Chakra Discussions

The Protection of Our Elderly- Who is Responsible?

by Niscala dasi

Posted June 23, 2010

As lifespan increases, and as the “baby boomers” near retirement age, many countries of the world, who think it is important, are straining under the weight of supporting their elderly. We also have our “baby boomers” – those who joined ISKCON at age 17-25 in the boom time of ISKCON: Prabhupada’s time, and shortly after. A huge number of devotees are now entering their sixties, and are reaching a very vulnerable point in their lives. If they have achieved a position of authority in ISKCON, their financial security is assured. If they left ISKCON while still young, and pursued education and career, again, they are assured of financial security, and may even be quite wealthy, as their superannuation matures... But a great number of devotees gave up all chance of career to surrender to this movement and to do humble and menial services, being not ambitious. They are now at the mercy of various temples, not all of which are compassionate to the needs of the elderly, and even fewer, ready to give them practical assistance. Usually they demand either rent, or full-time active service, which devotees as they age, having never had a career, find less and less possible.

Why did such devotees make no plans, whatsoever, for their retirement, and what is it about our movement, that we feel no responsibility for them? Is there any justification, in our philosophy, for such a situation?

Krsna’s Care of His Devotees

Many devotees, in their vibrant and gullible youth, were preached to that “if you just surrender, Krsna will take care of you!” They believed it, and we believe it, but how does that care-taking happen? Is it like in the Bible- as in manna, falling from heaven? Or maybe, it is like what happened to Sudhama brahmana- you just walk back home and voila’, a palace is there!

Of course, sometimes Krsna does act personally in His devotees’ lives, through a miracle or by divine intercession, but more often, in the normal course of events, He acts through His devotees- those souls on the planet whose will is lined up with His own. Such devotees do not pass on their own responsibilities to the Lord, until all their own energy is exhausted in carrying out His will- His service. Arjuna, before the war of Kuruksetra, wanted Krsna to do the fighting for him- but when enlightened by Bhagavad gita, he took on the responsibility himself, without personal motivation… executing His mission of “vinasaya ca duskritam”

In the manner of “paritranaya sadhunam”, Yuddhistira after the Kuruksetra war, did not have the attitude towards the war widows "Krsna will take care of them" but arranged for their maintenance, meticulously… Arjuna, when escorting Krsna's widows, did not think "Krsna will take care of them" but did everything he could to protect them. Ksatriyas are extremely protective of the vulnerable and defenseless, of women, children and the elderly. They saw themselves as instruments of the Lord- His arms. They knew the Lord could protect anyone personally, who surrendered, but they wanted to act on the Lord’s behalf. It is like seeing someone cleaning the house, and you pick up a cloth to do their work for them. This is service in friendship.

Why then does the Lord declare that He will protect His devotees? Judging from the examples of vaisnava behavior, described above, the stress is not to encourage us to avoid taking responsibility for others, but to challenge oneself- to test one’s faith in the Lord. When the Pandavas were elderly, they left home and, completely unprotected, they headed for the dangerous slopes of the Himalayas, and left their bodies in that way. So a devotee doesn't care for material arrangements for his own protection, trusting in Krsna, but when it comes to others, especially Krsna's devotees, he is very careful to make all arrangements for them.

Faith and Service

There are two situations here- Krsna’s protection of oneself, and Krsna’s protection of others. For us, the first situation is about faith, the second about service. Instead, we often use claims of faith to avoid service. When it comes to our own security, we make all arrangements, forgetting that Krsna will protect us, but when it comes to the security of others who have surrendered their lives to the Lord’s service, we then like to quote “Krsna will protect”, thereby exhibiting a lack of service attitude, what to speak of vaisnava compassion, and all the while using “faith in Krsna’s protection” as a way of shielding from guilt and responsibility. As far as Krsna's protection is concerned, following the Pandavas, we should never say "Krsna will take care of you/them" but only "Krsna will take care of me".

Such an attitude pleases the Lord, whereby we can be assured of His protection. On the other hand, why should Krsna take care of us, now or at the time of death, when we do not take care of others? When we are so helpless on our deathbeds, will we remember all those occasions when we neglected those in a helpless situation? Even if we do not remember, Krsna certainly will, as the Witness within. Even if we are calling out to Him, He will surely hide from our sight, because in the past we neglected those who needed us. One needs to be a fish, a creature of the water, to enter water. Similarly, one needs to be godly, like God, to enter God's kingdom. Krsna is known as the shelter of surrendered souls. We have to be so, too.

A Common Objection

It may be argued that temples are transcendental shelters for the fallen souls, and therefore ensuring their financial security by demanding rent or full-time service from all the residents, regardless of circumstances, benefits the world, even if it forces those who are devoted- but too poor to give money, or too old to do active service- out on the street. So it may be argued that we are not putting our own security before others, but “seeing the wider picture”. The wider picture, however, includes people’s perceptions of us, and they perceive much more than just the opulence of the temple. If people visit the temple and see a caring dynamic going on there, with the elderly and vulnerable respected, honored and cared for, they are more likely to appreciate us, listen to us, imbibe the philosophy, become devotees themselves, and thereafter, maybe for a lifetime, support the temple through contributions from their wages, as our Indian congregation do, or by selling books and paraphernalia. On the other hand, if we are cold and exploitative of people who have offered their whole lives to this movement, how much more so will we be to the people we are preaching to? They will certainly perceive that our words are nothing more than empty rhetoric, devoid of sincerity. People may be ignorant, but they are not stupid.

Some Short and Medium Term Solutions

A short term solution is to expose the injustice and make devotees aware of the extent of the problem, so that we each feel responsible for our elderly and senior devotees . That is practical compassion- an essential vaisnava quality. A medium term solution is to pressure the GBC to pass a resolution that no devotee who has given their "best" years to ISKCON- i.e. the years they could have spent in economic development and sense gratification- be neglected in time of need. There is now a hospice in Vrindavan for the terminally ill, at least we have that. We also need facilities for those not quite at that stage- for those who can no longer do active service or give money to ISKCON. It should be enough that the elderly chant the Holy Name, which is active service, but not one we benefit from! They can also greet guests and be friendly to them.

There needs to be a GBC resolution that every temple offer facility to elderly devotees, regardless of whether they can presently give active service or money, and the only thing required of them is that they be friendly and talk to guests, and chant. If the temple does not have facility, then the temple leaders should be required -by GBC resolution- to canvass the local devotee community for someone with a spare room, or if not then make inquiries from other temples. Providing facility for senior devotees should be seen by every community as important as chanting 16 rounds, distributing books, making festivals etc. We need to value our elderly devotees.

The long term solution is to have varnashrama, because protection of old people is enshrined in the responsibilities of the ksatriya leader. As Krsna cares for the even the devotees’ material needs, as well as providing inspiration within, so in varnashrama, the ksatriyas act as the Lord’s arms, providing shelter, and the brahmanas act as the Lord’s mouth, providing guidance. In varnashrama, material needs for every member are provided by the sudras, vaisyas and ksatriyas, and in respect to ashrama, the elderly are honored as vanaprasthis and vanaprasthas- a stage just before sannyasa. As a temple would offer all facility to a sannyasi- even one who wanted to stay permanently- so it should offer all facility to a vanaprasthi. It has always been part of vedic culture that husband-less women are taken care of, even if it is at a huge strain to the economy, such as after a war.

What About the Son/s?

Ideally, the son should take care of the mother in his house, but not all women have sons, not all have sons who can afford it, and many do not have devotee sons who think it is important, being influenced by western culture…if the devotee mother had lived in India, neglecting preaching in the west, she might have been spared this danger, but she took the risk- that is surrender. The fact is, however, both in the East and in the West, many of the grown sons of devotee women think that their mothers should be taken care of by ISKCON, as the mothers were probably dedicated more to ISKCON than to family matters, and the sons may be bitter towards ISKCON due to past childhood abuses.

Besides, all men in ISKCON are required to view women, other than their wives, as mothers, so they are behooved to support them . Viewing all women as mother is required to avoid sexual exploitation, but there are other types of exploitation that no mother should be subject to, such as profiting from her dependency. It appears that the loving and respectful terminology of “prabhu” and “mataji” that Prabhupada introduced has now lost all meaning, and the lessons of the sastras, such as Mahabharata reduced to merely entertainment, with nothing learnt.

We have the philosophy, and the examples of the acaryas in how to execute the philosophy, translate it into practical action. This is so we do not misuse the philosophy for our personal motivations. Prabhupada described us as apprentices. An apprentice does not stop with knowing that his master uses a certain tool, say a spanner, he needs to know how the master uses the spanner. He does not use the spanner to hit heads, or knock teeth out, for example. So the apprentice must carefully observe how his predecessor uses his tools. Our acaryas never used the concept of Krsna’s protection to be callous to senior devotees or even vulnerable citizens. It is only to be used on oneself- to try to please the Lord, even if doing so will threaten one’s security. Throwing mundane calculation to the wind, we need to take risks so that others are protected from risk, and given shelter.