Many people have a negative attitude toward preachers and preaching. Consider, for example, the following dictionary definition of preaching: "to give religious or moral instruction, especially in a drawn-out, tiresome manner." Bearing this in mind, future generations in the Krsna consciousness movement may want to de-emphasize the words preacher and preaching. But those who follow in the footsteps of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual master of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, regard preaching in a positive way. To them, a preacher in ISKCON has a divine spark given him by his spiritual master, a spark of desire and power to spread the teachings of Krsna consciousness. For the devotees, the word "preaching" denotes glorious, selfless adventures on behalf of the Supreme Lord. Preaching is the compassionate work of giving Krsna to others. The devotees will never, therefore, give up their understanding of the word in favor of the more commonly held view.
On a level deeper than that of word usage, many people in the world today abhor the very idea of propagating spiritual knowledge. They think that if spiritual lessons must be taught at all, they should be restricted to the temple or church, to those who voluntarily submit themselves to such sermonizing sessions. They say spiritual instructors should not intrude on the hallowed ground of art, philosophy, or entertainment.
A friend recently recommended I read The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner, for new perspectives on the craft of writing. In his book, Gardner makes the point that all writers have a serious responsibility toward their readers.
To write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.
Good advice. Gardner goes on to say, however, "It does not mean, . . . that writers should write moralistically, like preachers.
Granted, every writer needn't get on a soap box to deliver his message. But if a writer has received from good authority and with personal realization information that can free one from death and suffering, should he not in all honesty present that knowledge to others? Gardner himself admits that life is a predicament: "All human beings have the same root experience (we're born, we suffer, we die, to put it grimly)" so why should writers be advised that they should not "like preachers" tell people how to live?
Elsewhere in his book, Gardner warns writers to be very careful not to merely use straw men "as preachers do" to make their points. Here Gardner seems to have made "the preacher" into a straw man. Inadvertently, he has failed to follow his own advice, becoming like one of the very "preachers" he disdains. A preacher, however, is not a puppet to be set up and knocked down for a good laugh. There are preachers, and there are preachers. Krsna was a preacher; Buddha was a preacher; Christ was a preacher. Their discourses, meditations, and sermons are worthy of the best in art and philosophy, despite the fact that those discourses are infused with compassionate messages meant to direct people's lives. So just as there are good writers and artists as well as bad ones, so too there are varieties of preachers. And if a writer's moral instructions can deliver others from suffering and death, why regard such lessons as if they were a cardinal defect?
Granted, Gardner was specifically giving advice for writers of fiction, and if we consider the elements and methods of fiction writing, his advice is essentially sound. But in the process of advising us on the writer's craft, he has insensitively stereotyped the preacher as one who makes up slow arguments, who uses words artlessly, and who is excessively moralistic. This is a common misconception about preachers and preaching.
Perhaps at the root of much of this kind of criticism is a distrust of anyone who claims his message is absolutely true. I asked Srila Prabhupada some questions on this subject one morning in January of 1977 in Bhubaneswar, India. His answers were conclusive.
"We have to give life its meaning," I said, trying to paraphrase the existentialist's position. "That's the glory of man. They say he finds no meaning in life but gives his own meaning to what is actually meaningless. They say that man should face up to that uncertainty and just live his life without taking meaning from the scriptures or from anybody."
"Why then are they distributing meaning?" said Srila Prabhupada. "Let people live in their own way. Why are you anxious to give some meaning? If by taking your instruction I stop following others, that means I'll have to follow you. So what is the benefit? I stop following others, but I have to follow you."
Srila Prabhupada continued to point out the inherent hypocrisy and contradiction of one person advising others to reject prima facie all claims to authority. When I told him that many people thought it dangerous to accept the authority of the spiritual master, he said, "But you ask me to surrender to you. So why shall I not surrender to a spiritual master instead?" He pointed out that in either case one must accept the opinions and viewpoints of another. Srila Prabhupada concluded, "Too much authority may be wrong if the authority is wrong. But if the authority is right, then it is better to accept."
Another devotee told Srila Prabhupada that many people seem to prefer the eclectic method of learning, consulting many authorities without surrendering fully to any one. But Srila Prabhupada replied that if you could get everything in one place, just like a shopper who fulfills all his needs at a supermarket, then why object to only one authority?
So the Krsna conscious preacher speaks only on behalf of the Supreme Lord and His bona fide representative, and he speaks only what he has received from them. In this way the sanctity and integrity of his message is preserved. And far from delivering a dry lesson in morality, the Krsna conscious preacher invites everyone to approach Krsna, who is all-attractive, and to enjoy transcendental exchanges with Him in a consciousness far beyond the anomalies and disturbances of material life. Through the words of His preachers, Krsna Himself is appealing to those who have forgotten Him. He is reviving their memories of who they are and who He is and inviting them to return to their original position in spiritual life and pure consciousness. Delivering this wisdom to all is the compassionate work of all Lord Krsna's preachers. SDG