Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #38 – The Culture of Faith

September 21st, 2020

The Culture of Faith[1]

 

Have you ever heard of the “Sherborn Gathering”? Over twenty years ago I started a yearly academic conference with young devotees who were newly transitioning out of the brahmacari ashram,[2] and who sought to make their career in academia. It was hosted every summer in a mansion owned by one of the participant’s parents in Sherborn, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. My purpose for organizing the conference was to provide these young devotees with peer comradery, as well as senior guidance. In that regard, Jayadvaita Swami, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s main English editor, and Pradyumna Prabhu, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s main Sanskrit editor, also attended.

 

I think the gatherings, which continued for ten years, were successful. The participants made life-long friendships, and most went on to achieve successful academic careers.[3] The tricky part for me as the convenor of the conference was to balance our devotional objectives with the rare occasion when one of the participants had chosen a presentation in his field of study, which may have been a critical exploration of one of the basic foundations of Krishna-consciousness. One such talk was an examination of Bhagavad-gītā As It Is based on writings in the field of scholarship that critically analyzed it.

 

Although I had doubts about the appropriateness of the presentation, I was happy with the conclusions reached after a vigorous discussion. Half the young scholars at the conference had previously attended the school I established in New Jersey to thoroughly study the basic Vaiṣṇava texts through Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books. They testified that as a result of that study their understanding of the Bhagavad-gītā was, in general, much deeper than those that they met in the university who had studied and taught it from other translations. The authenticity and effectiveness of Bhagavad-gītā As It Is stood as the natural conclusion of that session.

 

Although I was relieved, I still didn’t feel right about the presentation. I told Pradyumna about what had transpired and asked his opinion, as he had arrived late and missed that session. He offered a word of caution about how such presentations should proceed, by describing what he called the “culture of faith”. He gave many examples; One stood out. Contemporary Sanskrit scholars in the line of Madhvacarya sometimes find a mistake, I assumed not philosophical, made in a commentary by one of their revered acaryas written over 500 years ago. When they write about it, however, they never say the acarya is wrong. Instead they just write “rsi ucuh (the sagie said),” repeat what the acarya wrote, even if they believe it isn’t accurate, and then follow that with their version without passing judgment.

 

What Pradyumna explained struck a chord with me. Over the years, I have contemplated its meaning. Faith is the mechanism in the mind that allows us to contemplate and apply truths beyond our limited frame of reference to expand our awareness. Without it, our understanding is basically limited to our present conditioned frame of reference. St. Anslem summed up the necessity for faith in traditions of knowledge and the teachers who represent them: “I believe so that I may understand.” As faith is the precursor to knowledge, a proper society therefore maintains a culture that strengthens the mechanism of faith for the purpose of supporting the general enlightenment of its citizens.

 

What better testimony to this than Sri Krishna promoting such faith in His teachings to Uddhava, where He describes the necessity for a student to respect the authority of their teacher as if it were God speaking?

 

“One should know the ācārya as Myself and never disrespect him in any way. One should not envy him, thinking him an ordinary man, for he is the representative of all the demigods.” (Bhag. 11.17 27)

 

What to do, however, if one cannot accept the authority of their teacher? It is unfortunate. Either one has the wrong teacher, or one is a poor student. There are legitimate safeguards in such traditional societies to protect the citizens from unqualified teachers and to encourage students to raise all their doubts until they are cleared. Unless, however, one has implicit faith in a proper spiritual authority, no matter how intelligent one is, the expansion of our consciousness will always be impeded. Without strong faith in someone more spiritually realized and learned than us, what mechanism do we have to advance in our understanding and overcome the illusion that covers us all in this world—the vision that there is no reality beyond our present perception and opinions?

 

Even in science, culture is defined as an environment that allows something to grow to its potential. Vaiṣṇava culture is meant help the soul mature to love of Godhead. One of its main constructs are the ways one behaves to facilitate learning, including dealing with elders and especially teachers. This culture of respect fortifies the aspect of the mind that engenders trust, which is essential when we are fortunate enough to find a teacher.

 

Back to our Sherborn Gathering. If I knew then what I know now, would I have done anything differently? At least I would have injected into the conversation a healthy discussion on the culture of respect. It is certainly an important consideration, for among other things, “Your faith can move mountains, and your doubt can create them.”[4]

 

 


[1] There are many deep issues to be resolved about the issue of faith, including the danger of blind following. They are beyond the scope of this paper to discuss, but I have addressed these issues in other articles.  https://wavesofdevotion.com/2018/07/16/the-marriage-of-faith-and-doubt/

[2] Celibate student life

[3] Among the participants in our original Sherborn Gathering who completed their PhD, we now have professors of Philosophy in Boston, the University of North Carolina, and University of Florida; a Sanskrit professor at Brown University; and the Program Director for the Yale School of Sacred Music.

[4] This is an anonymous quote. When we do find a proper teacher doubts may rise. That is welcome. According to Lord Kapiladeva that is one of the five aspects of intelligence. But that type of doubt is not doubting the authority of our teacher, which makes the relationship not highly functional, but doubting our understanding and raising questions to elicit further meaning. (Bhag. 3.26 30)

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