: “According to Time, Place and Circumstance, There must be Latitude to Freely Discuss and Exchange Ideas”.
So even within the parameters of the Absolute Truth, and within the very same sampradaya, to foster individual understanding from different angles of vision, according to time, place and circumstance, there must be latitude to freely discuss and exchange ideas, with the sastra as the ultimate measure of verity. This calls for the practice of collegiality. This dynamic can only go on in an open society. Therefore, Lord Krishna says:
mac-citta mad-gata-prana bodhayantah parasparam
kathayantas ca mam nityam tusyanti ca ramanti ca
“The thoughts of My pure devotees’ dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me.”
To fulfill this verse there must be openness. There must be scope to challenge accepted notions, to re-examine them, and amend them if the need arises, and to give length, breadth, and depth to our understanding. For persons dedicated to the truth, such vulnerability or openness to challenge, is a vital necessity. In Bhagavad-gita Krishna is completely open to challenge. Arjuna is not fearful to question Him. Similarly, in the Bhagavatam the devotees answering questions—Sukadeva, Narada, Maitreya, Jada Bharata and others—are open to challenge, for there is freedom to question until one is satisfied.
There are many examples in the Ramayana and Mahabharata where the king or leader would be open to hear complaints from a subject and would immediately take action. Lord Rama, feeling accountable to a dhobi, banished pregnant Sitadevi. In the Bhagavatam the brahmana whose sons all died at birth loudly complained at the king’s palace and held the king accountable for this mishap. In the First Canto, Srila Prabhupada, while describing Yudhisthira’s reign, explained the accountability of the king. This is all because of the openness of Vedic society. Ours is meant to be a society based on love and trust. That calls for openness.
In other words, the justification for book banning and censorship in all forms is for maintaining stability, security; but love, or Krishna consciousness is not based on security—it is based on vulnerability. Love and trust become stifled in an authoritarian society. Administrative force and oppression keep love and trust from flowering. As Mr. Mill said, the push and pull of lively debate is part of the process of discovering truth. Therefore, Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami advises us not to avoid controversy for it “strengthens the mind and thus one’s mind becomes attached to Krishna.” He advises us not to avoid controversy, but in our society, we use the label “controversial” as a black mark against someone who stands for an unpopular idea. Historically, however, it has been shown that new ideas or new ways of looking at things are always unpopular at first.
Often the same unpopular idea becomes the accepted norm. Censorship is a veiled cynical response to the above dynamic, an attempt to short-circuit it by gagging the opposition. Why is it cynicism? Because censorship in essence declares the reading public to be gullible fools or slaves. But what could be the true reason for such a cynical response? At the heart of cynicism lies fear, paranoia, prejudice and cowardice. Cynicism does not require courage. It is the height of cowardice. Innocence and open-heartedness, love and trust, those things require courage.
When one appreciates that censorship is a form of cynicism, and that cynicism is cowardice one understands that fear lies behind censorship. Cowards fear freedom of expression in the marketplace of ideas. Persons secure in their own conviction or realization have no such fear. Lord Caitanya listened to Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya for seven days, showing that the art of persuasion involves letting the other side speak from the heart. This dynamic of innocence and open-heartedness is essential to individual growth and it is only possible in an open society, one that practices Habit Five—Seek first to understand, then be understood—of the seven habits of Mr. Covey.
These reasons are sufficient to show that ISKCON should be an open society. If we wish to take openness seriously, we must devise rules and procedures deliberately tilted in favor of openness to counter leadership’s inherent tendency for censorship and to counter the possibility of corruption, tyranny, ineptitude, and secrecy, which power can confer in an authoritarian system. In an open society, in other words, there is scope for accountability. This openness is especially vital to us who claim to be Rupanugas whose ultimate aim is raganuga bhakti. Raganuga means openness, otherwise, how can loving exchanges take place? Rules are not ends in themselves but guidelines for us to become qualified recipients of love of Krishna.
In a closed society there is no chance of such mechanisms working smoothly, because the individual does not have the right to speak, to take stands, to demand to be heard. He has no forum to participate. In addition, there is no mechanism to protect the individual from abuse of power and misuse of justice. Change is only possible by crisis—by sheer force of numbers coercing change after a long period of pressure build-up reaches a state of critical mass. Such a method always gives rise to periods of instability, which could have been easily avoided in the first place by openness.
To end this section, it must be emphasized that openness does not encourage rampant speculation, but the freedom to discuss philosophical questions based on sastra, to question institutional policy and dynamics, and to have the holder of even the most unpopular or minority view treated with respect—if for nothing else but the courage to think independently of the herd.