During the Christmas shopping season of 1972, the ISKCON temples in North America engaged, as usual, in a fiercely competitive book distribution marathon. Some aspects of that contest gave the president of the Chicago temple misgivings, which he placed before Shrila Prabhupada, his spiritual master and the founder-acharya of ISKCON. Prabhupada addressed Shri Govinda’s doubts in a letter dated 25 December, 1972. Prabhupada began with a strong affirmation of competition:
“Yes, there must always be competition, that gives life, that cannot be separated from life.”
Taken by itself, this endorsement could come from any eager free-market entrepreneur. But Prabhupada pursued the issue as far as it can go. Competition, in his view, exemplifies an ultimate metaphysical or theological principle:
Sanatana dharma means the strong will utilize the energy of the weak, the weak must serve the strong, that we see everywhere, is it not? Who can deny?
The term sanatana dharma needs some explaining. The word dharma is translated variously as ‘religion,’ ‘duty,’ or ‘law,’ but these renderings miss the root meaning of the word; dharma refers to that which upholds or sustains something, its essential or intrinsic nature. You could say that the dharma—the ‘religion’—of fire is heat, and of water, wetness. Accordingly, it is wrong to use dharma to refer to this or that historical faith, which can after all be changed. Dharma refers rather to the inherent, built-in duty of each living creature towards its source, the supreme being. The word sanatana means ‘eternal,’ ‘permanent.’ As each living self is eternal, so its dharma is eternal.
It is surprising to see sanatana dharma explicated here as the universal principle of the domination of the weak by the strong.
Years ago, when I first read this letter, Prabhupada’s statement instantly reminded me of right-wing ideologies intended to justify the hegemony of the controllers over the controlled, the rich over the poor, the colonizers over the colonized.
Indeed, Prabhupada’s statement invoked unpleasant memories from my undergraduate days of dorm-room and coffee-house harangues from devotees of Ayn Rand—business or finance majors from the Wharton School, who lugged well-thumbed copies of Atlas Shrugged with them everywhere.
“The weak must serve the strong, that we see everywhere, is it not? Who can deny?”
Well, true enough—we do see it everywhere. But is it right? Is it just? Is it fair?
In the letter before us, Prabhupada so far seems unfazed by such doubts. The domination of the weak by the strong is, in his eyes, dharma—part of the unalterable nature of reality, and he goes on to extol it as immediately beneficial: “So that competitive spirit makes us strong, otherwise it is a society of weak men only, and what is the good of such society?”
It is in the next two sentences in his letter that Prabhupada’s thought parts ways with the usual apologetics of the owning-and-controlling elites:
But if you ask anyone are you weak or strong, he must answer that he is weak—he cannot control even his toothache, what to speak of his death. Therefore, in fact, it is a society of weak men—everyone is weak before Durga Devi or the material energy.
The Ayn Rand devotees I knew, of course, thought of themselves as strong men. They were destined—so they believed—to assume their rightful place among the movers and shakers of this world. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s fantasy, the symbol and covert sign of the secret society of the super-powerful was a cigarette embossed with a gold dollar sign. The cigarette, it is explained, demonstrates man’s taming of fire. It is therefore the apt symbol of his domination over material nature.
Ironically, this fetishized cigarette, sign of human dominance, makes Prabhupada’s very point. Addiction is the exact opposite of power over nature, and its consequences—obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, etc.—further evince our helplessness.
As Prabhupada writes elsewhere:
The material atmosphere, in which we are now living, is called maya, or illusion. . . . And what is this illusion? The illusion is that we are all trying to be lords of material nature, while actually we are under the grip of her stringent laws. . . . 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.
Especially in modern times we are absorbed in a variety of individual or collective god-projects, keeping ourselves “in denial” (as the psychologists say) of our ultimate weakness. The evidence of our fragility is overwhelming, yet we persist in maintaining our illusions.
“Everyone is weak before Durga Devi or the material energy,” Prabhupada writes to Sri Govinda, referring to nature in her personified form as the goddess Durga. He goes on to describe her iconography:
If you see sometimes her picture, the foolish materialist is being held by the claws of her tiger-carrier, while she pierces him to death with her trident weapon. She has got ten arms, each with weapon, she is so strong, but we are so weak that simply by piercing with her trident, the three-fold miseries, adhibhautika, adhidaivika, and adhyatmika, the foolish materialists are all defeated!
The power of Mother Nature is represented by the ten arms of Durga, whose invincibility is exemplified by the tiger (or lion) on which she sits. The tiger holds down the “foolish materialist.” This distressed and angry person represents you or me (or Ayn Rand); we think ourselves strong, and challenge Durga, but all the same we are held by her tiger, while she jabs us repeatedly with her sharp trident, which signifies “the three-fold miseries:” the sufferings inflicted on us by other living beings (like anthrax bacilli and enemy soldiers), by natural disasters (like hurricanes and earthquakes), and by our own bodies and minds (such as cardiac disease and dementia). The iconography of Durga shows us the reality of our condition.
Material nature vastly surpasses us in power, but Prabhupada goes on to write:
“And before Krishna, Durga devi is very weak—Krishna is the controller of Durga. So Krishna is the strongest: sattyam sattvavatam aham, ‘I am the strength of the strong.’’
Prabhupada’s has said that sanatana dharma means that the strong control the weak. We humans are weak before Durga’s power, but Durga herself is weak before Krishna.
We have arrived at the heart of Prabhupada’s teaching concerning the weak and the strong. Although we think ourselves strong, we are weak before material nature. Though nature is unimaginably powerful, she is weak before Krishna.
As a well-known text puts it: Krishna is the supreme controller of all controllers. He possesses an eternal form of bliss and knowledge. He has no origin, but is the origin of all others. Of all causes he is the supreme cause.
Prabhupada states his conclusion: “Therefore, being weak, it is the eternal occupational duty of the living entity to surrender to Krishna, that’s all.”
“Eternal occupational duty” is a translation of sanatana dharma. At the beginning of his letter Prabhupada defines this term as “the strong will utilize the energy of the weak, the weak must serve the strong.” Having established that Krishna is strong and all other living beings are weak, he now urges each of us to acknowledge the truth of our natural condition and to voluntarily surrender to Krishna.
Even if we decline to do so, we will still remain under Krishna’s control, for that is unalterable sanatana dharma. We are then involuntarily surrendered to Krishna, who now must exercise his power over us through the agency of Durga, material nature. We remain controlled by the Lord, but indirectly and unfavorably. By surrendering voluntarily, we become controlled directly and favorably.
Prabhupada next explains sanatana dharma as it applies within human society. There it is manifest as a hierarchy of stronger and weaker classes.
In our historical experience, such hierarchies are rife with the abuse of power. Those higher become filled with pride and contempt for those lower, whom they exploit and oppress, while the lower seethe with envy and resentment toward the higher.
It is no wonder that social reforms have tried to eliminate hierarchies as much as possible. Prabhupada, however, accepts hierarchy as a positive good, and in the next part of his letter he tells how there can be hierarchy without abuse and envy.
I will look at that carefully next week.