Sentimental reunion vs. local reality
Posted June 4, 2005
Like many godsisters and brothers, I felt encouraged by the reconciliation gesture from ISKCON's "Srila Prabhupada Family Reunion Committee", receiving invitations from Yadubara das, HH Jayadvaita Swami [BBT] and Nrismhanandana das [ITV]. Pilgrimage to Mayapura would be uplifting, and I imagined the pleasure of reconnecting with friends with whom I had served throughout my 35 years in Srila Prabhupada's service. Unable to attend the global family get-together, I began the "back to home, back to ISKCON" journey by attending the local ISKCON temple in Portland with my wife Jahnava and a bhakta friend.
At first, we were greeted warmly. In rotation with other devotees, I was invited to present the Sunday feast lecture, and everyone present seemed appreciative. For several weeks, with renewed enthusiasm, we attended every Sunday. Once, after having helped for two days to repaint the temple, it was my turn to give the Sunday lecture. In the office after the program, the board members (Brhad Bala das, Brhad Mrdanga das, Govardhana das and Seva Priya devi dasi) treated me to a stream of accusations. They seemed unwilling to hear that my devotional service wasn't ill-motivated.
In full compliance with ISKCON's position relating to their
ecclesiastical rivals, the ritvik and BV Narayana Maharaja camps, I
pointed to articles on my website, www.HareKrsna.com
Eventually, the board prohibited my giving classes or lectures, based not upon my philosophical statements, but only on the nebulous excuse that "we don't know you well enough". Before this meeting, however, many temple community members had expressed appreciation to my wife and me for the "older devotee association". Although I had held responsible ISKCON posts over a 20-year period, board members claimed that I wasn't a bona fide ISKCON member and that if I continued attending temple programs, my every word and action would be scrutinized. Would anyone looking for spiritual enlivenment attend programs under such conditions?
HH Bir Krishna das Goswami agreed to meet with me, but wrote: "I will not get into any philosophical debate or discussion. I will leave that up to devotees like Hridayananda Maharaja." Govardhana das sat in on the meeting to represent the board. Seva-Priya dasi had printed out an example of "offensive utterances" from my website. Bir Krishna Maharaja focused on a Dharma Mela posting about the passing of HH Tamal Krishna Goswami, saying this article had "pierced [his] heart".
Throughout our two-hour conversation, we assumed the article was presently online and accessible. Returning home, I discovered that the article had been written in April 2002 and posted behind a security wall to which one could only gain password access by registering and signing a user agreement. The post in question was only online for three months, because the Dharma Mela forum was discontinued on June 1. Bir Krishna das Goswami stated that current GBC policy is to "forget the past that sleeps", and I believe this article should properly have been considered a part of the 'sleeping past'.
My understanding of Bir Krishna Maharaja's position is that an ISKCON member must not broadcast opinions that could disturb the minds of the followers of diksa gurus or other important ISKCON officials. Though he conceded that many institutional insiders share many of my opinions, and that nothing he saw on my website was factually incorrect, I had broken the cardinal rule of confidentiality: everything potentially controversial remains private amongst one's godbrothers/sisters, on the principle that political party faithful never criticize their public leaders, nor do institutional employees publicly criticize their bosses. He backed up the Portland board's decision 100 percent. I remain persona non grata at ISKCON Portland.
This experience illustrates the dynamic faced by Prabhupada's disciples attempting to re-involve themselves in ISKCON. Whether attending the Prabhupada Family Reunion festival or one's local temple, one is faced with reality hurdles at the grassroots level. We hear a familiar refrain from many quarters these days: "rest assured, things are much better now". At ISKCON Portland, I found newcomers or uncommitted visitors being looked upon with less suspicion than a godbrother of their spiritual master, dressed in dhoti and tilaka.
The Family Reunion Committee welcomes former ISKCON devotees with pleasing words: "It is natural that after Srila Prabhupada's disappearance, our family faced difficulties, and the most unfortunate outcome of those difficulties is the distancing of some of our dear family members. . . . All members of our ISKCON family are humbly requested to attend, with a special invitation to those who may not currently play an active role in the society." I do not believe that Bir Krishna das Goswami adequately embodied this kind-hearted, welcoming mood in his conversation with me.
Attending the Prabhupada Family Reunion festival and becoming enlivened doesn't translate back to the long-term, day-to-day grassroots reality. For many, associating with Srila Prabhupada's followers can only be realized by regularly attending a local temple. Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu defined a Vaisnava as "one who associates with other Vaisnavas."
My experience illustrates that the original crisis dynamics of the Zonal Acarya era are still pervasive. Philosophical discrepancies at the root of this chronic illness have never, I think, been addressed by ISKCON. The well-meaning GBC promoting love and trust speak sunny words, but their mood apparently doesn't translate to the temple level.
The source of this vexation is the discordant concept of GBC versus diksa gurus. Some diksa gurus consent to be seen as pure, empowered representatives of past Acaryas. When their mistakes become public, they beg forgiveness by confessing that they are only sincere, fallible servants. This is also the case here in Portland, where the disciples of Prithu das struggle to make sense of this inconsistency.
Some diksa gurus have convinced their disciples that departed 'family feud' victims are only spiritual weaklings, "bloopers", "fringies" and deserters. While Srila Prabhupada beseeched disciples to continue participating in ISKCON "through thick or thin", broadcasting this message under present circumstances, as if we were still in Prabhupada's ISKCON-lila period, is disingenuous. I doubt the reciting of new-age clichés such as "put the past behind us and look forward" will rectify wrongs and heal the wounded hearts.
Bir Krishna das Goswami informed me that no society-wide rules specify the qualifications required of a returning Srila Prabhupada disciple. Decisions are left to local authorities, who are likely to be disciples of the returning member's godbrothers. If one such grand-disciple finds anything in one's past that he or she construes as "offensive", one should prepare for an inquisition. It reminds me of McCarthyism, but in the ISKCON scenario, neophytes may sit as judge and jury and there is no protection of freedom of the press, expression or religion.
The odds seem stacked against Srila Prabhupada disciples getting a fair shake at ISKCON temples. In consequence, many North American temples are becoming "hindu-ized", a single guru's matha/asrama, or are dwindling into oblivion. A recent ISKCON campaign aims to stem this tide -- the Spiritual Strategic Planning Team (SSPT). Sadly, not one of the 53 SSPT initiatives suggests attracting previously trained, committed followers of Srila Prabhupada. Though a stated goal is to rekindle the enthusiasm manifest during Prabhupada's physical presence, re-involving those who were actually active participants in his ISKCON-lila does not appear to be of enough interest to merit inclusion as a named initiative.
Gopal Bhatta prabhu's primary qualification for leading the SSPT is his successful entrepreneurial ventures. In many respects, ISKCON's corporate structure parallels a business franchise. Unfortunately, in ISKCON, no written contracts set boundaries of how each branch may publicly present itself, as is the case with franchises. The SSPT aims to protect ISKCON's public image and continuity, yet offers no definition of what constitutes membership, which is inherent to continuity. Until devotee lawyers work with the GBC to produce a professional document which unambiguously sets forth the qualifications for ISKCON membership, we can expect that others will face the same situation as I did at ISKCON Portland.
No one in the GBC or SSPT is facing up to the fundamental 28-year problem of how to superimpose diksa guru/disciple relationships onto temple management. Many of Prabhupada's disciples and senior temple authorities reluctantly left ISKCON, frustrated at trying to manage under this impossible scenario. Will the GBC and SSPT cling to a traditional Vedic system like the Gaudiya Matha, or to a western institutional paradigm based on democracy and transparency? The present ISKCON managerial system is a hybrid unworkable in North America. The SSPT will fall short of its lofty goal of "rekindling the enthusiasm manifest during Srila Prabhupada's physical presence" until the GBC addresses their clashing dual power structure.
This question lies at the root of the declining North American Temple problem: In the minds of initiated temple members, who has the ultimate authority -- their diksa Guru or the local authority representing the GBC? Mere managerial manipulation by the SSPT will not bring about our common goal. I wish the organizers of SSPT success in their undertaking, but wonder if it is possible without dealing with the issue of unclear 'ultimate' authority.
While Bir Krishna das Goswami admitted having uncovered nothing factually untrue on my website, he equated brahminical behaviour with speaking only sweet words. Though agreeing with some of my complaints, he explained that official participation in ISKCON -- even giving classes in a small temple -- is equivalent to being a Bush administration cabinet member; Govardhana das compared it to being a member of the US Army (which he is). No one can criticize President George W. Bush.
Srila Prabhupada, however, says: "The first qualification of a brahmana is that he's truthful. He'll disclose everything, even to his enemy. He'll never hide anything." (Conversation, June 26, 1976). Thrown out of ISKCON after Prabhupada's departure were the most brahminical Pradyumna das and Yasodanandana das, who spoke out truthfully against the infamous Zonal Acarya system. If you are a truth-speaking brahmana today, you are apparently still not welcomed in ISKCON.
Being Canadian by birth, I like this letter sent by Srila Prabhupada in 1968 to the Governor General of Canada, wherein he concisely defines his ISKCON, declaring that ISKCON opposes dogmatic wranglings by providing clear theistic knowledge and practice. Is this the ISKCON of today?
"The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a non-lucrative organization, whose purpose is to promote the well-being of human society by drawing its attention to God. We are a non-sectarian society, and our members include people from Christian, Jewish and Moslem as well as Hindu faiths. The aim of ISKCON is not to found a new religious sect, but to invoke the living entity's dormant love of God, and thus provide the human society of all faiths with a common platform of clear theistic knowledge and practice. Members of ISKCON may retain their own respective religious faiths, as ISKCON is meant to establish a clear, practical common formulation of the common ideal of all theists, and to defeat the unnecessary dogmatic wranglings that now divide and invalidate the theistic camp. This common ideal of theism is to develop love of God."
Perhaps some power brokers may be motivated by this essay to institute necessary changes in ISKCON. As stated by the SSPT, we all hanker for the original spiritual atmosphere found in Srila Prabhupada's ISKCON. It's not that power corrupts; it's the fear of losing power. This is deafeningly amplified when the power is absolute.
[Please visit the Krsna Blog
for ongoing discussion of this issue.]