A sankirtana devotee explains the need for a genuine synthesis of faith and knowledge in our lives.
I had a discussion recently with a friend about faith or rather, about the Institution where we choose to exercise our faith, and the form it takes in terms of practices and traditions. My friend suggested that one should not impose one's own standards on others. and that dedication to the guru's institution is merely the behavior of neophytes – be it Christians loyally sticking to their church, Jehovah's Witnesses to theirs, or Hare Krsna to ISKCON. My friend claimed that dedication to the institution has little to do with the process of attaining love for God. In brief his message to me, and I guess to others, too, is: Detach yourself from organized religious practice and activities; cultivate spontaneous devotion and embrace all different spiritual mentors. He claimed that this attitude is the real sign of the advanced devotee. But is this 'liberal' approach to attaining self realization and love of God the recommended practice in any religion?

Deity Worshipping

Contemplating his view, I realize how different his opinions are from what I understand to be right. I have known this devotee for twenty years, so I can trace out some of the causes of the development of his present convictions. I also know something in general about the process of acquiring faith and knowledge. So I have the answers to the question of why he holds such a view, It has to do with his desires. Sri Krsna fulfills all desires if one maintains certain wishes long enough, and thus He makes one's faith firm, even if one may be making a major error. Faith can be misplaced, just as reason can err.
So who is 'right' in their choice of where to put one's faith? St. Augustine, an influential Church father amongst the early Christians, speaks of the "primacy of the will in knowledge." He says that what we know is what we are first of all interested in. Depending on our interest, we get to know. We acquire a certain mind set (known by the term "paradigm") that determines our view of things. When such interest is most fully developed, it is called love. In this way, Augustine sought to explain why loving God was a prerequisite for knowing Him, and conversely, how for those who by an act of will turned away from God, God becomes invisible, unrecognized, and unacknowledged. Once having taken to a specific paradigm, one will reason in ways that uphold the acquired faith. Thus there is nothing a good intellectual can't make a convincing case for. For example, we see how scientists give strong evidence for the non existence of God. Srila Prabhupada said that Sri Krsna supplies them with the intelligence to do so.
An individual establishes a paradigm by his buddhi (intelligence), and buddhi is directed by the Supersoul. From the Bhagavad gita we know that knowledge, memory, and forgetfulness are under the direction of Sri Krsna (15.15). A paradigm determines the fundamentals by which we view the world. Paradigms determine what we can and cannot acknowledge, so that although one may see, one does not recognize. Srila Prabhupada says that one compares everything to one's own standard of knowledge, just as the frog in the well considers the sea to be like the well. The frog in the well cannot even think of the sea, and when such a frog is informed of the greatness of the sea, it takes the conception of the sea as being a little greater than the well. As such, one tends to have certain convictions and will find it difficult to understand how things could be otherwise.
Sometimes in history there are great collective paradigm shifts cultural reorientations on the platform of buddhi. If we make ourselves aware of it, we'll see just how instinctive and pervasive the presence of such paradigms is. People tend to surround themselves with associates who hold identical paradigms. In this way they reinforce their views. It is obvious that they derive stimulus from like minded followers and have their desire for love and appreciation fulfilled. People with identical paradigms avoid those with different paradigms, or they try to persuade them of their own views. Thus there are situations of colliding paradigms.
The question for an inquisitive mind is: How can anyone be sure that he has the correct standard? How can anyone be confident that his paradigm and "yardstick" is the real thing? How to correctly discern favorable and unfavorable attitudes, if all our judgments are based on paradigms and full of biased subjectivity? And I have to ask also whether or not I know for sure that my friend's is incorrect and that my conventional stand is correct? Certainly, Srila Prabhupada's view is the accepted standard for ISKCON devotees, but if one does not agree on such a fundamental reference, reasoning to establish anything fails. Arguments will be circular. One will first have to persuade the person to accept Srila Prabhupada's authority. However, my friend now has a new frame of reference, with other persons as authorities.
Certainly knowledge and faith are not simple matters. They very much depend on the individual's will. "A person convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still," one saying goes. Unless I am cent percent pure in will, a pure devotee, I will be unable to verify what is correct. Faith will remain a major component. Reason alone will not do. Suppose I'm willing to be obedient and submissive to the hierarchical structure established by Srila Prabhupada, the GBC and gurus, then I will certainly find evidence by which to confirm my intention. Dedication to the institution is supported by statements by Srila Prabhupada, referring to the break up of the Gaudiya Matha after the disappearance of his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura:
"We have got practical experience how a great institution was lost by whimsical ways. Without carrying out the order of the spiritual master, they manufactured something and the whole thing was lost." Conversely, if I look for evidence to support a desire of taking away management structures, independence from them, or compromised standards, I will also find reasons to support such a desire. I merely have to shift my paradigm. In fact, that is what happened to the friend I was talking to. He has for a long time taken interest in innovative ways to practice Krsna consciousness and alternative means for spreading the message of it. He has been successful in building strong alliances with persons of a similar mind. That confirms to him that he is right. He has desired, and his desires have led him to obtain that particular paradigm and with it the reasoning power to establish his view. At one point in time we two had an almost identical paradigm, but it is obvious that he has now shifted to a new one. That is the potency of will which transfers to knowledge and faith.
Some questions remain: What to do with someone who has another paradigm? Sure, I can try to ignore him, try to block him out of my environment, shut him up. But will he relent? Will this make my faith right and his faith wrong? It seems Sri Krsna does not prevent him from practicing his spiritual life within his new paradigm. Contrary to that, He is giving Him faith. Are we able to find common ground and establish a third paradigm and thereby have unity in diversity? What would such a synthesis look like? Can it be done at all? As for the attempt to unite the common , mundane religions, it seems to have been unsuccessful. There is a well known statement by Alfred North 'Whitehead: "Many become one and are increased by one." Are the followers of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu doomed for the same fate?

Devotee of Krishna

Let us consider how devotees taking part in the sankirtana movement could be unified. What would the frame of reference look like? We have seen efforts to bring Srila Prabhupada into the center. Do we know how to really do this? Srila Prabhupada is not physically present, but is present in his instructions. Thus to put Srila Prabhupada in the center means to put Srila Prabhupada's books into the center. This means that devotees have to become much more serious students of his works and writings. Srila Prabhupada's complaint that "you think my books are only for distribution and not for reading" still holds true. By studying one will strengthen the buddhi, internalizing the voice of Srila Prabhupada. When buddhi is perfect one has full faith in the conclusion of the scriptures and one will know that to surrender to Krishna is the goal of life. That is the conclusion of Bhagavad gita, which Srila Prabhupada described to be the teachings for the culture of buddhi. That frame of reference holds true for all. So from whatever frame of reference (paradigm) one approaches Sri Krsna, singleminded surrendering will become the identical ground for all devotees. A paradigm short of this ideal would be bogus and would have to be reevaluated.
Taking it from here, we next have to get to a common ground regarding the meaning of surrender. It would not be a question of who initiates nor a question of which institution. The common ground is surrender, and how to do this is explained by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in His eight verses of Sri Siksastakam: "0 Lord, you have millions of names, such as Krishna and Govinda." Out of causeless mercy the Lord enables us to easily approach Him by these holy names. "0 son of Maharaja Nanda, I have fallen into the ocean of birth and death. Please pick me up." This seems to be the real unifying principle for all persons from whatever faith: We are all fallen and ask the Lord to pick us up. Holding on to this understanding I see real ground for unity. But I'd like to suggest that one must learn the process of devotional service in its two aspects: One must directly execute the process of devotional service and indirectly avoid the impediments to progress (purport, CC Adi 1.56). If we dive deeply into the subject we will discover that there is no scope for liberal aloofness in any bona fide religious system. Rather, a serious commitment to rules and regulat ions is expected from the aspiring candidate to attain the desired goal of pure love for God.
Therefore the duty of a genuine spiritual mentor is to usher the diSCiple to the stage of chanting on the clearing stage, i.e . the uprooting of anarthas . That is the ground where the unity principle manifests. Could it be that we have not really tried this out and that this could be the cause for disunity? Spiritual life is certainly a reforming process which h as to be constantly worked on. By reform I mean spiritual reform, the dealing with anarthas. As far as I'm concerned, I take the process of "chanting while trying to give up offenses" as the main focus of my practice. I also preach about the process. I might be seen as "imposing standards unto others" and might be suspected of having some unresolved problems. In fact, I do have: I have impurities which entice me to have faith in sense gratification and interest in less demanding practices. l'm afraid of that. I know that unless Sri Krsna takes pity on me and cleanses my heart I will not be successful on this razor sharp path. I should never want to cease crying for His mercy, just as Srila Prabhupada taught us, "like the child calls for his mother." And certainly I would not want to drift into a new paradigm short of this process.
Carrying the sacred instruction of "trnad api sunicena … " (more humble than the straw in the street) around his neck, a serious devotee will always strive to improve his cultivation of the holy name. He will naturally give respect to everyone and special respect to those who he recognizes to be very seriously engaged in this Sankirtana movement. The blissful communities thus formed will be the basis for the congregational chanting, where all kinds of devotees will feel automatically very much at home and also newcomers will naturally feel attracted to join them. Thus we will enter the golden age. Let us pray for the manifestation of a unifying paradigm. It is certainly desired. But not in the manner that: "Many become one and are increased by one."
Meanwhile let us be cautious to not be the cause for more disunity. What we need is lots of brains and purity to establish the Sankirtana movement the way it is meant to be: The united worldwide movement of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Sankirtana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Lokanatha Svami. Born and raised in Switzerland, he joined ISKCON fulltime in Australia in 1986, when he was on a world tour. Sankirtana Dasa pioneered the sankirtana movement in the Chinese speaking countries, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Since 2001 he is a fulltime member of the VIHE (Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education), where he studies and teaches Bhakti Sastri and Bhakti Vaibhava Courses.