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Saturday, September 15, 2012

STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

As I sat in the train this morning looking for the few remaining swans that float in pairs in the wetlands just off the Hudson River, I felt a pang in my heart. Such loyalty and grace! If time is a stern teacher, one of its hardest lessons is that these qualities--so natural in these creatures—are one of mankind’s rarest and most transient possessions. Too many people we believe are worthy of our deepest regard abuse our trust and often in ways that can only disgust and disappoint. Among the worst of these are people in high leadership positions who base their claims of authority on the spotless reputation of their predecessors. Unfortunately for these charlatans (in politics, religions, etc.), when they fall, their so-called authoritative claims collapse like a deck of cards. What their followers once took for a swan is in fact more akin to a vulture. When one hears of these betrayals of faith, it is consoling to remember the few genuine paramahamsas who emerge from the mists of time more gracious and loyal than the swans after which they are named. At moments like this, their memory is balm to the wounded soul who might imagine himself as one of the swans’ offspring that awkwardly paddle along in the wake of their majestic parents.
Swami Vivekananda
Great souls, moreover, are as likely to appear as leaders in science and the arts as they do in religion or philosophy. Gifted with the legendary discriminatory powers of the paramahamsas (“great swans”) of Hindu legend, these men and women of genius instinctively seek out the essential and categorically reject false or interpolated “facts” in any field of endeavor. This quality is not simply a product of innate intelligence, but is carefully honed using an educational model based on the scientific method of inquiry. Although the phenomena studied can vary widely, the procedure is the same: data needs to be collected carefully using observation and experimentation, and conclusions can be reached only after testing one’s hypothesis under a rigid control model. Terminology must also be clear and the methodology used must be clear enough to be reproduced by one’s peers. In the end, the conclusion must be a logical consequence of the hypothesis. Poets and artists use a similar method in that they must closely observe phenomena and proceed with their interpretation with as much craft as imagination. One of the best examples of this marriage of skill and artistic expression is the aptly-named Sundarakanda of the Valmiki’s Ramayana.

In religion, the stakes are much higher and for good reason: spirituality is a quality shared by humanity in general and the yearning for transcendence is universal. Our conscience is an innate quality born of our unique cerebral capabilities, the byproduct of which is our capability to see ourselves objectively. For some, this leads to the impression that we are embodied spirits. Those of us who share this belief that we are souls sent here on a mission by our Creator find our consciences guided by His presence, be it the Paramatma or the Holy Spirit. These shared agreements notwithstanding, the notion that the Hindu religion is a primitive, barbaric faith peopled by idol worshippers of every description dominated Western views of the subcontinent until the late 19th century. If not for the courageous efforts of the great Bengali Hindu reformers, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciple, Swami Vivekananda, this view might very well have remained unchallenged to this day.

As a student of religion who spent her teenage years and most of her young adulthood as a disciple of the Gaudiya Vaishnava guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, it never fails to amaze me how he reviled the fellow Indian mystics who not only introduced Hinduism to the West. Moreover, if not for their combined efforts, the receptivity of his ideas to these foreigners would have been virtually nil. In other words, my guru stood on the shoulders of the giants of modern Hinduism and had the temerity to declare that he and the cult peopled by his mostly-Western followers superseded all of them. If not for the obfuscation and outright lies that the ISKCON/Hare Krishna movement has perpetrated on a sizable portion of the Hindu public in India and abroad, I would never have spent so much time expounding on how Bhaktivedanta Swami dismissed the legacy of such great Indian patriots as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, and Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati. However, the truth must be told and I hope that my words reach their intended audience.

To begin this section of my essay, there is no better introduction than the great speech Swami Vivekananda gave as a delegate to the 1893 Parliament of the World’s religions in Chicago, beginning with the famous “Brothers and Sisters of America”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxUzKoIt5aM . This electrifying performance, while it obviously thrilled the audience, must have reached the heavens, where I hope it was received with great satisfaction by Vivekenanda’s guru, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (who attained mahasamadhi in 1886). What praise can be sufficient for such a guru and disciple? Vivekenanda’s bold assertion of interfaith communality had a solid comparative basis inasmuch as he was a profoundly learned man—truly a prodigy—whose accomplishments included, in addition to a deep knowledge of Sanskrit scripture, a wide-ranging study of Western philosophers from David Hume to Charles Darwin. That is, he was a student of Western skepticism and proceeded as a disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa armed with a thorough understanding of philosophy both from religious and agnostic viewpoints. His advancement of the term that “all religions are pathways to God” was therefore not simply a matter of blind faith, but also an understanding based on study, observation, and the development of a terminology based on a widely-understood knowledge base. In other words, to the extent possible, Vivekenanda’s understanding of comparative religion had a scientific basis. Nevertheless, Vivekananda, was, as the philosopher William James called him, “the paragon of Vedantists.” His appreciation of other faiths never led him to waver in his own staunch Hinduism.

How appalling, therefore, to learn that the Hare Krishna guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, who, as I have stated, could never have attained an iota of his preaching success in America and abroad but for the great Indian pioneers who cleared the path before him, openly insulted them. For example, he dismissed the Ramakrishna Mission as “simply bogus propaganda” and its founder, Swami Vivekenanda, as a “rascal, claiming that he had “ruined the Vedic culture.” He was so incensed at the thought that his godbrother, Bon Maharaj, had been influenced by Vivekenanda that he claimed that their guru, Srila Bhaktisiddanta Maharaja, called Bon Maharaj a “black gorilla.” This fear of competition from even his own godbrothers led Bhaktivedanta Swami to issue a letter (dated 3 September, 1975) forbidding his disciples from having any dealings with any of them. Similarly, he dismissed the Arya Samaj founded by Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati, claiming in 1971 that “the Arya Samaj movement started in India but it is now dead and gone” and that “the atheistic Arya Samaj does not believe in the Bhagavad Gita.” The latter assertion is utter nonsense: of the 21 Shastras accepted by the Arya Samaj, the Mahabharata is one of them. As for the statement that this world-wide movement with 10 million followers was in 1971 “dead and gone,” all I can say that some comments are too ridiculous to deserve any kind of serious response.

Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati
It is fitting to conclude this essay by praising a few of Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati’s beliefs that are exemplary regardless of one’ s religion or nationality. The first is the preference he gave to “Nyaya,” or logic in one’s life, be it interpretation of scripture or life in general. The second is his admonition that we should think for ourselves and understand that in the search for knowledge, trial and error is inevitable. He was a reformer in the best sense of the term. His unrelenting push for Swadeshi in India had a major role in the successful fight for independence and the freedom fighters of the Arya Samaj gave their lives to the struggle in disproportionately large numbers. In comparison, the members of the ISKCON/Hare Krishna temples spend most of their donated income building ornate temples filled with idols that they dress in a manner reminiscent of the most garishly-costumed Bollywood stars imaginable. Nearby are lotus-shaped asanas for their gurus, many of which are better suited for the circus. Indeed, the entire operation of the ISKCON empire rests upon a shaky foundation of a multitude of scams meant to hoodwink donors and others of their money (including illegal land-selling scams in India), guru and idol worship, and blind adherence to their ill-informed, pseudo-Hindu doctrines. Disillusioning their members privately and chastising them publicly would be far more effective than sending these cultists donations that they cannot be trusted to use for philanthropic purposes.

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7 comments:

Mohan said...

Appreciate your initiative and thanks for sharing such a treasure of knowledge.

roger said...

Really nice to discover your site. As a vedantist I am one of those dreaded and despised "mayavadis". My Krishna devotee friend has stopped trying to debate me because she can't win against the advaita arguments but I see her crushed under the weight of preposterous ideas which cause lots of guilt and blame and a sense of her own superior virtue. Her company has become increasingly intolerable and I avoid her now.

Sudeep said...

It is really shocking to know that Prabhupada called Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda as rascals.
Ramakrishna and Vivekananda never ever disrespected any culture and belief and that is why they are respected worldwide.

Dushyant said...

Dear Ekayani,

Thanks for your essay. I have one request for you that could you please provide me the reference to the statements Prabhupada made in regard to Vivekananda.

Thanks and regards,
Dushyant Chaturvedi

propheticfire/ D. gansmann said...

Hi im ex devottee of hare krishna.... i find articles here enlightening and intelligent

Anonymous said...

I joined an ISKCON ashram without knowing anything about the philosophy, but knowing quite a lot about the universalist, vedantist, we-are-all-one philosophy (as well as having experienced life in other non-ISKCON ashrams). I felt I was clear about my spiritual beliefs on my application to work-study at the ashram and even stated to the temple president during the phone interview, "I'm not looking to convert". Despite that, my time at the temple was much like an a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. The amount of judgement produced by devotees was incomprehensible to me, and eventually I realized that I could just as easily join a fundamentalist Christian church and get the same philosophies and mentalities. Despite this overall sour experience I have a deep love and respect for my devotee friends and wish them all of the happiness they deserve in their spiritual path. I respect the advice of the teachers I sought while in the temple, and I definitely respect the idealistic cow-protection. That being said, your blog posts have helped me to sort out some confusing experiences and make peace with them, so thank you.

Shruthi Bejagama said...

Appreciate your effort. I happened to come across Prabhupada views on Sri Ramakrishna and my blood is boiling even now. It seems to me that Prabhupada vanity and arrogance have reached a new level. First of all, if Gita was to be told as it is, then why the so called "purport".. Frankly they are so cult driven, they would change even Lord Krishna's words to suit their own views. God bless. That's all I can say. And it was an eye opener.. I shall not give any more regard to the organisation that still lives mostly of the purity of Lord chaitanya .. But if they go on this way, they shall even negate the wealth of goodness generated by Sri Chaitanya.