Engaged Vaishnavism: Are Devotees of Krishna Concerned with Making the World a Better Place?

“Philosophy has little or no meaning unless it produces a good character.” –Radhanath Swami

How we behave in the material world is, to a great degree, a reflection of how we identify ourselves as living beings. If we think of ourselves as material bodies, as most people do, then our primary focus would be the material world and the assorted interactions that apparently enhance our stay here. We become absorbed in bodily appetites, making a good living, raising a family, and so on.

If, however, we develop a sense that there is something more to life – that we are spiritual beings living within a material body – then our focus will naturally shift to an inner reality, and to our actual life as spiritual souls. This is not, of course, to the exclusion of material concerns, but as an underlying necessity and priority that nourishes those concerns.

rupagoswamiThere is an art to doing this – to using the material world in a spiritual way. In Sanskrit, it is called yukta-vairagya, and it was developed into a science by the followers of Sri Chaitanya (1486–1533). Under the leadership of Rupa Goswami, His foremost disciple, the Chaitanya Vaishnavas of old, represented by the Hare Krishna movement today, formulated a detailed methodology for acting like the spirit-souls we are, for being in the world but not of it.

Accordingly, devotees in general are not committed to any mundane social, economic, or political paradigm. Our commitment is to bhakti, or devotional service to the Supreme, with an emphasis, again, on the spiritual side of things. This is not to say that we are anarchists or antinomians of any kind. We acknowledge our personal or civic responsibility to maintain order in the material world, whether social, economic or political. Sanskrit texts call this responsibility loka-samgraha, or “the holding together of the material world.” This is effected on an individual-by-individual basis, wherein devotees evaluate the respective merits or demerits of a given mundane system, and decide whether to participate in it, influence it, and so on, as our conscience and practical judgment move us.

Although our Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, ably represented in the modern world by Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896–1977), focuses on spiritual welfare work – namely, helping others advance toward Krishna and the spiritual world – and although many quotations could be cited to show that this focus eclipses any tendency toward mundane charity, this article will attempt to show another side of the tradition, one that is sometimes neglected or overlooked.

Indeed, the writings of the great acharyas heavily emphasize the importance of helping people spiritually, almost to the point of excluding material welfare work from their teachings. There is a reason for this, along the lines of “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” (Lao Tzu). This is not to encourage fishing, of course, but, rather, to highlight the principle of long-term solutions as being superior to short-term ones.

In fact, material solutions are all short-term, for they pertain to the perishable body. All virtue and social activity that focuses on the body falls into oblivion once the body is finished. And it will be finished. It is just a matter of time. Devotees, on the other hand, are taught to see long-term, tending to the needs of the soul. This is social activity that abides, for the soul is eternal.

And yet Vaishnavas tend to be soft-hearted, feeling the suffering of other living entities, and while their primary concern is for everyone’s spiritual welfare, they do not like to see anyone feeling hurt or loss, in any sense of the word.

In recent years, Buddhism has become popular because of adherents’ engagement with the material world. Buddhists, without doubt, seek to meditate and develop their inner, contemplative life – this is the real stuff of the Buddhist tradition – but they also acknowledge the importance of the here and now, of helping people and working to make the world a better place. This is called “Engaged Buddhism.”

Vaishnavas, too, as already stated, are concerned about the material world. Like Buddhists, we recognize that the material world is full of suffering, and that it will always be a place where birth, death, old age, and disease take prominence. But Vaishnavas “feel the suffering of others,” and so, like Buddhists, they work hard to alleviate this suffering, even if they necessarily do so with an overarching spiritual component.

For example, Vaishnavas will serve food to the hungry, but they will make sure this food is prasadam, offered to Krishna. This spiritualizes their act of charity, allowing the beneficiary to not only have the nutrition that he or she needs but also to advance on the spiritual path

All this being said, the great Krishna-conscious teacher, Bhaktivinoda Thakur (1838–1914), wrote unremittingly about the necessity for “Engaged Vaishnavism,” if without using that particular phrase:

Those who think that devotion to God and kindness to the jivas [souls] are mutually different from each other, and perform accordingly in their life, such persons will not be able to follow the devotional culture. Their performances are only a semblance of devotion. Therefore, all the types of beneficence to others, like kindness, friendliness, forgiveness, charity, respect, and so on, are included in bhakti. Among these, according to the triple categories of the recipients. viz., high, medium and low. The actions of respect, friendliness and kindness are the very form of love and the characteristic portion of bhakti: charity of medicines, clothes, food, water, etc., shelter during adversities, teaching of academic and spiritual educations, etc., are the activities included in the devotional culture.[1]

And again Bhaktivinoda writes:

One should be merciful and not cause anxiety to any living entity. The heart should always be filled with compassion for others. Exhibiting mercy to all living entities is one of the limbs of devotional service.[2]

This same mood was expressed by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur (1874–1937), Bhaktivinoda’s illustrious son and the spiritual master of Srila Prabhupada:

[The devotee] feels no apathy or attachment to mundane morality. On the other hand, morality waits like a maidservant to assist spiritual morality in the service of the Lord of Transcendental Love. At the same time we should understand that the character of one culturing spiritual love is never devoid of morality. One hostile to morality or fallen from it can never be a spiritual man. In the blazing core of the teaching of Shri Chaitanya Deva’s ideal – debauchery is not devotion. The evidence is abundant when reflecting on the character of Sri Chaitanya Deva and his followers.[3]

Prabhupada himself indicates that ethics and morals – in other words, cultivating a sense of goodness in the material world – is a forerunner of pure bhakti and can aid in one’s spiritual journey:

Yes, ethics is the basic principle of purification. Unless one…knows what is moral and what is immoral… Of course, in this material world everything is immoral, but still we have to distinguish good and bad. That is called regulative principle. Simply by following the regulative principle, if he does not reach the ultimate goal of spiritual life, so that is also not wanted. The real aim is to come to the spiritual platform and become free from the influence of these laws of material nature.

So passion is the binding force in the material nature. Just like in the prison house, the prisoners are kept sometimes chained by some iron shackles and other method, so material nature has given the chain, shackles, of sex life, passion, rajas tamah. Kama esa krodha esa rajo-guna-samudbhavah. Rajah-gunah means the modes of passion. So modes of passion means kama, lusty desires, and krodha. When the lusty desires are not fulfilled, one becomes angry. But these things are the means of bondage in this material world.

In another place it is said, tada rajas-tamo-bhavah kama-lobhadayas ca ye. When one is afflicted with the base material modes of nature, namely rajo-guna and tamo-guna, then he becomes greedy and lusty. So ethics require to get out of the clutches of greediness and lusty desires. Then he comes to the platform of goodness, which will help him to go to the platform of spiritual life.[4]

It might be said that some of the above quotes focus on personal relationships and ethics as opposed to social welfare work. But the interrelation should not be overlooked, and the essence is the same. We are talking about a compassionate heart, a spiritually evolved individual who cannot bear the suffering of others. In other words, a devotee wants to see people happy, materially and also spiritually.

Scholars outside the movement, too, recognize that devotees are naturally good people, seeking to help the world and those within it. Here are the words of Joseph T. O’Connell, Professor Emeritus of Bengali Studies at the University of Toronto:

Among the virtues most stressed in formation of ideal devotional character are humility, helpful service, non-violence, curtailment of sensual indulgence, bringing an accommodating attitude to situations of potential conflict, relativizing mundane social roles as constructs of maya, “illusion,” which here does not mean “non-existence” as it so often does in Indian usage, but deceptiveness, seductiveness, or inauthenticity. Of all the virtues, humility, non-violence and control of sensual appetites are fundamental to the formation of personal morality according to Chaitanya Vaishnava ethics.

Other virtues may be seen as reinforcing these. For example, Chaitanya Vaishnava accounts of conversions often feature the transformation of an unreformed sinner who is arrogant, violent, addicted to sex, meat and alcohol, into a fledgling devotee who eschews all of this. The traditional reputation of committed and even many nominal Vaishnavas for abstention from alcohol and meat attests to the overall effectiveness of these particular prohibitions and need not be elaborated upon here. The importance of sexual propriety to typical orthodox Chaitanya Vaishnavas, celibate and married [is further proof].[5]

Still, to devotees, there is a clear differentiation between explicitly spiritual areas of concern and those that are more profane. The few explicit endorsements of secular behavior found in Vaishnava texts are general, recommending, for example, that kings rule justly and sensitively; that the wealthy support the poor and pious; and that common folk pay their taxes and move toward peaceful relations with those around them. These same texts only mandatorily promote the propagation of Krishna-bhakti, for all mundane considerations, they say, are served by this one fundamental principle.

Vaishnava scriptures offer several analogies to make this point abundantly clear. For example, it is explained that, by watering the root of a tree, one automatically distributes water to its leaves and branches. The message should be clear: by acting in Krishna Consciousness, one can render the highest service to everyone – namely self, family, society, country, humanity, and so on, for all are like branches, stemming from the root, Lord Sri Krishna. Thus, if Krishna is satisfied by one’s actions, then everyone else will be satisfied as well. This is why, to a Vaishnava, Krishna-bhakti is central, and why mundane morals and ethics are considered secondary.

Secondary concerns, however, are still concerns, and mature Vaishnavas are scrupulously aware of this. For this reason, ISKCON has initiated projects that might appear classifiable as “mundane welfare work,” but a careful look beneath the surface reveals this work as so much more.

For example, we have already mentioned prasadam distribution. But we have not mentioned the length and breadth of this particular initiative. A significant part of prasadam distribution is the “Food for Life” program, an undertaking that feeds and educates literally millions of needy people throughout the world, largely in Third World countries. Hare Krishna Food for Life is the world’s largest vegetarian, non-profit food relief organization, with projects in over 60 countries. Volunteers serve more than 1,500,000 free meals daily in a variety of ways, including food vans serving to the homeless within major cities around the world; lunchtime meals for more than 700,000 poor school children throughout India; and also in response to large natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

This is all sacred food (“transcendentalized” with mantras), offering spiritual benefit to all who partake.

Or consider Gopal’s Garden School in Mumbai. In 2001, the school was started in a rented apartment with only a few nursery students. Today, the devotees have their own building. There are 28 teachers and 170 children attending Gopal’s Garden School, which offers classes from nursery school through to high school diploma. Students receive both spiritual and academic education, all centered in devotion to Krishna.

The Bhaktivedanta Hospital is yet another Vaishnava project that allows devotees to make a dent in the miseries of the material world while promoting Krishna-bhakti. The hospital has over three hundred resident doctors, half of them initiated ISKCON devotees. The healing to one and all is done in his name.

Such projects show that primary and secondary concerns can go hand-in-hand. One can educate people spiritually while helping them materially, or share Krishna Consciousness while showing kindness. The Vaishnava tradition offers the world various “spiritual technologies” by which one can do just that: help the world and help others move beyond the world, live a happy, peaceful life, and go back home, back to Godhead.


1. Tattva Viveka-Tattva Sutra-Amnaya Sutra: A Comprehensive Exposition of the Spiritual Reality by Bhaktivinoda Thakur (Madras: Sree Gaudiya Math, no date), English translation by Narasimha Brahmacari, Tattva Sutra portion, sutra 35, pp. 185-186.
2. See Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Bhaktyaloka.
3. From a conversation between Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur and Prof. Albert E. Suthers, taking place in January 1929 in Krishnanagar.
4. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Dialectic Spiritualism: A Vedic View of Western Philosophy (Prabhupada Books, 1985), conversation about Socrates.
5. Joseph T. O’Connell, “Chaitanya Vaishnava Devotion (bhakti) and Ethics as Socially Integrative in Sultanate Bengal,” in Bangladesh e-Journal of Sociology, Vol, 8, No. 1 (January 2011), pp. 51-63. Available at www.bangladeshsociology.org/BEJS%208.1%20Final.pdf.

Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is a disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and author of some 30 books in the fields of philosophy, religion, spirituality, and music. He is associate editor of the ISKCON magazine Back to Godhead as well as founding editor of The Journal of Vaishnava Studies.

No Comments