Monday Morning Greetings #52 – Moral Diversity, Book Banning, and the Conservative/Liberal Polemic in ISKCON
Dhanurdhara Swami December 26th, 2016
I recently started to write a review of a book that was banned in ISKCON, but my book review soon morphed into something else: a study of moral diversity as a template to bridge the gap between the Society’s conservative and liberal wings.
Three months ago, I was included as a receiver to a flurry of impassioned but reasonably well-reasoned protest letters from the disciples of Bhakti Vikāśa Swami to a long list of ISKCON leaders, arguing that it was improper for the GBC to ban their guru’s book Women: Masters or Mothers? I was a little annoyed at first. I am not an ISKCON leader, and I hadn’t read or seen the book, or even had an interest to do so. But as I received letter after letter, my interest was piqued to find out why this book was such a controversy. I protested to the writer of the next letter I received, “I am not an ISKCON leader, nor even technically in ISKCON, and I have not even read the book. If you choose to continually copy me on your complaints, at least send me a copy of the book!” And she did.
In a sense, whether I agreed with the author’s opinion or not, I couldn’t fathom why the book should be banned. It was mostly quotes from Śrīla Prabhupāda espousing the more traditional view of the role of women in society, and the author gave many reasonable and well-argued supporting arguments. The cover was too provocative, and some parts were too polemical—some bordering on the pejorative, especially in discussing a topic with such a history of abuse—but I just couldn’t justify the ban, and neither could the GBC.
The GBC soon rescinded their restrictions, but I still felt that this was a book and a subject matter that sorely needed to be addressed. I initially decided to write a careful book review addressing in depth the various issues and arguments raised, but when I realized what that would entail, I hesitated. I would not only have to deal elaborately with each, or many, of the book’s points, either defending or refuting them, but I would also risk getting drawn into a long and fruitless debate with people entrenched in their views, an exercise I definitely had no interest in or time to initiate. I decided that it would be better to just highlight the core issue and address the controversy in a more general way
While pondering how to tackle the issue, I came across a relevant lecture by Jonathan Haidt, a NYU professor of sociology, entitled “The Moral Roots of Conservatives and Liberals.” I thought his lecture neutrally addressed the core principles at the root of the conservative/liberal dichotomy, so I became inspired, as a contribution to this discussion, to summarize his study, apply his thesis to the Mothers/Masters dichotomy, and then suggest where Mahārāja’s otherwise thoughtful social analysis based on Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings fell short.
In his lecture, Professor Haidt described his comprehensive cross-cultural study of what constitutes the moral mind. He found that there are five universal qualities that form the basis of moral diversity—an analysis of morality that perfectly conceptualizes what we espouse in our tradition:
- Harm/Care – A moral person has compassion for those who are vulnerable and antipathy for those who do harm.
- Fairness/Reciprocity – A moral person makes judgments and deals with others free from arbitrary discrimination (the Golden Rule).
- In-group/Loyalty – A moral person willingly adheres to, respects, and is loyal to community, order, and tradition.
- Authority/respect – A moral person gives deference to his or her seniors in age, position, experience, and knowledge.
- Purity/sanctity – A moral person believes that you can attain virtue by controlling your senses.
Professor Haidt found that liberal people are slightly more concerned than conservatives with the first two qualities of moral diversity but that conservatives, though slightly less concerned with the first two qualities, are much more concerned than liberals with the last three.
Because he was giving his talk at TED, an institution with liberal objectives, and was making a case for moral diversity, Professor Haidt felt the need to explain how in-group loyalty, for which liberals have much less regard, is also an important moral quality. He did this through a famous triptych by Hieronymus Bosch called The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The first panel is of the Garden of Eden, where everything is prim and proper, the second panel shows its erotic derangement, and the third displays its dark transformation and degradation.
To help convey his point that a morally diverse person is not iconoclastic but has a reasonable affinity for in-group loyalty, Professor Haidt made the fitting comparison that the second panel was like the 1960s and the third panel its aftermath, its degradation. His point struck a chord with me. I went to Haight Ashbury in 1970 looking for the peace and love of the ’60s (the second panel) but found that it had already morphed into a degraded, strung out, and angry drug culture (the third panel) that was even worse than the relatively puritanical Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver* 1950s (the first panel) that I and so many others wanted to change or transcend.
Professor Haidt cannot by any means be pigeonholed as a conservative. He knows and acknowledges both the weakness of conservative thinking — “Conservatives speak for the institutions and traditions and seek order even at the cost of the those at the bottom” — and the flaw of the liberal mindset — “Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed, want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.”
He concludes that both conservatives and liberals have something substantial to contribute, and that the most highly evolved people are those who are morally diverse, as represented in his template for the moral mind.
What I find most helpful in Professor Haidt’s discussion is that it provides a template to help reconcile Śrīla Prabhupāda’s apparently contradictory social viewpoint: his strong affinity for the social traditions of India in contrast to his sometimes liberal outlook toward their application, especially in terms of his statements about women. Bhakti Vikāśa Swami tries to reconcile Śrīla Prabhupāda’s conservative statements with his liberal statements in regard to women in ISKCON by explaining that the more liberal statements were only made initially, to encourage people in devotional service, but that now, as the movement has matured, Śrīla Prabhupāda would certainly have insisted that all women in ISKCON should be more or less limited to domestic roles and strictly follow traditional behavior and etiquette.
I prefer to see it that Śrīla Prabhupāda said both things because he was morally diverse. He saw the need to institute the tradition of varṇāśrama with its social mores, but he also had a strong sense of care and justice. He balanced his sense of the ideal with a concern to encourage and empower his female disciples—or anyone, for that matter—with a strong consideration for who they were now, in the moment: Vaiṣṇava members of an ancient tradition but born in a modern milieu. And it is obvious to me that he would do the same today out of a similar sense of compassion and fairness and also for the fact that few in the First World would come to Kṛṣṇa consciousness if “purdah” were the face of our preaching.
Bhakti Vikāśa Swami argues that if we had senior women who held to the most traditional line of women’s deportment and temples organized strictly according to these same strictures, our preaching would be more successful. I think this points out a weakness of Mahārāja’s presentation—that his preaching has not been on the front lines of the First World and that he thus has only limited realization of the deep sincerity and mindset of the people whom preachers in the West confront. For his view to have credibility, he or his followers would have to lead the way and show others how to impact the First World with his tone and presentation.
Śrīla Prabhupāda was on the front lines and credited much of his success in the West to his liberality. Those who have successfully followed suit as preachers in the First World also seem morally diverse. That is not to say that his presentations and expectations then or what he would have demanded now were liberal or divorced from the tradition. They were not; but they were tempered—or relevantly applied—out of fairness to the times in which people were living and out of compassion for their souls.
I appreciate many of the points in Mahārāja’s book about the relevance of the traditional views of Indian culture, especially its promotion of the role of mothers—as would many of the senior women in ISKCON whom he calls “suffragettes.” He has a number of legitimate concerns and important things to say. But I don’t think drawing sharp lines or seeing the issue in black and white is the wholesome or realized approach that Śrīla Prabhupāda espoused. Śrīla Prabhupāda was able to preach a strong affinity for the tradition without losing sight of its purpose: to inspire people in Kṛṣṇa consciousness through a practical application of its teachings, often in accordance with time, place, and circumstance.
At the end of last summer, one incident highlighted to me the necessity for Bhakti Vikāśa Swami to adjust his presentation in a practical way. When I am in New York, I regularly visit the harināma saṅkīrtana at Union Square, and one day I noticed that a young woman, born in the movement, had joined the chanting group. She had been there for several months participating in kīrtana and book distribution and was about to return home, perhaps to attend college. Rāma Rāya, an exemplary Vaiṣṇava and strict brahmacari, turned to me and glorified her, expressing how much her contribution would be missed. He described her as talented, dedicated, and chaste, and I could tell that she conducted herself in an exemplary manner.
At the time, I was reading Bhakti Vikāśa Swami’s book, and the thought came to me how he might castigate her parents for granting the young woman even this little “non-varṇāśrama” independence, when in fact her parents, who are strict devotees, were just being practical and morally diverse. They had raised their child with Kṛṣṇa conscious values with what appeared to be reasonable boundaries and, as dedicated and strict devotees, had set an example for her to follow. Out of concern for their daughter’s situation and needs, they had engaged her in practical devotional service. What in the world could possibly be wrong with that? Wasn’t that, in fact, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mood?
So, what about all the direct quotes by Śrīla Prabhupāda describing varṇāśrama and its traditionalist values? If that’s what Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted, then by all means his followers should take up the service to implement it and show others its value—but only as long as they don’t, in trying to implement it, lose their heart and kick too many good, sincere, Kṛṣṇa conscious women aside—women who can be good mothers with love and respect for tradition but who also need to be reasonably empowered according to their natures and karmic situations.
Bhakti Vikāśa Swami is an excellent writer and a substantial preacher in ISKCON. His voice for conservative values is an important one. And he does have a point. There are radical voices in the modern world that don’t represent Śrīla Prabhupāda and whose influence in ISKCON is unwanted, and people do need to be educated in the value of tradition and what Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted. I just think Mahārāja would be more successful if his vision were a bit more morally diverse and he showed the fairness, compassion, and practicality that Śrīla Prabhupāda demonstrated in spreading this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement.
 Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver were popular situation comedies that showed the perfectly patriarchal intact family life in the postwar 1950s where everything was at least superficially functional.
 Bhakti Vikāśa Swami did not use the word purdah, nor I am meaning to use it in a pejorative way. I use it because it seems the best way to communicate the admittedly radically traditional social structure that Bhakti Vikāśa Swami feels Śrīla Prabhupāda would want to impose indiscriminately in present-day ISKCON, even in the First World.
 I too have written about this topic: http://wavesofdevotion.com/index.php?s=mind.+mothers&searchsubmit=Go