When I was eighteen years old I wrote an essay for the college newspaper about maturity. In the essay, I examined the word maturity and commented that most of my elders equated maturity with selling out on idealistic values. Of course, although my concerns weren't so God conscious back then, I didn't think maturity meant giving up ideals and embracing middle-class values in their stead. I still don't.
Recently when I visited the museum at the Brooklyn Hare Krsna temple, I saw photos of devotees chanting in the streets of Manhattan in the early 1970s. One photo showed a young woman holding a Lord Caitanya sign. I looked at her face and thought, "What an idealist!" She seemed to be saying, "I've surrendered to the Hare Krsna movement and I'm carrying this sign. This is what I have been waiting to do for many, many lives. I believe everything I have been told, and I just want to go on coming out here, carrying this sign and chanting Hare Krsna for the fallen souls." A true idealist.
One ideal for which a person often comes to Krsna consciousness is truth. We want to be true to ourselves. People often say they joined the Hare Krsna movement because they saw truth here and couldn't refuse it.
But idealism can be dangerous. Idealists may put their ideals ahead of practical considerations. In a practical world, we have to face the consequences of our idealism.
Many of us followed our ideals to join this movement, and few of us stopped to figure out the practicalities on the way: "If I join, what will my parents say?" "These people don't seem to have jobs. How will I live?" "How will I get along in a community with all these people?" "What will happen to me when I get older?"
I remember when I used to go out chanting on the Boston Common. A man would regularly shout at me, "You'll be sorry when you're forty." Did he think I would wake up and see I had wasted my youth? "I spent my youth foolishly, walking in rubber shower shoes and chanting. Now my life is lost." I was too much of an idealist to take him seriously.
What about now?
Youth gave us the impetus to sustain a certain brand of idealism. I think of that young woman carrying the Lord Caitanya sign. That was something she could do every day when she was eighteen years old. It may not be something she can do now at forty or forty-five.
And ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is itself no longer young. For devotees who have been around ISKCON for many years, what they find in it now may no longer be what they expected when they joined. "ISKCON used to promise that our economic needs would be met. ISKCON used to promise that our leaders would never fall down and would always be practicing purely. So many things have changed."
What concerns me is that on the plea of these very real changes, some devotees have fallen away from their Krsna conscious practices and even rationalized their falling away as realism.
But we should consider carefully what hasn't changed and what is still available to us.
What hasn't changed is the nature of the material world. Srila Prabhupada would always be quick to say, "According to Vedic knowledge … " and then sometimes he would add, "Not Vedic knowledge it is a fact … " The fact is that material life is temporary. Even if we work hard to become materially successful, we still have to leave it all at death. Prabhupada often commented that people work hard for things they will lose but are not interested in eternal life.
Prabhupada used to give this example: If a man builds a beautiful house and then tells us he built it just so he can set it on fire, we will think he is crazy. But that's our position. The body is set on fire at death. If we are working hard simply to have the results of our labors set on fire, what kind of sanity is that?
For Prabhupada, the ignorance of people living in a materialistic mentality was a fact, and the enlightenment found in Krsna consciousness was an overwhelming truth. In mature idealism, we should continue to live by that truth.
Krsna consciousness is not just a matter of ecstasy or high realization; it's truth and reality. How can we live in a false way? How can we become the foolish materialists Prabhupada preached so strongly against? The facts we learned when we first came to Krsna consciousness have not faded with our young bodies and our particular hopes of what life was going to be like in ISKCON. If we forget this fact we are cheating ourselves.
These things have not changed: the truth of Krsna, the promise of the holy name, our invitation to go back to Godhead, if not in this lifetime then in later ones. And these also have not changed: the dangers of material life and the fact that no matter how hard we work for material security in the shape of home, job, family, or money, everything can be knocked apart in a minute because it's based on the material body.
Therefore to be mature in Krsna consciousness we ought to accept the inevitable changes in our lives and not give up our spiritual aspirations. Maybe we thought we would be lifelong monks and we now have wives and children. Maybe we looked at ISKCON as an ultimate material shelter and now we have to fend for ourselves. Maybe we thought our leaders were pure devotees and we found out they were practicing devotees like us. Still, we have to keep practicing Krsna consciousness and not let ourselves be cheated by the material energy.
"Realism" is often seen as the opposite of idealism. But Krsna consciousness, the highest ideal, is also the highest reality. Material sense gratification is not realism, and those who follow its path are not realists.
Being realistic in Krsna consciousness may mean that as married devotees we can't live in the temple anymore. It may mean we can't go out all day carrying a Lord Caitanya sign. But we do have to live according to Krsna conscious truth. When we are in material illusion we are not in the real world.
That's what Prabhupada came to teach us and what is taught in all the scriptures. Prabhupada came to us in Boston and New York. He smashed our illusions and showed us Krsna. And through his teachings and his example he is still here. His words and actions are permanent and fixed. Maya may try to draw us away from Prabhupada's basic teachings, telling us they are idealistic or not based on reality, but Prabhupada spoke the truth: life is not meant for eating, sleeping, mating, and defending.
If even as devotees we are overwhelmed by money-making and family maintenance and forget Krsna, we shouldn't say we are living in the real world. We should say, "I'm in illusion." Spiritual life is the only reality.
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami travels extensively to speak and write about Krsna consciousness. He is the author of more than two dozen books, including a six-volume biography of Srila Prabhupada.