Chakra Discussions

A Broader Social Movement

by Vasu Murty

Posted July 13, 2006

When Srila Prabhupada established the ISKCON Life Membership program, he made it clear that there is a place within ISKCON for devotees unprepared to lead a life of full-time religious service. Srila Prabhupada was very loving and kind. He wanted everyone--saints and sinners alike--to receive the Lord's mercy in the form of books, prasadam, the holy name and devotional service:

"...if you want to be a family man--if you cannot dedicate twenty-four hours daily--then earn money and use it to spread Krishna consciousness... if you cannot earn money, then use your intelligence. There is so much intellectual work to do--publication, research, and so on. If you cannot do that, then utilize your words to tell people about Krishna...So where is the scarcity of opportunities? You can serve Krishna in any capacity, provided you want to serve." (Chicago, July 1975)

An ISKCON leader in Philadelphia, PA also said in 1982:

"Our long term plan is to develop a congregation...We have that broadness of vision now. So in the core you have full-time devotees who maintain the four regs, and chant sixteen rounds. Then, expanding out, you have lesser degrees of commitment and involvement, and our preaching should be aimed all the way out...

"You have to keep your standards and preach to these people all the time, but at the same time not drive them away for not living up to them...If our movement is genuinely world-transforming, then it's not going to happen that everyone in the whole world will join our temples and move in. It's going to have to be a broader social movement." (quoted in E.B. Rochford, Jr.'s Hare Krishna in America, 1984)

According to the 1982 ISKCON public relations guide, Who Are They?, congregational outreach is now reality. Mukunda Goswami introduces the reader to the Hare Krishna movement in strictly congregational terms:

"You'll probably be surprised to learn that you don't have to wear traditional robes or change your hairstyle or religion to be a part of the Hare Krishna movement.

"You'll discover that Krishna consciousness is much more than a religion. It's a spiritual movement; a universal time-tested process for achieving inner happiness, satisfaction and higher awareness. And you'll meet people from all walks of life who are applying their knowledge, skills, and resources to bring about a better world, beginning with the all-important realm of consciousness.

"The Krishna consciousness movement is a transcendental outreach program unparalleled anywhere in the world."

In the section of Who Are They? entitled "A Worldwide Congregation", Krishna's congregation--legal secretaries, surgeons, biochemists, ordinary folks--are depicted. ISKCON's Southwestern U.S. Regional Membership Director, Rose Forkash, writes:

"With a worldwide congregational membership well over six million, the Hare Krishna movement has a growing responsibility. We are committed both to our rapdily expanding membership and to nonmembers in all walks of life...

"Whatever you do, whatever your age, race, sex, or religious affiliation, the Hare Krishna movement can offer you many benefits. If you do nothing more than chant the Hare Krishna mantra, you're already closer to spiritual success."

In an introductory pamphlet entitled Krishna Consciousness at Home: a Practicial Guide, Mahatma dasa (ACBSP) cites Bhagavad-gita 2.40, concluding: "The beauty of Krishna consciousness is that you can take as much as you are ready for. Krishna Himself promises in the Bhagavad-gita, 'There is no loss or diminution in this endeavor, and even a little advancement on this path protects one from the greatest type of fear.'"

In Bhagavad-gita 13.26, Lord Krishna Himself speaks favorably of neophyte devotees: "Again there are those who, although not conversant in spiritual knowledge, begin to worship the Supreme Person upon hearing about Him from others. Because of their tendency to hear from authorities, they also transcend the path of birth and death."

Satsvarupa dasa Goswami suggests that Srila Prabhupada would have preferred that his fallen disciples step down and serve Lord Krishna in a lower ashram, as congregational members, rather than completely fall away and return to sinful activities; just as Srila Prabhupada allows fallen sannyassis to step down and serve as grihastas. In Prabhupada Nectar 5.31, Satsvarupa Maharaja writes:

"Prabhupda once spoke...about disciples who fell away from their vows. He said he was simply trying to engage everyone-- fools, rascals, thieves, anyone--to spread Krishna Consciousness. He said that if a disciple could not maintain himself as a sannyassi, then he should change his ashram, but he should not live as a hypocrite.

"Prabhupada then said if the spiritual master continues to accept his fallen disciple, then Krishna would accept him also, and that in time he could again take sannyassa. Prabhupada mentioned how he had allowed two of his fallen sannyassi disciples to become grihastas rather than send them away. But he said it was a shameful position.

"Prabhupada said that his own godbrothers and every sannyassi in India criticized him for holding brahmana and sannyassa initiations in the West, for installing Deities there, and for allowing women to live in temples. He then said that for all of that, he was expanding Krishna Consciousness, and for all their strictness, the others were doing nothing.

Back in 1986, when Srila Ramesvara fell from his vows, San Diego, CA temple president Badri Narayan dasa (ACBSP) told me that it's stated throughout the Chaitanya Charitamrita and other Vedic literatures that a guru should only take on a small number of disciples, like Jesus and the apostles, because he has to take on their karma; suffer for their sins. Badri said a jagat-guru like Srila Prabhupada could take on 10,000 disciples worldwide, but that Srila Prabhupada's own disciples are not qualified to do this.

Badri's words led me to conclude that the vast majority of worshippers in ISKCON ought to be serving in the laity, as congregational members, rather than in the clergy (as brahmanas, or priests).

In July 1988, the ISKCON World Review ran an editorial entitled "Flexibility in a Changing ISKCON". It read:

"While striving for pure states of Krishna Consciousness, we face the reality that most future ISKCON members will belong to its 'laity', rather than its 'clergy'. Even now it appears that most ISKCON members, initiated or otherwise, live outside the temples...

"Today, few temples are large enough to accommodate even the initiated devotees--especially those wifh families living in the immediate vicinity...In addition, the movement will have to adjust to the increasing number of members, many of whom may not accept initiation for many years, if at all in this lifetime.

"More defined policies will be needed for congregational members, and more training needed to recruit them. Then there are devotees whose commitment to devotional standards or service may have slackened. They should be encouraged by example and friendship. We should remember that once one returns to strict observance, 'he is to be considered saintly', according to Bhagavad-gita.

"As distinctions between devotees living in ISKCON centers and those living outside them become less pronounced, and the differences in classifications of congregational members become less important, we tend to regard the 'outside' or nondevotee world from a more compassionate perspective.

"Moving towards the end of this century, we find that the house that Srila Prabhupada built is indeed greater than that of the traditional temple environs. Our capacity to adjust to this fact will help ease ISKCON through its present phase of transition."

In an interview with the ISKCON World Review in September 1988, Rohininandana dasa (ACBSP) described the emerging relationship between clergy and congregation in the nama-hatta ("marketplace of the holy name") programs:

"It's a two-way street. And as one friend requests another, we may also say, 'We need you; it's your temple, and we're your servants. We're trying to keep the temple clean and to a high devotional standard, but financially we're unable to maintain it. We're prepared to live very simply and austerely, so please help us now.' When they feel our genuine fellowship, they will be inspired, and their faith in the Krishna Consciousness Movement will increase.

"Some people might wonder if more stress on congregational preaching may lead to watering down Krishna Consciousness. They may think that unless one gets strict training when they join, they won't make advancement. But it's the temple devotees who have the responsibility of being strict and not watered down. They must keep the spiritual atmosphere strong, then the nama-hatta members will have an example to look up and aspire for.

"Perhaps we were living in a dream, thinking that the temple was the center of the earth. We have to understand that we're small and need all the help we can get.

"If we really concentrate on developing our Krishna consciousness in the temples and congregations, then healthy devotional creepers will grow. I envision many people--thousands of people--taking up Krishna Consciousness in their own homes."

Ravindra Svarupa dasa, recognized even in the anti-cult book, Monkey on a Stick, as one of the leaders of reform in ISKCON, reflects upon Srila Prabhupada's purport to Bhagavad-gita 12.10 on page 31 of the November 1991 issue of Back to Godhead:

"In commenting on the twelfth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Srila Prabhupada makes it really clear that the Hare Krishna movement is in principle made up of three groups of people:

"Krishna says, 'Surrender unto Me.' So first are those who are spontaneously attracted to surrender to Krishna.

"Then Krishna says, 'If you can't do that, follow the regulative principles of devotional service.' And in the purport Srila Prabhupada makes it clear what this means: rising early, taking a shower, going to the morning program, and so on, under the supervision of the spiritual master. So those who do this are in the second group.

"Then Krishna says, 'If you can't do that, then work for Me.' And Srila Prabhupada says that this means that at least one should be sympathetic to the propagation of Krishna Consciousness. Every organization requires land, capital, labor, and organization, so you can contribute one of these things. Those who do this are in the third group.

"These three groups make up the Hare Krishna movement. So there's absolutely nothing wrong with the movement's having all kinds of people who aren't following the strict regulative principles. Where we have a problem is with people who have at one time or another taken formal vows to follow the principles of the second group and then found themselves unable to keep them."

Volume 3 or Priti-laksanam: A Forum for Vashnava Discussion (July 1992), contains a letter from Aditi dasi of ISKCON Berkeley entitled "Concerning Sexuality". She writes:

"I'd like to approach an area in which I think ISKCON must reassess its position. This concerns sexuality and how it affects our concepts concerning community and congregation. Of all the regulative principles, there seems to be one which gives most of the people difficulty, most of the time: No illicit sex. And if we see many of our godbrothers and godsisters no longer living in the temple or even associating with temple devotees, it is very likely that this restriction is one of the causes of that separation.

"I think we need to become more mature in our conception of ISKCON. Just as other religions have their priests/priestess hierarchial branches, they also have their lay community or congregation. Although the lay community is encouraged to follow the high standards of the priestly class, they are not rejected if they do not. And from what we see in ISKCON as well as in other celibate religious orders, it is a very difficult position and not many are able to maintain it over longer periods of time.

"When someone was having difficulty in this way, Prabhupada did not say, 'Well you should leave.' He would say, 'Well, perhaps you should marry. But in whatever ashrama you are please push on this movement. Please be Krishna conscious and give it to others.' "

In 1994, I posted Ravindra Svarupa prabhu's statement that ISKCON doesn't have a problem with all kinds of people who aren't following the strict regulative principles, only with disciples who have fallen from their vows, on COM, the ISKCON computer bulletin board service at the time. Urmila dasi (ACBSP), ISKCON's first female guru, and author of According to Religious Principles and Vaikuntha Children, went one step further: she said ISKCON doesn't even have a problem with fallen disciples, as long as they don't put themselves on the same level with disciples in good standing.

My friend and godbrother from the San Diego FOLK ("Friends Of Lord Krishna") program, Rankin Fisher, a former Missionary Baptist minister, said that in America one first joins his or her religious institution and then proceeds to support it financially and/or through service. He noted that temple authorities really can't turn to their "congregations" (the regular Sunday Feast attendants and festival crowds) for support, because these people have no formal standing in ISKCON. The "clergy" (initiates) are the only ones who really belong to ISKCON.

One devotee, a former Ramesvara disciple named Chakravarti dasa, understood what Rankin was saying. "Inititation is comparable to being ordained," Chakravarti observed. "And we (ISKCON) have been treating it as though it were a baptism." I told Chakravarti, "I don't want to see the temple become a factory for producing blooped devotees."

Rankin told me he was convinced that Krishna Consiousness could easily become as widespread and influential in the United States as an evangelical Christian denomination of several million people ("your [Krishna conscious] theology could be compared to that of certain heretical Christian sects, like the Mormons, or the Jehovah's Witnesses, and to some extent, the Unitarians", observed my friend Tim Parks, a Protestant missionary, now preaching in China. Rankin said we need only establish some kind of ceremony (not a fire sacrifice nor an initiation ceremony, but rather the Vedic equivalent of a baptism), giving neophytes tulasi beads and japa beads, to mark one's entry into the devotional community (without being formally initiated) into a lower echelon of service: a laity. And the laity would consist of the uninitiated and fallen disciples, following at least three of the four regs, and which would allow for things like birth control and divorce among congregational members (Srila Prabhupada said only sudras divorce and remarry; not the brahmanas, not the priests).

Rankin is merely advocating varnasharma-dharma! This is what Srila Prabhupada wanted to establish, after having successfully established a class of brahmanas to guide civilization for the next 10,000 years. I think also establishing a formal laity within ISKCON would diffuse anti-cult criticism and attacks. In his 1987 book, The Dark Lord: Cult Images and the Hare Krishnas, Dr. Larry Shinn writes:

"It is not surprising that the Krishnas' chanting raises suspicions among worried parents or persons who are unaware of the Indian context out of which this practice comes. Chanting is one way of focusing the mind's attention as Christian monks and nuns who practice the 'Jesus Prayer' know. Since ISKCON began primarily as a monastic tradition in America, and one that demanded complete surrender to the religious path, it is a mistake to compare ISKCON's life and practices with those of Protestant Christianity or Reform Judaism, which do not require--except in lip service--a full twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week religious lifestyle.

"Congregational Christianity and Judaism are quite distant from their own monastic traditions that require the undivided attention to the religious life that ISKCON does in its devotional practices. Nonetheless, anticult critics continually insist on viewing the deity worship and chanting of Krishna devotees as fanatical devotion caused by malevolent manipulation."

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that most of the second generation Krishna devotees now lead secular lives. Instead of ostracizing these so-called "Vaikuntha children" for failing to follow all four regulative principles and chant a full 16 rounds every day for the rest of their lives, we should instead encourage them to serve in ISKCON--as congregational members.

In other mainstream religious denominations, very few people ever take on the lifelong vows of clergy and become priests or rabbis. The vast majority of worshippers serve in the laity as congregational members. In Vedic civilization, too, the brahmanas were few in number, yet were supported by the rest of society. Congregationalism apppears to be a reflection of varnashamra-dharma, consequently it would be the most effective organizational structure for ISKCON (and perhaps all other branches of the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith) to adopt.

Vasu Murti
(ISKCON Life Member since 1988)
Oakland, CA