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Article by Upendranath Dasa 

A Class of Critical Thinkers

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Segment 3

They first are attached to an idea, find something in the wide range of scripture, or commentaries, that seems to support their attachment, convince themselves, that they have “philosophized”, and go forward from there

Many of them are not aware that they “philosophize” like this, in the wrong sequence, so to speak.  They should process the philosophy first, gain their conclusions/convictions from there, and then see how it is applied in practical life.  

However, as I said, typically what happens is that they first are attached to an idea, find something in the wide range of scripture, or commentaries, that seems to support their attachment, convince themselves, that they have “philosophized”, and go forward from there.

Where are the various “attachments” coming from, what are their roots?  

Are they based on philosophy as philosophy (bearing in mind that wisdom is a synonym for philosophy), or perhaps based on empty sentiments about spirituality, or something they learned from the group mind, and took on board as “philosophy”?

Perhaps their attachments are motivated by fear.  Sometimes they fear something very deeply, for whatever reason.  For example,

  • I may be a person who fears to be outspoken.
  • I fear to have a different opinion than the herd.
  • I fear to stand-alone.
  • I fear that I may be disliked.


Now, there is no way they want to face this fear, or any other of the numerous deep-seated fears, that get hold of them, during the formative years of their childhood or as devotees.  What they do, then, is rationalize this fear as a virtue: love of harmony, preaching, compassion, being aloof, and so on.  These are not easy guises to penetrate; not easy at all; they are deep.  

Just look at the brilliant job Arjuna was doing in the first chapter of the Gita.  See how he had masked what Krishna would call “petty weakness of heart”.  That should give them some glimmer of their own problem.  See how Arjuna justified conventional thinking, and cited shastra to do it.

It is a crucial thing that we need to bring into awareness, this mechanism for rationalizing misconceptions as virtues.  

Just a few days ago, I interacted with a young man who showed some conviction about something he believed.  However, the next moment he apologized to me for his “passion”.  Actually, he was making a very good point and though he was disagreeing with me, and in the end I did agree with him.  Nevertheless, it turned out that he believed that to be spiritual, one could not be forceful, even if sensible.  One cannot hold a strong conviction.  If I had tried to disillusion him about his misconception, I do not doubt he would have given me a lot of “philosophy” to show me how, and why his aversion for the courage of his conviction was actually a valid, and highly spiritual stance.  It so happened that we did not have time to get into it, but my point is that we need to penetrate all these mechanisms within ourselves, so we can become truly independently thoughtful, critical thinkers.  

We need to learn how to process thought in the right sequence.  We need to do this because the fractured mindset, represented by persons as mentioned above, and by those who only want to see the good, is still deeply embedded in us.  It is not just in others, who got the profile as great preachers, just by stroking the group mind, in a quite predictable way, but it is embedded in our own self-conception as well.

To the degree that we can become thoughtful along these lines, we can fulfill Prabhupada’s desire to create a class of critical thinking people, which would please him immensely. 

In addition, on the other hand, I want to stress that we must take, not just take the word “independent” on board, but we must take “thoughtful” on board as well; the whole phrase.  Similarly, we must not just become “critical,” rather we must become “critical thinkers”.

On the other hand, if we simply confirm, and accommodate the disempowerment program in the name of “cooperating to show our love for Prabhupada”, or in the name of Vaishnavism, or any other rationalization, we cheat these souls; and we diminish ourselves in the bargain.

 Disempowered people lack “the courage for the adventure of being”; they lack what Prabhupada called “fighting spirit”.  They seek the familiar, the secure, the comfortable, the experience that does not stretch their brains too much, and they do this all in the name of devotional service.

Sadly, the society of devotees in ISKCON fails to give sufficient emphasis to critical thinking as the intrinsic thrust of the Bhagavata philosophy.  Recognizing this reality, a former temple president of one of the largest ISKCON center wrote:

I also tend to agree with whichever Prabhu/Maharaja suggested that this kind of thing goes over the heads of most people.  The majority of ISKCONs members are not thoughtful men”.  It bugs the hell out of me too.

Indeed.  However, devotees are not thoughtful because they are not encouraged in that way.  The philosophy is not taught to them with such an emphasis.  The atmosphere does not foster penetrating thought about anything.  The Bhagavata philosophy is used to disempower critical thinking rather than to guide it rightly.  There are several reasons for this, of course.  One of them is that they fear that if they boil the milk they will reduce the headcount; and for many of them, the only yardstick of their success in Krishna consciousness is the blooming head count.  Moreover, inspired by the headcount motive, they do not realize that they water down the philosophy, cut corners, and so on.  The growing headcount justifies it: “We are making devotees, Prabhu”.

That temple president wrote the above words confirming that, like me, he had experienced that the ISKCON devotee community mostly attracts “softheaded” people.  That is not really a crime in itself; however, subsequently, instead of teaching them to be hardheaded, they encourage them to remain softheaded in the name of Vaishnavism.  

Then the thinking people, or the potentially thinking people, few as they are, they generally alienate.  However, just try to imagine Prabhupada or Bhaktisiddhanta as softheaded.  It is simply impossible.

So why do so many in ISKCON settle for the softheaded model, and react like frightened pre-teen schoolchildren to those who insist on being hardheaded?  Because someone sold them a bill of goods, telling them that this is advanced Vaishnavism, and bent the philosophy out of whack to “prove” it.  Now many vaisnava camps have gone on that tangent; ISKCON for 46 years for sure.  

The road back is not going to be an easy one.

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