Dhanurdhara Swami March 14th, 2016
“You teach them, but don’t love them.”
A man in my class in Moscow asked me about this admonishment from a local priest, who was criticizing what he saw as the lack of welfare work by members of the Krishna consciousness movement. I quickly shot back:
“Then why is he trying to teach you!”
The audience laughed, but I also saw some truth in it. I continued:
“But we have to be careful that he doesn’t have a point.”
There is a study done that shows that 80 percent of people who are committed to religions or philosophies of transcendence are less empathetic to the suffering of others than the general public, but 20 percent are much more. I’m not sure that I exactly agree to the seemingly extreme figures, but I’ve seen enough to consider whether there is some truth there.
One time I was giving a program outside New York. I called some local friends to send a drummer. They warned me that there is someone available, but that he will burst into the room huffing and puffing one minute before the program to make it on time. And sure enough that is exactly what happened.
After the kirtan, I began my seminar “Bhakti in Essence”. To show that perfection is a quality of the heart, I asked the audience to think of the person whom they admire most. I then asked them to share the quality in them that inspired them to make that choice. I was sure that most people would choose a person because of a quality of that person’s heart. In this way I would be supporting the path of bhakti whose goal is prema, or divine love, over the path of jnana or renunciation whose goal is moksa where all thoughts and emotions are suppressed. I went around the room:
“I thought of my father. He was a very kind man,” the first person volunteered. As I continued I heard about people who were “selfless”, “humble”, “compassionate”, and other qualities of the heart – that is until it came around to the last person to share, the devotee in traditional garb. He emphatically enunciated each syllable of his answer to make sure the audience understood his point:
“Control of the senses!!”
I leaned over to him and jokingly whispered into his ear, “Who were you thinking of Hiranyakasipu?”*
Humor aside, the contrast struck me. Here were non-devotees, most likely tinged with an impersonal conception of God, who view perfection as a change of heart, and a devotee, imbued with a personal conception of God, who seemed to view perfection as heartless detachment, or the path of jnana. Although his answer did seem ironic, I didn’t think it was just an isolated case. Yes, practitioners of bhakti become softhearted and can be exceptionally softhearted, but this mindset of renunciation/indifference still seemed too prominent among those who walk the path of devotion. And frankly, as one in the renounced order, I have too often found and fought this indifference in myself. I wanted to understand why. My thinking:
It is just natural on any serious path to misunderstand spiritual life as only the negation of material life, or renunciation, as each path begins with a concerted effort to control one’s senses and their unbridled engagement in the world. We learn from the Gita that even the great devotee, Arjuna, mistakenly thought renunciation or sannyasa as the natural solution to the crisis he was facing in life.
If you doubt how easily the philosophy of bhakti can temper empathy if misunderstood, consider Krishna’s first instruction to Arjuna in the Gita:
“Although you are speaking learned words Arjuna, you are a fool. For the wise lament neither for the living nor the dead.” (Bg 2.11)
Did I hear that right? “The wise man laments neither for the living nor the dead.” If that doesn’t sound like the antithesis of empathy, I don’t know what does.
Of course the real meaning of Krishna’s instruction is a bit subtle. The point raised by Krishna is not whether one should feel or lament for others, but what is worthy of lamentation. We suffer not because the body is changing, but because out of ignorance we identify with it. Transcendentalists thus lament for old and dying people not because of their age or physical condition (the living), or that they soon may die (the dead), but for their ignorance of the soul, and the consequent suffering and fearfulness that misconception causes.
I digress. So was the priest’s advice “You teach them, but don’t love them” correct?
Of course not. Vasudeva Datta espouses the mood of true devotee:
“I do not pray to the Supreme Personality of Godhead for the eight perfections of mystic yoga, nor for salvation from repeated birth and death. I want only to stay among all the living entities and suffer all distresses on their behalf, so that they may be freed from suffering.”
And Srila Prabhupada comments:
“A Vaisnava is therefore described as being para-duhkha-duhkhī, very much aggrieved by the sufferings of others. As such, a Vaisnava engages in activities for the real welfare of human society.”
And story after story in the bhakti tradition describes the overflowing empathy of the devotees for the suffering of others as the foundation of bhakti.
But yes also. Like all spiritual practitioners, devotees need to cultivate an appropriate non-attachment or risk becoming too indulgent and selfish for spiritual life. But in closing the heart to that which is unwanted, there is danger of closing the heart beyond that, even tempering our natural empathy for others.
Our predecessors thus recommend yukta vairagya, balanced detachment. We don’t militantly reject everything, but reject only those things that have no value to our practice and service in bhakti. In that way we practice detachment, but the heart is exercised by using our attachments and desires in devotional service.
Teach others, but love others also, especially by feeling their pain and awakening their soul, or as Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur advises:
“The essence of all religion is show compassion to all living entities by awakening divine love in their hearts by giving them the holy name of Krishna.”
* Hiranyakasipu is the great demon described in the 7th canto of the Bhagavatam who is famous for his arduous austerities to become immortal and conquer the universe. He mastered “control of the senses!”
** The Catholics are aware of this problem and have a whole branch of theology dedicated to religious ethics called moral theology, a theology that deals with, among other things, social teachings. While theology mostly deals with what one believes, moral theology deals specifically with how one should act and feel towards others. Catholics theologians feel that without specifically focusing on a moral theology the “What you believe” in Christianity may overshadow the “How one acts in Christianity” in a way unbecoming to the teachings of Christ. I wrote an essay on this in response to a Catholic Priest and friend who asked me after reading Srila Prabhupada books, “Does ISKCON have a moral theology?” My answer: Does ISKCON Have A Moral Theology?