Category Archives: Politics

Rights

During my initial encounter with Krishna consciousness, I was puzzled, and then troubled, by the absence of any consideration of “rights”—human rights, civil rights—in the social teachings of Shrila Prabhupada, who took great pains to elucidate an ideal “Vedic society.” It seemed to me that rights ought to be a central concern of this or any other social ideal.

Moreover, the social order he extolled as exemplary—indeed as divinely ordained—was unapologetically hierarchical. All the more need for rights, I thought. Isn’t respect for rights the greatest safeguard against the abuse of power?

My typical American education had glorified the eighteenth century discovery of “the rights of man” as a supreme achievement of Enlightenment thinking. To that revolutionary historical breakthrough we owed that bold assertion in our “Declaration of Independence” every school child was made to memorize: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The polity promoted in Bhagavatam could hardly be more different from that advocated by the so-called Enlightenment. One of its foremost ideologues, the philosopher Denis Diderot, said: “Mankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Bhagavatam, in contrast, teaches that a society lead by priests and kings best facilitates human freedom.

Bhagavatam at once challenged my received ideas. It would require me to unlearn a great deal—the consensual reality I had unquestionably accepted with uncritical faith. Reposing my faith in Bhagavatam, on the other hand, could hardly be uncritical. And so came my misgiving concerning rights.

As it happened, my first readings of Bhagavatam were confined to the second canto, which, in 1969 and 70, ISKCON Press published serially, chapter by chapter, in thin paperbacks. The volumes of the first canto, published in India and trunked to America by Prabhupada himself, were long sold out. Only after I moved into the Philadelphia ashram, in January of 71, was I able to read the temple’s copy of the first canto. I discovered a crudely bound work, printed on cheap paper, each page bristling with typos. It was written in Prabhupada’s idiomatic, “babu English,” yet his distinctive voice—not yet editorially planed and sanded like the second canto—spoke out all the more powerfully.

It was here I encountered a text that resolved all my worry about rights. In the fourth verse of chapter twelve, I read about the exemplary King Yudhisthira, who cared for all of thoses born in his kingdom. Prabhupada comments:

Herein the word ‘Prajah‘ is significant. The etymological import of the word is that which is born. On the earth there are many species of life from the aquatics up to the perfect human beings and all are known as ‘Prajas. . . . . As such the Praja is used in a broader sense than it is now used. The King is meant for all living beings namely the aquatics, plants, trees, the reptiles, the birds, the animals and the man. Every one of them is a part and parcel of the Supreme Lord (B. G. 14/4), and the King being the representative of the Supreme Lord, he is duty-bound to give proper protection to every one of them. It is not like the presidents and dictators of the demoralised system of administration where the lower animals are given no protection while the higher animals are given so called protection. But this is a great science which can be learnt only by one who has learnt the science of Krishna as already refered to above by us.

The king, as God’s representative, is “duty-bound to give proper protection to every one of them.” I gave some thought to this idea: The king is the head of state, the government. And all living beings, even the animals, are citizens. This means that they have (as we would put it today) civil rights. And the government must guarantee those rights.

In 1971, the idea of animal rights was “way out there,” a notion of the lunatic fringe. Yet this highly radical extension of civil rights to animals was contained within Prabhupada’s exposition of monarchism—a most conservative political philosophy, to say the least. Bhagavatam was destroying the standard conservative-liberal typology.

From that moment I understood that modern, enlightened “rights” were no innovation; they had somehow been implicit in the entirely old fashioned, conservative, pre-enlightenment idea of duty.

A few years later, browsing a used book store,  I happened to pick up a volume by the French theologian Simone Weil. I’d learned about this extraordinary person—”a modern saint”—in a graduate religion course, and I was curious to know more.

The book, translated from the French as The Need for Roots, opens on the first page with a brilliant and penetrating discussion about rights and obligations (or duties); it grealy helped me to understand Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam.

Simone Weil begins:

The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which is corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation toward him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.

To say that a king like Yudhisthira has duties or obligations toward the living being in his realm is another way of asserting that those subjects have rights. But Weil asserts here that it is better to think in terms of obligations than of rights. Why? Because the idea of rights is subordinate to and depends upon the idea of an obligation. I may assert that I have some right, but that recognition becomes effective only if some others recognize that they have obligations toward me. So it is better to be concerned with obligations.

Moreover, an obligation remains in force even if it is unacknowledged. An unrecognized right by itself has no force. It gains force only when the corresponding obligation is recognized.

Weil continues her analysis, showing that the difference between rights and duties is simply a difference of point of view:

It makes nonsense to say that men have, on the one hand, rights, and on the other hand, obligations. Such words only express differences in point of view. The actual relationship between the two is as between object and subject. A man, considered in isolation, only has duties, among which are certain duties toward himself. Other men, seen from his point of view, only have rights. He, in his turn, has rights, when seen from the point of view of other men, who recognize that they have obligations toward him. A man left alone in the universe would have no rights whatever, but he would have obligations.

Imagine, for instance, the relationship between a good master and a good servant in Vedic culture, or, for that matter, in medieval Europe. There will be no talk of rights; there are no labor unions, no social security system. Still, just as the servant has duties toward his master, the master has obligations toward the servant. The master, having received years of faithful service, knows he is obliged to care for his servant in sickness, in the infirmity of old age, in death. The servant has, in effect,  all the rights promised by modern “cradle to grave socialism.” But in this case, both master and servant know their obligations, and neither has to ask for his rights.

Weil goes on to point out an important difference between obligations and rights. The former are absolute, or unconditioned, and the latter relative and conditioned:

The notion of rights, being of an objective order, is inseparable from the notions of existence and reality. This becomes apparent when the obligation descends to the realm of fact; consequently, it always involves to a certain extent the taking into account of actual given states and particular situations. Rights are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world.

The sense of obligation is expressed in English by the verbal formula “ought to.” In Sanskrit, there is a special verbal form, called vidhi-lin, that conveys injunctions, that is to say, what was enjoined or directed by Vedic authority. Weil understands that obligations are unconditional. They derive from a transcendent realm.

She continues:

The men of 1789 did not recognize the existence of such a realm. All they recognized was one on the human plane. That is why they started off with the idea of rights. But at the same time they wanted to postulate absolute principles. This contradiction caused them to tumble into a confusion of language and ideas which is largely responsible for the present political and social confusion. The realm of what is eternal, universal, unconditioned is other than the one conditioned by facts, and different ideas hold sway there, ones which are related to the most secret recesses of the human soul.

“The men of 1789” are the architects of the French Revolution. Since they rejected divine injunctions, they had to forgo talk of duties or obligations. They could adduce only the cognate “rights.” Those they could simply assert, without grounding or foundation. Yet, as Weil has pointed out, “rights” by themselves are impotent. To be effective, they require someone else to accept the corresponding obligations.

It is a commonplace in philosophy that it is not possible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” They are two different realms. “Ought” requires an authority. Ultimately, I will argue, an absolute one.  For a person becomes an authority only by being authorized by another. Hence there emerges a sequence of authorizing agents that can only end—where? If the chain has an anchor, a foundation, it ends with the unique self-authorizing authorizer of all others. In other words, God.

Or, of course, with a god-surrogate, an imitator. Your idol du jour.

In the Bhagavatam, the kshatriya kings are guided by the brahmanas, those who are able to know transcendence and who have the skill to apply that knowledge correctly to concete affairs.  In such a society, people are trained from childhood in a culture of obligation.

The results may surprise us.

If we search though Bhagavatam for statements of the obligations of a king, for instance, we discover a citizenry with far more rights that most of us have today.

For example, Prabhupada writes in the purport to Bhagavatam 4.17.12

It is the duty of the king to see that everyone in the social orders—brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra—is fully employed in the state. Just as it is the duty of the brahmanas to elect a proper king, it is the duty of the king to see that all the varnasbrahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra—are fully engaged in their respective occupational duties. It is here indicated that although the people were allowed to perform their duties, they were still unemployed. . . . . When the people are perplexed in this way, they should approach the head of government, and the president or king should take immediate action to mitigate the distress of the people.

In other words, everyone has a right to full employment. If people cannot find work, then the state is obliged to arrange for their employment.

Bhagavatam (1.14.41, purport) speaks of the rights of those who are weak, diseased, or old or otherwise helpless:

The brahmanas, who are always engaged in researching knowledge for the society’s welfare work, both materially and spiritually, deserve the protection of the king in all respects. Similarly, the children of the state, the cow, the diseased person, the woman and the old man specifically require the protection of the state or a kshatriya king. If such living beings do not get protection by the kshatriya, or the royal order, or by the state, it is certainly shameful for the kshatriya or the state.

Bhagavatam recognizes (5.15.7, purport) even a universal right to happiness:

As a representative of the Supreme Lord, the king had the duty to protect the citizens in a perfect way so that they would not be anxious for food and protection and so that they would be jubilant.

Of course, governments today do not represent the Lord, nor are the citizens jubilant.

In the eighteenth century, Europe was completing the turn from a God-centered to a human-centered world view. With the triumph of humanism, obligations lost their force, and talk of rights began.

After so many years of humanism, we still hear that the most basic of human rights—food, clothing, shelter, physical security, health—go scandalously unfulfilled in most places in the world.

And the rights of the mute, nonhuman populace are only beginning to be acknowledged.

Yet, for all the handwringing over rights, there is precious little action.  Simone Weil put her finger on the problem: “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which is corresponds.”

Thus, to be effective in bringing about full social justice to human and animals alike we must return to the culture of obligations. Shrila Prabhupada’s presentation of Bhagavatam is intended to effect that return.

We should now recognize that the only way to go forward is by going back. We progress by returning.

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Communism

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.

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Power Part 3 (continued from last week)

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.

To review:

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. . . ?

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