“While chanting the holy name of the Lord in pure ecstasy, I lose myself, and thus I laugh, cry, dance and sing just like a madman.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 7.78)
Comment: “Personally I think the Hare Krishna movement is just an Indian fanatical version of fanatical Christianity.”
Response: For the layperson, or one not aware of the intricate truths pertaining to the differences between matter and spirit, the passionate dealings of religionists give off an air of fanaticism. Often times the paths to salvation are presented in a pass-fail, accept or reject, sort of mindset, with the preaching sermon typically including statements like, “Repent ye sinners, for you will suffereth eternal damnation for thy transgression. Surrender now and forever save yourself; otherwise there will be no hope for salvation.” Sometimes similar attitudes manifest in specific issues such as abortion, animal killing, or illicit sex. In extreme cases, acts of terrorism are taken to, where those who are not followers of the specific faith are deemed as infidels who need to be killed. The most famous and successful preaching movement emanating from India, the bhakti movement, may on the surface appear to espouse extreme viewpoints and prescriptions, but the inner-properties of the philosophy and its purpose have nothing to do with fear or force, and everything to do with love.
God is one, and He is for everyone. One certain group may have a specific name for Him, but that doesn’t mean that one group has their own God and another has their own deity. For the definition of God to be valid, He must be a singular entity. The most potent preaching movement to emanate from India aims to connect everyone with God. After all, the majority of the world’s population claims to be religious; they claim to be believers in God. If one has faith in the existence of the Lord, they must act in a way to acknowledge that belief. For instance, if I tell another woman that I love her, such a proclamation is meaningless if I subsequently cheat on her with other women. Declarations of faith and allegiance must be substantiated by activities. Qualities and traits are exhibited in behavior and shifts in consciousness, not by simple statements.
Along this line, the Vaishnava preachers aim to make honest men out of the theists around the world. The aim of the Hare Krishna movement, which is simply an organized preaching effort focused on spreading God consciousness, is to get everyone to turn their love and devotion towards God in lieu of objects of matter. A Vaishnava is a devotee of Lord Vishnu, who is the four-handed form of the original Lord residing in the spiritual sky. Matter is a temporary manifestation representing one of Vishnu’s external energies. Material nature has nothing to do with spirit; hence the body becomes dead and useless at the time of death. The only difference between a living form and a dead one is the presence of the soul. The spirit soul is a fragmental part of a giant spiritual energy known as Brahman. Individual spirit never dies, takes birth, or gets altered in any way, thus making it far superior to dull and lifeless matter.
In the conditioned state, the living entity associates with material elements and takes identification from them. It’s similar to if we would buy a new automobile and then take the car to be part of us. The automobile is simply a collection of metal which is carefully crafted and held together. The collection of parts existed in a dispersed form before we purchased the vehicle, and it will continue to exist should we let go of it. So to take our identity off of our ownership of any vehicle would be quite silly. In the same way, the body, the outer covering of the soul, is taken ownership of at the time of birth. Yet immediately after exiting the womb, the same outer life form starts to change, first going through a developmental period, and then gradually going through a decaying process. Ultimately the body is given up; “ashes to ashes” as they say. Thus identity cannot be taken from something so temporary and lifeless as dull matter.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, state that since the true identity of the individual comes from the spirit soul within, those activities which aim to please the identifying spiritual entity are what should be adopted. Lord Vishnu, whose more blissful form is that of the beautiful Lord Krishna, is the origin of all spirit and matter. When the activities of the conditioned soul are directed towards the pleasure of Krishna, the spirit soul is satisfied. Not only is there a benefit to the soul, but even the Supersoul, the non-different expansion of Krishna residing within the heart, is satisfied. This makes the practice of service to Krishna, which is known as bhakti-yoga, the only discipline that is freely and voluntarily entered into that satisfies two distinct parties.
Spiritualists from all walks of life, including those claiming to be following Vedic teachings, are sometimes justifiably viewed as being fanatical because the philosophies supporting their most extreme and short-sighted claims are not very deep. For instance, saying that we should surrender unto a specific personality or be forced to suffer in hell is not a very substantive statement. For starters, the threat of punishment doesn’t describe anything about the worthiness for worship of the personality in question, nor does it explain why failure to surrender leads to a hellish condition. Moreover, what exactly constitutes hell? Are we presently not suffering through troubling situations in the places that we reside? Are not the parents that have lost a child, the fallen victims of drug addiction, and the scorned lovers suffering through hell right now?
“The activities or desires that relatively help a soul attain his constitutional position are called piety. The opposite are called sin. Since devotional service to Krishna is one’s constitutional position, when one cultivates this service, then nescience, which is the root cause of relative situations in the form of sin and piety, is gradually fried and abolished.” (Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Shri Krishna Samhita, 10.2 Purport)
The Vaishnavas, after carefully studying the authorized scriptures such as the Bhagavad-gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam and Ramayana, can answer all of these questions with great clarity and detail. Lord Krishna is all-attractive; so He is the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. Every person, regardless of their level of faith, is looking for pleasure. Due to His eternally fixed position and character, only Krishna is capable of providing the greatest amount of happiness. Surrender is recommended because there is a loving propensity to the soul. Bhakti is the makeup of the spirit soul, but in the conditioned state, the loving propensity for God gets misdirected to other areas. Surrender unto any entity besides Supreme Spirit will lead to misery, heartache and disappointment in the end. Hell is a temporary condition brought on by separation from Krishna and deviation from the path of righteousness He has set forth. Piety and sin are merely activities which lead to temporary positive and negative circumstances. Piety is the right way to do something, so one who abides by it will gradually come closer to the state of loving God.
The Hare Krishna movement in its modern form was started around five hundred years ago by Lord Chaitanya, a preacher incarnation of Krishna who appeared in India. Up until that time, the Vedas were seen as something to be learned only in isolated confines through personal surrender to a guru, or spiritual master. Moreover, if one wasn’t born into the system of varnashrama-dharma, they were deemed unfit for taking in Vedic wisdom. Certainly the highest truths of the Vedas can’t be understood by everyone, but in the current age where the world’s population is spread across so many different areas, with individuals taking to different activities, there should be some way for others to at least be given the chance to learn about the soul should they be interested. This was the mission taken up by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who through chanting the holy names of God in public, spread love for Godhead all throughout India. His travel itinerary shouldn’t fool us into thinking that He only wanted to teach Indians. Rather, the travels of He and His associates stretched the limits of modern technology at the time. His desire was that everyone should hear the Lord’s name, regardless of where they lived, for the Lord’s name automatically evokes feelings of attachments for the other aspects of the Divine Personality, such as forms, pastimes and qualities.
“Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates of the Pancha-tattva distributed the holy name of the Lord to invoke love of Godhead throughout the universe, and thus the entire universe was thankful.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 7.163)
So how does the Hare Krishna movement differ from other spiritual movements which are sometimes perceived to be fanatical? Indeed, how does real bhakti differ from what others know to be Hinduism? The aim of pure bhakti is to get every conditioned entity to simply shift the nature of their activities. Everyone is already accustomed to hearing about something; be it the news, weather, sports or some account of a notable personality. Those following bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, also engage in hearing, but they focus on topics relating to Krishna and His devotees. Hearing is the most powerful and effective way to take in information. When focused on spiritual topics, the hearing process delivers transcendental nectar. Mankind is also accustomed to eating, so the Vaishnava preacher simply asks that others eat Krishna prasadam, sanctified food first offered to the deity representation of the Supreme Lord. Everyone is already accustomed to dancing, so under the bhakti mindset, dancing can be done in accordance with songs praising Krishna and His eternal pleasure potencies.
The pattern should be easy to decipher by now. Bhakti, the purification of all activity and thought, involves adding God to every aspect of our lives. In its purest state, bhakti is practiced not out of fear or the desire for the alleviation of distress, but rather out of pure love. As is quite obvious to seasoned adults, no individual can force another to love them. The marriage system is filled with so much turmoil because it is not possible to get another person to behave “perfectly”. Interpersonal conflicts are a byproduct of the free-will propensity possessed by the living entities. Thus for love of God to be pure, there cannot be any force. The exchanges between individual spirit and Supreme Spirit in the highest state of purity are spontaneous, unmotivated and uninterrupted.
Just as there are already the practices of hearing, eating and dancing, the living entity is similarly accustomed to chanting. Usually a popular song is recited in the mind or the name of a notable personality is repeated. Lord Chaitanya’s sankirtana movement asks that everyone simply chant the Lord’s names in a loving way in order to be delivered from any calamitous situation. No phrase better packs the potency of the holy name than the maha-mantra: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. The central practice of the Hare Krishnas is the congregational chanting of this sacred formula, a collective sound vibration which can be accompanied by mrdangas, karatalas and other instruments. For the sublime preacher, the louder the sounds of sankirtana the better, as the more people that hear the holy name of the Lord, the greater the benefit to humanity there will be.
Since the followers of Lord Chaitanya openly take to preaching, they are bound to be up for scrutiny, especially from those who don’t understand the intricacies of the movement. There are several criticisms lodged against the benevolent bhaktas, with many coming from followers of other Vedic-based traditions. One criticism is that the Hare Krishnas are simply performing fanatical worship without any solid basis in philosophy or intelligence. This line of criticism is a little humorous considering the founder of the movement’s unsurpassed level of intelligence. Since Lord Chaitanya was an incarnation of Krishna, His knowledge was perfect on all subject matters. In His youth He was known as Nimai Pandita because His scholarship was so great. He could pick apart any argument or set of words and explain them properly by attaching them to Krishna. He would argue in favor of one viewpoint very seriously and then in the next minute completely debunk His previous argument with a new one. He could go on and on essentially debating with Himself; thus proving the fallacy of trying to explain anything in terms of its relationship to material nature. An activity or object only takes on its true meaning when it is understood in terms of its link to God.
The chanting and dancing aspects to sankirtana are only the surface, or face, of the movement. Behind such a practice is a deep-rooted love for God, a level of attachment firmly grounded in the highest truths of the Vedas. The body of literature produced by the true followers of bhakti is evidence enough of the philosophy’s superiority and the unmatched level of affection felt by the authors towards the Supreme Lord. Though Lord Chaitanya didn’t write any books Himself, He empowered generations of followers to write as much as they could. The brothers Shrila Rupa and Sanatana Gosvami, direct disciples of Lord Chaitanya, are giants of the Vaishnava literary world. Though they wrote their books during medieval times, they didn’t spare a minute in service of Krishna. They wrote volumes upon volumes of books, so much so that one would find it hard to believe that they could have compiled such in-depth and logically sound studies pertaining to religion. The great acharyas who followed these brothers, including Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, and more recently His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, wrote lifetimes worth of literature expounding on the philosophy of simultaneous oneness and difference between the living entities and God. This philosophy, known as achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, is presented practically through the chanting of Hare Krishna, but for those who are further interested in understanding the intricacies of the nature of the relationship between individual spirit and Supreme Spirit, they can consult the works authored by these exalted saints. It should be noted that bhakti is such a strong practice that even those devotees who don’t directly follow in Lord Chaitanya’s line are similarly able to produce volumes of cogent and thought-provoking literature. Goswami Tulsidas authored ridiculously brilliant, bliss-evoking and logical devotional poetry in praise of Lord Rama, another historical personality who was an incarnation of Krishna.
The bhaktas, or those following bhakti, are able to produce so many substantial writings because it is the nature of the soul to be blissful and full of knowledge. The intrinsic knowledge of the soul is uncovered through activities which appear to be related to ordinary knowledge-gathering. But what these studies actually do is uncover the nescience that envelops the soul in the conditioned state. The great saints of the past actually could have gone on writing forever. Their body of work as it stands now could have been multiplied many times over should they have remained on this earth even longer. This illustrates how the bhakti movement reigns supreme over all others in its ability to explain, with sound reasoning and understanding, the superiority of loving God over any other practice, spiritual or material.
“Let not the wise disrupt the minds of the ignorant who are attached to fruitive action. They should not be encouraged to refrain from work, but to engage in work in the spirit of devotion.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.26)
Another argument presented by those who are against the practice of the Hare Krishnas is that the section of the population that is averse to bhakti should be left alone. In fact, Lord Krishna even mentions something similar to this in the Bhagavad-gita, wherein He advises Arjuna not to bother those who are overly attached to sense gratification. Lord Chaitanya’s movement actually doesn’t violate this principle in any way. The chanting of Hare Krishna is a peaceful and loving practice aimed at attracting those who are fed up with material existence. Sankirtana is not intended to convert those who are staunch atheists and non-believers of the existence of spirit. After all, such preaching efforts would be a waste of time, for the preacher would have nothing to gain by engaging in useless argument. The congregational chanting of Hare Krishna is meant to attract those who have an open mind and are looking for a deeper philosophical understanding of spirituality than that presented by others.
Another argument made against the practices of the benevolent bhakti preachers is that religion should be a personal pursuit, not something imposed on others. “I have my own religious beliefs, but I would never tell anyone else how they should think or behave.” This mindset actually shows a lack of evolution of sorts on the part of those who are unwilling to share their spiritual beliefs. Fanaticism, or the enthusiastic distribution of a certain opinion or philosophy, is already seen in virtually every other area of life. Movies, television shows, consumer products and sporting heroes are promoted and talked about by their fans, those who derive enjoyment through association. These admirers don’t keep their feelings to themselves, but rather they share their opinions with others so that they will be similarly benefitted. In the realm of spirituality, the ultimate objective is to develop an intimate relationship with the Supreme Spirit. On this point there is little doubt or contention. However, if full surrender to Krishna practiced through the regulative principles of bhakti brings me satisfaction, shouldn’t I tell others about my experiences? If I kept this information to myself, how would others ever come to know of Krishna and devotion to Him? Moreover, had previous generations of devotees chose to remain quiet, how would I have ever learned about the sublime engagement of divine love?
It must be said that simply behaving properly according to the regulative principles of bhakti is enough to teach others to some extent. The best way to get through to friends and dependents is to lead by example. At the same time, if one is able to take things one step further and withstand the scrutiny that comes with preaching, they should most certainly take the risk. After all, the only harm that can come from open preaching is the bruising of the ego that comes from the criticisms hurled by others. Yet a truly advanced devotee is not bothered by the opinions of anyone, especially considering that bhakti practices are supported by great personalities like Lord Chaitanya and His followers. If a noble and selfless individual is confident enough to dance and sing in public about Krishna without any shame, shouldn’t they be praised for their benevolence, their ability to show practical evidence of the claims made by the Vedas?
“When a person is actually advanced and takes pleasure in chanting the holy name of the Lord, who is very dear to him, he is agitated and loudly chants the holy name. He also laughs, cries, becomes agitated and chants just like a madman, not caring for outsiders.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.2.40)
Another argument made against the Hare Krishnas is that they are not serving mankind. They are simply forcing their own religious beliefs down everyone’s throats and not allowing others to live their lives. Under this mindset, it is better to take to humanitarian efforts since that can actually help people. Yet in reality, the Hare Krishna movement is based completely on service to man. The difference between bhakti and any other type of service is that bhakti actually saves the soul within. Service to man is certainly nice, but one must know how to serve. A sick man is restricted from eating certain foods, so if another person, through the attitude of charity and benevolence, offers the sick person any restricted item, they are essentially harming them. If a person is addicted to intoxication and illicit sex, giving them more opportunities for engaging in such behavior is providing the greatest disservice.
“Whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
Everyone is looking for happiness and enjoyment, for this propensity is derived from the constitutional position of the soul. Only the bhakti movement seeks to deliver the purified version of the pleasure that everyone is so desperately searching after. One whose consciousness is completely focused on the form of the Personality of Godhead at the time of death will no longer have to suffer through birth and death. This boon is greater than any other temporary relief that is offered by the welfare workers and philanthropists. The divine consciousness can only be reawakened by taking to acts of bhakti, the simplest and most effective of which is the chanting of Hare Krishna.
Fanatical behavior, or the exhibition of uninhibited love, in any area of life besides bhakti will quickly burn out or dry up. The same can’t be said of love for Krishna. Any other type of spiritual practice, be it a ritualistic performance in accordance with karma, silent meditation or philosophical study of Vedanta, does not bring eternal pleasure. At best, these practices can lead to the stage of bhakti, but they can never equal the pleasure and happiness provided by Krishna’s companionship. It is not surprising to see those who are married to processes other than bhakti take to labeling true lovers of God as fanatics. Lord Chaitanya, the greatest “fanatic”, was known for His never-before-seen displays of sublime affection, attachment and excitement towards loving service to Krishna. He kindly bestowed His mercy on humanity by inaugurating the sankirtana movement. He is still delivering souls to this day, so anyone who is wise enough to grab the hand that He is so kindly extending will be benefitted with the eternal association of Krishna in the spiritual world, the land of the undying fanatics.