Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #50 – Authority is Not a Bad Word

December 16th, 2019

1954. I was four years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was walking down the street in Brooklyn in front of my home, holding my grandmother’s hand,when I saw a tall, imposing, and dignified looking figure dressed in a blue uniform walking towards us. Excitedly I told my grandmother, “Look grandma, a cop!” She looked down towards me at her side and soberly corrected me, “No, an officer of the law!”


She escaped the pogroms in Ukraine and came to America in 1912. She appreciated her newfound country and the freedoms and protection it afforded. She also carried with her some of the old-time culture rooted in respect for authority. I appreciated that culture of respect and was fortunate that my parents were responsible enough not to completely ruin that for me.


Words are impregnated with the experience of their use. If your elders are affectionate and mature, you tend to hear the word “authority” as knowledge and wisdom, but if you experience abuse and whim you will most likely hear it as exploitation and foolishness.


That is not to deny the experience many people have with the abuse of authority, perhaps by the same institutions I learned to respect, but let’s not get distracted from the point inspired by my grandmother’s instruction—regardless of how you feel about the word authority, the culture of respect towards authority is an important foundation of a proper culture, especially in terms of the ability to learn, relate, and communicate. A few examples in relation to respect for the authority of teachers and elders:


  • Faith is the precursor of knowledge. If you don’t have faith, which is assisted by the culture of genuine respect, your ability to understand things is limited to your own frame of reference.


  • As teaching and learning take effort, a teacher generally extends themselves to the degree they can gauge the student’s faith shown by their sincere respect.


  • People naturally reciprocate honest relationships. The love that flows up to one who is senior is called respect, and the reciprocation that flows down to one who is junior is called affection.[1] If one is not taught to be naturally respectful to those who are senior, one will likely be deprived of the most prominent source of love available in a proper society – the affection of one’s elders, a void that is often filled with depression.


  • Loving relationships create a natural conduit between people’s hearts. It is thus especially important on the path of bhakti to be respectful and to have good relationships with seniors who embody a devotion and wisdom that can naturally be absorbed in relationship with them.


  • Offenses destroy bhakti. As the eyelids protect the eyes from dust, humility and respect protect the soul from offense. It is thus a hindrance on the path of bhakti to not have nurtured and imbibed the culture of respect.


  • The most important relationships we have are the ones where we learn and teach. Good communication is essential to those relationships. Unless we learn to be a proper student through the culture of respect, we will neither properly communicate with our teachers nor effectively learn how to properly relate with our students and children.


  • Part of culture is the things prescribed to help us understand that there is a world, a reality, greater than our whims and desires. Honoring and respecting those in positions of authority is one of the things in a proper culture prescribed to help move us towards the higher consciousness of service and devotion.


It is important to note here, as mentioned above, that when talking about nurturing the culture of respect we are not just talking about respecting people based on their qualities. We are also acknowledging and honoring the position of authority, barring, of course, any serious and obvious anomalies in their behavior. Imagine if children are taught that instead of “honor thy mother and father” to “judge thy mother and father” and then come to a decision whether they should be honored. Of course, the capacity of a child to judge is completely limited, but we are all limited to some extent by our desires and prejudices. To reserve dealings of respect based solely on our judgment simply fosters what is known as the mental plane, the sphere of thought where one endlessly calculates based on material advantage. Such a judgment culture doesn’t nurture humility and respect even where overtly deserved. That should seem obvious today.


The śāstra also acknowledges honoring the position of authority. In the Eleventh Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam Krishna declares that one should worship the ācārya, the spiritual master, as “Myself.”[2] While the term ācārya usually refers to the spiritual master, commentators indicate that in addition to the position of spiritual master, Krishna is also referring to anyone in a position of authority in society.


Of course, one may challenge that the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describes an intact, ancient culture where people in authority were trained to represent traditions of knowledge and wisdom, whereas today authority too often represents religious fanaticism and demagoguery, and thus the culture of respect simply nourishes the cult of totalitarianism. I agree that people today, perhaps more than ever, need to be encouraged and trained to be independently thoughtful in order to keep their guard up for potential exploitation, but that doesn’t negate the need for people to nurture their character by the culture of respect, nor is being thoughtful and principled the same as acting as a rebellious teen. Despite my own occasional periods of rebellion when growing up, in retrospect I am glad grandma told me “No, an officer of the law!”


[1] This concept of respect being the love that flows upward and affection being the love that flows down is one that I first heard in a seminar at the Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education entitled “Vaiṣṇava Etiquette” by Śrīpad Bhakti Caru Swami over twenty years ago. Later it was confirmed by my study of rasa theory where parental love was called anugrahaḥ, mercy or affection.

[2] Bhāg. 11.17.27

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