(Or: Giving Up the Ghost)
I’ve made some caustic statements about the moral hypocrisies of religious leaders and institutions, calling them out by name. When it came time to take out the trash from my own temple of belief, I made no attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. The occasion has me realizing that this is no loss at all, and I am far from square one.
“There are undoubtedly many learned [people] among the followers of every religion. Should they free themselves from prejudice, accept the universal truths — that is, those truths that are to be found alike in all religions and are of universal application — reject all things in which the various religions differ, and treat each other lovingly, it will be greatly to the advantage of the world.”
– Swami Dayanand Saraswati
Faith is the pursuit of Truth. That Truth is God, the benevolent Creator, Sustainer, and Destroyer of this world and the Universe. The path of faith is not easy. It is often solitary, twisted, and uneven. Sifting through scriptures, commentaries, and lessons from various faith traditions requires what Adi Shankara called vivek chudamani, or “the crown jewel of discrimination.”
In our modern society, that word has a connotation associated with racism and bigotry. Within the Vedic context, “discrimination” here is taken to mean the ability to separate, “the Real from the Unreal,” to quote the Upanishads. That is, the maya of the material world from the eternal creations of our Creator. Those creations are the souls of all living things, individual manifestations (purusham) of God’s energy (prakriti) that remain separate from and also part of God. Dualism, by contrast, believes the soul is a wholly separate entity from God, a fallacy that perpetuates that we are not good enough, that we are born in sin, and that we are inherently disobedient. This notion makes systems of abuse from the priestly class onto their congregations an almost integral part of those religions.
Recognizing that we are all of the same source and that we all return to that source is the very core essence (dharma) of both Hinduism (Vedanta) and Sikhi. Everything else, from philosophy to lifestyle, emerges as the by-product of accepting and living out this Truth.
With his own crown jewel of discrimination, this writer has found an unabashed instance advocating for one of the ugliest forms of discrimination (in its damnable modern context) from a source once held very dear: Abhay Charan Day, known to the world as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). What I read were words in support of the enslavement of Africans living in the United States, criticizing the Civil Rights Movement and efforts towards Black liberation.
This isn’t an out-of-context snippet, this was a side-note made by Prabhupada on the subject of caste. In fact, putting it in greater context makes it worse. Speaking on the caste system, specifically the sudra (worker) class:
“Sudra is to be controlled. They are never given freedom. Just like in America, the blacks were slaves, were under control, and since you have given them equal rights, they are disturbed, most disturbed, always creating a fearful situation, uncultured, and drunkards. What training they have got? They have got equal rights. They are best to keep them under control as slaves. But, give them sufficient food, sufficient clothes, not more than that. Then they will be controlled.” (Mayapur lecture, 2/14/77)
This was not an easy discovery to digest. Its unquestionable authenticity — there’s audio — spared me the mental gymnastics of doubt that typically accompany this strong a degree of shock. I felt a surge of hurt and despair. My stomach turned inside out. I sat aghast for several minutes. How could someone who I thought preached equality and egalitarianism hold such a low opinion of Black people, and how could he call himself a man of God while also championing slavery?
While this wasn’t easy to encounter, what is easy is to rebuke and reject racism, no matter the source. His critique of the Civil Rights Movement sounds more like the words of segregationists like George Wallace or Orville Faubus than an enlightened spiritual master who saw God in all beings.
Nowhere does Prabhupada place blame on those who enacted and engaged in the Transatlantic slave trade, nowhere does he respect the struggle for Black liberation from state oppression and their recent successes (even though the same Presidential administration that passed the Civil Rights Act had also overturned decades-old immigration limits, allowing Prabhupada to even come to the United States,) and nowhere does he criticize the European Christian colonialism that made possible this unholy episode in history. The ignorance and insensitivity in his comments betray the “His Divine Grace” moniker that precedes his name.
If his efforts had truly been to decolonize and liberate Western minds from the trappings of materialism, he would have been of a different opinion. Prabhupada was not just saying this in error, but in sin. The Bhagavad Gita teaches that our true selves are not our bodies, but instead soul entities, which if anything is a powerful statement against racism, sexism, and the caste system. As a trained swami from a disciplic lineage that goes back to the 16th Century, Prabhupada, frankly, knew better. The whole acceptance of his words as infallible by his devotees and disciples is equally damnable.
As one of the most visible Hindu organizations in the world, the Governing Body Commission (GBC) of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) must address these racist statements and condemn them. Prabhupada is ISKCON’s founder, and they distribute his literature in nearly every major American city and throughout the world. ISKCON operates on six continents. I urge the global faith community, civil rights groups, and activists to join me in this call to the GBC.
Before I finish, I must address this discovery on a personal level. My response is decisive and immediate: I reject Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada as my personal guru. I renounce my initiation into the Gaudiya Vaisnava order. I consider Prabhupada’s books, including the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, to hold scholarly value while possessing no spiritually redeeming theological value of any kind.
Aside from his racist endorsement of slavery, Prabhupada has also made problematic statements suggesting women are of intellectual and spiritual inferiority in comparison to their male counterparts. He goes beyond misogyny where, on multiple occasions, he stated women welcome rape. The Hindu world, and religious people of good conscience, must reject these ideas as adharmic (against dharma). Prabhupada must be dethroned as a spiritual leader holding any degree of infallibility.
In these dark times (kali-yuga), right-minded spiritual leadership is needed. America has erupted into a lean, mean, and revitalized descendant of the Civil Rights Era. This is a day of reckoning for all oppressive systems of power, from rampant sex abusers in Hollywood and DC to the exposing of institutionalized white supremacy in our schools and law enforcement agencies to the calling out of moral corruption in our religious organizations. The Hindu world will benefit from shedding association with ISKCON’s present existence as a rudderless ship, while also calling into question the legitimacy of Prabhupada, his true mission, and dismantling his legacy.
Hindus who are practicing their religion appropriately believe that Black lives matter, borne out of a love for all forms of life as these are earthly manifestations of the Divine as well as a commitment to social justice, and that all lives will not matter until Black lives matter. I affirm my commitment to the pursuit of Truth as a spiritual seeker, and to call out all toxic religious leaders — even if it is one I once claimed.
Of equal importance is that I state my faith in the Vedic tradition has only grown stronger from this test. What could have been a spiritual crisis is indeed a spiritual renaissance. My foundational studies in Hinduism and the Vedas are sustaining me as I once again return to scriptural sources absent of partisan commentary. I am revisiting Vedic texts that deal with metaphysics and philosophy such as the Upanishads, away from the mental enslavement of Prabhupada’s fringe theories.
Being without a guru, the old idiom “lost in the woods” may come to mind; however, Upanishad literally means “forest teaching,” ancient lessons from countless sages too humble to ensure their names were not lost to history. Some of my favorite teachers have shied away from celebrity status in the West. Not all who wander are lost, and this time in the forest will make me into a better servant of the Lord.
Contact ISKCON’s Governing Body Comission, let them know you do not support a religious group or leader who believes slavery and rape are acceptable conditions for human life.