10/14/2012 08:54 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2012

Can a Hare Krishna Yogi Have a Social Gospel?

Continuing my series on being "A Yogi at Union," I humbly try to explore how my tradition of bhakti-yoga, or the "Hare Krishna" tradition, acknowledges the struggle for justice in this world. How does my tradition offer substance to the struggle for meaning that exists for the oppressed, and the oppressor, in the world today?

You can check out more at the Union In Dialogue blog at the website for Union Theological Seminary

Can a "Hare Krishna" have a "social gospel"?

This is an interesting question. Perhaps a more interesting question would be: What is a "Hare Krishna" doing at Union Theological Seminary?

I have spent the past five and a half years living as a monk in the Gaudiya Vaisnava aka bhakti-yoga ("Yoga of Devotion and Love") aka "Hare Krishna" religious strand of the Hindu/Vedic spiritual culture of India. My most recent monastic stint was at The Bhakti Center, our Krishna temple in the East Village here in Manhattan.

In the last year I retired from monastic life and began a new journey here to Union. I still practice and identify as a devotee of the bhakti tradition (and I also was raised as a Catholic too, which is a whole other can of worms we'll perhaps talk about later). As far as I know, I am the only practicing Hindu at Union right now, and this leaves me in a tough spot.

This is because I am not sure how I, as a Hindu, as a "Hare Krishna," fit into the fabric of social justice that defines Union. Personally, I consider myself an activist, although my experience is limited. I consider myself deeply concerned with justice, although my understanding of justice is nominal. Where the hitch is is in how my identity as a bhakti devotee may or may not be compromised by an active interest in fighting for justice in this world.

How could such a tradition as bhakti be against the idea of justice? At its theological heart it isn't. A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the bhakti teacher/scholar who risked his life and well-being (he had two heart-attacks on the boat-ride to America) at the age of 69 to bring the tradition of bhakti to the West, is one of the greatest spiritual activists of our time. He combined erudite scholarship and deep personal love and care to touch the hearts of thousands upon thousands of people during his ministry. His work was the work of the deepest justice, of giving people spiritual identity, clarity and eternity in a world where the search for meaning can be so crippling.

Swami Prabhupada also inherits a liberative legacy from his immediate teachers in the bhakti line, who actively opposed the caste system in India, and who opened initiation in the tradition to all, regardless of caste, creed, race, gender or nationality, echoing the universal essence of bhakti described in the sastra (scriptures). For this reason, Swami Prabhupada traveled to the West to implant a spiritual culture that is, by all rights, ours to inherit, as it is for anyone in the world. Swami Prabhupada established his legacy by creating a worldwide society of devotees of bhakti, touching every continent during his 11-year active ministry.

Then there are the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita itself, calling us to a clear vision of equality toward all life in this world:

The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].

What this means is that as a bhakti-yogi, my spiritual practice is meant to guide me toward seeing all living beings as their essence, as individual spirit souls. What this also means is that I should never discriminate against anyone because of the color of their skin, the content of their sexuality, or the concrete reality (or shifting reality) of their gender.

Yet as "Hare Krishnas," we are not exactly to be found on the frontlines of Occupy, helping to protect someone's home from being foreclosed. We aren't in the media using our timeless wisdom to rail against the economic, fascistic hegemony of the modern corporate "octopus." While I personally feel -- and many others in my tradition feel the same -- that there is no prohibition to these kinds of activist works, there is a deeper consideration, or aspirational dimension as the great Beverly Harrison writes, to be considered, which opens up to any person of faith working in justice. The "social gospel" at play here isn't perhaps what is commonly defined as such, but it exists for the devotee of bhakti nevertheless.

Mundane is a loaded word, but let us consider it. We don't want our works to be mundane. What does this mean in the spiritual context we are dealing with here? It means any works which don't liberate the soul at the same time the body is being liberated from its suffering. The bhakti tradition has as its goal the liberation of the soul from the bodily construct, so that it may enter into its perfected loving relationship with the personal God, represented in the feminine/masculine personhood of Radha/Krishna.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna speaks about how material nature is made up of three distinct modes (goodness, passion, ignorance), and of how the key to enlightenment is to transcend these three modes, toward pure goodness, which is free of such aspects of existence as greed, envy and hatred, which keep us attached to this temporary material world. The love ethic that God gives through the Gita and through the bhakti tradition is essentially a vertical one, but which still calls to us interact horizontally with society, as long as that interaction guides those who encounter it back to its inherently spiritual, transformative, and liberative essence.

I want to go out on a limb and give a personal example of how this affects my vision of activism. I have always felt, and kept, a certain distance from the activities of Occupy, because I have felt that the passion of this movement, however justified it is -- and it certainly is -- has not as deep a grounding in the transcendent as it needed and needs. Occupy is calling for a radical reversal of the corporate-fascist takeover of this planet that has developed over the last century and beyond, and this calling is deeply spiritual, but without cultivating this inherent spiritual foundation, we can then find, as one symptom, a lot of the conflict and loss of momentum which currently frustrates this movement.

I point you to another meditation on Occupy, called "Don't Dehumanize The Evil Bankers," which I wrote earlier this year for HuffPost Religion as further thoughts that I have on this. These are just my observations and feelings, and I beg to be corrected and enlightened further. After all, I have been living as a monk for the last five years.

Yet in no way do I feel, that as a bhakti-yogi, I, or the society of bhakti devotees, should accept the status quo. We are a revolutionary spiritual movement, but the nature of our revolution is to go straight to the heart. Our revolution goes right at the inherent causes of the sufferings in this world, the greed and envy and pride which poisons the spirit. Through spiritual practice, in philosophy and activism, we aspire to shape this world for the better, for the transcendent.

This is the particular calling I carry as a bhakti-yogi. It's not a unique calling, for it's one I share with all spiritualists and seekers. So you may see me as a "Hare Krishna" on the front lines of your action, trying indeed to understand what it means in the Lord's Prayer that "Thy Will be done on Earth as it is Heaven." My front line may also be different, being a "social gospel" that may exert its energies for the microcosmic, personalized needs of the oppressed, and for the oppressor as well, in a mood of justice and forgiveness, where hatred can be transcended and where the spiritual principle of the activist can be served and actualized. In any case, I'm pretty sure we'll meet on the same road after all, and that our hearts point to the same goals.