Ask Questions that help clarify Srila Prabhupada’s intended meaning.
For assimilation of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings to fully take place, questions are required. Or in other words, asking questions is a vital part of the assimilation process.
“In this verse, both blind following and absurd inquiries are condemned. Not only should one hear submissively from the spiritual master, but one must also get a clear understanding from him, in submission and service and inquiries.” Bg 4.34 purport
A key characteristic of the bona fide disciple is that he is inquisitive to understand the subject. Inquisitive means he will have questions:
“One who does not know how to put questions before the spiritual master has no business seeing him.” SB 1.19. 31 purport
“So this is the process of approaching a guru. You must be very inquisitive and ask questions, but not to challenge the spiritual master.” TQE 3a: Who Is a Guru, And Why We Need One
“Guru is not a play thing, that “I must have a guru, and I will never care to obey his orders, but because it is a fashion to keep a guru, I shall keep a guru.” That kind of guru is useless, and that kind of disciple is also useless. One must seek after a guru — when? When he is inquisitive to understand the transcendental knowledge. Jijnasuh sreya uttamam. It is not a fashion. It should be very serious. One who is very much eager to understand transcendental knowledge, sreya uttamam… Jijnasuh sreya. Sreyah and preyah.” Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.34-39 — Surat, December 19, 1970
However, there is a correct and incorrect way of asking questions. Some questions will help us to open the honey jar of transcendental knowledge and drink deeply from it. Other types of questions will simply waste our time and divert our attention from what is the important lesson Srila Prabhupada is trying to communicate:
“Try to understand, question. It is not a thing that we are forcibly pushing. You have got intelligence. Krishna has given you intelligence. Try to understand with your intelligence but do not try to avoid. Make your question to understand it, not making question to avoid it. There are two kinds of question. That question will not help you. If you try to avoid, then Krishna will help you to avoid, and if you want to capture Krishna, then Krishna will help you how you can capture.” Lecture — Seattle, October 4, 1968
“Question means the lecture on which I was speaking. If there is any difficulty, that should be questioned. Otherwise, if you go outside, that present atmosphere created for this purpose, that will be lost. So question means on the subject matter which is already discussed. If there is any doubt or if there is any difficulty for understanding the subject matter which we have already discussed, that is the subject matter of question.” Lecture on Bhagavad-gita 3.6-10; 68/12/23 Los Angeles,
What follows are some case studies of questions of which Srila Prabhupada did not approve. Note that in each instance Srila Prabhupada wants to know why the question was being asked. This suggests to me that when we ask a question our purpose should be to assimilate the subject matter.
First Case History
Japanese man: I always want to ask whether if you met demigods or Indra or Brahma or..
Paramahamsa: He wants to know if you met any of the demigods, Brahma, Indra..
Prabhupada: Then what benefit will be for you? Suppose if I met, now what benefit you will derive out of it? If I say, “Yes, I have met,” that what benefit you will get? Why you are asking this question? That you do not know. Then why you are asking?
Japanese man: Maybe sense gratification. (laughter)
Prabhupada: What is that, maybe…?
Trivikrama: Maybe sense gratification.
Prabhupada: Yes, it is sense gratification.
Japanese man: But actually, other devotees sometimes tell me that you met Indra or…
Prabhupada: Yes, I have met Indra or I have not met Indra. So if I met Indra, what benefit you get? And if I did not meet Indra, what is your loss? That is my question. Then why do you ask this question? You have no profit, no loss. Any other question? Put some intelligent questions. Then we can understand that you are studying really.“ Lecture on Bhagavad-gita 16.8 — Tokyo, January 28, 1975
Second Case History
Guest: Yes. Bhagavad-gita teaches us that one should treat a piece of gold…
Guest: …a piece of gold and a piece of stone alike. Is it practically considered?
Prabhupada: Where it is stated?
Devotee: One should treat a piece of gold and a piece of stone…
Prabhupada: Where it is stated?
Guest: In the Bhagavad-gita.
Prabhupada: Where? You recite the sloka.
Guest: Well I can’t…
Prabhupada: That’s all. This is not question. If you have no clear idea, where the question? Where it is stated? Do you…, are practically can do that — a piece of gold and piece of stone, the same thing? There is a verse, sama-lostrasma-kancanah. So that is very advanced stage, when one knows that everything is made of matter, so what is the value? Why you can’t give more value to the stone, because originally everything is made of matter? There is one thing, panditah sama-darsinah [Bg. 5.18]. But that is when one has attained a very perfectional stage, not for the ordinary man…………..So what was the purpose of saying that Gita says sama-lostrasma-kancanah? Why did you raise this question? What is the purpose? We can not raise, ordinary man, but why did you raise this question? What is the purpose? Lecture on Bhagavad-gita 16.5 — Calcutta, February 23, 1972
Here are some key lessons I extract from the above:
- We should ask questions that are directly clearing doubts or confusions regarding the topic Srila Prabhupada is discussing. We should not ask questions that steer the discussion away from the topic Srila Prabhupada is explaining:
“If there is any doubt or if there is any difficulty for understanding the subject matter which we have already discussed, that is the subject matter of question.” lecture on Bhagavad-gita 3.6-10; 68/12/23 Los Angeles,
- When we ask a question we should specify the verse or instructions we are asking about. We need to be able to reference the text. Making vague references to something we think we heard, or that we remember from our reading will only confuse the discussion as we may not even be accurately representing the point in question. We need to make specific reference to the passage in sastra that we are discussing. The more specific we are, the better.
- We need to make sure our reasons for raising the question are sincere. Srila Prabhupada, as seen in the above case histories, would often challenge, “why are you asking that question?” Are we trying to show someone up, are we trying to show off, what is our motive? Our motive should be to clear doubts and confusions regarding the specific topic Srila Prabhupada is speaking on.
In our discussions at home and with our friends, we allow only five categories of questions. I will discuss this in a post on the ‘useful tips’ section. For now, I just want to share the principle that questions should have a very specific purpose: to clarify Srila Prabhupada’s intended meaning, and to address any doubts, confusions or misgivings that we might have.