HH Hridayananda Goswami, Krishna West, and Consequentialism

Dear Devotees, please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.

Hridayananda Maharaja is a devotee who is widely revered and dear to many throughout ISKCON, but he has also said and done many controversial things over the years that have been cause for concern. Although the typical response to Maharaja’s controversial statements and actions has been to treat them as separate, one-off events without relation to each other, they are instead deeply connected by a moral philosophy called “consequentialism.” (In this regard, I have attached a paper that examines this issue in depth. One version is a PDF document, and the other is a Word document.)

As Maharaja explains in his 2005 paper titled “Vaisnava Moral Theology and Homosexuality,” consequentialism seeks “morality primarily in the consequences of acts” and “argues that moral behavior must produce good consequences.” Consequentialism is plainly operative in some of his more controversial statements:

  1.  1. “In fact, he [Yudhisthira] acts so badly that he practically drops from the list of heroes in the rest of the Mahabharata. He is officially Dharma-raja, but no one, including Draupadi, respects him anymore. . . . I don’t believe this is the real Dharma-raja.” (AskAcharyadeva.com) This is, however, a pastime that Srila Prabhupada himself accepts and defends in many places, as do a number of other acharyas in our disciplic succession.
  2. 2. After having read the above statement, a devotee asks “Are you not worried that by contradicting Srila Prabhupada’s statements, the devotees may lose their faith in Srila Prabhupada?” To which Maharaja answers, “Prabhupada emphatically taught that the Guru’s teachings are infallible because the Guru is simply repeating Shastra. Prabhupada made it very clear that a Guru is not infallible when not repeating Shastra.” But if Srila Prabhupada is fallible in his own books, how could anything else he says in them be trusted?
  3. 3. In 2004, Maharaja wrote, “Given the need to balance strict varnasrama with liberal spirituality, I believe that ISKCON should recognize and encourage monogamy among all its members of whatever orientation, and that such recognition and encouragement should take appropriate forms that achieve both purposes: the maintenance of varnasrama and the encouraging of spiritual sincerity.” And then he concludes, “I am not convinced that marriage is the best means in all cases, but some serious, formal and public recognition and appreciation of gay monogamy is, in my view, in the best interest of ISKCON and its members.” But Srila Prabhupada himself has unequivocally condemned the very notion—even for the general public, what to speak of for his own devotees.

The first statement has a clear connection with his 2005 paper on homosexuality. Therein, Maharaja says of “the young Bhishma” that “This speech [of Bhishma’s to Satyavati] is admirable, but it also reveals a lack of concern with consequences. . . .  Consequences don’t matter. All that does matter is the integrity of an act itself, in this case the act of keeping one’s vow.” In his recent statement on Yudhisthira, Maharaja makes the exact same charge: “Yudhisthira falls into the same ethical misunderstanding that Bhishma fell into many years before: act-based ethics. This ethics theory states that moral good lies in the act itself, regardless of the act’s consequences.” Maharaja relies on consequentialism to interpret shastra.

The second statement also has a clear connection with his 2005 paper in that neither give Srila Prabhupada any standing on their respective issues. In his 2005 paper, Maharaja writes, “Srila Prabhupada also taught unceasingly that his own ultimate qualification, and indeed the qualification of any bona fide guru, is to always faithfully repeat the teachings of Krishna as they are found in revealed scriptures.” And then he poses a question, “Do Vaishnava Vedic scriptures give specific, explicit unambiguous rules for dealing with homosexuality, or if not, must we reason our way to a conclusion?” Despite Srila Prabhupada’s unambiguous remarks against homosexuality, Maharaja in answering his question nevertheless concludes that “neither the Gita nor the Bhagavatam gives a single explicit reference to mutually consensual homosexuality.” And then he spends the next three pages demonstrating that Srila Prabhupada’s statement is not in line with the Bhagavatam or with the comments of other previous acharyas.

With regard to Maharaja’s recent statements about Draupadi and Yudhisthira, we find Maharaja also disputing that Srila Prabhupada’s statements to the contrary have any standing whatsoever. “Prabhupada emphatically taught that the Guru’s teachings are infallible because the Guru is simply repeating Shastra. Prabhupada made it very clear that a Guru is not infallible when not repeating Shastra.” In both his 2005 paper and his recent statements regarding Yudhisthira and Draupadi, Maharaja not-so-subtly implies that Srila Prabhupada is speaking against shastra and hence has no authority.

Consequentialism is behind the third statement, as there is no shastric basis for joining people of the same sex in some kind of nuptial arrangement resembling marriage. Indeed, soon after making this statement, he wrote his 2005 paper “Vaisnava Moral Theology and Homosexuality” specifically as a vindication for it. If the shastras have nothing to say about it, then you have to use some other criteria. For Maharaja, that criteria is derived from consequentialism.

From all three statements, it is evident that Maharaja’s recent statements regarding Yudhisthira and his 2005 paper are almost identically related in at least two ways: 1) they employ consequentialism as the primary means of evaluating the worth of an act, and 2) they either ignore Srila Prabhupada’s relevant statements or imply that they deviate from shastra.

Consequentialism and dismissing Srila Prabhupada are closely related because if Srila Prabhupada’s authority is maintained, then a consequentialist analysis becomes impossible. Maharaja would have to accept on Srila Prabhupada’s authority that the Srimad-Bhagavatam does in fact discuss homosexuality, and he would have to abandon his argument altogether. Only if Srila Prabhupada is out of the way can he proceed with using consequentialism.

This has deep consequences for ISKCON in general and for Maharaja’s followers in particular:

1. Maharaja has adopted a way of interpreting shastra that has rendered Srila Prabhupada’s authority useless, for if Srila Prabhupada says unauthoritative things in his own books, you cannot trust anything else he says anywhere, either.

2. Consequentialism explains why Srila Prabhupada no longer has any standing in Maharaja’s view: if the consequences of an act are the primary criteria for judging an act’s worth, then all other criteria are necessarily secondary—that includes not only guru but sadhu and shastra as well. Maharaja’s consequentialism therefore introduces into ISKCON a radically secular view of all our sources of spiritual authority, not merely Srila Prabhupada.

3.It also means that Maharaja’s Krishna West project is not simply concerned with better accommodating the food and dress preferences of Westerners but is also aimed at accommodating their deeply held, secular values on human sexuality, moral behavior, etc. That is exactly what his 2005 paper on consequentialism and homosexuality demonstrates. Indeed, that is why in 2008 Maharaja himself gave the blessings for a gay commitment ceremony performed by ISKCON devotees.

Maharaja’s consequentialism aims to change our fundamental beliefs on morality and sexuality because, by so doing, he thinks we will become more acceptable to an influential subset of Westerners. But in order to do so, it is necessary to overturn not just Srila Prabhupada as an authority but sadhu and shastra as well. Maharaja’s populist preaching strategy is yet another, unoriginal policy of “the ends justify the means”, which of course is just an extreme permutation of consequentialism.

This is what is at stake: The GBC will have to decide soon whether what Maharaja has been teaching for the last 10 years is either dharma or adharma—particularly his philosophy of consequentialism. At the very least, Maharaja’s way of interpreting shastra divests Srila Prabhupada of any credibility as a trusted source of spiritual knowledge. Two groups of people, one with faith in Srila Prabhupada and the other without, cannot coexist in ISKCON, no matter what arrangement is made. Depending on what the GBC decides, one group, or the other, will have to either bring themselves in line with that decision or leave. To borrow a Biblical phrase, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Your servant, Krishna-kirti das

p.s. At the Dandavats website, there is also a paper I wrote in 2007 rebutting Maharaja’s 2005 paper on homosexuality.

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