By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
An epiphany triggers reflections on the challenges in resisting this common urge.
“Can you keep a secret?” With this question, I prefaced a juicy tidbit of gossip I was about to share in a recent conversation with someone. I looked around furtively, moved in closer, and dropped my voice. I don’t think I did any of this intentionally – it just happened.
Predictably, my friend nodded his head earnestly to assure me, and leaned forward so he wouldn’t miss even one drop of the juicy tidbit.
As I opened my mouth, suddenly I had an epiphany. Mentally observing from overhead, I saw my hypocrisy exposed. Here I was asking my friend if he could keep a secret, while showing that I couldn’t.
A Rhetorical Question Becomes Literal
Epiphanies often occur when we see the common in an uncommon light. “Can you keep a secret?” is a common question that is almost always rhetorical – we rarely get a negative reply. Rare are the souls who go into a confessional mode, admitting their inability to keep secrets.
When I asked the question, I “somehow” took it literally and thereafter had the epiphany. From a devotional perspective, I can understand that the “somehow” was “by Krishna’s mercy.” Krishna was giving me an insight to help me move closer to Him. In the Bhagavad-gita (15.15) Krishna says that He resides in our hearts and from that strategic vantage point offers guidance.
Why I Shouldn’t Gossip – and Why I Still Do
What do I as a spiritual practitioner gossip about? Usually, it’s about what has happened to whom or who did what. Being a part of a spiritual movement means we get placed in a social circle where the slips of others from the expected moral and spiritual standards become fodder for gossip.
The reasons to avoid gossip are many, ranging from the practical to the principled. The practical include “I will be taken to task by my spiritual guides if they come to know about my gossiping” and “If those I gossip about come to know about it, they will hit back at me in kind, or worse.”
The principle-centered include the socio-ethical “I should treat others as I would want them to treat me” and the spiritual “I don’t want to displease Krishna by doing what He doesn’t want me to do: offend His devotees.”
I have fought a long battle against the urge to gossip – and unfortunately it has been a losing one. Still, whenever I have achieved some victories, they have been more due to the practical consequences than the principle-centered concerns. I have learned the harms of gossiping the hard way. When I give in to the urge to gossip, I intend to speak just one bit. But frequently, what begins as a bit becomes a byte and maybe even a megabyte. And more often than not, my hearers follow my example instead of their words. That is, they don’t keep the secret, as they had said they could. Instead, they spill it, as they have seen me doing. Who knows? They may even be following my example ditto by prefacing their time under the high sky of gossip with the question “Can you keep a secret?” And the starting bit transmogrifies into a billion terabytes whose resemblance to the original bit may well take a billion years to discover. But the starting bit came from me, so I am held accountable, not just for that bit but also for all those countless bytes. And I end up with countless bites – the many complications that result from gossiping.
Despite having repeatedly learned the lesson the hard way, why do I still give in to the urge to gossip? I don’t think I harbor any strong malice towards anyone. Maybe I am being too charitable to myself here. Maybe the malice is hidden so deep inside the dark dungeon of my heart that I haven’t yet detected it. But wouldn’t it need to surface to make me gossip? Whenever I have introspected after a gossip relapse, I haven’t noticed any strong malice towards the objects of my gossip. What I have noticed is the craving to catch attention by showing I was privy to a secret the hearer didn’t know.
Human beings being what we are, we all have our weaknesses. And one such weakness is that we often pay more attention to negative things about others than positive things. The urge to gossip exploits this human weakness among hearers to make speakers speak negative things.
Thankfully, bhakti-yoga offers a much more positive way to gain attention: speaking about Krishna. When we love Him purely, we speak about Him because we want Him to be the center of our attention – and that of our hearers too. Still, until we come to that level of purity, we can spiritualize our need for attention by speaking about Krishna. And the bhakti tradition offers abundant Krishna-centered subjects for discussion.
Two Questions to Curb Gossip
Relevant to the topic of gossip is the Bhagavad-gita’s (17.15) guideline for speaking: Speak words that don’t agitate others and are pleasing, truthful, and beneficial. Gossip is definitely agitating. And though it may seem pleasing, it is pleasing to our lower side. This is the side that offers flickering titillation while depriving us of the lasting satisfaction that comes from our higher side. Our higher side is our core – the soul. It longs for purer, nobler joys – joys that culminate in an eternal loving connection with Krishna.
To resist the urge to gossip, I find the Gita’s last two points about speech especially helpful when phrased as questions: Is it true? Is it beneficial?
Is it true? What we speak while gossiping is often what we have heard from the gossip of others, who have heard it in gossip from someone else. And stuff that comes in a tradition of gossip is usually dubious. In fact, over the years of studying and writing, I have come to know that even what we hear from seemingly reliable sources may be questionable. I am not talking about overt or covert media bias and other such distorting effects, though they too contribute to the unreliability. I am talking about the generic difficulty in precisely reconstructing events.
A few years ago, when a senior devotee was embroiled in a controversy centered on an alleged ethical lapse, I tried to find out what had actually happened. Two devotees, who are my close friends and whose intelligence and integrity I trust, gave me radically different accounts. By digging deep enough, I was eventually able to reconcile those accounts. But I hardly ever do that kind of investigation when I gossip about some similar issue.
A major challenge of living in this digital age is that anyone can gossip on a blog and anyone from any part of the world can access it through the worldwide web. While the Internet can be a convenient and valuable source of information, it can also be a morass of disinformation. Any information, especially negative information, about others from the net needs to be critically scrutinized.
Is it beneficial? Even when something is true, that doesn’t make it beneficial. Any form of education requires the structuring of information for proper assimilation. English teachers don’t teach first-grade students controversies about usage of certain idiomatic words; they focus on teaching the basics of the language. Similarly, while sharing spiritual knowledge, I don’t need to talk about controversies that aren’t relevant to those who are taking their initial steps in spiritual life.
It wasn’t easy for me to acknowledge the importance of ignorance. During my two decades in the movement, when I came to know of the lapses of some past leaders I felt shocked, even misled: “Why was I kept in the dark about such things?” But over time I have realized that there was no plot to blindfold me. The occasional moral lapses in the movement were just a reflection of the moral weakness of material existence itself and more specifically a reflection of the moral looseness of contemporary culture in which immorality prevails. An epidemic can victimize even doctors if they become negligent. Will the medical staff in their discussions with patients dwell on such accidental casualties instead of the treatment’s process and success? No. Then why should I expect that kind of discussion from my spiritual guides? After all, they are like the medical staff in Krishna’s movement, which is like a spiritual hospital that offers the bhakti treatment for curing human self-centeredness.
And the treatment does work. The Bhagavad-gita (9.2) indicates that we can experientially verify the higher truths it teaches. While I am still a long way from seeing Krishna or any transcendental reality, I have nonetheless had some spiritual experiences. Many times have I relished extraordinary peace, illumination, and fulfillment through absorption in Krishna. And I haven’t experienced anything similar elsewhere, certainly not in gossip. Irrespective of what happens where to whom, Krishna still awaits me in my heart, beckoning me to savor His shelter. Instead of discussing how we can best attain His shelter, why should I discuss things that dishearten us in seeking it?
To be sure, I am not recommending deliberately covering up the truth. I am simply stressing that to be truthful I don’t need to tell sordid truths about others – all the more so when I am not ready to share unpleasant truths about myself. After all, I too am a struggling seeker, and I have my challenges. The best way I can be truthful is not by washing others’ or my dirty linen in public, but by sharing the process that has enabled me to have my truest experiences – my experiences of my true identity.
Ultimately, we all need to subordinate our pursuit of knowledge to our purpose; otherwise that pursuit can sabotage our purpose. No one can know everything about even just one small thing, such as, say, an atom or a subatomic particle. Then I certainly can’t know about everything that’s happened in Krishna’s worldwide movement. My purpose in coming to Krishna’s movement is not to know what’s gone wrong with whom where, but to know how I can stay right on the path to Krishna.
In the Bhagavad-gita (4.11) Krishna says that He reciprocates with us according to our desires. Just as He is reciprocal, so too is His movement. If I look for controversies in Krishna’s movement, I will find them, but if I look for Krishna in His movement, I will find Him.
Even discussing true things requires caution, because of the importance of confidentiality in bhakti. The bhakti guidebook Upadeshamrita (text 4) states that speaking our heart confidentially and hearing others share their heart confidentially are integral to affectionate relationships. And affectionate relationships are foundational to bhakti, which centers on relating not just with Krishna but also with those who love Him – and with those striving to love Him. So, if a devotee-seeker has privately shared with me some personal issue, by gossiping about it I violate the trust of that devotee and decrease my trustworthiness as a candidate for close relationships.
Don’t Prey on Others – Pray for Others
While fighting the urge to gossip about the challenges other devotees are going through, I have found prayer immensely helpful. Once during a conversation when I realized that I had gotten sidetracked into gossip, I tried to get back on course by saying, “Let’s pray for him.” And it changed the whole mood from condemning to commiserating. Instead of perversely enjoying another’s misery, as in a horror movie, we focused, like a medical team, on the bhakti-yoga treatment, praying that it help the troubled devotee.
Sadly, I haven’t been able to tap the power of prayer much while fighting gossip. The attitude toward the objects of gossip becomes so negative that it is tough to shift the mental gears and pray for them. Gossip makes me into a predator who feasts on others, more specifically on their lower side, which has caused their lapses. Over the years, I have understood that a prayerful attitude is not a switch we turn on or off at our convenience. It needs to be cultivated by tilling the soil of the heart with a devotional disposition towards Krishna and His devotees.
I also try to use my daily journaling in my battle against gossip. If I gossip about someone, I try to write positive things about him and pray for him – and of course pray for myself, that I may break free from the clutches of gossip.
Certainly, all negative talk about others is not gossip. Sometimes we may need to speak about others to caution someone about potential dangers on the spiritual path. But such cautionary talks require constant vigilance. On several occasions, I started speaking with a cautionary intention, but unwittingly ended up with a predatory disposition. I have a long way to go in my battle against gossip.
“So Can I”
When I got the epiphany about my hypocrisy, I didn’t think of all this – it came later during sustained reflection. At that time, I just stopped the relapse into gossip by saying, “Let’s discuss something more positive.” My friend surprised me with his self-control and sensitivity: self-control in not insisting that I share the secret, and sensitivity in not pointing out that my use of “us” was incorrect – the “discussion” had been a monologue by me alone.
Will I be able to avoid gossiping in the future? I have so often initiated an unnecessary discussion with the question “Can you keep a secret?” that it has become an unconscious tool for grabbing attention. I doubt whether I will be able to stop myself from asking that question. If I can’t, then I have come up with a contingency plan, a second line of defense – something that can reinforce this epiphany by stressing the literal aspect of the question.
Next time, if I give in to the urge to gossip by asking, “Can you keep a secret?” and get the predictable affirmative response, I hope and pray that I will be able to stop that urge by my own affirmation: “So can I.”