Archive for the 'Greetings from Vrindavan' Category

Monday Morning Greetings #6 – ISKCON’s Greatest Deficiency

February 8th, 2016

If you think this article is ISKCON bashing, then there is no need to read further. Practically everything I enjoy in spiritual life from most of the devotees I love, to the kirtan gatherings, to the centers of pilgrimage in India I frequent, are born from and maintained by ISKCON.

ISKCON has a great mission or purpose. Its mission, why it exists, is to lead a revolution in consciousness, both individually and the world.

ISKCON also has an amazing vision, what it does to fulfill its mission. ISKCON especially publishes and distributes sacred texts to share spiritual knowledge and it opens centers of devotion. It also has a myriad of other ways to share spiritual knowledge and inspire positive transformation from the distribution of prasadam to the Bhaktivedanta Institute for the synthesis of science and religion.

But like all institutions ISKCON also has its weaknesses; its most glaring one is its culture. Culture is how an organization goes about fulfilling its mission. In too many places this is done without the fineness of behavior and presentation that characterizes Vaisnavism.

There are many ways to understand what culture is, but more than anything, even more than the philosophy espoused, culture is revealed by the feeling people have entering into a community or organization.

For example, think of an ISKCON Center that really inspires you. What do you feel when you reside in or enter that center? Do you feel cared for, welcomed, and transformed? If so, then that’s its culture.

Think of an ISKCON center that disappoints you. Do you feel ignored, uncared for, or judged? Then in spite of its noble mission and precepts that’s ISKCON’s culture there.

Generally people don’t leave, distance themselves, or reduce participation in ISKCON because they doubt its mission. Of course, some people do, but many distance themselves despite their faith in Srila Prabhupada and his mission. They drift away because visiting doesn’t make them feel welcomed or inspired.  In a similar way, people also join or return to a community when its culture and values inspire them and they feel welcome.

The tragedy of a culture not reflecting an organization’s values is that members may eventually doubt an organization’s vision of fulfilling its mission.  I think that may have happened to the publication and distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books in ISKCON, one of the pillars of his vision for spreading Krishna-consciousness.  To the extent that the activity wasn’t supported by a strong culture of reading and practicing what was in those books, devotees became less and less dedicated to fulfilling that vision. I think it is significant that Vaisesika dasa, a very respected leader in ISKCON, has been commissioned to write a book about the distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books and over half of his book is dedicated to the culture of book distribution, how one distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books should live by and represent the values espoused in those books.

I think Vaisesika’s strategy is right on. Corporate and organizational studies affirm again and again that a strong culture increases morale and productivity.

Cultures of expedience, where one simply focuses on one’s mission at the expense of one’s values are bound to fail. And if they don’t fail, they will certainly morph into something that no longer represents its original mission.  A good example of the ill effects of a damaged culture on an organization was the empty churches in America in the 60s, or the growth today of mega churches based on “The prosperity gospel”,[1] a view very much antithetical to the simplicity and compassion that Jesus taught.

ISKCON was not spared from the culture of expedience, especially after Srila Prabhupada left. As a result many temples eventually emptied, books distribution waned and Srila Prabhupada’s vision of sankirtan morphed into selling paintings and wares simply to make a buck.

How to institute culture change? That’s a deep subject beyond the scope of this essay. I am including for those interested a short bibliography. * But I can share one major factor that most studies affirm. In successful and sustainable organizations, the leader helps define the organizations values and then focuses on ensuring that those values become part of the organizations daily culture through education and encouragement, even stressing adherence to the organizations core values more than stressing organization and productivity.  And this culture change almost never happens without a conscious effort.

ISKCON Chowpatty has grown into one of the major, if not the major, success stories in ISKCON. It has good managers and preachers, but more than anything else it is known for how welcomed and inspired people feel when they visit.  I think one of the pillars of its success is that Radhanath Swami, its leader, has prioritized the development of its culture by focusing on and repeating again and again to its members the foundational principle of Vaisnavism, that one must be “the servant of the servant of the servant.” I remember one parikram he led to Govinda Kunda in Govardhan where he even spoke on the subject for almost two hours. Arguably more than anything else, it’s the culture permeating ISKCON Chowpatty that has successfully sustained the morale, spiritual development, and outreach of the project.

Every year I organize several Bhakti Immersion Retreats for professional people interested in Bhakti. After studying culture change and wanting a sustainable program we came up with the following mission statement:

“Welcomed, cared for, transformed, all expertly done, in the service of Srila Prabhupada.”

That’s what we want people to feel by going to our retreat. “Expertly done” means that part of one’s culture is the quality of one’s presentation. As far as possible kirtan, cooking, fine arts and so on should be done expertly according to some tradition, or established expertise, to help fulfill its mission – the devotional transformation of its participants. A leader is thus responsible to empower the development of culture, not only in standards of behavior, but also in its arts and activities.

And the real caveat of such a defined culture is that it frees the leader from so much of the headaches of day-to-day management. When strong culture permeates an institution, the culture itself informs the decision making process and sets parameters of behavior without the over involvement of the person in charge. The leader then becomes free for activities that speak more to his passion and competency.

There are quite a few good examples of success in ISKCON, but if one looks at those examples carefully it is either naturally value based, or a leader has developed a strong culture by clearly defining its values and reinforcing them.  The former is much more likely.

There are also far too many examples of dysfunction in ISKCON where coldness and disorganization are projected, where temples are either relatively empty or hide their failure by overly catering to the Hindu diaspora. Unfortunately, in far too many places this lack of culture remains ISKCON’S greatest deficiency.

My sources are:

  • The Culture Blueprint by Robert Richman
  • The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni


[1] “The Prosperity Gospel” is a preaching that promotes the worship of Jesus on the basis that the result of worshipping Jesus is material prosperity. Serious Christians condemn this approach.

Monday Morning Greetings #5 – Thou Shalt Not Kill

February 1st, 2016

A good editorial writer is not only concerned with speaking truth, but more importantly having truth understood. He has to constantly ask, “What are the readers understanding?” Sometimes, he may even be pondering the objections of a few people to see if he can potentially clear their doubts, or he may decide their prejudices are too deep and why bother. This brings me to my last piece, Archbishop John, My Good friend. While writing, I considered whether to answer the question posed by a particular type of reader:
“You are glorifying the character of this particular Christian, but does he eat meat? And if so, how can you describe him as saintly!”
I had thought of such a reader and decided it was beyond the scope of my essay to address, but I will briefly state my opinion here.
I have seen otherwise very decent people not pick up on what should be a very clear tenet of their moral values whether they are Christians or even Atheists – that to unnecessarily kill innocent creatures just for one’s palate is abominable. At the same time, I see that when people are fed a philosophy and culture that justifies such activity they can eat meat without considering its moral ramifications, and otherwise be of high character and devotion. For those people, especially Christians, like the one I wrote about, I am sharing an old and very biting poem by Madan Oppenheimer on the cognitive dissonance of eating meat and practicing Christianity.
Separation of Church and Steak
Which part of ‘kill’ don’t you understand?
Doesn’t ‘Thou shall not’ sound like a command?
Amidst the screaming and crying
You only hear your greed
Drowning out the voices
Of those on which you feed
Hurting them to help yourself
Taking care of your own hide
You have dominion over them
And you feel justified
Which part of ‘kill’ don’t you understand?
Doesn’t ‘Thou shall not’ sound like a command?
Chewing flesh, saving souls
A lie that I don’t buy
Your heart is full of contradiction
Search your soul for why
Give it up, walk away
Turn the other cheek
Find the love within your heart
And show it to the weak
Which part of ‘kill’ don’t you understand?
Doesn’t ‘Thou shall not’ sound like a command?
Meat is murder, God is love
Where is the connection?
Docile stare, knife-blade glare
Crime escapes detection
Words of truth interpreted
Ask your fellow man…
Which part of ‘kill’ don’t you understand?
Doesn’t ‘Thou shall not’ sound like a command?

Monday Morning Greetings #4 – My Friend, Archbishop John

January 25th, 2016

I was surprised when Archbishop John decided to stay this week in Isopanthi, their Catholic retreat center in Puri, especially as we had rented it out as we do every year for our Bhakti Immersion there. After-all, Archbishop John is the head of all Catholics in Orissa. That means one million Christians and 40 churches are under his care. He told me he was staying to recover from a heart operation. He seemed sincere, but in the back of my mind naturally rested some suspicion.
Any apprehension I had of him being with us was soon abated. He took Jagannath prasad one day and even attended our kirtan led by Jahnavi. He smiled and clapped through the whole thing. He mixed with the devotees and effusively glorified our music and devotion to them and also to his visitors, although our daily amplified three or six hour kirtans in the courtyard blared into his room.
My room was next to his. We thus had opportunity for many exchanges and talks and I met many of the people visiting him. He never seemed to put himself above anyone and was not pretentious in the least, as were the brothers who managed the center. I could see that John, however, commanded respect, by humility. Unlike too many adherents of faith, his personal culture and that of his brothers reflected the true values of his lineage, in his case the compassion and kindness taught by Christ.
I remember when I first met John, I asked him his name. He sheepishly said, that his title is His Grace, but people should just call him John.
I admired how he embraced the essence of religion. From the heart he told me:
“This is not our center. It is your center. Its belongs to God and we are all brothers.”
Meeting John, now my friend, confirmed and reinforced my own understanding of dharma – that dharma, or religion, is not a faith but the nature of the soul. We are not devotees by the label we have, but by the sincere expression of devotion in our heart to God and others. Archbishop John is a genuine devotee. I don’t need to convert him, but need to convert my own heart to humility and dedication.

Monday Morning Greetings #3 – Does a fallen soul have to be depressed?

January 18th, 2016

A saintly soul prays in the mood of dhainya, utter humility:
“For my own pleasure I never fear to commit any sin. I am devoid of pity and full of selfishness; I’m sorry at others’ happiness and am an inveterate liar. Indeed, I take delight in others’ miseries.” Amara Jivana – Bhaktivinoda Thakur
If the great devotees feel likethis, shouldn’t the actually fallen practitioner of bhakti feel depressed and ridden with guilt?
Remorse is certainly healthy, but does the sincere and weak need to feel shame? I don’t think so. I found a reference to support this.
“Having awakened faith in the narrations of My glories, being disgusted with all material activities, knowing that all sense gratification leads to misery, but still being unable to renounce all sense enjoyment, My devotee should remain happy and worship Me with great faith and conviction. Even though he is sometimes engaged in sense enjoyment, My devotee knows that all sense gratification leads to a miserable result, and he sincerely repents such activities.” [emphasis mine] (Bhag. 11.20.27-28)
I like the balance. We do need to be humble and repent if we cannot maintain our practices. We shouldn’t, however, embrace the type of shame and excess guilt that is depressive and lowers self esteem, that makes the adoption of spiritual life miserable and debilitating.

Monday Morning Greetings #2 – Thoughts in the Shower

January 11th, 2016

Best place I have ever stayed in India. Everything is new, well built, spotless and spacious. A two foot wide covered veranda encircles the fourth floor penthouse protecting the place from sun and rain. And it is quiet, very quiet. I can even see from my window beyond the pakur (pond) and open field the spiral of Sri Caitanya’s birth place. This couldn’t be better for my meditation and study. That being said there is also a beautiful simplicity to the place. The water is solar heated. It works pretty well, except for the morning bath following an overcast day, which brings me to my point:

The shower this morning wasn’t cozy. The water was tepid and the room cold. When I got out there was some discomfort. It was a good chance to practice what I preach, tapasya, neglecting the irrational impulses of the mind and body. Understanding that ultimately happiness and distress is just in the mind, I mentally abstracted myself from the situation. By practicing tapasya I was not affected by any discomfort. A thought came: Shouldn’t I do the same in a delicious steaming shower in my usual comfy heated room? Shouldn’t I just enjoy? Ahhhh! No! I should abstract myself in both situations. I should be equal in happiness and distress. Why?

The body is a place of suffering. Think of the myriad diseases that threaten us, think of inevitable old age and ultimately the loss everything dear, the pain of death. For every unneeded indulgence, for every excess and unnecessary adjustment for comfort, for every deviance from our quota to keep the body and soul together, we dive deeper into the bodily concept of life. We then not only absorb ourselves in petty pleasure, but also feel the natural discomforts and agonies of the body more. A pinch of pain is felt more than a ton of pleasure. Are the indulgent, unneeded, and unnecessary excesses of life worth it? Should we thus not also extract ourselves from those excesses so that at the end of life we can abstract ourselves from the agony of the temporary body and think of Krishna? Just some thoughts in the shower.

Monday Morning Greetings #1 – Reviving Greetings from Vrindavan

January 4th, 2016

January 1, 2016

My last journal entry was more than six years ago. Many people inquired why I stopped journaling and implored me to continue. I’ll try, but I have doubts if this is what I should be doing now. Times have changed. When I started the journals seventeen years ago, by fate I had time on my hands.  Often, especially in Vrindavan, I wouldn’t see a soul until late afternoon. Today there is not a day that goes by that I am not hosting a group, a contact, or a friend. Not only has my destiny changed, but my mood has changed as well. My chanting has substantially increased and I am more and more comfortable in the inner world. Journaling puts the camera on your life. It is not quite reality TV, but an intrusion of privacy nonetheless. Journaling puts one too much on stage, at least in my mind. When journaling I tend to see the world to retell it, tinged subconsciously in the identity that I am the center, the hero. Is that good for bhakti?  Those are my doubts, but I have decided to give it a try anyway. After all, I am a preacher. My duty is to be out front, so why shy from the spotlight when what I have to say can help others? As far intruding on my privacy and stroking my ego, I will try my best to do it in a way that is more consistent with my spiritual aspirations. Expect postings once a week on Mondays. Looking forward to seeing you next week.
Dhanurdhara Swami

Does ISKCON Have A Moral Theology?

September 25th, 2003

September 25, 2003


When my friend Reverend William Muldin, a Catholic priest, humbly commented, “I have been reading Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books, but I don’t find a moral theology,” he struck upon something I was pondering. I probed further.

“Certainly, in Śrīla Prabupada’s books there is a very clear conception of right and wrong,” I replied.

“That’s true,” he said, “but I don’t see the science of how conscience is formed, the tools by which the reader can make moral decisions.”

We discussed the matter for some time. He also kindly sent me an interesting book called Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality.

Don’t worry, I am not going to become a Catholic. But Bill has a point, and it doesn’t minimize Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books. The Bhāgavatam deals with transcendence. It secondarily describes a highly defined culture, varṇāśrama, which outlines the elaborate laws and duties that purify one in support of devotional service. The setting in which a Vaiṣṇava finds himself today, however, is quite different. The question that Bill was alluding to arises from this point: Does the Bhāgavatam overtly give us the tools to apply those codes of behavior to the ever-changing and often complex situations of today’s world?

For example, I essentially avoided contact with my parents for years based on the principles of sannyāsa-dharma and those injunctions against associating with non-devotees. There are precedents of slight concessions to the rule—Śaṅkarācārya returning home to perform his mother’s funeral rites or at least one occasion where Lord Caitanya visited Mother Śacī, for example—but these are exceptions. The rule for Vaiṣṇava sannyāsa is that such relations are discouraged, especially with non-devotees. As a result of my aloofness, my parents naturally suffered. Because they had no concept of sannyāsa-dharma, my coldness didn’t help them or their friends appreciate Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

Especially after my father died five years ago, I began to feel somewhat guilty about this. I resolved that I was being too insensitive and decided to visit my mother more regularly, but not without questioning my shift in conscience. Was I neglecting my duty or more deeply understanding it? Was I being sentimental or compassionate? Was I falling from transcendence or moving toward it? Was there a verse, direct instruction, or story in the Bhāgavatam to justify my decision?

I did make a decision, but looking back, I am not sure what guidelines I used. I also see how my dilemma supports Bill’s humble perception that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books do not outline a comprehensive moral theology, although it became clear to me later how the Bhāgavatam does offer the resolution to this and other tough moral decisions. I will discuss this later.

I think I recognize how my shift in determining conscience came about. It developed at around the same time that I was suffering the effects of my contribution to the pain of those who attended gurukula. I began to realize how their distress was at least in part caused by my rigidity to the adherence of rules to the exclusion of their effects; my strict application of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s instructions to the overlook of their intention.

By seeing the effects of a morality exclusively adherent to law in my own life, and reflecting on the ill effects of this mode on the development of early ISKCON, I unconsciously, for better or worse, shifted the development of my conscience from one that was based exclusively on rules to one based on how my behavior affected me in terms of the type of person I was becoming. In other words, I made the decision to regularly visit my parents based on how it affected my character and influenced others, rather than its strict accordance with prescribed rules. The determination for how I basically led my life and made moral decisions, however, fundamentally remained the same: through faithful observance to the principles of śāstra.

Although my convictions concerning the basis of morality remained the same, the adjustment in my thinking came from the understanding that the development of conscience in today’s rapidly changing world needed just a little more finesse than a strict application of codes of law. I was still not certain exactly where the Bhāgavatam trained us to do this.

By the same token, I began to reflect on areas where my own views and the views of others in regard to the development of conscience may have needed refinement. One area was in the role of women in ISKCON. Was the stringent application of varṇāśrama in this regard correct? Did it help us and others develop the qualities of a Vaiṣṇava? Is it morally more important to consider a woman’s role in terms of how it matches the highest ideals of Vedic culture or how it affects the distribution of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s mercy to the modern world—or a careful juxtaposition of both? Where in Bhāgavatam can we find reference to make such fine adjustments properly without neglecting the principles or rendering them impractical?

I am not necessarily advocating feminism; there are differences and a social order needs to be cognizant of them. I did, however, question whether or not these principles needed to be applied with a clearer cognizance, considering the country and culture in which they are implemented, for us to make the best moral decision in this regard.

I think Indian-born parents living in America have had to face similar considerations in determining what their American-born children could and could not do, especially their daughters.

Cultured Indians have a very refined and admirable social culture based on principles of śāstra. They have every reason to want their children to follow those mores. Should they totally ignore, however, the society in which their children are living? I would think that, in making choices for their children, the more successful parents, while indoctrinating them with their own core values, could take into consideration that their children are living in a culture different from their ideals. I presume that, for many Indian parents, it was an unexpected and perhaps difficult shift in child-rearing to go from an absolute obedience in the norms of Indian culture to one of occasionally accommodating the effect of those customs on the emotional and social development of their children. It is unexpected, perhaps, because such moral dilemmas hardly arose in their own youth, where the values of their parents and the society in which they all lived were basically the same.

If we think sincerely about the matter, the circumstances in which we confront tough decisions concerning the application of Kṛṣṇa consciousness are quite pervasive. I have even witnessed advanced devotees, leaders in ISKCON, wrestle with the question of whether their strict attendance at Śrīla Prabhupāda’s morning program best served their Kṛṣṇa consciousness. On what basis, for example, could they alter their participation for their own individual needs without violating Prabhupāda’s instructions and their responsibilities as leaders?

Now back to Bill’s question. The Bhāgavatam is based on nitya-dharma, the eternal duty of the living entity, love of God. It is thus more concerned with transcendence and less concerned with provisional religious duties (varṇāśrama) based on temporary designations. One obvious reason here for the Bhāgavatam’s lack of concern, besides its lofty focus, was that the text was spoken in a culture already sustaining and stressing those duties. It does at times, however, allude to the importance of secondary duties in relation to supporting devotional service, for it is important in spiritual life to make sound decisions in all matters.

Whether it concerns these duties directly or indirectly related to devotional service, there are often subtleties in their application based on the circumstances under which they are to be executed. Because the multiplicity of those circumstances is so vast, especially in today’s ever-changing world, no scripture can possibly directly address every situation with an exact statement or parable. Therefore, more than ever, people require a mechanism for making sound decisions based on śāstra.

From Bill, I understood that the main mechanism for doing this in the Catholic Church was the system of confession, where the priest aims to help the parishioner understand the nature and extent of his sin. Priests are trained for this work in seminaries, which before Vatican II, consisted almost exclusively of studying Catholic law. I also understood that one of the purposes of Vatican II was to address the increasing shortcomings of this almost exclusively rule-based system by shifting the focus and worldview of Christian moral development. The focus began to shift from observance of Christian law to the effect of one’s actions on character and Christian faith— the worldview to one accommodating the interpretation of morals within their context and audience. Within this shift of focus and outlook, however, the core values and laws of the Church for the most part were to remain intact.

I know very little about Vatican II, so I am not qualified to comment on the effect and efficacy of their endeavor, and I am certainly not recommending such a council for ISKCON. I am only commenting that the Catholic Church saw a necessity for a shift in the application of their core principles to keep Christ’s teachings relevant for their congregation. I am also discussing the Catholic Church here in order to clarify what Bill meant by “moral theology.”

One of the six principles unfavorable for devotional service is niyamāgraha, which means both neglecting the rules of devotional service and practicing them without serving their intent. The bhakti-śāstras thus certainly recognize the need to negotiate the laws of religion with their objectives when at variance. The Bhāgavatam recommends ācārya puruṣa veda—that the purport of śāstra is revealed by realized teachers.

Ācārya literally means “one who selects.” The realized teacher extracts and emphasizes principles of śāstra according to time, place, and circumstance. Śrīla Prabhupāda allowed women in the West to join his āśramas to be trained, which was unprecedented in our tradition. I assume he made this bold move because he understood that not doing so, under the circumstances, would belie compassion—one of the main principles of Vaiṣṇavism. What was religiously wrong in one circumstance, the traditional culture of the East, was thus religiously correct in another circumstance, the unfortunate culture of the West. It was the ācārya who negotiated such refinements.

The moral theology of the Bhāgavatam is carried within the system of spiritual authority recommended therein, where not only ācāryas, but realized brāhmaṇas and mature elders, advise the society on the nuances of śāstra so that, when necessary, things may be adjusted for practicality without contradicting its principles.

Thus in answer to Bill’s sincere inquiry, there is a comprehensive moral theology in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books, but its practical application in a young religious movement has one glaring impediment: It’s a young religious movement! In this regard, Ravīndra Svarūpa Prabhu gave a simple and brilliant description of the difficulty Śrīla Prabhupāda faced in establishing ISKCON as a functional and mature society: “Śrīla Prabhupāda was the only adult in ISKCON!”

His Holiness Jayādvaita Swami made a similar analysis years ago during a conference discussing the role of women in ISKCON. After days of witnessing the sincerity and validity of variant concerns, he offered an unusual, but discerning resolution. “ISKCON needs grandmothers,” he said. This is insightful. Until a society matures with the full range of generations, especially those learned and experienced in life, moral dilemmas will remain especially difficult to resolve, despite śāstra.

The want of established spiritual communities with mature guides has a conspicuous effect on our development as Vaiṣṇavas. Without deeply understanding our moral theology, we, too, often make bad decisions—either falsely adhering to principles beyond our realization, even when they contradict the principles of compassion and love, or thoughtlessly accepting certain aspects of modern life in the name of practicality and corrupting our families.

In the fervor of ISKCON’s early days, I sense we tended toward the former: a renunciation of things needed for an overall healthy development. Unfortunately, at the present, we seem to be leaning toward the latter. In some ways, the effect of the latter could be even worse. Without proper discernment, practical concessions often grow into lifestyles that bury our devotional life. Only a discerning person, learned in śāstra and experienced in years, can carefully balance the strict principles of spiritual life with their practical application in modern life and inspire others to do the same. We need such people in our lives and communities.

When Bill raised his question concerning moral theology it struck me how relevant this issue was to the development of ISKCON. As a result, I am currently reading the book he gave me to understand how their tradition dealt with such issues.

Meditating on the problem increased my appreciation for Śrīla Prabhupāda’s vision to create a brāhminical class of men. It also heightened my sadness, for in the necessity of establishing the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement quickly, this aspect of our mission was naturally somewhat neglected.

As ISKCON becomes more of a congregational movement and the lives of devotees become more complicated, it is even more crucial that we educate qualified brāhmaṇas and develop a culture to accept and support them. If we don’t have regular access to people of wisdom, whether they are brāhmaṇas or “grandmothers,” it will be difficult for us to negotiate the fine line between practicality and principles needed to keep us socially healthy and devotional.

The test to see if we are making sound judgments, despite a lack of guidance, is specifically whether or not we are becoming healthy individuals and moving forward in our spiritual life. One sure sign that we are is that our attraction for the holy name is increasing despite our situation. The sure sign that we’re not is that compromise made in the name of so-called realism gradually snowballs into materialism, and our taste for the holy name begins to wane.

In trying to become Kṛṣṇa conscious, and especially in trying to spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness, I am more clearly realizing the Bhāgavatam’s prophecy that the age of Kali will be surcharged with an increasing opposition to spiritual life. I sense we are all experiencing this. Therefore, I think that—while it is essential that we culture our lives with sound decisions and have the proper guidance to do so—the most important decision to ponder is whether or not we are developing a culture of kīrtana, despite whatever situation we find ourselves in. In this regard, the Bhāgavatam ends with a penetrating insight and our ultimate theology:

“My dear King, although Kali-yuga is an ocean of faults, there is still one good quality about this age: Simply by chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra, one can become free from material bondage and be promoted to the transcendental kingdom.” (Bhāg. 12.3.51)

(The aforementioned verse is from the third chapter of the Twelfth Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and reflects its conclusion. The final verse in the Bhāgavatam states: “I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Lord, Hari, the congregational chanting of whose holy names (ma-saṅkīrtana) destroys all sinful reactions, and the offering of obeisances unto whom relieves all material suffering.”)


Calcutta/Mayapur Met Kaustubha, Jai Nitai,

January 13th, 2001

Met Kaustubha, Jai Nitai, and Joe at the airport. Kaustubha and Jai Nitai agree to wait until tomorrow morning to pick up the devotees arriving from America so that I can go with Joe to Mayapur to make sure everything is ready for the tour.
Joe, as many devotees know, is a professional comedian in New York. We talked on the way about my theory of the philosophical basis of comedy based on Bhagavad-gītā, 3.27. To paraphrase, “The spirit soul bewildered by the three modes of nature thinks himself the doer, but is forced to act helplessly according to the three modes of material nature.”
With a straight face I tell him what a serious subject it is. Of course, I’m only half-serious. It’s a long and very bumpy four-hour ride to Mayapur, and it’s really hard to concentrate on much else then a good conversation. I think, however, I’m onto an interesting realization and it leads to a thought-provoking discussion. We even discussed the different types of comedy and how they fit into my theory.
My premise is that everything in this world moves by God’s will for the purpose of liberating those souls who have turned away from Him and have adopted ahaṅkāra, the false egoist conception of being the doer or controller. This platform is foolish and laughable because, on this platform, one is not acting intelligently but indiscriminately by the force of his nature. Humor is the process of parodying non-malicious conditioned activities and thus discouraging them. This was my basic analysis of the purpose of humor based on the above Bhagavad-gītā verse where Kṛṣṇa calls the conditioned souls mūḍhās, or fools. In other words, a person with a good sense of humor can sense the passions of people and, in an indirect or subtle way, make comments or tell stories that mock and hopefully deter such conditioning. In contrast, when one controls his impulses and his actions are guided by intelligence, it is sober, respected, and thus generally praised and encouraged. Of course, everything has its useful and inappropriate application, but humor definitely has a place in spiritual life, even in the spiritual world.
We also developed my thesis in fun ways. For example, it came to light that the more one is under the modes of nature, surrendering his freewill and his ability to act with discernment, the more humorous his actions are. We concluded that that’s why a lot of comedy is based on people from New York, which is such hotbed of insane, passionate, and impulsive activity. We also thought that’s why New Yorkers often make good comedians: they somehow also have the smarts to recognize and appreciate such madness.
We also discussed the idea of me giving a seminar to his comedy group about the philosophy of humor. We had a laugh about how funny that could be and how difficult it would be to do with a straight face.
Of course, this was not a fully developed thesis, just some philosophical fun, but Joe caught the idea and the discussion was Kṛṣṇa conscious. We thus concluded that humor, appropriately applied, can serve a liberating purpose for a somewhat discriminating person by discouraging actions that are passionate or ignorant, and by not acting impulsively or foolish oneself.
An hour from Mayapur we see the sign for Śāntipura, the home of Śrī Advaita Ācārya. Time to get serious. We begin kirtan and prepare ourselves for entering the dhāma.
Audārya-dhāma! We immediately feel the magnanimity of Lord Caitanya. We enter and receive a warm welcome from many of my friends there.

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