encouraged devotees to start a political party and campaign for getting votes. Unfortunately, at present, there’s no such party.
For those devotees who feel inclined to vote for a party that is relatively more favorable to sanatana-dharma than others, my talk intended to show that our philosophy is inclusive enough to accommodate their inclination. Maharaj too gave that room for choice by stating that devotees can vote.
The purpose of my talk was to help devotees concerned about bringing in a social environment more favorable to sanatana-dharma could see voting as a social opportunity.
If I intended to convey that voting was a social opportunity, then why did I use the word ‘social responsibility’?
To convey that devotees shouldn’t be apathetic to the social situation, dismissing it as mundane. I have observed that the dismissive disdain for voting among some devotees unnecessarily alienates socially responsible people, many of whom are intelligent, are in the mode of goodness and are potential devotees. Such people see the disdain of devotees as a confirmation of their misperception that devotees are socially irresponsible: “You people don’t care about what happens in society – you just want to, like a parasite, use society’s resources for doing your own other-worldly stuff.”
If we feed the public perception that devotees’ role in society is parasitic, we do violence not just to our preaching mission but also to the truth. Our social role is not parasitic, but cathartic. Or at least it should be. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to transform society positively – in that sense, devotees are meant to be socially conscious and socially concerned, or in other words, socially responsible. One way devotees can express that social responsibility is by voting in elections.
Will such voting distract devotees from their far more important social responsibility to implement Srila Prabhupada’s broad program: all-round social reform necessary for bringing in guna-karma-based varnashrama?
That distraction is possible, but not probable. Because voting in elections will take only a few minutes once in a few years. As I had said in my talk, Srila Prabhupada has abundantly cautioned us against romanticizing this world. This means that we shouldn’t become obsessed with politics, entertaining vain hopes that political change alone will solve all problems. The occasional activity of voting shouldn’t become a replacement for our perennial social responsibility of spiritually-centered reform.
To the contrary, this occasional voting may well contribute towards that long-term program. One way to progress towards varnashrama is by influencing social leaders. Though the ideal situation is that political leaders come to spiritual leaders for guidance, we are far away from that situation, as Maharaj pointed out. So making the best of what we have, one way to begin interacting with today’s leaders is by making our social presence felt in a way that counts for them – as a group of socially conscious voters.
To conclude, my use of the word ‘social responsibility’ was not to convey that voting was something that devotees had to do – rather, my intention was to convey that it being a social responsibility is optional, as contrasted with a spiritual responsibility which is mandatory.
Devotees who feel inclined to vote don’t have to be made to feel that they are going against Srila Prabhupada’s teachings – nor, of course, should devotees who feel disinclined to vote. His Divine Grace has built a house big enough in which both groups can live.