Monday Morning Greetings 2024 #10 – Substance is More Important Than Allegiance

March 4th, 2024

A few stories and the question they raise:


I have dealt with Father Ashley intimately and have observed him carefully as he manages the Isopanthi Retreat Center where we have been holding our Puri Retreat for years. He serves others selflessly and shows utmost deference to everyone, including the Vaiṣṇavas. As far as I can tell he tries to emulate Christ. We were impressed with him. If I had any criticism, I suspect it would be his diet.


I am still in touch with my elder cousin, Ma Seva Bharati, a sannyāsini, who, forty-five years ago, renounced a very comfortable and successful life to serve her guru in the Himalayas, at times high in the mountains without even running water. She has visited me in Vrindavan several times and has shown great respect to the devotees of Krishna, the holy name, and Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Bhagavad-gītā, especially appreciating his strong purports. When I introduced my cousin to a god-brother who, for a second, was taken aback by her appearance—a shaved head with a bright orange kurta down to her ankles—I loved her response, indicating her study of those purports: “I’m a rascal impersonalist!” She’s good humored, respectful, and saintly. I enjoy her company.


Twenty years ago, due to visa problems, I had to leave India for six months and started visiting and teaching at yoga centers in New York. I especially liked the Broome Street Temple where Kaustubha was learning yoga and had become friendly with the head teacher, Eddie Stern. I was very impressed with his brahminical qualities, including how respectful he was to others, especially the devotees who visited. He even invited Kaustubha to bring his Radha-Krishna deities to his center, which Kaustubha worshiped there for a while. I was surprised how my mind initially responded to him, myself having been cloistered in a Hare Krishna center in India for so many years: “How can he be so elevated? He’s not a devotee,” but I quickly corrected such petty thinking by recalling the obvious—that although I have my faith as a Vaiṣṇava in the preeminence of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s teachings, a person’s spiritual status is much more than just belonging to a group. I immediately branded my realization as “substance is more important than allegiance”.


I think my “mantra” is a challenge to the members of all institutions, as there is such a tendency to worship and serve an institution and forget what that institution is a vehicle for. That is not meant to minimize the importance and benefit we receive from proper spiritual institutions, which socialize, preserve, and disseminate the realizations of the great spiritual leader who founded them. I only mean to offer a caution to not fall prey to the illusion that I saw in myself—that just because one feels they have the best tradition or have the most elevated guru or belong to the most powerful organization, it makes one more elevated than others who adhere to teachings one finds less elevated or even questionable. In other words, if we don’t do the work to imbibe and practice the tenets or ideals of our tradition, then our allegiance to that tradition means little in terms of our stature.


A few years ago, while visiting Isopanthi, a friend of mine and I were walking around their center when we noticed two large, framed pictures of two prominent saints in their religious order. One of the saints, although from Poland, very much looked Chinese with a Fu Manchu beard and a traditional Chinese cap. We read how he spent his whole life in China preaching the gospel and so much appreciated being there that “he prayed to be Chinese in heaven.” We looked at each other and shared the same thought: “What a shallow understanding!” We were glad that we were in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s line where “you are not the body” is the most rudimentary of teachings. In a playful way I then challenged my friend:


“OK. Who does Krishna look more favorably upon, Father Ashley who serves Christ selflessly and shows utmost respect to the devotees or _______ who, although was a devotee of Krishna and had done a lot of service, also terribly mistreated the devotees, even banning people from his temple for personal and doctrinal reasons, all the while using it as base for his personal business eventually being forced to leave with probably millions of dollars only to sue ISKCON for more?” My friend thought for a moment and responded:


“Good question.”


Yes, good question, but I think ultimately the conclusion should be clear:


Substance is more important than allegiance!


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