by Hari Pārṣada Dāsa
[Note: The aim of this article is not to speak of any one specific race, group or spiritual institution. It is written by myself in my individual capacity, not as a member of a specific race, group or a specific spiritual institution. Any names of individuals, races or groups mentioned in the article are simply for the sake of making a general siddhāntic point, and not for any other purpose. This is a lengthy article, so please take out some quality time before reading it.]
“You’re not this body!”, said one sādhu to another.
“Dear Sādhu! Try making the same transcendental statement without using your body.”, came the reply from the other sādhu.
We live in strange and challenging times. On one hand we see the catastrophic suffering being faced not only by the world in general but also by specific humans and communities. At the same time we see śāstra giving us lofty instructions on transcending the ephemeral bodily platform. How do we clear out the confusion in our minds and do what is needed? How did the Goswamis of Vrindavan manage to keep their calm and mental stability intact when Islamic marauders were killing sādhus left, right and center around them? Did sādhu lives not matter?
— CLEARING OUT THE CONFUSION —
In order to clear out the confusion, there are three technical terms given by the previous ācāryas that we need to understand correctly. The previous ācāryas have said that sattā (existence) of an entity is on three levels:
(1) Prātibhāsika-sattā — Existence which is false in the ultimate, absolute sense as well as in the immediate sense. For example, seeing a rope at night and mistaking it to be a snake. The snake that we accidentally saw existed neither in the immediate sense nor in the ultimate sense. The term prātibhāsika comes from the term pratibhāsa (false semblance). This term was used by impersonalists to say that the world is false, but Śrī Madhvācārya proves otherwise.
(2) Vyāvahārika-sattā — Existence which is true in the immediate sense but is temporary and thus false in the ultimate absolute sense. For example, one’s existence as an Indian, African, Chinese etc. in the current body that one is situated in. The term vyāvahārika comes from the term vyavahāra (practical day to day reality and dealings).
(3) Pāramārthika-sattā — Existence which is true in the immediate as well as the ultimate, absolute sense. For example, the fact that we all are souls, or the fact that Krishna exists everywhere. The term pāramārthika comes from the term paramārtha (highest truth).
— GIVING INSTRUCTIONS ON TWO LEVELS —
Now that these three terms have been defined, it is important to be understood that śāstra gives instructions on two of these three levels. These two levels are — vyāvahārika (pertaining to day to day practicalities) and pāramārthika (pertaining to the absolute truth).
When a particular problem is on the vyāvahārika level, many individuals are not really looking for a pāramārthika solution. To give a pāramārthika solution to such individuals is a waste of time in such situations. It only adds to their confusion and angst. Therefore, a sādhaka should be careful not to give a pāramārthika instruction to a person who is looking for a vyāvahārika solution to a particular problem.
An example of both these types of instructions occurs in the second chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā. The first line of thought that Krishna gives to Arjuna is based on sāṅkhya-yoga, where Krishna’s main message is that — “You and these warriors are not these bodies but are the souls, and hence you should not lament, and instead you should fight”. Krishna sees however that Arjuna is not able to appreciate this pāramārthika line of thought, and hence he changes tracks to karma-yoga and says — “Considering your specific duty as a kṣatriya, you should fight” (Bhagavad-gītā 2.31).
Why does Krishna suddenly change from describing Arjuna as a spirit soul to describing him as a kṣatriya? The reason is that he sees Arjuna being incapable of appreciating pāramārthika instructions at that specific moment of lamentation. Śrīla Śrīdhara Svāmī has spoken of this in his commentary to Bhagavad-gītā (2.39). This is the sign of a good teacher.
At the same time, there are also teachers who give pāramārthika solutions even to vyāvahārika problems when they see that the candidate is fit to receive such instructions. An example of this is Śrī Nārada’s instruction to the Haryaśvas in Canto 6, Chapter 5. The Haryaśvas were engaged in austerities for creating progeny, but Śrī Nārada engaged them on the pāramārthika path. Another example in recent times is Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura giving a pāramārthika solution to many individuals who came to him with vyāvahārika problems pertaining to India’s independence.
— THE HALLMARK OF AN EXPERT SĀDHU —
The hallmark of an expert sādhu is the ability to distinguish between candidates based on the solution that is ideal for them and is capable of uplifting them spiritually. When sādhus confuse the vyāvahārika and pāramārthika platforms, they end up giving very confusing, non-beneficial instructions to others. Some examples of such confusing instructions are as follows:
(a) To say — “We’re not these bodies”, in the context of a problem pertaining to the immediate human society. The immediate human society is on the vyāvahārika platform, so it doesn’t appreciate pāramārthika statements.
(b) To say — “Genders are all equal, since we are all spirit souls”, in the context of the immediate human society. The human society was, is and will always be divided into genders, and pāramārthika solutions won’t work in the immediate vyāvahārikasituation.
(c) To say — “Focus right now on earning a livelihood, or take a vacation if needed but don’t bother yourself with these vague inquiries.” to a person who is undergoing an identity crisis/existential ennui. This person is suited for a pāramārthika solution but is being incorrectly offered a vyāvahārika one.
The same Nārada Muni who offered pāramārthika instructions to the Haryaśvas also gave vyāvahārika instructions to Yudhiṣṭhira on family life in Canto 7, Chapter 14. This is precisely what an expert sādhu is. The same Śrīla Prabhupāda who gives pāramārthika instructions on why feeding the poor is not a solution to the world’s problems gave the following statement when he was informed in 1974 that there is acute shortage of food in India:
[Quote]: “Now I am especially concerned to distribute grains, rice, wheat in the form of dal and rice prasadam to hungry people all over India. The people here are very disturbed because, partly due to the punishment of Nature, and partly due to the mismanagement of the demon class of men, food is not available. If the people do not even have sufficient food they will not even be able to receive spiritual instructions. So I am hopeful that if we can widely distribute free foodstuffs to the people of India, by giving it out at our centers as well as by travelling parties to villages, we will win over the whole country and the whole world by this activity on Krishna’s behalf. You write that members of the Gujarati community would like to contribute $10,000.00 toward a temple there, but at this time I think the money could be better spent by contributing to shipping grains to India for distribution.” (Letter to Satyahit, 16 March 1974, emphasis added)
The same Śrīla Prabhupāda who on many occasions was against mundane charity work is speaking of widely distributing food grains not only in the temple but also through “travelling parties”. He is willing to halt temple construction funds and redirect them for the sake of food distribution in the situation of a natural calamity. He himself understands that pāramārthika solutions such as book distribution are not going to work when he says that “If the people do not even have sufficient food they will not even be able to receive spiritual instructions”. This is the subtle intelligence that only an ācārya has when it comes to harmonizing the conflicting platforms of vyāvahārika-sattā and pāramārthika-sattā. The ācārya knows perfectly which instruction to favor on which occasion.
— DOUBTS —
Doubt) Have any of the previous ācāryas spoken of this terminology of vyāvahārika and pāramārthika?
Answer) Yes, Śrīla Bhaktivinode Ṭhākura in his Jaiva-dharma (Chapter 6) speaks of these two. Here is the relevant excerpt:
[Excerpt] Vaiṣṇava dāsa Bābājī: “Human activities can be categorized under two headings: vyāvahārika, mundane and social; and pāramārthika, spiritual.” (Jaiva-dharma, Chapter 6) [End of Excerpt]
Doubt) If I’m severely affected by the current vyāvahārika problem of discrimination against a specific race viz. blacks, then what should I do?
Answer) In my individual capacity, the first thing I would like to say to anyone affected by the problem, especially my black-bodied brothers and sisters is that it is important to realize the fact that the concept of race is never going to go away. The various races that we see today were existing even in the time of the composition of the Śrīmad-bhāgavatam (see verse 2.4.18) and will continue to exist as long as human society exists. The names keep changing, but the concept of race stays as long as human society exists.
Moreover, there are many places in śāstra where dark colors are associated with the lower modes and the color white is associated with the mode of goodness. For example, please see Śrīmad-bhāgavatam (10.3.20). These statements are misunderstood by individuals with lesser intelligence and misapplied on races and skin colors. Vyāsadeva and Draupadī are dark in complexion, but in a civilized society, their skin color was not associated with inferiority and they were not discriminated on the basis of such a skin color. Draupadī is in fact glorified by the name — Kṛṣṇā (with the elongated ā at the end). This name glorifies her dark skin color.
The vaiṣṇava commentator Śrī Harisūri says that there are many individuals who are like Bakāsura (the crane demon), who may be pristinely white on the outside, but are filled with the dense darkness of the mode of ignorance on the inside. Such Bakāsuras in human society must be completely avoided by the intelligent.
On the other hand, there are supremely devoted souls viz. Kāka-bhuśuṇḍi, who may be dark on the outside but are filled with the supremely transcendental pristine brilliant color of devotion on the inside. Other examples are Vyāsadeva, Draupadī etc. So many great personalities of various colors and shades were present in India that the society in general could not associate color of skin with any inferiority or superiority. At the same time, there were other discriminations in that society viz. caste, which had nothing to do with skin color.
Due to the history of the past few centuries, the concepts of colonization and racial superiority have become associated with skin color. People of certain skin colors have been humiliated in perhaps the worst possible ways, and these are all very valid reasons for seeking vyāvahārika changes in the society outside. At the same time, my very humble suggestion to devotees is to not get involved in any mass movements centered around social change.
Doubt) Why do you suggest not participating in mass movements to bring social change?
Answer) This suggestion is only for the devotee. Those who are not devotees are already trying their best to bring social change in these mass movements. My personal suggestion for not participating in mass movements is due to the fact that any and every mass movement ultimately runs out of its zing in due course of time, and the people who participated in it feel purposeless, or even cheated in life.
In the past two centuries, many mass movements were started in India to bring social change. Some of these movements were started by learned, devoted, brāhmaṇa born individuals whereas some of them were started by extreme anti-brāhmiṇical atheists. A hundred years down the line, these movements have lost all charm and are filled with many ruffians who have no real connection to the purpose of the founders of the original movement. They’ve become places for such ruffians to fill their bellies and attain social prestige.
This is true in case of social movements, political movements and also religious movements. In his article on Pūtanā, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī said that religious movements and institutions often turn out to be places that shelter “the staunchest upholders of the grossest forms of worldliness from which even the worst of non-ecclesiastical criminals are bound to recoil.”
In India, I’ve often heard the following Hindi statement — “गोरे अंग्रेज़ चले गए, अब भूरे अंग्रेज़ रह गए हैं” — “The white-skinned british rulers left India long ago, and now we’re ruled by brown-skinned british rulers.”
The situation never changes. Mass Movements are for inspiring people who otherwise have no capability of inspiring themselves in their lives. Kali-yuga is an age filled with śūdras of all colors, and this is the reason why mass movements are so popular in this age. We never see any social, political or religious mass movements described in the previous three ages in śāstra, because the people of those ages were intelligent enough to solve their problems locally through vyāvahārika and pāramārthika means given in śāstra. The Supreme Lord himself does not inaugurate any mass movements in the previous three ages. Mass Movements are in essence, a kali-yuga phenomenon.
Every mass movement can quickly and easily become a sinister tool in the hands of the age of Kali (religious movements included). An intelligent devotee must stay aside and spend time for pāramārthika purposes. By the time we spend our lives in a movement for bringing social change, the movement itself changes and then we join another movement for “reforming the deviated movement”. The non devotees may spend their lives on such issues, but please let our precious devotee lives be saved from all this for pāramārthika purposes.
Black lives matter, but they also matter equally in predominantly black continents viz. Africa, where black skinned leaders mercilessly kill and torture their own black skinned brothers for political or social purposes. To say that black lives matter only in a first world country is not fully appropriate in my vision.
At the same time, one should not deny the facts on the vyāvahārika platform that black-skinned individuals have been discriminated against and that tangible vyāvahārika change needs to be there in the society outside.
Question) As a devotee then, what is the best vyāvahārika solution to these problems?
Answer) The best vyāvahārika solution for a devotee is to create awareness about such discrimination and take steps to address it on the local level. Local level solutions are ideal, because they’re tailor-made for the needs of a local community. We should avoid trying to go big and global with every solution, because what is medicine for one man may turn out to be poison for another. Cultures, localities, tastes and cuisines change every few hundred miles, and therefore local solutions are ideal. This is the best vyāvahārika change in my opinion that a devotee can bring. The pāramārthika changes to one’s personal character are already described in śāstra, and thus I will not elaborate on them here.
Some suggested vyāvahārika changes can be as follows — (a) Ensuring that people of all color get represented in all devotional services ; (b) Ensuring that qualified people of all color get opportunities to be appointed to leadership ; (c) Ensuring on a personal level that we associate with, honor prasādam with and exchange gifts with devotees of all colors. All six exchanges of love described in Nectar of Instruction (Verse 4) should be included in this list.
Finally, one should understand that all vyāvahārika solutions have limitations. Even though we may put checks and balances in place, there will be occasional slips and disturbances, and this is the very nature of vyāvahārika solutions. Even the best mind of all times — the dark skinned Vyāsadeva, tried his best to give vyāvahārika solutions to the problems of the world in his seventeen purāṇas, but ended up thoroughly dejected by seeing the effects of time on all these ephemeral vyāvahārika solutions.
Ultimately, it is only direct contact with the name, form, narrations and beauty of the transcendentally dark-skinned Krishna that will make our souls pristinely and transcendentally white. Demons may come in any form — Bakāsura (externally white, internally dark) or Dhenukāsura (externally and internally dark), but after trying our best at implementing vyāvahārika solutions, the best we can do is turn to the pāramārthika ones. Let us keep that in our minds, and progress on our respective paths of bhakti.