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Why Do We Criticize Others?

A look at the causes and cures for faultfinding, a major obstacle to spiritual progress.
Conducting a summer therapy group with middle-school boys is always a challenge. Donte calls Michael a retard, and Michael calls Donte’s mother a crackhead. I intervene, sitting the boys down to cool off. This age group (11-14) is notorious for saying and doing things to hurt each other. I reflect on my own years in junior high school and recall some painful interactions with peers. While most of us mature and become more sophisticated in our social interactions, our critical nature generally doesn’t disappear unless we make spiritual progress toward our original identity.

Our original nature, the pure self uncontaminated by material energy, is free from the propensity to criticize or find fault with others. In fact, the pure soul sees all others as superior to himself. The further we fall from our original pure consciousness and depart from the mode of goodness toward ignorance, the more our tendency to criticize others will show itself.

A story in the Mahabharata illustrates the difference in mentality between a pure soul and a person hostile to God and thereby covered by the mode of darkness. Krishna, the Supreme Lord, met with both Maharaja Yudhishthira, a pure devotee of the Lord, and Duryodhana, an extremely envious king who had acquired his position through cheating and deceit. Krishna asked Maharaja Yudhishthira to go out into the kingdom and return after finding someone less qualified than himself. And He asked Duryodhana to search the kingdom for someone better than himself.

When wicked Duryodhana returned, he told Lord Krishna that he couldn’t find anyone better than himself. Most of us would describe a person like Duryodhana as narcissistic, bombastic, conceited, and egoistic. Many of today’s leaders would t that portrayal.

The saintly Yudhishthira, on the other hand, returned unable to find anyone inferior to himself. Such humility is practically gone among today’s leaders.

From this exchange, Lord Krishna is teaching us something about human psychology. The closer one comes to his original pure identity, the more he shows humility and freedom from seeing the faults in others. And the further one falls from his pure identity, the more he feels superior to others, seeing faults in them and not in himself.

The Root Of Separation

The mentality that originally separates us from God is our desire to take His position. We can’t do that, of course. But He’s so kind that He lets us try, so we have to think we’re great and powerful. Many of us have been criticized at one time or another for trying to “lord it over” others. But that’s what we’ve all come to the material world to do. We think we’re the center of the universe, that everything revolves around us. This delusion sets the stage for our competitive drive to remove any opponent for the coveted position of Lord.

If this portrayal of our mindset sounds exaggerated, consider this: Since God is the creator, everything here is His property, and in our quest to acquire it for our enjoyment, we are indeed playing God. Unlike God, though, we have to compete for that position.

While faultfinding may be an outcome of several mental states, it is often the mind’s attempt to gain a superior position over others. Duyodhana was expert at finding faults in others regardless of their purity, and he had a knack for disregarding his own shortcomings. Lacking empathy for the suffering of others, he would use any means to achieve his goals. This is a common personality profile of demonic persons. And the root of their problem is their lack of proclivity for developing their relationship with the Supreme Lord.

Our Mixed Natures

Most of us traversing the spiritual path fall somewhere between the pure soul (Yudhishthira) and the envious demon (Duryodhana). We recognize that we still tend to criticize others, but we want to become free of such behavior. Often devotees ask, “How can I stop finding fault with other devotees?” But as with any unwanted behavior, it is important to understand what we get out of doing it—the payoff. If we fail to address this step, our mind will undoubtedly sabotage out efforts to give up criticism. Often the secondary gain will be easy to see. Some common motivations for criticism are (1) gaining a sense of superiority, (2) getting back at someone who has hurt us, (3) asserting our position or belief as the best or only way, and (4) avoiding scrutiny of our own shortcomings. Identifying our motives takes honesty and courage. We need to have a strong desire to change. But sometimes, despite our good intentions, the reason we do something may not be so evident. I remember working with a devotee in therapy who was addressing her critical nature. She recognized how destructive it was to her spiritual progress, and she wanted to stop but felt impelled to do it. She finally came to understand that she found fault with others so she wouldn’t have to get close to them. Once she realized the secondary gain she derived from criticizing others, she could address her fear of intimacy. Dismantling her underlying reason for faultfinding allowed her to give it up. Another devotee was finding fault with her friend. As she got more in touch with the reasons for her feelings, she discovered she was feeling guilty that she hadn’t supported her friend during a crisis. Finding fault with her friend was her way to justify her lack of involvement in her friend’s life. It also protected her self-image and her belief that she is caring and helpful. In this case the devotee was able to forgive herself for not being sympathetic and apologized to her friend.

Spiritual Cure

Not everyone who has problems with faultfinding needs to go into therapy. Prayer and strong spiritual practices are our methods for overcoming impurities. When I was a new devotee, I had a very critical nature. I was proud of my education, and thought I was more competent and advanced than the other devotees. After chanting for a short while, I became aware that my mentality was hindering my spiritual advancement. I prayed every day to become free of my critical nature. Krishna kindly answered my prayers in a way I didn’t expect: He took away my ability to do most things. For about two months I felt I was in a fog. I couldn’t remember things. I had trouble articulating my thoughts. I wasn’t able to complete even simple tasks. The only service I could render was cleaning, and that would take an inordinate amount of time. Although I struggled through that period, I was grateful for the lesson. In the Caitanya-caritamrita, Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami tells us that by the mercy of the Lord a lame man can climb mountains, a blind man can see the stars, and a dumb man can recite beautiful poetry. So in the same way, the Lord can take away any ability that might make us proud and prone to criticizing devotees. Also in the Caitanya-caritamrita is a story about a man named Gopala Cakravarti that illustrates this point. Learned and handsome, he came from a prestigious family and was proud of his scholarship and position. One day while taking part in a discussion about the glories of the Lord’s holy names, the exalted devotee Haridasa Thakura expressed his deep realization about the potency of the holy name. Gopala Cakravarti challenged Haridasa’s statements. He cursed Haridasa, saying that Haridasa’s nose should fall off if one didn’t reap the benefit from chanting that Haridasa professed. Gopala’s denigrating challenge came from his envious heart, and his motive was to discredit both Haridasa and the holy name. Gopala suffered an instant reaction for his insults and envy of Haridasa. His beautiful body became disfigured from leprosy, which ate away his nose. Agonized, Gopala begged Lord Caitanya for redemption. At first Lord Caitanya was unmoved by Gopala’s pitiable plight. But finally, when Lord Caitanya recognized that Gopala had undergone a sincere change of heart, He released Gopala from his suffering. Gopala then took shelter of the Lord and His devotees. The devotee is blessed when the Lord rectifies his mentality with seeming reverses. In another narration from the Caitanya-caritamrita, Amogha, the son-in-law of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, spied on Lord Caitanya while He ate at Sarvabhauma’s house. Aware that Amogha was critical of the Lord’s pure behavior, Sarvabhauma chased him away and cursed him for his envious mentality. The following day Amogha was afflicted by cholera and was dying. Lord Caitanya went to see Amogha and placing his hand on his heart. “Why have you allowed jealousy to sit here?” the Lord asked. “Because of this, you have become like a candala, the lowest of men, and you have also contaminated a most purified place—your heart.” The Lord then told Amogha to chant Hare Krishna. Amogha jumped up and chanted and danced, his heart purified by the touch of the Lord’s lotus hand. Both Gopala Cakravarti and Amogha were greatly fortunate. Their faultfinding, critical natures were purified, and they received the greatest goal of life, pure devotion to the Lord. We may not be so lucky, and may instead find ourselves cut off from the Lord’s service for many lives.

An Unreformed Faultfinder

I have seen devotees who follow the rules strictly and chant their prescribed rounds on their beads every day but have little joy in their spiritual lives. For many, criticism and faultfinding block their spiritual progress. This problem was exemplified by another person described in the Caitanya- caritamrita, Ramacandra Puri. He criticized his own spiritual master, and from then on he delighted in finding faults in saintly persons. If he couldn’t find a fault in a devotee, he would induce the devotee to overeat so he could criticize him. Despite Lord Caitanya’s spotless character, Ramacandra Puri invented a fault in Him. When he saw ants where Lord Caitanya was living, he criticized Him for eating sweets—a sign to Ramacandra Puri that the Lord was not acting as a proper renunciant.

Because Ramacandra Puri was the Godbrother of Lord Caitanya’s spiritual master, the Lord respectfully abstained from responding to his offense. This was unfortunate for Ramacandra Puri, because he continued to offend Vaishnavas wherever he went. Unlike Gopala Cakravarti and Amogha, he didn’t suffer some extreme material condition. But also unlike them, he didn’t have a change of heart or receive love of God.

Diligent Work

Suffering is not the only way to change our attitudes and behaviors. Ideally, we will gain insight into the problem and then work diligently to correct it. Recognizing and accepting our difficulty is half the battle. Finding a trusted devotee to confide in and seek guidance from is helpful. Attentive, focused, and prayerful chanting will help us see things differently and inspire to change behaviors contrary to devotional life. Incorporating daily Prabhupada’s powerful teachings and instructions from his books, tapes, and videos will help us remember what things are favorable and unfavorable to our spiritual lives.

As we become happier and more spiritually fulfilled, our desire to find fault in others will proportionately diminish. And as we practice seeing the good in others and serving them, the Lord will reciprocate with our efforts and we’ll make steady spiritual progress.

The next time we feel the urge to say something negative about someone, we should stop and ask ourselves, “What is my motive for saying this? What will Prabhupada think when he hears me say this? Will this help me develop my loving sentiments and make spiritual progress?”

Often our answers to these questions will convince us to be silent. If we commit ourselves to practicing abstinence from faultfinding, we’ll reap the abundance of spiritual rewards that will follow.