Aspects of Vaisnava Theory & Practice
Rasing Our Spiritual Standards
Chapter 15
Censorship and Brahminical Society
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Part 8

Is There an Alternative to Banning Books

Yes. The marketplace of ideas. Here truth and error can test each other. Mill has been quoted already on the merit of ideas being “earnestly and vigorously contested”. Here he frames the point another way:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person was of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

. . . If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and liveliness of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Here he has made a powerful point. Some may say that to silence a buffoon is no offense, but unless he is allowed to speak, how will we know he is a buffoon? And when his buffoonery is established, what real harm can this person do? For those who may say “Why should we care what these nondevotees have to say?” this attitude is indicative of the problem—in the name of Krishna consciousness we refuse to capitalize on the wisdom of others who often have given considerably more thought to these matters than we have. We refuse to mine gems from every place. We say, “Utility is the principle”, but we prefer to reinvent the wheel in every sphere of human experience. In the last thirty years how well has this attitude served us? Better to practice yukta-vairagya.

To counter the likely objection that we on the bhakti-marga are not interested in people who have contrary opinions, because we are adherents to the Absolute Truth, please be reminded that we do allow for different angles of vision, for different opinions, provided the opinion is supported by sastra. In terms of the strict science of Krishna consciousness, this is enough reason for a single person to hold an opinion not shared by anyone else in the community of Krishna conscious people, if he can show how he arrived there by sastra. There is room for unity in diversity. Only by such unity in diversity can we realize the belief that Prabhupada built a house in which the whole world can live.

On the strength of this, therefore, the alternative to censorship in our institution is to either resort to persuasion or to insist on a sastric footing as the minimum requirement for a person of a different opinion to be tolerated. In the Caitanya-caritamrta, after arguing to establish that Krishna is the svayam bhagavan, Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami concludes that if someone still wants to insist that Visnu is the source of Krishna he will accept, because one can cite sastra. Failing this requirement, the marketplace of ideas will automatically reject the questionable opinion and there is really no threat. This calls for trust in the integrity of the devotees in general, for censorship implies mistrust of the mass of devotees.

As Justice Brandeis suggested, the fitting remedy for evil or heretical counsel is good counsel. Preaching, in other words, is the alternative to censorship. It is a good and positive alternative to suppression. In our tradition, the system was that if someone wrote or held objectionable views, a book or debate would ensue to refute him. Censorship was not an option. This is the very dynamic that Mill is advocating. There is no reason at present why we should radically depart from the tradition. If someone has an erroneous idea, let him speak his piece. Let him lay it all out from beginning to end. Right or wrong, we have nothing to fear. We may then persuade him by reason and argument and scriptural references that his view is wrong. Or he may persuade by the same method that his view is valid. Simply creating or invoking laws to gag such a person is of no real value because a man convinced against his will is not convinced at all.

“But,” someone may argue, “what about Lord Caitanya’s order, does it not constitute a ban when He forbade reading Mayavada literature? And did not Srila Prabhupada say ‘Read only my books?’ He even forbade us from reading the books of his Guru Maharaja.” In response to the first question, no one takes it as an imperative, but rather as a warning, for those who have the inclination to read Mayavada literature do so and invariably preach against it as a result. What Sri Caitanya meant is that we must be careful not to accept Mayavada as the siddhanta. One may not read it and still harbor Mayavada ideas unknowingly, for the contamination of impersonalism is deep in the heart of conditioned souls, whether they profess Mayavada or not. Better to read it, know what it is, and get rid of it.

As far as Prabhupada saying read only his books, when we do that, we find in many places he recommends that we read the books of our previous Acaryas. There are numerous references to this effect. Probably the most notable instance comes in his introduction to the Srimad-Bhagavatam:

Introduction to Srimad-Bhagavatam pp 5-6:

“Many devotees of Lord Caitanya like Srila  Vrindavana dasa Thakura, Sri Locana dasa Thakura, Srila  Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami, Sri Kavikarnapura, Sri Prabodhananda Sarasvati, Sri Rupa Gosvami, Sri Sanatana Gosvami, Sri Raghunatha Bhatta Gosvami, Sri Jiva Gosvami, Sri Gopala Bhatta Gosvami, Sri Raghunatha dasa Gosvami and in this latter age within two hundred years, Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti, Sri Baladeva Vidyabhusana, Sri Syamananda Gosvami, Sri Narottama dasa Öhakura, Sri Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, and at last Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (our spiritual master) and many other great and renowned scholars and devotees of the Lord have prepared voluminous books and literatures on the life and precepts of the Lord. Such literatures are all based on the sastras like the Vedas, Puranas, Upanisads, Ramayana, Mahabharata and other histories and authentic literatures approved by the recognized Acaryas. They are unique in composition and unrivaled in presentation, and they are full of transcendental knowledge. Unfortunately, the people of the world are still ignorant of them, but when these literatures, which are mostly in Sanskrit and Bengali, come to light the world and when they are presented before thinking people, then India’s glory and the message of love will overflood this morbid world, which is vainly searching after peace and prosperity by various illusory methods not approved by the Acaryas in the chain of disciplic succession.”

Without doubt he intended us to read the books of all our predecessors. Not only did he want the literature of our parampara translated, he wanted the books of the other Vaisnava sampradayas to be translated as well.

In conclusion, if a man is in illusion, in darkness, light is the true antidote. Censorship, however, is an attempt to fight darkness with darkness, at best. That’s only if the censors are right. If they are wrong, they fight light with darkness.

Quotes that are applicable to Chapter 15:

  • This is the final test of a gentleman: His respect for those who are of no service to him.
  • I count him braver who overcomes his senses than who overcomes his enemies
  • Between stimulus and response is a space. In this space lies our freedom to choose our response. That choice determines our evolution or devolution.

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