Though we may claim to aspire for the truth,
are we ready to receive it no matter how it comes?

While listening to a recorded lecture by Srila Prabhupada, I heard him use the expression "polished animalism" to describe the mentality and lifestyle of materialistic people. The phrase brought to mind his reply, in 1968, to the editor of Back to Godhead,who had written suggesting that we publish an article telling point by point how to establish a spiritual world civilization.

In his reply, Srila Prabhupada gave twenty-two points for establishing a world order based on scientific spiritual principles. His first point was "that any civilization devoid of God consciousness, or Krsna consciousness, is no civilization at all. It is simply a polished type of animal society."

You probably know people who would bristle at Srila Prabhupada's cutting remark without stopping to consider whether or not there is truth in his claim.

"He is a spiritual person?" they might querulously ask. "Whatever his opinion, how could he speak so insensitively? Just because I don't follow him, that makes me an animal? Did he expect to win converts with this offensive bluntness?"

That's Just His Opinion

Admittedly, "polished type of animal society" and "polished animalism" are a bit hard on the ear. And coming from a person of saintly stature, they seem even harder to take. The popular image of a saint is that of someone meek, benign, someone with an extreme aversion for harsh speech, incapable of even thinking contemptibly of another. You can, then, easily imagine Prabhupada's barbed criticism offending some people's sensibilities.

In particular, I'm thinking of that class of persons the so-called upper crust, the dons and dilettantes who so pride themselves on being cultured and sophisticated that they consider themselves aloof from Krsna consciousness, so much so that they sometimes hide behind their socalled gentility to evade the truth of Krsna consciousness. They prefer to pawn off their conceit and their penchant for ostentation as dignified, aesthetic human virtues, or as insightful realizations on life that set them apart from Krsna consciousness.

Having put much effort into acquiring the symbols of class art, music, travel, fashion, literature, good conversation, and, of course, wealth they consider themselves skilled at skimming off the top the best life has to offer, and they expect to be seen with some distinction. They certainly don't expect severe derision from any quarter, least of all from the Hare Krsna community.

In actuality, the only fruit of their much vaunted sophistication is that it inhibits them from appreciating Srila Prabhupada and his teachings.

What such persons don't realize is that we cannot dictate how vital truth about ourselves may come to us. We simply cannot control when, where, why, and how it comes. Nor can we control through whom it comes. It behooves us, therefore, to be more interested in the message than in the medium.

Of course, nary a person would disagree here, but it's easier said than done. People who wallow in the illusion of material happiness conveniently try to avoid Krsna consciousness on the plea that the medium is marred in some way: "He called me a polished animal. Had he been a more benign soul and my genuine wellwisher, he would never have said such an uncouth thing about me. Anyway, that's just his opinion. Why should I care what he says?"

This response to truth when reason, not the bearer, demands agreement is, in the words of Thomas a Kempis, the saintly author of Imitation of Christ, "a sign of a great isolation of the mind and of much inward pride." To cast that in another way, undue sensitivity to language expressing truth about ourselves is not, as is so often misconstrued, a sign of refinement, but a sign of vanity.

We need humility to hear and benefit from an unpalatable truth about ourselves, for unless we can transcend our self-image at such crucial times, how can we mine the precious truth gems and make them into assets?

True Gentility

I've always relished Srila Prabhupada's bold, uncompromising approach in explaining Krsna consciousness. I savor his spirited preaching the way a movie-goer thrills at the derring-do of a screen hero. That's not to say that everything he said was easy for me to take, or that I'm prideless. It's just that his preaching was a tremendous relief from the circuitous, concessionary flattering or bluffing methods some reputed spiritual leaders employ, an approach that serves no tangible purpose except to maintain a following for themselves.

Of course, a saintly person, a devotee of God, is a true gentleman; he's benign, sensitive, and refined in every way. Delicate sentiments have a definite place in his life and show themselves in a variety of ways: in his being sensitive to the well-being of others but taking no offense for any transgression against himself, in his not subjugating anyone for his own gain; in his being concerned that others are not ill at ease in his presence; in his not being thin skinned if his shortcomings are pointed out, but giving due consideration to the matter.

Above all, a devotee's dignity, gentility, and sensitivity show in his having a sense of honor about the truth. He stands firmly on truth, accepting as Krsna's will any consequences that may come as a result.

Thus a devotee is never duplicitous; he's straightforward in all his dealings. This is the standard of gentility set by saints down through the ages.

Time and again Srila Prabhupada showed these qualities. No matter what the situation, he pandered to no one's delusions. For example, in the heyday of hippiedom, when so-called Sufis, swamis, yogis, bodhi-sattvas, gurus, incarnations, and even the "hip" establishment priests were rationalizing drugs, sex, and homosex into their doctrines and teaching "You are It. You are God"-along came Srila Prabhupada saying, "You are not God; you are the servant of God. Any rascal who says you are God G-o-d he's the opposite of God a d-o-g."

He further said that to begin spiritual life you have to be on the human platform. You must stop engaging in illicit sex like cats and dogs; stop intoxication, which only increases your ignorance; stop flesheating, which depends on merciless animal slaughter. You cannot have spiritual realization while deepening your indulgence in the material body. The two are diametrically opposed.

He taught that only a cheater would teach sensuality in the name of spirituality, and that only an insincere person one wanting to be cheated would listen to him.

In this way Srila Prabhupada gave us facts without frills, substance without sentiment, meaning without mush, verity without varnish. He was no weather vane. He took a stand and stood his ground with integrity, with sound reasoning and sound philosophy, and backed it with his personal example.

Because Prabhupada embodied all these qualifications, his straightforward stance was not a vice, a character flaw; rather, it was a virtue. He was a champion of the truth and therefore a paragon of sophistication.

Truthfulness Defined

Prabhupada's uncompromising spirit, barbed expressions and all, was not mere bravado or finger-pointing to distract us from defects in himself or in the values he stood for. Nor was it frivolity resulting from the heady effect of having thousands of followers. Nor was he simply playing to his audience, his disciples, who would naturally respond enthusiastically to all his utterances, however strong his criticism of the materialists.

His candor stemmed from his direct realization of the soul, or self, as a conscious entity distinct from the material body; his direct realization of Krsna's factual existence as the prime cause of all causes; his direct realization that the eternal function of the soul is service to Krsna in love and devotion; his direct realization that out of all the umpteen species of life, human life is a rare facility for achieving God realization; his feeling suffering at seeing the suffering of others; and his knowing the actual, viable solution to all suffering, as opposed to patchwork solutions or sentimental sympathy.

As an enlightened soul, Srila Prabhupada was keenly aware that ours is a rare opportunity to become free from ignorance and go back home, back to Godhead, and, to broadcast this urgent message, he sometimes used sharp language to cut to the core of the dense illusion enwrapping the soul. He was aware of conventional niceties, but he also knew the urgency of giving the truth as it is, for the benefit of others.

Sometimes a lifeguard, out of duty, has to knock out the drowning swimmer to save his life. Srila Prabhupada's position was similar in preaching to hard-core materialists. For the sake of accuracy he'd overstep social convention if it got in the way of clear understanding. Thus he defined truth:

Satyam, truthfulness, means that facts should be presented as they are, for the benefit of others. Facts should not be misrepresented. According to social conventions, it is said that one can speak the truth only when it is palatable to others. But that is not truthfulness. The truth should be spoken in a straightforward way, so that others will understand actually what the facts are. If a man is a thief and if people are warned that he is a thief, that is truth. Although sometimes the truth is unpalatable, one should not refrain from speaking it. Truthfulness demands that the facts be presented as they are for the benefit of others. That is the definition of truth. (Bhagavad-gita 10.4-5, purport)

Prabhupada's definition of truth is unobjectionable. Indeed, it is universal. But where is the truth in his unpalatable expression "polished animals"?

An unsatisfactory answer would make him guilty of being severe with the world for not seeing things his way, revealing him to be a person of immense vanity, a quality antithetical to saintliness.

If, on the other hand, he is found to be justified in using the term, the clear implication would be that Krsna consciousness is the alternative to animal life.

Rational Animals

The saying "Man is a rational animal" is in firm agreement with Canakya, an Indian sage whose counsel enabled King Chandragupta to turn Alexander the Great out of India in 4 B.C. Canakya perused the voluminous Sanskrit texts of the Vedic spiritual tradition, of which Srila Prabhupada. is a modern representative, and gathered all the statements pertinent to morality. His Niti-darpana states:

In eating, sleeping, fearing, and mating man is equal to the animals. The one thing that distinguishes man from the animals is knowledge: those men who fail to pursue knowledge are animals in the guise of human beings.

Here Canakya uses the word knowledge to mean the quality of human beings that makes them rational. And he didn't leave knowledge wide open to interpretation. He and the Vedic sages before him narrowed the choices down considerably by ruling out all activities pertaining to eating, sleeping, mating, and fearing. Since we have these propensities in common with the animals, the sages did not accept them as valid rational pursuits. We are rational animals only when we use rationality to pursue knowledge beyond our basic animal needs.

Virtually all human affairs education, sports, medicine, politics, business, scientific research, economics, and entertainment, to name a few are complex means of fulfilling, either directly or indirectly, our animal propensities.

In other words, unaware of any better use of our rational faculty, we have complicated the affairs of eating, sleeping, mating, and defense, and we regard the ability to tread our way through this complexity as sophistication, culture, and responsible discharge of our duties to self, kith, and kin. Though our ability to attain food, sleep, sex, and so on is comparable to the intelligence of the rat who learns to get through the maze to a piece of cheese, we see this instinctual ability in ourselves as some sort of exceptional knowledge or wisdom.

"Not so," says plain-speaking Srila Prabhupada. "It's only polished animal life." And a host of Vedic sages echo in agreement. And when the evidence is tallied up, their appraisal rings with the truth.

"My dear materialistic fellow," they might well say, "please tell me the substantive difference between you and the animals. After all, you eat, they eat; you sleep, they sleep; you mate, they mate; you defend your home or nation, they also defend their homes or terrain. So, complexity and technological amenities aside, how are your goals any different or better than theirs?"

The King of Knowledge

What, then, is that knowledge beyond our basic animal needs? "Knowledge of the self," Srila Prabhupada and the sages would say, implying that human beings have a distinct advantage over animals. Man can seek answers to questions that animals cannot ask: What is consciousness? Is there a purpose to life? Does God exist? If so, what's my relationship with Him?

Human life begins the moment we seriously seek answers to these questions, not before.

Srila Prabhupada classed all human inquiries under the heading God consciousness, or Krsna consciousness, because he knew that's where the answers must eventually lead. How did he know this? Because the awakening of God realization is a scientific process: it begins with sincere inquiry and, if followed to its conclusion, leads inexorably to direct realization of the spiritual self and the Supreme Person. This Krsna confirms in the Bhagavad-gita (9.2):

This knowledge is the king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, and because it gives direct perception of the self by realization, it is the perfection of religion. It is everlasting, and it is joyfully performed.

Srila Prabhupada was a professor of this science. He was fixed in the direct perception of Krsna. This is apparent to all who invest the time to study his life and precepts. He could see how nondevotees, in their eagerness to eke out enjoyment here, concoct standards of excellence etiquette, locution, lineage, degrees, titles, awards, and the like to gain some distinction and heroic worth for themselves. Then, thinking they have really zeroed in on life, they become puffed up with false pride.

In reality they end up chewing what has already been chewed eating, sleeping, mating, and defending in so many novel, polished, complicated ways, and they forget that these are merely animal affairs.

We should not feel indignation or resentment toward Srila Prabhupada for pointing out these flaws in the materialistic demeanor. Rather, we should laud him for his temerity, for his speaking the truth as it is, despite the seeming futility, despite the risk of rejection, and for his willingness to give wisdom where ignorance sports a coating of bliss.

We should recognize that along with appreciating his giving us the truth comes the challenge to live by his definition of it. In the end, this will be the accurate indication of our sophistication, gentility, and integrity.