My beginning association with Krishna devotees offered me an extended sequence of astonishments. It amazed me, for example, to discover that a group of enthusiasts encountered on sidewalks jumping and singing wildly to a pounding drum would be absorbed in a deep, comprehensive, and highly sophisticated theology. Another surprise revealed that this theology, filled with subtle elucidations of ultimate issues of transcendence, engendered a practical, down-to-earth political philosophy.
This political philosophy itself amazed me.
It was like nothing I had seen before: much further to the right than any contemporary conservatism, it was simultaneously much further to the left than any contemporary radicalism. These two apparent extremes met and blended together without incoherence. Astonishment gave way to fascination.
I have come to see that the power to unify or reconcile opposites is a salient characteristic of transcendence in thought and action. This fact has been reported by a variety of spiritual researchers. Nicolas of Cusa described the divine as the “coincidence of opposites.” The Tao Te Ching (40) says that “reversal” or “return” is the movement of the Tao. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us how to act without acting, just as Tao Te Ching advocates “wei wu wei” “doing-not-doing.” Jesus Christ proclaimed that the last shall be first. Lord Buddha directs us to The Middle Way.
Mundane thought and action shows an inability to find the transcendent center. Consequently we are always swinging from one extreme to another, and never pass through real wisdom. We never find the center.
The center I refer to is not the mundane middle—the cautious “center” of the political or social moderate. I refer to the transcendent middle which is able to absorb fully and synthesize the apparently conflicting opposites. The mundane middle has always proven anemic and unsecured, and it generates yet another opposition to the power and firmness of either extreme. The mundane middle is a washed-out reflection of the real thing—the real thing that eludes us.
The fascination of Krishna conscious political science to me lay in its uncanny synthesis of opposites.
Srila Prabhupada neatly captured this feature of Krishna conscious political philosophy by calling it “Bhagavata communism.”
It is “communism” because in it there is no personal ownership. The famous slogan of the anarchist Proudhon—“property is theft”—also holds here. It is Bhagavata because all property belongs to Bhagavan or God. The Bhagavata recognizes that Krishna is the supreme enjoyer of everything, the supreme owner of every place, and the supreme friend of everyone. Knowing this, any apparent owner or controller in this world acts only as an agent of God, and acts for the welfare of all beings.
Here is Prabhupada discussing Bhagavata communism in a lecture in London in 1973:
Isavasyam idam sarvam. Everything belongs to God; nothing belongs to us. This is Bhagavata communism. As the communists, they say, “Everything belongs to the state,” we say “Everything belongs to God.” We never say that anything belongs to anyone. No. This is Bhagavata communism. So everything belongs to God. So one can utilize God’s property as much as he requires, not more than that. Then he will be thief, he will be punishable.
Here, Prabhupada is explicating the first mantra of the Isha Upanishad. This is his translation of the entire text:
Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.
From this text we can understand that God provides the necessities of life for each and every creature on earth. Like everyone, I am entitled to my alotted portion—which is sufficient for my needs. If I take more than my share, I violate the divine law, and in so doing I deprive a fellow creature of its allotted portion. Because this divine principle is the real antecedent of the Marxist principle of “to each according to his needs,” Prabhupada calls it communism:
We cannot take more than what is necessary. This is actually spiritual communism. If everyone thinks that “Everything belongs to God and I am son of God, so I have got right to enjoy the property of my Father, but as much as I require, not more than that,” this is spiritual communism, Bhagavata communism.
(from a lecture in New Vrindavan, 1976)
Speaking in a San Francisco storefront temple in March of 1967, Prabhupada drew out another implication of Bhagavata communism:
There are millions and billions of living entities even in this store[front]. If you find out a small hole, you will find millions of ants coming. They are also living entities. And who is arranging for their food? You are not very much busy to [do it.] Although it is your duty. That is also Bhagavata communism. Bhagavata communism says that even if you have got a lizard in your room, you must give him something to eat. If you have got a serpent in your room, you must give it something to eat. Nobody in your house should starve. You see? This is Bhagavata communism, not that “Only my brother and sister will not starve, and other animals should be killed.” This is not communism. Here is communism. This is Krishna consciousness communism, that a Krishna conscious person is thinking even for the ant, even for the lizard, even for the serpent. That is real communism. . . . Not that, “Oh, my brother is good and I am good, and my father is good or my countrymen is good, my society, and all [others] are bad.” This is not communism.
Here is a truly comprehensive welfare state. It is delimited by no border, no boundary, nor is citizenship restricted to the human inhabitants. So Prabhupada tells devotees who rent the storefront, that they have duties toward all the creatures—like the ants in the kitchen—who share it with them. They have a right to their place too.
Here is a far more radical communism than any we have encountered in this world.
“These things will be explained in Shrimad Bhagavatam,” Prabhupada told the representatives of the Dai Nipon company in Tokyo in 1972,
that anything, wherever it is, on land, on the air, sky, within the water, everywhere, God’s kingdom; and all living entities, they are God’s sons. So everyone has got the right to take advantage of his father’s property. This is Bhagavata communism. The communists are thinking in terms of their own country. But we, a devotee, we think in terms of all living entities, wherever he is, either in the sky or in the land or in the water. These things are explained in the Shrimad Bhagavatam.
In a conversation about Marxism, Prabhupada explained the difference:
If the communist idea is spiritualized, then it will become perfect. As long as the communist idea remains materialistic, it cannot be the final revolution. They believe that the state is the owner of everything. But the state is not the owner; the real owner is God. When they come to this conclusion, then the communist idea will be perfect. We also have a communistic philosophy. They say that everything must be done for the state, but in our International Society for Krishna Consciousness we are actually practicing perfect communism by doing everything for Krishna. We know Krishna is the supreme enjoyer of the result of all work . . . The communist philosophy as it is now practiced is vague, but it can become perfect if they accept the conclusion of the Bhagavad-Gita—that Krishna is the supreme proprietor, the supreme enjoyer, and the supreme friend of everyone. Then people will be happy. Now they mistrust the state, but if the people accept Krishna as their friend, they will have perfect confidence in Him, just as Arjuna was perfectly confident in Krishna on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra. . . . So if Krishna is at the center of society, then the people will be perfectly secure and prosperous. The communist idea is welcome, provided they are prepared to replace the so-called state with God. That is religion.
In this election year in America, we witness the tumultuous clash between a religious right and a secular left, locked in the agony of cultural and political war. Yet each party is incomplete, and each needs something its opponent possesses to complete itself. Bhagavata communism is the synthesis both sides unknowingly seek. I am convinced that this synthesis is Srila Prabhupada’s gift to us, pointing the way to the fulfillment we desire for ourselves and for our world.