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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.

We can also say that love of other religions is akin to the love of the parent for a child, which includes reforming the child in case he commits mistakes. Hence, we can love and yet criticize other ideologies. When we equate devotion to love, and then mix it with the modern ideas of 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 eventually results in the destruction of Bhakti. Once Bhakti is destroyed, then both devotion and love are destroyed.

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.

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.