Humanism: Giving Credit Where Credit Isn’t Due
from Back To Godhead Magazine #13-07, 1978
by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami
I have been researching the centuries-old biographical tradition. In one collection of biographies, I came upon an editor’s introduction that riled me:
That from the ranks of humanity there can emerge a Socrates, a Cato, a Jesus, a More, a Newton, a Mozart, a Balzac, a Deburau, a Napoleon, is in my eyes a thing more wonderful than all the miracles ever imagined by the makers of religions.... Our desire for an immortality of the soul shall be dedicated to the belief that the great wonder of creation is man and the infinite possibilities that lie not within the theologies of religious leaders, but within ourselves.
Why does this man feel that to praise great men he has to decry God? This kind of humanism is nothing new, of course, but it is surely misplaced and misinformed and does justice neither to God nor to man.
For the sake of argument, let us accept that the extraordinary human being is the most wonderful thing in the world. Still we have to inquire, “Where does the extraordinary greatness of a particular man or woman come from?” In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna the Supreme Personality of Godhead affirms, “It is I who am the ability in man.” And the transcendentalist reasons that intelligence has to come from an original source of intelligence—an original, supreme consciousness. The skeptic may deny this, but he cannot offer any explanation why someone like Socrates suddenly arises. The appearance of a great personality may seem like a unique combination of historical exigency and individual merit, but a great man cannot be explained merely by historical, economic, sociological, genealogical, or psychological factors. What’s more, there is no scientific method for producing such a great personality. The intellectual community cannot produce an Einstein, the art schools cannot produce a poet or musician, nor can politicians or historians produce a great man of action. We may take pride in the achievements of great men, but these achievements are hardly the independent creation of humanity.
Even the “great man” cannot understand how he has come by his uncommon powers. Why, when his contemporaries appear to work just as hard and to have just as good an education, does he rise above all of them? If there really is no explanation, if greatness is simply an accident, why should we praise an accident? If Mozart’s music is superior by accident, then why give Mozart so much credit? Those who thoughtfully study the life of a great man usually conclude that “destiny” or “genius” or “inspiration” or “special power”—not accident—accounts for his high achievement. Of course, the Bhagavad-gita explains in detail that one’s karma, his activity in past lives, accounts for his abilities in this life. At any rate, everyone appreciates a person who makes a great contribution to humanity. But while most people wonder at the greatness of the man, a Krishna conscious person inquires even further—into the cause, the source of the greatness of all men and women and indeed of all life.
Thus far, for the sake of argument we have assumed that mankind’s ultimate object of study is mankind. But let’s think for a moment. Is man really the ultimate? No, he cannot be. As great as any man may be, he is still a tiny creature subject to the miseries of old age, disease, and death. This is true not just for the average man but even for a Napoleon, a Socrates, a Shakespeare, or an Einstein. So anyone who is actually advanced will acknowledge his frailty with all humility. He will acknowledge that he is actually a tiny creature in a vast universe, that he must bow to time and the control of the Supreme. In other words, a man’s relative greatness does not make him the supreme great.
As the Vedic literature explains, the supreme great is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhagavan—“the one who possesses all the opulences: wealth, power, beauty, strength, knowledge, fame, and renunciation.” In this world a great man may have one or two of these qualities to some degree. But no human being possesses all these qualities to a greater degree than his contemporaries. The person who possesses all the opulences to an infinite degree, eternally, can be defined as God, and whatever greatness we see in man or in nature is but an infinitesimal spark of His greatness. As Lord Krishna informs us in the Bhagavad-gita, “I am the generating seed of all existences. There is no being, moving or unmoving, that can exist without Me. There is no end to My divine manifestations. Know that all beautiful, glorious, and mighty creations spring from but a spark of My splendor.” (Bg. 10.39-41)
Man is surely great, and his real greatness lies in his ability to understand God’s message: that he is made in God’s image; that he is an eternal soul, part and parcel of God; and that God is the supreme. Any man who doesn’t help other people recognize their identity as eternal souls, any man who doesn’t acknowledge that we are now in a state of ignorance that forces us to undergo repeated births and deaths, is not really a great man. Any man who cannot help his fellow beings become liberated from the sufferings of this material world cannot be considered a great contributor, even though he may have made a longlasting impression on his contemporaries. (How longlasting is this world’s fame, anyway? We may call Shakespeare or Socrates “immortal” for a few hundred or a few thousand years after their passing, but what is this compared to eternity?) Men who are actually great are quick to acknowledge the greatness of God, who out-dramatizes Shakespeare and out- thinks Socrates.
As I begin my study of the life of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, I see that he did everything in the pure consciousness of glorifying God. And he helped others see that devotional service to Krishna is the very purpose of life. I can understand, that I won’t be able to do full justice to his life, but at least I can see that here is true greatness. As Srila Prabhupada showed us, a great person does not claim that he is dominating events or that he has created the greatest wonder, nor does he leave a legacy that does nothing to free mankind from birth and death. No, A great person is he who realizes that Krishna, the Supreme Being, is everything. A great person surrenders to Him, and he shares this enlightenment with others.