When the words of lying men sound lush like the sound of a violin
The truth is there, it’s just [your] heart you gotta find it in…
– Talib Kweli, The Truth
In Gaudiya Vaishnavism – the tradition within which Hare Krishnas and their offshoots arise – there is the notion of something called aparadhas. Generally translated simply as “offenses,” aparadhas are considered to be those thoughts and behaviors that create impediments to worship and to the path. One of the formative scriptures of the sect outlines ten principle aparadhas and several dozen secondary ones, the latter including such obscure and culturally rooted prohibitions as wearing certain colors in front of the temple deities.
Not surprisingly, you find variance among sub-sects and individuals in terms of how strictly these things are followed. But at the peak of this pile of no-no’s is guru and vaishnava aparadha, or offenses toward one’s guru and other practitioners. Another text refers to this as the “mad elephant offense”, building on a common analogy that spiritual life in the tradition is a process of watering the vine of devotion, and that this particular offense is like letting a mad elephant into the garden of your spiritual life. In other words; total destruction.
When I was 17 and 18 and beginning to get very serious about the ideology and practice, I was terribly concerned with this, as I wanted to be sure I would not bring destruction into my budding garden. As a child, unlike many of my peers born into it, I was not heavily indoctrinated. Therefore my process of “joining” was in many ways like that of a fresh convert, and being naturally analytical, I quickly began devouring books and lectures.
During this period I was regularly participating in a weekly conference call where people could ask questions of the swami who would eventually become my guru. Given the reality (in 20/20 hindsight) that this religion and most if not all others lack a truly unified and coherent teaching, it was only natural that many questions would arise as I enthusiastically took in these teachings that are presented as a “science.”
For three weeks in a row on this conference call I asked questions surrounding this mad elephant hoopla. On the last of these weeks, I sought to confirm that ultimately, no matter what, this most heinous sin didn’t actually destroy the seed of devotion in full and for eternity. The swami confirmed that it did not, and told me to stop worrying about it (especially because he no doubt saw how this concern kept me from a more full dedication to him and his cause). Confirmation in hand and neuroses calmed, I could now proceed.
Earlier this year as I was shedding all the indoctrination, I came to see these moments from the outset of my involvement as a sort of testing of boundaries. I had established to my own satisfaction that ultimately nothing I could do would be so bad that my spiritual future could be eternally compromised, even within the belief system. I felt safe to proceed.
The truth is, especially in guru traditions, each spiritual leader has their own spin. They are their own person with their own take on minor and often major philosophical teachings, and they jump through hoops, write new translations, emphasize certain verses and interpretations, and so on, all in effort to legitimize themselves and depict themselves as a faithful representative of the actually quite amorphous “tradition.” My former guru, for better and worse, tended to take a more liberal and nuanced (one of his favorite words) approach. Whereas many Hare Krishnas have been taught that the mad elephant offense can destroy devotion – end of story – I was not. I was also taught to view the hells described in scriptures as allegorical, or states of consciousness.
Others are not always so lucky, especially children. It’s brought me to tears and churned my stomach to hear some of the fears and beliefs of those who grew up more indoctrinated and fearing hell and punishment, much like my friends who grew up in Christian cults. The pictures in A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s “Bhagavad-Gita As it Is” depict horrid and horribly simplistic hellish ramifications for earthly “sins.” A woman posing on a magazine with her breasts covered by a leaf becomes a tree; a man eating meat becomes a pig, and so on. This stuff wasn’t even on my radar as a child, but for so many it was pounded into their innocent and vulnerable heads.
The heart of any cultic environment and teaching is submission to the hierarchy. Prescriptions and proscriptions, even the seemingly harmless or beneficial ones, are almost always contorted into methods of control. Warnings of the dangers of gossip and offensiveness come to be highly effective tools of silencing dissent and exposing of abuse; extolling the virtues of humility and respect do the same. The methods are endless and the leaders who promulgate these ideas are in many ways cogs in the machine themselves, as I believe most of them are indeed “true believers.” But over time, something is malfunctioning deep inside of a person who is privy to and perpetuates the suffering that results from these teachings. People get broken and discarded, suffer, die, and sometimes even murder in the name of these ideas. Ideas that exist to exert control of the master over their slaves.
My quest to understand and disarm the outermost boundary of misbehavior within the teachings was successful, such that as I was extricating myself, I was able to take comfort in the belief that if everything in the teachings had been true, I would naturally come back around to them in some lifetime. Ever a cynic and a planner, I basically needed to apprehend the worst case scenario. With years of subjugation culminating in heartbreak, anxiety attacks, financial manipulation, isolation, etc., that worst-case became something I was, and still am, prepared to live with. I would say to friends, “If it’s true, I’ll pick it back up another lifetime; but I’m retiring this go-round.”