Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #15 – Immigration and the Gītā

April 10th, 2017

A friend of mine in Washington, D.C. complained to me that the Hare Krishna movement is losing a good opportunity to share the profundity of its teachings by not being involved in spiritual activism.[1] I will take up his challenge by commenting on the modern-day mess in governance by analyzing immigration policy based on the Bhagavad-gītā.


There are two extreme views of immigration. One is radically exclusive nationalism, wherein, in the US, “America First” is the only principle, and to protect that principle we have to apply the letter of the law seemingly without heart. In this view, families can sometimes be separated and people who have been terribly oppressed, some who have sacrificed their lives abroad for American interest, can be detained or deported upon arrival, even if they have already been thoroughly vetted.


The other view is radically inclusive globalism, a perspective that sees any imposition based on nationalist borders as antithetical to both humanistic and spiritual values. I will argue based on the Gītā that both of these views lack compassion and sensibility.


The extremism of the first view would be opposed by verses in the Gītā that present the universality of living entities based on the soul.


“The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].” (Gītā 5.18)


Such verses either imply or outright condemn viewing people according to the bodily concept of life such as nationalism. Another of many examples:


“That knowledge by which one sees that in every different body there is a different type of living entity you should understand to be in the mode of passion.” (Gītā 18.21)


It should also be noted in this discussion that at times Srila Prabhupada spoke very strongly against borders based on artificial bodily distinction:


“We pass through Canada to USA. Why Canada? Why USA? This is bodily concept. ‘It is meant for the Canadians,’ ‘it is meant for USA, Americans.’ Immigration, customs, the same mentality as a dog coming from another neighborhood. The other dogs, they all come together, ‘Yow, yow, why you have come, why you have come?’ In civilized dress only. This is the position. What is the difference between the dog’s mentality . . . When another dog comes to another neighborhood, these neighborhood dogs, you know that? All animals. ‘Yow, why you have come?’ So this department, ‘Why you have come here?’ dogs barking, and this immigration, what is the difference?” (June 2, 1976 Toronto)


Although the Gītā certainly speaks about the principle of universality, the underlying value against nationalism, it also promotes the value of reciprocity, a view opposed to indiscriminate globalism. I would define reciprocity as the principle of caring more for those dependent on one, such as family, or in this case a government, giving special care or consideration for its citizens, and to understand that not doing so is impersonal. Before I reference the Gītā, I would like to share an interesting exchange that Confucius had with an adversary specifically in relation to this tension:


“Confucius advocated ‘care with distinctions’: we owe everyone a baseline benevolence, but we have specific duties toward those close to us, those who have done us the most good, like our family, our parents, our close friends.


“He was opposed by Mozi, a philosopher who argued that we owe everyone the same care, that the idea of specific obligations was too much like partiality.


“Confucius’ disciples like Mencius argue that Mozi’s idea is completely impracticable; even Mozi’s best followers treated their parents with special care. But worse, it is immoral: to treat people who have sacrificed much for us, like our parents, the same way that we treat a stranger is grossly offensive.”[2]


It seems clear that in the Gītā Krishna also supports this principle, “care with distinction,” that challenges the extremism of the second view.


“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Gītā 9.29)


In his purport Srila Prabhupada discusses how the very basis of personalism is that one appropriately reciprocates with those under one’s care and such “partiality” is beyond selfishness and karma. I would recommend that one read the whole purport, but here is just a small excerpt where Srila Prabhupada defends special care as natural, not narrow:


“One may question here that if Kṛṣṇa is equal to everyone and no one is His special friend, then why does He take a special interest in the devotees who are always engaged in His transcendental service? But this is not discrimination; it is natural. Any man in this material world may be very charitably disposed, yet he has a special interest in his own children.” (Gītā 9.29, purport)


Another famous reference for the principle of reciprocity as being above prejudice:


“As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pṛthā.” (Gītā 4.11)


In his purport Srila Prabhupada comments on this principle of “care with distinction” in relation to the dealings of Krishna and how it is equally applicable in this world:


“Kṛṣṇa reciprocates with His pure devotees in the transcendental attitude, just as the devotee wants Him. One devotee may want Kṛṣṇa as supreme master, another as his personal friend, another as his son, and still another as his lover. Kṛṣṇa rewards all the devotees equally, according to their different intensities of love for Him. In the material world, the same reciprocations of feelings are there . . .” (Gītā 4.11, purport)


I think this “care with distinction” principle is also just common sense. I know one person close to me who, when growing up, had a father who was altruistic to everyone but not especially partial to her, and whose evenness to everyone caused her to feel sorely neglected.


In regard to the issue of immigration, both universality and reciprocity, as espoused in the Gītā, have appropriate application. Every entity, whether family or country, should extend itself as far as possible for all people, understanding the superficiality of bodily distinctions, including taking those less fortunate into one’s fold to whatever practical extent one is capable of (care). However, it is also reasonable for a country to protect its borders and show some special concern to the needs of its own citizens for economic, social, or security reason (distinction). According to the Gītā we can’t deal with even illegal immigrants just on the basis of law without some real consideration for them as spiritual beings, nor can we deal with people living here illegally in total neglect of the laws intended to protect its citizens.


The specific application of these contradictory principles is beyond the scope of this paper, but their application calls for compassionate and intelligent leaders who apply these principles neither as indiscriminate multi-culturalists nor as xenophobic nationalists, having respect both for the universality of all beings and the need for reciprocity with those under one’s care.


These are complex issues with many considerations, including the legitimacy of proprietorship of those who rule certain lands, but those discussions are again beyond the scope of this column. I have presented certain eternal principles in my attempt to add to these discussions a view through the eyes of shastra. I will send it to my friend and see if he is satisfied with my attempt at spiritual activism.


[1] By spiritual activism, I mean having an active voice in contemporary problems—not taking partisan sides, but rather trying to find perspectives within the spiritual traditions by which we can make sense of our problems and challenges.

[2] From a correspondence I had with Professor Matthew Dasti, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Bridgewater State University.


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