“Can you keep a secret?”
With this question, I prefaced a juicy tidbit of gossip that I was about to share in a recent conversation with someone. I looked around as if furtively, moved closer to my hearer and dropped my voice. I don’t think I did any of this intentionally – it just happened because of my decade-long habit of public speaking.
Predictably, my hearer nodded their head earnestly to assure me about their ability to keep a secret and leaned forward to ensure that they didn’t miss even one drop of the juice in the tidbit.
As I opened my mouth, suddenly I had an epiphany. I felt as if I was seeing myself from overhead, and my hypocrisy lay exposed in front of me. Here I was asking my hearer whether they could keep a secret and I was immediately showing them that I myself couldn’t keep a secret. How? By willingly, even eagerly, speaking what was supposed to be a secret.
A rhetorical question becomes literal
Epiphanies often occur when we somehow see the common in an uncommon light. The question “Can you keep a secret?” is almost always a rhetorical question – the hearer hardly ever gives a negative answer. Rare are the souls who go into a confessional mode, admitting their inability to keep secrets.
Somehow, while verbalizing this question, I took it not rhetorically but literally and thereafter emerged the epiphany. Seen from a devotional perspective, the “somehow” needs to be replaced by “Krishna’s mercy,” especially when the resulting insight helps us move closer to him. The Bhagavad-gita (15.15) states that Krishna resides in the hearts of each one of us and from that strategic vantage point offers guidance.
Moving from the source of the epiphany to its content, I have heard, read, spoken and written about why we shouldn’t gossip. This epiphany helped me realize that my use of “we” was an expression of not just courtesy but also honesty. As a writer whose content is often didactic, I have trained myself to use “we” instead of “you” to avoid coming off as pedantic. While such courtesy is important, it struck me that even more important is honestly admitting that the “we” reflects reality: I am actually in the same boat as they are, struggling against similar human weaknesses.
In fact, a more honest expression would be to replace the “we” with an “I” – I don’t know for sure that my readers have the tendency to gossip, but I do know for sure that I have that tendency.
Why I shouldn’t gossip – and why I still do
Gossip can be simply defined as speaking about a situation to someone who is a part of neither the problem, nor the solution. What do I as a spiritual practitioner gossip about? Usually, it’s about what has happened to whom or who did what. Being a part of a spiritual movement means that we get placed in a social circle where the slips of others from the expected moral and spiritual standards become fodder for gossip.
The reasons to avoid gossip are many, ranging from the practical to the principled. The practical include “I will be taken to task by my spiritual guides if they come to know about my gossiping” and “If those I gossip about come to know about it, they will hit back at me in kind, or worse.”
The principle-centered include the socio-ethical “I should treat others as I would want them to treat me” and the spiritual “I don’t want to displease Krishna by doing what he doesn’t want me to do: offend his devotees.”
I have fought a long battle against the urge to gossip – and unfortunately it has been a losing battle. Still, whenever I have achieved some victories, they have been more due to the practical consequences than the principle-centered concerns. I have learnt the harms of gossiping the hard way. When I give in to the urge to gossip, I intend to speak just one bit. But frequently, what begins as a bit becomes a byte and maybe even a mega-byte. And more often than not, my hearers follow my example instead of their words. That is, they don’t keep the secret, as they had said they could – instead, they spill it, as they have seen me doing. Who knows, they may even be following my example ditto by prefacing their time under the high sky of gossip with the question, “Can you keep a secret?” And by a chain of Chinese whispers, the starting bit transmogrifies into a billion terra-bytes whose resemblance to the original bit may well take a billion years to discover. But the starting bit came from me, so I am held accountable, not just for that bit but also for all those countless bytes. And I end up with countless bites – the many complications that result from gossiping.
Despite having repeatedly learnt the lesson the hard way, why does the lesson still remain so hard to learn? Why do I still give in to the urge to gossip?
I don’t think that I harbor any strong malice towards anyone. Maybe I am being too charitable to myself here. Maybe the malice is hidden so deep inside the dark dungeon of my heart that I haven’t yet detected it. But wouldn’t it need to surface to make me gossip? Whenever I have introspected after a gossip relapse, I haven’t noticed any strong malice towards the objects of my gossip. What I have noticed is the craving to catch attention by showing that I was privy to a secret that the hearer didn’t know.
Human beings being what we are, we all have our weaknesses. And one such weakness is that we often pay more attention to negative things about others than positive things. The urge to gossip exploits this human weakness among hearers to make speakers speak negative things.
Thankfully, bhakti-yoga offers a much more positive way to gain attention: speaking about Krishna. When we love him purely, we speak about him because we want him to be the center of our attention – and that of our hearers too. Still, till we come to that level of purity, we can spiritualize our need for attention by speaking about Krishna. And the bhakti tradition offers abundant Krishna-centered subjects for discussion.
Two questions to curb gossip
Relevant to the topic of gossip is the Bhagavad-gita’s (17.15) guideline for speaking: Speak words that are non-agitating, truthful, pleasing and beneficial. Gossip is definitely agitating. And though it may seem pleasing, it is pleasing to our lower side. This is the side that offers flickering titillation while depriving us of the lasting satisfaction that comes from our higher side. Our higher side is our core – the soul – that longs for purer, nobler joys – joys that culminate in an eternal loving connection with Krishna.
For resisting the urge to gossip, I find the last two points especially helpful when phrased as questions: Is it true? Is it beneficial?
Is it true? What we speak while gossiping is often what we have heard while gossiping from others, who too have frequently heard it in gossip. And stuff that comes in a tradition of gossip is usually dubious. In fact, over the years of studying and writing, I have come to know that even what we hear from seemingly reliable sources may be questionable. I am not talking about overt or covert media bias and other such distorting effects, though they too contribute to the unreliability. I am talking about the generic difficulty in precisely reconstructing events.
A few years ago, when a senior devotee was embroiled in a controversy centered on an alleged ethical lapse, I tried to find out what had actually happened. Two devotees, who are my close friends and whose intelligence and integrity I trust, gave me radically different accounts. By digging deep enough, I was eventually able to reconcile those accounts. But I hardly ever do that kind of investigation when I gossip about some similar issue.
A major challenge of living in this digital age is that anyone can gossip onto a blog and anyone from any part of the world can access it through the world wide web. While the Internet can be a convenient and valuable source of information, it can also be a morass of disinformation. Any information, especially negative information, about others from the net needs to be critically scrutinized.
Is it beneficial? Even when something is true, that doesn’t make it beneficial. Any form of education requires the structuring of information for proper assimilation. English teachers don’t speak to first-grade students controversies regarding usage of certain idiomatic words; they focus on teaching the basics of the language. Similarly, I while sharing spiritual knowledge don’t need to talk about controversies that aren’t relevant to those who are taking their initial steps in spiritual life.
It wasn’t easy for me to acknowledge the importance of ignorance. During my two decades in the movement, when I came to know of the lapses of some past leaders, I felt shocked, even misled: “Why was I kept in the dark about such things?” But over time, I have realized that there was no plot to blindfold me. The occasional moral lapses in the movement were just a reflection of the moral weakness of material existence itself and more specifically a reflection of the moral looseness of contemporary culture in which immorality has become pandemic. An epidemic can victimize even doctors if they become negligent. Will the medical staff in their discussions with patients dwell on such accidental casualties instead of the treatment’s process and success? No. Then why should I expect that kind of discussion from my spiritual guides? After all, they are like the medical staff in Krishna’s movement, which is like a spiritual hospital that offers the bhakti treatment for curing human self-centeredness.
And the treatment does work. The Bhagavad-gita (09.02) indicates that we can experientially verify the higher truths that it teaches. While I am still a long way from seeing Krishna or any such transcendental vision, I have nonetheless had some spiritual experiences. Many times have I relished many times extraordinary peace, illumination and fulfillment through absorption in Krishna. And I haven’t experienced anything similar in anything else, certainly not in gossip. Irrespective of what happens where to whom, Krishna still awaits me in my heart, beckoning me to savor his shelter. Instead of discussing how we can best attain his shelter, why should I discuss things that dishearten us in seeking that shelter?
To be sure, I am not recommending deliberate covering up of the truth. I am simply stressing that to be truthful I don’t need to tell sordid truths about others – all the more so when I am not ready to share unpleasant truths about myself. After all, I too am a struggling seeker, and I have my issues. The best way I can be truthful is not by washing others’ or my dirty linen in public, but by sharing the process that has enabled me to have my truest experiences – my experiences of my true identity.
Ultimately, we all need to subordinate our pursuit of knowledge to our purpose; otherwise that pursuit can sabotage our purpose. No one can know everything about just one small thing such as, say, an atom or even a subatomic particle. Then I certainly can’t know about everything that’s happened in Krishna’s worldwide movement. My purpose in coming to Krishna’s movement is not to know what’s gone wrong with whom where, but to know how I can stay right on the path to Krishna.
The Bhagavad-gita (04.11) states that Krishna reciprocates with us according to our desires. Just as he is reciprocal, so too is his movement. If I look for controversies in Krishna’s movement, I will find them and find them often more than what I might find outside his movement. If I look for Krishna in his movement, I will find him too and find him far more easily than what I might find outside his movement.
Caution in discussing true things is required also because of the importance of confidentiality in bhakti. The medieval-saint Rupa Goswami indicates in his bhakti guidebook Upadeshamrita (text 4) that speaking our heart confidentially and hearing others share their heart confidentially are integral to affectionate relationships. And affectionate relationships are foundational to bhakti, which centers on relating not just with Krishna but also with those who love him – and those striving to love him. So, if a devotee-seeker has privately shared with me some personal issue, by gossiping about it, I violate the trust of that devotee and decrease my trustworthiness as a candidate for close relationships.
Don’t prey on others – pray for others
While fighting the urge to gossip about the challenges other devotees are going through, I have found prayer immensely helpful. Once during a conversation when I realized that I had got sidetracked into gossip, I tried to get back on course by saying, “Let’s pray for them.” And it changed the whole mood from condemning to commiserating. Instead of perversely enjoying others’ misery, as in a horror movie, we focused, like a medical team, on the bhakti-yoga treatment, praying that it help the troubled devotee.
Sadly, I haven’t been able to tap the power of prayer much while fighting gossip. The attitude about the objects of gossip becomes so negative that it is tough to shift the mental gears and pray for them. Gossip makes me into a predator who feasts on others, more specifically on their lower side that has caused their lapses. Over the years, I have understood that deep, transformational prayer can’t be treated as a switch we turn on or off at our convenience. It needs to be cultivated by tilling the soil of the heart with a devotional disposition towards Krishna and his devotees.
I also try to use my daily journaling in my battle against gossip. If I gossip about someone, I try to write positive things about them and pray for them – and of course pray for myself, that I may break free from the clutches of gossip.
Certainly, all negative talk about others is not gossip. There are times when we may need to speak such things to caution others about potential dangers on the spiritual path. But such cautionary talks require constant vigilance. On several occasions, I started speaking with a cautionary intention, but unwittingly ended up with a predatory disposition. I have a long way to go in my battle against gossip.
“So can I”
When I got the epiphany about my hypocrisy, I didn’t think of all this – it came later during sustained reflection. At that time, I just stopped the relapse into gossip by saying, “Let’s discuss something more positive.” My hearer surprised me with their self-control and sensitivity: self-control in not insisting that I share the secret, and sensitivity in not pointing out that my use of “us” was incorrect – the discussion on that topic had been a monologue by me alone.
Will I be able to avoid gossiping in future? So many times have I initiated an unnecessary discussion with the question “Can you keep a secret?” that it has become an unconscious tool for grabbing attention. I doubt whether I will be able to stop myself from asking that question. If I can’t, then I have come up with a contingency plan, a second line of defense – something that can reinforce this epiphany by stressing the literal aspect of the question.
Next time, if I verbalize the urge to gossip by asking, “Can you keep a secret?” and get the predictable affirmative response, I hope and pray that I will be able to stop that urge by my own affirmation: “So can I.”