Vaiṣṇava Debate on Moral Issues
In this brief essay, I will try to demonstrate two simple points:
1. Even pure devotees can disagree on appropriate punishment for serious misdeeds.
2. Offensive criticism of good devotees with opposing views on this or other topics, destroys the possibility of open and fair debate. This in turn threatens the existence of a brahminical society, which requires open, respectful discussion and debate.
1. Disagreement among good and pure devotees:
Śrīmad-bhāgavatam (1.7) tells of a fierce, emotional disagreement between two pure devotees, Draupadī and Bhīma, regarding proper punishment for Aśvatthāma, who committed a most heinous crime, murdering Draupadī’s five young sons in their sleep. Draupadī urged leniency, and Bhīma demanded the culprit’s death. Each gave logical arguments for their respective conclusions.
Lord Kṛṣṇa was present and did not dismiss or ridicule either set of arguments, though He gave special praise to Draupadī’s proposal. Lord Kṛṣṇa then induced Arjuna to enforce a compromise solution.
This incident serves as a model of Vaiṣṇava debate on important, emotionally fraught, issues.
2. In devotee ‘cancel-culture,’ one attacks, ridicules, and shames, especially on the internet, those who oppose one’s views on moral issues. This process threatens brahminical culture, because it exacts a devastating price on those who dare to present opposing views, even if those views have some degree of merit.
There are many fact-based critiques of modern cancel-culture, which, at its worst, seeks to cancel, i.e. destroy, the lives of those with opposing views on prominent moral issues. Fair debate, and even a formal justice system, may be seen as evils in themselves, as a coddling and encouraging of immorality. Thus, internet vigilantes pose a threat to brahminical culture, though they claim to be saving it. Within ISKCON, coercion may take the form of threatening to leave Prabhupada’s society, either individually or collectively as temple communities. Those who do the latter openly subvert Prabhupada’s GBC system, since they try to usurp ultimate managing authority by threats of inflicting serious harm on a united ISKCON.
One can often grasp the reasonable limits of ideas or behaviors by observing the evils of their extreme applications. To illustrate this, I will quote from a leading architect of modern ‘terrorism,’ Maximilian Robespierre, an extremist leader of the French Revolution.
He wrote, “The [origns] of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror… Virtue…without terror…is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue;…Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty…” [On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/robespierre-terror.asp]
Note the remarkable claim that virtue is powerless without terror! I have personally been viciously attacked because I insisted on a fair trial for a senior devotee accused of abuse. I repeatedly stated that I did not claim to know what the outcome of a fair trial would be, and thus I did not assert the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Internet vigilantes loudly and widely declared my simple defense of universal principles of justice and due process to be a defense of abuse, and thus itself a form of abuse. ISKCON leaders, fearing such attacks on themselves, did not support a call for a fair trial, even after they were repeatedly shown massive evidence that fair process had been egregiously violated. Thus a devotee’s life was ruined without a fair trial.
I have no intention of discouraging strong, robust debate on moral issues, such as punishment of devotee offenders. Rather I seek to defend the necessary cultural conditions for Vaiṣṇava debate to take place fairly.
In conclusion, Lord Kṛṣṇa states in Bhagavad-gītā 9.30:
api cet su-durācāro bhajate mām ananya-bhāk
sādhur eva sa mantavyaḥ samyag vyavasito hi saḥ
“Even if one commits the most abominable action, if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated in his determination.”
This of course is a general principle. The controversy here lies in the practical, detailed application of the general principle. As we see in the Bhāgavatam, even pure devotees may fiercely disagree on the application of general principles, but they do so with mutual respect, not with mutual acrimony and recrimination.
I pray that we are capable of acting as Vaiṣṇavas when we argue for our views on important moral issues.