There is a widespread misconception at present that those who adhere to the Bhakti tradition do not criticize others. This misconception arises because Bhakti is equated to “love”, which is then equated to non-violence and acceptance of others, which is then mixed up in the pseudo-secular woo of tolerance and equality. Many people even argue that the Acharyas in the Vedic tradition have accepted other religious traditions and scriptures. Criticizing them, therefore, amounts to violating the tradition. In this post, I will try to contravene this false conception of “love” and enunciate an alternative idea of love that is both truthfully critical and yet compassionate and loving.
Factually, Bhakti does not mean love. It means devotion. We cannot be devoted to a thief. We can only be devoted to the perfect person. God and His pure devotees are such perfect persons. We can be devoted to them. As part of that devotion to God and His devotees, we can also love thieves, if we try to reform them, so that they can also be devoted to God and His pure devotees. Reformation requires criticism. Criticism is opposed to love, but it is not opposed to devotion. Devotees give higher priority to devotion than to love.
Love is temporary while devotion is eternal. While you can love a thief, you are not devoted to him. If the thief doesn’t want to reform himself, then you abandon the thief. But you do not abandon the person to whom you are devoted. There is hence a sense in which Acharyas talk about loving everyone, as part of being devoted to God. But that love is about reformation rather than devotion to thievery. If we stop correcting the thief, and simply love, accept, endorse, or tolerate him, then we are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
When we equate devotion to love, or mix it with equality, secularism, respect, acceptance, and tolerance, then we destroy the love of God and substitute it with the love of humanity. That love of humanity gradually becomes the oneness of impersonalism and then results in the destruction of Bhakti. Once Bhakti is destroyed, then both devotion and love are destroyed.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Culture of Debate and Freedom
- 2 The Evolution of Religious Debate
- 3 The Role of Warfare in Religion
- 4 Responses to Common Arguments
The Culture of Debate and Freedom
Critiquing Other Religions in Dialogue
Śrila Prabhupāda engaged with other religions in many ways, sometimes criticizing their morality, sometimes questioning their conceptions of reality, sometimes advancing Vedic doctrines in the context of other religions, sometimes talking about the unity of all religions based on the principle of loving and serving God in different ways, and sometimes talking about the absence of a deep understanding of God in other religions.
For example, he criticized immorality in the forms of meat eating, intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling, and forbade it among his disciples. When he met Christian priests, he would ask them to give up meat eating. If they said that animals do not have a soul, he would flatly reject it. Then he would talk about the consequences of meat-eating such as war and destruction.
Prabhupāda was deeply pained by the crucifixion of Jesus and he disdained the practice of displaying a crucified Jesus in the places of worship. He sometimes had to live in hotel rooms where a cross with Jesus on it had been placed. He immediately asked his disciples to remove that cross. He would not mince words while criticizing it—if you love someone do you display how they were killed? Through these, Prabhupāda was continuously talking about rejecting violence on other living entities, the evils of war and destruction, and worshipping violence within religion as the road to personal salvation.
Prabhupāda was slightly ambivalent about Jesus taking on the sins of his followers because a guru in the Vedic tradition also takes on many of the sins of his disciples. The condition for acceptance is that they do not commit more sins. If, however, one goes on committing sins and begging for forgiveness, there is no forgiveness. Prabhupāda likened this process of sinning and repenting to an elephant’s bath. An elephant goes to take a bath in a river, then comes out of the river and pours sand on his body. The net result of this process is that he is as dirty as before and repentance has no real meaning.
Prabhupāda rejected all aspects of Western civilization. He called democracy “demons crazy”. Countless times he called an industrialized society a “demoniac civilization”. He mocked moon landings as “just getting some dust which is also available here”. He called so-called materialistic advancement the society of animals engrossed in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. One time a woman reporter asked Prabhupāda: “Why do you shave your head?” He retorted: “Why do you shave your legs?” He frowned upon women’s liberation as men using women for sex and abandoning them. He equated women who sleep with many men in the name of sexual liberation, to prostitutes.
Philosophy, Science, and Theology
Prabhupāda had extensive conversations on Western philosophy with his disciples, later published as “Dialectical Spiritualism”. He trashed every philosopher, with the possible exception of Socrates, for whom he had some respect. After that, he would say to his Western disciples: “you don’t have any philosophy”. His criticism of scientific materialism is well-known. He called materialists “rascals” and “cheaters”. He called their promises to solve problems of death, old age, and disease in the future “postdated cheques”. In regards to Darwinism, he said: “the more you kick in Darwin’s face, the more you advance in spiritual life”. In regard to counteracting the effects of modern science, he said: “using your mortar and pestle, I am going to break your teeth”.
When it came to theological conversations, Prabhupāda sometimes said: “I may have one name for Him and you may have another. But that doesn’t matter. The real question is: What is God?” At other times, He would phrase the problem by asking a theologian: How does God look like? Where does He live? What does He do? All these are very pointed criticisms of other religions that they don’t have any clear conception of God. They may call Him by many names—and Prabhupāda accepted that everyone can chant the names of God that are given in their religion—but without an understanding of what God is, there was nothing to be discussed in theology. He would often talk about the “science of God” and the “science of the soul” to be presented as given in the Vedic texts.
Similarly, Śrila Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswati Thakur always spoke clearly about the distinction between truth and falsehood. He writes:
A chanter of the Kirtan of Hari is necessarily the uncompromising enemy of worldliness and hypocrisy. As a chanter of the Kirtan of Hari, it is the constant function to dispel all misconceptions by the preaching of the truth in the most unambiguous form without any respect of person, place, or time. That form has to be adopted which is least likely to be misunderstood. It is his bounden duty to oppose clearly and frankly any person who tries to deceive and harm himself and other people by misrepresenting the Truth due to malice or bona fide misunderstanding. This will be possible if the chanter of Kirtan is always prepared to submit to be trodden by thoughtless people if any discomfort to himself will enable him to do good to his persecutors by chanting the Truth in the most unambiguous manner. If he is unwilling or afraid of considerations of self-respect or personal discomfort to chant the Kirtan under all circumstances, he is unfit to be a preacher of the Absolute Truth. Humility implies perfect submission to the Truth and no sympathy for untruth. A person who entertains any partiality for untruth is unfit to chant the Kirtan of Hari. Any clinging to untruth is opposed to the principle of humility born of absolute submission to the Truth.
Śrila Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswati Thakur redefined humility from groveling to fighting. For him, a humble person is one who is always prepared to submit to be trodden by thoughtless people while chanting the truth in the most unambiguous manner. This means, as you speak the truth, you will be criticized, hunted, intimidated, attacked, and persecuted. Take all that in, swallow the bitter pill of humiliation, and continue chanting the truth. Haridas Thakur was beaten in 22 marketplaces, but he did not stop chanting the truth. The capacity to endure such an ordeal is humility, not sitting quietly, avoiding difficulties, and prioritizing your peace and happiness. A person who stops speaking the truth out of fear of retribution, personal difficulties, or breaking fickle social bonds, is unqualified to speak the Absolute Truth. Similarly, such a person is unqualified to bring the Absolute Truth into their hearts and to invest their hearts into the Absolute Truth.
Criticizing Ideas, Loving People
In stark contrast to the criticisms of their claims, Prabhupāda was always personable with anyone. He criticized their ideas, and he loved them. Most people don’t understand this dichotomy. How can you criticize alternative religions and sciences and love their proponents? The reasons are very subtle—the soul in the material world is considered ignorant rather than evil.
You try to educate everyone, but you don’t hate anyone. The capacity for good and bad exists in everyone, and one can choose one over the other. Good and bad are defined by the consequences of choices. When we criticize some choice, we are saying that the consequences of that choice are undesirable. While everyone is free to choose, they may not know the consequences of their choices. Hence, the Vedic tradition doesn’t force any choice onto anyone. But it still critiques others to tell them about the consequences of their choices.
The Vedic tradition has criticized Buddhism and Jainism as atheism, various rituals for material advancement as mere materialism, and impersonalism as “spiritual suicide”. And yet, the practitioners of Buddhism, Jainism, various materialistic rituals, and impersonalists live peacefully. Criticism of someone’s ideas is not hatred. We criticize ideas, and we love people. The idea is in the mind, separate from the soul. The mind is not equal to the soul. Rather, the mind covers the soul, like the goggles of a person cover their eyes to condition how they see. You can always remove the goggles. Therefore, you can criticize the goggles through which a person sees without hating the person.
If someone is unwilling to listen to criticism, then the advanced spiritualist does not engage with them. The Vedic culture is not violent if others are non-violent. It accepts violence only in response to violence. It does not surrender under coercion; after all, God has given everyone intelligence, power, and choice. Why would we not use them to defend our views? Likewise, Vedic culture does not force its ideas on others; God has given others intelligence, power, and choice too. Why would we force our ideas or viewpoints on the unwilling?
Uncommon Vedic Egalitarianism
This egalitarian freedom is hard to accept for people with a long history of “good” vs. “evil”. For them, there has to be one God, one book, one system of morality, one path toward God, and one prophet. But in the Vedic system, there are many aspects of one God, many books, many systems of moralities, many paths to approach God, and many Acharyas. This acceptance of many alternatives is not the acceptance of any or every alternative. Many roads lead to the same destination, but every road does not. Similarly, every road going to some destination isn’t the shortest, easiest, or best route to a destination.
If someone insists that there is only one road to the destination, then we don’t engage with them. Engagement means that I will tell you why I disagree with your religion and you have to respond to that. You can tell me why you disagree with my religion and I have to respond to that. We can have a debate about which religion is better. If you are convinced about your religion, you defeat my religion by argument. If I am convinced about my religion, then I will defeat your religion by argument. You can still practice your religion; we are not opposed to that. Or, you can accept our religion; we are not opposed to that. These egalitarian approaches are rational but nonchalant. Discussion is rational, but after that, you are free to go your way. We are not disturbed if you don’t choose our religion, as long as you are not preventing our choice.
The fact is that practically no one outside the traditional Indian society can understand, accept, or practice this, because they have no precedent, and they always think in terms of their precedents. Precedents of debate, argument, analysis, distinctions, and splitting hairs on minor issues, are hallmarks of the Vedic tradition. Free speech is not a new thing. It has always been far freer in the Vedic tradition. However, free speech doesn’t mean ignorant speech. There are standards for debate under which you respond to my points and I respond to your points. Dancing here and there aimlessly and endlessly is forbidden.
The Evolution of Religious Debate
Acharyas Appreciate Other Religions
Many people point out that Acharyas in the Vedic tradition have appreciated other religions. They have regarded their scriptures as valid religious scriptures. To be a swan is to look at the good things in others and ignore the bad things in them as seen by crows. All this is completely true. However, I doubt if Acharyas would consider us swans if we introduced the same religious ideas in the Vedic system and just looked the other way in the name of not being crows.
Then, in what way can we say that Acharyas accept other religions when they don’t want any of their central ideologies to infiltrate the Vedic system?
The answer lies in the Indian culture, specifically how the Indian culture appreciates and criticizes others. There is an age-old double standard in India in which materialism, impersonalism, and voidism found in Indian religions are criticized while the same things in non-Indian religions are ignored. Indian civilization is introverted and it doesn’t criticize outsiders because it doesn’t want to mix with them. Indians treat outsiders like guests—with politeness. You don’t say harsh things to guests. But if an outsider became an insider, he would also be criticized like an insider for any mistake. Politeness is a mark that someone is an outsider and criticism is a mark that he is an insider.
This is a spiritual principle under which God and the soul interact with each other politely and respectfully when they are outsiders, but God’s devotees fight and compete with God when they are insiders. This principle has been used to contrast Gaudīya Vaishnavism (where God is treated as an intimate friend, relative, or lover) with other forms of Vaishnavism (where God is a master). This is not often discussed, but other forms of Vaishnavism are called Mukti in Gaudīya Vaishnavism which describes itself as Bhakti. The state of reverence, prayer, and worship are preliminary stages of associating with God when we are outsiders to Him. The later intimate stages are far more irreverential.
People of other cultures don’t relate to this spiritual principle. They think that we should respect the insider and criticize the outsider. If we are criticizing someone, then he is being treated as an outsider. But if he is being treated politely, then he is an insider. This is a materialistic conception of insider and outsider. In the spiritual conception, an insider is a person with whom I want to associate because I know that associating with him will not contaminate me. Talking to him, criticizing him, and fighting with him, are different kinds of associations. We can do that with insiders. An outsider is a person with whom I don’t want to associate because I know that associating with him will contaminate me. I get rid of that person by saying the least number of things that will quickly end the conversation. If I criticize him, then I have to associate with him longer. Politeness ends the association quickly. Thus, you say nice things to people you avoid, and harsh things to people you prefer.
Niels Bohr, a well-known Danish physicist, had the same peculiar attitude. When someone would bring up an idea that he thought was ridiculous and not worth the time, he would say “interesting”. It was his way of saying that while it seems interesting to you, he is not going to do anything about it. It is not saying that the idea is bad, because then he has to explain why. It is not saying that it is good, because then he would be obliged to pursue it. It is a non-committal seemingly courteous comment to curtail the conversation. Those close to him knew what he was really saying when he called something “interesting”.
The magnanimity of Acharyas—when they don’t criticize other religions—is a mark that they treat them as outsiders, say polite things, and change the topic. The fact is that if they criticize other religions, then they will draw unnecessary attention, and they have to dwell on those topics much more, which they don’t want to. The fact is also that Acharyas are often asked about a comparison to other religions. If they criticize other religions, most people will think they are bigoted just like exclusivist religions that refuse to accept another path to God. Hence, they end the conversation by saying polite things such as “all religions are the pathway to God” and “all scriptures present the love of God”.
The Truth vs. The Whole Truth
This is not entirely a deception because all religions speak about the glory of the Lord at some level. We can call it the “truth”. But it is not the “whole truth” and it is not “nothing but the truth”. The whole truth is that other religions have mixed the glories of the Lord with numerous contaminations. If we were telling nothing but the truth, then we will point out these flaws. But they point out the good things, like swans, and ignore the bad things to avoid being crows. They also say good things, and avoid saying bad things, because they treat the person who asks such questions as an outsider. They will tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth if the person asking such a question was an insider.
Their polite words are not an endorsement of those religions because if you bring the flawed ideas of other religions into the Vedic system, the same Acharyas—who previously said that the other religious scriptures are also good—will beat you mercilessly for polluting the Vedic system with falsities.
Śrila Prabhupāda exhibited this trait in his dealings with others. If a stranger came to meet him, he was tolerant of their false claims. The stranger felt like he was welcomed like an insider. But the insiders were repeatedly criticized, chastised, and corrected because as were treated like insiders. The spiritual conception of love is the opposite of the material conception.
Since most people don’t understand this inverted conception of love, they think that platitudes for other religions are true acceptance, and harsh criticisms are a rejection. But those whom we criticize harshly, we consider our own. Those whom we treat respectfully, we consider aliens. We are more worried about whether someone will contaminate us, than whether we will purify them. While our criticisms can correct someone, dwelling on their flawed ideas requires us to understand and dwell on them, which is itself contamination for us.
This is why Brahmanas did not mix with other classes, especially Sudras, because they were worried that in such an association, they will lose their Brahmanical qualities while they were doubtful about their ability to impart Brahmanical qualities to the Sudras. This came to be erroneously known as “untouchables”. It is a fact that Brahmanas shy away from association with Sudras because they are afraid that associating with the Sudra would deprive them of their qualities while they may not impart their qualities to others.
The Dawn of the Bhakti Movement
The Bhakti Movement, however, changed these things. The love of God was distributed to everyone freely and indiscriminately. The Vedic civilization stopped being elitist. The elitist Vedic tradition had epithets for outsiders—Mlecchas, Chandala, Yavana, Khasa, Kirata, etc. They were considered lower than Sudras. Since the Brahmanas were not associating with Sudras, they would also not associate with anyone else. All these cultures are named, but their ideologies are not discussed in the Vedic texts. But the Bhakti Movement isn’t elitist. It takes the risk of engaging with others with whom it disagrees.
These debates began when the outsiders became insiders—after the invasions of India. But Indians realized that they cannot have deep conversations about the nature of reality with them. If you criticize them—because they are treated just like insiders now—others think that we are being disrespectful, because they don’t know the inverted idea of politeness and criticism. If you question their assumptions, axioms, or claims, they are treated as attacks on their culture or faith. Indians could freely debate with ritualists, Buddhists, or impersonalists. But they could not do that with the invaders. Therefore, the Vedic tradition started treating the invaders as outsiders and all discussions remained polite.
For example, when Sri Chaitanya discussed with Chand Kazi, He was just pointing out the similarities between Islam and Bhakti. Indians were aware of the persecution of Hindus by Muslims. Haridas Thakur was beaten in 22 marketplaces by the Muslim rulers for chanting the names of God publicly. Where was the scope for open and free conversations when one party is ready to chop off the other’s head? Those frank and open conversations were still occurring with impersonalists—e.g., when Lord Chaitanya met Prakaśānada Saraswati in Varanasi, they discussed dozens of meanings of a single verse. There was hair-splitting, word nuances, multiple interpretations, and examining an issue from many angles before you arrive at a conclusion.
A similar attitude was adopted during the British colonial rule in India. The Bhakti movement did not criticize Christians, just as it had not criticized Muslims earlier. They just talked about the similarity between the two religions. But Christians would not stop because they weren’t satisfied by accepting the similarity. They were very eager to discuss the differences. They mounted attacks on “polytheism” and “caste system” at which point the impersonalists launched scathing counterattacks on Christianity’s crimes, blind faith, and their silly religious claims. Christians were stunned by these vocal attacks.
The Vaishnavas were polite and respectful, while impersonalists were attacking. Christians saw politeness and humility as marks of weakness and servitude. They respected strength. Hence, they thought that those who were responding to their attacks were the true Hindus and they accepted impersonalists as the true representatives of Hinduism. They ignored the polite Vaishnavas.
Dilemmas of the Bhakti Movement
Impersonalism is popular in the West because it is seen as progress—after replacing the plurality of pagan gods with “monotheism”, then replacing the plurality of classes (e.g., priests, emperors, and common people) with a classless society during Reformation and Enlightenment, we can now replace the duality of God and soul with oneness. In contrast, Vaishnavism is seen as a regress—it includes many scriptures, many forms of God, many Acharyas, many rituals, deities, and paths, and the system of many social classes.
Western history is marked by revolutions. There have been social, political, economic, and scientific revolutions that destroyed the previous order to establish a new one. Something is new if it is revolutionary. It has to destroy the current structures and establish something new. It has to be easy enough that everyone can understand. It has to be drastic enough to be considered a rebellion. A revolution is always the mark of a new beginning with rays of new hope. Those who are sick and tired of the “monotheistic” religions turn to the impersonalist revolution. The fact that impersonalists have previously rejected rituals and deities resonates with the Western rejection of pagan religions.
While the Vedic tradition sees the battle between personalism and impersonalism as claims about the nature of divinity, the West sees it as a battle between religious traditionalists and revolutionaries. They prefer revolutions over traditions. This has little to do with Vedic philosophy and everything to do with the Western mindset of progress heralded by the destruction of the old and the creation of the new. The West also sees religion in terms of its social implications rather than transcendental ones. The end of wars, discrimination, and persecution based on scriptures, Gods, and prophets, and the ushering in of universal brotherhood, peace, and harmony have great appeals.
The Bhakti movement has lost initiative because—(a) it is traditional and not revolutionary, (b) it is humble and respectful rather than provocative and challenging, (c) the stigmas attached to monotheism are also attached to it, (d) it seems socially regressive due to its class system, and (e) its doctrines of oneness and difference are harder compared to the oneness of impersonalism.
For Bhakti to be successful in the West, it has to be seen as revolutionary, provocative, and challenging. The stigmas have to be removed by showing the differences between Bhakti and monotheism. Everything has to be simplified to one word—Bhedābheda—or the doctrine of oneness and difference. Success requires confrontation. If Bhakti is seen as humble instead of provocative, traditionalist instead of revolutionary, or in many ways similar to paganism and monotheism, then it has no future because the West is unimpressed by humility and traditions. These things work in India. But they will fail in the West because of its history of progress through revolutions in which the new is established on the ruins of the old. Without these, impersonalism wins as it is revolutionary, provocative, and challenging. It has already challenged monotheistic religions. It is considered progressive rather than regressive. It comfortably aligns with modern science through “the hard problem consciousness” and away from rituals, scriptures, deities, temples, worship, and priestly classes.
This is a choice the Bhakti movement has to make—be polite or be provocative. Śrila Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswati was provocative, not polite. He was known as “lion guru”. Śrila Prabhupāda was provocative, not polite—he criticized Western ideals, culture, religion, philosophy, and science. This worked because the West looks for revolutions. This is how people envision progress. This is how they get hope.
But the Bhakti movement has abandoned the provocative, revolutionary, and challenging path chartered by Śrila Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswati and Śrila Prabhupāda and embraced courtesy, compromise, negotiation, adjustment, and conciliation. These things are tactically used by declining religions to slow their decline. There is an Indian proverb that says “After killing many mice, the cat is on a pilgrimage”. The religions talking about courtesy and respect have killed many “mice” in their heydays. Now that they have become weak, and cannot kill the “mice” like before, they are on the “pilgrimage” to conciliation. This false pilgrimage is not for the Bhakti movement, but right now almost everyone in the Bhakti movement is following the path of declining religions, atoning for the sins of others.
The Role of Warfare in Religion
Ordinary and Extraordinary Morality
An ordinary moralist realizes that the appropriate response to cruelty is cruelty, but he does not want to become the thing that he is opposing. Therefore, he prefers to not fight against cruelty. An ordinary spiritualist thinks about his salvation from the world of misery. Therefore, he doesn’t want to be involved in any kind of conflict or confrontation. He runs away from real-world problems because he considers the world itself to be the source of all his problems.
Arjuna faced the ordinary moral dilemma before the Mahabharata war. He lamented the inevitability of death as a result of the war and did not wish to fight. He says: What will be the use of kingdom and wealth gained by killing brethren? He did not want to become a barbarian to defeat a barbarian. He prefers a life of defeat, ignominy, and poverty instead. Kṛṣṇa then tells Arjuna to become a barbarian in response to a barbarian, not because he wants to, but because that is his duty as a Kshatriya.
Under ordinary morality, a person—like Arjuna—is unable to counter barbarity because he does not want to become the barbarian he is opposed to. It needs an extraordinary understanding of morality to counter barbarity with barbarity without becoming the barbarian that he is fighting against. This extraordinary morality is fighting fire with fire without immolating oneself by becoming that fire. When this extraordinary morality is replaced by ordinary morality, then morality is defeated by immorality.
Similarly, under ordinary spirituality, a person seeks his salvation and avoids entanglement with the world. It needs an extraordinary understanding of spirituality to know that one must engage with the world in the service of the Supreme Person, rejecting attachment and renunciation for personal interest. Under that understanding, the service to the Supreme Person—with no personal interest—is itself salvation. Fighting a war is not material bondage and detachment from the world is not salvation. If this extraordinary understanding of spirituality is lost, then immorality easily defeats ordinary spirituality.
The Mahabharata states: dharma eva hato hanti dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ tasmāddharmo na hantavyo mā no dharmo hato’vadhīt, which means “dharma is killing the killer of dharma, dharma is protecting the protector of dharma, thereafter, there is no killing of dharma nor is there killing of the killer of dharma”. This is the principle of fighting fire with fire without immolating oneself by becoming fire. Non-violence applies in the second stage when there is no killing of dharma nor is there killing of the killer of dharma. However, that second stage cannot be established without the first stage where there is the killing of the killers of dharma and the protection of the protectors of dharma. This is the definition of Kshatriya-dharma (the duty of a warrior) and this is also Rāja-dharma (the duty of the ruler).
The Concept of Dharmic Warfare
The Vedic system has practiced non-violence against those who don’t attack the Vedic system—we can see this in the fact that Jews, Zoroastrians, and Jains have never been attacked even though they are religious minorities that have existed in India for thousands of years. India intellectually attacked Buddhists and practically drove them out of India—although not violently—because they attacked the Vedic system prior. Likewise, the Impersonalists were attacked intellectually but absorbed into the Personalist system because their attacks were limited to some aspects of the Vedic tradition, unlike a blanket rejection of everything in the Vedic system by the Buddhists. Neither the Buddhists nor the Impersonalists were persecuted economically, socially, or politically. Attacks were limited to intellectual debates.
Buddhism and Impersonalism, however, rejected the extraordinary conceptions of morality and spirituality and advocated mundane conceptions of morality and spirituality. The Buddhist ordinary morality was that violence disturbs the mind, and to obtain salvation, one has to renounce mental disturbance, and hence, warrior violence. The Impersonalist ordinary spirituality was that victory and defeat are dualities, and one has to rise to the state of non-duality by renouncing both victory and defeat, eschewing warfare.
These mundane concepts of ordinary morality and spirituality led to serious problems when India failed to counter the attacks from Islam and Christianity because (a) it had gotten accustomed to intellectual debates alone and become incapable of fighting and winning battles with those who use violence instead of debate and (b) by accepting Impersonalism and Buddhism, it replaced extraordinary spiritual and moral warfare with an ordinary morality and spirituality incapable of defeating immorality.
The Bhagavad-Gita’s presentation of extraordinary morality is that both war and peace are simply different kinds of sacrifices for the protection of dharma. This means that those with a tendency to fight must be stopped when peace is more suited for dharma and those with a tendency for peace must be stopped when war is more suited for dharma. War and peace are not universal virtues. Protection of dharma and service to Kṛṣṇa is the universal virtue. Ordinary morality makes peace a universal virtue only due to utter ignorance of the real virtue.
Intellectual Dharmic Warfare
Extraordinary morality ensures that anyone who is not attacking dharma is not attacked, because dharma is only to attack someone who is attacking dharma. Those who can practice their chosen form of life without attacking others, are not to be attacked. That, however, is not “secularism” because dharma is also to protect, encourage, and support those who are protecting dharma. Those who talk about non-violence do violence to dharma as the duty to attack those attacking dharma. Likewise, those who talk about secularism do violence to dharma as the duty to protect those protecting dharma. By the fact that blanket sectarian violence and secular non-violence are rejected equally, we come to realize that this philosophy of extraordinary morality is not to be found in any other society or tradition.
Everyone can conceive of ordinary morality and spirituality and ordinary or extraordinary immorality. They cannot conceive of extraordinary morality and spirituality. Since ordinary morality and spirituality are defeated by ordinary or extraordinary immorality, hence, only Kṛṣṇa can show how to defeat them. Everyone else will either be defeated by immorality or become immoral while fighting immorality. Without morality, there will never be lasting prosperity. Hence, even if one is interested in prosperity, one can learn how Bhagavad-Gita—the song of Kṛṣṇa—transformed Arjuna from an ordinary moralist who was unprepared to fight into an extraordinary moralist who fought as a matter of duty.
The destruction of falsehoods and the establishment of truth requires criticism. It can be polite if the people are intelligent and humble. But it has to be harsh when the people are arrogant and indifferent. Harsh criticism is not necessarily false criticism. It is just a bitter pill for the arrogant person. The harsh criticism is not merely emotional outbursts. It is always rational, evidential, and specific. We can be woken by harsh criticism to avoid the bad consequences or wait until when the predicted consequences become an unavoidable and inescapable reality for us. Which one of these two would be considered the less harsh alternative? Which one of these would we consider greater kindness? This is a type of warfare entailed by extraordinary morality that defends dharma and destroys the destroyers of dharma. This extraordinary morality can never be a hostage of ordinary morality of peacefulness.
The Reality Behind the Phenomena
Very few people understand the causes of the decline of India because they are never looking for a spiritual cause. The modern students of history don’t study Vedic philosophy. They don’t think of history as a result of ideologies. They see it as the result of observable material things and events. This shallow vision of reality is antithetical to the Vedas. In Sāñkhya, behind the 5 elements constituting observable matter, there are 20 more elements that cannot be perceived by the senses. Those who understand all the 25 elements know that the deeper reality causes the shallower reality, the body is produced from the mind, and the events of history are therefore the result of spiritual and ideological evolution.
Similarly, if we study Tantras, then behind the 5 elements constituting the body, there are 31 elements, 20 of which are common with Sāñkhya, and 11 are even deeper levels of reality—six of these are subdivisions of māyā that precede pradhāna (the origin in Sāñkhya), while the other five are the states of Shiva and Śakti. Those who understand all 36 elements know that the deepest levels of reality are causes of the shallower levels of reality. In this world, ideological change causes bodily change.
Every historian who limits himself to sense perceivable reality is neglecting the 20 elements of Sāñkhya (or the 31 elements of Tantra), and by emphasizing the 5 elements, he demonstrates the absence of spiritual vision, lack of understanding of the tradition whose history he is trying to portray, and the result is inevitably a caricature of history. A history devoid of this vision is a waste of time because we don’t understand what led to a decline, how it can be reversed, and how it should be prevented in the future. People can go on repeating the mistakes of the past, and thereby history repeats itself. It repeats itself only because we are blind to the deeper reality and advanced in shallower reality. We have many methods to date archeological artifacts. But we have no desire to analyze the spiritual causes.
The spiritual cause of India’s decline is that it abandoned the instructions of Kṛṣṇa and embraced the pseudo-moralistic idea of non-violence and the pseudo-spiritual idea of rejecting duty for personal salvation. This may seem like high morality and spirituality to people troubled by violence and materialism today, but it is neither morality nor spirituality for the Vedic system. It is just laziness and selfishness. Once we understand the spiritual causes of India’s decline, then we don’t have to apologize for it. We can rather try to correct it. The correction is rejecting the pseudo-moralistic idea of non-violence and the pseudo-spiritualistic idea of discarding one’s duty in search of personal salvation.
The world is not “material” per se. The world is also divine, as Kṛṣṇa states in the Bhagavad-Gita. However, there is an illusion of materiality created by the individualism of the soul. Seeking salvation while neglecting one’s duties is just a more advanced form of individualism that goes beyond the body and the mind, but does not understand that the world is itself divine, things and activities in this world can also be representations of the eternal truth, and when actions are performed with devotion to Kṛṣṇa, then the illusory materiality of this world is transformed into the truthful divinity. War is thus not always evil, nor is it contrary to salvation. War for the protection of dharma, and the pleasure of Kṛṣṇa, is also a spiritual activity, not to be equated or conflated with wars motivated by political ambitions. This is extraordinary morality. If this is lost, then immorality defeats ordinary morality and spirituality.
Responses to Common Arguments
Good Qualities Don’t Prevent Critique
Many people don’t like critiquing other religions. They think that even if some religion is imperfect at least there are many good things in them. This is true for religions that (a) employ legitimate methods toward valid goals, (b) without the abilities of and opportunities for people to follow the path toward the goal, and (c) do not persecute other religious paths. For instance, people can try to practice aśtānga-yoga at present, and they will get some benefits—to the extent that they are able to practice the path purely and perfectly. As long as they don’t persecute or hinder other paths, they are accommodated. However, a religion loses all its goodness if (a) it concocts goals and paths (b) indulges in immoral activities in the name of God, or (c) persecutes religions better than itself.
The minimum requirement for a religion is that it delivers moral character, and this requirement can never be satisfied without the acceptance of karma and reincarnation. If a religion rejects karma and reincarnation, then it cannot improve the moral character of its followers. Instead, it will justify immorality in the name of religion and God. Those who behave immorally in the name of religion will be reborn as animals because the depraved tendencies encouraged by their religion are not meant for human life. When the next birth is not better than the present one, then religion is just a means of degradation.
Similarly, those religions that try to destroy the most recommended path of bhakti-yoga, namely, deity worship and the chanting of mantras, are not religions. They don’t have a path to purifying the consciousness and they try to destroy the prescribed process of purifying the consciousness. They may have other good qualities or legitimate contributions to society, but those are automatically invalidated by their persecution of the best path.
We have to remember that Rāvana was a Brahmana and a devotee of Lord Śiva, Hiraṇyakaśīpū had been personally blessed by Brahma due to his austerities, and the Kauravas killed during the Mahabharata war were close relatives of Lord Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. They had many great qualities. They were born in families with decorated and powerful ancestors. They were often moral rulers. But their persecution of the devotees of Lord Viṣṇu and their practices nullified all their good qualities. Being a devotee of Lord Śiva or Brahma, or possessing other good qualities, does not count. They are not considered religions with different preferences, choices, and paths. They are all called demons.
Rāvana kicked Vibhishana when Vibhishana fell at Rāvana’s feet advising him to follow Lord Rama’s proposal to return Mother Sita to avoid a war. Vibhishana was forced to leave Lanka after that. Duryodhana insulted Vidura as the son of a maidservant when Vidura advised Duryodhana to follow Lord Kṛṣṇa’s proposal to give five villages to Pandavas to avoid a war. Vidura was forced to leave Hastinapur after that. Hiraṇyakaśīpū tried to kill his son Prahalāda when he advocated the worship of Lord Viṣṇu to his friends, and he would have eventually left if the situation had not been changed by Lord Narasimha.
Therefore, refraining from the criticism of religions that persecute the devotees of Lord Viṣṇu, call them pagan-polytheistic idol-worshipping heathens, demolish deities and temples, criticize mantras as mumbo-jumbo, or negate practices like Varṇāśrama that aid all spiritual activities, on the pretext that these religions also have some good qualities and contributions, puts us in the same category as the sympathizers of Rāvana, Hiraṇyakaśīpū, and Duryodhana.
Demons too can sometimes have many good qualities. They are respected and recognized as good persons if they do not hinder the highest form of religion. But good qualities amount to nothing if they oppose the highest form of religion. If the highest form of religion is persecuted or maligned to “convert” people into transactional, exploitative, or materialistic religions, then those who endorse and execute such persecutions are always categorized as demons. Their good qualities—even if they exist—amount to nothing.
Respecting a Religion Only When It is Due
Diverse paths to a destination are permitted if they do not interfere with the best path. Many paths to the truth are accommodated if they don’t hinder the best path. The acknowledgment of other paths is not the equality of all paths because there is a ladder of goals and paths, and how much of that goal can be achieved by whom on which path, based on their abilities and opportunities. If one chooses to follow a different path under ignorance of such distinctions, or despite awareness of such distinctions, they are not maligned or persecuted provided they do not interfere with the execution of the best path.
Harmonious relationships can exist between religions if they accept the other person’s free will to practice their chosen path and don’t engage in covert or overt persecution, attacks, or false propaganda. They can participate in debates and the best religion is required to demonstrate its merits rationally. The assertions of superiority or inferiority are never to be accepted on blind faith.
But if an inferior religion intends the destruction of the superior religion, then there is no room for religious harmony. Respect for other religions is meaningless if those religions do not reciprocate that respect. Then, it is necessary and appropriate to challenge the flawed claims and arguments of such religions because they are already engaged in demolishing the best path.
Problems of Exclusivist Religions
India welcomed Jews when they were persecuted all over the world. India welcomed Zoroastrians when they were being killed by Islamists in Persia. Buddhists and Jains have lived in India for millennia without their monasteries or scriptures being denigrated (although their philosophies have been debated over and over). This is the system of many religions co-existing peacefully.
Secularism is not a new idea that Europe invented a few centuries ago. It is a very old idea that the soul has free will to choose the path that it wants, even though we can philosophically demonstrate what the best path to truth, right, and good is. Free will is never coerced even if it is false, wrong, and bad, although every choice brings its own rewards and you get what you pay for.
In this type of free society, exclusivist, and supremacist religions have wreaked havoc. They have no moral philosophy. They have no theory of perception and cognition. There is no understanding of the cosmos or the order in nature. There is no theory of consciousness. There is no way to measure spiritual progress because there is no practice for the purification of consciousness. Their books have been doctored so many times that it is impossible to know what they were, to begin with. After all these modifications, or precisely due to them, there are hundreds of irreconcilable contradictions in these religions when they are supposedly as infallible as God and His messiahs.
Despite these issues, the followers of the Vedic tradition say—Let everyone practice their religion. We know their flaws, but they have a choice. We should not bend their will by coercion. This tolerance of other religions has been abused by exclusivist and supremacist religions. While Vedic traditionalists practice tolerance, the exclusivist and supremacist religions practice aggression. Whatever you tolerate is normalized into expected behavior. Therefore, over time, the situation normalizes into one where the aggressive religion always demands tolerance from the tolerant religion while the tolerant religion always expects aggression from the aggressive religion.
It has resulted in the destruction of temples, desecration of deities, burning of libraries, murder of men, women, and children, misinterpretation of texts without studying them under the tutelage of their masters, criticisms of practices without any practice, drawing of equivalences between apples and oranges, and preaching of morality perched on the peaks of immorality. When all these crimes and misdemeanors are exposed, the religions that never gave anyone else respect or equality talk about the equality and respect of all religions. The cruelty of their earlier misdemeanors is matched by the cruelty of the false propaganda that portrays defenders as aggressors.
End of Equality and Tolerance
This is where equality and tolerance end and the journey to the truth begins. This journey requires exposing the lies of exclusivist religions, the absence of morality, and the crimes of the past that have destroyed religions far better than them. All their good qualities are irrelevant to the conversation because they have been active agents in the destruction of something even better.
European ideas of secularism are predicated on the inability to decide which religion is better or worse because all conflicting religions were based on blind faith. Those ideas don’t apply when there are objective measures of superiority and inferiority, a clearly defined ladder of what is superior or inferior, and a rigorous philosophy by which every nuanced distinction can be discussed.
When a religion gives a rigorous moral philosophy, a clear understanding of the cosmos and the order in nature, a precise system of social organization, a scientific theory of perception, cognition, and consciousness, and multiple paths for people with different capacities and inclinations verifiable in this life, then there is no need to equate it to something that lacks in all these attributes.
An objectively superior religion can criticize an objectively inferior religion because the truth is its own defense. Our free will is not absolute; it is always subordinated to the truth, right, and good, by nature, and by God. And yet, the superior religions do not interfere with the inferior religions, provided the path of the superior religion is not hindered by the inferior religion, because they know that nature and God will deliver the consequences of their choices in time. But when the path of the superior religion is hindered by the inferior religion, then battling the inferior religion is the duty of the superior religion.
Tolerance and accommodation are practiced only if they are reciprocated. However, when the superior path is persecuted, attacked, or criticized by the inferior path, then tolerance is meaningless. Then, it is the duty of those on the superior path to expose the shortcomings of the inferior religion.
Nature’s law is tit-for-tat. Even God’s law, as presented in Bhagavad-Gita 4.11, is tit-for-tat. Aggression is therefore an accepted response to aggression against the truth. This is not a battle for survival or for the preservation of self-interest. It is rather the battle for truth. However, when the truth is also self-interest, then it can be called a personal battle, but it doesn’t negate the fact that it is a battle for truth. That battle is justified if a person is prepared to accept personal difficulties but unprepared to accept compromises with the truth.
Even then, aggression must be minimized to the least necessary to protect the truth. Truth is not opposed to kindness. When the truth is prioritized, kindness is not neglected. Rather, the minimum amount of unkindness necessary to protect the truth is used. Hence, violence must not be used if the problem can be resolved by dialogue. There is also a ladder of violence, which escalates only if the non-violent or less-violent methods fail. Thus, neither violence nor non-violence is an absolute principle, although non-violence is prioritized over violence since kindness is a moral virtue. It is discarded only as the option of last resort to protect the truth. The truth is the only absolute principle.