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Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the modern world. Dealing with the varieties of challenges we face as practicing Gaudiyas amidst Western culture.

Moral, natural and spiritual values as timeless - Distinguishing the eternal and the temporary

Madhava - Sat, 12 Jun 2004 01:57:43 +0530
Advaitadas wrote:

Moral, natural and spiritual values are timeless, however!

I would like to narrow this down to specifics. What are the moral, natural and spiritual values that remain unchanged over time?

Spiritual values, if defined as theology and philosophy related with the Absolute, evidently are timeless as the object of descriptions itself is timeless. This is by far the clearest of the categories.

Natural values, if defined as the inevitable course of nature, such as the changing seasons and the way beings reproduce, ie. the laws of nature, are certainly timeless in nature, though humanity has strived to control and subdue them from immemorial times. Some of our challenges to the course of nature, such as developing means to travel faster than a human with his two feet could, or to see images and hear sounds from distant places, have been accepted as worthy inventions, while others, such as genetic engineering and biological weapons, are perceived as questionable.

Moral values, the questions of right and wrong in human dealings, is perhaps the hardest of the three to pin down, particularly in a world that is in a constant state of cultural evolution.

Stealing, lying, injust violence and other such acts directly violating the rights of another individual are rather universally deemed immoral. Now, onwards to some of the more controversial moral questions in religious circles in the modern age:There are other issues, too, related with dealings in the human society on which the scriptures sometimes comment. I am uncertain whether they should go under moral or natural values, but they are to be examined, too. For example:We need to evaluate which values are timeless and which temporal to bring some coherence into our conservative vs. liberal dialogue. After all, I don't think that even the most hardline conservative would agree that it is adamant to never marry a maiden who has reddish hair, who is too talkative (Manu 3.8) or who does not have a brother (Manu 3.11).
adiyen - Thu, 17 Jun 2004 06:53:23 +0530
I think I'm with you on this one, Madhava, because values are not so much timeless as plural. Especially in India, especially in Hinduism. They may well be timeless too, but they are also varied.

For example the idea that all the rules of the Brahmins should be applied to all Hindus was not a feature of traditional Hinduism. Most Hindus always had their own jati rules and only consulted the Brahmins briefly and occasionally.

The idea that all Hindus are led by Brahmins like Catholics are led by the hierarchy of priests and Vatican is new. Even more so the idea that there is only one Dharma for all, 'sanatan dharma'. This expression is used in Gaudiya literature, but there surely it only literally applies to those rare souls who surrender their lives fully to renounced contemplation. Others must satisfy their family duties or they are irreligious, especially in having children and seeing that they are properly raised and provided for.

The same should apply to Western followers of Gaudiyaism. Those rare souls who surrender all, and perhaps retire to the holy Dham, may adopt Indian style achara, for others it surely must be a compromise.

Still the emphasis in Gaudiyaism should be on renunciation of worldy entanglements like sex and drugs. That should be the goal.

There may be people who believe they can follow Gaudiyaism through sexual or drug experiences. But this is an unorthodox, 'sahajiya' view. It is not mainstream. In the west it takes on a darker complexion since these type of beliefs are usually propagated by those who want to exploit. Or at least that is the mainstream view of people like Rajneesh etc who preached Hindu ideas without sensual renunciation.


An important issue arises from these considerations: Indians are literally divided into jati 'communities' and negotiate their relationship with the greater society through these groups. If they move upward socially, and it happens, then they do so as a jati, never as individuals. Each Jati also always has a leader, temporal and spiritual.

I had an interesting debate with a Hindu in India who asserted to me, "Bhaktivedanta Prabhupad is your guru". "No", I was arguing.

His response, 'You don't understand, here in India every community has its Guru, and Prabhupad is the Guru of the Westerners, just as Nanak is Guru of the Sikhs'. I saw his point. Maybe to concede this in an Indian context is to concede very little, how many Sikhs adhere to Nanak? It is symbolic, but it is a crucial feature of jati-dharma.

See this insightful discussion of jati : Quote:

"Although this might seem odd to Westerners, one should realise that castes and jatis are not class structures in which people may move up and down, but rather "corporate" entities in which the jati acts as a corporation and its members are its "agents." Thus, the jati member is a fiduciary member who is required to do what is in the best interest of his jati, not what is in his or her own best interest. From this, each jati, through its elders or council (e.g "panchayat"), can negotiate with other jatis and castes for its own interests. In traditional Indian societies, people cannot socially move up or down, only jatis can. If a jati moves up through good negotiating, threats or circumstance, than each jati member moves up along with it. In rare instances, a jati can move up from one caste to another, and this was the case (e.g. of certain Marathi jatis which moved from a lower caste to the Kshatriya caste through effective control of the land and through negotiations and warfare with Muslim invaders (e.g. - the Mughals). Jatis can also move down through bad negotiation, incorrect behaviour (dharma) of its members, etc. ...
One knew one's place. One knew one's occupation. One knew who one could marry and that that person would be married. One knew what one had to do to advance in the karmic cycle. One knew that the jati was the best protection one had in the society. One knew that by being disowned by a jati, one would lose all status in the society. "


Gaudiya teachings are usually socially conservative. They don't preach revolution, rather the fulfillment of established earthly duties before aspiring to meta-dharma, before aspiring to the ultimate goal. And they make a clear distinction between the two, unlike other Vaishnavas for whom earthly duties are the acme.

Taking this literally, we should obey the duties of our birth family first. Only after fulfilling these 'obligations' should we aspire beyond.
Madhava - Thu, 17 Jun 2004 18:29:39 +0530
QUOTE(adiyen @ Jun 17 2004, 01:23 AM)
Even more so the idea that there is only one Dharma for all, 'sanatan dharma'. This expression is used in Gaudiya literature, but there surely it only literally applies to those rare souls who surrender their lives fully to renounced contemplation.

Curiously, after scanning through the entire GGM database, I only found "sanAtana-dharma" mentioned twice in Rupa's Gitavali (12, 34), and only in the context of Radha speaking how she will not give up her sanAtana-dharma despite Krishna's approaches!

Aside that, I only found it mentioned in Ramanuja's TIkA on Bhagavadgita (10.12-13), quoted from Mahabharata:

eSa nArAyaNaH zrImAn kSIrArNava-niketanaH |
nAga-paryaGkam utsRjya hy Agato mathurAM purIm ||
puNyA dvAravatI tatra yatrAste madhusUdanaH |
sAkSAd devaH purANo'sau sa hi dharmaH sanAtanaH ||
ye ca veda-vido viprA ce cAdhyAtma-vido janAH |
te vadanti mahAtmAnaM kRSNaM dharmaM sanAtanam ||
pavitrANAM hi govindaH pavitraM param ucyate |
puNyAnAm api puNyo'sau maGgalAnAM ca maGgalam ||
trailokye puNDArIkAkSo deva-devaH sanAtanaH |
Aste harir acintayAtmA tatraiva madhusUdanaH || [Mbh 3.88.24-28]

So service of the eternal Hari is sanAtana-dharma. Of course, the commentaries on Gita 1.39, which mentions "kulakSaye praNazyanti kuladharmAH sanAtanAH", elaborate on the verse, but that's hardly relevant there.

Pancatantra gives a good definition of sanAtana-dharma:

akRtyaM naiva kartavyaM prANa-tyAge'py upasthite |
na ca kRtyaM parityAjyam eSa dharmaH sanAtanaH ||4.41||

Essentially, that of which you cannot rid yourself of even by giving up your life is sanAtana-dharma. Many common usages of the word would probably not qualify for this standard! Of course one could look at sanAtana-dharma without focusing on the individual, considering a collective societal dharma, such as priests reciting hymns generation after generation, as the sanAtana-dharma of the priestly class.

I find the absence of this term peculiar, given the fact that it is so broadly used. Since you mentioned its being used in the Gaudiya literature, could you fill me in with any references?
adiyen - Sat, 19 Jun 2004 15:40:47 +0530
I'm pretty sure I've read 'sanatan dharma' mentioned ocassionally in the Chait. Charitamrita, which is the only reason I mention it. It is hard to search this text.

The whole global Varnashram gambit is based on the existence of a few such misinterpreted references,
sarva-dharmam parityajya...

otherwise there is surely no justification in shastra or tradition for global preaching of Sanatan Dharma by Gaudiyas. This is different from spreading the Holy Name, which can be adopted by anyone anywhere.

One reason I take up this issue is that I used to have to argue this very point with so many Hindus 20 years ago, and I now believe I was wrong and they were right. I concede everything folks! I was wrong back then.

Even though we understand that Vaishnavism as taught by Gaudiyas is the highest sanatan Dharma, that does not mean that one should drop one's sva-dharmic responsibilities and immediately 'surrender'. Or at least not unless one is a very very rare soul, say 1 in a billion (manusyanam sahasreshu). And we should not hold this prospect of 'the highest Dharma' like a carrot out to the ambitious who take it up superficially and then make a mockery of it. That's what bugs me about it.
Madhava - Sat, 19 Jun 2004 21:34:59 +0530
QUOTE(adiyen @ Jun 19 2004, 10:10 AM)
I'm pretty sure I've read 'sanatan dharma' mentioned ocassionally in the Chait. Charitamrita, which is the only reason I mention it. It is hard to search this text.

Must have been in the commentaries, I can't seem to find sanatan* dharm* anywhere in the text itself.

I would be particularly interested on hearing comments on the moral issues I mentioned. Since shastra comments on many of them, I would be curious to hear thoughts on how far they are considered permanent instructions for all time to come.
Openmind - Sun, 20 Jun 2004 01:00:37 +0530
It must be the subject of individual consideration what one accepts, where one draws the line. All this cannot and should not be centralized, I guess. For some devotees it might serve as an impetus to refrain from eggplants because HBV says so, some others may say "Aw, come on, I have far too much neurosis in my life not to add some more in the name of bhakti."

As for moral principles: I discussed this with a devotee, and he wisely suggested that one should simply try to follow the ten commandments as they are timeless ethical considerations not depending on being an Indian, European, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or Wicca.
Madhava - Sun, 20 Jun 2004 01:24:10 +0530
Interestingly, most of the moral dilemmas focus on issues of procreation and marriage.

What's your take on, say, divorce followed by another marriage?

When Amogha was inimical to Caitanya, Sarvabhauma cursed, rANDI hauk sAThI, "Let my daughter Sathi become a widow!" instead of cursing, "Let her find a new, suitable husband!" Caitanya only remarried after the demise of His first wife. In general, divorce is seen as adharmic. Discussing with some of the Hindus, the case of Amogha and Sathi was brought up and the patiM ca patitaM tyajet -statement surfaced, and they were aghast with the idea of divorce even in such a situation.

However, in the modern society, even the society of devotees, we see that marriages are frequently broken up for often even petty reasons and there is little concern over the sanctity of the institution and its function as an aspect of our dharma.

Can this principle be adjusted to modern values (ie. neglected)?

On the other end of the scala, there is the practice of polygamy, which was fairly common at Caitanya's time, but is nowadays often even forbidden by law. Can this be "modernized", or should we, as some followers of AC Bhaktivedanta proclaim, propagate polygamy?

These are, at least in my opinion, far graver issues than eating eggplant or other such nitty-gritty rules or issues which may be observed while major issues are being neglected.
Openmind - Sun, 20 Jun 2004 10:51:09 +0530
I guess that in real life situations it is often much more practical to use common sense than referring to texts written in ancient times in a completely different world, different culture. So as far as marriage is concerned: even though there is this myth that there is no divorce in KC, when we look around, we see that there is just as many divorces amongst devotees as anywhere else, just as Madhava wrote.

So I think it is useless to set up rules that do not harmonize with reality. The same refers to the fourth reg, sex only for procreation. It is one of the fundamental principles of some Vaishnava organizations, and how many follow it actually? These extreme regulations imported from teh East (where they are not widely followed either, of course) often lead to hypocrisy, because devotees feel forced to act as if they were faithfully following every regulations very nicely, otherwise they lose their prestige. So we create a society based on principles almost nobody follows, that is, a society based on pretending.

I have a story in this regard: a few years before there was a Vaishnava (GM) festival in Hungary. Many devotees came from Germany, Austria etc. Some senior devotees decided to have a discussion about the big taboo, sexuality. Everyone was happy to have a chance to discuss this. The big day came, the discussion just began, when a 70 year old man, freshly initiated, interrupted: "What is there to be discussed? The rules are there in Prabhupad's books, no need to discuss anything!" Needless to say that the discussion was killed, everyone became ashamed and frustrated...

As for polygamy: in my personal opinion it would lead to chaos. People are just too passionate to cope with a complex emotional situation like that.

Someone may present a shloka, at least one, if there is any, that inspires people to use their common sense. We have tons of shlokas about how to be obeident and how to believe (or else we go to hell), it would be nice to read one about common sense, varietas delectat, you know.
nabadip - Sun, 20 Jun 2004 14:30:14 +0530
The intellectual tradition associated with the field of ideas being discussed here is the one of Ethics which in its most general scope is basing its reflection on what is called Natural Law. These are laws, or principles, that apply to everyone in the human world. Categories like justice, or order, cannot be established without taking recourse to a foundation, and the most basic foundation is Natural Law.

In Roman Law which forms still today the basis of Law in Continental Europe, Natural Law was formulated in such general statements like suum quique (to each its own), and parentes honorandum esse ( parents are to be honored).

Here is a short definiton of Natural Law in the Christian context, Christian because the genius of Thomas Aquinas has expressed these concepts in the most insightful and wise way 800 years ago, and what he put into words has remained a very accessible thought pattern. Interesting for us is also the context in which moral decision is based on the rational nature of man as it is related to the eternal law given by God.

"The natural law is universal, that is to say, it applies to the entire human race, and is in itself the same for all. Every man, because he is a man, is bound, if he will conform to the universal order willed by the Creator, to live conformably to his own rational nature, and to be guided by reason. However, infants and insane persons, who have not the actual use of their reason and cannot therefore know the law, are not responsible for that failure to comply with its demands. (b) The natural law is immutable in itself and also extrinsically. Since it is founded in the very nature of man and his destination to his end–two bases which rest upon the immutable ground of the eternal law–it follows that, assuming the continued existence of human nature, it cannot cease to exist. The natural law commands and forbids in the same tenor everywhere and always. We must, however, remember that this immutability pertains not to those abstract imperfect formulæ in which the law is commonly expressed, but to the moral standard as it applies to action in the concrete, surrounded with all its determinate conditions. "

Here another quote:
"According to St. Thomas, the natural law is "nothing else than the rational creature's participation in the eternal law" (I-II, Q. xciv). The eternal law is God's wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action. When God willed to give existence to creatures, He willed to ordain and direct them to an end. In the case of inanimate things, this Divine direction is provided for in the nature which God has given to each; in them determinism reigns. Like all the rest of creation, man is destined by God to an end, and receives from Him a direction towards this end. This ordination is of a character in harmony with his free intelligent nature. In virtue of his intelligence and free will, man is master of his conduct. Unlike the things of the mere material world he can vary his action, act, or abstain from action, as he pleases. Yet he is not a lawless being in an ordered universe. In the very constitution of his nature, he too has a law laid down for him, reflecting that ordination and direction of all things, which is the eternal law. The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself. Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral."
nabadip - Sun, 20 Jun 2004 15:11:37 +0530
Whether values are eternal or not then depends on what one sees as God-given, and what is developed along with the human condition. Our modern understanding is one that accepts an evolution in Ethics as the human condition is subject to change, and different conflicts arise in which decisions have to be taken.

In a society where warefare is predominant, other decisions are to be ethically founded, than in an agricultural society in a remote mountain area which is not subject to such type actions.

Or the question of polygamy or monogamy arises only where a surplus or lack of mates is a given factor. These things change, and it becomes obvious that the values guiding the decisions cannot be eternal in the sense that it is predetermined which decision should be taken in each possible situation. If there is no scope for moral decision, if all the choices in ones actions are predetermined by concrete laws which are supposedly eternal, human activity would not be open to conflict solution, and the rational capacity of man would be reduced rather than increased.

I think this is part of the problem that we are facing when we as modern human beings are entering an ethno-social environment where actions and decision forming are more or less rigidly pre-decided, which is unrealistic in terms of the human complexity of life, and the "condition humaine", the fact that people are different, with different natures and inherent characteristics and propensities amnd ethno-socially interiorized standards
nabadip - Sun, 20 Jun 2004 15:36:09 +0530
To come to conclusions along the line of our own philosophical cultural tradition (since we live in societies based on Natural Law and Applied Law conceived and expressed by generations of thinkers and Law-makers) we should find out which are the the general principles that are to be the values that guide our actions. We already see that in the Western tradition the Natural Law is a reflection on the Eternal Law (at least in the Christian context), but those values are already open to interpretation. That is: the applied laws in their concrete form may be more or less in harmony with either the natural or the eternal law.
adiyen - Tue, 22 Jun 2004 10:45:01 +0530
QUOTE(Madhava @ Jun 19 2004, 04:04 PM)

I would be particularly interested on hearing comments on the moral issues I mentioned. Since shastra comments on many of them, I would be curious to hear thoughts on how far they are considered permanent instructions for all time to come.

Madhava, what I was saying is 'It's all relative to your jati'.

In the colonial days, I'm sure the British were accepted by the Pandits as 'British jati' with all their foreign ways. No one condemned them. This mostly arose with Nationalistic feeling in the 20th Century.

I just saw an Indian movie in which a South Indian Brahmin, dressed in dhoti and tilak with yajnopavit, serves coconut liquor to a Maharajah. The Maharajah's servants all wear Brahmin-threads. Drinking liquor is no doubt the Maharajah's Dharma. All perfectly correct by Hindu standards. North Indian Brahmins used to say their Gayatri while standing in the Ganga, facing the Moghul Emperor, who they visualised as the embodiment of Narayan. A Muslim Emperor. (So I have heard, since the rise of Nationalism, a lot of this history has been repressed, but just look at BVT's attitude to the British for an older view).

Of course, the question then arises, What jati are we?

The permutations of this are vast. I appreciate Nabadip's contributions on this and will study them.