With That Brief Definition, is ISKCON, in Srila Prabhupada’s Conception, Intended to be a Closed or Open Society?
This can appear on the surface to be a profoundly confusing question. One can make strong arguments in favor of each possibility. For instance, our philosophy, with all its explicit emphasis on authority, and absolute authority at that, seems to favor the closed version. Further, we can say that certain issues are so sensitive it would affect the tender devotional faith of many younger devotees and subsequently it is better to have control of the milieu whereby we communicate with each other. We can say that it is necessary at times to control public discourse for the perceived greater good. What is said, how much is said, and to whom it is said needs to be carefully moderated. Some matters may be deemed so sensitive as to justify a cover-up or an outright lie.
This is not an exhaustive list of reasons in favor of the closed institutional scheme. The description represents, however, to a large extent the way our Krishna consciousness movement currently functions.
“Authority” is often interpreted as the freedom to assume the role of thinking for others, of defining reality for them.
This is done under the aegis of the absolute role of the guru and, by extension, the system of authority which is so much emphasized in our philosophy. Under critical scrutiny, however, the closed version does not stand up as genuinely Krishna conscious. We have already compared authoritarian and humanitarian dynamics and shown that Krishna consciousness is essentially supposed to be humanitarian. As Srila Prabhupada wrote:
Once there is bureaucracy the whole thing is spoiled. There must be always individual striving and work and responsibility, competitive spirit, not that one shall dominate (or a select group) and distribute benefits to others and they do nothing but beg from you and you provide. No.
This makes it clear that the closed scheme is not our goal. A closed society is another way of saying an authoritarian system, so the arguments against it are the same as considered in Chapters Seven and Eight. In the context of this discussion, however, I shall give some other points for the reader’s consideration.
As mentioned elsewhere, intellectual or brahminical persons are naturally autonomous. They are “independently thoughtful and competent in all types of departments of knowledge and action”. One of their functions is to fearlessly debate ideas, fully, and frequently, so that the living truth can emerge. Otherwise, we risk living by dogma, which is nothing but a kind of sentimental fanaticism.
The philosopher J.S. Mill made this observation about a new idea:
“. . . unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. . . the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct; . . . preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience”.
Hence the concept of an intellectual society being closed makes no sense at all. Indeed, it puts us in conflict with the idea of Srila Prabhupada’s house in which the whole world can live.
In a closed society the freedom to speak up, to question, to debate, to give critical feedback, and to participate is curtailed. In an intellectual society there can be no question of restricting such freedom. As ISKCON presently stands, however, there are not enough forums or mechanisms for feedback from the mass of devotees to the leadership. Not enough openness.
Throughout our sastras there are examples of individuals approaching authorities and openly and freely questioning them. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.3.4) describes that the Yamadutas questioned Yamaraja after encountering the Visnudutas and Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura comments that they questioned him in anger.
In the Bhagavad-gita the Lord Himself is subjected to questions and at the end He gives His verdict to Arjuna (Bhagavad-gita 18.63):
iti te jnanam akhyatam guhyad guhyataram maya
vimrsyaitad asesena yathecchasi tatha kuru
“Thus, I have explained to you, knowledge still more confidential. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do.”
The Lord, who more than anyone else can take the dictatorial stance, shows that He is not interested in that. It does not please Him. What pleases Him is that one willfully obliges Him by executing His order. He does not use force or terror to get the outcome He wants. He uses persuasion.
In the purport Srila Prabhupada writes:
“Here the words yathecchasi tatha kuru ‘As you like, you may act’ indicate that God does not interfere with the little independence of the living entity. In Bhagavad-gita, the Lord has explained in all respects how one can elevate his living condition. The best advice imparted to Arjuna is to surrender unto the Supersoul seated within his heart. By right discrimination, one should agree to act according to the order of the Supersoul. That will help one become situated constantly in Krishna consciousness, the highest perfectional stage of human life… Before surrendering, one is free to deliberate on this subject as far as the intelligence goes; that is the best way to accept the instruction of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
“God does not interfere with the little independence of the living entity.” And, “Before surrendering, one is free to deliberate on this subject as far as the intelligence goes …”
In other words, when the intelligence is convinced, then one may act or, failing conviction, one may not act, but there is no question of force, because Krishna is open, not closed. If the person upon whom the whole Krishna consciousness movement is based is open, how can the society that follows His instructions and example be closed?
The typical answer to this run along the lines that upon surrendering one no longer analyzes the opinion of the authority, one simply follows. The order of Prabhupada is that we follow the GBC. But even so he never intended us to follow blindly. Besides there is the mac-citta mad-gata-prana verse to consider.
When we come to Krishna consciousness we come to the knowledge of the Absolute Truth, which is a complex field. There is room for different angles of vision, for varieties of understandings. For example, there are four Vaisnava sampradayas, each with a different angle on the Absolute Truth. And those sampradayas have branches, which again have different angles of vision of the Absolute Truth. Even within one sampradaya, ours, there are many ways of interpreting the same verse. The atmarama verse comes to mind. Moreover, we have multiple commentaries on the Gita and Bhagavatam by Acaryas in the same line, simply because of the principle that openness allows for a variety of views. This plurality is considered part of the richness of our tradition.
There are numerous examples: Lord Caitanya did not reject Murari Gupta and Anupama for their devotion to Rama instead of Radha-Krishna. Baladeva Vidyabhusana and Visvanatha Cakravarti have given different opinions as to whether the Lord manifested two arms or four at the battle of Kuruksetra. Both have their point of view. Not only that, but Baladeva was a trusted student of Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, who sent Baladeva to represent Gaudiya Vaisnavism in the court of the raja of Jaipur when the other sampradayas challenged the Gaudiya Vaisnavas. Besides this example, there are many other places where these two Acaryas differ, but we have no record of Baladeva being called a Visvanatha killer.