Eight Inquiries into ISKCON
by Mayesvara dasa
Posted May 16, 2003

ABSTRACT: In response to a questionnaire on the future of ISKCON, Mayesvara das submitted a elaborate and wide-ranging reply, focussing on education, courtesy and character development, putting ISKCON management on a more businesslike basis, and satisfying donors, congregation members, initiated devotees and the community at large. He also suggests cultivating friendships with Vaishnava and non-Vaishnava groups, helping devotees to organize businesses, and cultivating a long-range view of preaching.

When senior managers gathered in Los Angeles to decide how best to lead ISKCON in North America, they sought devotee opinion to determine their discussion agenda, devising a list of questions for consideration and response. This essay is an outgrowth of the response I sent.

1. What is the most effective way to teach Krishna Consciousness?

Each devotee has individual capacities and skills. The problem is not how to preach or whom to preach to, but active motivation. All communication methods are useful, based on individual proclivities and skills. Some devotees are excellent on stage or behind a podium, while others do well at writing articles, singing songs or painting. Some present Krishna to the downtrodden, while others can meet with presidents and kings. Krishna's only constraint is that we remain true to our dharma and not pretend. This is an act of yoga, though it may appear materially unfruitful, whereas disregarding that dharma is precarious (Bg 3.35).

We must separate goals and standards from the pretense that we abide by them perfectly. Because nobody likes a hypocrite, we are attracted to Srila Prabhupada, who was neither pretentious nor hypocritical. Krishna condemns artificial restraint (Bg 3.6); I do not advocate giving up hope of pure action, but we must stop acting "holier than thou." With commitment to process, and integrity of principled action, purity will shine forth and Krishna will work His magic.

There is no limit as to whom we can approach. Based on individual insight or aspiration, we should do everything practical to assist people to reach out as they are inspired. This must be self-sustaining and not dependent on funding from other ISKCON resources. Devotees regularly dream up zany but unsustainable preaching projects. I am talking about a "business plan" approach to expanding the Harinama movement.

ISKCON has been ineffective in penetrating media or high society, because many original devotees were uneducated social dropouts. The majority of ISKCON leaders have not come from proven backgrounds in the commercial marketplace; fewer than half the GBC members have college degrees. Srila Prabhupada greatly appreciated his disciples with higher education and influential positions, recognizing that competent professionals have great influence and are most helpful in spreading Krishna consciousness.

I live in Ojai, predominantly a vortex for impersonalism, having been the home of Krishnamurti. The insidious Mayavadi influence is our biggest challenge and we are asleep at the wheel in exposing new-age, bogus cheaters building empires on word-juggling doubletalk. New-age nonsense has influenced inappropriately even some individuals within our temples.

We should prepare training videos to help viewers identify and understand how other organizations distort the pure message of the Bhagavatam. Defeating pretenders was a mission dear to Srila Prabhupada, evidenced by the pranam prayers we chant regularly. Refocusing on this mission is an area all Vaishnavas could agree with and engage in enthusiastically, regardless of their particular Krishna-conscious denomination.

Not discussed much in ISKCON are qualities of integrity, honesty, social maturity, human dignity and plain courtesy. Srila Prabhupada focused on the profound teaching of Krishna consciousness, with the understanding that, if needed, others could teach foundational moral standards. Few, if any, seem to be teaching these standards, though the need is great. One consequence has been an explosion of anger, graphically obvious in the rittvik movement manifested from the reactionary imagination of severely mistreated devotees. Many devotees seriously lack simple social graces, while those who most need them hide behind the shallow excuse that social skills training would be Maya. Such immature arrogance is an Achilles heel for Gaudiya Vaishnavism in the West.

2. How should we interface with a rapidly growing, diverse, devotee community?

Behavioral scientists have proven repeatedly that in-house staff is an organization's most important asset. A corporate mission statement addresses the community, patrons, stockholders and employees.

1) ISKCON's community is our neighbors. Are we good neighbors, or do we alienate them with nightmare, out-of-control, confrontational messes, as formerly in New Vrindavan or Bhaktivedanta Manor?

2) Our patrons are our congregation, who buy our books and eat in our restaurants. Our product is Krishna consciousness in the form of books, prasadam and a new approach towards life. Our challenge is to make these attractive and affordable. Patrons want respect and dignified treatment. There is much lacking in how we treat new guests: two days after I had attended a service at the Ojai Valley Church of Christ (entering my name in their guest book), a very nice lady from their Welcoming Committee brought me a small loaf of banana bread. Small, friendly gestures like this have helped this particular church gain the biggest congregation in the Ojai Valley.

3) ISKCON has no stockholders seeking financial gain but we should thank significant donors and keep them informed about expenditures. There are classes one can attend on Charitable Giving and Fund Raising, which may help us avoid our fund-raising mistakes of the past. Some ISKCON projects have handled fund-raising well. The Los Angeles Life Membership program keeps members informed, involved and appreciated -- one reason for their strong congregation. The ISKCOWP cow protection project, headed by Balabhadra das and Chaya dasi prabhus, publishes an informative and thorough newsletter. In 1981 Varutappa das prabhu won a million-dollar grant from the Smithsonian Institutution for his Matsya project to preserve Sanskrit scriptures. The Smithsonian was so satisfied with how devotees handled those funds that they gave a second grant the following year. Integrity breeds success and bounty; irresponsible, myopic laziness breeds chaos, dissension, mistrust, disrespect, lawsuits and rittviks.

4) "Employees" are the devotees who live in the ashram, ask for little, and keep ISKCON functioning. Though often overlooked, neglected or trivialized, they are essential to success. It is disgraceful that some women who collected millions for the BBT are neglected and impoverished. ISKCON is no longer a revolutionary, religious revival made up of one powerful divine leader and a bunch of ex-hippies. We cannot plead that we did not know better or were too young or naive to realize what was going on. If we do not act properly towards each other, why would anyone want to become part of our congregation? Why should anyone stay?

These four divisions must be studied individually; each has difficulties and needs. Successful businesses take these four groups very seriously and devotees must use the tools of business to spread Krishna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada taught us that everything can be used in the service of Krishna. We should adopt this principle; by ruling things out, we overlook potential opportunities.

3. What suggestions do you have to improve ISKCON management style?

I always try to support and encourage everyone, regardless of perceived shortcomings. That is how Srila Prabhupada treated us -- and how Krishna reciprocates with devotees (See Bg. 9.29, Bg. 6.9 and Bg. 12.13-14). Until we arrive at the platform of suddha-sattva behavior, we will deal with conditioned, imperfect and less likable people. To accept shortcomings and remain equipoised is austerity, detachment and greatness. Whether someone is an ISKCON manager, a wayward devotee, or may hold a flawed understanding of what Srila Prabhupada wanted, we grow and help others grow through communication and relationship. Whatever hinders that exchange is a defeat; we need to keep trying for understanding, even if we disagree or were hurt by another Vaishnava, and to practice forgiveness and real humility.

We should adopt vigilant friendship to sincere participants in Lord Caitanya's movement, regardless of their branch of the Gaudiya-sampradaya. This is Krishna's instruction, and Srila Prabhupada's desire. Red warning lights should go off in our head when dealing with anyone claiming to be an "advanced devotee", or when seasoned devotees of twenty years attempt to cover up nonsense behind the veil of "perpetual neophyte"! We must be cautious and not try to legitimize Vaishnava aparadha. If we quote scripture to insult another devotee, we miss the point, because that leads not to healthy communication but to ostracism and alienation. Without remaining oblivious to anyone's shortcoming, we should act with mature, courteous and responsible dignity. It should not be necessary to emphasize this, but many of us have drifted from this foundational cornerstone.

Having built four large Rathayatra carts in major cities worldwide, distant temples often approached me for advice on cart building, and I sent engineering blueprints, photographs and supporting material on request. On three occasions, I complied with urgent requests from GBC members, at my inconvenience and cost. My effort was not excessive, but anyone with basic manners would at least have acknowledged it with a thank-you note or postcard; such a deed was apparently beyond the ability of influential and advanced leaders. Acting with manners is a prerequisite for getting on the path to purity.

The Internet is replete with tales of improperly treated, disgruntled devotees. We may never satisfy all, but simple courtesy and acknowledgement would mitigate much dissent, increase support and heal wounds.

Those "mundane politicians" we are fond of criticizing are competent enough to respond to constituents. Even those who write a critical letter to their elected representative get a letter thanking them for sharing their thoughts. It is a disgrace that the most powerful members of our movement do not realize how important this type of simple courtesy is. Srila Prabhupada responded promptly to disciples' letters, dealing with everyone as important individuals, regardless of bad habits, foolish ideas and immature behavior. The GBC, however, has a poor record in acknowledging input from constituents, what to speak of the more demanding responsibilities we have entrusted them with!

In 1997 I sent a package of material to GBC members, to help mediate the rittvik controversy, explaining my unique relationship with Adridharan das prabhu growing out of our work together on the 1978 Calcutta Rathayatra festival. That relationship had placed me in a good position to avert a head-on collision between ISKCON and his rittvik campaign. For weeks I gathered material, did research, wrote letters and listened carefully to grievances, just to find some common ground. I received not one e-mail from ISKCON leaders, but many from lay devotees who appreciated my efforts and mood.

To say "thank you" when one politely expresses concerns or opinions does not bind one to agreement. Every good diplomat learns this simple principle quickly, but it eludes some GBC members to this day. Establishing offices and capable staff will require significant funds, but is simply the next step if we have any intention of moving out of the public-relations stone age. We must mature from a discombobulated group of ex-hippies, revolutionaries and dropouts and embrace this objective intelligently. When we start acting with vision and planning, Krishna will reciprocate with acknowledgement and success.

4. How does ISKCON compare to other organizations?

There is much that ISKCON has done right. We have temples all over the world and our movement continues to grow despite our incompetence. ISKCON sponsors bigger festivals and prints more books then all other Indian-based institutions put together. The BBT and the Bhaktivedanta Archives far surpass other organizations in preserving the legacy of prominent teachers from our century. Although Ojai has a library to preserve Krishnamurti's writings, it doesn't come close to what we have been able to do for Srila Prabhupada.

Srila Prabhupada inspired us to commit to preserving his words. Somehow, we were attentive enough to get that responsibility done rightly. I am, therefore, stunned that the GBC did not rigorously uphold and enforce BBT copyrights at the 2002 Mayapura meetings. Why would any devotee not want to ensure as much protection to Srila Prabhupada's work as Michael Eisner has for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck!

We have "dropped the ball" in public relations and our lack of attention to in-house career paths. Most Christian denominations have policies regulating the behavior of their ministers and provideing for them. Those policies include collecting, accounting, spending and independent monitoring of church funds. Most churches have plans for retirement, medical expenses and adequate housing for their ministers. Other organizations have their share of problems, but that does not excuse the "stab-and-grab" mentality we have sometimes seen. Despite much improvement, we still have a long way to go before those who make the decisions are not also reaping the benefit of their own legislation.

In 1982 Drutakarma das prabhu researched how the military recruits members and inspires them with well-delineated career paths. For the most part, ISKCON has an inadequately simple, two-tier career path: getting a spiritual name and aspiring for a Brahman's thread.

Mormons, Jews and Ismaili Muslims have effectively built financial strength by becoming reliable in business ventures and patronizing each other. Many Asian American communities operate in similar ways and help new immigrants get established on arrival. Very few devotees have been able to build up respectable, reliable, honest businesses. Many devotees do not even feel the need to work in any business, let alone a Vaishnava business, when given the opportunity. It is disgraceful how many devotees count on charity and government relief programs, because they simply do not want to work. It is a poor example for society if an abnormal percentage of our members depend on handouts from employed citizens (See Bg 3.8 and Bg. 3.24).

Temples could benefit tremendously by cooperating with devotees inspired to open bakeries, restaurants, service and professional businesses. Srila Prabhupada concentrated on establishing the Brahminical quadrant, with candidates slightly above the Mleccha class at best. In his generous and nurturing spirit he accepted us on the Sudra platform, but little has been done since his departure to cultivate the Ksatriya and Vaisya branches of society -- much written, but little forthcoming.

5. How would you describe the way ISKCON responds to devotees?

Women and children have been mistreated, ignored and abused under seriously perverted misinterpretations of Srila Prabhupada's teachings -- abuses so serious that ISKCON has been forced to address them by internal uprisings or litigation. We can't seem to find money, time or resources to do things right the first time, but have all sorts of funds and time for astronomically expensive legal cases and settlement fees.

Our challenge is to learn how to identify and respond to problems before they become critical. ISKCON has been notorious for "crisis management," as is evident by the Gurukula litigation and the rittvik perversion to Sanatan Dharma.

The inability of ISKCON managers to properly engage and respect women as pure spirit souls has led to much embarrassment. If misogynistic men are not completely routed from ISKCON management positions, it will not be too long before Laksmi devi is held hostage to a serious sexual harassment lawsuit. Some women have become so traumatized by some ISKCON leaders that they have advocated re-editing Srila Prabhupada's books to neuter any male/female specific instructions -- a reflection of how crass and askew those leaders have been.

Opportunity for improvement goes beyond any single person's ability; however, devotees inspired to address these issues should be encouraged. The search for solutions starts by extracting relevant resources and dovetailing the conclusions into Krishna's service. Anuttama das prabhu in Florida has done a tremendous job trying to bring the Vaishnava youth crisis under control, drawing from all resources available to correct 20 years of inattention to education.

There is nothing sinful about getting "trained up" in mundane knowledge if it can be dovetailed into Krishna's service. The alternative is to speculate and experiment without taking advantage of the mistakes of others; Srila Prabhupada considered that type of behavior "second-class intelligence." To shun outside educational sources as irrelevant or threatening is foolish and archaic. Impersonalism is certainly prevalent, but Krishna promises to protect His devotee if the intent is pure. (See Bg. 2.40 and Bg. 18.72)

6. How would you describe the current mood within the ISKCON community?

Too many ISKCON leaders have simply not understood foundational honesty, integrity and keeping their word. This disgrace has engendered dissent and growth of splinter groups. Those groups will also fail if they do not correct the problems for which they criticize ISKCON. For managers, regardless of institution, the challenge is to apply Krishna conscious principles to decision-making (Bg. 4.11).

As supervising engineer to the Vrindavan Samadhi project in 1980, I had first-hand exposure to GBC decision-making. More emphasis was often placed on how decisions would impact one's immediate sense gratification than on what the right course of action might be, resulting in many of these individuals falling away from Krishna consciousness.

Most people are conditioned to do the easy thing; only a rare person has the inner strength and faith to do the right thing, especially in the face of personal hardship. Fortitude distinguishes the real devotee from a "show-bottle" concerned more about how his silks are ironed than in fulfilling commitments to others and vows to his guru and to Krishna. Integrity is sorely lacking in Kali-yuga, where truthfulness, the last leg of Dharma, is wobbling. Addressing this issue will resolve many others automatically and is probably the most important area of development for individual spiritual growth and maturity. Striving only to "look good" fails to attract Krishna and paralyzes spiritual growth, particularly for anyone in a leadership position (Bg. 3.21).

Some prominent devotes choose to "hide out" or run away, to avoid dealing with uncomfortable issues, and choosing what is easy over what is right. Expertise in public speaking, verse citation or philosophical debate is not the sign of an advanced Vaishnava; even powerful dictators have these skills. Krishna consciousness is not measured by speech, dress, or title, but by qualities of character (See Bg. 13. 8-12).

If leaders act pompously, prejudicially or rudely, attempt to hide their sense gratification, fail to keep their word or fail to show up on time for commitments, then they have much work to do! There is need for diplomacy and we cannot expect anyone to be superhuman, but there is no loophole for leaders flagrantly to lie, distort or misrepresent the truth. Nor does it excuse hypocrisy, arrogance, cynicism, megalomania, nepotism, laziness, manipulation, exploitation or narcissism -- to name a few foibles observed in leaders we have trusted to represent Srila Prabhupada.

What use are all the temples if we cannot even adhere to basic codes of dignity and honor? Krishna proclaims, "Lust, anger and greed are the most sinful enemies of this world." (Bg. 16.21). Our message has been corrupted if we find a lot of hypocrisy. Those who are not purified by Krishna's glance will be contaminated with hypocrisy to some extent, but gross, flagrant hypocrisy is a symptom of helpless control by untamed senses and the modes of nature. Truth cannot be compromised and remain true. Speaking truthfully, even at the cost of unpleasant immediate results for oneself, is the way of the Vaishnava (Bg. 17.15).

Fear-based "turf building" is still the driving force in the average ISKCON manager's decision-making process. Whenever such thinking gains precedence over the instructions Krishna gives in the Gita, we resort to mundane attempts to control things that are not ours to control. We know this and recite it from the Vyasasana, but how many actually live this truth?

Blind faith is ignorant and foolish; genuine faith founded in the strength of Guru, Sastra, and Sadhu is the only way to accomplish anything that will not be complicated by the modes of material nature. We may disagree with rittvik ideas, imagined poison conspiracies, Gaudiya Matha gurus, litigious gurukulis or Vaishnava feminists, but it is bad policy to be heavy-handed when diversions arise. A strong response may be appropriate if dissenters stand on the steps of temples creating big disturbances, but there are numerous examples of "using a sledgehammer to fix a broken pocket watch."

Srila Prabhupada said he would be happy if just one of his disciples became a pure devotee, because he knew just how rare and difficult it was to attain. From a mundane viewpoint, injunctions appear contradictory and impossible to reconcile; understanding these conundrums requires spiritual maturity. We are called to relate with all devotees without Vaishnava aparadha even though they may have a different understanding of Srila Prabhupada's teachings.

"All these devotees are undoubtedly magnanimous souls, but he who is situated in knowledge of Me I consider to be just like My own self. Being engaged in My transcendental service, he is sure to attain Me, the highest and most perfect goal." (Bg. 7.18) In this verse, Krishna uses the word sarve, which means all devotees. He then describes all the devotees as magnanimous, not just the ones we happen to agree with. The magic lies in learning how to think and behave like that, because thereby we advance to a deeper relationship with Krishna.

7. What service are you currently doing?

The lifestyle of a sannyasi is not a model that the average person in the West will follow -- nor should individuals be encouraged to do so if they are married and have children. The majority of Western people cannot begin to understand or relate to the life of a celibate sannyasi. Krishna arranged for me to get married and I was committed to use the grhastha ashram to span the gap between mainstream Americana and the transcendent message of Sanatan Dharma.

I began the American Vedic Association as a way to introduce Krishna consciousness to individuals put off by the stereotyped airport book distributor. For about ten years, this program grew with great promise. As Srila Prabhupada would say, however, "We have our plans and Krishna has His plans". Unfortunately, my marriage collapsed and, as sad as that was, I am confident it was orchestrated by Krishna; it freed me to focus more clearly on the task of reaching out to give mainstream America a taste of Krishna consciousness.

I seek out groups and public gatherings to meet individuals ready for Krishna consciousness, and make friends with them. Over time, they come to respect me as sober and trustworthy, and eventually I can introduce what Srila Prabhupada taught us. This approach requires patience and does not produce immediate results, but provides tremendous opportunity to develop in-depth understanding of other people and organizations. It also produces good material for provocative newspaper articles. I have been exploring that medium for preaching over several years and am learning how to maximize the effectiveness of that approach. I am also developing practical, high-quality Krishna-conscious paraphernalia under the name Jagannatha Enterprises. My hope is to generate curiosity and inquiries into the Absolute Truth, within a community not likely otherwise to come in contact with devotional wisdom. If my entrepreneurial efforts become lucrative, I will build that business so that more devotees can prosper.

8. What would you like to tell us at this time?

That this questionnaire is going out is encouraging. I will be curious if anything changes as a result; I have learned not to expect much. I would be interested in knowing the volume and nature of the responses. In 1980 I wrote my own Devotee Personal Survey Questionnaire to start coordinating an intelligent managerial response to obvious difficulties in our society. Other devotees discouraged me from distributing it because it alluded to there being "something wrong in the state of Denmark"! Around that same time, Varutappa prabhu dispatched a similar questionnaire. When I met him in Los Angeles, he told me that, after sending out over 100 inquiries, I was one of only two ISKCON members to respond. No one else acknowledged the time, effort and expense he had put forth to do something important and visionary.

I am happy to see that istagosthi has begun in a more serious fashion, and I am honored to participate. It is healthy when an opportunity arises to formulate and clarify our ideas; if this effort is unproductive, I hope it will not be another 20 years before it is revived. Eventually it will become an important part of fulfilling Srila Prabhupada's mission. So "Bravo" for starting that effort, even if the GBC had nothing to do with initiating it.

Large corporations spend millions on improving employee morale, decreasing inefficiencies, understanding customer needs, identifying target markets and developing new products. These tasks require willingness to inquire from, and listen closely to, the observations, perspectives and feelings of others, in order to formulate a knowledge-based plan to progress. Such companies do not scorn criticism; they seek it out, as is evident whenever you fill out a customer service card or guarantee.

We are still riding on the strength of Srila Prabhupada's grace, but management is a dynamic effort requiring regular attention and response. Lord Visnu has responsibility for maintaining the universe; daily maintenance is far more difficult and exasperating than construction or destruction. Whilst Srila Prabhupada manifested ISKCON out of nothing, he left the task of making it grow and prosper up to us.

This essay was abridged from a considerably longer original article, available by request from the author at mayesvara@jagannatha.com.