Some years ago, when I heard the story of three young men celebrating their Vaishnava diksha with a round of cold Guinness, I thought it was the beginning of an Irish joke. Unfortunately it was true. The guru who’d given them their initiation had omitted to tell them anything at all about the practical disciplines of spiritual life and so they’d assumed that their old life could continue as normal.
Over the years many similar stories have reached me, all concerning the absence of customary instruction on the life of a Vaishnava, especially the parts about giving up intoxication. There are many tales now of aspiring Vaishnavas, perhaps visiting India for the first time, being misled by a spiritual preceptor who allows them to continue with their drinking or smoking in the name of being ‘merciful’. But the combination of initiation and intoxication only produces confusion and, in the long term, sadness and depression.
And it doesn’t stop at a celebratory Guinness. Mother Nature produces a wide variety of substances that can be ingested by being licked, chewed, drunk, and sucked. Although she provides them for medicinal or other purposes, when misapplied or taken to excess they can result in powerful intoxication, inebriation, and hallucinogenic experiences. And when men take those gifts of nature and decide to refine, ferment, distil, then drink, smoke or inject the products, the result can be total addiction and complete destruction.
Its nothing new, of course. Alcohol has been a destructive part of life since the days of the Vedic sages, and both the poppy and the ganja plant have always grown wild in India. All these, and many more, have been used by certain classes of men since time immemorial. And since time immemorial they have been condemned by wise teachers who wanted to help them towards a greater, longer lasting happiness.
So when a candidate comes for initiation into spiritual life, they are expected to have already made a commitment to refrain from taking intoxicating substances. And the guru is expected to help them make that commitment and to then to uphold it through his good instruction.
The fact that some spiritual preceptors are not doing that is, sadly, nothing new. There have always been forgetful or neglectful gurus who omitted important teachings and inadvertently led their disciples astray; and there have been others that deliberately left out teachings on discipline in order to gather a popular following. But that disciplic descendants in the line of Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakur are now doing so is troubling. Both of those great acaryas, and then, in their line, Srila A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, strenuously taught about the dangers of intoxication and campaigned against the foolish combination of diksha and drugs.
So I was perturbed when, last year, I saw a young man with neckbeads and forehead tilak markings walking through the street of an English town with a half-finished can of cider. When I stoped him to ask his name it was obvious that he’d been drinking for some time. I was equally troubled when I saw another devotee smoking. But I was very saddened when another young man, newly initiated, recently collapsed of a drug overdose in one of our preaching centres.
Then, just two weeks ago, I was told the tragic story of a married man with a wife and child. He was initiated and looking forward to his upcoming trip to India when he would receive his gayatri diksha. Unfortunately, being insufficiently guided by his ‘most merciful’ preceptor, he’d continued his fascination with his drug of choice. But his favourite substance was an hallucinogenic, used by Amazonian shamans for visionary experiences. At a party he consumed too much, was taken to hospital, but later died.
Srila Prabhupada instituted the recitation of the ‘four regulative principles’ at every initiation ceremony. Before he gave a disciple their new Vaishnava name, he would ask them to declare vocally in public that from that moment forward they would consume no intoxicating substance, not even tea and coffee. His disciples followed his example and the declaration of the four principles is now a standard component of every such ceremony.
Yet apparently this is not done by others, even by those who praise Srila Prabhupada and everything he did, even to the point of declaring themselves to be ‘his siksha disciple.’ Why this should be, we don’t know. But it may – albeit inadvertently – give those who are coming so fresh to Vaishnava life the mistaken impression that one can chant the Hare Krishna mantra and simultaneously engage in consumption of intoxicants. Such an idea runs counter to everything taught by the previous acaryas; runs against the current of advice given the holy Srimad Bhagavatam; and is patently not producing the desired results.
If we are to prevent western Vaishnavism descending into a sahajiya culture – a culture so strenuously fought against by our previous acaryas – then initiations such as these must discontinue. Good advice is required, adequate preparation is needed, and certain dangers must be pointed out.
The river of Mercy must again flow within the riverbanks of Dharma.