In the last two postings we have been considering a letter Shrila Prabhupada wrote in 1972 concerning the nature of power. A devotee had written Prabhupada with misgivings about competition in activities of preaching. To this apparently simple and down-to-earth question, Prabhupada gave a reply that rose quickly to ultimate philosophical principles. Prabhupada’s presentation is brilliantly compact; I have been unpacking it somewhat.
Prabhupada claimed that it is an eternal natural law—sanatana dharma—”that the strong will utilize the energy of the weak, the weak must serve the strong.” His succinct argument: “That we see everywhere, is it not? Who can deny?”
Prabhupada then asked: Who among us is actually strong? The most powerful human is weak before Durga Devi, material nature, and Durga Devi is weak before Krishna. Therefore Krishna alone is strong, and all others are weak before him.
Prabhupada quoted Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: “I am the strength of the strong.” In other words, any power that you, I or anyone else may exercise is actually bestowed by Krishna. He gives power, and he also takes it away whenever he wants. We are all dependent on him, and therefore we are weak.
If we should shine, it is always with reflected light.
Prabhupada accordingly urged: “Therefore, being weak, it is the eternal occupational duty [i.e. sanatana dharma] of the living entity to surrender to Krishna, that’s all.”
Prabhupada is asking us to do no more than to acknowledge reality. In any case, we are under Krishna’s control; our best course is to serve him willingly.
Now Prabhupada concludes his discussion of power:
In the surrendering to Krishna, if everyone does it, still, the brahmanas will be served by the lower castes, the kings will be served by vaisyas and sudras, the vaisyas will be served by the sudras, and the sudras will serve all higher castes—there is still utilizing the weak by the strong—but feeling themselves always very much weak in comparison to Krishna, the whole society services the Strongest, therefore there will be no envy of the stronger by the weaker class of men. So perfect society, or Vedic society, does not eliminate competition—competition, stronger and weaker, must be there—but it eliminates envy, because everyone is weak before Krishna. Is that clear?
Here Prabhupada shows how the principle of the strong engaging the weak becomes manifest through the organization of human society.
Prabhupada has already given the universal, over-arching principle as it applies between Krishna and all living entities. This principle is stated in the Katha Upanishad: Even within transcendence there exists a distinction of two classes: the category of the one and the category of the many. The former is the class of Godhead—a set which has only one member. The latter is the class of the creatures—a set with unlimited members. The members of both classes are spiritual—both are characterized as eternal, conscious selves. The one, however, is independent and the many dependent. The one sustains and maintains the many perpetually.
The principle of the stronger controlling the weaker is reflected within human society in the form of the Vedic system of varna, the famous—or infamous—division of human society into four castes.
As a follower of Vedic tradition, Prabhupada regards this social hierarchy as the normative structure of civilized society. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna says that this four-fold division is produced by him. It is therefore sanatana-dharma, and entirely natural.
Just as the human body has a head, arms, belly, and legs, so the social body has by nature the corresponding parts: The brahmanas are the head: these thinkers and visionaries properly guide and direct society because they can perceive the truth and apply it appropriately. The kshatriyas are the arms: they are the spirited, honorable type who manage society and protect it from external aggressors and internal lawbreakers. The vaishyas, who constitute the belly, are those of an enterprising, industrious nature who supply the material necessity for everyone, working as agriculturalists, traders, bankers, and so on. The shudras—the legs of the social body—are those who, lacking the capacity for independent action, act as general assistants to the other three.
(Membership in any of the four groups is determined by an individual’s natural qualities and aptitude—not birth. Prabhupada often denounces the hereditary caste system of India, holding it to be corruption of the divinely ordained structure.)
In his letter Prabhupada asserts that although the divisions of stronger and weaker apply, there will be no envy, because all will be equally aware of themselves as weak before Krishna. Even though there may be divisions of higher and lower based on material qualities, on the spiritual platform all are equally servants. This has to be abundantly clear to every individual. It cannot be merely a theoretical doctrine; it needs to be constantly observed in actual practice.
In a sense, this hierarchy would have to contain its own inversion. Only then will it work properly. That is to say, the more one acts as master, the more fully one must be—and be recognized as—a servant. The highest group, the brahmanas, who are the teachers of everyone, has the task of instilling in all other members the ethos of servitorship to God. This kind of teaching—the formation of character—is possible only if the teaching is exemplified by the instructors’ own behavior. This is what is conveyed by the Sanskrit word for teacher—acharya. If the acharyas instill such a sense of subordinate servitorship in all groups, only then can the system work. Only then can power be decontaminated of its corrupting toxicity.
I received some realization of this principle early in my adventure in devotional service. I had become a temple president within a year of my moving into the ashrama. After a while, administrative duties kept me from our main activity of teaching and preaching, distributing devotional literature on the streets. Finally, an older devotee had a practical suggestion: I should take the train every morning to the center of the city, toward the end of the rush hour, and spend at least an hour every day distributing our Back to Godhead magazine to the commuters.
So every morning found me standing on the same corner opposite City Hall, distributing Back to Godhead for small donations. And, every morning I saw a man in his fifties standing in the same spot, watching me. Finally, I went up to him with a magazine, but he curtly dismissed me. Yet he was still there every day.
At last, as I was standing in my usual place with a stack of magazines cradled in my left arm, he came up to me. Before I could even say hello, he opened up with a tirade: “You know, I really admire you people! You are so dedicated, and you are out here day after day working really hard! You work so hard, you are so self-sacrificing, you don’t take anything for your self.
“It makes me so angry! It makes me furious!” His face indeed had contorted into an alarming mask of rage. “You collect money every day, you don’t keep anything. Instead you GIVE IT ALL TO HIM!” Here his forefinger began to bang on the picture of Shrila Prabhupada on the Back to Godhead cover. “He takes everything. And he lives in big mansions. He rides around in Cadillacs. Any you stand out on the street with nothing. It makes me FURIOUS!”
I protested at once: “No, no! He’s not like that, he’s not like that at all!” But the man didn’t buy it. No matter how much I remonstrated with him, he remained adamant. He was immovable. He was utterly certain that Prabhupada enjoyed a high life of luxury and ease, while I and other devotees sacrificed ourselves mercilessly on the streets. He was a principled man of liberal views, a crusader for social justice. Injustice and exploitation infuriated him.
Later, I thought about his intransigence, on his certainty concerning Prabhupada. Actually, he had seized upon a truth: in any organization when the people at the bottom are working hard and not enjoying the fruits of their labor, then the fruits are being enjoyed by the person at the top.
He was right in this, I thought. The person at the top is indeed the enjoyer. His mistake was this: he did not realize that Prabhupada was not at the top—Krishna was the enjoyer at the top.
Prabhupada was only his servant—and far more of a servant than I. By that time I had seen enough of Prabhupada, and studied him long enough, to know for sure that he worked far harder than I ever did. His singleness of purpose, his renunciation of all else was awe-inspiring. If only the man on the street corner could have observed Prabhupada the way he’d observed me!
Reflecting in this way, I realized that Prabhupada’s servitorship was the very reason I was happy to surrender to him, glad to call him master.
Therefore, I can vividly imagine a society in which the weaker will serve the stronger, and there will be no envy or exploitation.
How to bring it about?
Prabhupada instructed his students to become just like him. So. . . ?