Humanitarian Work and Krishna Consciousness

Jan Brzezinski (Jagadananda das)

Recently I was heartened to read an article published by Madhura Krishna Das and company on VINA, International Relief Mission (4-12-99) in which the authors propose a humanitarian welfare project in the name of compassionate devotees. Though there have been prasada distribution projects and some other isolated acts of goodness, this is the first I have heard of any devotee seeing the compatibility of such activities with the mission of the Krishna Consciousness Movement.

An example of the orthodox position on such subjects is an article written by Vipramukhya Swami and posted on Chakra, entitled Is Humanitarian Work Okay?. This article argues that "the ultimate humanitarian work is spreading Krsna Consciousness." Quoting Prabhupada, Swamiji trots out several points which are no doubt familiar to those who have associated with the Krishna Consciousness movement for the past few decades. The basic problem of society is the lack of God consciousness and therefore the "best welfare activity for all of human society is to awaken man's Krishna consciousness."

Nothing to argue with, a devotee might say. By watering the root, one waters the entire tree. And I hear the chimes of that one bell being rung by a kanishtha adhikari in the background--the one bell that Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Goswami said did more good than thousands of humanitarian welfare projects based on the bodily conception. Though Vipramukhya Maharaj states twice that "humanitiarian work may be alright," he also tells us that the ills of society are increasing because humanitarian work is a complete failure.

So many points made here are troubling to me that I have been unable to stop thinking about them. Evidently, a great deal needs to be said and I am impelled to comment, as I think that this doctrine of indifference is in part behind the malaise that affects the entire Krishna consciousness movement.

Recently I heard on the radio (unfortunately I could not catch details as names of people and organizations involved in the work) about certain activities taking place in Nepal. Agents of the India sex trade come to Nepal seeking pre-pubescent girls for prostitution work in India. They tell the poverty-stricken parents of these girls that they need them to work in the carpet industry. The pay the families a year's wages in advance and then leave with the young girls who are then used for Indian "domestic consumption" in the sex trade, catering to a deep-rooted pedophiliac tradition. When these children get AIDS, as they inevitably do, they are abandoned to die without any care. That in a nutshell is another rather serious social problem in a country to which we have decided to look upon as a source of our spiritual ideals.

Now friends, I call this EVIL. Sometimes Christian critics say of Indian religions that they don't give the problem of evil the weight it deserves and I think that we should consider this criticism seriously. Recently on VNN, Akhilesvara Prabhu ("Practical Standard of Goodness") has cited such criticisms as expressed by Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz and other authors. Akhilesvara considers these critiques troubling and thinks that we should be able to argue a morality based on something other than "love thy neighbor." Unfortunately, he has not given us an alternative for Jesus' Golden Rule.

Certainly evil is a serious problem for Christians. Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov gives the example of the senseless cruelty of a Russian nobleman towards a child who has irritated him and asks how God could allow such unconscionable evils to exist. He argues that the existence of such cruelty is the best argument against belief in a just and merciful God. Even today, the existence of evil is a great stumbling block for the faith of many. (See Would You Believe? Finding God without losing your mind. by Tom Harpur. Toronto: MacLelland and Stuart, 1996.)

On the face of it, Hindu doctrine seems to have a higher threshold of tolerance for evil. The doctrine of karma says that people deserve their sufferings, even if they are children. We hold that people suffer because of their previous sinful actions, committed either in this life or another, they must continue to suffer until they have paid their debt in full or until they have learned the terrible lesson and turned to God. Ultimately, because these sufferings do not touch the soul, they are illusory. For the practitioner of spiritual life, they must be tolerated as much as the pleasures of the body must be considered with indifference.

Thus, the only true way to help anyone is to give them the means by which they can become free from the entangling cycle of sin and suffering. The Hindu view, which the Vaishnavas share, is that evil is an illusion. Intellectually, this is not altogether an unsatisfying proposition, inasmuch as it removes the blame for evil from God and onto the sufferer -- at least on an immediate level. But it has its problems and these problems have revealed themselves in the social system that grew in India. Srila Prabhupada argued that the Indian Varnashram social system was corrupt and based on a misunderstanding of the Gita. Others argue that the static agrarian society of old India sought an ideology that would provide social stability, and this was amply provided by the caste system, which was constructed on the basis of the karma doctrine. In a changing society, the rigid caste system has outlived its usefulness, however, and so should rightfully be rejected, or at least modernized. The Gita provides ample ammunition to argue against such rigidity. My point is that the evils of the caste system, which Prabhupada himself often mentioned, were based on the indifference to human suffering ingrained in the doctrine of karma. This is the great danger of the karma doctrine: it may make us uncompassionate.

A recent report released by Human Rights Watch called Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's Untouchables, written by Smita Narula, documents scores of recent cases involving Dalits or untouchables who were raped, murdered, expelled from school or beaten by police for no reason other than their caste status. This is such a blot on the name of Hinduism, and by extension, Krishna consciousness, that anyone who identifies with the Vedic system must align themselves and indeed work against this miscarriage of the divine plan. Human society is the body of the Purusha--how can any part of society be mistreated in this way? This is called ardha-kukkuti nyaya, accepting half a hen. All human beings are worthy of dignity, all human beings are the seat of the divine. How can any member of human society tolerate such indignities being carried out against any other member, especially in the name of the Vedic religion?

Now, preachers of Krishna consciousness, as we have seen, believe that the ultimate benefit for everyone comes from helping them to awaken their eternal relationship with God. Devotees are said to be compassionate because despite personal difficulty, they try to distribute the knowledge by which this relationship can be nurtured. Those who have been preaching Krishna consciousness know how difficult this is. I would like to propose humanitarian acts as a process both for preaching Krishna consciousness and for developing the compassion that is an integral part of Krishna consciousness.

There are several levels on which humanitarian activity should be seen as helpful in spreading Krishna consciousness. These come to mind immediately. There are probably more:

(1) For propaganda purposes to those who are helped. People who are ill, troubled, or distressed in any way will remember favorably those who help them. One of the categories of person who becomes a devotee is the distressed. Thus the distressed is a category of potential devotee -- not the best source for finding fully committed, full time devotees, perhaps, but certainly for a more generalized, congregational type of devotee. True religious life is only possible for someone whose material needs have been met. Renunciation only possible for one who has something to renounce. So to work towards the economic uplift of people is not dishonorable. Since most devotees reading this likely come from Western cultures, they should recognize the benefits that have come of their wealth. Our wealth has given us the leisure to consider devotional service as a source of meaning to life after sense gratification failed to give us the fulfilment we looked for.

(2) For propaganda purposes to those who hear about it. This is generally well understood by leaders of the Krishna consciousness movement, but unfortunately abused. I think of the publicity generated in Mayapur many years ago when the cornerstone of a hospital was laid. No hospital was ever built. I think of all the money that was collected for food distribution and went to buying castles in Europe. Without being genuine, this cannot work.

(3) To engage devotees in varnashram activity. Since varnashram in its purest sense is a society in which each individual works for the benefit of the whole, those who cannot engage in "pure" devotional service may be engaged in activities which are of benefit to the poor, the hungry and the downtrodden.

(4) For the development of genuine compassion. How can devotees sustain the aristocratic disdain for human suffering that is such an integral part of caste Hinduism? Being para-duhkha-duhkhi means more than simply feeling vague feelings of sympathy for the suffering masses. Vasudeva Datta repeated the Bodhisattva vow and Mahaprabhu assured him that by his simple wish, all living beings were liberated. This is a tough one to accept on faith. Action must not only be condoned, but promoted and encouraged.

(5) For the development of a genuine service spirit and selflessness. Prabhupada often criticized Vivekananda's "daridra-narayana" concept. But can we deny that Narayana is present in the hearts of all living beings? Did not Narayana appear as a beggar to Rantideva to test his charitable spirit? Can we not serve Krishna in man as a consequence of our faith in him? Mahaprabhu says that one can chant the Holy Name only if he "gives respect to all others" (mänadena), so perhaps we should see that such compassionate service may contribute positively to our Krishna consciousness.

(6) Help devotees develop an awareness of the misery of the material world (janma-mrityu-jarä-vyädhi-duhkha-dosänudarsanam) and detachment. "The intelligent man is always pessimistic," says Prabhupada (JAMES.HAY). Buddhist philosophy starts with dukkham--"we are all suffering."

These are just some of the points I want to make. I hope that Murali Krishna and his friends will have success in their efforts. If my suggestions are thought to fall within the category of "conventional morality," I still hope that they will touch some of those who read them. Those who argue that such compassionate activities are misguided, just as it would be to save the coat of a drowning man, I have one question: could you save a drowning person without his clothes? Would you insist that such a person undress before you would save him or her? Everyone must be dealt with according to their material situation.

How much more honorable it would be to engage in some tangible works of welfare to people rather than arguing about the process of disciplic succession! Tamo-guna, or evil, serves a function: it primes the field. Fighting tamo-guna sows the seed of goodness, both in the devotee and in those who are benefitted by him. Humanitarian welfare work should be an integral aspect of any preaching program.

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