Monday Monday Greetings 2021 #31 – How To Be a Non-Sectarian Sectarian

August 2nd, 2021

I belong to a sect. It is called Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. Within it there are many different institutions. How should those institutions relate with one another? What would it mean if any one of them was non-sectarian or sectarian?


Recently, I heard an analogy that I think helps to frame this issue for discussion.[1] It goes like this: Spirituality is like a liquid, and religion, or the institution, is like the pot. Just as a pot has walls to confine the liquid within, but also an opening to allow others to partake of it, similarly a proper institution, while maintaining and valuing its specific institutional culture and structure, should be open to reasonable exchanges with other legitimate spiritual groups.


Let’s take our analogy even further. Although different pots may have different shapes and sizes, it doesn’t mean that what is inside is any less valuable, or even different. Similarly, although different spiritual institutions may have a different culture or structure than the group in which one has reposed their faith, it doesn’t mean that the spirituality they have to offer is any less legitimate.


The root of sectarianism is thus when a group legitimizes its own structure or institution in a way that delegitimizes other spiritual institutions and, in doing so, fails to see the same spiritual essence elsewhere. In my observation, such sectarianism takes two forms: In the first form, the sectarian institution has little respect for those whose form is even slightly different, views them as a potential threat, and blocks any reasonable exchanges. In the second form of sectarianism, the group promotes inter-group exchange, but only to gain access to the other’s resources to bolster its own mission, which is viewed as uniquely legitimate. Either way it’s not sectarian to keep such groups at a distance.


An important point here is that being nonsectarian does not mean merging all groups into one. One can be proud and have faith in the organization and culture of the specific lineage where one has accessed God’s mercy and protect it if it is minimized or threatened by others. Being non-sectarian also doesn’t mean dropping one’s discrimination and accepting every group under the banner of Śrī Caitanya as legitimate. There are charlatans in every religion. It just means that a Gauḍīya Vaishnava doesn’t view and deal with other Caitanya institutions negatively just because their structure and culture is different. Rather, they recognize that the same mission of Śrī Caitanya to taste and distribute Krishna bhakti can be found in many forms.


A healthy Gauḍīya is broad minded and open to exchange and in proper circumstances can even serve or learn from other Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava groups without compromising the special faith in the form and culture in which Śrī Caitanya’s teachings have come to them. The institution in which I spiritually grew up often shared the prophecy about my guru maharaja, Śrīla Prabhupāda, given by an astrologer at the time of his birth that he would “build a house in which the whole world could live.” In many ways that has come to pass, at least in the sense that ISKCON, his institution, has become the most far-reaching Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava branch in history. But to truly fulfil that prophecy, will that house not have to have different rooms to accommodate even those who don’t rigidly fit into its set institutional culture and structure? Hey, maybe there is even a room for me?



[1] This analogy, which is the seed of this presentation, came up in a discussion I had with Rasik Mohan das of the Bhakta Bhandav ashram in Ellenville, New York.

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