“Mahāprabhu was naturally a soft-hearted person, though strong in His principles. He declared that party spirit and sectarianism were the two great enemies of progress.” (Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura – Śrī Caitanya, His Life and Precepts)
There appears to be two major types of society consciousness at play in the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava world today. The first can be broadly described as those people who are more invested in the structure and external workings of the society to which they belong rather than the principles it is supposed to uphold. This can be seen as attachment to particular positions in that group, blind adherence to bad leadership and sectarian fanaticism (“my guru is the best! Our society is the best”), all of which are symptoms of komala-śraddhā (immature faith).
The second type of society consciousness is that which is obsessed with the secular concerns of the world at large. This comes in the form of Vaiṣṇavas shaping their devotional lives around the ever-changing waves of societal norms in the world. Social justice, gender issues, political environmentalism, radical views based on the total misidentification with the material body etc. are just a few of these external influences. For example, when a particularly troubling social issue finds its way into Vaiṣṇava circles, a certain type of zealous energy can be seen in the devotees who take to social media to comment, create videos and generally waste the human form of life arguing over who is right or wrong. On the other hand, the same energy and zeal is conspicuous by its absence when it comes to discussing the finer points of Vaiṣṇava siddhānta.
There is actually a third kind of society consciousness and it is a fusion of both misconceptions. It is exemplified by people who are highly sectarian, but simultaneously completely concerned with the movements of mundane society. They are both indiscriminate in their association with mundane people who hold wildly different views on the meaning of life, but ironically prejudiced towards anyone in the Vaiṣṇava world who disagrees with them.
I have seen gurus in various Vaiṣṇava groups socialise with māyāvādīs, politicians, life-coaches, actors, and every other conceivable type of person who, by their very lifestyle or philosophy, are at odds with the conclusions of Bhagavad-gītā according to our Vaiṣṇava perspective – and all in the name of “preaching.” At the same time there is a marked inability of many leaders in the Vaiṣṇava world to speak plainly with these people thus revealing a lack of conviction and faith in their own beliefs. I have seen so-called Vaiṣṇava leaders speaking to public figures and huge audiences on podcasts and television carefully avoiding uttering the name of Kṛṣṇa, the mahā-mantra or even a basic understanding of the nature of the soul. Instead they fill their time with so much generic ‘sausage-filler talking points’ about peace, harmony and love that it becomes an embarrassment to the whole Vaiṣṇava community. They never come to the point of speaking about the meaning of life and therefore come across as weak and ineffective – speaking to please the crowd which ultimately pleases no one.
In some circumstances it is understandable why a spiritual guide will not speak out in a strong way. An expert speaker can understand how to deliver the truth in increments to those with no experience of Kṛṣṇa consciousness or eastern thought for that matter. But the increments shouldn’t be so small that it will take a kalpa to get it all out!
So the question naturally arises, why are modern day Vaiṣṇavas bending over backwards to remain relevant in the eyes of the crowd? The crowd is not in possession of the truth. In most cases the crowd is uninformed, ignorant and simply following the loudest voice in the room.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura has the following to say on this point:
“Vox populi (the voice of the people) is not vox dei (the voice of God), but vox dei should be vox populi. Popular opinion is not the same as God’s opinion; rather, pious people should adopt His opinion. This is what the mahājanas instruct. Cij-jaḍa-samanvaya-vādīs (those who propose mixing spirit with matter) say just the opposite – yata mata tata patha (as many opinions, as many ways). The popular voice should be the opinion of the Supreme Lord and the path of attaining Him.” Yet how amazing it is that where popular opinion is dharma, love of the Supreme Lord is banished, and where public support is the testing stone for ascertaining the Absolute Truth, non-duplicitous truth disappears!” (Śrīla Prabhupāder Upadeśāmṛta)
Sarasvatī Ṭhākura further states:
“Those who claim to be religious preachers are busy trying to protect their own existence by flattering others. By speaking and hearing the truth, one’s popularity is unlikely to be enhanced. Therefore, we are not interested in the sympathy or support of ordinary people who are averse to the Lord.” (Śrīla Prabhupāder Upadeśāmṛta)
Many senior devotees (including gurus) are too concerned with the opinions of the masses or their young disciples in an attempt to stay relevant in an ever-changing world. Great men who speak the truth unapologetically are generally found to be unpopular and face criticism from their peers and the crowd. Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura did not court popularity, but he attracted to his banner some of the most stalwart Vaiṣṇavas in modern times. By taking on the incredibly difficult service of bringing the reputation of the followers of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu out of the mud, he went to war with everyone who opposed him.
The spiritual guides of this noble Vaiṣṇava faith are supposed to speak the truth always and this often is at complete odds with society at large. They are not crowd-pleasers. They are compassionate, but their compassion is for the ultimate good of the jīva. They may speak the truth in a palatable way, but they nonetheless speak the truth. Devotees often conflate the compassion spoken of so highly by our ācāryas with the generic mundane vision of compassion in this world.
There is an epidemic of false compassion in both spiritual societies and mundane society – the sort of ‘lame-duck’ compassion which professes to be inclusive, politically correct, pro-(insert group name here), or any other thing you can dream up. Bhagavad-gītā begins with ‘You are not this body’ – this knowledge is not new. It has been around for a long, long time and society has gone through many major changes, but this knowledge still rings true. Mundane societies’ concern with these types of social issues are all to do with the false identification with the material body. A devotee’s compassionate concern should mostly be aimed at helping others realise their real identity as an individual unit of consciousness and as a servant of Kṛṣṇa. This naturally must include a concern for the suffering inherent with this material plane of existence but at the same time it is not a devotee’s duty to become absorbed in the dualities of this material world.
’dvaite’ bhadrābhadra-jñāna, saba—‘manodharma’
’ei bhāla, ei manda’,—ei saba ‘bhrama’
“The duality of the conceptions of auspicious and inauspicious is a complete mental concoction. Saying, ‘This is good, this is bad,’ is all a mistake. (Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Antya-līlā 4.76)
In a similar way many devotees’ misidentification with their society has no bearing on the eternal nature of the ātmā. There is no ISKCON, Gauḍīya Maṭha or any other society in the spiritual realm. The real function of a society or group in the Vaiṣṇava world is a space in which association with higher Vaiṣṇavas is possible and service can be performed. Outside of this function they become a burden and distraction from the goal of life.
“Regarding sects – I was present (at 26 2nd Ave.) when Śrīla Prabhupāda received the documents that certified ISKCON as a registered, tax-exempt society. ‘We are not attached to any organisation,’ he said. ‘It is an instrument we will use and if it becomes troublesome we will dissolve it and go on chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa.'” (Acyutānanda Dāsa, letter to Gaudiya Vedānta Magazine, 1994)
For the individual spiritual seeker, personal sincerity is their saving grace. Faith that Kṛṣṇa is within the heart and will guide the sincere soul exactly where he needs to go holds an incredible amount of power. It is possible to help individuals but to cure big societies of all their problems is unlikely to ever happen. My Guru Mahārāja (Śrīla Bhakti Gaurava Narasiṅgha Mahārāja) did not have much faith in the capability of large groups to serve their original function in the absence of an empowered ācārya. Real faith in Kṛṣṇa means that if I am really sincere in the core of my heart and I’m ready to take on the necessary difficulties in pursuit of this noble path then He will guide me and purify me.
tat te ’nukampāṁ su-samīkṣamāṇo
bhuñjāna evātma-kṛtaṁ vipākam
hṛd-vāg-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
jīveta yo mukti-pade sa dāya-bhāk
“My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and constantly pays respects to You with his mind, body and words, is certain to attain your lotus feet, the object of all devotion.” (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 10.14.8)
Society consciousness in all its forms is exclusively a problem of this material world. In modern times spiritual organisations and trusts exist primarily in order to satisfy the government and society at large. However, it is not that all societies are bad, or that all groups should dissolve into some kind of anarchy. As Śrīla Prabhupāda mentioned above, they have their function – they are an instrument that we can use to further our purpose. The problem arises however, when we promote society consciousness over Kṛṣṇa consciousness.
In the words of Śrīla Bhakti Gaurava Narasiṅgha Mahārāja:
“I am not for the Unitarian Kṛṣṇa Conscious Church – I am for the church of variegatedness and difference. Based on that, I choose my association. I think that variegatedness breeds a very strong and healthy spiritual environment. We are not followers of the ‘Rodney King philosophy’ – there was a man in America called Rodney King who was beaten up and then there was a riot in Los Angeles. So he went on TV and said, “Can’t we all just get along?” Well the answer is, “No Rodney, we can’t!” We can’t because there are differences. Everyone is not the same; therefore we can’t all live the same. Why isn’t everyone wearing sannyāsa-veśa? Because everyone can’t do it. Or why is it that everyone isn’t a brahmacārī? Why doesn’t everybody become a householder? Because it is not ‘one thing for everybody’. There doesn’t have to be hatred in diversity. There should be harmony and appreciation – but there is diversity and we can’t erase that. There’s life in diversity.”
Ultimately for the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava, despite all the diversity in the world, there is only one society – it is under the saṅkīrtana banner of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu as gopī-bhartuḥ pada-kamalayor dāsa-dāsānudāsaḥ.