Glowering hotly, the flight attendant’s professional demeanor turns to disgust. “I’m not speaking Russian! I’m speaking Ukrainian, the real language of my own country!” he angrily dismisses me.
The passengers on this flight to Kiev are mostly Ukrainian nationals, so it’s only natural that the flight attendant would greet me using his native tongue. Forgetting the painful ethnic and political strife rupturing this country, I had carelessly replied in English that I understand very little Russian. Perhaps this is a common mistake for American visitors to Eastern Europe.
Who can blame the attendant for his frustration? How would he know of an alternative to disliking or fearing people from other countries? Xenophobia is increasing all over the world. As refugees from war-torn African and Middle Eastern countries migrate throughout Europe, anti-immigrant opposition arises. Fear of terrorism can evolve into nationalist extremism, repeating the volatile tensions that preceded the First and Second World Wars. Searching for a better tomorrow, few people can recognise that no amount of material development or legislation will resolve the political and ethnic conflicts of today. At their root is an individual and collective misunderstanding of who we really are.
The Root of Ignorance
According to the wisdom of bhakti-yoga, the original science of consciousness, the disease of ignorance arises from misidentifying with a short-lived human body. This false identification separates our peoples and nations. We first become attached to our physical body, to our family, then to our community or nation—seeing our nation as distinct from others. Some may identify with humanity in general, but even this type of broad-minded humanism still perpetuates the same hallucination, the illusion that we are these temporary material identities and that everything related to these bodies is ours. But bhakti knowledge offers the understanding that our true identity is beyond any social or nationalistic notion—we are all nonmaterial beings of an unending, spiritual nature.
Within this lifetime, we travel from one bodily phase to another, traversing a child’s body, an adolescent body, a middle-aged body, then finally an old body. Just as the flags of nations change with each recycled revolution or fresh political upheaval, so too does the cultural banner of a physical body change from one ethnicity to another when its term is inevitably exhausted. According to bhakti-yoga knowledge, death is the portal to another birth, in the next body.
Real Solutions for Real World Problems
The flight attendant’s frustration brought back fond memories of my previous visit to Ukraine. The many Krishna conscious, bhakti-yoga practitioners there inspired me with great hope and encouragment. Visiting Crimea in 2013, my wife and I joined a week-long bhakti-yoga festival. Thirteen thousand joyful Hare Krishnas from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) had gathered at a seaside town to join in kirtan (the shared experience of mantra meditation), to dance, feast, and participate in a celebration of community that transcends ethnic and political disputes. There we witnessed spiritual technology in action, as people of diverse cultures came together to communicate openly about real-world problems and solutions. Spiritual seekers from Europe, including five thousand from Russia, were also among the throngs invigorated by the most mature and comprehensive knowledge in society, the knowledge of bhakti.
However, the festivities contrasted starkly with the scenes of violence and protest that began in Kiev only one month later. The conflict in Ukraine escalated into the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and war in the eastern half of Ukraine. To this day, the ethnic battles continue, resulting in more than nine thousand deaths and 1.4 million internally displaced Ukrainians. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), by the end of 2014, conflict and violence forced 38 million people worldwide to flee their homes.
Although the warring has devastated the eastern half of the country, and unsettled troubled families and innocent civilians, Ukraine is still a hotbed of bhakti culture. The bhakti-yogis living in the warzone have responded by opening a branch of the world’s largest non-profit vegetarian food relief charity and building a shelter for refugees.
The attitude of the Ukrainian Hare Krishnas is not fueled by an exclusive sympathy for their own people. Rather, it is founded upon a tried and true spiritual wisdom.
Common Foe or Common Friend?
How does bhakti knowledge resolve the ethnic strife that fractures societies worldwide? The bhakti-yoga texts present a science of consciousness with universal application, even in the field of sociology and politics. The Bhagavad Gita, the most comprehensive of these texts, helps us understand the quality and inevitable outcome of people’s social policies, by analysing their knowledge. Here, Krishna, the Supreme Being, says that we gain the most wholesome knowledge when we see an undivided spiritual nature in all living beings, even though they may be categorised according to different races, nationalities—or even species. Conversely, the knowledge that causes a person to see a different type of living being in every different body is the knowledge that breeds quarrel and contempt. (B.G. 18.21)
Politicians often think that a common foe can unite their nation, but Bhagavad Gita goes far beyond such artificial unity. Krishna says in the Gita, “A person attains peace by understanding Me to be the well-wishing friend of all living beings.” (5.29) From the greatest common friend comes the greatest unity. This is the practice and lasting contribution of bhakti-yoga: to share allegiance with the central hub of all existence, the Absolute Reality, and origin of consciousness, Krishna.
Bhakti is a culture of knowledge that teaches us not just to tolerate the racial, religious, or political differences among communities, but rather to see that these differences are superficial and temporary. To recognise the universal brotherhood of all living beings as the most prominent social reality is the symptom of genuine spiritual understanding—and that understanding is the most dire need for the next generation of this world’s leaders. We need a generation of thoughtful people who are solutionfocused, who can analyse human problems and comprehend that those problems are never really solved on the same materialistic level that gave rise to them.
The knowledge of bhakti or Krishna consciousness can provide real peace. Lacking a class of leaders who can uplift the people with applied spiritual knowledge, we’re fated to watch the same old dramas replayed on the world stage—with no hope for a second act, or even an intermission. We’ll see societies rise to prominence— capturing the world’s attention—then bluster, stumble, and fall victim to the same crippling tragedies as their predecessors. Restructuring and revolution, autocracy and democracy, charismatic leaders and disparaging despots will come and go like passing seasons while the climate of ignorance remains unresolved.
The next act of the human drama will be a chorus of spiritually progressive people. Their contribution to the peace and welfare of the world is the genuine wisdom that drives away the illusion of trivial disparity. The Hare Krishnas are working tirelessly to make that wisdom culture available to everyone. Let’s take advantage of this wisdom and help dissolve the prejudice dividing the world.