Friday, August 17

\m/ Hare Krishna \m/.. and still a Naturalist!

Note: This is just a part of the experience I had, which I tried to put it as concisely as possible. Also, I haven't stopped reading scriptures after these incidents. In fact, they helped me to develop an eye on what's good interpretation of a scripture, and what's not.

I've been lot into reading from my childhood as far as I can remember. I used to read everything whatever I can understand from - books, newspapers, pamphlets, even the samosa and pakora wrappings (they used to be wrapped in old school textbook pages back then). This reading interest made me to wonder what's in the scriptures (of all religions I heard about). I never had a good source for Hindu scriptures, but I managed to read whatever I could find in my home and at relatives' and family-friends'. I even did one Bible study course from some Christian Evangelical Institute based in New Delhi to know what's in the Bible. Well, it proved to be futile as the course was too focused on appreciating Jesus as personal savior rather than discussing the scripture's content.

In the course of my inquisitiveness in religious scriptures, I used to go to Ramakrishna Math at Rajahmundry. They had lots (believe me, lots) of books, predominantly Sanskrit, English and Telugu versions of Hindu scriptures and some books on comparative religion. I never really realized earlier that there's such a huge amount of literature in Hinduism. I found the translations to be pretty straightforward and read some (minor puranas, not the huge ones like Mahabharata). The Math had some programs (reading programs, social programs) specifically aimed at teens and young people. They used to talk about meditation, importance of acquiring knowledge, etc., I was a teenager back then, and I didn't really find those to be intrusive or abhorring me to stop thinking or indoctrinating me to take their preaching for granted. May be since it was a youth program, they didn't do it - I'm not sure. I actually remember them advising to develop a scientific outlook and help the society with our knowledge. I'm giving them a benefit of doubt due to the following experience I had later in my life.

All went well and I landed in NIT Warangal after a few years. In my freshman year, a talk was conducted by VOICE (it was called BACE back then), a youth spiritual wing of ISKCON. The reason most of us attended it was that the speaker was an IIT alumnus (We NITians were always envious of IITians, you know). He was not a sanyasin, and was working in Motorola (We electronics folks actually cheered when he mentioned he's from the same background). The talk was mainly about nature of God, what Science can/cannot understand and God filling up the gaps of science. He showed us slides of religious quotes by scientists like Einstein, superposed on pictures of galaxies and stars. Finally, he ended up mentioning that it's Krishna that's the Godhead or whatever the hell it is, and He's the way to salvation. It reminded me of that course I took which used to rant and rant until I purged my intestines that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Itch towards comparative religion, eh? Well, I felt a twitch in my stomach here too

In the Q&A session that followed, I asked him why we should brand this 'God' with a name called Krishna, when we can say God is an abstract sense of some entity that's guiding the universe. He didn't answer my question, but simply said that I should start coming to VOICE sessions as I'm inquisitive and I would eventually figure out the answer myself. I was like 'what the hell', and everyone looked at me as if they are wondering why I ask questions all the time. I even heard later that some actually placed a bet if I would ask a question or not :-)

Now, there are certain ways in which VOICE operates as I observed :
  • They don't publicly preach in the way other religious missionaries do. You actually have to make time and go to their sessions
  • They neither publicly invite people to all sessions, nor announce their schedule. They notice those who ask questions or who seem interested and send their student members to their rooms and give books and info on upcoming sessions
  • The food they serve in the VOICE hostels is ultra-hyper-super-delicious (Uncle Mess is no match)
  • They don't give anything for free, which is a really good practice. They charge, however nominal it might be, for the food (10 bucks), or books (10 for small ones, 20 for big ones), or merchandize (10 typically)
  • They have weekly sessions, typically on Saturdays, by a sanyasin who tours these premier colleges to give talks.
  • When they don't know the answer to a question, they reply saying, "You start chanting, you'll figure out the answer yourself" and offer the tulasi-bead mala for 10 bucks

Naturally, I got a knock-knock on my door one Saturday morning (when I was still in bed), and one soft-spoken fellow (I think he's a senior year guy) came in and gave me 2 books to read and an invitation to the evening session. He was very persuasive, those were the days of my poverty and so I borrowed money from my roommate and paid for them. He greeted 'Hare Krishna' and left. I read them and found them lame. No offense, but one was on science and it was pretty twisted. Believe me, I had a good 'eye' to read scientific material back then as I've been busting pseudoscience in my own way since school days. As it follows, I didn't bother to attend the session.

In my senior year, I got a knock-knock again, and this time it was a semaphore year fellow. He tried to give me 2 books (one of which I've already read) and the invitation. He tried to be persuasive, but you know, I was the senior and I didn't buy the books and even gave him a review of the one I read. His face had gone pale, and I accepted the invitation for dinner. Well, I had actually started some theology study a few days before, and was interested to listen to the discourse.

I came to know that a couple of my classmates were also attending the session, and I joined them. The VOICE hostel in Warangal was outside the campus, unlike some IITs where they typically have a block inside the campus. They combined 2 four-room rented portions of a house and were using it for some 10-15 students as hostel, which was pretty decent (way better than our hostel). In the portion where the session is held, there was a verandah, followed by a big room with floor mattresses, a cushion for the speaker, a book-stand in front of it, and a large beautiful idol of Krishna to a corner painted in white, decorated with peacock feathers, a wig, clothes, with some fruits, milk and cooked food offered as prasad at its feet. The speaker, a young-looking sanyasin (they look much younger than they actually are, presumably due to their dietary practices, life-style, thin-frame and also partly due to the head-shaving), who was another IIT alumnus, has come already and they started Harekrishna bhajan swaying their hands in air, with one fellow giving rhythm on a dolak and another giving taal

The bhajan was followed by dinner, and then began the discourse in which the speaker looked up 1 verse from the Gita and gave a 20 minute speech on it. He was saying all-obvious stuff like we cannot understand the world with our senses (of course we can't, that's why telescopes, microscopes, spectroscopes and other stuff are invented), we need to control our senses (yes, or else we might end up as rapists, murderers or criminals), etc., He also mentioned how our ancestors (the Aryan ancestors) lived in great times and we are in an age of sin and so need to seek Krishna for salvation.

Well, it was never my intention to attack him, as it was pointless and uncalled for, so I politely asked him a few questions when he was alone after the session was finished and everyone left. I was interested to know what status ISKCON gives to Adi Sankaracharya and Advaitha (I was born in a Shaivaite Brahmin family, so I was interested). I also asked him whether we (I used a generic 'we') need to rely on archeological evidence and data to map history, whether ISKCON uses it to analyze Hindu scriptures and if Vedas were there before Aryan invasion, and some other related questions. He was pointing to me that we need to trust our scriptures no matter what academia says, as scientific knowledge changes and the scriptures don't change. I didn't want to debate him in any way possible, so I came out

I attended some later sessions also, primarily for the food (I'm shameless, you know). He never really went beyond 1 verse of Gita and always picked out the lamest ones. I regularly asked him dharmic queries from puranas (no mocking, I really like mythologies) and ISKCON's positions on various issues. One thing I liked in him was that he was very open and honest while answering and I could see that he was being sincere in his answers and opinions, however irrational they might be. Once, I asked him how he can simply reject evidence without any reason and at the same time rely on an out-dated, unedited set of books for no reason; He simply smiled saying I would know once I start chanting Hare Krishna and realize the truth for myself. Another time, he asked me to consider joining ISKCON as I'm inquisitive, analytical and would really be a good teacher; I smiled and thanked him for the offer, and said I have duties of looking after parents, etc., (I'm not bragging, I really said it)

I can say that he kinda liked me for my honesty in inquiry, politeness in refuting his arguments from authority, and not trashing away scriptural answers but actually pointing out the flaws in them and asking open-ended questions. I never really told him that I'm more of a critical thinker and that I would prefer evidence and uncertainty to faith towards scriptures

Summarizing my visits, what I understood was that in ISKCON, there is a lot of preaching compared to the actual reading of scripture, and that it is an evangelical organization to its core. They target premier colleges and try to indoctrinate the students asking them not to accept Science as it's limited (as if a set of books written 4500 yrs back is infinite and absolute), stop thinking Rationally (because then people start asking questions like me), accept their preaching at face-value (or ask only those questions that actually add to the indoctrination). Their USPs are no rituals (compare offering food at feet of an idol, chanting Hare Krishna and a mahanivedana ritual), no complicated sanskrit verses to recite, easy-to-follow religious lifestyle and IIT-branded preachers for students. At one stage (very initial, not even deeper stages), they suggest people to become monks and join their crusade, and it helps a lot if they have premier college degrees and have quit a 6-digit salary job to join the organization

However, it is always saddening to see elite-educated people leaving rationality behind, training themselves to getting indoctrinated, and joining these kind of organizations thinking they could seek truth in these practices

P.S: Be a follower of my blog if u like it.. the button is to the right of this page..