In this article, we examine the difference between bhakti and fanaticism, by quoting from two sources. The first one is from the Yoga of Dejection: pp. 176-177 — [sub-titles are added by this author]. The second source is a great article written on fanaticism more than a hundred years ago by a Christian pastor.
From the Yoga of Dejection:
Fanaticism starts with fear
Arjuna presented himself as a noble person and claimed, “Since we perceive the evil in this undertaking [fighting the war with the Kauravas], we must not act sinfully”. He used the word sin several times because that creates fear in the minds of the religious. Generally religious ideals don’t make an impression on the mind unless they contain something striking in nature. This is so particularly in this age where external appearances have taken on exaggerated importance. Even if one possesses the Truth, one has to present it in a captivating manner, otherwise hardly anyone will pay attention.
Fanaticism seeks to shift the burden of responsibility onto someone else.
Although Arjuna accused the opposition of being covered by greed, he could not see that his own vision was covered by his attachments. Nonetheless, he sought clarification because he was not certain of his conclusions. He wanted confirmation so that he could shift the burden of responsibility for his decision on someone else. Most people are prepared to follow those who reinforce their ideas and who will think for them. They want to be told, “Follow me and you will be liberated”.
Unlike fanaticism, bhakti demands active use of one’s intelligence.
Kṛṣṇa does not liberate anyone like that. He wants his devotees to become liberated by giving them proper knowledge and discrimination and allowing them to think for themselves. He has bestowed intelligence on the living beings so they can use it. He has not given us eyes so we can keep them closed. He wants us to see, yet not be attracted to māyā. He wants us to become active thinkers, not lazy-minded.
People like to avoid thinking.
People generally avoid thinking, because they find it more problematic than physical work. They prefer to toil for many hours rather than think for a few minutes. The unscrupulous who understand this fact of human psychology use it to exploit others. Thus Kṛṣṇa teaches that we should neither take advantage of others, nor be exploited by them.
The greatness of Kṛṣṇa is that he does not want fanatical followers.
Kṛṣṇa could have easily manipulated Arjuna by saying, “I will free you from all sins, do not fear”. But he took great pains to enlighten Arjuna even at such a critical moment. Kṛṣṇa wanted Arjuna to become enlightened and then act. Arjuna was not a cowardly, blind follower. If Arjuna had fought without understanding, he would only have added to the number of fanatic followers. In that case, if someone had asked him what he was doing, he could only have replied, “I am following orders”.
Being the Supreme Person, Kṛṣṇa could have removed all of Arjuna’s sinful reactions, but he did not do so. Had he said, “Just fight, and I will free you from all sins,” no one could have objected. But he wanted Arjuna to diagnose his problem, rid himself of it, and then fight. This is Kṛṣṇa’s greatness. In this world, most people who wield authority do not act like this. They want to impose their authority on others. Although he possesses the highest authority, Kṛṣṇa does not exercise his authority over others.
Kṛṣṇa does not speak to the fanatic.
It was daring of Arjuna to pose a question at such a critical moment, especially to Kṛṣṇa. It would have been easier, more comforting and safe for him to say, “I will fight if you want me to.” The human tendency is to comply with a great and powerful person like Kṛṣṇa. But Arjuna demonstrated his boldness by not ignoring his burning desire, and thus Kṛṣṇa spoke Bhagavad-Gita. Had Arjuna not done so, Kṛṣṇa would not have spoken. Kṛṣṇa does not speak unnecessarily or to the unqualified. Nor does he have a penchant for preaching.
The power of fanaticism.
And yet, fanaticism wields immense power. Here is a paper containing an insightful discussion on fanaticism– Religious Fanaticism: Asset or Debit, by William H. Leach in The Biblical World Vol. 53, No. 3 (May, 1919), pp. 240-244 (5 pages). The article is available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3136306?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
In the article, Leach who is a Christian pastor writes:
“The virtue of the fanatic as an agitator is largely due to an emotional response which his appeal finds in the human breast. Mankind is still reached more largely by the emotions than by reason. Religious and social leaders who find a response in great multitudes are almost universally of the emotional, fanatic type. Peter the Hermit drew great multitudes around him while Abbe Suger was despised. Yet Suger was right and Peter was wrong[..]
With all the virtues of fanaticism, we may question whether fanaticism can justify itself in the Kingdom of God. This may be but another instance of where the church’s best friend is Christianity’s worst enemy. Truth finds it necessary to compete with emotion. Too much popularity has always corrupted Christianity. [..]
Fanaticism is blind. Or it can see only out of one eye. Thus it cannot grow intellectually or spiritually. The fanatic has not been used to uniting cause and effect, premise and conclusion, and cannot do so now. Words of truth have no effect, for the mind is closed and the heart has chosen its final love. [..]
The fanatic is not alone blind; he is intolerant. Tolerance is one of the foundation stones of the Kingdom of God. Fanaticism combats it. The fanatic is always right and cannot be wrong because he has the final revelation. [..]
Fanaticism is a debit to the extent that its methods drive away many normal thinking people away from institutional religion.”