We repeatedly hear that Vaiṣṇavas shouldn’t gossip. We all know that it is a big offense to gossip about another Vaiṣṇava, and a catastrophic offense to gossip about one’s guru. Śrī Kṛṣṇa grants the wish of His devotee. Therefore, the gossipers will find plenty of outlets in the form of other devotees who will commiserate with them and feel happy and validated in their convictions. Little do any of the gossipers realize that they are committing an offense. They are on a sinking ship, with each gossip session putting another hole in the ship, lodging it deeper in the mud of māyā.
Gossiping is such an easy, enjoyable, and everyday occurrence. It is shocking to know that there are such harsh consequences for it. “What I said isn’t that bad. I was just commenting on what I observed. I am just speaking the bitter truth. How can speaking the truth be offensive? It is our fundamental right to express the truth,” many will defend when they gossip about another. Although we have heard in countless lectures to refrain from gossiping, still it is seen that when devotees meet, gossip is the most natural thing. Then they wonder why they are suffering, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. Oftentimes, they blame another person for their problems, not realizing that their loose lips and uncontrolled mind are the cause of their own suffering. It is surprising to see the lack of responsibility devotees take for their gossiping.
While deliberating on this widespread disease, I thought that although there is clear prohibition against gossiping, there is no clear definition of it. No one has ever asked me to define gossip. This makes me realize that probably no one thinks that they are gossiping. Unless it is made clear what it means to gossip, we will not consider our gossip as gossip. After all, no one thinks low of oneself. The ahaṅkāra has such a marvelously elegant way of rationalizing our behaviors so that we can feel guilt-free when we gossip.
What is Gossiping?
The Sanskrit word that best conveys the idea of gossip is probably prajalpa. In Upadeśāmṛta, Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī counts it as one of the six destroyers of bhakti. Indeed, he begins the book with vāco vegam—control of the speech.
The Cambridge dictionary definition of gossip is, “conversation or reports about other people’s private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or not true.”
I would agree with this definition but add the following: Gossip does not have to be about people’s private lives. It could just be any statement about a person that is an exaggeration, critical, unkind, disapproving, doubting, or untrue. If we are putting a devotee in a bad light, then that is gossiping. One good barometer to gauge if we are gossiping or not is this: Can we make the statement directly into the person’s face? This is not a foolproof test of gossiping because there may be certain things that we may not like to say to the person directly and yet talking about it may not be gossiping. This test, however, certainly can protect us from gossiping.
Why Does a Person Gossip?
Now that we are clear on the definition of gossip, it is important to examine what drives a person to gossip. We know it is an offense, yet we engage in it. There must be some benefit in doing so. A person gossips for two main reasons. First, we gossip because we feel bad about ourselves or feel inferior to another. By putting another person down, we feel better about ourselves. It gives us a sense of superiority over another. Gossiping is the quickest and easiest way to do this. It is much harder to try to improve oneself. Making a change within oneself takes a lot of hard work and time. The result is delayed and not guaranteed. There is no definite timespan after which we can expect to have improved. Gossiping is easy and the result is instantaneous. Gossiping in spiritual life is akin to drinking alcohol or taking drugs in the material world to make oneself feel better. There is really no difference. In the material world, when a person feels insecure, depressed, rejected, lonely, misunderstood, isolated, ugly, unimportant, insignificant, unloved, stupid, excluded, he wants to numb out those feelings as quickly as possible. Drugs and alcohol do the trick. For those who do not use drugs or alcohol, they have some other quick fix like sex, food, chocolate, caffeine, negative/critical thinking, overworking, gambling, or even being addicted to another person.
Devotees, however, do not take drugs or alcohol and live regulated lives. So what do they do to numb those painful feelings that follow like a shadow? The answer is gossip! Gossip is also a form of addiction that runs rampant in spiritual societies. We leave aside our addictions to food, alcohol, or another intoxicant, and we replace it with an addiction to gossip. In both addictions, it is a problem of controlling the tongue. On the spiritual path, we do not take a vow not to gossip, as we do for alcohol, drugs, or caffeine. It is such a feel-good drug, and so easily available. All you have to do is find one other person willing to partake, and you are ready to go. It doesn’t cost even one rupee, and you can do it anywhere, anytime. What a fabulous trick of māyā this gossiping is! No wonder so many people fall into it and can’t seem to get out.
The second reason that devotees gossip is because of jealousy. Jealousy drives people to bash others. Jealousy is a burning sensation in the heart. And the easiest way to get rid of this sensation is to gossip. When two jealous people meet, their gossiping becomes a vent feast. They get completely absorbed in it, just like great devotees get absorbed in Kṛṣṇa-kathā.
Jealousy gets triggered when I see someone who has something that I want. It could be a seva, association with guru, philosophical knowledge, beauty, position, dress, or good devotional conduct. When I perceive that I don’t have what they have, or that they have more of something than I do, then I become jealous of them. I won’t realize or admit that I am jealous. Emotions like anger and sadness are more visible, and therefore easier to detect within oneself or another. But jealousy is more subtle, and therefore more difficult to perceive in others and even in oneself. But if I can become humble enough to realize and accept my jealousy, then I will advance quickly on the path of bhakti. First, I need to recognize it and then take steps to root it out. This is the way to progress. But generally, I don’t recognize it. Furthermore, I don’t accept it even if someone points it out to me, although it is rare that someone would do so to my face.
If I feel jealous, the proper approach would be to introspect, and to take responsibility for my jealousy. Great devotees do not gossip, because they are not jealous. However, those who are not advanced devotees will grapple with jealous feelings from time to time. A sincere devotee can recognize jealousy in one’s heart and does not try to rationalize or pretend that they do not have it. They use jealousy as an opportunity to improve oneself. Instead of brooding over others’ flaws, a sincere devotee makes an effort to change oneself. After all, one does not come to spiritual life for changing others, but to change oneself. Instead of criticizing those whom I feel jealous of, better that I appreciate them and recognize that they have something which I would like to have. In this way, they become a source of inspiration for me to improve and advance on the path of bhakti.
A sincere devotee takes pleasure neither in gossiping nor in hearing others gossip. In this regard, Śrī Bhīṣma gives the following advice to king Yudhiṣṭhira: “Those who have the vision of the subtle principles of dharma speak words that are truthful and devoid of violence and calumny. Their words are free of defects such as hypocrisy, harshness, cruelty, and backbiting. Even these words they speak sparingly and with a stable mind.” (Mahabhārata, Śānti-parva 215.10,11)
In āśrama life, gossiping creates a very bitter feeling among the residents. It dampens the mood of cooperation and service. Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, therefore, advises devotees to be humble, tolerant, respectful, and not to hanker for honor from others.
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