A glowing review of “Religion and Social Justice: An Evening With Bhakti Vasudeva Swami” – a talk delivered on the evening of April 17, 2011, at Columbia University, USA – was written and published in Qalam: Lecture Review Blog of the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of South Asian Studies, a publication of Columbia University.
His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami Unites Religion and Social Justice Advocacy
“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…”
His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami graced Columbia University with his presence on the evening of Sunday, April 17, 2011 in order to discuss the points of intersection between religion and the pursuit of social justice in the modern world. In response to the question of whether or not religion has any bearing on the movement for social justice in the world’s societies, and if this bearing is positive or negative, His Holiness presents a threefold thesis: he describes the divergence of modern-day religion from its truest spiritual roots; expresses the necessity of human beings’ reconnecting with the spiritual roots of their religions; and identifies how social justice in modern societies will blossom forth from this newly awakened, worldwide God-consciousness. The most critical message His Holiness sought to convey through this presentation is the means by which human beings might gain access to the spiritual truths inherent within both their Selves and their Faiths; and how this newfound spiritual connection might enable humanity as a whole to externalize the promised fruits of its religions in the world today, with the achievement of social justice.
His Holiness envisions religion in the modern world as having two basic forms. Modern-day religion represents a type of social culture, severed from a sense of duty to higher ideals or culpability for the perpetration of unjust, unethical, or immoral actions. Adherents to such social cultures gather to attend “religious” events, but leave such gatherings spiritually and morally untransformed; religion in this sense is only understood from a mundane perspective. By contrast, His Holiness highlights transcendental religion as a form of religiosity or spirituality that produces a genuine practitioner of moral and ethical ideals. This genuine practitioner of transcendental religion is characterized by five “symptoms,” which His Holiness translates from Sanskrit, Vedic verse as: (1) having control over the urge to speak harsh words or insincere nonsense; (2) having control over the mind, which is attained through the discipline of cultivating a particular type of sadana or spiritual practice; (3) having control over the tongue, by not saying improper things at improper times; (4) having control over the abdomen, by having orderly, controlled eating habits; (5) having control over one’s genitals, by engaging in no harmful or immoral sexual behaviors. An individual who has gained such mastery over his or her sensory apparatuses represents a genuine practitioner of transcendental religion.
However, gaining control over these five aspects of the body and mind is in no way the culminating point of the genuine practice of religion. Exercising control over the Self is a means by which one refrains from engaging in immoral or unethical social practices, but does not wholly prepare one for participation in the movement for social justice and human rights. His Holiness asserts that the purification of one’s consciousness is the only means by which one will be able to successfully engage in the struggle to end social injustice. A purified consciousness engenders one with purity of purpose; from a purified consciousness, one begins to see one’s transcendental Self, or soul, at the core of one’s physical, and even intellectual, being. One then sees that this soul-source is connected to that of all other living beings, whether they are human or non-human; from this recognition of the interconnectedness of all life arises a sense of love that is imbued with a consciousness of human commonality and equality. Once rooted in this consciousness, the most genuine shoots of social justice – harmony, tolerance, equality – are able to blossom forth in human societies.
Indeed, according to Vedic revelations, the presence of God in the universe is threefold. God is realizable in three phases: (1) God as spirit permeating the whole of the cosmic creation; (2) God as residing in every person’s heart as the super-soul or the Holy Ghost; or, the body as the temple of God; and (3) God as realizable by calling on His names. It is through the practice of the latter that the truth and reality of the former is manifested within the human consciousness.
With this, His Holiness identifies social injustice in modern societies “as being rooted in an ‘identity crisis.’ That is ignorance, ignorance of our true identity.” This true identity is the recognition of the Self at the core of one’s being as interconnected with all other Selves; and this assemblage of interconnected Selves as being inextricably connected with the Creative Force, or God, of the universe. His Holiness solidifies this conceptualization with a discussion of research reporting a strong correlation between the “purification of consciousness” by a community of individuals, and the subsequent or simultaneous emergence of social justice within that particular community. He cites South Africa at the height of apartheid; despite the intensity of hatred, discrimination, and division in that society at the time, Black, White, and Indian members of the South African Hare Krishna community met together in an atmosphere of unity, concord, and love. “Such is the power,” he proclaims, ”of deep devotion to spirituality, of genuine religiosity.”
Finally, His Holiness presents the tool by which human beings might purify their consciousnesses, in order to achieve the extraordinary vision of social justice, human rights, and world peace in modern societies. He presents the idea that, for every age, human beings are given a tool by which to connect with the deepest spiritual meaning of their religion, and thus with their truest Selves, God, and all of humanity. His Holiness identifies the tool for this age as, “sonic therapeutic intervention, or audition and recapitulation of the names of God.” While this might mean chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, or dhikr as practiced by Muslims, the remembrance of the names of God is an injunction that many religious traditions have enjoined upon its adherents. His Holiness explains, “Basically, we understand that God has multifarious names – such as Jehovah, Allah, or Krishna – and dedicate time everyday to Him through repetitions of these names.”
According to His Holiness, calling upon the name of God is like having a direct cell-phone line to this Higher Power. “Just as human beings appreciate when a friend calls, unexpectedly or even regularly, out of genuine love and concern, so too does God appreciate having His name called upon by human beings; this is because human beings are parts and parcels of that supreme ocean of appreciation.” His Holiness encourages people who have an inclination for religiosity to take time out from their daily schedules to connect with a higher force in this way, as it sustains spiritual awareness. Such a practice is food for the Spirit, which nourishes and invigorates human beings in a manner similar to how food nourishes the physical body. He suggests that two hours be used for this practice, especially in the morning between 4:30 and 6:30am. “Any effort you make in terms of your spiritual endeavors at that time,” he confirms, “will give you very great spiritual benefits.” By engaging this practice, His Holiness indicates that “you’ll be protected from all of the known or unknown temptations. Even your physical environment can be purified by calling on God’s names.”
Truly, the practice of calling upon the names of God is a spiritual tool by which not only one’s own consciousness may be purified, but even by which one’s immediate physical setting – and the world as a whole – can experience purification and spiritual recalibration. Affirming the connection between the remembrance of God, the purification of one’s consciousness, and the achievement of social justice, His Holiness concludes, “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. …The practice of religion leads to liberation; genuine practitioners of religion are those who uphold the norms of social justice. If your higher self is realized [through the genuine practice of religion], you will see the spiritual essence in everyone; thus, you will be able to genuinely campaign for social justice.”
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. Born in Nigeria, he commenced his religious and communal activities 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.
(Biographical points: Courtesy of Columbia University’s Undergraduate Journal of Religion, The Sanctum)