Category Archives: Power

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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Power Part 2 (continued from last week)

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.

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Power Part 1

Were I to name the one human act most responsible for the wrongs in this world it would be, hands down, the abuse of power.

As far back as our history books can relate, the strong have exploited the weak. From time to time, the exploited, energized by resentment, rise up and overthrow their exploiters. In this way, the strong and the weak periodically exchange places. Even so, the principle of exploitation remains inviolate.

In an attempt to end this ceaseless conflict, some idealists have constructed political programs designed to eliminate, by one means or another, the differences between the strong and the weak. These attempts have met with little success.

The strong persist in spite of everything, hiding or disguising themselves when necessary. They may remain entirely concealed behind the public stage, pulling strings as invisible puppeteers. Or they may don, as their cloak of invisibility, the rhetoric of equality, their camouflage of power.

The lesson of history is that we must accept as a given that people will always differ in their powers of action, and that any competition will naturally reveal those who are stronger and weaker.

And so some will always exercise power over others. And those wielding such power will have a tendency to abuse it.

What to do? When we establish special agents to guard us from abuse by the powerful, eventually we find ourselves asking: who will protect us from our protectors?

The problem, stubbornly resistant, still plagues us. In modern times we continue to oscillate between the poles of the political right and left. The right openly promotes the interest of the strong and justifies its dominance. The left abhors the inequitable distribution of power and goods, and advances social and political programs to abolish the differences between strong and weak.

In my judgment each side has something essential in its favor, and each side has a fatal defect. Because of this, neither side can succeed for long.

I believe that Srila Prabhupada has offered a resolution to this intractable problem. From the point of view of contemporary politics, his politics is simultaneous right and left, both conservative and liberal.

Prabhupada presents his position in a succinct form in the course of answering a letter from Sri Govinda dasa, the president of the ISKCON Chicago temple.

At that time—in December, 1972—the Chicago temple was engaged in a fierce competition with the other temples in North America to distribute books during the Christmas shopping season. It appears that the temple president wrote to Prabhupada to express some misgivings about the strong competitive spirit among the temples.

Prabhupada’s reply characteristically rises to the highest theological and philosophical considerations. The result is a political science founded on ultimate spiritual principles.

Here is Prabhupada’s answer to Sri Govinda’s question:

My dear Sri Govinda,

Please accept my blessings. I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated December 5, 1972, and I am greatly pleased to hear from you that you have increased the selling books five times more in Chicago centre. That is very good news to me. Yes, there must always be competition, that gives life, that cannot be separated from life. 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? So that competitive spirit makes us strong, otherwise it is a society of weak men only, and what is the good of such society? 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. 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! 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.” Therefore, being weak, it is the eternal occupational duty of the living entity to surrender to Krishna, that’s all. 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?

Is such a “perfect society” possible? Can there be a society of hierarchical class division, of stronger and weaker, which is devoid of envy and exploitation? Even if we accept that such a society would be ideal, is it possible in practice? Or is it a mere fantasy?

I will take up these and other questions next week.

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