His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami Speaks on Religion and Social Justice

Published in the Fall 2010 issue of Sanctum: The Undergraduate Journal of Religion at Columbia University.

There are a number of varying ideas on what constitutes social justice, some of which conflict with each other. What is true social justice and how is it best achieved?

It is a very important issue in social justice. Rudimentarily, social justice refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality, justice, and solidarity that understands and values human rights and that recognizes the differences of all. It is easily achieved when we understand our pristine identity—that is, the fact that, despite our differences, in bodily designation like race, gender, age, etc.,we have a common spiritual essence, and, based on that spiritual essence, we can value people instead of trampling their rights. So [social justice] can be achieved very easily, if we recognize, first of all, who we are and who others are—despite the color of their skin and despite their gender and despite their age, etc. That’s why I call social injustice…being rooted in an “identity crisis.” That is ignorance, ignorance of our true identity.

Are we naturally inclined toward establishing and maintaining social justice or are we more naturally inclined toward destroying it, due to our inherent or developed qualities?

Let me explain it this way: the degree of our inclination to maintain social justice is directly proportional to our social insight and our social insight has to do with our moral reasoning. And, of course, our moral reasoning is, to some degree, rooted in the purification of our consciousness. For example, if someone has a pathological state of consciousness, there is no question of him or her striving for social justice. We need to understand that, in the present era, many people are imbued with so much hypocrisy, quarreling, and agitation that their consciousness is not purified. There is a time-tested and definite methodology of becoming purified in consciousness, and that methodology is given practically in all sastric literatures, or bona fide scriptures. I call it “sonic therapeutic intervention,” or audition and recapitulation of the names of God. Basically, we understand that God has multifarious names—such as Jehovah, Allah, or Krishna—and dedicate time everyday to Him through these repetitions. If we don’t take care to give some quality time to God, we may have good intentions about social justice, but our intentions may be thwarted because, if we don’t have that purified consciousness, it is very difficult to strive for social justice.

We’ve seen in the past that many people who champion social causes are very eloquent speakers and very scholarly people, but we can find, even in the history of this country, that they have fallen right in the noose. So we need some purification. We need to purify our consciousness to stand firm in the pursuit of social justice.

This practice of chanting the holy names of God as a method of purification of consciousness implies belief in a God and, thus, holds little meaning to the faithless. Is there a way to purify the consciousness without such a theistic or religious practice?

Firstly, if we discuss consciousness, we should also understand what essentially consciousness is because, if we don’t understand that, we will be led astray. To answer your question, yes, we can also purify our consciousness by transcendental austerities,by diet therapy, by abstinence from intoxication and lies, and, of course, by sexual restraint. We can also purify our consciousness through spirituality. You may say that spirituality and religion are the same, but there is a difference between spirituality and faith—your faith can change, but your spiritual identity does not change. Research shows that the sustainability of the purification of consciousness is more prominent with the audition and recapitulation of the names of God.

What is the ideal connection between faith and social justice? To what extent should faith in general be connected with social justice?

When you talk about faith, it is a very broad concept. Basically, we have to understand that we are all children of one Creator; therefore, we should uphold human rights with impunity and we should respect and honor everyone, because we are all essentially spiritual beings–parts and parcels of the Supreme Being. You call Him God, Jehovah, Allah, etc; we call Him Krishna. When our eyes become anointed with the salve of love or when our eyes become anointed with transcendental love, we will be able to have a universal vision not based on color, gender, race, age, etc., but based on the fact that everyone is a spark from the Creator. Therefore, in a sense, faith has a very vital role to play in originating social justice or even in the execution of social justice. Faith, in essence, implies that we believe in something and everyone believes in something—in fact, the variable is the object of our belief. And so, the very prosecution of social justice is faith—because, in a literal sense, faith implies conviction or belief and each and everyone has a belief in something. And so, yes, faith has some major ingredient or significance in social justice,based on the concept that we have some conviction and we have to fulfill that conviction. If someone is really spiritually inclined, they need to be inclined in social justice because the whole concept of social justice is that people should not be dehumanized or people should have equal treatment. If someone claims to be a member of a faith and that someone is not inclined toward social justice, it [is problematic] to me. Because, if we love God, we should love His parts and parcels.We should love the people around us. Social justice should begin with our families because our family is a microcosm of society. We should not abuse our children and our spouses and then go out to champion the cause of social justice.

As Your Holiness has clearly explained, there is a strong connection between religion and the establishment and maintenance of social justice. However, despite this connection, in the past, religion has been misused in a number of ways for the obstruction of social justice and the detriment of the well-being of the people. What is the root cause of these problems?

The cause is polluted consciousness. When people become swayed by lust, their thinking is clouded, and so they subscribe to all of the dictates of the mind and the impulses of the senses. These very instances are being perpetrated by people with polluted consciousness, not with pure consciousness, and this is due to the fact that they don’t practice any genuine religious or spiritual culture to purify themselves. They may even have good intentions, but, if they are under the impulse of lust, they don’t think properly and so they do the wrong things. People abuse religious institutions just to gratify their senses and people are running away from religion because of these nasty activities and they do not really understand the culture of spirituality and religiosity. It is a very sad development. The concept of religious wars is also very sad and very harmful. The plebeians on the street may carry bombs and try to harm people and this is from a lack of social responsibility and a lack of understanding of philosophical concepts rooted in pure spirituality. The best way to avoid these types of social issues is to train these people to read the scriptures. The people at the top– that is, the top religious scholars—are working together in the same schools; they are peaceful and intelligent people. Why is it that those on the street must be carrying bombs to go and kill people?

How does Your Holiness respond to the assertion that, as practitioners of spirituality, we should focus only on the spiritual and reject the material, and, therefore, we should ignore issues related to social injustice because they are on the material platform and focus only on our spiritual practice?

If our philosophies do not have a problem-solving orientation, people will not embrace them, because why would they pray to God for help when the people around us, the children of God, are not caring for us? The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, for example, distributes free food at college campuses, at hospitals, at abandoned babies’ homes, and even to the public in general to practically apply social justice principles.

We should be caring and not just go after our own liberation while the world is suffering. Rather, if we don’t care—for example, if a religious person sees that someone is being raped and he or she just shies away because that crime has nothing to do with his love for God— he or she becomes an accomplice. We should be inclined toward helping people and, at the same time, practicing our faith. We cannot ignore the people around us if we profess to believe in God.

One major problem in the realm of social justice is that of discrimination, particularly against women and minority races. Some religious leaders have chosen to remain silent on such issues, whereas others have spoken strongly against them. What view does Your Holiness hold on the subject?

To deny people opportunities because of race or sex is terribly barbaric. When we find these types of developments and people don’t respond, it’s absurd. The concept of discrimination is all based on the body and disproportionate focus on the material. People need some higher rationale, including transcendental knowledge and culture, to be able to move past discrimination. We learn in the Vedic literature that the whole planet is under the auspices of a woman, Mother Bhumi. And so, for us to say that some people are unqualified to do something is an inaccurate and unwholesome attitude towards life.

Your Holiness is personally involved in the Hare Krishna movement, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON),which is a very large and prominent worldwide organization. What has been its specific role in encouraging the establishment of social justice, in bringing peace and harmony to this world, and in helping the people in general?

We’re doing this practically everywhere. To give you a practical example, I have been preaching for many years in Africa – I happen to come from Nigeria,and, in Nigeria, we have been championing these causes. Social justice is leading by example and that is basically what we do. We don’t just profess “peace.” Whatever we have, we share with the people. If someone comes to our temple, he will get a free meal every morning, afternoon, and evening. This is [showing] concern for our brothers and sisters, for everyone, because we see them as parts and parcels of God or parts and parcels of Krishna. We are also working to help with the transmission of transcendental knowledge to all without discrimination and to spread the message of God to every town and village.

What are the consequences and repercussions of neglecting social justice from a material, as well as a spiritual, perspective?

Of course, materially speaking, if someone doesn’t raise an alarm, he will lend himself a bad name and people will not trust him. If someone is not caring, what is the motive for having a strong relationship with that person? We want our relationships with people who are caring, and so, if someone is not seeing how others can be rectified or how others can be relieved of their suffering, we can’t accept that person. We have to stand firm to be able to help those who are being victimized or those who are being abused. In a sense, just as we experience material effects from neglecting social justice, we experience spiritual effects. The [spiritual] consequences are that we are responsible for the injustice and so we carry some karmic reactions, or consequences [derived from the laws of karma,an individual’s reward for good deeds and/or punishment for bad deeds]. Especially, for instance, as the leaders of society—parents, teachers, the educated, etc—if we see others being treated unjustly and we don’t act, we bear the consequences of our negligence. So negligence of duty or an uninterested approach to duty [are] central problem[s] we all must combat in our social justice work.  —

His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami (Vasudev Das) is a religious leader of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu faith, a doctoral researcher of leadership and organizational change, and a scholar of the social sciences. He was born in Bayelsa State, Nigeria, and commenced his wide-reaching religious and communal activities there in 1984 with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). His Holiness frequently travels around the world to educate diverse audiences on the values of love, peace, unity in diversity, self-realization, positive change, and community development. His Holiness sat down with Sanctum to discuss how he understands the relationship between religion and social justice.