Review: What is the Difficulty?
Published on July 6th, 2009 | by Harmonist staff4
Srutakirti Dasa, What is the Difficulty? Herts: Dharma Publications, 2006.
Review By Swami Tripurari
A friend gave me a copy of Srutakirti dasa’s book, What Is the Difficulty? The book gives the reader a glimpse into Srila Prabhupada’s humanity/divinity, as Srutakirti remembers his two-year stint as Prabhupada’s personal servant. In my opinion, it is the humanity of Srila Prabhupada as portrayed by Srutakirti that makes his book most relishable.
An inordinate emphasis on the guru’s divinity can in the least eclipse the sweetness of his humanity. At worst such an emphasis can turn into religious fanaticism, in which the scriptural conclusions of a spiritual tradition (siddhanta) are distorted and everything is lost.
It is the tension between madhurya (sweetness) and aisvarya (majesty) that holds the Bhagavatam together. Vyasa wants to tell us about the sweetness of the Absolute, but he cannot do so without telling us about its majesty. If only the sweetness of the Absolute is presented, everything will be lost, and if only its majesty is stressed, the book will hold no charm. Thus on the backdrop of majesty Vyasa masterfully paints a picture of the sweetness of the Absolute.
For the most part Srutakirti has provided a much-needed emphasis on Prabhupada’s sweetness—his humanity—to a backdrop of majesty erected by others that has unfortunately left many with little common sense. And it is strong common sense, among other things, that Srila Prabhupada exhibits throughout Srutakirti’s account.
I laud Srutakirti for the obvious sincerity, simplicity, and immense love for Srila Prabhupada that pervade the book, but occasionally his comments partially cloud the import of the anecdotes he cites. However, most readers will probably not notice this, being charmed by the sweetness and humanity of Srila Prabhupada that many of his disciples did not have a direct experience of. Sharing that experience is for the most part what this book is about, and thus it is very refreshing. Hopefully it will help to tip the balance away from the religious fanaticism in the name of adherence to Srila Prabhupada so prevalent today in favor of a much lacking common sense approach to understanding the immense contribution of His Divine Grace.
What follows is an example from the book accompanied by my reflections on it.
At one point Srila Prabhupada explains that his “adjustment” of allowing women to live in his temples (a standard not found in India and Gaudiya Matha in particular) was one of the reasons for his success. When Srutakirti asks how one can determine what can and cannot be adjusted, Prabhupada replies that for this one requires a little intelligence.
Reading this I thought that such statements would shock readers who are convinced that the requirement for making such adjustments is that one must be a saktyavesa avatara, nitya siddha, etc., etc., as is often implied. Shock them, that is, in a positive sense and help them to better understand the dynamics involved in expanding the tradition. Thus I was disappointed when I read Srutakirti’s insights that followed. His realization was that Prabhupada was only exhibiting his humility by his statement, for only he could make such an adjustment.
Realizations like this have served only to halt the progress of disseminating the precepts of Sri Caitanya. Why? Because they are often used to intimidate others from using their God-given intelligence to distribute Krishna consciousness. Sri Krishna speaks of such intelligence in the Gita when he says, dadami buddhi yogam tam.
This was the first verse of the Gita that I learned, and one that Prabhupada cited to me and one of my Godbrothers many years later when discussing the nature of preaching. He stressed that each preacher derives inspiration and insight—buddhi/intelligence— from Sri Krishna in consideration of time and circumstances, and that such intelligence is the essential dynamic of preaching. It is also well known that Srila Prabhupada expected his students to use their intelligence and thereby continue disseminating the tradition in his absence. In the absence of such intelligence, the ongoing relevance of the tradition will be lost.
Details need to be adjusted over time to establish the principal tenets of a tradition. One who understands the principal tenets understands the difference between that which is essential to a tradition and that which is a detail. When such a devotee makes adjustments, no doubt those who have not understood the difference between these two will cry foul, but as Prabhupada himself would say, “Dogs will bark, but the train goes on.”
This is so very relevant to the western Gaudiya world today. So many devotees are frozen with the thought that nothing can be changed from what Srila Prabhupada said or the way he set things up for his society. The fact that the details should be changed to keep the tradtion relevant is completely lost to many even though such adjustment is in fact in the spirit of keeping things the way Srila Prabhupada set them up. He was a dynamic preacher and he adjusted many details to facilitate the spritual growth for his students. The example from the book is only one such change that Srila Prabhupada made based on common sense and recognizing how best to spread the mission of Sri Chaitanya in the western world. This dynamic preaching took place three to four decades ago. Any objective person should understand that times have drastically changed in that time span and that, therefore, there is a need for adjusting details to keep the tradition relevant.
Within the social body and structure of the formal institution that Srila Prabhupada set up I am not sure this common sense and obvious need can surface the way it needs to due to the overriding fear of overstepping the Guru and the large contingent of fanatical followers who keep anyone with any progressive ideas in check.
As stated in the article the tendency of stagnation is one that easily enters religious movements, but is in no way limited to them.
Rather, it seems to be something of a universal tendency, with form taking precedence over content. Not even the most self proclaimedly anarchistic traditions are free of this, as bitterly noted by the lead singer Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedies in the lyrics to one song on their album Bedtime for Democracy:
“If the music’s gotten boring
it’s because of the people
Who want everything to sound the same.
We drive the bright people out
Of our so called scene
´Til all that’s left
Is just a meaningless fad.”
As an added interesting comparison, I recently read a text by one of the more prominent modernist painters Josef Albers, who also was an educator. The book (of which I unfortunately only have a copy in Finnish, the quotes are thus translated by me) is called Taito Nähdä (The Art of Seeing), a collection of Albers’ articles, speeches and poems.
In a speech Albers gave at the Trinity College in April 1965 he brought forth many ideas worth repeating, a few of them relevant to this discussion:
“How did the masters become masters? Why are the greats great? Because they attempted to say something else than their masters, not just something new and different, but something living and progressive.
Because they chose to tread their own paths, seeking out the new and moving forward, not by rummaging in the past and resorting to regression.”
And while many might object to Albers opinions as a break of tradition, I personally do not think that this is what he intended to say, as is evident from another quote from the same speech:
“…this may lead some to fear a breaking away from the tradition. History and psychology have however shown that no such radical changes will happen in a person’s character, except in cases of mental disorders.
It is unfortunate that the prevalent conception of tradition is based more on fear, than it is on action. I’ve said previously that the tradition of art is to create, not preserve.”
Still another potentially interesting point is brought forth by another famous painter, Wassily Kandinsky, in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, originally published in 1911. I quote from the introduction:
“Every work of art is the child of its age, and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born.
It is impossible for us to live and feel, as did the the ancient Greeks. In the same way those who strive to follow the Greek methods in sculpture achieve only a similarity in form, the work remaining soulless for all time.”
Change requires a new paradigm. A new paradigm requires new vocabulary. You cannot have new vocabulary without new ideas. From a solution oriented point of view, that is why a website magazine like the Harmonist is essential. Instead of just criticising the status quo, it is positively defining the basics of Gaudia Vaishnavism in language that is accessible to a wide range of people. It is going to the depth of the essence of GV and illuminating minds from the foundation upward. It takes that kind of indepth effort to make true change happen. I enjoy the fact that the Harmonist is tying ideas of contemporary thought with Gaudia Vaishnavism. The Harmonist is filling a big vacuum that I have been feeling for a while.
As the movie the Field of Dreams says, “Make it and they will come…” Or in economic terms, “[A high quality] Supply creates its own demand.”
This sound like an important contribution. I hope the sweetness of his humanness will charm us all so we can truly appreciate the gifts he gave us.