One criticism against devotees in the Hare Krsna movement is that they are extreme. Though most people will admit that God consciousness has a place in human life, they think it should be practiced in moderation. A Krsna conscious devotee agrees that there should be a balance between spiritual and material pursuits, but from his viewpoint the materialist is unreasonable in his stingy allowance of time and dedication for spiritual life. According to the Vedic scriptures, although a balance should be kept between material and spiritual, the favor should be on the side of the spiritual, the more important pursuit. How extreme then are the actual practices of Krsna consciousness?
A Krsna conscious person agrees to avoid four kinds of activities unfavorable to spiritual life: (1) meat-eating, (2) illicit sex, (3) intoxication, and (4) gambling. He also agrees to chant a prescribed number of holy names of God each day (about two hours' worth). One doesn't have to shave one's head, live in a commune, or wear a certain type of dress to be a devotee of Krsna. One may choose any occupation or way of life, as long as one follows the four rules and chants the Hare Krsna maha-mantra.
The four rules do not completely prohibit sex or enjoyable eating or recreation, but they do restrain these practices to bring them up to the human level, to bring them into accordance with God's laws. Nor are these rules the concoctions of a particular sect. They are universal to all great religions. Far from being extreme, these rules constitute mere sub-religious principles, necessary prerequisites for approaching the higher stages of love of God.
Consider meat-eating. In recent decades, convincing medical evidence has shown that a vegetarian diet is healthier than a diet that includes meat. Meat-eating is also economically wasteful. But more important is the ethical or religious consideration "Thou shall not kill." With even a dim conception of theism, we must admit that the helpless animals are also God's offspring, and man has not been given license to kill them just to satisfy his taste buds. A recent book by Steven Rosen, Food for the Spirit,thoroughly documents the fact that all the world's major religions advocate vegetarianism.
Avoiding meat-eating is not unreasonable or extreme. Rather, to insist that innocent animals be sacrificed to supply our food is an extreme form of human cruelty. Giving up meat-eating might seem extreme within a society of meat-eaters, but that doesn't mean it is wrong. We should follow the path of truth regardless of whether it is fashionable.
Intoxication in its various forms is a favorite escape from life's boredom and desperation. In response to the mass demand, theologians and clergymen sometimes twist the scriptures and declare that God will be satisfied if we drink or get high "in moderation." But, like meat-eating, the intoxication habit obstructs spiritual advancement.
Consider the jargon used to describe the intoxicated state: smashed, stoned, blasted, wrecked, ripped, plastered ad nauseam. How can someone who's "plastered" be peaceful and think of his relationship with God? "But if you don't get high," people protest, "what do you do for fun?" The answer is that the human need for happiness here-and-now can be supplied by means other than chemical intoxication, which is so harmful.
Actually, the blissful state for which we hanker can be attained in the most natural way in the simple acts of daily life when they are done in devotional service to God. Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge. When we connect with Him, as when chanting His holy names, we feel an ecstasy that precludes the need for intoxicants. As Srila Prabhupada writes, "When one experiences a higher taste in Krsna consciousness, he automatically loses his taste for pale things."
One of the hardest habits to give up is illicit sex, and devotees of Krsna meet perhaps their greatest resistance when they propose sexual restraint. People may agree that eating meat destroys innocent creatures, but what is the harm in sexual enjoyment? Besides, if we take sex away, then where is the pleasure? Where is the meaning to existence?
But the Krsna conscious devotees do not advocate cessation of sex life. Rather, Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita, "I am sex in accordance with religious injunctions." This means that sex should be used as a form of devotional service to God. When husband and wife unite in religious marriage for conceiving children, with a promise to raise those children for their spiritual well-being, their uniting is a highly religious act.
Very few persons nowadays are willing to accept this traditional concept of sex, although it is taught in every scripture. Once again the clergymen and theologians have come to the support of the sense gratifiers and have twisted sacred texts away from their original meanings. They've made allowances for sex outside marriage and outside the reproductive act. But defying our spiritual well-being through illicit sex will not make us truly happy.
As for gambling, although it is promoted by government lotteries and casinos, it certainly earns its place among the chief vices. Gambling produces a feverish cheating mentality, a false hope of getting something without actually earning it. It becomes another distraction from the pursuit of God consciousness, another waste of human life. Fyodor Dostoevsky's autobiographical novel The Gambler shows how much gambling cost him in shame and misery, as do his letters to his wife: "Forgive me. … I lost everything. . . .What are you going to think of me? This has shaken the very foundation of our marriage! I hate gambling."
Of course, there will be difficulty in giving up long-cherished habits. In Sanskrit this difficulty is known as tapasya, or austerity. But when we voluntarily take trouble to please God, we purify ourselves and make advancement in God consciousness. No individual or nation ever became great by being lazy. One has to take trouble to be a great inventor or a great musician; one has to sometimes give up some immediate pleasure to achieve a greater happiness.
Spiritual life also requires effort, but its gain is eternity, bliss, and knowledge, and its loss means repeated birth and death. Unfortunately, we tend to degrade ourselves by indulging in sensual habits. And influenced by atheistic propaganda, we despair of the eternal goal. When we lack education in God consciousness, and when we have no friends who joyfully practice spiritual life, then we want to give up the whole attempt at self-restraint. But if we associate with genuine devotees, we will understand the importance of giving up illicit sense gratification, and renunciation will become easy.
Aside from observing the "do not" rules, a person in Krsna consciousness agrees to regularly chant the holy names of God. But because people have lost much of religious culture, this also may seem an extreme practice. Recently at a shopping center a young man asked me about my chanting beads. I replied, "They're prayer beads, similar to what Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and others use." The man replied, "Isn't it boring?" For most people chanting or praying is something boring, compared to the quick thrills they can get by watching television or spending money to indulge the senses. They cannot imagine that there is intense pleasure in the simple practice of reciting the names of God. But true prayer brings the ecstasy of love of God and spares us from all the distresses of this material world.
The balance between spiritual and material is a matter of sensible budgeting. Modem civilization suffers from an imbalance on the material side. So if we can at least recognize the need for spiritual improvement, that will be a great gain. The real danger is not too-much love of God, but the loss of our souls. As Jesus Christ said, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his immortal soul?" SDG