Monthly Archives: July 2008

Prabhupada—A Prophecy (Continued from last week)

Prabhupada had confidently predicted an imminent nuclear war between the USSR and the USA. It did not happen. Prabhupada was asked why. He responded: Krishna had changed his mind.

Until I heard about Prabhupada’s statement, I had never even entertained the notion of God’s changing his mind. But prompted to think about it, how could I deny the possibility?

Of course, I had, for some time, acknowledged that the Absolute Truth is a person. Shrimad Bhagavatam reports that those who have seen that ultimate source of all energies know it as undifferentiated illimitable spiritual light (brahman), as the all-knowing guiding Self within all selves (paramatman), and as the transcendent enjoying Self endowed with spiritual senses, that is to say, a person (bhagavan). That unique individual is, in Prabhupada’s phrase, “The Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

If the Absolute, the source of everything, is a person, then the uncountable sentient beings in the world, gifted with senses, derive their own personhood from the divine prototype. We are, as Prabhupada says, “small samples of God.” This implies that we can understand God by studying ourselves, for whatever we posses in small measure God possesses in full.

And so: if we can change our minds, then Krishna can also.

Our freedom is tiny, for we are encaged by material nature. God’s freedom is unlimited, for he controls material nature. Of course he can change his mind—and act on it without restraint.

Now there are theologies which tend to deny God this ability. If God is fully perfect, the thinking goes, what would be the reason for his changing his mind? He would have no occasion to. He would never have to correct his course upon learning something new, come up with an improved plan, adjust to unforeseen circumstances. There is nothing unforeseen.

God knows all, past, present and future. From his coign of vantage in eternity, he sees all time in one glance. All future contingencies are settled once and for all. It follows from divine omniscience that God cannot “change his mind.” He never needs to.

From this view of omniscience and of the related idea of time, neither God nor humans during the world’s course exercise any freedom of choice. Beginning, middle, and end—past, present, and future—all is fixed and frozen from eternity.

Although God and humans may seem to make choices and decisions—often, as recorded in the literature of divine-human interactions, in response to each other—it is all a kind of illusion, a make believe, a pretense. In fact, since everything has been decided from eternity, creation is radically devalued: it is a superfluous, nugatory manifestation of what has already been decided. Creation goes on with God and humans alike shackled in a metaphysical cage.

Both divinity and humanity have been depersonalized, and the relation between them evacuated of all emotional richness and potential for increasing intimacy. God’s creation is no more than a police state, from which a few will be inexplicably released while the many remain inexplicably incarcerated.

These are the strict implications of this view of divine omniscience.

Let me begin presenting an alternative with an examination of the notion of “free will.” Like all followers of Vedic thinking, Prabhupada teaches that we have genuine free will. (The Vedas contain injunctions, telling us what we ought and ought not to do. What would be the use of such injunctions were we not free to choose?)

“Free will” implies that whenever we exercise our free choice, all the causal forces of our physical and mental conditioning—our karma included—are insufficient to account for the outcome. There is another factor involved in the outcome—our own free choice. The word “free” denotes that element not caused or determined by the past. Yet that element of freedom does affect the future. Hence, our own uncaused free choice has added something to the determinateness of reality.

Even a person with full and perfect knowledge of the past could not predict with certainty the outcome of a choice by a free agent. I—the free agent—may have a particular nature, I may have long-standing habits and predispositions, and on the basis of that an observer could make a prediction with a good chance of success. But if my free choice is involved, there will always be an area of indeterminateness, of uncertainty.

What about God? Certainly the divine omniscience entails that God knows the outcome even of a free decision.

Those who take this position assume that the outcome is already there to be known. They presuppose that the contents of past, present and future are objectively of the same nature. These people conceive of time on the analogy of an old-fashioned motion-picture film advancing through a projector. The present is like the frame directly behind the lens. The past is the already viewed film wound on the uptake spool, and the future is the unviewed film still wound up on the feed spool. Thus, the future is fixed and determinate, just like the past—only it hasn’t happened yet.

Now, put the film analogy out of your mind. Consider, instead, that the future is not just like the past—forever fixed and unalterable. Consider that the future as such is objectively indeterminate, fuzzy, fluid. When God sees the future perfectly, then, he sees it precisely as it is—fuzzy, composed essentially of possibilities.

The indeterminacy, the fuzziness of the future arises from the freedom of moral agents in the world. Each of the innumerable spiritual beings, the selves, acting in the world has its own minute freedom, and the supreme spiritual being, the Superself, has his boundless freedom. The pending decision of these free agents endows the future with elements that are objectively unsettled, regions of open, alternative possibilities.

Of course, some aspects of the future are fixed or determined with a high degree of certainty. It is well know, for example, how the Vedic literature describes the movement of history through the great yuga cycles, setting forth the generic characteristic of each age. Those who know these texts can predict the future. The Bhagavatam, for example, relates how Vyasadeva foresaw the impending Kali-yuga; Prabhupada explains Vyasa’s vision with this example: “As an astrologer can see the future fate of a man, or an astronomer can foretell the solar and lunar eclipses, those liberated souls who can see through the scriptures can foretell the future of all mankind.”

Yet even the ordained constraints on things to come cannot annihilate possibilities of freedom. The degree of indeterminateness for any given future time-frame may be great or small, and it may well fluctuate as it draws near to the present. In any case, the indeterminacies of the future await final determination by the decisions of free agents, who, by acting in the present, produce the fixed and unchangeable record knows as the past.

Prabhupada himself was quite aware of both the determinate and the indeterminate areas of the future. In a letter to Karandhara (November, 1970) Prabhupada writes about the free choice open to his own disciples:

It is most encouraging to me to see that you are spreading this movement so nicely and I thank you for this. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu has forecast that this Hare Krishna Mantra will be heard in every nook and cranny of the globe. He is God, so it will happen, that is a fact. So if we take advantage then we may take the credit, but if we do not someone else will.

Prabhupada repeatedly urged, exhorted, and encouraged his followers to dedicate themselves completely to the mission of Lord Chaitanya, who descended to promulgate the dharma for this age, the chanting of the names of God. Chaitanya’s appearance was predicted in Shrimad Bhagavatam. And Chaitanya himself is quoted in Chaitanya Bhagavata as predicting “In as many towns and villages as there are on earth, everywhere, my name will be broadcast.”

This much, Prabhupada says, is fixed, settled. It will happen. But who will do it? How will it happen? That is still unsettled. Prabhupada therefore urges his disciples to “take advantage” of the opportunity afforded by Chaitanya’s mercy. Divine grace has been offered, but it remains up to his disciples to accept it or not; it is their free choice. If we disciples decide to accept it, then “we will get the credit.” If we reject this offer—if we decide we’d rather spend our lives in other pursuits—then someone else will accept Chaitanya’s offer.

We have our freedom. God is all powerful, and all of us must be under the divine control at all times. But we do have the scope to freely choose how we wish to be controlled. We can be controlled indirectly and unfavorably through the agency of material energy (Durga). Or we can be controlled directly and favorably through the agency of the spiritual energy (Radharani). Our freedom is for this choice.

And Krishna facilitates our choice. Even when we—against his wishes—turn from him, run from him, hide from him, he alone makes it possible, provides us with the means and the power to do so. In this way, Krishna enables us to do what he does not want us to do.

And even as he empowers us to reject him, he also tries to bring us back, to rescue us, to reestablish our relationship. But he always carefully respects our freedom. If we had no freedom, we would be no more than lifeless machines, automatons. But Krishna produced living beings endowed with his own qualities—freedom among them—so that there would be others with whom he could engage in ever-intensifying exchanges of love. Without freedom, the reciprocities of love would be impossible. The eternal exchanges of love between Krishna and his devotees produce a dynamic of ever-expanding, ever-intensifying transcendent joy, beauty and wisdom. This is the divine life. Participation in this life is our purpose and the right use of our freedom.

Freedom always permits its wrong use, and that misuse engenders the material world, a place created for the drop-outs.

Krishna does not want the world to be the way it is. This world is the way it is because it is filled up with his fallen devotees, vying with one another in a free-for-all to consummate their personal God-projects. Thus they go ravening through history, taking turns as predator and prey, destroying and being destroyed by fang and claw, by fist and club, by ICBM and IED.

In 1975 the world’s accumulated burden of misdeeds had reached a point that nuclear destruction was imminent.

This was the world’s future. So Prabhupada foresaw. Then Krishna changed his mind. The world had another future.

The war did not happen, and ten years after Prabhupada’s prediction Mikhael Gorbachev was elected Premier of the Soviet Union, and his programs of glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring), unleashed an uncontrollable cascade of events. The Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, and the Soviet Union itself in 1991.

My attempts to understand why Krishna changed his mind always lead me to consider the extraordinary devotees from the Soviet Union. They must have had something to do with it, and when I finally was able to talk to some of them at the end of the 80s, they told me a story that convinced me of their role.

Shrila Prabhupada had visited Moscow in June of 1971, and in spite of state restrictions and KGB supervision he was able to initiate one Russian devotee. This devotee was in turn able to bring many others to Krishna consciousness. Gradually books were translated into Russian and smuggled behind the Iron Curtain. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust gained a place in the 1979 Moscow Book Fair, from which more books somehow made there way into the country. Following the Russian samizdat system for propagating state-suppressed literature, devotees copied the books by hand, and those copies were circulated and recopied. The Russian devotees practiced and preached in increasingly difficult circumstances. Their numbers still grew. By 1982 the New York Times was reporting “Hare Krishna Chant Unsettles Soviet.” The government stepped up its persecution, incarcerating more and more devotees in psychiatric hospitals and labor camps to undergo vicious abuse and torture. When Gorbachev became Soviet Premier, ISKCON began an international human rights campaign to secure basic civil right for the Soviet devotees.

In 1987 the Soviet Government gave permission for fifty-four Russian devotees to travel to Mayapur for the annual festival. Every year after that more and more Russian devotees came. During one festival I accompanied a large group of them on parikrama, traveling by foot and boat all around the Mayapur District countryside, visiting the many pilgrimage sites, camping out each night in a different place. I got to know the Russian devotees well, and I was warmed again by that particular emotional fire I had known from my Russian grandmother and her relatives.

One evening a group of Russian devotees told me this story: They all worked together on a kolkhoz, a collective farm, in Soviet Georgia near the Black Sea. In this case, the farm was a gigantic orchard of citrus trees. The life suited the devotees. It was peaceful, and in the huge orchard there was ample opportunity to gather by themselves to chant and read together.

The fruit they harvested was not for everyone—only select people called the nomenklatura, well-placed in the Communist hierarchy, could have access to their harvest. It was sold in exclusive stores reserved for this privileged group.

The devotees serving in the orchard came to know whenever there was a meeting of the Politburo, the governing body of the Communist Party. At that time they would get a special order for the best quality of oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and so on. And at that time the devotees carefully made their own special arrangement.

After picking all the choice fruit, they would gather it together and take it to a secluded area of the orchard. There they would arrange their harvest nicely, and with an arati and a long kirtan, they would offer it all to Krishna. Then they would carefully pack it up and deliver it to be flown off to the Kremlin. They were delighted to be able to regularly feed the Politburo with Krishna’s prasadam. I listened with growing amazement as I heard them relate this story, laughing and occasionally interrupting each other in Russian. Looking at them, I thought of all that the Russian devotees had suffered at their government’s hands. As I sat with them, gratefully basking in the intensity of their devotion, it dawned on me that Krishna must really have relished their citrus offering.

And then, of course, I remembered Prabhupada’s declaration that Krishna had changed his mind. The nuclear war between the USSR and the USA was called off. Now I had what seemed a very concrete reason for it. Perhaps it was not just this act of causeless mercy to the Politburo, but the dedication of the Soviet devotees to Lord Chaitanya altogether, a dedication that this particular fruit offering epitomized to me.

An addendum. It is said that when, because of devotional service, a devotee is relieved of the future suffering karmically due him, he may still experience that reaction on a subtle level—usually in the form of a dream.

In a similar way, World War III may also have made its appearance on a subtle level. In 1987 the American writer Tom Clancy published the techno-thriller Red Storm Rising. The author had many contacts in the military, and they had apparently made available to him what they knew of the NATO and the Warsaw Pact plans for World War III. Military forces rehearse constantly for the next war, and they develop their weapons system with the coming conflict in mind. They continually update their plans. And of course, they try to find out what the enemy is planning for next. Paradoxically, in the course of these activities, the enemies gradually come to resemble each other more and more, to unite together in increasing intimacy, mirroring each other in their dance of death like performers in a balletic pas de dux. Thus the war becomes as thoroughly and carefully choreographed as Swan Lake or Petrouchka.

Tom Clancy took all of this in and made his novel out of it. As one who had grown up in perpetual anticipation of that war, I could not resist reading Red Storm Rising. And there it was: the war that did not happen, manifest harmlessly as a best selling techno-thriller, a day dream, a fantasy.

That particular danger may have been avoided, but it seems to me that we may want Krishna to change his mind again—and soon.

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Prabhupada—A Prophecy

Our print and electronic media abound in forecasts—weather, economic, scientific, political, fashion, and on and on. There’s a demand for forecasts. It helps to know the future. Therefore, we seek eagerly the vision of experts, the adept. Among these seers we must note that special class called sages or saints. Their forecasts are accorded the upgrade to prophecy, to revelation, since the divine is alleged to enlighten their visions.

So the followers of Shrila Prabhupada received his prediction, made on April 4, 1975, of the imminent outbreak of World War III. Taking his regular early morning constitutional, striding among an entourage of aides through the green fields of Mayapur, conversing about the delusions of modernity—of the “Western adventure”—Prabhupada suddenly said: “Now it will be smashed by the next war. Next war will come very soon.”

The devotees around him were shocked. It was hard to remember if this type of prediction had ever come from Prabhupada before. And the content of this prediction was especially alarming.

Prabhupada gave the specifics: The impending war would be a nuclear conflict between the two great contestants of the “cold war,” the USA and the USSR. The geopolitics of that global struggle, Prabhupada pointed out, had come to envelop the antagonistic states of India and Pakistan. India had become allied with the Soviet Union, and Pakistan with the United States. Prabhupada had read the news that soon the US would begin directly supplying arms to Pakistan.

World War III would begin with an attack on India by Pakistan, Prabhupada said. Then both Russia and America will be drawn in, and they will destroy each other with their arsenals of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

There is a somewhat fragmented recording of this conversation. Here is an extract from the transcript:

Paramahamsa: “Shrila Prabhupada, you said that this war will destroy the demonic civilization.”

Prabhupada: “Yes.”

Paramahamsa: “Does that mean that it’ll destroy all the cities and all the industries?”

Prabhupada: “War means destruction of all cities. That is natural. You have got experience in Europe so many times.”

Hamsaduta: “Cities and industries.”

Prabhupada: “Yes, that is the main target.”

The natural question was asked:

Hamsaduta: “So Prabhupada, is there something we should do to prepare ourselves for this disaster?”

Prabhupada: “What?”

Hamsaduta: “This coming war.”

Prabhupada: “You should simply prepare for chanting Hare Krishna.”

Hamsaduta: “That’s all?”

Prabhupada: “That’s all.”

I was in Mayapur myself on this occasion. Many devotees had gathered for the annual Gaura Purnima festival, and the word swiftly traveled through the assembled pilgrims, who were naturally quite electrified by the news of the impending outbreak of World War III.

It has come at last! After all, Americans of my generation, born around the end of WWII, had been expecting WWIII since we were in grade school. It claimed a very special place in the imagination of all of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s.

During those years in America, fear steadily increased. We heard that Russian spies had stolen the secret of the atomic bomb, and then that the Soviet Union was matching us step by step in the “arms race,” in deploying long-range bombers and later on missiles, both bearing lethal atomic payloads, calculated in megatons and megadeaths. In grade school we were indoctrinated in fear and our teachers drilled us weekly in protecting ourselves from atomic attack by crouching under our desks. We heard that Communist agents were infiltrating our institutions, stealing our secrets. Backyard fallout shelters became all the rage, and theologians and philosophers discussed in Life and Time the ethics of defending your shelter against your surviving neighbors.

The cold war was more personal to me than most. My mother’s parents had come to America as refugees from Russia—from Kiev and Odessa. My grandmother’s family having ended up on the losing side during the Communist revolution, she and her new husband escaped to the West with other relatives in a close encounter with Bolshevik bullets. My mother just managed to be born in America. She was named Natasha (after the heroine of Tolstoy’s great novel) and spoke Russian before she spoke English.

My father had enlisted as a private in the Georgia National Guard at the beginning of World War II, and he became commissioned as an officer in the regular Army during the conflict. In my parent’s wedding photo, both are in uniform—his displaying the crossed canons of the field artillery, hers the caduceus of the Army Nurse Corps. After the war, my father continued in the military.

He became a “cold warrior.” When he was stationed in Germany in the mid-fifties with the Second Armored Division, he was constantly away from home on “maneuvers.” These were field exercises in tanks, essentially rehearsals for the opening of World War III that could break out at any moment. This was the forecast: the vast armored divisions of the Warsaw Pact would pour into the plains of central Germany, where the NATO forces would contest them in a massive tank battle. At the war’s outbreak, my father would remain with his unit, while we, his “dependents,” would be swiftly evacuated. We had to maintain a fully packed bag on hand at all times so we could leave on twenty minute’s notice.

In the meantime, my Russian grandmother ran a dry cleaning shop near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The Soviet Embassy at that time was not far away, and its personnel provided her with steady, loyal customers. One day I was standing behind the counter with her when two Russian diplomats came in, big solid men with wide red faces, both wearing grey double-breasted suits. I watched as she politely spoke with them in Russian while she transacted their business. As soon as the door ticked shut on their exit, my grandmother startled me by yelling out the explitive “Communists!” Her face contoured in revulsion, she spit forcefully on the floor.

Once on our way to feed the pigeons in Lafayette Park—a regular excursion—my grandmother and I encountered a pair of Soviet diplomats, suited as usual. As they stood conversing with my grandmother in Russian, they kept glancing down at me. After resuming our walk to the park, I asked my grandmother about the conversation. She said:“They were asking about you, sweetheart, and I told them you were my grandson. They said you were a good-looking boy, and I said that yes, you were very much like your father. And I told them that your father was an officer in the United States Army.” She said the words “officer in the United States Army” as if a brass fanfare played inaudibly behind it. “Oh,” I said, “and what did they say?” “They asked me,” my grandmother replied, “‘Will your grandson also become a soldier?’ And I said, ‘Yes! An officer!’”

Later, when I was in the ninth and tenth grades, we lived in a suburb of Philadelphia. My father had command of an air defense battalion, whose batteries of Nike-Ajax missiles ringed Philadelphia and Wilmington, constantly ready to shoot the attacking Russian bombers out of the sky.

After that, in Taiwan (“Free China”), my father, now as a military “advisor,” confronted the Red China across the strait with the more advanced Nike-Hercules missiles. They could carry nuclear warheads. The father of my girlfriend worked for something called the “Naval Auxiliary Communication Center.” In reality, it was the CIA. (No one was supposed to know this, but everyone did.) When her father went to work, he climbed aboard a spy plane and flew it far over the Chinese mainland.

Going off to college didn’t get me away from the war. In my first month, I spent several agonizing days with the other freshman in our dorm rooms during the Cuban missile crisis, following the news on radio, listening to the military aircraft roaring overhead, waiting for the signal to head for the shelters, waiting to be annihilated. We passed time discussing the end of the world.

So it was that in 1975 in Mayapur—not far from the Bangladesh border, situated on another geopolitical fault line between the two global powers—Prabhupada foresaw that the delicate balance of terror sustained by the superpowers, named Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.), would finally tilt and bring the long dreaded nuclear cataclysm upon us.

Why is it that human history is filled with wars, one after another? Although no one wants them, they keep coming and coming.

Prabhupada offered a reason, which he repeated in books and lectures. For example, he wrote in a Shrimad Bhagavatam commentary to 4.26.5:

In this age of Kali the propensity for mercy is almost nil. Consequently there is always fighting and wars between men and nations. Men do not understand that because they unrestrictedly kill so many animals, they also must be slaughtered like animals in big wars. This is very much evident in the Western countries. In the West, slaughterhouses are maintained without restriction, and therefore every fifth or tenth year there is a big war in which countless people are slaughtered even more cruelly than the animals.

In lectures, Prabhupada would express himself more emotionally, as in this one in Los Angeles in 1973:

The desire is never satiated that “You have killed so many animals. Now you don’t—” No, he will go on, go on killing, killing, killing, killing, killing, killing. He is never satisfied, “Now I have killed so many. No more, stop.” No, there is no stoppage. . . . The injunction is “Thou shalt not kill,” but he will kill and kill and kill and kill, and still, he want to be satisfied. Just see. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill,” and they are simply engaged in killing business, and still they want to be happy. . . . Therefore Kåñëa says, “Yes, you be killed by occasional world war. You must be killed. You have created this situation. You must be killed. You may be American or Englishman or German or this or that. You may be very proud of your nationality. But you must be killed.” This is the position. Ishvarasya viceshtitam [the will of the Lord]: “You have killed so many animals. Now wholesale killing, one bomb. One atom bomb. Be killed.”

So we could understand, when Prabhupada prophecized in Mayapur, that the mercilessness of modern civilization—with its routinized slaughter of animals and humans on an industrial scale—had produced such a gigantic accumulation of evil that the reaction would soon fructify. No one doubted it. Devotees left the festival in a heighten state of urgency. Prabhupada made it clear that war’s arrival was a matter of months, not years.

Prabhupada said that our only preparation for the nuclear war should be to cultivate our chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Nevertheless, I remember that waves of other kinds of preparations went through ISKCON. Some set out to ascertain particular locations kept safe from fallout by the winds and terrain. Others realizing the practical reason, dedicated themselves to Prabhupada’s long-standing desire for totally self-sufficient, agrarian communities. A few tapped into an extremist American survivalist tradition and dug bunkers, and shelters and stockpiled them with weapons.

So people prepared—some quite energetically—in a range of spiritual and material ways, but, as we all know, the war did not come. Gradually, as the months passed, the prophesied war stopped being a topic of conversation. More time passed. What happened? Could Prabhupada have been wrong? Perhaps devotees kept quiet from embarrassment over unexpressed doubts or from simple confusion.

For myself, I became increasingly curious. A prediction like that was so uncharacteristic of Prabhupada, and yet he had expressed it strongly, unequivocally, and publically. My own experience with Prabhupada showed me that he was preternaturally alert, and that his mind worked swifter and surer than anyone I had ever met. I did not think he could have been merely wrong.

Sometime, probably toward the end of 1976 or early in 1977, I asked a few leaders close to Prabhupada about the prediction. Had Prabhupada said anything concerning the war’s non-occurrence?

As it turned out he had. A member of the Governing Body—I don’t remember now who it was—told me: “Yeah, some of us asked Prabhupada about it. He said the war didn’t happen because Krishna changed his mind.” Another confirmed this account.

I was fascinated by Prabhupada’s answer. Of course, I recognized how someone skeptical could just dismiss his response as a kind of a cover-up for a mistake. But I knew Prabhupada better than that. I took his answer seriously, and it intrigued me. I found his answer raised two compelling issues. One concerned general theological and philosophical principles. It had never occurred to me before that God could change his mind. But—why not? Should we limit him, forbidding him what we do all the time? But if Krishna can and does change his mind, what does that imply about the nature of time, and of the specific character of the future?

The other issue was somewhat more concrete. Why should God change his mind? What would cause him to do so? And in this case, what specifically happened to make him change his mind to cancel the immanent World War III?

Over the ensuing years, I explored these issues. It proved to be an interesting and rewarding pursuit.

—to be continued next week—

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Disease

This article was originally published in Back to Godhead magazine in 1993. Edifying hyperlinks added.

The heroes of my youth were the great healers of humanity. While it’s true that in those days I could be seen with other American boys paying homage to the likes of Elvis Presley and Joe DiMaggio, I rendered them only lip service. My real—if somewhat secret—devotion was reserved for a pantheon of great medical pioneers like Edward Jenner, discoverer of the smallpox vaccination; Robert Koch, who identified the tuberculosis bacillus; and Ignaz Philipp Semmelweise, who crusaded to save women from childbirth infection by teaching doctors to disinfect their hands. I avidly studied the life stories of these saviors and dreamed of becoming like them by slaying some modern scourge—leukemia, say, or coronary thrombosis. In my eyes there was no higher calling than to wage war on behalf of humanity against disease and death.

I entered college intent on medical studies, but a little over a year later abandoned that aim. I had not been fatally disheartened by my encounter with other pre-med students, profiteers eager to mint gold from disease. A book, rather, had destroyed my vocation and my faith.

Mirage of Health: Utopia, Progress and Biological Change is a pioneering study of medical history written in the late fifties by a physician named Rene Dubos. His conclusion devastated me: Progress toward some utopia of health is an illusion. Disease will never be “conquered.” Disease is so inescapable a part of our human condition that today’s remedies inevitably become the agents of tomorrow’s ills.

Using an abundance of historical evidence, Dubos shows how the diseases we suffer from arise out of the complex social, political, and economic dynamics of our particular society; as society changes, our ills change with it. Some diseases fade away, and others, out of the inexhaustible bounty of material nature, rise to take their place.

In modern industrial societies, as Dr. Dubos points out, we no longer suffer and die from smallpox, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, and the other microbial plagues of the past. We have made “progress”: We suffer and die instead from cancer, coronary heart disease, emphysema, and mental disorders (with their attendant drug abuse and suicide).

According to Dubos’ analysis, even my boyhood heroes, those unswerving foes of deadly microbes, had little to do with the disappearance of infectious diseases. These afflictions were retired mainly by the social and economic reforms that followed industrialization. At the same time, that same process was ushering in a whole new set of scourges. And even those old diseases are by no means “conquered,” Dubos warns. They are merely held at bay (at a high price), and they can reenter human history any time the conditions are right.

I was undone by Dr. Dubos’ lesson. Medicine at once underwent a catastrophic devaluation in my eyes. I wondered why that should be. Dubos, of course, never claimed that medicine was useless, a waste of time. True, it may not save humanity, but it can save humans. That ought to be enough, I argued with myself. I could still live by ideals, modest though those ideals might be. Surely, real heroism lies in doing humbly what little good one can, without some fantasy of wide-screen, Hollywood heroics, soundtrack booming in the background. Be realistic: There are no saviors of humanity, because humanity will not be saved, and that’s that.

Still, I could revive no enthusiasm for medicine. The truth of the matter was that at heart I badly wanted to be saved from disease and death altogether, and I had possessed a real faith that scientific progress would, at the end of its struggle, win just that for all of us. To me it had been a foregone conclusion that through science and technology nature would be eventually conquered and tamed, made entirely serviceable to us, and we would live without worries in a man-made paradise on earth. Although I had never spelled out this conviction to myself, it had insensibly become my true faith, my religion.

How was it a religion? Religion and science—like faith and knowledge—are supposed to be opposites. Yet somehow science itself had become a religion—call it “scientism”—an ardent faith that progress in science and technology will so improve upon man and nature as to rid earthly life of all ills. This religion was—and still is—the true faith of America, the spiritual motor that drives its enterprises.

Where had I absorbed this religion? I had bowed before no altar, recited no creed, sung no hymns, enacted no rites. However, this religion does not need special buildings or ceremonies. As the true religion of America, it is woven completely into the fabric of life. I had absorbed it all along from my parents and teachers and friends, from the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts, from museums and theme parks, from My Weekly Reader and Reader’s Digest and Life and Post and Popular Mechanics. I had soaked it in from “Meet Mr. Wizard” and the unending iteration of corporate commercial slogans (“Progress is Our Most Important Product” and “Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry“), from the biographies of my medical heroes, not the least from my hoard of science fiction paperbacks.

The faith that formed America was a creation of the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Eager to extend Newton’s success in describing nature in rational, mathematical form, a coterie of European thinkers battled to dethrone traditional religion and morality and replace them with empirical science and natural reason as the valid guides for human activity.

Unenlightened and superstitious Christians believed in a future millennium, a thousand-year kingdom of God on earth that would start with the prophesied second coming of Christ. That belief had to go. Yet the savants of the Enlightenment replaced it with their own secularized faith, their man-made millennium: Steady progress in science and enlightened reason would gradually bring the natural and human world totally under rational scientific control. Nature and society will be consummately engineered. Free from drought and flood, poverty and crime, disease and even death, man will have established on earth the kingdom of God—without God.

This was my faith, and I had lost it. Science would not save us; there was no “progress.” That explained my strong reaction to Mirage of Health.

In the years since I read that book I have come to recognize the striving for release from material nature, the struggle against disease and death, as profoundly and essentially human. It’s a struggle we cannot avoid. Even though we may be unwaware of it, it drives and shapes our lives. For this reason, even popular culture is about serious things. It is not mere whimsy that leads people to describe Joe DiMaggio as a baseball “Immortal,” or makes them believe that Elvis Presley could not possibly have died. Operating with more sophistication, Enlightenment thinkers set themselves against religion, but they merely replaced salvation through Christ with salvation through science. They could not free themselves from the desire for transcendence, the urge to go beyond the limits of nature into everlasting life.

We are all transcendentalists at heart. The problem is that most of us are foolish ones, whose various schemes for liberation are doomed from the outset. We persist in worshipping idols and gods that fail. We engineer projects for salvation that only increase our bondage. Nature can send mile-high sheets of ice flowing over continents and level cities with a twitch, yet we embark on a quixotic war to conquer her. An anthill has as good a shot at it as “advanced civilization.” Or consider this: Survival is the primal urge of life, and for millions of years all organisms have struggled for survival, just as we now struggle. Now, look at the record. Where are the winners? In all of history, has anyone survived? The death rate is one hundred percent. It is a foredoomed attempt, but we cannot help ourselves.

We must be transcendentalists, but what makes us invest and reinvest in foolish, impractical schemes? Let me suggest the reason. At the root of our foolishness lies a dumb insistence in trying to actuate a self-contradiction, make real an absurdity: We want to transcend material nature, become free from her control, while at the same time we want to continue to enjoy and exploit her.

This was the answer I discovered. After my crisis of faith, I studied philosophy and religion for years; it was, in effect, a quest for successful transcendentalists. And I thought that I had finally discovered them at the vital center of the great spiritual traditions of the world. In spite of their differences in culture and style, they seemed unanimous in this: They agreed that to succeed in transcendence we must become free from the mentality of enjoyment and exploitation. All of them recognized the systematic endeavor to gain mastery over the mind and senses, to extinguish material desires, as necessary for real salvation or liberation of the spirit. These successful transcendentalists understand very well that material nature binds and controls us precisely through our desire to enjoy and exploit her. That desire is, therefore, our ultimate disease. Cure that disease, we shall become free from disease and death altogether.

Eight years after Dr. Dubos destroyed my faith in material progress, Srila Prabhupada initiated me into the path of bhakti-yoga, transcendental devotional service. I was attracted by the magisterial way Srila Prabhupada exposed what he called “the illusory advancement of civilization.” On the street a Krishna devotee had handed me a tract containing these simple but impressive words of Srila Prabhupada:

We are trying to exploit the resources of material nature, but actually we are becoming more and more entangled in her complexities. Therefore, although we are engaged in a hard struggle to conquer nature, we are ever more dependent on her. This illusory struggle against material nature can be stopped at once by revival of our eternal Krishna consciousness.

Srila Prabhupada hadn’t done the research of a Dr. Dubos, but somehow he understood it all. His clarity astonished me.

Attacking the idols of scientific progress and other ersatz religions, Srila Prabhupada did not compromise in presenting the truth—if we want transcendence, we must become free from material desires. He was the only contemporary transcendentalist I’d encountered who did not offer any cheating religion, an accommodation with material ambitions for cheap popularity among the foolish.

My heroes still are those saviors who wage war on behalf of humanity against disease and death: Srila Prabhupada, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Rupa Goswami, Thakura Haridasa, Madhvacarya, Narada Muni and many others form my pantheon. These heroes have won the war against death because they have mastered the actual science of transcendence and delivered it to humanity.

In the meantime I credit Dr. Dubos with a good deal of prescience. Events have proven him uncannily accurate. Even as researchers in high-tech laboratories feverishly sought the “magic bullet” to destroy cancer, a brand-new plague erupted, surprising almost everyone. Studies predict that Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome will have claimed about 400 million lives by the middle of the next century. Like horror films that spawn even more ghastly sequels, some old-fashioned diseases have begun staging spectacular revivals: A new, drug-resistant version of Koch’s bacillus threatens a tuberculosis epidemic in North America, where a remake of the scarlet fever microbe is implicated in a run of deadly cases of sudden, massive septicemia. Pediatricians report a steady rise in children with chronic bronchitis and asthma, apparently the result of pollution. Indeed, a family of new afflictions of the immune system, all apparently related to man-made chemicals in the environment, has led to the establishment of a new medical specialty called clinical ecology. Some studies show that in the industrial nations up to forty percent of all diseases are “iatrogenetic.” That means “caused by physicians.”

In Pittsburgh recently, a man survived seventy-one days on an implanted baboon’s liver, which was still in good shape at autopsy. Transplant technicians are planning farms where genetically engineered animals will grow crops of organs for use in humans; biomedical engineers are machining body parts out of space-age plastics and microchips. They’re promising immortality by the end of the next century.

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