Waiting for ISKCON’s Martin Luther
Posted December 25, 2009
Dawn: Luther at Erfurt, by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, from National Galleries of Scotland (detail). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Sivarama Swami, ISKCON GBC representative for Hungary and an initiating guru, presented his thoughts on the matter of ISKCON membership in a recent presentation titled "What is ISKCON, and who is a member of ISKCON?" In his presentation Sivarama Maharaja cited some of the obligations of ISKCON membership as: accepting the GBC as one's ultimate spiritual and managerial authority (in terms of ISKCON issues); being connected to ISKCON's line of authority; accepting initiation from a member of ISKCON -- in other words, chanting sixteen rounds and following the four regulative principles; being subject to the disciplinary and judicial system of ISKCON; giving 10 percent of one's income to the Society, and not divorcing one's spouse.
In reporting the proceedings of that GBC meeting, ISKCON News Weekly cautiously observed: "The feedback to date seems to indicate that the 'membership issue' needs delicate handling -- or it may divide more than it unites."
Indeed, several devotees have already submitted heartfelt objections that this definition is too narrow. Babhru prabhu notes that such a narrow definition of membership "…strikes many devotees as an outline of a plan for further reducing ISKCON's membership and consequently its influence. I'm looking for a reason to disagree with that assessment. Can someone throw me a line?"
I'm also one of those who would certainly be excluded from ISKCON by this narrow definition (to start with, I'd be homeless if I had to donate 10 percent of my meager income to ISKCON) but I'm also a person who greatly admires the work that Sivarama Maharaja is doing in terms of Varnasrama community development. Since he is a devotee whom I admire, I just have to think: maybe he is actually correct in his assessment. When ISKCON the institution gets into some difficulty, who is going to have to suffer the headache of solving its problems? It's certainly not going to be me. It's going to be devotees like Sivarama Swami who have assumed management and leadership roles. They are really ISKCON in the most practical sense.
So instead of protesting that this will divide ISKCON and further reduce ISKCON's membership, perhaps it is time to simply accept this as a perspective that has been brewing in ISKCON for a long time. Maybe we have to stop fighting the battle to change that. Let it evolve as it will. Instead, perhaps it is time turn our own attention to serious consideration of how we can develop alternative forms of Krsna consciousness that are more inclusive and, most importantly, will be far more effective in spreading Krsna consciousness to the broadest spectrum of people in the world.
In this respect, I feel like I am waiting for ISKCON's equivalent of Martin Luther to appear. I feel like ISKCON at present has much in common with the Catholic Church of the 1500s. Basically, only the renounced celibate order of men had spiritual authority and power, but at the same time that order was pervaded by corruption, to such an extent that it became diverted by various money-making schemes and demanding unquestioning obedience from its followers.
Martin Luther (who was, incidentally, a contemporary of Lord Caitanya) effectively challenged the Catholic Church and set up a system which was not dependent on a privileged group of celibates. Although the Catholic Church continued to exist, the Protestant movement was effective in providing a welcoming and acceptable way of being Christian and even of spreading Christianity to others. Certainly both groups had their faults, but it seems that ultimately, the very existence of a different form of Christianity ultimately proved to be an impetus for cleaning up many of the worst abuses in the Catholic Church.
Taking this perspective, we can assess where we are today. We're in a situation where, because of grievous, insufficiently addressed issues of corruption and abuse in our highest officers and spiritual leaders, and because of various money-making schemes (like selling demigod worship) many of us no longer have the confidence to go out and preach, feeling we have no place to refer people should they become interested. Better to simply chant among ourselves. As we get older, we also see that the ISKCON of the present is a place where the majority of our children -- many of whom are going into their third decade of life – will never be able or inspired to get initiated. But if our own children will not get initiated, how many others will?
Yet our children love Krsna; they want to celebrate and worship Krsna, and they actually want to share that love with others. We also identify ourselves first and foremost as devotees of Krsna, regardless of whether or not we are accepted as members of ISKCON. We need some viable, positive, and productive way to express our Krsna consciousness, and that need is simply not being fulfilled by the current institution.
Then there is the matter of time, place and circumstance to consider. We have it on the authority of Lord Caitanya that sannyasa is forbidden in Kali Yuga. Yet Lord Caitanya Himself accepted sannyasa as the most effective means of getting a platform to preach from in His day and age.
In some parts of the world, sannyasa may still provide a compelling platform for preaching from. But it has definitely not proved to be a big draw in the West. On the contrary, due to extensive abuses by the Catholic Church -- not only child abuse, but to a lesser extent its contempt for women, its hatred of gays, and its questionable involvement with wealth and political power -- the celibate order is specifically under great suspicion in the West, and thus provides an obstacle, not a help, in our preaching. The reality is that due to the problems of the Catholic Church, in our efforts to create a celibate order of men invested with special powers, we are attempting to jump onto a discredited and sinking ship.
In ISKCON, in particular, there are not only problems of why women are effectively excluded from positions of spiritual leadership, there are also troubling questions of why various racial and ethnic groups are so severely underrepresented in a religion which claims to be beyond the bodily platform of life. To sum it up, in a practical sense, there seems to be no convincing reason to continue to break the commandment of the Brahma Vaivarta Purana by creating more sannyasis, especially considering Srila Prabhupada's own ambiguity on the institution.
Certainly the practice of having a guru, a personal spiritual master who can advise you and help you in your spiritual life, is one of the great features of Krsna consciousness, as long as it does not become a money-making program for the guru to support himself. But perhaps a scaled-down version would be less susceptible to corruption. Why does the guru have to be the equivalent of a Hollywood star? What about a model which allows for more humility and more individualized instruction, more along the lines of a spiritual advisor or sponsor?
These are just a few thoughts to consider. In closing, I want to make it clear that I don't feel prepared to be the leader in any reform movement. That's why I say I’m waiting for ISKCON's Martin Luther. I don't think I could provide such leadership personally, but there must be someone with enough devotion, integrity, intelligence, and humility who could create a vehicle in which the propagation of Krsna consciousness could better thrive.
I also want to say that I'm not casting aspersions on all our sannyasis. There are many wonderful sannyasis who have helped this movement, and many kind sannyasis who have helped me and my family personally.
But unfortunately, many sannyasis have created some very, very deep hurts in our society, and maybe it's time to simply end the bitterness, doubt, shock and pain. Perhaps we can take devotees like Sivarama Maharaja seriously and realize that this is the wake-up call that we need to end our pleas for justice and inclusion in ISKCON, and simply start something else. ISKCON won't die without us. In the end, it could be the start of a more healthy development in Krsna consciousness both for us and for ISKCON.