By Vaisesika Dasa
While getting vaccinated against COVID-19, I remembered these words from Āyurveda-śāstra: auṣadhi cintayet viṣṇum. When taking medicine, one must remember Viṣṇu because ultimately He is the active ingredient that makes any medicine potent.
More prominent in my mind, however, was my recollection of Śrīla Prabhupada’s mood when it came to vaccinations, or for that matter, his approach to life in general. Srila Prabhupada once nonchalantly commented “All right, let us have,” when getting vaccinated against the Hong Kong flu. Perhaps he got vaccinated due to his need to travel internationally for preaching, or perhaps at the behest of his disciples. For whatever reason, he got vaccinated and moved on with his mission.
In his approach to life, Śrīla Prabhupāda meticulously followed his guru, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, who emphasized preaching over building temples, solitary bhajana and sometimes even over following some of the details of devotional practice. For example, he once told a disciple to honor mahā-prasādam on Ekādaśī so that the disciple would have sufficient strength to go out preaching. This mood is consistent with that of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī, who taught us that rules and regulations should not be the masters but the servants of devotional service.
Śrīla Prabhupāda followed this mood. In America, when ISKCON’s book distributors began traveling town-to-town in vans to distribute books, a controversy arose. These traveling preachers were buying food in grocery stores and offering it to pictures of Śrīla Prabhupāda and Kṛṣṇa in their vans. An ISKCON leader wrote to Śrīla Prabhupāda complaining that these devotees were not eating prasādam because their bhoga was not offered directly to the Deities in the temple. However, Śrīla Prabhupāda not only sanctioned the simple in-van offerings but also noted that these offerings would be consumed in the transcendental sacrificial fire of saṇkīrtana. Śrīla Prabhupāda and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta prioritized preaching and therefore accepted practical and readily-available means to keep the preaching moving and expanding. Both of these ācāryas were at times criticized for their utilitarian approaches to spreading the saṇkīrtana movement.
One may ask why take any precaution at all since we are devotees and Kṛṣṇa protects His devotees. Śrīla Prabhupāda answers this question in his purport to Śrīmad-Bhagavatam 7.9.19, a verse in which Śrī Prahlāda says that without the Lord’s sanction, a doctor’s treatment cannot help a sick patient, parents cannot protect their children, and a boat on water cannot protect a drowning man. Śrīla Prabhupāda writes, “One should consequently depend fully on the causeless mercy of the Lord. Although as a matter of routine duty one must of course accept other remedial measures . . .” We depend fully on the causeless mercy of the Lord. And yes, we also accept other remedial measures.
All of us in this material world are in an awkward situation. Although we are wholly spiritual beings, we are ensconced in matter. In his purport to Śrī Īśopaniṣad 11, Śrīla Prabhupāda explains how to balance our spiritual practices with the material aspect of our lives: “To make the best use of a bad bargain is the appropriate expression. The culture of spiritual knowledge necessitates the help of the body and mind; therefore maintenance of the body and mind is required if we are to reach our goal.”
Still, even as we strive to make the best use of this bad bargain, our decisions must facilitate the successful execution of our devotional service. As Lord Kṛṣṇa says in the Gītā 18.48 “Every endeavor is covered by some fault, just as fire is covered by smoke.” And Śrīla Prabhupāda comments in his purport that “one should not give up his natural occupation because there are some disturbing elements. Rather, one should be determined to serve the Supreme Lord by his occupational duty in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. That is perfection. When a particular type of occupation is performed for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord, all the defects in that particular occupation are purified. When the results of work are purified through their connection with devotional service, one becomes perfect in seeing the self within, and that is self-realization.”
Our Vaiṣṇava śāstras give us numerous examples of great souls who were confronted with difficult decisions while executing their devotional duties. Lord Śiva was asked to save the world by consuming an ocean of poison. Dadhīci Muni was asked to donate his bones. My favorite example is when Arjuna was momentarily stymied after receiving contradictory advice about killing Aśvattāmā. While Draupadī pleaded for Arjuna to spare Aśvattāmā’s life, Bhīma insisted that he be killed. Meanwhile, Kṛṣṇa tested Arjuna by telling him that he had to satisfy both Bhīma and Draupadī by the result of his decision. Śrīla Prabhupāda writes, “Contradictory orders of different persons are impossible to carry out. Therefore, a compromise was selected by Arjuna by his sharp intelligence . . .” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.7.55, purport) Kṛṣṇa inspired Arjuna from within to spare Aśvattāmā’s life and to cut only the jewel from his hair, accomplishing the intentions of both sides.
Contentiousness abounds in this world. Indeed, Āyurveda-śāstra sometimes prescribes the use of poison or ordinarily forbidden animal products in its remedies. Historically, pandemics, such as smallpox and Spanish flu, have aroused a special brand of contentiousness. COVID-19 and the ways people deal with COVID-19 are no exception.
During the process of considering whether or not to get vaccinated, I received conflicting advice and remembered Arjuna’s dilemma. Although I am no Arjuna, I decided to follow his lead by basing my decision on my master’s example and precepts. Śrīla Prabhupāda, who famously described the entire material world “a colossal hoax,” got vaccinated on at least one occasion and went on spreading the saṇkīrtana movement.
My heart goes out to those who are agonizing over getting or not getting vaccinated. Because so many devotees have personally written or called me, asking what I think about this issue, I have written this short essay to explain my own choice.
When I was sixteen years old, I chose to follow Śrīla Prabhupāda. Now I’m 64 and still rise early each morning to follow Śrīla Prabhupāda’s example throughout the day. In getting vaccinated, my intention was simply to follow what Śrīla Prabhupāda did as he pushed on the saṇkīrtana movement in the mood of his spiritual master.