Men of Sterner Stuff

With regard to Sanaka-Rishi Prabhu’s recent communications on the Sampradaya Sun website, specifically on the matter of corporeal punishment in relation to some statements made by H.H. Bhakti Vikasa Swami (who is my spiritual master), I would like to share an experience of mine that I think germane to this matter.

In 2011 I worked as a civilian contractor at a U.S. military installation in Dallas. During my time there, I spent eight months sharing a 6 x 6 foot cubicle with a colleague from Nigeria by the name of John (not his real name). He was about my age, was married and had three children, all of them boys and teenagers. He was also quite visibly a Christian. When we ate together he said his prayers and sometimes spiced his speech with phrases like, “Lord, have mercy!” He was also a strict disciplinarian with his children. Often during the course of the day, he would call his children to find out what mischief they were up to and reprimand them, sometimes threatening them with sterner punishment that can be delivered only in person. And he was quite capable of carrying out his ultimatums, too. He was very strong; his arms were as thick as legs. He was a hard worker, thoroughly honest, devoted to his family, and a gentleman.

So, one day, John, another colleague James, and I, were sitting and having a conversation about the punishments our fathers had given us while we were growing up. James, who had retired from Air Force intelligence and was retiring from a second career as a software developer, described some of the “good whippings” his father gave him. Not wanting to be left behind, I recounted some of the whippings given me by my own father, an Air Force officer and disciplinarian, like most are.

But among us, John’s recollection easily took first place. In Nigeria, his father was the principal of a Christian boy’s school. One day, he told John that when school got over that he must immediately go home. “Do not go anywhere else.” But John went to see a friend, and one of John’s uncles saw him do that and told his father. Despite dallying with his friend, John was first to reach home. His father came home soon afterwards and asked him where he had been.

“What did I tell you?”

“Go straight home.”

“And what did you do?”

“I went to a friend’s house.”

John first got a tongue-lashing, then he got a real lashing. His father tore off a branch from a nearby hedge that John referred to as a “whipping bush”, because not only do the branches make a good hedge but they are ideal for use as a switch in whipping someone. John’s father then whipped him so hard with the switch and so long that John literally could not sit down for the rest of the day. When his mother came home and called him to come sit next to her, all he could do was moan. He really couldn’t sit down. Yet to this day, John speaks about his father only with absolute reverence and says that his father did him great good by chastising him.

Over the years, my own personal observation is that his experience was not uncommon. I can remember once, when growing up on a military base, a friend of mine had loitered too long at my home, and his father, in uniform, walked over to our house, took off his belt, and gave his son a couple of hard lashings. Subsequently, his son, without complaint or crying returned home with him. We were no more than 11 years old back then.

Nowadays such discipline is hardly encountered in everyday life, but when I grew up during the 1970s in America it was common, even among civilians. And we generally turned out OK. So, with this perspective, when considering grievances with regard to corporeal punishment, as mentioned by Sanaka-Rishi Prabhu, most of the incidents, if not the great majority, don’t seem to surpass the severity of the beating that my friend John received from his father.

For sure, notions of what is acceptable in disciplining a child have changed considerably since the 1970s. But perhaps the actual problem is that the notions of acceptable discipline themselves, by way of the therapeutic enterprise, have changed not for the better but for the worse. On other important measures of social and personal well-being, sociologists, psychologists, and therapists have served the rest of society poorly. For example, the out-of-wedlock birth rate in America is today 43%. In other words, more than 4 out of 10 children in America are born outside of a marriage, almost four times the rate in 1970. All this has happened under the guidance of the mental health profession.

So, it is quite plausible that the people creating the problem mainly are the therapists. In most cases, the so-called victims and so-called perpetrators simply would not have been regarded as such fifty years ago. Hardly any men who got beat up by fathers and teachers thought of themselves as victims until a class of mental health professionals came along and sold them on the belief that they were.

It’s not difficult to see why the mental health profession is making matters worse, for the idea it sells to others is that “they are the body.” Mental health professionals intensify the bodily concept of life in their clients, which is most unhelpful. As the late philosopher Christopher Lasch once said,

“Even when therapists speak of the need for ‘meaning’ or ‘love,’ they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them—nor is there any reason why it should, given the nature of the therapeutic enterprise—to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself.” — The Culture of Narcissism (1979)

Intensifying the bodily concept of life means implicating the unfortunate recipients of such therapy in progressively deeper modes of ignorance. And for the unfortunate soul, this results in “happiness which is blind to self-realization, which is delusion from beginning to end and which arises from sleep, laziness and illusion” (BG 18.39). In his purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada says, “For the person in the mode of ignorance, everything is illusion. There is no happiness either in the beginning or at the end.“

From this perspective, the real problem is that because this increases the mode of ignorance in them, they are excessively self-absorbed in their own bodies and minds and thus experience excessive suffering and pain. Hence, by adopting the therapeutic model to help their children deal with experiences of real or imagined abuse, parents, ISKCON decision-makers, and health-care professionals, though all well-meaning, have unwittingly made matters worse for their children, not better.

In order to transcend the suffering of this world, there is no alternative to taking up Krishna consciousness, beginning with the realization that one is “not this body.” The therapeutic model will not help because it deepens the mode of ignorance. Its adoption in the ISKCON education system has been like using gasoline to put out a fire. But in order to be actually freed from suffering, one must adopt the Krishna conscious perspective on all things in life, including those negative experiences one may have had within the society of devotees. This will create men of sterner stuff.


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One Reply to “Men of Sterner Stuff”

  1. Thank you for addressing the difficulties of ISKCON and the matter of public/devotee opinions on this topic. The children of ISKCON need number one priority in my opinion and keeping this in mind we may build a foundation to secure future safety and education for generations to come.

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