Aspiring devotees must be ever vigilant to protect themselves from subtle messages harmful to the practice of bhakti-yoga.
By Harivamsha Dasa
Diagnosing impurities in the process of hearing.

What do teachers teach? Is it only the items of an intended syllabus – a collection of information, lessons, and learning activities? No. It is generally something more.

Along with the explicit curriculum, students pick up unwritten and unofficial – often unintended – norms, values, beliefs, and perspectives transmitted through the teacher in a particular social environment. Educators call it the “hidden curriculum.”

For instance, in a course on world history, students learn the timeline of various events which shaped the twentieth century. This is termed the explicit curriculum. However, depending on their own as well as their teacher’s biases, students may develop affinity for or prejudice towards one particular race, color, or nationality. This would be the hidden curriculum.

Often, more than the list of items in the intended syllabus of explicit curriculum, learners tend to absorb the beliefs and perspectives of the hidden curriculum. It is as though their receptivity is better tuned towards the latter. And this generally happens without any intellectual assessment. It occurs almost imperceptibly. Why?

Bhagavad-gita (3.42), in describing the psychophysical anatomy of human existence, says that the intelligence and the mind are subtler and finer than the senses. First our senses perceive aural or visual information. Then the subtler and finer organs of intelligence and mind sift continuously through the various layers of received aural or visual input. Ideally, intelligence should be the discriminating faculty because it is situated at a level higher than the mind, our emotional faculty. But in our conditioned state, the mind reigns supreme. “As a strong wind sweeps away a boat on the water, even one of the roaming senses on which the mind focuses can carry away a man’s intelligence.” (Gita 2.67)

Thus, before the intelligence can even analyze, argue, and attest, the mind – impelled by the existing storehouse of samskaras, or impressions – latches on to one or the other of the sifted layers of beliefs, views, and perspectives. Either new impressions are created or previous ones strengthened. The hidden curriculum thus gets successfully downloaded into our psychophysical systems. Since the hidden curriculum is connected with our minds, it stays with us a long time.

Thus, what one holds prominent in life might be due more to the impressions influenced by the hidden curriculum than by the data dictated by the explicit curriculum.

Ideas Generate Consequences

This phenomenon is not restricted to the field of teaching. In almost every stream of life, such as politics, entertainment, and sports, hidden curriculum has a significant bearing on its recipient. Furthermore, it may not always be unintentional. In fact, in our world of clever and subtle marketing and advertising, hidden curriculum has become an intended industry, a well-crafted niche for individual or collective agendas. Hence, newspapers, books, movies, people, and the internet carry their own set of hidden curricula with them all the time.

Certainly this is not very wholesome. Unless one is alert with a keen sense of discrimination, it is only a matter of time before repeated exposure to these floating ideas and beliefs from people or the media replace the preexisting ones in the recipient’s mind. And then these absorbed ideas generate their own consequences.

Take the example of modern technological education, which claims to cruise in a secular course by not dealing with matters of tradition and religion. Yet it carries beneath its veneer an antireligious ethos of the infallibility of human control over nature, where there is no need of a supreme controller, or God. This hidden curriculum trickles almost unfailingly into the mind of a young student just beginning his or her engagement with the competitive world of education and vocation. Hence, no wonder why so many students with a religious upbringing dispense with the idea of God after just months in a college or university.

Not only at the individual level, but also at the collective level, society sees consequences. The widespread distaste in our current century for any affiliation with tradition, religious authority, and absolute truth did not just spring out of thin air. Yes, there were leadership abuses. But in part this distaste can also be traced to a series of ideas, such as those of Marxism and Existentialism, posited by European philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although it might have taken decades to trickle down, now these ideas have almost become solidified in the twenty-first-century mind.

Hidden Obstacles in Spiritual Life

Spiritual practitioners, including those on the bhakti-yoga path, are certainly not immune to this phenomenon. Factually the danger to the recipient here is several notches higher. This is because much of the hidden curriculum caught from society or social media is about either material enjoyment or disbelief in spiritual principles, both of which go against the very grain of spiritual life.

Furthermore, spiritual practice in the current age has no longer remained a solitary and passive affair. Most practitioners have responsible jobs and positions in society. Daily they have perhaps more active engagement with the professional world than with their spiritual communities. Being away from a spiritual atmosphere already dwindles the enthusiasm to practice spirituality. In addition, the active handshake with the material energy lets in doubts, views, and ideas which if not addressed may altogether gnaw away any spiritual inclination whatsoever.

Then there are spiritual activists who in a mood of compassion actively share spirituality with society. Their general principle of yukta-vairagya, or appropriate renunciation, is to utilize the creations of science and technology such as social-media platforms and communication portals in the service of God and humanity. Such portals are also known to enhance entanglement with matter because while their utilization for the service of humanity is like removing a thorn with a thorn, there is danger of both thorns settling in.

Take the example of Krishna devotees who as a writers subscribe to nondevotional reading materials for ideation and inspiration. Even after being sure that there is no explicit content of vulgarity and violence unwholesome to their spiritual contemplation and practice, they cannot rule out the presence of certain hidden curricula at loggerheads with the basic tenets of faith in Krishna and His devotees. The aspiring devotee may end up being enamored by the flowery language, the sophistry of composition, and other skills and techniques, developing disproportionate affinity for the author and his or her trade. The conduit is now wide open for the download of hidden curricula. For it is not only a receptive ear, but mostly importantly a wide-open heart, into which the unspoken curricula are dumped and consequently stored.

This caution has a precedent in Bhagavad-gita itself. In the first chapter, Arjuna has laid out his conundrum and is ready to be educated in the sublime science of the self. Right at the outset, in the next chapter, Krishna warns Arjuna that he has to avoid getting caught by the flowery language of the Vedas (2.43) and must strive to get past it (2.53) to reach transcendence, the real goal.

A Bewildered Servant

In fact, a recipient whose ear is not well trained and well guarded can be dissuaded from the path of spiritual perfection even in the association of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. At least one such example stands out in the pages of Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, the book on the life and teachings of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the combined incarnation of Sri Radha and Sri Krishna, who appeared in this age as a devotee to show the ideal life of pure spiritual absorption.

Balabhadra Bhattacharya acted as Mahaprabhu’s assistant during His only visit to Vrindavan. It was not that Balabhadra Bhattacharya was unaware that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna Himself. Yet on at least one recorded occasion he got bewildered by the repeated claims of local Vrindavan residents that they had seen Krishna Himself appearing in Kaliya-daha, or Kaliya Lake.

Residents said that Krishna had appeared again in Kaliya Lake and that at night He was dancing on the multiple hoods of the serpent Kaliya, which were bedecked with blazing jewels. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 18.94) This they repeatedly told Mahaprabhu after they came back from visiting Kaliya-daha for three successive nights. They were convinced. Mahaprabhu just laughed.

Balabhadra Bhattacharya requested Mahaprabhu to be excused from his services for one night so that at least once he could go and see Krishna face to face. But Mahaprabhu chided him, saying that although he was a learned scholar, he was being swayed by the statements of ignorant men. Mahaprabhu told him that the scriptures reveal that Krishna does not appear in Kali-yuga in such an explicit way. It was better for Bhattacharya to just control himself. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 18.99–102)

The next morning, Mahaprabhu’s assessment was vindicated when some respectable gentlemen explained the whole scenario. In fact, it was only a fisherman, who would light a torch at night to catch fish in Kaliya Lake. The darkness and the waves generated the illusion. The boat became Kaliya, the fisherman Krishna, and the torch jewels on Kaliya’s hood. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 18.104–106).

What happened with Balabhadra Bhattacharya is an illustration of hidden curriculum at work. In his reverence, he would have opened his heart to the understanding which simple residents of Vraja developed toward this episode of Krishna’s supposed new incarnation. Mahaprabhu himself addressed him as a learner scholar, and therefore Balabhadra Bhattacharya should have known that Krshna’s incarnation was not to be expected in this way, that too in Kali-yuga. During their journey to Vrindavan through Jharikhanda Forest, he had seen the divine potency of Mahaprabhu: His mere glance and words had made wild animals dance in the ecstasy of chanting the divine holy names. Never before was it heard or seen that tigers and deer could embrace, kiss, and wildly chant the holy names. Furthermore, Balabhadra Bhattacharya had himself eulogized Mahaprabhu as none other than the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 17.77–80)

Where did all that evaporate? One can surmise that by and by, the continuous exposure to misinformation bewildered Bhattacharya’s original understanding.

Mahaprabhu, on the other hand, was not at all moved by the foolish arguments of the locals about the reappearance of Krishna. So not only did Bhattacharya forget the transcendental position of Mahaprabhu, but he did not even care to check with Mahaprabhu about the truth of the situation. It was only Mahaprabhu who stopped him from acting foolishly.

Guarded Aural Reception

Thus a spiritual practitioner must exercise much caution. The conduit for the hidden curriculum is a receptive ear. Also received through the ear are the three basic aspects of transcendental knowledge: how we relate to the world of divinity (sambandha-jnana), or knowledge of the connection; what we do to attain that spiritual reality (abhidheya-jnana), or knowledge of the process; and what exactly is the desired objective (prayojana-jnana), or knowledge of the supreme goal. For a progressive spiritual march, therefore, a sincere practitioner needs unadulterated information in all three aspects. Only then can these be applied without doubts or ambiguity. And it is only then that the process of hearing manifests its true potency.

Hence, there is a need to guard aural reception from the unintentional and intentional varieties of hidden curricula which adulterate the pure and sublime sambandha-jnana, abhidheya-jnana, and prayojana-jnana received through scriptures.

Diagnostic Questions

Right questions lead to right diagnosis. To diagnose whether we’ve been infected by hearing traces of the hidden curricula of material enjoyment and spiritual doubts, we can ask the following two straightforward questions:

Is there a gap in my contact with transcendental vibrations?

One of the telltale signs of the existence of anything other than strong spiritual faith and inclination towards spiritual life in our hearts is dwindling contact with transcendental vibrations. The perfect triangulated process of contacting transcendental vibration – hearing from the spiritual master (guru), well-situated saintly persons (sadhu), and authorized scriptures (shastra) – is the very bedrock of our spiritual life. In the words of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, such hearing and then subsequent chanting (shravanadi) is like watering the seed of the creeper of devotional service. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 19.155). Offenses hinder the practitioner’s proclivity towards hearing and chanting, as does adulteration by the hidden curricula of material enjoyment and spiritual confusion.

This diagnosis itself hints at the solution. Practitioners need to significantly increase their contact with the simple yet powerful devotional process of hearing and chanting. They can certainly do this through the media of their own preference – writing, reading, hearing, singing, deity worship – and themselves see the reversals and wonders.

Whose association do I pine for?

The second telltale sign is the shift in our preference in the matter of association. It is rightly said that we can know a person from the association he or she keeps or desires. Humans are social beings. Like birds of the same feather which flock together, humans of the same nature associate together. Even introverts and recluses, if not always, once in a while desire to find their type to be with. We become what we associate with. More things are imperceptibly caught than explicitly taught.

In our dealings with the material energy to conserve our bodies, even spiritual practitioners need to associate with professional and social worlds. But in what proportion? We must ask ourselves: Is it just the modicum in order to do the needful, or is it way too much?

Hence in diagnosing the effects of hidden curricula, we can honestly check our inclination to associate. Does our heart long to associate with like-minded devotees? Do we long to participate with enthusiasm in spiritual retreats, festivals, and discussions? Or is it more out of formality, because our heart is really somewhere else?

Here too diagnosis hints at a remedy: that we remake our association.

In conclusion, like electromagnetic waves, hidden curricula are all around. And they are being released with enchanting levels of persuasion. If the bhakti-yoga practitioner casts caution to the wind, the potential for bewilderment in even the maturest of persons in the best association cannot be ruled out. Eternal vigilance in terms of hearing is the symptom of a serious spiritual practitioner.

Harivamsha Dasa is an author, translator, and researcher. He has held a full-time faculty appointment in the School of Technology and Computer Science (STCS) at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, and affiliate appointments at the University of Washington and Stanford University.