Your Religion, Your Soul, Your Identity: A Conversation with His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami

Published in the Spring 2011 issue of Awaaz: The Voice of South Asia, a publication of Columbia University.

Awaaz: ISKCON’s philosophy presents a unique view of the world, the identity of its people, and their relationship with Krishna [God]. What is this view?

His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami: The ISKCON philosophy, which hinges on the Bhagavad Gita as its primary book of wisdom or spiritual literature, with all of the Vedic literatures, brings to bear that we are creatures of God, or parts and parcels of God. We call God Krishna. Krishna means the all-attractive Personality of Godhead. The relationships we find in this world—like the parent-child relationship, friendship, the servant-master relationship—these are all relationships that exist between the living entity (the creation of God) and God. Through the process of devotional service unto God, unto Krishna, we become purified and we are able to become reinstated in those—our original relationships with God, with Krishna.

So relationship is a fundamental principle; the variable is the object of our relationship, or the type of relationship we have. Relationship is intrinsic value of spirit souls, that is why we are all struggling to have sustainable relationships in this material world; but the original relationship exists between we the living entities, or creatures of God, and God. We are spiritual sparks, parts and parcels of Krishna, or God; and we have relationships with Krishna or God, such as conjugal love, parenthood, friendship, servitorship, and neutrality; and the point is we can realize these relationships, in this life, by engaging our senses in the Master of the senses—Krishna, or God; that is, by engaging ourselves in devotional service unto Lord Krishna. This has a purifying effect, and we can very easily realize our original relationship with God.

There is God. God is not just hanging out in ethereal space; He has His kingdom. We can go to that kingdom and experience these amazing eternal relationships with God. So yes, the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita is very rich—rich and unique, in the sense that we are all trying to create sustainable relationships in this world, and that is rooted in the fact that we do have original relationships with God. And so there’s nothing new. It’s just a matter of the perverted reflection that we tend to dwell on in this material world. We have eternal relationships with Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, or God.

A: A core religious text of your spiritual tradition is the world-famous Bhagavad Gita. What are the basic tenets of this scripture, especially in relation to one’s actual spiritual identity?

HH: The core, or the central, tenets of the Bhagavad Gita are basically that there is 1) God, or the Creator, or Bhagavān, Krishna; and 2) the jīvas, or living entities, we who are creations of God, who are parts and parcels of God; 3) material nature; and 4) time. Of course, our relationship with God is also delineated in the Bhagavad Gita… The Bhagavad Gita is all about creating a viable future for human society because it begins with the need for action, and for us to take action, we must understand our pristine identity.

What constitutes action? What are the interplays of the elements of action? What are the attributes of those who are involved in the action—are they impersonal, or are they personal? Obviously God is personal, and we are also personal, because we are His parts and parcels. And so in the Bhagavad Gita, the first six chapters deal with action.

Then the middle six chapters deal with devotional service to Krishna, or God—or action in relation to God, service to God. Why that? Because that helps to elevate our consciousness, to purify our consciousness. It’s just like when you have an iron nail, and you put the iron nail in fire, the nail becomes gradually hot and it ultimately acquires all the qualities of fire, and the nail can actually act like fire. In a similar way, if we understand the middle six chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, which is like the confidential aspect of the Gita, then we can actually act in various ways to be able to create a positive change in our societies, in our families, and even in the whole globe.

So, the whole idea of the Bhagavad Gita is to let people come to the realization that there is a need for us to understand that there is an Enjoyer in this world, and that we are simply to work towards that fulfillment inasmuch as we try to live our lives separately from God, then we experience so much of miseries.

So ultimately, in the end of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna told Arjuna—who is the recipient of the information, the recipient of the knowledge—that, “You should just surrender unto Me, and I will give you all protection. Don’t fear.” … And therefore, if people understand the essence of the Gita, it’s not just to read the Gita and philosophize what is the essence of the Gita. The essence of the Gita is to be able to give our lives as a sacrifice, as a service to God, so as to become purified, and to be able to go back to the kingdom of God where originally we belong.

So the Bhagavad Gita deals with so many things, but the essence is to know that “krsnas tu bhagavān svayam” [Srimad Bhagavatam, 1.3.28]— Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And if we want to be happy—just like if the hand is separate from the body, the hand is not going to relish life; but if the hand is attached to the body, not severed from the body, then the hand can be nourished—in a similar way, the Bhagavad Gita brings us to the knowledge that when we become reconnected with God, when we become reunited with God, then we can experience a blissful life of knowledge and eternity…

This world we are living in is a world of trouble, a world of distress, a world of perturbation… So many things are going on in this world. We have even been imposed with so many things, like old age, disease, death, etc. But in the spiritual world—where Krishna stays, the kingdom of God—there is no old age, disease, or death. So if we don’t want to keep suffering in this world in silence, there is a need for us to understand the essence of the Gita, which is to surrender to Krishna and go back to His Kingdom of God at the end of this life.

A: The organization Your Holiness is affiliated with— the International Society for Krishna Consciousness— follows the Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu faith; yet the organization is quite unique, in that it is universal in welcoming new members of all ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, from all over the world. This is distinguished from typical “Hinduism” which is ethnically tied to the Indian people and is not typically open to foreigners. What created this distinction?

HH: What happens is that we of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness are practicing the original tradition that has been passed down in the Vedic literatures since the beginning of the cosmic creation. It’s just like every machine, or every electronic gasket, has a booklet that comes with it that tells you how to use it. So this material cosmos is also like a small machine, and the Vedic literatures give a delineation of how to use this machine.

One of the ways is that we who found ourselves in this material world have to be able to figure out constitutional position—and that constitutional position is enhanced by the practice of sanātana-dharma. Sanātana-dharma is the eternal duty of the spirit soul to the Supreme Soul, Krishna or God. Examine our lives, and you will find that everyone in this world is engaged in some service. Even the president of America, Barack Obama, is engaged in some service. No one can say that he or she is not serving, because intrinsically our constitutional position is that we are servants of God, and we can’t change our status. We can’t change it. We may be serving the external energy of God, or we may serve His internal energy. It depends on what we want. And so, in sanātana-dharma, the established principle is that we have to serve God. And what is the benefit? We get purified. So sanātanadharma is the eternal religion for humanity at large.

What people are practicing in different religions is an aspect of sanātana-dharma, but in the Vedic literature it is clearly set out, and very graphically delineated, how to do this. Therefore the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, founded in the Western countries—or transplanted in America, Europe, and other parts of the world—by our FounderĀcārya, His Divine Grace Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, is just the fulfillment of the predictions of Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu [an incarnation of Krishna], who is the original founder of the Hare Krishna movement, or the sanātana-dharma. Because sanātana-dharma, or the eternal duty of the soul to God, is founded by God Himself—it was something given by God right from the beginning of creation, so that we may be able to understand the objective criterion of human existence, and to be able to pave way toward emancipation from our mundane inebrieties.

Therefore when our Founder-Ācārya, Śrīla Abhaya Caranāravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami, or A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, came to the West and translated these works into endless languages, people went after it. People digested it, people lived the philosophy, people applied the teachings in their lives, and they became holy people, sādhus, sages. Therefore, this process of Krishna Consciousness is not limited to the Indian subcontinent, in the sense that it is a cosmozonal philosophy that brings about a revolution in the lives of the citizenry.

If someone is hungry, all that [he’s] thinking about is food, food, food. So spiritually, everyone in this world is hungry. For some people, their hunger is covered; but for some people, their hunger is very much overt, very open. Therefore with some people, when they see this spiritual food—spiritual philosophy, practice of devotional culture, practice of authentic spirituality rooted in Vedic thought and Vedic literature—they don’t waste time. That is why you find that these teachings of the Krishna Consciousness movement spread all over the world within the twinkle of an eye inasmuch as it is not something that is within, or that is circumscribed to the Indian subcontinent.

Whereas what people really refer to as “Hinduism” is maybe something that is precluded to Indians, the Krishna Consciousness philosophy or sanātana-dharma is not something precluded to any group of people, whether you are a man, a woman, a child, an old man, old woman, or whatever. Whether you are a black, yellow, green, white—people are from all races. It’s just like life—there’s no distinction that this is a white race life, or a black race life. No! Life is life. And food, for instance, is food. Everybody wants to eat… And because spiritual transformation is very contagious, it goes on to spill over and affect people from all over the world to be able to embrace these teachings…

And so, we have temples all over the world, farm communities, etc. Anyone could be part of it. And it’s simply based on the fact that there is one God—there is one living God—and that God is available for anyone and everyone. So, we are not postulating ideas that are antiquated; rather, we are presenting the original teachings of God as presented in the Bhagavad Gita as it is…

Those are the fundamental underpinnings of the uniqueness of this philosophy, because it is contagious and it is something that anyone can practice. It is not restricted to any subcontinent, or whatever.

A: You happen to be a living example of this distinction—Nigerian-born and raised in a different spiritual tradition, but now a world religious leader of ISKCON. What is your own background, and how did you take to this spiritual path?

HH: I was born in a Christian family, right back there in Nigeria. And as a God-fearing young child, I was always making inquiries about when people die, where they go—as a matter of fact, that was one of my major questions. People—relations and parents, even my teachers—tended to think that this boy is so small to think of all these type of deep questions, but I was keen to know these things right from childhood. And therefore, as I was growing up—I think I remember vividly—at the age of twenty, my mom called me one day and said, “You asked too many questions when you were a child. Now you are twenty. Go into the world, and figure out things yourself. Figure out the answers to your questions.”

And so I started investigating, and I got in touch with these Krishna, ISKCON devotees. I got some of their books, and I became attracted. In fact, their books gave me wonderful information about those intriguing questions that were bugging my mind. And so I visited their temple—that was in the oil city of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, in the southern part of the country. So when I went to the temple, I met with the temple president. I spoke with him about my needs— my spiritual needs, how I really wanted to expand my consciousness to know more about the purpose of life, etc. In a nutshell, this is how I became involved with the Krishna Consciousness movement. I met with the devotees in 1983, in December. And in February—I was with the Rivers State Judiciary then, and I was on vacation at the time—so I went to the temple to spend [around] three weeks.

After my vacation, I felt that there is more I needed to investigate and really learn in this organization. And that is how I resolved to become a full-time priest and study more, explore more of the Vedic literature. It inspired me to create some changes in my own self, and of course how to be able to impart those changes in my own life unto others who are around me. That is why I didn’t hesitate to become a full-time priest. Because I found the teachings very intriguing, very satisfactory to me, and I found that this is what I’ve been looking for. So I didn’t waste any time; I took it up with all alacrity.

A: In addition to being a world religious leader within the Hare Krishna movement, you are also a scholar of international repute in the social sciences. A number of your published works feature a unique deep integration of the spiritual and the secular. How do you manage this integration?

HH: As an academic and a priest, my primary objective is to utilize Vaishnava Vedantic philosophy in proffering solutions to global problems for a positive social change. Utilizing Vedantic constructs and concepts in addressing social, political, and economic issues in the global village is an accomplishment that has been achieved through practice and detachment from the results.

Basically, integrating spirituality and secularity has been made easy in my life through high emotional intelligence. By emotional intelligence, I am referring to the integration of social skills and time management rooted in indefatigable sonic therapeutic intervention and diet therapy.

Actually, the majority of our problems could be resolved through proper integration of spirituality and secularity in our globalizing era. For instance, through sādhana, or spiritual practice, it becomes easy to develop strong determination and focus in one’s discipline for a positive social change. Therefore, I didn’t find anything really difficult in terms of trying to do what I’m doing, and I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for a pretty long time.

A: How does your spiritual worldview influence your view of the secular, and vice-versa?

HH: Since we—should I say, we are embodied souls— since we are quintessentially spiritual beings, developing one’s pristine spiritual identity enhances execution of secular obligations and accomplishments. Secular duties could be likened to the field of events or the field of activities, and the living entity or living being is the knower of the field of activities. Therefore, the more one’s worldview is hinged on expanded spiritual consciousness, the easier it is for him or her to be able to positively influence his secular accomplishments and transform even his or her challenges into sustainable developments.

The antithetic view could be that the less we are spiritually developed, or the more we are spiritually bankrupt, the more we will find challenges very much impenetrable. Therefore, it is important for us to understand our spiritual worldview and the secular worldview are just the same coin with different parts, different faces. And we should appreciate that point, and simply use one to complement the other. It’s a matter of trying to practice this, and then one will find it very easy.

And of course, in my case, my spiritual worldview has had a lot of positive influence on my secular worldview. That has helped to create a lot of ameliorable or positive relationships between myself and other colleagues, professor-friends; and even internally, within our organization, I have a good relationship with a number of people, based on the fact that I utilize my spiritual worldview in trying to create a positive change in the secular setting, or within the administrative setup…

A: Define identity. What is our actual identity from a spiritual perspective, and how does this differ from our identity from a material perspective?

HH: Denotatively, identity is the sense of the self, or cognizance of reality of being. Connotatively, identity crisis is a disorientation concerning one’s sense of supra-mundane or spiritual self, transcendental values, and objective criterion in life. Consequently, one gravitates to misidentify the transitory material body to be one’s self, and this is the genesis of the crisis in the world. We have our gross bodies—which are made up of earth, water, fire, air, and ether. However, beyond the gross elements, we also have the mind, intelligence, and false ego, which constitute the subtle or astral body. And beyond the astral body there is the spirit soul characterized by eternity, knowledge, and bliss. We are minuscule spirit souls. In other words, we are infinitesimal spirit souls. In other words, we are not these bodies we are so much enamored to. We have seen these bodies as objects of exploration and exploitation, but we are not at all these bodies. The mundane approach to identity drives people to the brink of disaster.

When we identify with our material bodies, we tend to follow the dictates of the mind and the sensory modalities. Then we tend to think, “If I follow my mind, I will never go wrong.” However, the reality is that if you follow your mind, you will be a jailbird. The mind is like a typical mischievous monkey of Vrindavana [an important city and holy place in India, famous for its many fruit-stealing monkeys on the streets. It is also the city where Krishna grew up according to legend]. If you follow the impulses of the material mind, you could even rape someone, and you will serve behind bars and destroy your track record. In a nutshell, we have constitutional supra-mundane identity, and we also do have conditioned or mundane identity—we call it material identity. Life rooted in supra-mundane identity generates peace, harmony, and happiness, whereas life hinged on conditioned or material identity creates fractured relationships, problems, and crises on the planet. We have to choose which way we want to dovetail our lives. Obviously, channeling our lives to spiritual identity is the best bet for mundane man.

A: Are there factors that distinguish religious identity from spiritual identity?

HH: When we talk about religious identity, religious identity is very temporal, and spiritual identity is something permanent. For instance today if I am a Christian, tomorrow I can be a Muslim, the next day I can become a Hindu, I can become a Buddhist, or whatever. But the spiritual identity has to do with sanātana-dharma—service to God—and basically we, as creatures of God, are servants of God. But we are spirit souls, so that is our spiritual identity…

And of course, spiritual identity and civilization go very much together. Because the more one is identifying with the spiritual aspect of one’s origin, or one’s existence, then it becomes easy to be able to mix with people, and to be able to integrate into the greater society, without really minding whether this person is from this race, or from that country, or from this tribe, or whatever—or from this religion, or that religion. Because if you are spiritually situated, if you realize your spiritual identity, you will be able to live with people in an equal way, just like how you treat you wife will be the same to how you treat every other woman out there, or how you treat your child will be the same to how you treat every other child out there.

But when people are blinded to spiritual identity, then the distinction is there. We will think, “I am of this religion, and you are of that religion, and therefore we have to fight.” But this doesn’t really make any sense. Therefore if I can really vividly give some delineation here, to me it implies that religious and spiritual identity are completely different—they are different concepts, they are different constructs—and therefore, they are of opposite polarities…

In most cases, people don’t realize their spiritual identity, which sustains their existence. Life is a continuum, and that has to do with the spiritual identity. Therefore religious and spiritual identities don’t really work hand-in-hand together. They can balance each other if utilized properly, but they are distant futures, in the sense that for religious identity one could go to kill some other person. But one who is situated in spiritual identity will never harm anyone; he will see anyone and everyone [and everything] in the same light…

Now keep in mind that even within the body, we have two souls. We have the living entity, which is the jīva, and then we have the paramātmā, or the super-soul, the guiding angel who oversees our activities. Therefore we can never hide anything from God. Paramātmā is Krishna; paramātmā is an expansion of Krishna. So whether we think that religious and spiritual identity are cultural embedded or whatever, we have a weakness, and if we cause any harm or if we do any violence to anyone based on religious identity, then we would be doing more harm than good to ourselves, because no one can ever “eat his cake and have it.” There is retributive justice, and so there is nothing that we do [for which] we escape it.

Therefore we have to understand that the concept of spirituality is there and religiosity is a steppingstone to a higher understanding of spirituality, a higher understanding of spiritual realization. And if religion could actually help us to move further ahead to become really united with God, that would be a good deal for us. Otherwise, our so-called openness to the world will be simply based on how to bring people or to lure people into our fold to use them as agents of violence, which is all-pervasive in the modern era now. People are killing, all in the name of religion; religious crisis is gradually taking over all over the world, and major problems of the world are actually hinged on some form of religious issues. Therefore, we have to understand that religion itself should give rise to some form of essence of elevation of consciousness; otherwise, it becomes mundane religion.

There are two types of religion—mundane religion and transcendental religion. Transcendental religion heightens our consciousness; mundane religion simply binds us more and more in this world, and wreaks so much of havoc in society. Therefore, we should be making progress, even if we are practicing religion; and if we are practicing spirituality, then we are culturally oriented, we could be open to all. And because we can really see each and every one on the planet as a spiritual entity—part and parcel of God— [then] he or she becomes our brother or our sister. So this is the unification of spirituality. Spirituality can bring about a reunification in the world, a reorganization that would be able to create a viable future in the whole world in terms of peace, harmony, and justice.

A: Is either form of identity—religious or spiritual— culturally embedded? If so, to what extent is it culturally embedded?

HH: No, spirituality is not culturally embedded. Otherwise, the Hare Krishna movement wouldn’t have left the shores of India to come to the Western countries and all over the world. It is not something that is circumscribed within the cultural boundaries. Mundane religion is circumscribed by cultural boundaries, yes…

A: What are the negative effects of the identity crisis caused by the discrepancy between these two identities? How are these negative effects practically seen in the modern world, and how may they be overcome?

HH: … Identity crisis only brings problems. Identity crisis is only an ill wind that brings no good to the world. Because once we misidentify with the body, we tend to think, “I am American. I am an Iraqi. I am a European. I am an African. I am a Dutch.” Therefore, this simply creates fragmentation, balkanization, and wars.

Because then we think that someone within “my country,” or within “my tribe,” or within “my region,” or within “my colony,” is my brother or my sister, and anyone out there is my enemy, [and think of] how to conquer them. But this is the root of the matter, because we fail to understand that we are all brothers and sisters, we are all emanations from God, and that we are spiritual entities…

If one person kills the whole world, then how can he even enjoy the whole world? Enjoyment means variety, you know. We need people to be able to enjoy. No matter how rich you are, no matter how powerful you may be, if you kill everyone else out there, and you don’t have someone to talk to, how are you going to enjoy? You’ll be miserable. Therefore, it is gross foolishness, gross ignorance, that people go out of their way just to try and annihilate the whole world to be able to satisfy their ill intentions. And it is important for us to understand that identity crisis is the root cause of all of the problems in this world.

Just think about any of the wars on this planet. It is rooted in the fact or on the principle that the people who are embarking on the war or who generate the war want to control. They want to conquer. They are thinking that they are the controllers. However, no one is a controller. Who has transcended old age, disease, and death? And so this is the gross ignorance.

… But at the same time, they are championing different causes for world peace. How could you create violence, and at the same time be looking for world peace? It is ironic!

… And all of this desire for conquest is based on identity crisis. We think that we are these bodies, we have to conquer, and we have to enjoy; when we conquer and take all of the assets, then we have to enjoy unlimitedly. But nobody can really remain on this planet more than the allotted number of years that he is supposed to live. And therefore it is important for us to understand that we have to break through this box of identity crisis, and come to realize our real identity, our pristine identity, as spirit souls, parts and parcels of God. And in that way, we will be able to repose our love and affection in God, serve God, become purified, and be able to see each other as our brothers and our sisters in the light of creating harmony and peace on the planet. —

His Holiness Bhakti Vasudeva Swami (Vasudev Das) is a prominent 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), colloquially known as the Hare Krishna movement. His Holiness frequently travels around the world to spread his faith’s values of love, peace, unity in diversity, self-realization, positive change, and community development.

The Hare Krishna movement His Holiness represents is a prominent branch of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, which arose from the established bhakti (devotional) tradition of 15th-century Bengal founded by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition is unique in Hinduism for its exclusive, monotheist worship of Krishna as a personal God. The modern Hare Krishna movement is further distinguished by its expansion of the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith, far beyond India’s borders, even into the western world, and its rejection of a birth-based caste system (a relatively recent cultural imposition on Indian Hinduism).