Responding to attacks on devotees in Bangladesh
During the Durga-puja festival in Bangladesh this year, posts appeared on social media claiming that the Hindus had disrespected the Koran by placing it on the floor before the Durga deities. A subsequent investigation found CC TV evidence showing that the Koran was placed there by a Muslim – it seemed to be a ploy of some Muslim extremists to stir passions among the Muslim masses. Unfortunately, it worked and hundreds in aggressive mobs rioted, destroying many Durga mandaps, as well as Hindu temples, businesses and homes. During these riots, a mob attacked the ISKCON temple in Noakhali, killing three devotees and disfigured the deity of Srila Prabhupada.
Channeling outrage in two ways
When such things happen, we naturally feel shocked, sickened and outraged. If we don’t feel angry, then where is our devotion? When five-year-old Prahlada was persecuted by his demonic father Hiranyakasipu, Lord Nrsimhadeva took serious action against Hiranyakasipu. We need not imitate Nrsimhadeva’s actions, but feeling anger when things connected with our Lord are threatened or destroyed is a natural sign of devotion. We feel angry about something when we are emotionally invested in it. Feeling indifferent about such incidents is a sign of apathy.
The main question is not whether we should feel angry, but how we should express our emotion of anger. Are our emotions taking control of us, impelling us to do things that we would regret or would make things worse? Or are we controlling our emotions and using their energy intelligently? We need to channel that anger in a constructive way so that our response makes things better.
Broadly speaking, there are two dimensions to our response in such situations:
1. Brahminical response based on scriptures (sastra)
2. Ksatriya response based on weapons (sastra).
The brahminical response with sastra, or scriptures, is used to protect people from misconceptions and to give them the right understanding. sastra or weapons are one part of the ksatriya response; this response is integral to a multi-pronged strategy for protecting the innocent and punishing the wrongdoers. Any healthy society needs to use both sastra and sastra to deal with such situations.
From a brahminical perspective, we need to do three things:
1. Protect our own faith by taking shelter of scriptures
2. Avoid getting caught up in sectarian anger towards particular groups
3. Work in a collective spirit with those who share our cultural values, even if we may have philosophical differences.
Let us discuss each of them in detail.
1. Protect our own faith: Such events may shake our faith in Krishna’s power to protect us. But scripture offers a holistic understanding of Krishna’s protection. Both in Ramayana and Mahabharata, there were great souls who were on the side of virtue but were killed: Jatayu in Ramayana and Abhimanyu in Mahabharata. In Ramayana, even before the war took place, Lord Rama had come to a place in central India known as Ramateka, where he came across piles of bones. These were the remains of sages who had been performing austerities and had been devoured by cannibalistic demons who thereafter spat out their bones. In this material world, horrible things may happen to everyone, including even to sincere devotees of the Lord.
Krishna’s protection does not always manifest at a material bodily level; nonetheless, it always manifests at the spiritual level. Jatayu died in the arms of Lord Rama, and Abhimanyu died for the cause of the Krishna. Both of these personalities were elevated to the most auspicious destination. Similarly, those devotees who were unfortunately killed in Bangladesh will be elevated to a destination that is more conducive for their spiritual evolution.
2. Avoid getting caught up in sectarian anger: In such situations, it is easy to get caught up in sectarian conceptions by labeling certain religious groups as bad or violent. Instead, by taking guidance of scripture, we can learn to see the world around us in terms of the three modes of material nature. All over the world, in every group, be it religious or non-religious, there are some people in goodness (sattva), some in passion (rajas) and some in ignorance (tamas). People in goodness can discuss and resolve differences amicably. People in passion and ignorance will use violence to fulfill their agendas. These three types of people are there in every demographic group. Sometimes the leaders of such groups may also be in passion and ignorance. In such cases, all their followers may also become violent and destructive. Despite such occasional actions by some people or groups, we should be careful and not paint everyone in those groups with the same brush.
In our Gaudiya Vaisnava history, let’s see how our acharyas dealt with such situations in their times. Srila Viswanath Chakravarthi Thakhur came to Vrindavan at a time after the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had fanatically wreaked havoc in that holiest of all holy places for Krishna devotees. Previously, Srila Rupa and Sanatana Goswami had come to Vrindavan when Akbar was the Mughal king. Akbar was tolerant, although not as broadminded as painted in the history books. Under Akbar’s rule, the Goswamis were able to develop Vrindavan. It was not that Akbar helped a lot, but at least he did not hinder the development. The Gosswamis also had a good rapport with the Rajputs, who formed alliances with the Mughal kings and who thereby that ensured Vrindavana’s protection. Aurangzeb, however, put his religious fanaticism above political alliances; he devastated Vrindavan and terrorized the Hindus. After these depredations, Srila Viswanath Chakravarthi Thakhur came there and restored Vrindavan (at least a portion of it) to its erstwhile glory.
This was also the time when Viswanath Chakravarthi wrote his commentaries of Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam, as well as many other devotional books. Despite having witnessed the consequences of Aurangzeb’s fanaticism, in none of his books did he mention those terrible acts. Instead, he reiterated the Gita’s statement that this material world is a place of misery, and that we can best tolerate and transcend such distresses by following the path of bhakti. Being an acharya, he taught by his example: don’t let contemporary situations consume your consciousness.
Additionally, we can sastra-cakshu (vision of scriptures) to understand these distresses philosophically. Such events of communal violence are part of adhibhautika-klesa (distress caused by other living entities), which is one of the three major forms of worldly distress, the other two being adhyatmika-kleça (distresses caused by the body and the mind) and adhidaivika-klesa (distresses caused by nature. The more people are in passion and ignorance in this world, the more they will inflict such miseries on each other. Undoubtedly, we need a ksatriya response to deal with such people. But if we let ourselves fall under the influence of rajas and tamas, then we will not be part of the solution; we will only further aggravate the problem. We need to see that the entire religion or entire country is not extremist; some people within it are.
3. Work collectively with those who share our cultural values:
While our focus is on spreading Krishna consciousness, just to survive, we need the basic maintenance of dharma (law and order in society). Therefore, we need to connect with those who share with us the basic values of dharma. Sattva means seeing our commonality with others, which includes with various groups within the broader Vedic and Hindu tradition. We need the breadth of vision to overlook theological, religious and philosophical differences so as to build bridges. Then we can have the collective strength to draw on during such situations. In the past when there was a threat to Bhaktivedanta Manor (the biggest ISKCON center in the UK), the entire Hindu community came together to counter this threat to what was then the biggest Hindu temple in the UK. And the Manor was saved. Similarly, when the Bhagavad-gita was banned in Russia, the fact that the main sacred Hindu book was banned created a national outrage that reached even the Indian Parliament. The subsequent governmental and media pressure compelled the Russian government to revoke the ban.
1. Better self-defense
2. Increased collective advocacy
1. Better self-defense
Temples need to make arrangements for better security through various ways like training interested members in self-defense, inspiring those already with such training to do service in the temple, and working with organizations that are more experienced and expert at such things. Such proactive preparation for self-defense has precedents. When Srila Prabhupada was developing the Mayapur project (the birth-place of Lord Chaitanya and the global headquarters of ISKCON), trained devotees there had to keep guns to protect the temple from dacoits in the region.
2. Increased collective advocacy
Simultaneously, it’s important to remember that the ksatriya way is not only about warfare; it is also about diplomacy. If we focus too much on weapons and fighting, we run the danger of being branded as right-wing extremists, and we may even face the danger of becoming such extremists. Broadly, ksatriyas may work in four ways to resolve conflicts: sama (conciliation: focus on common interests), dama (reward: offer benefits for amicable resolution), bheda (dissension: create rifts in the opposite camp to weaken their opposition) and danda (force: use physical or martial force to overpower opponents). Considering these strategies in today’s context, diplomacy can mean exerting pressure on the Bangladeshi government. Devotees across the world organized kirtana protest marches in 150 cities all over the world. Simultaneously, devotees along with other Hindu groups have given letters to the embassies of Bangladesh in various parts of the world. These letters have made four requests to the Bangladesh government:
● Protection of Hindu temples, businesses and homes;
● Justice by punishing the perpetrators;
● Reparation for the victims;
● Reconstruction of the temples at government cost.
For such protests and petitions to be more effective, we as a community need to be more united and focus more on advocacy, whereby our voices are heard by mainstream media outlets, human rights organizations and national governments. In today’s world, few things are as effective as monetary consequences. Many Western governments give millions of dollars in aid to Bangladesh; if these governments could be persuaded to make that aid conditional to the protection of the human rights of Bangladesh’s Hindu minorities – and such protection is the basic duty of any government that claims to be secular – that would galvanize the government into action. Even if ISKCON may not be demographically large enough for a democratic government to have to pay attention to, we are parts of a large community of Hindus, who are among the wealthiest immigrants in the Western world. Moreover, Hindus are usually respected for their law-abiding and tax-paying nature; their ethos of hard work and personal responsibility; and their educational and professional success. Together, we can have a voice that will be influential. Unfortunately, we as the Hindu community haven’t used such influence to do effective advocacy for causes that are important for us. May this terrible incident be the necessary jolt that impels us to come together for taking tangible action.