As sadhus, should we focus on internal change through sadhana or social change through activism?

by Chaitanya CharanJanuary 13, 2017

Answer Podcast

Transcribed and edited byNayanasundari Devi Dasi

QuestionAs devotees, as sadhus, should we focus on just internal change or should we focus on social change also?

Answer (short)

  • Primary focus in Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition has been on internal change. However, Srila Prabhupada went a step forward and used scripture as a means for social commentary to bring about a change in the society.
  • Prabhupada said, he has come to create Brahmanas and Brahmanas should inspire others to bring about a change in society.
  • Krishna conscious outreach can happen at multiple levels, depending on an individual’s inspiration.
  • Bhakti tradition is to inspire people to go one step higher & nourish their hearts.

Answer (long)

If we see our tradition, our tradition has primarily focused on internal change. Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakura lived in Vrindavan at a time when Mughals had devastated Vrindavan. That’s the time he wrote his Bhagavatam and Gita commentary. But he doesn’t mention even one word about the Mughal devastation anywhere in his commentaries. So traditionally scripture was seen as primarily a tool for philosophical exposition. In our tradition, Bhakti Vinod Thakur was the first one to write books on social issues. But he also did not mix scriptural commentary with social analysis. When we look at his commentary on “Chaitanya Charitamrita”, “Amrita-pravaha-bhasya”, that’s simple spiritual commentary. He has addressed social issues in his other books like “Tattva Vivek”, “Jaiva Dharma”.

But Prabhupada went one step forward and used scripture as a means for social commentary. This is unprecedented in our tradition. Even Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakura didn’t do this. Srila Prabhupada presented Krishna consciousness as a social activism kind of program. He wanted to bring about a change in the society. Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakura also wanted that.

When we talk about change in society, what are we talking about? One level is preaching. Preaching is inspiring people at individual level to take up Krishna bhakti. That is always been done in the tradition. Traditionally there were the Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas. The Brahmanas would teach scripture and they would inspire the Kshatriyas to do the practical changes. It’s not that Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakura was not concerned about what happened in Vrindavan, but he did not see writing on scripture as a means of bringing about social change directly. Indirectly, definitely such change will happen. As it is said in Srimad Bhagavatam

SB 1.5.11
“tad-vāg-visargo janatāgha-viplavo”

Literature which is full of transcendental glories of the Supreme Lord is directed toward bringing about a revolution in the impious lives of this world’s misdirected civilization.

The words in Bhagvatam will bring about a transformation in the society. But that’s ultimately, not immediately. Bhagavatam may not call upon, “Oh there are adharmic rulers, go overthrow them”. Bhagavatam is talking about removing the adharma in one’s own heart and becoming devoted to Krishna. Prabhupada, in his commentaries, talks a lot about purifying oneself, practicing strict sadhana, becoming liberated, and going back to Godhead. Going back to Godhead is a primary theme of Prabhupada’s purports. At the same time, Prabhupada talks a lot about changing society. In the later part of his life, he talks a lot about establishing Varnashrama dharma. But that is just one aspect. The important thing is he strongly talked about changing society. While talking about changing society, Prabhupada emphasized and deemphasized certain things. For example, Prabhupada did not appreciate ‘humanitarian work’ so much. Though sometimes he is quoted as being completely against it, which is not true. If we consider the ‘Food for Life’ program, the way it started was, a child was starving and Prabhupada said, people should not starve near our temples. Starvation is a bodily phenomenon. Prabhupada was concerned about that.

The issue for us, as followers of Srila Prabhupada in the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya, is that – “Are we a purely brahminical body or are we a body which consists of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and other members of the society also?” If we consider our standards of sadhana – following 4 regulative principles, chanting 16 rounds – these are very high level of brahminical standards. Prabhupada also said that I have come for creating Brahmanas. So if we are a brahminical society, we focus primarily on brahminical activities, which include studying and teaching shastras, and let other people bring about social changes.  Although we have a certain level of brahminical thrust, Brahmanas alone don’t change society. Brahmanas actually influence those who change society. And those who are going to act in the world, they are going to act based on what is the pragmatic need of that time.

We should not see Krishna conscious outreach as just one kind of outreach, which implies that if we do some specific activities, people will follow us, they will become devotees, and then only our outreach is successful. We should rather see that Krishna conscious outreach can happen at multiple levels. Even if some people take up the cause of dharma, in a general sense, and want to focus on some specific activities, then they can do so based on their inspiration. However, such an approach cannot and should not become institution’s focus. If certain individuals are inspired to act in particular ways, we cannot legislate or restrict that. Different people will be inspired by different things. When somebody is inspired by a particular thing, trying to stop that doesn’t work. Rather than trying to legislate inspiration, we need to recognize that there are multiple levels at which the outreach of dharma can take place.

I met a very prominent Sri Vaishnava leader. He told me that he thinks about outreach in 3 ways. I shared this with Anuttama prabhu, ISKCON’s Communication director, and he liked it very much. These 3 ways are:

  • Intra-religious – means within our religion and particular group, we inspire people to rise higher and higher. That means we become committed practitioners of Gaudiya Vaishnavism as Prabhupada has taught us. That’s one level of outreach.
  • Inter-religious – that means we work with other people of similar interests and religious values. For example, Prabhupada wrote a letter to the Pope, saying we should work together to counteract atheism. We can follow Prabhupada’s example and customize it in our own way. Inter religious doesn’t necessarily mean Hindus & Christians. It could mean within the Hindu religion also, we work with different groups at different times. That is also one level of outreach.
  • Exo-religious – means we work with people who are not religious but there is some common ground. For example, we can work with groups who may not be religious but they may be interested in making the world greener, more ecofriendly etc. That may also be suited for us.

We have to see outreach as taking people from where they are, to one step higher. Now if they can take the full step to come to Krishna bhakti, that’s wonderful. But if they can’t, let’s take them one step higher. Traditionally what happened within our movement was, “Either you come with us, or if not, then we will push you away. You are demons because you are not practicing Krishna bhakti.” It’s not that simple. There are people in different modes. So if people can’t come to the level of practicing Krishna bhakti, then they can be encouraged to come one step higher from where they are. Some people may be inspired, saying, “Only those who practice Krishna bhakti, we will focus on them”. Others may think, “Wherever people are, if they come one step forward, that’s also a big change”. In society today, if more people rise from passion to goodness, that can also bring about a substantial positive change.

Dharma is not a set of law codes. It’s not like anytime a difficult situation arises, we should have a “Dharma Google”. Dharma is more of understanding the purpose and then finding out how to actualize that purpose in a certain situation. By our sincere practice of bhakti, we feel purified and inspired, and through such purification and inspiration we feel empowered to help other’s also raise their consciousness. Every interaction should not be seen as a forum for preaching Krishna consciousness. Sometimes, rather than teaching deep philosophy, we may just teach some basic values, which will develop appreciation in people’s heart for Krishna’s devotees. A lot in such endeavors depends on desh, kaal and paatra (time, place and circumstances).

What should not happen is that institutional resources should not be used for furthering a particular individual’s inspiration. If an individual is inspired, they can find like-minded people, form a group, and do what they want to do to raise people’s consciousness. Institution has a purpose and its resources are to be used for that purpose. The institution is more an inspirational rather than a legislative organization. We cannot legislate.  Rather we provide inspiration for people to take it at their level.

To conclude, bhakti tradition is not a museum. Our goal is not to preserve some artifacts. In a museum, everything is done in a particular way and everything is kept as it is. What is the practical use of anything that’s there in the museum? Bhakti tradition is actually a garden where new trees are grown, new flowers blossom, and new fruits are coming. There are hearts which need to be nourished. We need to blossom and we need to give fruits & flowers. Whatever is required for the nourishment of the hearts, has to be done.

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Chaitanya Charan

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