BY: ROCANA DASA
May 21, CANADA (SUN) A weekly response to Dandavats editorials. Today's Obeisances is in response to the paper entitled "ISKCON and Varnasrama-dharma: A Mission Unfulfilled by Ravindra Svarupa dasa.
In this article, the Doctor is addressing the controversy in ISKCON regarding the establishment of varnasrama in a modern context. This has become a somewhat disturbing debate within ISKCON, and within the GBC body itself.
Both the author of this article and the subject he's addressing hold a particular interest for me. As we have noted in previous articles, the author (or the unknown supporter who submitted his paper to Dandavats) points out in the preface that Ravindra Svarupa dasa is none other than Dr. William H. Deadwyler III. Whether it be a written article or an audio lecture, most of the content coming from Ravindra Svarupa dasa makes clear to his audience that he has a Ph.D. behind his name.
Those who consume the lectures and writings of Ravindra Svarupa will be aware that he fancies himself to be the personification of the brahminical intellectual. As his preface states, he is most interested the brahminical (intellectual) class within society as a brain for the social body.
In addition to his academic credentials from a mundane university, Ravindra Svarupa also fancies himself to be the ISKCON equivalent of George Washington, in the sense that he feels he headed up the Reform Movement in 1987, which supposedly set ISKCON back on the 'correct course'. As for myself and many others who were actively involved in this reform movement, we consider Ravindra Svarupa to be the Benedict Arnold. Essentially there was no reform, in large part because Ravindra himself went over to the enemy in exchange for them allowing him to initiate disciples and become a member of the GBC. In other words, his status and power in ISKCON took a giant leap when he sold out the reformers, and he's been capitalizing on this boon ever since. For the record, I left ISKCON as a direct result of the actions that Ravindra Svarupa took along with his associates, such as Bir Krishna Goswami, who was also complicit in copping out to the Zonal Acaryas. But that's a subject for another article.
In his article, Ravindra Svarupa first establishes a certain theory, which he sums up in this sentence: "It seems that even Prabhupada’s ideas changed. " In other words, he makes the point that Srila Prabhupada was simply experimenting when he came to America and first introduced the concept of establishing a society based on creating Vaisnava brahmans who would live and teach on the highest standards of Vaisnava principles. He suggests that Srila Prabhupada engaged in "the method of trial and error", and offers an un-referenced quote from Srila Prabhupada, who supposedly said: ‘You learn from experience… and experience means you make mistakes.’ (We note that Srila Prabhupada said "you", and not "I".)
Based on this theme, the author tries to make an argument for the fact that ultimately, Srila Prabhupada's 'experiment' with varnasrama was a mistake. He supposedly entered into this concept as a result of the fact that many of his disciples couldn't maintain his original vision of establishing a pure Vaisnava community based on brahminical culture, and therefore needed to resort to or introduce the idea of varnasrama so as to not exclude many devotees, what to speak of the leaders who couldn't maintain sannyasa or even the basic regulative principles.
The spiritual reality as I understand it, however, is that Srila Prabhupada is an uttama-adhikari and a Sampradaya Acarya, working directly under Lord Krsna. As such, none of his preaching efforts were "experimental" at all. What Ravindra Svarupa is essentially trying to establish is that Srila Prabhupada's two "experiments", namely the establishment of brahminical culture and varnasrama, were unsuccessful. His argument is that the varnasrama part was a failure, and the brahminical part was incomplete. Of course, this conclusion gives the author and his GBC associates the empowerment to continue experimenting and speculating on what Srila Prabhupada actually means. And this is ultimately his point: Ravindra Svarupa dasa represents a school of thought in ISKCON that believes Srila Prabhupada wanted brahminical culture as he understands it to be: the establishment of schools with a very academically oriented emphasis, tests, buy-in from the mundane academics, etc. - something very similar to the way Christians have established themselves in modern society. You go to a mundane university and get a degree, and then you apply to be a member of some church on the basis of that supposedly 'brahminical' degree.
Of course, this is all interpretation on Ravindra Svarupa 's part, and he offers little in the way of specific instruction from Srila Prabhupada in the matter. If such quotes were available, we assume he would certainly have included them in his article. But he, like many others who have a particular claim to fame or myth to maintain, selectively quotes from Srila Prabhupada's teachings in order to bolster his own position.
Ravindra Svarupa loves to appear to be very scholarly in his presentations, and in an effort to bolster his scholarly posture, he quotes various mundane scholars and politicians like Dr. Burke Rochford to Alan Greenspan. Like all mundane scholars, he inserts words in his articles that only another scholar might be likely to understand. In this particular article, he uses words like tripartite, hypertrophy, typology, and Hineinfühlung. Most of his readers would have to Google these terms in order to know what he's even talking about. And when we Google Hineinfühlung, the only reference to the term we find comes from the Doctor's own Dandavats article, and four references in German. How unbrahminically pedantic. (pe·dan·tic: Adj., 'ostentatious in one's learning; overly concerned with minute details or formalisms.)
We can only assume that the author is not really attempting to communicate a philosophical idea so much as he is trying to let everyone know that he is a learned scholar, and a "brahman". In his mind, these two terms are interchangeable -- if you get a Ph.D., especially in Divinity, then you're automatically a 'brahman'. This isn't true, of course, and we find many conversations Srila Prabhupada had with such people wherein he showed absolutely no respect for the fact that they had these degrees.
After establishing his bona fides, the author gives us the ABC's of the varnasrama system, including an explanation of how the varnasrama system is connected to the three modes of nature. This is not a great philosophical revelation. He goes on to describe what he calls the "asura-varnasrama dharma", a term Srila Prabhupada used to describe the present caste system in India, which he depicted as being totally corrupt. This is also a constant theme in Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu's teachings, and the most degraded part of that principle is called "hereditary brahmanism".
In many regards, one could say that Ravindra Svarupa actually falls into the category of 'hereditary brahmana", in the sense that the only real brahminical qualification he can point to is the fact that he has a Ph.D. As far as I know, he doesn't live a strictly brahminical life. In fact, he's been actively involved in the GBC for many years, and we know that's not a brahminical activity. While he's quite active in administrative duties, in certain circles Ravindra Svarupa is known as a very poor manager. Take for instance the fact that he's been sitting in his office in the Philadelphia temple for decades, while little has changed there, other than the fact that it's 'evolved' into a Hinduized version of the original concept Srila Prabhupada promoted. (See my previous Obeisances in response to Ravindra Svarupa's Nama Hatta in USA article.)
In his current paper, Ravindra Svarupa chooses to include a comment Srila Prabhupada made to a reporter, where he's saying that he came to America to "give you a brain". In other words, a society run by vaisyas is headless. He tells us that all the educational people are really in the employ of vaisyas, but of course, the author himself is also in the employ of vaisyas. I'm sure his congregation and the supporters who ensure that he lives a comfortable life are essentially vaisyas, and somehow or other, he imagines himself to be the brain.
Ravindra Svarupa also showcases his intelligence by letting the reader know that he fancies himself an exception to the rule, in the sense that he didn't enter Krsna consciousness as a member of the counterculture. He wasn't a 'hippie', and he goes on to list all the derogatory terms Srila Prabhupada attributed to hippies. He uses this position to not only distinguish himself from the degraded victims of counterculture, but also to support his speculation that on account of the bad habits many disciples carried over from being hippies, they couldn't maintain a brahminical lifestyle. He, of course, has managed to do this on account of not having been a part of that degraded segment of western society. Of course, one could argue this is not actually true, as witnessed by the fact that Ravindra Svarupa himself has not spiritually evolved beyond the position of being a proud mundane academic. He isn't showing the signs of great spiritual advancement, as illustrated by the fact that his lifestyle and preaching results have not amounted to much over the 30 years he's been a disciple and leader in ISKCON.
The author then chooses to include an excerpt from a conversation Srila Prabhupada had in 1977, wherein he is responding to the fact that one of his sannyasis fell down. That is when he suggested that ISKCON should consider introducing the concept of varnasrama. The author's take on this is that Srila Prabhupada's introduction of varnasrama was reactionary due to his disappointment with his followers in this regard. Of course, the author could easily have come to another conclusion, i.e., that Srila Prabhupada was trying to introduce a system where people weren’t excluded from his society on account of the fact that they couldn't maintain the brahminical standard. If they were just understood to be in different asramas, then they would be encouraged to stay and continue their efforts to preach Krsna consciousness and try to serve him. The result in most of these falldowns is that the devotees would just exclude themselves, or basically be thrown out of the movement, even though they had a lot of feelings for Srila Prabhupada and would have continued serving him had they been treated properly by the hypocritical leaders.
One of the main points that Srila Prabhupada repeats in this 1977 conversation is that being a Vaisnava is not so easy. He says this twice. While Ravindra Svarupa likes to fancy himself as being such a Vaisnava brahman, it's my opinion that he doesn't come up to that standard himself. In fact, there are very few devotees who can honestly say that they do make the grade.
Another interesting topic that Ravindra Svarupa refers to in his article is a book that Harikesa Swami wrote back in 1981 entitled "The Varnasrama Manifesto for Social Sanity". I recall this book coming out and the controversy it created in the movement. I don't recall the points Harikesa made in the book, but I do remember that the GBC at the time, who were all Zonal Acaryas like Harikesa, disavowed this work. In Ravindra Svarupa's comments on the book, he fails to mention the fact that the book would have undermined the Zonal Acarya's power base if they had popularized it in ISKCON at the time. That was the main reason the Zonal Acaryas rejected the book. No treatise or point-by-point refutation was offered by any of the society's scholars, like Hridayananda dasa; they simply extended a blanket rejection to Harikesa.
Ravindra Svarupa goes on to say that ten years later, in 1996, Harikesa made an "apologetic statement" about the book. Of course, he also fails to mention the fact that Harikesa then absconded with a tremendous amount of Srila Prabhupada's money - an act which put another nail in the coffin of the GBC's reputation. And just for the record, Ravindra Svarupa was one of the principle "negotiators" with Harikesa, who was allowed to walk away with the stolen money. None of ISKCON's leaders challenged him, took him to court, or laid charges against him.
Another of the main points that Dr. Deadwyler likes to make is that prior to his leading the Reform Movement, the temples were being contaminated by the activity of engaging in the selling of paraphernalia under the guise of "sankirtana", while pure book distribution should have been the only principle. Of course, it's true that pure book distribution and harinam sankirtana were the pure brahminical activities. But Ravindra Svarupa dasa doesn't make a distinction as to what was going on in ISKCON during Srila Prabhupada's lila period, and what the Zonal Acaryas introduced during their period, prior to the revolution. During the period of Srila Prabhupada's presence, the temples were the center of a community wherein there was a natural balance between the amount of money that was raised through various methods performed by the community members, and book distribution. Of course, the ultimate results of the money raised was that the community was supporting many, many devotees, and they were distributing many times the number of books as are being distributed today. That community attracted many, many more recruits because it showed by example how you could live in a well-adjusted spiritual community.
It's my opinion as one of the Temple Presidents during that period that there was a natural division of labors in the temple. In other words, the Temple President and a circle of senior people would naturally determine very quickly how members of the community would be engaged. Some of them were engaged in brahminical activities, some in vaisya, kshatriya, and sudra-like activities. No one was called by these names… they were simply engaged due to their natural propensities in activities they felt happy doing. All were contributing to the whole and felt like members of the community, which they were, with very little gradation in status. It was only after the introduction of Zonal Acarya-ism that this system was contaminated and ruined.
The so-called "reform movement" of 1987, which Ravindra Svarupa continually points to as one of his great successes, did very little to change anything other than to put the emphasis on recruiting congregational members. These individuals were primarily Indians. They began to contribute the lion's share of the money and were generally vaisya-like. And like any vaisyas, they wanted control over where their money was spent, so they began to sit on all the Boards. The Boards increasingly began to run the temples like a business, and today we see the results of that unfortunate trend.
I think one of the underlying factors in Ravindra Svarupa taking the position he has in this regard is the fact that it takes far less charisma and leadership, of which he has very little, to run a temple based on his preferred model - far less than it took to run a temple based on the model that existed when Srila Prabhupada was present. The Temple Presidents during that era had to be able to encourage and motivate all different types of people. They had to out working on the front lines, not holed up in their offices, managing in a one-dimensional, lazy manner.
Ravindra Svarupa also points out that Srila Prabhupada stressed that we should be reading his books rather than just distributing them. Obviously there's truth in this statement. But rather than scrap the whole system that was in place, the leaders should and could have just improved that aspect of the program. Instead, they completely undermined it, introducing the concept Ravindra Svarupa is promoting today.
He ends his article by saying that according to him, everything is now going great in ISKCON. He says, "I am happy to report that a movement is gaining strength among the leaders to make ISKCON an organisation primarily dedicated to education and training. " But where is the college or university in Philadelphia? Has Ravindra Svarupa used his mundane academic credentials to become the founding father or the Dean of an educational institution?
While touting his pet academic model, he even puts down the suburban-style Hare Krsna communities. We can assume he's referring to Alachua, Florida, among others, since Alachua is one of the biggest and most organized community in the world. We also note that for many years, Ravindra Svarupa dasa was the GBC of the Gita-Nagari rural community project, a place he seldom visited. To this day, there are numerous devotees who spent time at Gita Nagari during his reign, who claim that he undermined their efforts, introducing a cow-neglect program rather than a cow-protection program. As a brahman you'd think he would have preferred to reside in a quiet rural community, living the simple life. Instead, he cloisters himself in his office in a suburban temple, supposedly engaging in 'brahminical academic work'. But where are the results? His speculative approach on Srila Prabhupada's varnasrama-dharma instructions certainly don't meet the standard.
Obeisances to Dandavats, and to HG Ravindra Svarupa dasa.