Aspects of Vaisnava Theory & Practice
Rasing Our Spiritual Standards
Chapter 15
Censorship and Brahminical Society
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Part 5

What Does a Book Ban Implicitly and Explicitly Communicate to Us?

Right away it says we are not an open society. It further indicates that a relatively few men have assumed the role of deciding what is good for the rest, who cannot think for themselves, being either fools or slaves. It says that the consensus of a few is assumed to be superior and less corruptible than the marketplace of ideas. This assumption is not supported by history within ISKCON or without.

Besides, if we never let the masses think for themselves, when will they ever learn to do so? Censorship forestalls them having the chance and they cannot grow into the role of responsible decision-making. As Lord Macaulay pointed out, leaders who hold it as a self-evident proposition that the people cannot be trusted until they are fit to use their freedom is a “maxim worthy of the fool who resolved not to go into the water until he learned how to swim”.

Centuries of human history and experience with censorship and the various rationales for it have shown that it is not necessarily true that the few make the best decision for the many. According to studies, the marketplace of ideas is the best option of all, the best test for truth, though it is not infallible. In any marketplace there may be some inferior quality goods on sale and the same holds for ideas. A market, being a place of commerce, will be biased in favor of those with the resources to conduct business. Hence the wealthy and powerful will have greater access than the poor and disadvantaged. Still, the metaphor of the marketplace—an open forum to trade freely, but based on sastra—is the best we have for determining the truth.

Unlike the materialists, however, for whom all truth is relative, we have the sastra as the final arbiter. We need not fear, therefore, the marketplace of ideas. Whatever is presented there should be allowed to stand or fall on its merit.

Alternatives to the marketplace have proven shoddy by comparison. When truth is decided by vote, that process is more liable to emotional appeals, and the swaying of votes for politically expedient reasons, rather than an interest in the truth.

The very nature of the human spirit is that it demands the right to self-expression. The implicit message that censorship sends, however, is that one’s human dignity and autonomy is of no account. Yet such dignity and autonomy are a requirement for individual fulfillment. That is why, for example, Priti-laksanam has been so valuable a contribution for ISKCON. Even if no one heeds one’s ideas, there is a certain cathartic value in having the right to express one’s self. To go against this is to say that devotees are really creatures of the institution, that their very thoughts are the institution’s property to control, and they are but empty shells of human beings. This would be a hideous development, eventually killing all initiative and all sense of autonomy and personal dignity, which would be a far cry from the independently thoughtful man that Srila Prabhupada wanted the Krishna consciousness movement to develop.

Openness is an aid to growth whereas censorship sends a signal that it is hazardous to think, to hope, to imagine; and that blind adherence to the line drawn by others is the only way to belong.

The advocates of this closed system believe that it leads to a more stable condition of the institution, but this is an erroneous assumption. In reality, the institution is made up of individuals and if they are frustrated, angry, repressed and dissatisfied, that hurts the institution. Just look at ISKCON in the USA where leadership did not serve the devotee community’s needs. Thus, over time the devotees decided to fend for themselves. The institution became weakened, because an institution is ultimately an abstraction. It is people that make an institution.

In this connection, US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explained,

“That order cannot be secured merely by instilling fear or punishment for infraction of the law. Indeed, it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope, and imagination. Fear breeds repression, which in turn breeds resentment, even hate. Hatred menaces institutional stability.”

We have examples of that in the case of disaffected ex-members who still prey on ISKCON to recruit members for their programs and sway them to ritvik vada and so forth. Brandeis concluded,

“That the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”

To this, Rodney Smolla, author of Free Speech in an Open Society, added,

“If societies are not to explode from festering tensions, there must be valves through which the citizens may blow off steam. Openness fosters resiliency, peaceful protest displaces more violence than it triggers; free debate dissipates more hate than it stirs.”

Judge Murray Gurfein agrees,

“There is no greater safety valve for discontent and cynicism about the affairs of government than freedom of expression in any form.”

Even Chairman Mao agrees:

“Just because you let people speak the sky is not going to collapse . . .and you won’t fall either. On the other hand, if you deprive other people of the chance to speak, then sooner or later you will inevitably fall.”

In our case, another negative outcome is that if we have a system that stifles initiative, the individual sense of autonomy and personal dignity, then the risk of ISKCON ending up in court defending itself against charges of being a cult significantly increases.

Why orient ourselves towards courting this particular disaster?

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