Discuss with humility, gratitude, mutual appreciation and respect.
Personally I think this is one of the most important principles. I don’t know if you are anything like me, but my thinking processes seize up in the presence of people I fear may be combative in their discussion style. Instead of feeling psychologically empowered, I feel psychologically suffocated. I find it near impossible to have an open discussion with someone even if they have never put me down personally, but they simply have a reputation for being ‘heavy’. But if the person is gentle, respectful, appreciative of my attempts to understand the sastra, then I feel emotionally relaxed and my intellect is able to function. Not only do I think better in the association of such a person, but I also feel better. And feeling good is a very important part of Krishna katha as evidenced by the following verses:
…..kathayantaś ca māṁ nityaṁ / tuṣyanti ca ramanti ca
…….they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me. Bg 10.9
Please note the words tusyanti ca ramanti ca which mean respectively “become pleased” and “enjoy transcendental bliss”. That is to say, Krishna katha should be very pleasing and transcendentally enjoyable.
The Srimad Bhagavatam 3.25.25 makes a similar point:
satāṁ prasaṅgān mama vīrya-saṁvido / bhavanti hṛt-karṇa-rasāyanāḥ kathāḥ…….
In the association of pure devotees, discussion of the pastimes and activities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is very pleasing and satisfying to the ear and the heart. …….
Please note the words hṛt-karṇa-rasāyanāḥ which mean very pleasing to the ear and the heart. That is to say, Krishna katha should be very pleasing to the ear and the heart.
When we engage in Krishna katha correctly the experience should be so emotionally and intellectually fulfilling that gradually our taste for Krishna katha displaces our attraction for any sense gratification. This doesn’t happen when we take a combative attitude in Krishna katha. If we have a combative nature we may derive a certain pleasure from defeating others in a discussion, but those others will not feel attracted to engaging in ongoing discussions with us. We will gradually find ourselves in a situation where other devotees do not want to discuss Krishna katha with us. If this happens, it is a great spiritual loss for us, because spiritual friendships based on Krishna katha are so vital for our spiritual progress.
“For a devotee, there is no point in making friendships with ordinary persons; he should make friendship with other devotees so that by discussing among themselves they may elevate one another on the path of spiritual understanding. This is called iṣṭa-goṣṭhī.” SB 3.29.17 purport
“Discussion of Kṛṣṇa is very potent, and if a fortunate person has such association and tries to assimilate the knowledge, then he will surely make advancement toward spiritual realization.” Bg 9.1 purport
The association of devotees is invaluable because it enables us to discuss sastra.
However, just as we can derive the greatest benefit from the association of other devotees, we can also do ourselves the greatest harm by offending them:
“Mahāprabhu said, “The forms of Jagāi’s and Mādhāi’s sinful reactions are black. All of you perform kīrtana, then these black sinful reactions will take shelter in those who blaspheme the devotees, and Jagāi and Mādhāi will be delivered from their sins.”” CB Madhya-khaṇḍa 13.302
Therefore, to enable us to derive the highest good whilst avoiding the dangerous pitfall of vaisnava aparadha, it behoves us to practice austerity of speech as taught by Lord Krishna in Bhagavad-gita 17.15:
“Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneﬁcial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature.”
Furthermore, humility and pridelessness are two important qualities devotees need to cultivate as prerequisites for acquiring transcendental knowledge. Therefore, as we discuss sastra it benefits us to simultaneously practice humility and pridelessness, for without doing so we cannot understand sastra.
ahimsa ksantir arjavam
So, Krishna, the supreme authority, Supreme Personality of Godhead, He’s speaking the process of acquiring knowledge. Jnanam. So, the first beginning of knowledge is humility. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu has taught,
trnad api sunicena
taror api sahisnuna
kirtaniyah sada harih
[Cc. Adi 17.31]
Anyone this humbleness and humility is taught everywhere. Without being gentle, humble, how one can be a man of knowledge? ………..Vidya-vinaya-sampanne brahmane. One has to become brahmana. Brahmana means vidya-vinaya-sampanna. He must be learned and humble. ……. Vidya means he must be very gentle, namra. That is vidya. Education does not mean unnecessarily to become proud.
…… So Krishna says that in the process of acquiring knowledge, one must be very humble and meek. This is the first qualification.” lecture on Bhagavad-gita 13.8-12 — Bombay, October 3, 1973
Questions / My lights:
Question 1: Is this principle superseded by the principle of satyam (truthfulness)
My light: There are several statements in Srila Prabhupada’s books and lectures wherein he seems to suggest that in the interest of truth it is recommended we set aside gentility. I cite some of the excerpts below, each of which seems to make the case for strong speech more unequivocally than the one before. After citing the evidence, I explain why I do not think the need for satyam (truthfulness) invalidates this principle of discussing sastra with devotees with humility, gratitude, respect and mutual appreciation.
Quote 1: “The result will be that those who are sadhu, or realized, will be able to sever his attachment to material association. This is the great advantage of good association. For instance, Krishna speaks Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna just to cut off his attachment to this material affection. Because Arjuna is attracted to things that are impeding the execution of his own duty, Krishna severs these things. To cut something, a sharp instrument is required; and to cut the mind from its attachments, sharp words are often required. The sadhu or teacher shows no mercy in using sharp words to sever the student’s mind from material attractions. By speaking the truth uncompromisingly, he is able to sever the bondage. For example, at the very beginning of Bhagavad-gita Krishna speaks sharply to Arjuna by telling him that although he speaks like a learned man, he is actually fool number one. If we actually want detachment from this material world, we should be prepared to accept such cutting words from the spiritual master. Compromise and flattery have no effect where strong words are required.” Perfection of Yoga chp 4: Yoga as Body and Mind Control
My perspective: The above excerpt could be taken to mean that when we discuss sastra with another devotee, and they say something we disagree with, we are doing them a favour by speaking harshly with them. The assumption being that our understanding of sastra is perfect and complete and theirs is wrong.
However, I understand this excerpt differently. The above evidence describes the relationship between a disciple and the spiritual master. The spiritual master should be free of envy and established in knowledge. He should also love the disciple as a part and parcel of Krishna.
“One who has developed love for Viṣṇu must develop love and respect for Viṣṇu’s devotees.” SB 4.4.10 purport
When such an elevated spiritual master speaks cuttingly, the words are coming from a place of love, compassion and knowledge. What’s more, by accepting the spiritual master the disciple is indicating he accepts the guru knows better than him, and that he recognizes the guru’s dealings with him are based on love and not envy. In such a scenario the disciple accepts the guru’s chastisements as a blessing. When, however, that is not the established relationship, then our harsh words may generate a combative dynamic between us. That is why in Bg 17.15 Srila Prabhupada writes:
“Of course, when a teacher speaks, he can speak the truth for the instruction of his students, but such a teacher should not speak to those who are not his students if he will agitate their minds. This is penance as far as talking is concerned.”
I am reminded of the loving manner in which Lord Chaitanya confronted Keshava Kashmiri. The Lord thought very carefully how to remove his ignorance without giving him unnecessary and excessive grief. Here is the excerpt from Chaitanya Bhagavata, Adi khanda, chp 13 wherein the Lord is considering how best to rectify the Digvijaya’s arrogance:
“This brahmana has become extremely arrogant, and he thinks that there is no one in this world to defeat him,” thought the Lord. “If I humble him in front of everyone it will be like a shameful death for him. People will dishonour him, he will lose everything and eventually he will die from humiliation. Therefore, I must confront him secretly in a solitary place and yet ensure his downfall. In that way, I can eclipse his vanity without destroying him.”
Furthermore, when the Lord did speak to the Digvijaya, he dealt in such a way as to remove his ignorance without making him feel belittled.
“The Lord’s behaviour was so gentle and compassionate that even a defeated person did not suffer in humiliation.” CB Adi 13
This, to my mind, is the mood of a genuine bona fide spiritual master when speaking sharp words for the benefit of his disciple. He is like a skilled surgeon using the knife to cut out the cancer but not damage healthy tissue.
Speaking harshly to people who are not our disciples may also have adverse spiritual effects for us. If we are not self-realized souls we may be influenced by the modes of ignorance and passion, in which case we risk committing offences which will impede our own spiritual progress. By assuming that I am right and others with a different understanding must be wrong, we also lose the opportunity to broaden our own perspective. But worst of all, we risk displeasing the Lord. Here is another excerpt from the Chaitanya Bhagavata wherein the Lord is replying to reports about the arrogant debating style of Keshava Kashmiri:
“Listen brothers, and I will tell you the actual situation. The Supreme Lord does not tolerate anyone who indulges in continual insolence. Whenever He finds someone burdened by arrogance over some personal quality, He invariably removes the cause of his or her pride. A fruit-laden tree and a person endowed with good qualities will inevitably bend down in humility. You must have heard of other conquerors like Haihaya, Nahusha, Vena, Bana, Naraka, Ravana, etc. Did the Supreme Lord neglect to prune their overbearing pride? He never tolerates such ignominious insolence. Here in Navadvipa, you will witness the end of this supercilious scholar.” CB Adi 13
Quote 2: “Satyam, truthfulness, means that facts should be presented as they are, for the beneﬁt of others. Facts should not be misrepresented. According to social conventions, it is said that one can speak the truth only when it is palatable to others. But that is not truthfulness. The truth should be spoken in a straightforward way, so that others will understand actually what the facts are. If a man is a thief and if people are warned that he is a thief, that is truth. Although sometimes the truth is unpalatable, one should not refrain from speaking it. Truthfulness demands that the facts be presented as they are for the beneﬁt of others. That is the deﬁnition of truth.” Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. 10:4
My perspective: The above quote could be understood to mean that if another devotee says something wrong we have a duty to protect others from his erroneous view by telling him that he is wrong. If he doesn’t like being told he’s wrong, that’s his problem.
However, I understand this is a reference to thief-like people, people who are atheistic and propound an atheistic philosophy denying the supreme proprietorship of the Lord. They may not like it when we say Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and everything should be utilised in His service, but nevertheless we must tell the truth.
I don’t understand that this is instructing us how to discuss with other devotees who are trying to surrender to Krishna.
Quote 3: “But the world is such that satyam bruyat priyam bruyat ma bruyat satyam apriyam. They want if you can say the truth, but don’t say the unpalatable truth. But that is social etiquette. When you speak about spiritual life there is no such scope. You must speak the truth: “Yes, you are rascal. Because you are not Krishna conscious: rascal, mudha. You are sinful. You are lowest of the mankind.” Krishna says. Krishna says, na mam duskrtino mudhah.
So this is the test. This is the test, that as soon as one is not Krishna conscious, immediately he comes to the group of sinful activities, rascaldom, lowest of the mankind, mayayapahrta-jnana, all knowledge taken away, and he’s an asura, Hiranyakasipu’s family, Hiranyakasipu’s category. So this is not optional, that “If I don’t take to Krishna consciousness, that is my wish, my desire.” No. If you desire in that way then you’ll be punished. You become immediately… You cannot say, “It is my optional. I may become a thief; I may remain honest. That is my option.” No. As soon as you become thief, you are punishable. Similarly, anyone who is not Krishna conscious, he’s immediately punishable.” Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.9.10 — Mayapur, February 17, 1976
My perspective: The above quote could be understood to mean that Srila Prabhupada is recommending that we call someone a rascal, a mudha, and sinful if they understand something wrongly according to our opinion.
However, I understand the above quote to again be referring to our preaching against the atheistic scientists and mayavadis. I feel this excerpt from the above evidence is very telling:
“So this is the test. This is the test, that as soon as one is not Krishna conscious, immediately he comes to the group of sinful activities, rascaldom, lowest of the mankind, mayayapahrta-jnana, all knowledge taken away, and he’s an asura….”
My understanding is that we can speak strongly about the false propaganda of the asuras, but we should be gentle when speaking with the suras:
“There are two kinds of men: daiva asura eva ca. Dvau bhuta-sargau loke ‘smin daiva asura eva ca [Bg. 16.6]. There are two kinds of men in the world. One is called daiva, devata, demigods, and the other is called asura. You have heard about the devata and asura, there is always fight. Daivasura. So who is asura, who is deva? Visnu-bhaktah smrto daivah. Those who are devotees of the Supreme Lord, Visnu, they are devata. Asuras tad-viparyayah. And those who are not devotee of Visnu, but other demigods, even if he’s devotee of Lord Brahma or Lord Siva, he’s to be considered as asura.”
Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.25.8 — Bombay, November 8, 1974
If someone is not trying to surrender to Krishna and he is misleading others with atheistic propaganda, we must point out that they are rascals. This is not referring to discussions with people who are doing their best to practice sadhana bhakti. Even if a sadhaka is wrong in his understanding, he is not a rascal, and to treat him as such is unhelpful and it may even be detrimental to both of us. How could our harshness hurt the other vaishnava? We could discourage them in their efforts to become Krishna conscious, or we could incite them to make an aparadha. In either case, they will most likely become impervious to anything valid we may have to share with them because they will see us as an opponent.
I just want to point out that even when exposing rascals, Srila Prabhupada would refrain from trying to personally humiliate them. He would expose their nonsense, not the person. My evidence is that when arguing against their nonsense propaganda, he would often say: “I do not wish to name”. In the Vedabase there are nine hits for this phrase. He would state some false propaganda or some misbehaviour, and then expose it without naming the person concerned. So even towards the hard core atheists he showed some consideration by trying to not personally humiliate them.
Question 2: If someone says something which is incorrect, is it not helpful to them and others to just tell them that?
My light: Personally, I can feel myself emotionally and intellectually withdrawing from someone even if they say something as mild as, “You are wrong”, or “I don’t agree with you”, what to speak of if they use any ad hominem attacks. Please take a moment to reflect on a time when someone who you had not accepted as a siksha or diksha guru told you that you are wrong. How did it make you feel? Did it put your back up?
I can imagine that many readers will be thinking ‘what’s wrong with saying, “I don’t agree with you”? We say that all the time. That’s not harsh or disrespectful.
I agree it’s not harsh or disrespectful, but it shows a lack of appreciation for the other person’s thoughts. In my personal experience such comments can really inhibit my ability to think and communicate. In the section about Principle 8 we quoted Stephen Covey explaining how empathic hearing gives the other person psychological air, it enables them to think. At the other end of the spectrum, when someone says, “You are wrong” or “I disagree with you”, they psychologically suffocate their discussion partner. The other person goes into either fight or flight mode. Either way, it becomes hard to think with a cool head once we’ve been summarily dismissed in this way.
Question 3: Is there a more constructive way of correcting people?
My light: Of course it’s natural that we are going to disagree with each other. However, by applying the principles of good sadhu sanga which I share in this blog, I have experienced time and time again that differences of perspective can lead to very constructive synergy between the devotees. Not only do all of us grow in our understanding, but the sense of mutual appreciation, respect, gratitude, and, dare I say, affection, increases. This is what should be happening if we are practicing sadhana bhakti correctly. My evidence is the following verse from SB 5.18.9:
“May there be good fortune throughout the universe, and may all envious persons be pacified. May all living entities become calm by practicing bhakti-yoga, for by accepting devotional service they will think of each other’s welfare. Therefore let us all engage in the service of the supreme transcendence, Lord Śrī Kṛiṣhṇa, and always remain absorbed in thought of Him.”
Let me briefly explain how the principles of good sadhu sanga can be so effective. When my discussion partner reads a passage and tells me what they understand it to mean, I first empathically reflect back what they have said. I try to express their intended meaning better than they did. That gives them a chance to hear their own thoughts mirrored back to them. If they have understood the passage incorrectly, just doing this can help them correct themselves. Furthermore, because we deal very respectfully with each other, there is no false ego fears of losing face. We don’t mind changing our minds.
If understanding them doesn’t help them to self-correct, I still can do my understanding. I don’t make any negative comment about their understanding (because that is a good way to put each other’s backs up). Our standard line is, “Thank you for sharing your light. That’s very interesting. I hadn’t seen it that way before. This is how I see it.” Then we share our understanding. If their understanding was grossly wrong, this stage of the discussion gives them another chance to self-correct.
Then we go on to asking questions. I may respectfully ask them to clarify some confusions or doubts I have on their understanding. By raising my confusions and doubts, I give them another chance to self-correct. Finally, we need to support our lights with sastric evidence. So together we will research the Vedabase to find evidences for our lights.
By the end of this process one or both of us may have changed our original understanding, or we may both have broadened our understanding to accommodate our partner’s understanding as well. It’s also possible that we end up agreeing to disagree. But even in that instance, the good will between us has not been compromised, so we continue to be open to each other’s positive influence. Certainly by applying these principles we are more likely to have enjoyed the discussion. We will also have become practiced in seeing the subject from different perspectives which is something Srila Prabhupada instructed us to do.
“I am very much stressing nowadays that my students shall increase their reading of my books and try to understand them from different angles of vision. Each sloka can be seen from many, many angles of vision, so become practiced in seeing things like this.” letter to: Tribhuvanatha — Los Angeles 16 June, 1972
None of these benefits are possible if we do not implement this ninth Principle: Discuss with humility, gratitude, mutual appreciation and respect.