Stepping Back Before Reaching Out

By Gopala dasa

The three young men—perhaps eighteen years old—huddled closely, speaking in whispers as they gestured towards the life-sized diorama. One shook his head while stifling a laugh amidst a playful, but hushed debate. The boys were gathered in front of a model of samsara, depicting the movement of the individual soul through a growing, maturing, and aging human body. Readying a rusty Bhagavad-Gita sloka and rustling up a bit of boldness, I inserted myself into the conversation and pointed decisively towards the figure that I thought best corresponded with the young men’s relative youth. I then, with a self-deprecating roll of the eyes, gestured to the more mature figure that might represent me.

Although I had done little more than extend a finger in the direction of some resin statues, I suddenly had a rapt audience. Not insignificantly, I was also a Caucasian westerner who had traveled all over these young people’s country of India, and who seemed (to the group’s collective amazement) to also know something of the philosophy underlying the fairly crude tableau that served as a backdrop for our meeting.

One of the men asked, “You have this [philosophy] in the USA?” I replied, with a hint of pride, that not only did we have the philosophy, but for several decades we have also had – in nearly every major city – deity forms that are only beginning to manifest in this particular region of India.

Not one to dominate a conversation, I asked my new acquaintances about their ambitions, schooling, and hometown. And not to my surprise, this group wanted just about everything that, at least on some level, characterized my life back in the U.S. Indeed, what eighteen-year-old in India is not excited by the economic developments in that country, new prospects for mobility of all kinds, and the demise of some of the most stringent socio-religious norms?

When I was younger, I might have cautioned this same group: “You won’t know what India is losing in its pursuit of ‘progress’ until it’s gone. Trust me. I’m an American. The west is a hellish place.” For various reasons, I did not conclude my interactions with this small but impressionable audience by issuing a grim prophesy. Rather, I wished them the best and took my leave with folded hands and a smile.

As I made my way onto the grounds of the architecturally staggering Radha-Krishna temple, I contemplated why I didn’t use my impromptu “authority” to decisively win those boys over on philosophical grounds. Did I lack faith? Has the intensity of my personal convictions waned? The group spoke reasonable English. I could have dropped the philosophical hammer and practically ensured that my new charges left the temple complex with no fewer than ten books and several meters of tulasi beads between them.

The more I reflected on that meeting, however, the less I worried about what I’d said (or didn’t say). I instead thought about the profound differences between the diffusion of Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy in the West and its diffusion in countries that are striving—in nearly every way—to become like the West in terms of standard of living, sophistication, and social character. That latter group of countries, although often imbued with a cultural richness, traditional set of values, and general moral turpitude long ago forfeited by the West, also embrace some ideas and beliefs that will not endure the tide of Western influence. That tide will dislodge things both good and much less good, as new and often well-reasoned information about history, psychology, and biology crashes into worldviews based on more ancient means of knowing.

In the meantime, however, outreach efforts by Gaudiya groups across the planet appear to have flourished in places that have not yet been exposed to the full face of powerful alternative views from academic disciplines and social movements. Such positions are not so easily brushed aside with a casual wave of the hand and a simple retort. But for the moment, even with little in the way of actual realization or expertise on my part, I probably had enough philosophical firepower in the holster (made credible by my unusual appearance among Indians) to leave a long-lasting, if not transformative impression.  Something about doing so, however, felt disingenuous. I moved on.

I haggled for an auto rickshaw outside the temple complex. As luck would have it, I negotiated a ride with a young driver who gave me a break on the price, perhaps in exchange for my (somewhat feigned) appreciation of his auto’s sound system and dance-club interior lighting. The pulse of deep bass from the vehicle was like the restless heartbeat of the young man in the driver’s seat. Although performing a humble job, he seemed to be looking to the future with optimism, rather than to the past with reverence.

Tearing through the city on three wheels, I realized how long it had been since I’d actually shared something direct about Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy with a complete stranger, what to speak of with teenagers who, in America, constitute one of the more challenging demographics. I thought about what it would take to effectively share that deceptively simple point, “kaumaram yauvanam jara,” with worldly, educated, and reason-demanding people. Could I do it? Would I sound genuine and relatable? Do I possess the vocabulary? The answer, I’m afraid, was an emphatic “No.”

Yet moments before, perhaps I could have convinced my small congregation of the fallacy of the entire scientific paradigm and compellingly put forward the precise formula for skirting the influence of Kali Yuga. (All with one hand bound securely in my bead bag, no less!)

The issue began to take shape as my rickshaw wove through traditional obstacles like cows, careened past new threats like passenger cars, and negotiated new nuisances like pedestrians engrossed by their mobile phones. To share Gaudiya Vaishnavism in a way that will resonate with a world that is reaping the fruits (some ripe, some spoiled) of reason and science necessitates an understanding of the essential spirituality that serves as the tradition’s basis. It necessitates the development of a language and supporting realization that allows one to talk to (and sympathetically hear from) his or her own contemporaries. It requires that one come to terms with the worldview of the present, and from there to discern a point of entry. This is much more difficult than conquering three eighteen-year-olds with one’s relative worldliness and seniority, or charming them with a few carefully chosen barbs flung at the west.

As the towering temple receded into the distance, I recognized that I had not yet reached the threshold of realization required for sharing something important to me in a way that will matter and make sense to those in my immediate world. And I didn’t want to put forward anything less to those three young men at the temple. They (and I) will ultimately need to develop a firm, yet flexible faith that can deal with—rather than flatly deny—the intellectual and other challenges that arise as science- and reason-driven perspectives come to dominate.

In light of that almost inevitable dominance, I chose (and choose) to focus on Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s capacity to effectively respond to, accommodate, and even embrace new information and change. The application, potential appeal, and transformative power of the tradition are not tied to any place, to any time, or to any phase in any culture’s trajectory. Rather it is a participatory tradition, the relevance and essence of which is perpetuated in the hearts of the true sadhus and acaryas who inherit, process, and—after some time—share something very old, anew. I recognize, too, that I need to become an active agent in that process of realization and renewal, rather than someone who mechanically passes on a few foreign words, to a few foreign people.

 


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