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Reboot the Mission

Dr. Joseph T. O’Connell, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, discusses sadhana — spiritual discipline, or a pattern of religious practices or observances. He agrees that sadhana exists in every religious tradition.

"You’ll find a lot of this, of course, in the Christian tradition, where you have a great variety of denominations and religious orders which have their own specific ways of honing and reinforcing the devotional sensibility of the Christian.

"And even the average layperson is encouraged—especially in more traditional forms of Christianity—to have a program of daily or weekly prayer, or periodic participation in church services. They may be asked to do a certain amount of scriptural reading. For some laypersons this is done in a very systematic way, for others, it is more casual. All this can be seen as Christian sadhana.

A strong spiritual regimen lies at the heart of Krishna Consciousness. Srila Prabhupada set down four principle vows, required of any student in devotional life who wished to become his disciple:

(1) No meat-eating. (2) No intoxication—this proscription includes even mild substances like tobacco or caffeine. (3) No gambling. (4) No illicit sexual connections. Sex is permitted only within marriage and only with the intent of procreation.

In addition to these four regulative principles, Srila Prabhupada called for 16 rounds of chanting God’s holy names on rosary beads. Such a regimen would not be uncommon in a Christian monastic community.

Compared to the demands Jesus made upon anyone wanting to become his disciple (Matthew 19:16-24; Mark 10:17-23; Luke 9:57-62, 14:25-26,33, 18:18-25), these four regulative principles are not at all unreasonable.

The Western religious traditions also teach that the body is a temple of God, a vessel for the soul, which is to be sanctified and used for His glory, rather than for one’s own lust. Many religious conservatives and fundamentalists believe sex is meant only for procreation; they condemn fornication, homosexuality, birth control, divorce, etc.

Gambling, drugs, alcohol, and sexual immorality are denounced as evils in spiritual circles. Vegetarianism makes perfect sense in terms of human anatomy, nutrition, ethics, resources, environment, energy, and economics.

In the West, vegetarianism, or nonviolence towards animals, can be traced back to Pythagoras. It has been a way of life for Jewish mystics, Christian saints, and Christian monastic orders. The Bible teaches that God intended humans to be vegetarian. Biblical history begins (Genesis 1:29-31) and ends (Isaiah 11:6-9) in a kingdom where violence is unknown. Chanting on beads is a common form of prayer for Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, etc...

The apostles studied under Jesus. A disciplic line was started by Jesus beginning with Simon (Peter). Aquinas studied under Albertus Magnus.

Writing in 1987, Dr. Larry Shinn explains:

"In his book Soul Friend, Kenneth Leech unfolds the often forgotten heritage of the spiritual director in the Christian tradition. He notes that the practice of submitting oneself to a spiritual guide was primarily a monastic or elitist one in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.

"There was the zaddik in later Hasidic communities and the abbot in the Roman Catholic monastery. For example, in the writings of the Christian desert fathers, the advice is given, ‘Go, attach yourself to a man who fears God...give up your will to him, and then you will receive consolation from God.’

"The contemporary Trappist monk Thomas Merton describes the Christian ‘spiritual father’ or ‘spiritual director’ as one who was set on fire by the Holy Spirit.

"According to Merton, such a person should be, above all else, a charismatic leader marked by complete devotion to God. Second, he should be a man of experience who has struggled with the realities of prayer and devotion in the midst of worldly life. Third, he must be a man of learning who is steeped in the scriptures. Fourth, the spiritual guide must be a man of discernment who has special perception and insight into the world and its limitations as well as into his pupil’s soul and its particular needs. Finally, such a guide must always be open to the direction of the Holy Spirit as the channel of God’s love and grace.

"Only a person marked with these special attributes can hope to help others ‘read the breathings of the spirit.’ The similarity of these criteria to those for the Krishna spiritual master is obvious.

"It is not surprising that the Krishnas’ chanting raises suspicions among worried parents or persons who are unaware of the Indian context out of which this practice comes. Chanting is one way of focusing the mind’s attention as Christian monks and nuns who practice the ‘Jesus Prayer’ know.

"Also, chanting in most theistic traditions does have as its goal a lessening of material and worldly attachments so that one becomes more attached to God than to oneself, one’s friends, or one’s family.

"However, only in the monastic traditions of Christianity is the admonition of Jesus to love God more than family really taken seriously (see Matthew 10:37-39).

"Since ISKCON began primarily as a monastic tradition in America, and one that demanded complete surrender to the religious path, it is a mistake to compare ISKCON’s life and practices with those of Protestant Christianity or Reform Judaism which do not require — except in lip service—a full twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week religious lifestyle.

"Congregational Christianity and Judaism are quite distant from their own monastic traditions that require the undivided attention to the religious life that ISKCON does in its devotional practices.

"Nonetheless, anticult critics continually insist on viewing the deity worship and chanting of Krishna devotees as fanatical devotion caused by malevolent manipulation."

On the subject of "deprogramming," Dr. Shinn notes that "the attempt to dissuade persons forcibly to abandon their chosen faith is as old as religion itself...the closest thing to contemporary deprogrammings occurred in the thirteenth century when both Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi were abducted by family members in order to discourage their new ascetic lives.

According to Dr. Shinn, the real danger of deprogramming "is that anyone in any situation is a potential victim. Two members of the Tucson Freedom of Thought Foundation deprogrammed an Old Catholic priest because his Episcopalian parents objected to his faith choice.

"(Ted) Patrick has tried to deprogram two Greek Orthodox women ages twenty-one and twenty-three ‘because the parents were upset that their daughters had resisted the traditional Greek custom of living at home until the parents found them suitable husbands.’...Patrick has also tried to deprogram a young woman who joined an unpopular political party!

"In criticizing the Ted Patrick type of deprogramming, Galen Kelly, another deprogrammer, tells this story: One time a deprogrammer ‘snapped’ a young woman out of her ‘cult mind’ and then proudly announced to her parents, ‘You’ll be glad to know your daughter’s a Christian again.’ ‘But,’ said the dazed parents, ‘she used to be Jewish.’"

Lord Acton has been quoted as saying, "The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. Liberty, by this definition, is the essential condition and guardian of religion."

According to Dr. Harvey Cox, "Some deprogrammers have gladly deprogrammed people in the Episcopal and Catholic churches, depending on the preference of those who wanted them deprogrammed. As far as I can see, deprogrammers are simply hired-guns. They will deprogram anybody you pay them to deprogram."

Dr. Shinn observes further that a significant number of Krishna devotees came from Jewish and Catholic backgrounds:

"While the number of new converts to ISKCON from Jewish backgrounds has dropped to 15 percent or lower in recent years, the number ranged above 20 percent for the first decade of ISKCON’s history in America. Likewise, the proportion of youths from Catholic backgrounds ran above 30 percent in a survey this author did several years ago. Why are Jewish and Catholic youths in particular attracted to ISKCON?

"One common attraction of Jewish and Catholic youths to ISKCON is ISKCON’s stress on its ancient Indian scriptural tradition that is mediated through a formal and complex ritual cycle. However, while both Jewish and Catholic traditions extol the value of history and tradition, the theological orientation of these traditions is dramatically different.

"On the one hand, most devotees raised in a Jewish context saw their decision to join ISKCON as a break with their ethnic/religious family tradition that practiced no devotion to a personal God. On the other hand, most devotees raised in Catholic homes felt that becoming a Krishna devotee was a continuation or deepening of their Catholic faith. One woman said bluntly, ‘I am a better Catholic now.’

"...the Krishna theology included their previous faith, their new faith also superseded their old one...there is a similarity in the Krishna and the Catholic traditions in their stress on formal rituals, the abundant use of iconography, their hierarchical institutional/authority structure, their strong emphasis on the private prayerlife, and their ideals of the monastic life of full time religious service and personal piety."

Dr. A.L. Basham suggests a possible explanation: "...the old-fashioned type of missionary was quite certain that Hinduism was the work of the Devil, and hence that it was very evil. It did all the things which Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, said you shouldn’t do, such as image worship and the worship of many gods.

"Catholics were always much more tolerant of this sort of thing. Though he may be theoretically monotheistic, the simple Catholic will, to all intents and purposes, pray to quite a wide range of divinities, including the Blessed Virgin Mary and various important saints, often in the form of physical images.

"But Protestant Christianity was founded on the basis that there is one God only, divided into three persons, and that worship of images is sinful. To the Protestant of the old-fashioned kind, this was a terrible thing to do, almost as bad as it was to a traditional Jew or Muslim. So the missionaries, I think, are largely responsible for the polytheism stereotype and the ‘caste-ridden’ society stereotype."

Vaishnavas, like Christians, are not pantheistic, but dualistic. The Vaishnava theology makes a clear distinction between the paramatma (God, or higher self within one’s heart) and the jivatma (individual ego or consciousness): distinguishing between a personal God and His children.

Like Christians, Vaishnavas also believe that souls in this world have fallen from grace, that this world is transitory, and that there is an inner conflict between one’s carnal and spiritual natures.

Srila Prabhupada drew an analogy between the biblical and Vaishnava teaching on the Fall from grace:

"When a living entity disobeys the orders of God, he is put into this material world, and that is his punishment...The real fact is that the living entity is eternal, and the material world is created to satisfy his false existence... The individual is thinking that he is independent and can act independent of God. That is the beginning of paradise lost, of Adam's fall.

"When Adam and Eve thought that they could do something independently, they were condemned. Every living entity is the eternal servant of God, and he must act according to the desire or will of the Supreme Lord. When he deviates from this principle, he is lost. Losing paradise, he comes into the material world...

"That is the process of transmigration, the rotation of the cycle of birth and death. This is all due to disobeying God...Having rebelled against the principles of God consciousness, we are cut off from our original position. We have fallen."

Following biblical tradition, St. Augustine made a distinction between the earthly and the heavenly, the flesh and bodily appetites versus the spirit and peace of the soul. Describing the predicament of the soul in a physical body in the material world, Augustine wrote:

"And so long as he is in this mortal body, he is a pilgrim in a foreign land, away from God; therefore he walks by faith, not by sight."

Augustine said the soul "needs divine direction, which he may obey with resolution, and divine assistance that he may obey it freely..." These doctrines are consistent with Vaishnava theology.

In Krishna Consciousness, one will find priests and monks with vows; the worship of consecrated images; the veneration of saints and different divinities; the chanting of the holy names on beads of prayer; the belief that sex is intended solely for procreation (upheld by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas); two monastic orders (bramacharya and sannyassa); sacramental food; the use of holy water, candles, incense and ash; a platonic theology based upon metaphysical dualism: the spirit versus the flesh, the earthly versus the heavenly; an emphasis on "otherworldly" concerns such as salvation, the afterlife and eternal life; belief in the incarnations of God; and the worship of a plural (e.g., Trinitarian) Godhead.

Srila Prabhupada’s disciples recall a heartwarming dialogue with Christian clergy which took place when Srila Prabhupada was visiting Detroit in the 1970s. His guests were two Catholic priests. Srila Prabhupada spoke beyond the superficial, external, cultural differences between religions.

He asked them: "Do you believe that God is a Person?" (i.e., a personal God) They said yes. He asked: "Do you believe we are also persons, meant to love God?" They agreed. He asked: "Do you believe that sin separates man from God?" They said yes.

Srila Prabhupada challenged them: "Then why don’t you teach people to stop sinning?"

He then explained how killing animals, intoxication, gambling, and illicit sexual connections are ungodly and unspiritual. When the priests left, garlanded and carrying holy books and Bengali sweets, one of them said to Srila Prabhupada, "Why, I feel as if we’ve become your disciples!"

The prayers and life story of Mahema dasi are revealing:

"I went to the Catholic church and knelt before the altar and prayed to Jesus, ‘I’m not going to turn my back upon you.’ I sort of took Jesus’ permission to join the Hare Krishna movement because I felt close to Catholicism; but I also felt that this was a path that could lead me even further.

"On a spiritual level, in my heart, I felt that the link was still their to my Catholic upbringing. But it was like I had gone through Catholicism and was continuing on another path. I was not turning my back on my faith, nor was I rejecting Catholicism. I sensed that I had gotten permission to join ISKCON, and the next day I was initiated (accepted discipleship; taken formal vows)...I was twenty-three...

"I saw my joining ISKCON as a natural extension of my Catholic spirituality. I had been born in a suburb of Detroit in 1948, but my parents moved to California, where my father had bought a small orchard...

"My father had been raised in a Jewish home and had converted to Catholicism during the Second World War. He met my mother while he was a Marine and she was working for the Navy.

"I remember them as devout Catholics who went to Mass every Sunday and tried to follow the principles of the Catholic Church. My mother prayed a lot and used to say, ‘Never underestimate the power of prayer.’

"...I immersed myself in the life of a middle-class parochial school student. My high school career was uneventful, as I did well scholastically and participated fully in school social activities. I even considered becoming a nun. However, when I went to a Catholic college, I hung out with friends who had a very different response to their Catholic backgrounds.

"They smoked dope, drank, and smoked. They were active in the anti-Vietnam War movements and were much more activists than I friends’ dependence on drugs seemed silly to me. I liked to be more in control of myself than they actually frightened me to see how people were becoming speed freaks and dope addicts, and I didn’t find that attractive at all.

"By the beginning of my third year in college I was beginning to feel the need to return to the simple life in the country. So I dropped out of school and shortly thereafter went to the Woodstock Festival with some friends...While there, I began to search for alternatives to the Catholic religious life...

"From Woodstock, I joined a group of traveling hippies who were going to New Mexico in an old bus they owned. We stopped at several hippie communities that were practicing American Indian paths to spiritual growth. I came to appreciate the Hopis’ and the Navajos’ simple way of life. I had never been into the violent antiwar protests nor the heavy drug scene, so this rural way of life really agreed with me. Most of my friends were flower children who were more into nature than drugs and demonstrations...

"...I was also attracted to the chanting and the kirtan (praise of God through music and dance in Krishna Consciousness). Kirtan was especially blissful and reminded me of the communal chanting we had done on the farm...You really felt a spiritual high from singing, which also was attractive to me. These religious occasions reminded me of my childhood when I would feel chills go up my spine while praying or singing in the church...

"...I was reading the books and I was attracted to the philosophy. The Bhagavad-gita was my main attraction. I was convinced by the Gita’s argument that the soul is eternal and that there was a purpose for every life. And the Gita showed how one could come to a higher level of consciousness in the spiritual life...I believed that love was the motivation for the world, that love tied the world together.

"But I knew that pure love was something that had to be cultivated. So I felt the Gita was right when it said pure love was love of God—not just each other. Consequently, in reading the Gita I felt that all I believed as a Catholic was being confirmed and that the Gita was going further because it was telling you how to love God...step by step.

"It took me about a year to assimilate the philosophy. I visited the Oregon and Berkeley temples for short stays during this time. I was reading the Gita and I was chanting, though not consistently. I tried to cultivate the spiritual life...At that point I felt actually an inner strength from Srila Prabhupada...The next day I went to the Catholic church to ask for Jesus’ permission. And I actually sensed that my joining was authorized."

Dr. Larry Shinn notes that unlike their ex-Catholic brethren, Krishna devotees from Jewish backgrounds felt they were leaving one venerable religious tradition in favor of another.

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