By Sesa Das for ISKCON News on 22 Jul 2010
The recent news that Trinidad Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar took her Oath of Office by swearing on Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is has reawakened long dormant questions in my mind. When I first joined ISKCON I was attracted by the devotees’ political activity in the form of the In God We Trust political party.
The recent news that Trinidad Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar took her Oath of Office by swearing on Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is has reawakened long dormant questions in my mind. When I first joined ISKCON I was attracted by the devotees’ political activity in the form of the In God We Trust political party. The original idea behind this 1970’s organization was to add the voice of the Hare Krishnas to the democratic political debate in America. The results of this endeavor were mixed, and ultimately Srila Prabhupada instructed the devotees that they were not spiritually ready to be candidates for political office, and that it would be better to not get diverted from the core activities of the Krishna Consciousness Movement. Yet, questions remained in my mind; should Hare Krishna devotees vote in political elections, what role do the devotees play in participatory forms of government?
Democracy, the most widely practiced form of participatory government, is meant to give a voice to all the people, either by direct referendum or by means of elected representatives of the people. Although there are variations in the form and operation of modern democracy around the world, the essential elements are the same; voters select their representatives from fellow citizen candidates who serve in a government divided into legislative, judicial, and executive functions. While it is clear that when Srila Prabhupada put the brakes on the In God We Trust Party he did not feel the devotees were ready to run for political office, there are other essential elements of democracy that still seemed to be natural opening for devotees.
In American democracy in addition to the three branches of government mentioned above there is an implied fourth branch of government. The fourth branch, sometimes referred to as the fourth estate, refers to a group that influences the three branches of governance defined in the American Constitution. Such groups can include the press, the people, and interest groups. Although it is undeniable that interest groups can sometimes exert influence beyond their actual representation in a society; history has shown that true democracy thrives when the fourth estate, particularly a free and active press, exists.
In his 19th century work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville adds religion to the fourth estate. Tocqueville wanted to analyze American democracy in order to determine its strengths and dangers so that other governments could be formed in a manner that would reinforce democracy’s strengths while counteracting its weaknesses. His travels and observations had led him to believe that some of the main problems of a democracy were: an abuse of or lack of love for freedom, and an excessive drive for individualism, and materialism. To counteract these malefic tendencies Tocqueville saw, in addition to other principles, the absolute necessity of freedom of the press and religion. The press provided a means of communicating individual and collective voices in government, and in a government which provided no absolute standards, religion provided some moral standards. As de Tocqueville remarks in Chapter 9 of his work, “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot. . . . How could a society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?”
Srila Prabhupada understood this nexus between democratic governments, freedom of the press, and religion and indeed he counted upon the operation of this nexus to assist his presentation of Krishna consciousness. In 1944 after Srila Prabhupada had begun the publication of his magazine, Back to Godhead, due to a paper shortage, the Indian government agency in charge of rationing paper had decided that Srila Prabhupada should not be granted permission to receive a ration of paper for printing Back to Godhead. Only through Srila Prabhupada’s insistence did the government finally relent. After his preaching victory in his next edition of the magazine Srila Prabhupada explained the same truth understood by de Tocqueville:
Thanks to the Government of India
Readers of ‘Back to Godhead’ who were practically disappointed to learn that the Government of India had twice refused to give permission for the continuance of publication of “Back to Godhead”, will be glad to know and see that in the third attempt by their humble servant, the Government of India has kindly given special permission to continue the publication of ‘Back to Godhead’. We have already conveyed our sincere thanks to the Government of India for allowing us to serve the purpose of His Divine Grace Sree Sreemad Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Goswami Moharaj and we can now assure to our numerous readers and patrons that “Back to Godhead” will continue to be published in each and every month regularly. Extracts from the text of the last correspondences that passed between the Government of India and your humble servant, which resulted in the re-appearance of “Back to Godhead” is given herewith:-“Sir, with due respect, I beg to submit that under instruction of His Divine Grace, Sri Srimad Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Goswami Maharaj, the spiritual head of the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, I had to start a paper under the caption,-“Back to Godhead”. The very name will suggest the intention of starting such a paper in the midst of heavy turmoil through which the world is now passing. A copy of the same booklet is sent herewith for your kind perusal. In that booklet you shall find strong world opinions, even by many reputed politicians all over the world,-in favour of such a movement to bring back the world,-into sanity by training the mind and educating human nature for the unshaking spiritual plane, considered to be the supreme need of human kind.
Later, when Srila Prabhupada came to America and handed over Back to Godhead (BTG) to his disciples he was wary of the magazine adopting the political tenor of the 1960’s, but permitted participation in the fourth estate as long as the writers emphasized spiritual solutions rather than political ones:
“So far discussions of political affairs in BTG, it is not a very good suggestion. But…you can present some political affairs in spiritual light, as I wrote some articles in the original BTG in the matter of political divisions of India and catastrophes thereof. That requires a very thorough understanding of the whole situation, and if you can do this, it will be a great service.” (letter dated March 23, 1968)
Based on these two examples from Srila Prabhupada’s life, two guiding principles stand out in answer to my questions about the role devotees play in participatory forms of government. First, that spreading the message of Krishna Consciousness should be facilitated by government, particularly democratic governments; and second, that spiritual solutions are fresh ideas which can really make a difference in the world as opposed to simply rehashing materials formulas. I would add a third principle: use it or lose it.
Today, the press has become a very powerful force is shaping public opinion. Unfortunately, the press is not always unbiased. As I mentioned above, the results from the In God We Trust Party were mixed. Some national television coverage, people did hear the Holy Name, but the coverage focused more on the different appearance of the shaven-headed candidates than the substance of their ideas. This is the underside of democracy; differences can make you irrelevant. Majority rule often leaves dissenting individuals without a voice.
It can be, and indeed has been, worse for the Hare Krishna movement. “It is often the case that the only view the public gets of a new religious movement, controversial group or purported cult is a negative and sensationalized report by the media. For example, most new or minority religious movements only receive media coverage when something sensational occurs, e.g. the mass suicide of a cult or illegal activities of a leader in the religious movement.” (Source: Wikipedia: Media Bias)
Therefore, I advocate pro-active participation in the fourth estate as a way to not only present much needed spiritual solutions, but also to insure the protection of our rights in a democracy to hold and express beliefs and opinions that may be contrary to the majority. Use it or lose it.
How can you participate? Why not start by sharing a Krishna Conscious viewpoint on the issues of the day by writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.