Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #12 – Is Preaching a Bad Word?

March 19th, 2018

The word “preaching” today comes off so condescending, haughty, and intrusive. Frankly, I am preacher. I cringe a bit when I say that.


Unfortunately, words carry the baggage of the history of their application. To make a fair judgment on a word and its meaning, thoughtful people rise above their prejudices. In other words, just as we should judge a person as he or she is and not by some generalization based on some predisposition, the thoughtful also approach emotionally laden words and concepts like “preaching” without bias. So what is the “non-prejudicial” meaning of “preaching” and how should we fairly judge its use?


Preaching means to advocate a cause or course of action, often in terms of religious ideas. Certainly there is nothing wrong per se with that. It depends on the validity of the cause and how it is presented. Charlatans and egoists may preach and give the name a bad taste, but the compassionate also advocate or preach a cause vigorously.


Actually, I was inspired to clarify these points when someone inquired about something he read that spoke disparagingly about preaching in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mission. Let me continue this discussion about the word “preaching” with my answers to his questions:


Is Krishna consciousness in its traditional sense a preaching mission?


The external cause for Śrī Caitanya’s descent, external here meaning the reason why He came for others, was to promote Krishna consciousness. He therefore requested some of His leading followers to preach widely. For example, he instructed Śrī Nityānanda that his main mission was to give Krishna consciousness to others without restriction and implored Śrī Advaita to “give Krishna consciousness, devotion to Krishna, even to the lowest of men [caṇḍālas]” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 2.15.41).[1] In other words, He engaged them in His preaching mission and they proceeded to go door-to-door imploring others to take up their cause. So yes, a major part of Śrī Caitanya’s mission was to preach according to its classical meaning, advocating a religious or spiritual cause.


Is opening temples and book distribution preaching in the traditional sense?


Śrī Caitanya sent those who are now known as the Six Gosvāmīs from Bengal to establish Śrī Vṛndāvana as a base to promote His mission by among other things constructing significant temples there. They weren’t sitting in Vṛndāvana just chanting and giving classes. They were working vigorously to push on Śrī Caitanya’s mission. [2]


Mass book distribution as we know it did not exist at the time of Lord Caitanya because the printing press had only been relatively recently invented. Books in India were still being handwritten by the author and, if desired, then copied. We do know, however, that after Lord Caitanya, Narottama and Śrīnivāsa made great effort to bring the books of the Gosvāmīs from Vṛndāvana to Bengal to see to their distribution. So, certainly book distribution is part of our tradition. I can’t imagine how the great stalwarts in our tradition wouldn’t laud the mass distribution of that knowledge, as long as it was done thoughtfully, especially when the books that are being distributed today have commentaries geared to a greater audience.


Is it wrong for a preacher to impose themselves on others?


When Śrīnivāsa and Narottama distributed books it was for the edification of the people already in the tradition, not for others. Should books also be used as a tool for conversion? It’s a principle of Lord’s Caitanya’s mission that Krishna consciousness should be spread and that the teachings of the Bhāgavatam should be shared widely.[3] Exactly how to do that may somewhat vary according to the teacher. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta and Śrīla Prabhupāda especially stressed the distribution of books and as a result the mission of Śrī Caitanya has spread exponentially. How can anyone question the fundamental basis of what they accentuated?


As far as aggressively imposing Krishna consciousness on others, a devotee should be a perfect gentlemen and always sensitive to others. A principle of devotional service, however, is to show compassion to the innocent. When one sees people suffering due to ignorance, there is nothing wrong with tactfully pushing them a bit for education. In fact, sitting back and not actively doing something in the face of suffering and chaos can also be condemned. The famous quote by Edmund Burke comes to mind: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”


One more thing: While I think is fine to be somewhat fervent in sharing one’s knowledge for people to consider, I do not appreciate when it is done carelessly and aggressively, and it then comes to the point of confronting people with conversion.


Is preaching for everyone or just for those mature and spiritually advanced?


Although everyone should try to share what they understand according to their realization and also for the purpose of deepening their own realization, obviously those who are educated and mature best represent the tradition. At the beginning of the Krishna consciousness movement practically all its members were young, ex-hippies and full of passion. There was also no educational system in place to train them thoroughly, so there was little or no choice about who represented ISKCON. There is no excuse now to not properly educate people acting on behalf of the movement. I see such education is now being offered. Irrespective, it doesn’t negate the over-all value of participating according to one’s capacity, and in a dignified way, in Śrī Caitanya’s “preaching” mission.


Is preaching one of the sixty-four items of devotional service?


Yes, the first principle of devotional service is “guru-pādāśraya” and the fifth item is “following in the footsteps of the previous ācāryas”, so if one’s guru requests one to preach Krishna consciousness following in the footsteps of Lord Nityānanda, then certainly preaching is an item of devotional service. Preaching is a very broad category and most of the items fall directly or indirectly within the sixty-four items of devotional service, especially kīrtana.


It should also be noted that saṅkīrtana, chanting loudly with others, is especially lauded by Śrī Jīva because “those chanting loudly are not only benefitting themselves, but also other living entities”,[4] so not only is preaching within the umbrella of devotional service, when done properly it is specifically praised for its compassion and selflessness.


The main principle of devotional service is to remember Krishna and never forget Him. The spiritual master is expert at finding the ways and means to do so. ISKCON has shown that a preaching mission is an excellent way to engage masses of people in devotional service. Anyone who has made that sacrifice knows the level of absorption needed to put oneself on the line to properly share spiritual knowledge and to give the holy name, and also the exhilaration of doing so. Yes, it can be intrusive and abused for prestige or done with the wrong attitude, but sincerely advocating a worthy cause that enlightens others is praiseworthy even if done faultily. Those who actively criticize such endeavors fall prey to being hypocrites, not because they critically look at something, but because of the fervor in which they use media to actively advocate or “preach” their cause. As Pogo [5] aptly commented, “We have met thy enemy and he is us.”


[1] Śrī Caitanya’s instructions to preach are repeated throughout the Caitanya-caritāmṛta. There are numerous examples and they are not just to his intimate associates. In South India he not only told Kūrma the brāhmaṇa to become qualified and preach message of Krishna, but it is described that he spoke this same way to every person he met on his tour of South India.

[2] “Yes you remember rightly. Gosvamis did lot of work. To build a temple even now is not a simple thing. Imagine doing it when there were no roads here, no people, no labor, no material for construction. And that was not the end of it. To maintain a temple is even a bigger responsibility. With all this they wrote books. Even to get paper they needed some real help.” (letter, Bajaji Satyanaryan Dasa to Dhanurdhara Swami, March 14, 2018)

[3] yāre dekha, tāre kaha ‘kṛṣṇa’-upadeśa āmāra ājñāya guru hañā tāra’ ei deśa

Translation: “Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa as they are given in the Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. In this way become a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land.” (Cc. Madhyalīlā 7.128)

[4] Bhakti Sandarbha 269 by Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī

[5] Famous cartoon strip by Walter Kelly lasting from mid-Forties to mid-Seventies


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