ISKCON and the Hare Krishna Movement: An Analysis of the Hare Krishna Movement in the UK
Posted January 6, 2008
A group of A-level students recently put the following question to me as part of its Religious Studies programme on Hinduism. They wanted to know about the development of the Hare Krishna movement, the reasons for its popularity, the role of ISKCON, and how the Hare Krishna movement has transformed over the years. These questions form the basis of this short article.
It was interesting that the students, and obviously their teacher, made a distinction between ISKCON and the Hare Krishna movement. As little as a decade ago ISKCON was the sole and undisputed proponent of bhakti, self-realisation, etc. That the students and their teacher made a distinction between ISKCON and the Hare Krishna Movement is significant because today the field has changed and expanded considerably.
ISKCON is no longer the only authority on bhakti, or devotional service, and the heritage of Gaudiya Vaishnava thought and philosophy. Unfortunately, this fact is ignored within ISKCON in general, and especially by its leaders. Consequently, ISKCON appears to be paralysed in time, and is unable to regenerate or renew itself. Add to this the recent child abuse court case, ISKCON's declaration of bankruptcy, and its multi-million dollar legal settlement. This unpleasant story received full-page coverage in the Metro, a widely-circulated free newspaper in the UK, which reported positively on Srila Prabhupada and the Hare Krishna Movement but covered the child abuse story. ISKCON may be unable to rid itself of this smear for a long time to come.
Today there are several Gaudiya groups active in the UK: organizations such as Bhaktivedanta Trust International and Gaudiya Vedanta Publications of Srila BV Narayana Maharaja; the Saraswath Gaudiya Math in London; and Srila BS Tirtha Maharaja's Gaudiya Vaishnava Association, to name but a few. These are the most prominent of the Gaudiya missions in the UK. There are other groups affiliated with the ritviks, as well as groups closely related to ISKCON, who, due to ISKCON's centralised corporate structure and local politics, have not been able to gain acceptance or affiliation with ISKCON. All these various institutions, including ISKCON, which are generally organised as charitable trusts and companies, could be regarded as the 'Hare Krishna movement'.
The past decade has brought great diversity to the Gaudiya Vaishnava preaching field. In this short article we will look at the reasons for the trend towards this greater diversity in the Hare Krishna movement, as well as how ISKCON is presently reacting to the new arrivals and 'competitors'. It certainly seems the trend is set to continue, and perhaps even accelerate, given ISKCON's inability to embrace the entire spectrum of the Hare Krishna movement - and thereby defining itself but an isolated part of this Hare Krishna movement.
ISKCON has, by its increasingly corporate and bureaucratic structure and its institutionalisation, helped create and strengthen its own 'competitors' in the West. This has occurred in great part by the way it has defined its affiliates more and more narrowly in order to consolidate its own power within the institution. Dissension, controversial views and free thought are on the whole unwelcome. Together with this internal power struggle comes a trend towards (a) the systematic erosion of power held by initiating gurusand spiritual leaders, a reaction to the many fall-downs of leaders in ISKCON, and (b) the investing of those powers in the managers and administrators of the institution.
Unfortunately, with this power shift also comes a lack of a wider spiritual vision and brahminical advisory independence. It is generally seen that leaders focus on people while managers focus on systems. ISKCON has left its own people by the wayside in favour of establishing administrative systems. Accordingly, there has been a distinct shift from a people-centred organisation to a system-centred one. Naturally, the camp of disenfranchised devotees continues to grow.
This fact is not easily recognized within ISKCON, as its Western following has largely been replaced by an Indian congregation, and the asrama devotees and brahmacaris have been supplanted by the broad Hindu community. This shift has brought rewards as well as casualties. The rewards are mainly financial and political. They confer upon ISKCON mainstream political clout, as evidenced by the Prime Minister's speech in which he mentioned Bhaktivedanta Manor. The recent move of ISKCON to establish a government-funded Hindu school near London is another example. Political parties need the Hindu vote, and are therefore interested in the new ISKCON Hindu temples.
The casualties are devotees and brahminically-inclined preachers who, for whatever reason, do not fit into this present corporate status quo. However, these devotees along with a large number of direct disciples of Srila Prabhupada, are the real blood that nourished ISKCON for the past 30 years and more. These devotees now find themselves outside the institutional framework of ISKCON. Some are disillusioned; others have affiliated themselves with other Vaisnava groups. As this trend continues, the other groups are enlarging and growing stronger. Some of the devotees disillusioned by ISKCON are openly antagonistic towards the institution, because of their past hurts.
ISKCON as an institution also displays hostility towards anyone outside its institutional borders. Jargon such as 'they have left Krishna consciousness', 'infidel to Srila Prabhupada' and even 'they have abandoned Krishna' is commonplace. This creates an atmosphere of distrust, antagonism and outright enmity between the various groups of the Hare Krishna movement. Devotees are ready to quote Srila Prabhupada on their particular views regarding institution. Entire books and position papers have been written in support of one's understanding of how Krishna consciousness ought to expand, backed up point by point with philosophy.
It appears, therefore, that the Hare Krishna movement is presently caught in internal struggle, primarily due to ISKCON's inability to accept the new diversity in the preaching field. Such diversity can also be seen in a positive light, in that it increases the number of people who come in touch with the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Srila Prabhupada was always eager to solicit the help of his Godbrothers and was more than ready to let them participate in the Hare Krishna movement. This was not recognized at the time by his Godbrothers, but is increasingly recognized now. Moreover, there are dozen of quotations that show that Srila Prabhupada wanted each and every temple in ISKCON to be registered as a separate entity. He was distinctly against the centralisation of power in ISKCON.
Unfortunately, these directions of Srila Prabhupada have not been followed, especially in the UK. ISKCON UK grew as a single charity. Some eight years ago it was recognized under the leadership at the time that this was not what Srila Prabhupada had wanted; it was against his instructions. Efforts were therefore made to split this single charity and establish a number of separate local charities linked together legally as a franchise. A consultancy process was initiated and large fees were spent on legal advice, but eight years later nothing was accomplished. The will to follow Srila Prabhupada's instructions on this matter somehow evaporated.
The failure to follow through on this had a very stagnating effect on overall preaching in the UK. Unsurprisingly, the strongest temple in the UK - Bhaktivedanta Manor - continued to set the agenda and create the vision for the rest of the country. Today, the Manor has chosen to become more or less a Hindu temple, and it feels that all other temples in the UK ought to follow suit. Naturally, this has hampered the development and propagation of Krishna consciousness outside of the immediate Indian community, which accounts for only 2% of the overall population of the UK. The propagation of Krishna consciousness has given way to the institutionalisation of ISKCON. Indeed, the GBC's failure to follow and implement Srila Prabhupada's direction on management (DOM) has caused the stagnation of ISKCON on a global level and contributed to a trend towards a centralised administrative power.
The consequences have been a steep decline in book distribution and a drop to almost nil of new devotees, besides devotees brought in from other less developed countries. Foreign devotees now outnumber local devotees by far in both of ISKCON's London temples, Bhaktivedanta Manor and Soho Street. The trend has been similar in the US. These temples no longer need to care for and personally groom new recruits. It is easier to 'import' foreign devotees to cover the necessary services, such as deity worship, cooking and cleaning. The funds are provided by the Indian community to carry this through. This dynamic, which has created an impersonal atmosphere in the temple, is then emulated by other small temples throughout the country. The result is that preaching to non-Hindus in the UK is almost extinct.
By contrast, the newly-established Gaudiya missions and other centres fare much better. Smaller in size, they have a more personal approach and deliberately set themselves apart from ISKCON and its corporate structure, which they see as a deviation from Srila Prabhupada's instructions and intention for ISKCON.
In summary, it can be said that while the Hare Krishna movement in the
UK continues to thrive, ISKCON has embarked upon a policy of isolation.
that ISKCON will be able, in due course, to reconsider this approach and
once again become the innovative and relevant spiritual movement it used to
be - an organisation that appeals not only to the Indian community but also
to the wider population in the UK and around the world. A step in the right
direction would be for the GBC to implement Srila Prabhupada's direction on
management (DOM), in which he wanted that the GBC be elected by a vote of
all Temple presidents every three years. This, however, is unlikely to occur
without a 'grassroots revolution' from devotees worldwide, as it would
undermine the present GBC's power base. One way or the other, this change
needs to happen if ISKCON is to be relevant to future generations and if it
is to be more than a Hindu institution comfortably maintained by the Indian
community but without connection to the remaining 98% of the UK population.
Put differently, ISKCON needs to reconsider its broader strategy if it hopes
ever to be the organisation Srila Prabhupada had envisaged: 'a house in
which the whole world can live peacefully'.