The notion of time, place and circumstances exist in every aspect of life. I am reminded of an example Srila Prabhupada gave on this principle. He said that singing for entertainment is one thing; but singing next to a sick person is considered a wrong action or bad behavior. Serving ice cold drink at night in a cold place might be received by a person with a reluctant heart, but when the ice was served during the hot hours of sunny day it would be gladly welcomed.
In sports, we see this principle applied all the time. The players and the coaches change the game strategy according to time, place and circumstances. In other words, this means adapting to the environment. A mountaineer adopts a different strategy when he climbs the highest mountain peak such as Mount Everest as compared a mountain requiring lesser intensity. As one climbs higher up the mountain much above the sea level, the level of oxygen in the air decreases. Putting even one step forward is an arduous task. Due to less oxygen, the lungs and heart exert greater pressure to breathe in and circulate oxygen within the body. People who are not adapted to high mountaineering most often than not lose their lives. Then there is the factor of extreme cold winter, chances of avalanches, running out of oxygen cylinders, falling through the ice crevasse, etc. Every step in high mountains is fraught with danger. It is said that the golden rule in high mountaineering is knowing when to turn around. This means a good and experienced mountaineer is aware of time, place and circumstances surrounding him. He knows when to proceed ahead and when to turn around.
The spiritual masters also apply the same principle. Srila Prabhupada introduced Krsna consciousness movement in the western world keeping in mind the time, place and circumstances. Since people are too busy, he regulated chanting 16 rounds minimum. Since people are too much into sinful activities, he strictly mandated following the four regulative principles. I do not remember coming across similar instructions being strictly enforced in India in pre-ISKCON days (may be because Indians were generally considered pious). Even in his preaching, Srila Prabhupada was an expert preacher. He perfectly knew how to preach depending on the time, place and circumstances. His preaching to a scientific community would be markedly different than preaching to a general audience. Most of his preaching to scientific community focused on proving that life does not come from matter; rather life comes from God. Unfortunately nowadays I see that some preachers are unable to apply this principle effectively. No offense meant to them; but I see them talking about very advanced philosophical concepts to an audience who are hardly familiar with the basics of the Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy, thus leaving the audience confused. I remember reading somewhere where Srila Prabhupada said that Jesus Christ did not teach everything to his followers because they were not ready. This means the time, place and circumstances were not right at that time. Srila Prabhupada’s coming to America was not a random event. Lord Krishna arranged the time, place and circumstances in such a way that the conditions became ready for people to receive the teachings of Srila Prabhupada. Humble and pure devotees like him acknowledge this fact and do not forget to appreciate the Lord’s hand behind all these events.
Another example where the principle of time, place and circumstance have been rightly applied is engaging the devotees in ISKCON in today’s times. In early days of ISKCON, most of the devotees were brahmacharis (and vaishnavis) living in temples. And they were actively engaged in preaching and book distribution activities. Nowadays the devotee congregations mostly constitute grihastas (families working and living outside the temple). Hence the mood of ISKCON slowly shifted from preaching to more of maintaining the status quo. Therefore the rules and regulations surrounding the devotional practices had to be updated to keep this change in mind. The standards of devotional services started varying from one temple to another. The preaching strategy also changed to namahattas and bhakti-vriksa programs. People complain that ISKCON has changed so much in its activities, affairs and standards. I do not accept this because ISKCON had to change itself according to time, place and circumstances. If it had not done so, ISKCON would have become irrelevant to modern society.
It is therefore important that we accept a bonafide spiritual master who instructs according to time, place and circumstance. They know how to adjust things, at the same time keep pace with the spiritual interest. Lord Caitanya kept in mind the time, place and circumstances of the sinful age of Kali Yuga when He established the yuga-dharma of this age, which is, chanting the Holy Name of the Lord.
Before I end, I want to include the following statements from Srila Prabhupada’s lecture:
“The Vaiṣṇava acaryas, just like our Ramanujacarya, Madhvacarya, and Nimbarka, and Viṣṇu Svami. They are all of the same movement. Ārādhyo-bhagavān vrajeśa-tanayaḥ, kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam [SB 1.3.28]. That is their conclusion. There is no different conclusion. Although they have got varieties of methods—śuddhādvaita, dvaitādvaita, vaśiṣṭādvaita, like that—they present the same philosophy in clear way. And Caitanya Mahāprabhu presented the same philosophy, that acintya-bhedābheda. That is ācārya. Ācārya gives some way for simple understanding. The same conclusion, but according to the time, circumstances, they give a very easy method to understand. That is ācārya. Ācārya is following strictly the previous ācārya, but according to the circumstances, he may make little changes. That is… That change is not change from the original idea.” (Lectures : Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.9.12 — Mayapur, February 19, 1976)
All glories to Srila Prabhupada!