On persecution

20 06 2020

A reader left the following comment on my last post:

What would your approach to the problem of persecution be? At some point, even in Krishna consciousness, one would assume that persecution of the faithful would still be an issue (granted, this could be my ignorance of the matter showing). Recognizing that material “reality” is not the end-all-be-all, and that it’s rather an elaborate game, gets you so far; but in the end, wouldn’t you still counsel steadfastness and longsuffering in the face of worldly aggression. Is it a case of counselling the same action (as a Christian, that is) but with different motivations, or is there an entirely different principle at work?

The modern Krishna consciousness began in persecution, namely, under the Muslim occupation of Bengal in early modernity. The Golden Avatar of Krishna, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, had to negotiate around Muslim rule to spread His movement to chant the Holy Names of Krishna. At one point, persecution broke out, and Lord Chaitanya led a movement of civil disobedience and dialogue with the Muslim rule of Bengal, the Kazi, convincing him that the sankirtan movement was not a threat to Muslim rule. Lord Chaitanya’s Kingdom, in other words, was not of this world. Instead of being crucified, Lord Chaitanya and His disciples were allowed continue their spreading of the the public chanting of the Holy Names.

In modern times in the West, Hare Krishnas have also faced persecution. In the Soviet bloc before the fall of the Iron Curtain, this persecution involved jail and other penalties. Krishna consciousness in the capitalist West was often perceived as a cult, and deprogrammers would kidnap devotees using the excuse that they were brainwashed. In some cases, devotees would feign being “cured,” even up to the point of dressing normally and eating meat, only to escape back to the Krishna consciousness movement. In sastra (the Scriptures), it is permissible to deceive if the end is beneficial to Krishna consciousness. So there isn’t really a conundrum similar to the trials of persecuted Christians in Endo’s novel.

But what of severe persecution? What if someone “apostatizes”? I think I’ve said before that “devotional service” is cumulative. In other words, if one does service to Krishna in one life, the “credit” (for lack of a better term) passes on to the next and the one after that, etc. It’s not like in Catholic theology where one loses everything and starts from zero once one commits a mortal sin, but gains it back after Confession. Besides, one can recite the names of God to oneself. A big part of being a devotee is japa, or the private recitation of the Mahamantra on tulsi beads, usually hundreds of times a day. One could do that in the privacy of one’s home and be fully Krishna consciousness. It helps to have the books, go to the temple, and be able to chant publicly with other devotees in the street. But none of that is absolutely necessary. All of these things assist in the recitation of the Holy Names, either alone or with others. That’s something awfully hard to suppress. The sankirtan movement started without temples, without rituals, and with its leaders sleeping under trees.

Srila Prabhupada’s approach was never to convert people to one religion to the exclusion of others. That’s probably why Hare Krishnas are usually not seen as a threat and at worst are considered a whimsical cultural phenomenon. They might try to sell you a book, or they might feed you, and that’s about it. The Holy Name is already working in the world, and they just want to expose you to it.

Reflecting on the core of Endo’s novel, one has to dive a bit deeper into the philosophy when addressing this question. In the martyrdom scene in the movie, an old man shouts the word “Paradise,” and the idea is that one has to strive and endure to get the martyr’s crown and a definitive end of suffering. Ad astra per aspera, or as St. Paul puts it: “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” (I Corinthians 9: 27) Martyrdom is thus seen as a battle that one must win, and afterwards one gets to reign with Christ forever, without having to toil or suffer.

I was visiting my old devotee friend this week, and I was being overly abstract and I was showboating a bit when I stated that the essence of Krishna consciousness is being with Krishna and His cows in Goloka Vrindavan, and devotion to the rasa lila itself. He was rightfully dismissive of this, thinking that I was talking about those babajis in places like Radha Kund who tell you you’re really a gopi in the spiritual world, etc. Though that was not my meaning, he stated that his real ambition is to follow his guru, Srila Prabhupada, wherever he is.

“Some say that he went down to the lower planets below the Earth to preach Krishna consciousness there. Others say that he goes from universe to universe preaching Krishna consciousness.” And if that’s the case, that’s where he wants to be too.

Being further removed from his Catholic roots than I am, that doesn’t seem particularly strange to him. And it makes sense when you look at him. Every time I visit, I admire his living room where one wall is just dozens of pictures of Srila Prabhupada, who my friend served from a distance when he was still on the planet. He doesn’t even feel particularly abandoned by Srila Prabhupada even though he left the Earth over forty years ago now. I’ve never seen people like that before I met the devotees, but it’s a common theme among them. I can’t wrap my Catholic brain around it. But I would really like to.

I think about my grandmother who didn’t have shoes until she was fifteen, my grandfather who toiled long in the fields, my father who struggled with addiction, and I desperately hope that they are in a better place and not suffering. And maybe that is laudable, but that’s not the point. The point is not for me to get to a place of leisure where I don’t have to work anymore, a place where I will never sorrow, etc. The Christian idea is that death is an end after which one either achieves a goal or one doesn’t: after one passes, there is nothing left to do. But in Krishna consciousness, it’s about love, and love means service. Love is devotional service: it’s to be side by side with the Beloved even if one is in Hell. Christian mysticism grazes that concept at times, but it cannot fully embrace it. Death and a new life mean more opportunities for serving the one you love.

What is Heaven in the end? If you can’t really experience it here, does it really exist? Is it really desirable? You serve Krishna here, you serve Him there, is the location even important, as long as He’s there? Does it matter that you have to suffer, if Krishna is there with you? Aren’t you already where you want to be?

I am definitely not there yet, but I am trying.



2 responses

3 07 2020
PJ Johnston

Hi Arturo! +Wulfila the Lonely Goth here! Did I hear correctly that you’d converted to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and am I correct to assume if so that this is not a case of multiple religious belonging in which you’re planning to remain Catholic? I admit I haven’t had time to keep up with your blog very much (OK, at all) after I found it not to be updated very often. But you were in my mind a little bit back when the NY Times published their Weird Christians piece and would have liked to make contact to get your take on it. If I’m not prying, was this more of a result of push factors (the cultural and political situation for Catholics in the US just getting too tenable to be happily occupied) or pull factors (the irresistible appeal of bhakti, which has completely swept me away to Indian religions and popular Catholicism), or something else? Long time no chat! I’ve missed you and will try to catch up a little on your blog. I’ve been thinking about teaching about Catholic magical culture in New Orleans in my upcoming semester or at least during the academic year, so of course I forever value your contributions there.

20 06 2020
David Collins

Nah, can’t do it. Can’t fall in love with a guy with a blue face; at least, that’s how Krishna appears in the illustrated copy of the Bhagavad Gita a Krishna devotee gave me at an airport years ago.

I do like, rather, LOVE, the idea of mantra japa. I’ve got mardi gras beads that bargoers left on the streets after a night of revelry; the one I use has 108 beads on it and I count them off as I pray, “Jesus and Mary, I love you. Save souls.”

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