Hoping for Honest Abe
Posted January 1, 2010
I was sorry to see the frustration and disillusionment with the whole ISKCON project that Hare Krishna dasi seemed to be expressing. Even though I've never met Hare Krishna prabhu face to face, my first reaction upon reading her article was to want to go visit her wherever she lives and try to reassure her and listen sympathetically to her complaints. Surely her frustration must be due to a whole series of bad experiences and not only from one suggestion about "membership" raised by H.H. Sivarama Swami at a European GBC meeting, which seems to have been not very well received by many major ISKCON constituencies and probably is not likely to be adopted or enforced. Hopefully Sivarama Swami's proposal will spark some constructive dialogue, as it already seems to be doing.
The whole topic of "membership" — what it means to "belong" to ISKCON and who can legitimately feel they have a stake in ISKCON and a say in making it a success — is something very important for us to discuss and understand thoroughly. I participated in an informal "membership" subcommittee of the ISKCON Constitution project, chaired by Pancaratna Prabhu, which opted for a very inclusive definition of membership. (I wish Hare Krishna and Niscala had participated in those email discussions). I would love to talk to Sivarama Swami, if he had time, about his motivations for adopting a more exclusive approach. He is a transcendental personality and I am sure he had some worthy reasons.
Niscala's proposal, that we recognize different kinds of membership, and try to fit them into the framework of the four varnas as Srila Prabhupada suggested in certain famous conversations, should be taken very seriously. At least it seems we should recognize the reality that ISKCON has a variety of different kinds of members with different levels of commitment and acceptance of the authority of ISKCON leaders to govern their lives. [I recently read and enjoyed Niscala prabhu's book Varnasrama Dharma, the Eight-Petaled Lotus, which devotees can buy by writing her at email@example.com]
I hope ISKCON is grown up enough by now that we can start to address controversial topics (such as the practical application of varnasrama dharma in the contemporary world), in a patient, cool-headed, constructive and beneficial way, recognizing that there will be differences of opinion and room to change our minds as we go along with our discussions and with the actions that arise from those discussions.
Sometimes I am not sure, though. We still seem to have serious communication problems. We are accustomed to the sublime, "descending" model of receiving perfect knowledge from an unimpeachable source, but many of us are uncomfortable with the kind of "ascending", pragmatic, tentative decision-making in the face of uncertainty that sometimes faces us in carrying out our practical service. We need to be able to properly distinguish between the two and recognize when it is okay (or even necessary) to use the latter.
We already do it, all the time, and even Srila Prabhupada changed his mind as he observed how his disciples responded to his instructions. The trick of managing devotees is to find how to constructively engage them in what they are willing and able to do according to their degrees of qualification and personalities, so that they may be happily inspired from within to offer some voluntary, favorable service to Krishna and not to feel that they are being dominated and forced against their wills by leaders who do not care about their feelings. It takes sensitivity and agility to do correctly. It is nice to see how Vaisesika prabhu does it at ISKCON Silicon Valley in San Jose, California.
It may not easily fit into a one-size-fits-all scheme, and things may be done correctly but very differently in India, Hungary, England, Argentina or California. Even within California, there may be several different models of organization that work well but are quite different from one another. Generally, strong inspirational leadership seems to be required to help pull a community together and keep the devotees enthusiastic. We are pragmatic. Srila Prabhupada said, "We judge by the results," but we have to be intelligent enough to at least recognize and appreciate what counts as successful results, and how they were achieved.
ISKCON is very different today than it was in 1977, and it was very different in 1977 than it was in 1967. It has been growing, which is positive. We hope it continues to grow in membership, influence, purity, wisdom and effectiveness, and we expect and hope it will be different (and more successful) by 2027, and again by 2057. The world will continue to change too, and we hope ISKCON can help the world change in positive directions, and will learn how to adapt and respond to such changes, while maintaining the purity and authenticity of Srila Prabhupada's teachings.
Many devotees have found they cannot or will not continue to live a lifestyle of complete "surrender" to ISKCON authorities as they did when they lived in temples or other communal ashram environments. We might at first regard this as negative, but it is better to accept this reality and find ways to accommodate them and move forward. In many ways a society of people all living together in cult-like communes, afraid that even the exposure to "karmis" of having an outside job might undermine our faith, was an unnatural and unsustainable model. It was an emergency situation because ISKCON was so new and small and Srila Prabhupada needed to create a strong core constituency out of his young disciples, most of whom had little conception of Vedic culture and had not internalized Vedic values.
But Srila Prabhupada did recognize that many devotees were falling down, due to their lack of qualification to be transformed into brahmanas, and he recognized they should still be favorably engaged in service. It is not necessary for them to receive brahmana initiation. Let them remain sudras, but engage them. Not that he wanted them to be anything less than pure Vaisnavas, but he recognized that we must all be engaged according to our actual qualifications, and not everyone was qualified to strictly follow brahminical principles.
As a movement here we are 33 years on, and we have not figured out how to implement this particular instruction. This is not surprising. It is not a simple instruction. The whole idea of what it might mean for some of us to identify ourselves as sudras can be challenging. The idea of trying to impose concepts from an ancient culture into a postmodern society and economy seems artificial if not completely misguided. But it is something Srila Prabhupada asked us to do, and I am sure we can rise to the occasion. It certainly is worth thinking about and discussing, and few devotees have written as much on the subject as Hare Krishna prabhu herself.
Regarding membership, we can observe that Srila Prabhupada did create a kind of membership, Life Membership, which only required the member to give a specific amount of donation to be entitled to certain privileges.
Those who actually tried to dedicate their lives to service in ISKCON in full surrender but who later found they needed to live outside the temple and earn a living in some way still "belong" to ISKCON in important ways. ISKCON is very much a part of them. Srila Prabhupada will never forget their service. They are surely something more than mere Life Members, even if they are not strictly following all the rules. ISKCON leadership needs to listen to them and as far as possible find a way to address their needs.
We can and should discuss all of Sivaram Swami's proposals in greater detail, but I do not want to make this much longer than it already is.
Acceptance of the authority of the GBC seems to have bothered Hare Krishna Dasi, but she may be taking it wrong. It does not mean the GBC is infallible or has a direct, absolutely clear understanding Krishna's desires in all circumstances. It merely means that the corporate ISKCON, which is very dear to Srila Prabhupada (having been described as his body), is not governed by a single pope or elected acarya, nor by appeal to elections by the general congregation, but by a collegial body of senior devotees, as was clearly established by Srila Prabhupada and as was desired by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur Prabhupada for the governance of Gaudiya Math after his departure. When a decision has to be taken by ISKCON and for ISKCON, the ultimate decider of such ISKCON questions is the GBC. The GBC may get something wrong (we hope they don't), but loyal ISKCON members should accept the legitimacy of the GBC as having the jurisdiction to make such decisions. That should be straightforward.
And for its part, the GBC should take great care to preserve and maintain its legitimacy in the hearts of ISKCON members by giving them a sense that their needs, interests and concerns will be taken into account and be given a hearing in accordance with some reasonable and fair process, so that trust is not broken, even if they make unpopular decisions. I think this idea is at least partly what motivated Sesa prabhu to inaugurate the Constitution project. All devotees who care about these issues should participate in the process of reviewing and discussing the proposed draft constitution and talking to their GBC representatives about it, even if ultimately the decision to ratify or not rests with the GBC body itself.
Ideal Vedic kings, though wielding greater powers than the presidents or prime ministers of modern democratic governments, did hold "court" or have "durbars" in which citizens felt free to speak their minds (and not get their heads chopped off). ISKCON has to find the means to do at least this much, so that members feel free and protected, and not frightened, oppressed or disenfranchised.
Of course ISKCON in contemporary society is not a Vedic kingdom. It is not a nation state like France (the example Sivarama Swami used in making his point about rights and responsibilities), nor is it a powerful, hegemonic church like the Catholic Church in Western Europe at the time immediately proceeding the Protestant Reformation (an example used by Hare Krishna dasi).
Although all faithful ISKCON devotees see ISKCON as a very important organization with a great mission to bring Srila Prabhupada's books to the attention of all people of the world so they may be enlightened by Lord Caitanya's divine message, still the basic reality of contemporary ISKCON is that of a relatively small but growing religious organization or church (similar to the Jehovah's Witnesses) or yoga society (similar to, but perhaps bigger and more effective than, the Self Realization Fellowship, TM, or Art of Living). It is not yet as big and wealthy and powerful as the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) or the Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), let alone the gigantic Roman Catholic Church, but with a little intelligence and by the grace of Krishna, anything will be possible. We do have a very important message that can benefit all people, and not only the select few who can participate at a very high level of commitment (as monastics or full time priests).
As for tithing, it is a practice that works for many religious organizations (such as the LDS and the Swaminarayan BAPS group.) Having a steady and reliable supply of capital would help ISKCON expand book distribution and many other worthy projects. As Niscala dasi pointed out, Srila Prabhupada did instruct us to give 50 percent, a rather astounding number compared to the 20 percent that faithful Muslims are supposed to give in charity, or the 10 percent that many Christian groups require. For devotees who really cannot afford even 10 percent, I am sure adjustments could be made. Maybe instituting a tithing system will not be practical for ISKCON, or maybe it will prove beneficial in some places and not others. Maybe it could be a requirement for a certain level of membership, such as membership at the vaisya level. The challenge is to inspire devotees to be willing to contribute regular, fixed amounts and to be proud of their donations, without making them feel discouraged or rejected.
Regarding strict observance of 16/4, as we have already discussed, Srila Prabhupada established these as the minimum requirements for initiated devotees, but later suggested (as Niscala prabhu pointed out) that we should recognize different varnas because not everyone was maintaining those vows. Did he mean that those who were sudras and vaisyas would find it easier to maintain the vows if they were recognized as such and engaged in sudra and vaisya occupations? Or did he mean that perhaps sudras would not necessarily be expected to live up to the high standards of self-control required for gurus, priests and administrators within ISKCON?
Taking Life Membership as an example, could it be that Srila Prabhupada was asking us to find ways of accepting and encouraging and engaging those who were not qualified to serve as full-time ashram devotees? I agree with Niscala that that is exactly what Srila Prabhupada was saying. Also, in Bhagavad-gita (12.10) Krishna recommends that those who cannot follow the regulative principles work for Him, and also Srila Prabhupada's comments on mat-karma-kṛt in the purport to Bg. 11.55 are very instructive.
As for requiring members to be initiated by (or aspire for initiation by) ISKCON members as opposed to those outside, this proposal by Sivarama Swami seems unduly restrictive. As long as one is supportive of ISKCON and its aims, one should not have to renounce one's initiation by a bona fide Vaisnava from some other organization. Srila Prabhupada wrote that our members include Christians, Jews and Muslims. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur wanted Gaudiya Math to unite all four Vaisnava sampradayas. Maybe someday we will even see entire branches of Gaudiya Math become willing to "join" ISKCON. At least, we should hope we can become the kind of movement that will someday inspire Vaisnavas from other organizations or sampradayas to want to work non-disruptively within the ISKCON umbrella.
Of course, even those who were duly initiated by Srila Prabhupada and are able to follow all yamas and niyamas strictly cannot be accommodated if for some reason they become so unfavorable or unruly as to be disruptive. And yet we ought to be able to serve together peacefully while agreeing to disagree on a number of issues, recognizing the paramount instruction to show our love for Srila Prabhupada by how we cooperate together in devotional service. There is room within ISKCON for a loyal opposition.
Martin Luther and other Protestant leaders who followed him spearheaded a huge schism within the dominant church, which led to more than a century of wars, bitter conflict and fragmentation of Christianity that still persists today. My biggest fear is that our inability to communicate and find common ground in ISKCON, and our tendency to quarrel over sometimes relatively trivial matters, threatens to tear apart the unity that Srila Prabhupada wanted us to demonstrate. I think, rather than a Martin Luther, we need an Abraham Lincoln, who can preserve the "Union" of ISKCON, practically at all costs.
"The Rail Splitter Repairing the Union" — This 1865 cartoon by Joseph E. Baker shows Abraham Lincoln apparently upsetting the work that his Vice-President Andrew Johnson (formerly a tailor, who was a Southerner and a Union Democrat) was doing in trying to stitch the Union back together after the United States Civil War. Johnson proved much less capable than his predecessor had been at smoothing things over, and he was removed from office by Congress. The cartoon may not be directly on point, but it points up Lincoln's efforts to preserve the Union. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.