Are Gaudiyas Liberal or Conservative?

This video explores what the speaker, Jonathan Haidt, calls the “moral foundations” of humans. Based on his studies he has identified what he considers to be five essential traits of the moral mind. He concludes by heading East and noting that the religions of the East have “attained” this point and sought to integrate all five aspects properly.

You can find out more and participate in this study and others, here.


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32 Responses to Are Gaudiyas Liberal or Conservative?

  1. The question being asked is, “Are Gaudiya’s liberal or conservative?”.
    I think to classify someone as either liberal or conservative is to impose an artificial conception upon them which may limit our ability to actually appreciate their divinity. The goal of the Gaudiya’s is far far beyond these petty material designations.
    My question is, why might we feel a need to classify people as either liberal or conservative? What does that say about the scope of our thinking?

    • In the ultimate sense these labels may be artificial yet we are constantly moving in this world based on these concepts.If Gaudiyas are going to interface effectively with the world we should know who we may or may not want to want to engage with. This is the the work of the madhyama-adhikari, discrimination.

      The editors of this site are deliberately interpreting many of the posted subjects from a more liberal view of scripture and world issues. Why? Because it is both a more accurate interpretation of scripture and a more congenial way of looking at these issues.

      Regardless, we will be labeled one way or the other by others. As a Gaudiya group, SCS falls more into the liberal category than most other Gaudiya missions. As a result, we will tend to attract those who can appreciate our message as well as being more open minded in general. If a mission’s message tends to be more conservative the outreach is limited as more conservative thinkers tend to be more rigid in their thinking and so less open to a more progressive message.

  2. Are Gaudiya’s liberal or conservative? In many ways that’s a very interesting question with important repercussions for our movement.
    Gaudiya Vaishnavism was once considered very liberal but is now often seen as quite conservative. Perhaps such views oscillate back and forth over time, based on preaching requirements. Srila Prabhupada, for instance, was very liberal in his early preaching in the West but became much more conservative later on. Furthermore, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura is often viewed as liberal while his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, is generally seen as quite conservative. As with other faiths, Gaudiya Vaishnavism likely has both its liberal and conservative components and members as well as branches or sects that are more liberal or more conservative leaning. Such members and sects then prosper or diminish, based on the requirements of the times, like the fine tuning of a car or piano.

    Personally I feel at present Gaudiya Vaishnavism has become too conservative and needs to swing back more toward the liberal. Many devotees believe that, in general, liberalism should be given precedence over conservatism in Vaishnavism. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, for instance, describes vaisnava-dharma as “very liberal” in his book, “Jaiva Dharma.”

  3. I hope everyone commenting on this issue has watched the video. Very interesting.

  4. I guess judging from my comments it seems I am not too willing to step out of the “moral matrix”. 🙂

    I do however appreciate Jonathon Haidt’s declaration of a passionate committment to truth with the goal of a better future for the world. Although applying his exercise of “moral humility” seems to be no easy task.

  5. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090608/ap_on_re_eu/eu_european_elections
    EU election results where the all white party won seats for the first time shows amara’s point and how people switch between conservative and liberal stances according to the time.

  6. I think the answer to the liberal or conservative question lies in motivation. I think it could be argued that there is a pre-liberated fight between these two opposing forces. Then with “moral humility” and a kind of liberated morality, one attains a more objective view wherein one becomes detached from being morally “right” and sees these labels as just part of the dance of the material world, the fight of good versus evil; to be checked out of the moral matrix. But then there is also a transcendent morality wherein the pure soul can be motivated by divine love. In this case, the soul may act in what appears to be the realm of material morality, taking a stand or acting in ways that may look conservative or liberal, but goes much deeper. This is why the heart of the devotee is very difficult to understand. Love (bhakti) is confusing and you can’t pin it down and label it.

    • Another interesting way to think about this is from the perspective of kanistha, madhyama, uttama stages. The kanistha would exhibit polarity, clinging to one end of the spectrum of conservative or liberal. The madhyama who is characterized by discrimination is always analyzing, doubting, reconsidering and may lie in that middle ground out of a kind of “moral humility”. The uttama is completely out of the picture and may act anywhere on the map and one would be lost trying to pin such a person down on a morality spectrum because they are completely other-worldly.

  7. Perhaps the answer is both. Haidt makes the claim that one of the major personality traits of liberal people is “openness to experience” and based on that criterion alone I would say that many Gaudiyas (particularly Western converts) are indeed liberals. If not they would never have entertained the idea of becoming members of an unfamiliar (from a Western perspective) religious sect.

    He goes on to say that conservative people tend to crave the familiar, safe, and dependable. That can certainly describe many Gaudiyas as well–having experienced that life can be unsafe and disappointing, often delivering to us the opposite of what we wanted, a religio-philosophical system like GV can offer (in an ultimate sense) the surety, safety, and dependability the world cannot.

    Haidt then makes his real point: a balance is needed between the two. We do need to cultivate the ability to step outside of the “moral matrix” as he call it, but that is not a place where he says we should (or realistically can) reside. This stepping outside of the moral matrix could be considered analogous to the rising above our material designations (upadhis) in the course of our sadhana. In that space we can look at life from a more neutral perspective which then informs our perspective and choices when we return to everyday consciousness.

  8. Seeing as this discussion just picked up today, I want to mention that this was posted and named as it was in the context of a discussion going on on the Bhagavat Leans Left article. This topic can be analyzed many ways for in many senses the goal of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is quite different than the practice, at least certain stages of the practice. I tried to summarize one way to think about Haidt’s points in a comment on that article.

    Obviously spirituality ultimately goes far beyond any political stance, but nonetheless it is not wrong or impossible to discuss the interaction of them. For example, the vegetarianism and other more environmentally healthy practices that are seen as a spiritually based principles in Hinduism, fit practically into the “liberal” side of things as it is conceived of in this day and age. Advaita’s article tends to highlight the liberal nature of much of the lila, but because the lila is seen by devotees as the very goal of life itself, it seems reasonable that some degree of that “liberal-ness” would be present here too.

    I think one of the best things about the video is that it gives a much more concrete basis for the use of the terms liberal and conservative, and than a discussion like this becomes less forced.

  9. The foundation of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, sambanda jnana, begins with the recognition of the limitations and inherent fallacy of the material designations.

  10. Also, I think a very strong case can be made for the liberal nature of our acharyas, in the context of their times. Bhaktivinoda had a dog, interfaced with Christians and others, proposed that the Bhagavat had been written at least in part by a South Indian, and so on and so forth. Bhaktisiddhanta wore leather shoes, instituted sannyas into Gaudiya Vaishnavism, initiated westerners, started the Gaudiya Math, criticized other Gaudiyas, and so much more. Prabhupada further allowed westerners and women to do puja, had Brahmacharinis, and so forth. All of these show a low emphasis on Haidts “purity”, “authority” (in one sense), and “ingroup/loyalty”, these are all “liberal” leaning stances. And the same time, they are high on “harm/cure” and high on “fairness”, both typically liberal as well. It is not making GV mundane, but it is an interesting angle to look at. Are we merely supposed to deny all relation to the world on the grounds of being transcendent?

    Rather I think we are supposed to try to filter the theory of GVism down into our daily lives which, like it or not, tend to involve politics and society to an extent. The point is that I think there is a strong case to say that the filtered down philosophy of GVism in the present day will often be close, or at least closer, to the “left.”

    • Are we merely supposed to deny all relation to the world on the grounds of being transcendent?

      Sambanda jnana does not merely deny all relation to the world. Rather, it is the objective truth of reality and fully encompasses all the aspects of reality.

      The paradigm of liberal and conservative is subjective. It is a construct of the subjective mind. For Gaudiyas to view themselves, their path, their acaryas in these subjective terms is just to exercise their own subjective cultural conditioning in relation something that stands fully above the it. Its not wrong to do so, provided we recognize what it is that we are doing.

      We could just as easily make the case that Gaudiyas are conservative. Ultimately, we will not be successful in fitting all or perhaps even one Gaudiya into either liberal or conservative. I guess we’ll just have to throw them in the moderate bin and of course a we’ll put the appasampradayas in the extremist bin.

      There, all finished. Now we have placed all humanity into neat categories that we can speculate about. If there is anything that can’t be explained we will just get out our magic wand of secular mythology, evolution, and tada! Objective truth!

  11. Srila Prabhupada refused the label “conservative” as if it were a bad word, after once being labeled as such by Allen Ginsberg in an article appearing in the San Francisco “Chronicle” [Jan. 1967]:

    “Srila Prabhupada objected to being called conservative. He was indignant: ‘Conservative? How is that?’ ‘In respect to sex and drugs,’ Mukunda suggested. ‘Of course, we are conservative in that sense,’ Prabhupada said. ‘That simply means we are following shastra. We cannot depart from Bhagavad Gita. But conservative we are not. Caitanya Mahaprabhu was so strict that He would not even look on a woman, but we are accepting everyone into this movement, regardless of sex, caste, position, or whatever. Everyone is invited to come chant Hare Krishna. This is Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s munificence, His liberality. No we are not conservative.'”
    (“Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta” 3.1, pp. 6-7)

    Another intriguing thought is that these two categories likely have their pure spiritual counterparts in transcendence. For instance, the “right-wing” or submissive, obediant gopis versus the “left-wing” or feisty, unsubmissive ones. Krsna is said to be more pleased with the behavior of the unsubmissive, “left-wing” gopis. Similarly, Jatila often enforces strict dharmic behavior on Sri Radha in an attempt to keep Her separated from Krsna. Purnamasi, on the other hand, is always bending the rules to arrange secret meetings between the two Divine Lovers at night. Both approaches enhance the Lord’s pleasure but the latter ones please Him the most.

    This is what I’ve been told, anyway. Please correct me if I’m wrong as I am most unqualified to describe the Lord’s pastimes.

    • Nice points. Yes, this my understanding of SP’s overall feeling and presentation. Those who represent him most accurately embrace and represent the liberality of GV.

      I really appreciate your comments on the gopis and taking this discussion “all the way home” so to speak. Yes, Krsna seems to prefer those feisty left wing gopis of Vraja.

      • In order to function like left-wing gopies we have to follow the path of gosvamis. In beginning stages of bhakti, we need to be submissive until the yearning takes over. The left-wing feisty behavior is not to be displayed with the guru. Otherwise Dawkins and Hitchens who are “left leaning” will be the best candidates for GV. First conquer anger and lust and then come under svarupa sakti who will make you angry for Krsna. Till the stage of ruci genuine left wing gopi behavior will not manifest so it better to be right wing submissive till then.

        I am kind of confused. According to a survey,95% left wing liberal people support abortion, stem-cell research,cloning and relaxed drug laws. So are we left wing in that way?
        Right wing in vedic tradition had some concern for other species and the environment unlike right in the US. So some country’s left will become left in another country.

        I certainly have a problem with the term left because the left wing in India is opposed to religion, economic reforms etc. They derive great pleasure in deprecating hindu gods etc.

        • I am kind of confused. According to a survey,95% left wing liberal people support abortion, stem-cell research,cloning and relaxed drug laws. So are we left wing in that way?
          Right wing in vedic tradition had some concern for other species and the environment unlike right in the US. So some country’s left will become left in another country.

          I certainly have a problem with the term left because the left wing in India is opposed to religion, economic reforms etc. They derive great pleasure in deprecating hindu gods etc.

          Gaura Vijaya. I think you are getting at the problem here regarding categorizing ourselves as liberal or conservative. These are ultimately just cultural constructs. I think Haidt tries to get beyond a lot of the problems that arise when they are related to specific moral judgments by finding these 5 major moral concepts. Defining an individual or a group as liberal or conservative is really a subjective moral judgment in itself. What is liberal or conservative in one time, place, circumstance, culture, gender, etc, etc, etc. will not be so in another. So, the term liberal or conservative cannot really be successfully related to anyone in particular. To define someone as liberal or conservative is to objective that person. Everything we experience as an object invokes a subjective response from us.

          • I think views on social issues like abortion, drug laws, etc., are subject to time and place. These issues are very complicated and they cannot be addressed solely by dogma.

            As I have mentioned in my first post and then as Madan Gopal mentioned, it is the madhyama who analyzes,discriminates and acts according to such considerations of time, place, and circumstance. One in this stage demonstrates the balanced application of GV principles. The madhyama is also the stage in which one can effectively communicate and distribute the principles of bhakti. The madhyama understands essential truths and can apply them for the gradual betterment of society, an act of “moral humility”.

    • Really nice points, Amara. Thank you.

  12. Summary:
    Haidt suggests that by learning about moral psychology one can step outside the “moral matrix” i. e. the subjective, biased understanding of the world that he postulates arises from identification with a group.
    Haidt then suggests that we can gain this understanding of moral psychlogy by embracing the concept “inateness” and specifically in developmental psychology called “first draft of the moral mind”. The first draft of the moral mind is apparently provided by “nature”.
    So, Haidt and his colleague did research across disciplines, anthropology, cultural variation, morality and evolutionary pshycology to find out what is on the “first draft of the moral mind”. The condensed their research into what they perceived to be five key concepts:
    1. Harm/Care: Haidt suggests that this arises from the hormonal influence that we experience as mamals
    2. Fairness/Reciprocity: There is clear evidence this exists in humans and is apparently foundational to religion (see Karen Armstong)
    3. In Group Loyalty: Comes from our long history of tribal psychology. An “ancient drive”
    4. Authority/Respect : Based more on voluntary deference and even elements of love in humans as opposed to power and submission among animals.
    5. Purity Sanctity: The idea that one can attain purity or morality by controlling what one does with the body or puts into the body.

    The above are believed by Haidt to be the five best candidates for what is written on the “first draft of the moral mind”, what is innate to human morality.

    Using these five concepts as the basis for assessing morality as it relates to liberal and conservative labels, Haidt and his colleague created a questionaire which they put up on a website. They received 30,000 responses in total, 23,684 of which came from American citizens, the remaining 6,316 of which came from Canada, UK, Austalia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Middle East, East Asia, South Asia.

    He then ascertains that the conflict between conservatives and liberals is more about in group loyalty, authority/respect and purity than it is about harm/care, fairness/reciprocity.

    Haidt then introduces the question, Why is in group loyalty, Authority and Purity of value. He states that the “timeless truth” of social enthropy reveals the answer. That order tends to decay. This tendency is kept at bay both in secular and religious circles by introducing punishment as a means to maintain order. He then adds that some people believe that religion is an adaptation evolved by cultural and biological evolution both to make groups cohere in part for the purpose of being more trusting with each other and being more effective at competing with other groups. Haidt then states that he thinks this is probably right. He suggests that because humanity has used all five of the foundations of the moral mind this has a lot to do with the ability of humans to cooperate and build civilization.

    Haidt suggests that by recognizing that both liberals and conservatives have something to contribute to the well-being of humanity we can step outside the moral matrix. He then suggests that this is the great insight that all the asian religions have attained.

    Haidt says that our righteous minds were “disigned” by “evolution”, to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams and blind us to the truth. Observe the self-righteous struggles in humanity, participate, but step outside the matrix and check in with the wisdom of the eastern religions. Step outside the moral matrix and cultivate moral humility.

    So TED is a group of individuals passionately engaged to try to make the world a better place and with a passionate commitment to the truth.

    • What Haidt finds valuable about the eastern religions is their ability to appreciate the value in both sides of the liberal/conservative paradigm. He recommends in his conclusion that humanity continue to engage their world according to their own liberal/conservative view, but “check-in” with eastern religions to “step outside the moral matrix” and cultivate “moral humility”.

      So… In terms of Gaudiyas. Are they liberal or conservative. Here are some possible answers:
      1. Liberal
      2. Conservative
      3. Neither
      4. Both
      5. It depends on which paradigm is most useful for them at the time
      6. They are transcendental to liberal and conservative

      I think the answer could possibly be any of the above according to the situation of the individual. Those Gaudiyas who are transcendental to the liberal/conservative paradigm are the guiding light for all the others.

  13. Gaura-Vijaya,

    Could you please cite which survey you are referring to that says “95% left wing liberal people support abortion.” I have not been able to find statistics on support of abortion according to political affiliation. I did find some interesting related statistics though:

    “During Reagan’s administration a study showed that 75% of Republican women were pro-choice.”

    “Kerry Kennedy, daughter of RFK and author of Being Catholic Now, stated in an NPR interview that in Democratic administrations abortion rates go DOWN 34% while in Republican administrations, abortion rates go UP 14%. This is due to the social programs that Democrats put in place to educate, provide contraception, counsel, adoption alternatives. Democrats provide services that DETER abortion, not promote it.”

    “Women identifying themselves as Protestants obtain 37.4% of all abortions in the U.S.; Catholic women account for 31.3%, Jewish women account for 1.3%, and women with no religious affiliation obtain 23.7% of all abortions. 18% of all abortions are performed on women who identify themselves as “Born-again/Evangelical”.

    Here is the religious preferences in the U.S. from a 2007 study cited on Wikipedia:

    * Christian: (78.4%)
    o Protestant (51.3%)
    o Roman Catholic (23.9%)
    o LDS (1.7%)
    o Jehovah’s Witness (0.7%)
    o Orthodox (0.6%)
    o other Christian (0.3%)
    * no religion (16.1%)
    * Jewish (1.7%)
    * Buddhist (0.7%)
    * Muslim (0.6%)
    * Hindu (0.4%)
    * other (1.2%)

  14. It was a fox news survey unfortunately so I think it must be biased. I saw it in their new channel but it may not be available in press. But above you can see that people from no religion contribute the maximum(16% contribute 23% of the abortions).
    I discussed this before that I support abortion in case of rape and mother’s life in danger. I agree that it is complex issue but I like to take things issue by issue and not make blanket statements about left or right. Here though I am making a mistake by saying left or right, it is liberal or conservative.

    According to the definition of liberal given here I am comfortable with it.
    But if we say that France is the ideal left-liberal state then I cannot agree as it is oppressive on any kind of religious sentiment
    in the name of being secular.
    Changes happen so rapidly; democrats used to win in baptist areas before and republicans used to win in the north east and california. This shows how the trend changes all the time.

    I am opposed to the left- liberal secular humanism of dennet, dawkins etc who place no value in any religion,

  15. So basically many people consider US to be socially conservative compared to Western Europe. I think western europe is better for gays and women but worse for black people and people wanting to practice religion.

    Here Obama has shown a balanced approach while dealing with the issue of abortion. http://news.yahoo.com/s/politico/20090517/pl_politico/22611 I think SP was very conservative on the issue of abortion and contraceptives and even today’s conservatives(the roman catholics you cited) will seem liberal compared to him on those issues. I cannot take the extreme stand of SP on this issue as they are very impractical for today’s times.
    Therefore I find it better to discuss with people on issues and see where I agree and disagree with them rather than just classify them as left, right. I am more of a centrist trying to harmonize both positions!!

    • Syama Gopala dasa

      “I think western europe is better for gays and women but worse for black people and people wanting to practice religion. ”

      Where’s this coming from, Gaura Vijaya?

      • From some friends in France and Germany. Everybody knows that in France it is pretty hard to use any kind of religious symbols and racism against blacks and Asians is rampant. I have first hand experience of being in France for a while and I felt that there was discrimination because of the color of my skin and I was not welcome there. The state of non-white people in France is disgusting to say the least and it reminds me of US of 60’s and 70’s. You cannot wear scarfs, cross and have any big religious gathering.

        I know that Netherlands is better in that regard and I am sorry I should have used these two countries as examples instead of Western Europe.

  16. I consider myself liberal because I am very hesitant to support laws that infringe on people’s civil rights whether they support my personal beliefs religious or otherwise. I consistently support choice in these matters. Issues like abortion, same sex marriage, stem cell research, etc., are all issues that I would vote for not because I would necessarily consider them for myself but because in general I don’t feel it is “moral” to limit people’s choices.

    • Morality is very relative according to me. I just have problem with the fact that there is no sense of transcendence acknowledged in liberal social scientists who tend to dominate academia. They are so much about secular humanism above everything else. Choice can also mean tampering with nature without much thought and lack of concern for other species. I think adequate tensions between different sides help in order to get a good synthetic solution.

    • Syama Gopala dasa

      I’m with you, Prema. As long as these choices do not impact the environment or any other way in which we would all be worse off.

  17. I found Jon Haidt’s focus on openness to experience and the five “first-draft” moral principles interesting and thought provoking. I also found it easy to oversimplify left-right analysis using these principles, especially the liberals’ imputed rejection of loyalty, authority, and purity. But what I find particularly useful in his presentation is his implied exhortation to take the red pill and move outside our own moral matrixes.

    Another way to understand the difference between liberals and conservatives would be, as suggested by linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, to analyze the metaphors through which we see and experience the world. He asserts that we think in conceptual metaphors, albeit subconsciously. The overarching metaphor Lakoff uses in his political analysis is the family, which can be extended to other communities, including classrooms, places of work, and national governments. One approach to family, which Lakoff describes as the conservative metaphor, is that of the strict father. The underlying idea is that the world is a dangerous place, and we are born bad, so the father serves best by asserting his authority and reforming us through reward and punishment. (Think James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline.) The other, which Lakoff uses to describe the liberal approach, is the nurturant-parent model. This model revolves around every family member caring for and being cared for by every other family member, around open communication between all parties, and around everyone pursuing their own vision of happiness.

    In his books, Lakoff makes it clear that these are broad generalizations and that both liberals and conservatives are not purely one or the other. For example, someone may be a nurturant parent in most aspects of his or her life, but he or she may teach at a university and run the classroom as a strict father would.

    This is actually a much bigger topic, and it may help Gaudiya vaishnavas understand where–and why–they are liberal or conservative. If there’s any interest, I may write something more developed.

  18. My view is that both liberalism and conservatism have been coopted and hijacked by the corporate/military/banking complex and this false left/right paradigm they have created has misled both sides into a dehumanizing control grid that seeks to enslave humanity to perpetual war and strife until the population of the planet is reduced to 500 million or 1 billion. So any sane person would have to root for this paradigm to eventually be transcended and replaced.

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