Isn’t ISKCON sectarian that it stops devotees from hearing from other Vaishnava groups?

by Chaitanya CharanMarch 6, 2017

Anwser Podcast


Duration: 9 mins

Transcribed by: Bhaktin Raji Nachiappan

Question: Isn’t ISKCON sectarian that it stops devotees from hearing from other Vaishnava groups?

Answer (short):
– In principle, a devotee should be ready to learn from everyone. Srila Prabhupada often exhibited this mood when he would quote Chanakya pandita.
– When we are cautioned about learning from other bhakti sampradayas, it is not because of sectarianism. It is because, in our vision, the knowledge from the two different traditions may become competitors to our faith and to our bhakti.
– Without proper discrimination, such competition, can potentially trivialize our relationship with channels through whom we are receiving our bhakti. Consequently, it can create a disturbance in the faithfulness of our heart.
– We can learn from other sampradayas as well but a central fidelity need to be maintained.

Answer (Long):
There is a lot of history behind this question. I’ll talk about this in principle first and then in practice. In principle, a devotee should be ready to learn from everyone. Srila Prabhupada was not against taking knowledge from material or even completely mundane sources. He often quoted Chanakya pandita who probably was not a Vaishnava. Even if he was a Vaishnava, Prabhupada never quoted his Vaishnava teachings, but only his moral teachings. Srila Prabhupada would also sometimes quote English poets, for example, William Cowper and others.

When we are taking knowledge from mundane sources, we clearly differentiate between material and spiritual knowledge. Also, we do not ever see material as a competitor to spiritual knowledge. For example, we may quote something brilliant from Oscar Wilde, but we do not take him as our spiritual master. We always treat material knowledge as supplementary to spiritual knowledge. However, when it comes to devotional or spiritual knowledge, we may sometimes compare knowledge available in ISKCON with spiritual knowledge outside ISKCON. If there is not sufficient discrimination such comparison can create difficulties with our bhakti. Let me explain.

When we are cautioned about learning from other bhakti sampradayas, it is not because institution is sectarian, but because of concern for our progress in bhakti. The learnings from other sampradayas can become competitor, first to our vision, then to our faith, and finally to our bhakti. Such an occurrence can disrupt our consciousness because bhakti is not just a matter of learning, it is a matter of loving, it is a matter of the heart. In bhakti, we establish a relationship with Krishna through a particular channel. This relationship can be enhanced by learning from other channels also, but if there is not adequate discrimination, then due to competition, we may feel that our channel is defective or deficient. We may then go somewhere else. We may think that because we are going towards the same goal, there is no harm. However, goal of loving Krishna is not just a matter of information. It is a relationship and relationship is a commitment. We have got our relationship with Krishna from and through the mercy of Srila Prabhupada. If devotees start feeling that what Srila Prabhupada has given us is not enough and to love Krishna we need to go elsewhere, then such an attitude not just becomes a competitor to our relationship with Srila Prabhupada and Krishna but it becomes a substitute.

In bhakti, we often say that the means and the end are the same. We practice the process of loving Krishna so we can follow it lovingly forever. In the same way, the relationship that connects us with Krishna also has to be endured. When we trivialise this important relationship, then it becomes a problem. It is not that the knowledge from the other bhakti sampradaya is banned or bad or sinful. It can however potentially create a disturbance in the faithfulness of our heart. However, if the purpose is clear then a devotee can learn from other sources too.

Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura published biographies of all the four Vaishnava acharyas and he also taught about their lives. Best approach to benefit from such knowledge is that (and it is already happening in ISKCON) those devotees who are very devoted to Srila Prabhupada and understand his mood, they study various bhakti literatures of both previous acharyas in our sampradaya and the acharyas from other sampradaya and then present those in a way that is harmonious with the understanding of Srila Prabhupada. Such work can enrich and enhance our bhakti without creating a disturbance in our faithfulness. In the first canto, first chapter of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada himself gives a list of many commentators on the Bhagavatam who say that the serious student should study Srimad-Bhagavatam. Interestingly, in this list he does not restrict himself to Gaudiya Vaishnava commentators only but talks about other acharyas as well. Prabhupada definitely wanted us to enrich our bhakti with the wisdom of the whole tradition. However, we have to do it in a way that does not disturb our fidelity. That balance has to be carefully sought.

In the past, devotees who did not understand this aspect, trivialised their connection with Srila Prabhupada for various reasons. The sanctity of the relationship in bhakti is not just with whom we are developing the relationship but also through whom we are developing that relationship. It is not that our relationship has to be through that one person. We can have other saints who inspire us as well, but there has to be a central fidelity.

In the past there have been problems, therefore now there is extra precaution. If a mother has a bad experience of the child being kidnapped, then when the child comes back, she may not allow the child to even step out of the house alone. Now, it is not that every step outside is a danger, but the mother’s reaction is understandable because she has experienced great danger. Therefore, we do not have to absolutize the principle of not hearing from another Vaishnava sampradaya and say that they are wrong. Neither do we have to demonise and label ISKCON as sectarian and narrow minded. There has to be a proper understanding depending on the philosophical principle and the practical historical context.

(End of answer)

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Chaitanya Charan

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