Does ISKCON Have A Moral Theology?

September 25th, 2003

September 25, 2003


When my friend Reverend William Muldin, a Catholic priest, humbly commented, “I have been reading Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books, but I don’t find a moral theology,” he struck upon something I was pondering. I probed further.

“Certainly, in Śrīla Prabupada’s books there is a very clear conception of right and wrong,” I replied.

“That’s true,” he said, “but I don’t see the science of how conscience is formed, the tools by which the reader can make moral decisions.”

We discussed the matter for some time. He also kindly sent me an interesting book called Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality.

Don’t worry, I am not going to become a Catholic. But Bill has a point, and it doesn’t minimize Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books. The Bhāgavatam deals with transcendence. It secondarily describes a highly defined culture, varṇāśrama, which outlines the elaborate laws and duties that purify one in support of devotional service. The setting in which a Vaiṣṇava finds himself today, however, is quite different. The question that Bill was alluding to arises from this point: Does the Bhāgavatam overtly give us the tools to apply those codes of behavior to the ever-changing and often complex situations of today’s world?

For example, I essentially avoided contact with my parents for years based on the principles of sannyāsa-dharma and those injunctions against associating with non-devotees. There are precedents of slight concessions to the rule—Śaṅkarācārya returning home to perform his mother’s funeral rites or at least one occasion where Lord Caitanya visited Mother Śacī, for example—but these are exceptions. The rule for Vaiṣṇava sannyāsa is that such relations are discouraged, especially with non-devotees. As a result of my aloofness, my parents naturally suffered. Because they had no concept of sannyāsa-dharma, my coldness didn’t help them or their friends appreciate Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

Especially after my father died five years ago, I began to feel somewhat guilty about this. I resolved that I was being too insensitive and decided to visit my mother more regularly, but not without questioning my shift in conscience. Was I neglecting my duty or more deeply understanding it? Was I being sentimental or compassionate? Was I falling from transcendence or moving toward it? Was there a verse, direct instruction, or story in the Bhāgavatam to justify my decision?

I did make a decision, but looking back, I am not sure what guidelines I used. I also see how my dilemma supports Bill’s humble perception that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books do not outline a comprehensive moral theology, although it became clear to me later how the Bhāgavatam does offer the resolution to this and other tough moral decisions. I will discuss this later.

I think I recognize how my shift in determining conscience came about. It developed at around the same time that I was suffering the effects of my contribution to the pain of those who attended gurukula. I began to realize how their distress was at least in part caused by my rigidity to the adherence of rules to the exclusion of their effects; my strict application of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s instructions to the overlook of their intention.

By seeing the effects of a morality exclusively adherent to law in my own life, and reflecting on the ill effects of this mode on the development of early ISKCON, I unconsciously, for better or worse, shifted the development of my conscience from one that was based exclusively on rules to one based on how my behavior affected me in terms of the type of person I was becoming. In other words, I made the decision to regularly visit my parents based on how it affected my character and influenced others, rather than its strict accordance with prescribed rules. The determination for how I basically led my life and made moral decisions, however, fundamentally remained the same: through faithful observance to the principles of śāstra.

Although my convictions concerning the basis of morality remained the same, the adjustment in my thinking came from the understanding that the development of conscience in today’s rapidly changing world needed just a little more finesse than a strict application of codes of law. I was still not certain exactly where the Bhāgavatam trained us to do this.

By the same token, I began to reflect on areas where my own views and the views of others in regard to the development of conscience may have needed refinement. One area was in the role of women in ISKCON. Was the stringent application of varṇāśrama in this regard correct? Did it help us and others develop the qualities of a Vaiṣṇava? Is it morally more important to consider a woman’s role in terms of how it matches the highest ideals of Vedic culture or how it affects the distribution of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s mercy to the modern world—or a careful juxtaposition of both? Where in Bhāgavatam can we find reference to make such fine adjustments properly without neglecting the principles or rendering them impractical?

I am not necessarily advocating feminism; there are differences and a social order needs to be cognizant of them. I did, however, question whether or not these principles needed to be applied with a clearer cognizance, considering the country and culture in which they are implemented, for us to make the best moral decision in this regard.

I think Indian-born parents living in America have had to face similar considerations in determining what their American-born children could and could not do, especially their daughters.

Cultured Indians have a very refined and admirable social culture based on principles of śāstra. They have every reason to want their children to follow those mores. Should they totally ignore, however, the society in which their children are living? I would think that, in making choices for their children, the more successful parents, while indoctrinating them with their own core values, could take into consideration that their children are living in a culture different from their ideals. I presume that, for many Indian parents, it was an unexpected and perhaps difficult shift in child-rearing to go from an absolute obedience in the norms of Indian culture to one of occasionally accommodating the effect of those customs on the emotional and social development of their children. It is unexpected, perhaps, because such moral dilemmas hardly arose in their own youth, where the values of their parents and the society in which they all lived were basically the same.

If we think sincerely about the matter, the circumstances in which we confront tough decisions concerning the application of Kṛṣṇa consciousness are quite pervasive. I have even witnessed advanced devotees, leaders in ISKCON, wrestle with the question of whether their strict attendance at Śrīla Prabhupāda’s morning program best served their Kṛṣṇa consciousness. On what basis, for example, could they alter their participation for their own individual needs without violating Prabhupāda’s instructions and their responsibilities as leaders?

Now back to Bill’s question. The Bhāgavatam is based on nitya-dharma, the eternal duty of the living entity, love of God. It is thus more concerned with transcendence and less concerned with provisional religious duties (varṇāśrama) based on temporary designations. One obvious reason here for the Bhāgavatam’s lack of concern, besides its lofty focus, was that the text was spoken in a culture already sustaining and stressing those duties. It does at times, however, allude to the importance of secondary duties in relation to supporting devotional service, for it is important in spiritual life to make sound decisions in all matters.

Whether it concerns these duties directly or indirectly related to devotional service, there are often subtleties in their application based on the circumstances under which they are to be executed. Because the multiplicity of those circumstances is so vast, especially in today’s ever-changing world, no scripture can possibly directly address every situation with an exact statement or parable. Therefore, more than ever, people require a mechanism for making sound decisions based on śāstra.

From Bill, I understood that the main mechanism for doing this in the Catholic Church was the system of confession, where the priest aims to help the parishioner understand the nature and extent of his sin. Priests are trained for this work in seminaries, which before Vatican II, consisted almost exclusively of studying Catholic law. I also understood that one of the purposes of Vatican II was to address the increasing shortcomings of this almost exclusively rule-based system by shifting the focus and worldview of Christian moral development. The focus began to shift from observance of Christian law to the effect of one’s actions on character and Christian faith— the worldview to one accommodating the interpretation of morals within their context and audience. Within this shift of focus and outlook, however, the core values and laws of the Church for the most part were to remain intact.

I know very little about Vatican II, so I am not qualified to comment on the effect and efficacy of their endeavor, and I am certainly not recommending such a council for ISKCON. I am only commenting that the Catholic Church saw a necessity for a shift in the application of their core principles to keep Christ’s teachings relevant for their congregation. I am also discussing the Catholic Church here in order to clarify what Bill meant by “moral theology.”

One of the six principles unfavorable for devotional service is niyamāgraha, which means both neglecting the rules of devotional service and practicing them without serving their intent. The bhakti-śāstras thus certainly recognize the need to negotiate the laws of religion with their objectives when at variance. The Bhāgavatam recommends ācārya puruṣa veda—that the purport of śāstra is revealed by realized teachers.

Ācārya literally means “one who selects.” The realized teacher extracts and emphasizes principles of śāstra according to time, place, and circumstance. Śrīla Prabhupāda allowed women in the West to join his āśramas to be trained, which was unprecedented in our tradition. I assume he made this bold move because he understood that not doing so, under the circumstances, would belie compassion—one of the main principles of Vaiṣṇavism. What was religiously wrong in one circumstance, the traditional culture of the East, was thus religiously correct in another circumstance, the unfortunate culture of the West. It was the ācārya who negotiated such refinements.

The moral theology of the Bhāgavatam is carried within the system of spiritual authority recommended therein, where not only ācāryas, but realized brāhmaṇas and mature elders, advise the society on the nuances of śāstra so that, when necessary, things may be adjusted for practicality without contradicting its principles.

Thus in answer to Bill’s sincere inquiry, there is a comprehensive moral theology in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books, but its practical application in a young religious movement has one glaring impediment: It’s a young religious movement! In this regard, Ravīndra Svarūpa Prabhu gave a simple and brilliant description of the difficulty Śrīla Prabhupāda faced in establishing ISKCON as a functional and mature society: “Śrīla Prabhupāda was the only adult in ISKCON!”

His Holiness Jayādvaita Swami made a similar analysis years ago during a conference discussing the role of women in ISKCON. After days of witnessing the sincerity and validity of variant concerns, he offered an unusual, but discerning resolution. “ISKCON needs grandmothers,” he said. This is insightful. Until a society matures with the full range of generations, especially those learned and experienced in life, moral dilemmas will remain especially difficult to resolve, despite śāstra.

The want of established spiritual communities with mature guides has a conspicuous effect on our development as Vaiṣṇavas. Without deeply understanding our moral theology, we, too, often make bad decisions—either falsely adhering to principles beyond our realization, even when they contradict the principles of compassion and love, or thoughtlessly accepting certain aspects of modern life in the name of practicality and corrupting our families.

In the fervor of ISKCON’s early days, I sense we tended toward the former: a renunciation of things needed for an overall healthy development. Unfortunately, at the present, we seem to be leaning toward the latter. In some ways, the effect of the latter could be even worse. Without proper discernment, practical concessions often grow into lifestyles that bury our devotional life. Only a discerning person, learned in śāstra and experienced in years, can carefully balance the strict principles of spiritual life with their practical application in modern life and inspire others to do the same. We need such people in our lives and communities.

When Bill raised his question concerning moral theology it struck me how relevant this issue was to the development of ISKCON. As a result, I am currently reading the book he gave me to understand how their tradition dealt with such issues.

Meditating on the problem increased my appreciation for Śrīla Prabhupāda’s vision to create a brāhminical class of men. It also heightened my sadness, for in the necessity of establishing the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement quickly, this aspect of our mission was naturally somewhat neglected.

As ISKCON becomes more of a congregational movement and the lives of devotees become more complicated, it is even more crucial that we educate qualified brāhmaṇas and develop a culture to accept and support them. If we don’t have regular access to people of wisdom, whether they are brāhmaṇas or “grandmothers,” it will be difficult for us to negotiate the fine line between practicality and principles needed to keep us socially healthy and devotional.

The test to see if we are making sound judgments, despite a lack of guidance, is specifically whether or not we are becoming healthy individuals and moving forward in our spiritual life. One sure sign that we are is that our attraction for the holy name is increasing despite our situation. The sure sign that we’re not is that compromise made in the name of so-called realism gradually snowballs into materialism, and our taste for the holy name begins to wane.

In trying to become Kṛṣṇa conscious, and especially in trying to spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness, I am more clearly realizing the Bhāgavatam’s prophecy that the age of Kali will be surcharged with an increasing opposition to spiritual life. I sense we are all experiencing this. Therefore, I think that—while it is essential that we culture our lives with sound decisions and have the proper guidance to do so—the most important decision to ponder is whether or not we are developing a culture of kīrtana, despite whatever situation we find ourselves in. In this regard, the Bhāgavatam ends with a penetrating insight and our ultimate theology:

“My dear King, although Kali-yuga is an ocean of faults, there is still one good quality about this age: Simply by chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra, one can become free from material bondage and be promoted to the transcendental kingdom.” (Bhāg. 12.3.51)

(The aforementioned verse is from the third chapter of the Twelfth Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and reflects its conclusion. The final verse in the Bhāgavatam states: “I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Lord, Hari, the congregational chanting of whose holy names (ma-saṅkīrtana) destroys all sinful reactions, and the offering of obeisances unto whom relieves all material suffering.”)


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