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Wisdom and Devotion

Dr. Harvey Cox, a liberal Protestant theologian at the Harvard Divinity School, observes:

"Almost every religion I know of has formulae, prayers, chants or hymns, in which the repetition of sound, is used for a devotional purpose...But I think that these criticisms of chanting or repetition of prayers as somehow mentally destructive are frankly some of the most uninformed and ignorant of the criticisms I've come across.

"These sorts of criticisms cannot possibly by made by people who know anything about the history of religions, unless they want to come right out and say that they're against all religion, or all devotional practices, all prayer -- which I think many of them are. At least they ought to be honest and not conceal their personal bias under allegedly scientific language."

Religious scholar Dr. Thomas J. Hopkins similarly observes:

"One of the things that is most striking about the Bhagavata Purana (Srimad Bhagavatam), for instance, is not just the quality of its devotional statements, but also the rigor of its thought. It is not just a kind of romantic devotionalism devoid of intellectual content. It's a very systematically conceived, very scholarly statement of the devotional life. That combination of emotion and intellect, which has been so often separated in religious traditions, is very consistently kept together in the devotional movements, and particularly the Vaishnava (worship of Lord Vishnu) devotional movement.

"Many traditions lack this balance. Take, for instance, Sankara and his intellectually powerful Advaita (pantheist) philosophical tradition. There you have a very strong intellectual tradition, but almost no concern for the development of spiritual emotion. On the other side, you have certain Christian, especially Protestant movements -- charismatic or pentacostal movements -- which have tremendous emotional engagement, but very little attention to the life of the intellect. The Vaishnava devotional movement, on the other hand, has always kept these two things together...

"If you look at the points at which any religious tradition is really powerful, they are usually those points at which these various elements have been kept together. If you look at the lives of the great Hasidic Rebbys, for instance, you see that they were people of intellect and spirituality, and also practical wisdom. They didn't separate these different elements.

"Also look at the greater saints of the Roman Catholic tradition, someone like St. Teresa. She was certainly a great mystic, certainly a person of deep spiritual emotion, but she was also one hell of an organizer! She put together an entire monastic order with its own complete institutional structure. She knew not only how to pray to God, she knew how to keep books -- and she didn't see any conflict between them. This is the quality that certainly came across with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada...

"The descriptions in the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana of the features of the Kali-yuga say that this age is characterized by a fundamental corruption of the basic institutions of society. There is upheaval in social life, religious life, the economic, political, and legal structure, education -- everything. The leaders of society are corrupt and exploit the citizens. There is a wholesale degradation in the quality of human life.

"This is a description of every age of social chaos that's ever existed anywhere in the world. In every one of those ages, or at least in many of them, there have been movements of devotional or personal experience which have moved in to fill up the void in people's lives.

"The counterculture era was a period when the problems of society were so obvious and so visible that you couldn't ignore them. We were fighting a crazy war, we had a crazy president, the whole society was riddled with contradictions in values and standards, and nobody was providing any kind of guidance or discipline...

"But there's nothing new about all of this. Throughout history, new religious movements have been feared and persecuted, not only because they challenge societal values, but because they often do not conform to the religious status quo. American history is full of examples of religious persecution. Joseph Smith and the Mormons were kicked out of New York state and went to Missouri. Then they were burned out of Missouri and had to go further west. All of this happened because they had strange beliefs and were following odd practices and so people simply didn't like them.

"Right now you're sitting here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the middle of a wide range of sectarian groups -- every conceivable variety of Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren -- all of whom are here because they were run out of some other place. They came because it was safe here."

Steven J. Gelberg (Subhananda dasa) asks: "There are very strong elements of renunciation and asceticism both in the gospels and the epistles. We're told to be 'in the world but not of it,' to serve God rather than 'Mammon,' to be concerned with things of the spirit and not of the flesh, and to 'pray incessantly.' When a Hare Krishna devotee actually engages in this sort of world-renouncing asceticism and spirituality, he is viewed as being under some sort of insidious 'mind-control.'"

Dr. Hopkins responds: "...if you look at the groups that have that have been persecuted in the western tradition, you'll find that almost invariably the accused have been, by their own principles, ascetical and world-renouncing, following some kind of very rigorous puritanical teaching. So it is not at all surprising that a group like yours should rouse the suspicion and fear that you do."

Steven J. Gelberg (Subhananda dasa) asks could bhakti (devotion to a personal God) be considered one of India's most important gifts to the world?

Dr. A.L. Basham responds: "Yes, I would say so. Of course, from a purely quantitative, historical point of view, we'd have to say that Buddhism was India's most significant gift to the world... bhakti is a very important gift of India to the world if the world will accept it..."

Stephen Knapp writes in his 1992 book, The Universal Path to Enlightenment, that even after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome, philosophical debates continued:

“Nestorius accepted the humanity of Jesus and described Mary as the mother of Jesus rather than the mother of God. The third council of the Church at Ephesus, in 431, condemned the ideas of Nestorius and exiled him to the desert of Egypt in 435, but his theories continued to spread into Persia, India, and on into Central Asia and China.

“Such controversies in the Church continued, and led to different conclusions and the formation of different sects. Even today we can see the almost unlimited variance of Christian sects and churches, each of which has its own ideas as to what is the nature of Christ, what is the soul, what is heaven, and so on. And each one thinking they are better than all of the others.

“Another interesting point regarding pagan influence that may be very surprising to some is that the crucifix was not exclusively a Christian symbol. Prior to Christianity, history shows that the cross was an auspicious and mystical symbol amongst ancient Babylonians, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Druids, and even Laplanders and Scandinavians.

“The crucifix was also known in ancient Mexico, as discovered by the Spanish monks who first went there. They were told that the Son of God, Quetzalcoatl, died on the cross for the sins of mankind. Even Tertullian, as late as 211 AD, wrote that the Christians neither adored nor desired crosses, and criticized the pagans for doing so and for putting a man on the cross as well. For pagans, the cross was a sign of eternity.

“In the first several centuries of Christianity, Jesus was represented as a lamb, or as a shepherd with a lamb over his shoulders. It was not until the 6th synod of Constantinople that it was decided that the symbol of Christianity, which was confirmed by Pope Adrian I, would be represented from that time on as a man crucified on the cross. In fact, the earliest instances of any artwork that illustrates Jesus on the cross can be traced back only to the eight or ninth century. Thus, the Christians adopted the crucifixion as a symbol from the pagans.”

When asked, “Why is the symbol of Christianity the cross?” in 1967, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada replied, his eyes watery and sad:

“When I think of Lord Jesus on the cross…” He shakes his head. “No. That is not a symbol for devotees. Devotees do not want to concentrate on that, on their master’s sufferings. But actually the body of Christ was spiritual. He felt nothing therefore. Like Krishna and Bhishma on the battlefield. When Bhishma’s arrows struck the Lord’s body, they were feeling like kisses. The Lord’s body is never material. It is a great offense to think like that. There is one Aquarian Gospel saying that Christ went to India, I believe.”

Dharmasetu dasa (David Bridges) a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, commented in 1985 as to how morbid the cross is as the symbol of Christianity: “…If he (Jesus) had been hung, you’d see a *noose* out in front of every church!”

My friend and godbrother Raul Pedraza (Bhuta-brit dasa), a disciple of Srila Prabhupada serving as a lay person or congregational member, disagreed. He said according to the Rosicrucians, the cross is a mystical symbol.

My friend and godbrother Ted Puckett, also a lay person, said that since Raul (Bhuta-brit dasa) was once initiated (ordained) by Srila Prabhupada, he should be studying Srila Prabhupada’s books — not the Rosicrucians!

Steven J. Gelberg (Subhananda dasa) describes the bhakti movement as "quite open and liberal."

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