Chakra Discussions

One Moon Better Than Many Stars

by Ananda das

Posted January 6, 2010

Regarding Vaiyasaki prabhu's article Large Grhastha Families Needed (Chakra, Dec. 25), I can give only qualified approval to his message. While his ideas about mutual Vaishnava love are fine, there seem to be some serious flaws to another part of his proposal, in my opinion.

His suggested resolution involves Vaishnava families having many children to increase our numbers, just as the Catholics of Quebec did 100 years ago and as the Orthodox Jews of Israel do today. In a time of expected worldwide devastation resulting from massive climate change, overpopulation, rising sea levels, declining food stocks, species extinctions and declining natural resources with an already growing and long-pent-up demand for higher living standards from the developing world, this proposal seems nothing less than irresponsible from a global perspective.

From a human perspective, it also seems like terrible advice, since ISKCON has done little or nothing to encourage individuals towards helping to establish independent businesses or to promote devotees in self-sustaining jobs, the vast majority of which would require higher education. Indeed, both ISKCON and Gaudiya Math leaders have regularly discouraged ambitious devotees from seeking advanced education lest they lose someone's services as a pujari, cook or book salesperson.

How do financially crippled grhastha families stretch their meagre resources to support still-larger families without simultaneously placing the health, safety and welfare of these children at even higher risk than they are at now? I think the "loving and functional childhood" Vaiyasaki prabhu, and indeed everyone, wishes for children, would be increasingly unattainable under his prescription, what to speak of the "proper education with a promising future" that they also deserve. These things cost money, and cannot be provided for if devotees have only the prospect of menial or exploitive labour.

Large families can exacerbate social problems

The personal and social problems resulting from large families of inadequately educated children are not by any means exclusive to ISKCON. As the Jewish Daily Forward explains, Ultra-Orthodox families average as many as 6.5 children per family, whilst secular and Reform Jews have a average of 2.6 children, a fact attributable in part to years of large per-child grants given by the Israeli government. However, the unemployment rate among the Ultra-Orthodox people is close to 50 percent, a reflection of the parents' insistence on limiting their children's education to sectarian religious study, and an astonishing 27 percent of Israeli elementary-school children are attending yeshivas designed to indoctrinate them in fundamentalist and extremist Judaism, as Gershom Gorenberg points out.

The dramatic rise in numbers among the ultra-Orthodox is creating a demographic disaster for Israel — with an extremely reactionary group able to make ill-advised but largely successful demands in the Knesset for a greater share of national wealth, including for limited water resources and for housing constructed in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank — all of which further exacerbates tensions and diminishes the likelihood of a peace agreement with the colonized and displaced Palestinian population.

In many countries in Central and South America, Asia and Africa, overpopulation has led to great pressure on the natural environment as families clear forested land for agriculture, a process which can easily lead to more species of plants and animals becoming threatened, endangered or extinct as their natural habitat is destroyed. When large populations are unemployed, it has the potential to cause an increase in crime and civil unrest or even lead to war with neighbouring countries. UNICEF estimated in 2003 that there are 143 million children in the world who have lost one or both parents. Already in the Philippines, Guatemala and elsewhere, large numbers of desperately impoverished people, many of whom are orphaned children, are forced to eke out an existence salvaging recyclable materials and even food from garbage dumps.

Srila Prabhupada frequently highlighted his desire for quality rather than quantity, quoting Chanakya Pandit's maxim that that the moon reflects more light than we can receive from millions of stars, and declaring that he would consider his preaching a success if he could elevate even one person to pure Krishna consciousness. In the same way, a parent could be content with investing the time, dedication and love to carefully bring up one or two exemplary children rather than having many children, each of whom could reasonably expect only a small share of parental attention. Consider, for example, the case of the neglected Romanian children of the Ceausescu era: they failed to thrive in orphanages, not for lack of food but for lack of love.

In all this, the importance of the education of women must not be overlooked. Social scientists regularly find that more highly educated women almost universally tend to have smaller families, leading to better conditions not only for their own families but for their community as a whole. Vaiyasaki prabhu's proposed resolution speaks approvingly of women remaining "helpless and innocent." In my opinion, however, ISKCON society should take more responsibility for ensuring that women become strong, self-sufficient, technically skilled and knowledgeable. We look with horror at the sometimes violent opposition of Afghani Muslim fundamentalists to the education of girl children and at their refusal to permit educated women to seek gainful employment outside the home, and we're grateful that this does not happen in North America or Europe. Such defective domestic and public policy choices, though, have resulted in 25 percent of Afghans having insufficient food.

Even in the developing world, educated women are a valuable resource for their country. In Africa most of the farming work is done by women, women have helped to facilitate public health and family planning initiatives, and many women have accepted microloans to establish small businesses that help themselves, their families and their communities. While I'm sure Vaiyasaki das has the best of intentions, his statement about women's helplessness and innocence bespeaks an old-fashioned male-breadwinner, head-of-household model, a system that is really not relevant to the many families headed by women and that does not reflect the reality of the modern global economy, which increasingly forces both parents in a two-parent family to hold income-producing jobs.

A better ISKCON social balance

Finally, Vaiyasaki prabhu's resolution includes a major element of punitive censure, which seems contrary to loving respect for all Vaishnavas, even the ones who fall short of the mark. And while I understand his frustration with many of ISKCON's sannyasis arrogating to themselves undeserved positions of managerial authority for which they are as sannyasis manifestly unsuited, just tipping over the whole social system to exalt grhasthas above sannyasis would seem to be a bit of overcorrection, or tossing out the baby with the bathwater. I'd rather see a call for more balance and mutual respect among all the ashrams of our society.

I'm fine with stripping sannyasis of all managerial authority and turning them into a class of preachers dependent wholly on alms and with no independent bank accounts, and I think it is high time we had a representative GBC with members chosen by secret ballot of all initiated devotees within each region according to population numbers. I have no census data, but supposing we had 36,000 devotees worldwide, each of 18 GBC members would represent a constituency of 2,000 devotees who voted for that person.

If such a system were unwieldy at a local level, we could perhaps establish an indirect election system in which devotees at each temple could elect their temple president and their board of trustees, and all of these people (representing 4,000 devotees in the aggregate) could meet regionally with a weighted voting system to choose two GBC members, one male and one female, by secret ballot.

Sannyasis would be ineligible as GBC members, since sannyasis should have no managerial role in society. Under such a system, I am confident, our GBC would indeed be largely made up of householders, with some unmarried people as well, and we would have gender parity as well, which would help end systemic inequalities and discrimination within our movement.