ISKCON can cease being ISKCON

ISKCON-Shadow-Appearances

Srila Prabhupada once said, “ISKCON is my body.” On the spiritual platform, there is no difference between the body and the soul. Therefore, ISKCON members consider that ISKCON is not different from Srila Prabhupada. This is true as long as the members are on the spiritual platform, which is maintained by following Prabhupada’s instructions. As long as we fulfill Prabhupada’s desires and represent his will, then ISKCON is Prabhupada’s body. But if the members of ISKCON are not following his instructions and thus are not on the spiritual platform, there can be a difference between the present-day ISKCON and Srila Prabhupada. In other words, there can come a point where ISKCON ceases being ISKCON.

The following quotation provides background for this understanding:

The present Krsna consciousness movement is nondifferent from the pastimes performed by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu when He was personally present, for the same principles are being followed and the same actions performed without fail.

(Cc. Antya 5.88 purport)

The nondifference between the pastimes of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and the Krsna consciousness movement is not whimsically or unconditionally declared. Rather, the oneness is based on the same principles being followed and the same actions being performed. Prabhupada did not write that whatever the situation, regardless of whether we follow or not, the Krsna consciousness movement is the same as Mahaprabhu’s pastimes. There is a gulf of difference between these two situations.

Understanding this point is important. Otherwise, strange ideas can arise. For example, if one thinks, “ISKCON is Prabhupada and Prabhupada is perfect, so ISKCON is also perfect. I’m in ISKCON and therefore I’m also perfect.” From this assumption, varieties of unscrupulous behavior could arise in the name of Prabhupada or ISKCON. Hopefully, no one thinks in this way, but the point is that we must keep the focus on the substance, not the form. Then everything will come to the right position.

Srila Prabhupada also once said that Lord Jagannatha could, in the future, leave the Puri temple and come to the ISKCON Puri temple. Lord Jagannatha is not bound to stay in that ancient and beautiful mandira if the devotees are not serving Him with love and acting properly. The Lord will only stay where there is purity and devotion. Similarly, guru and Krsna are not bound to stay in an institution just because it has their names on it. The Jagannatha Puri temple also has Lord Jagannatha’s name on it.

Lord Jagannatha inside Puri Temple and Pujaris
Lord Jagannatha deity in Puri temple.

This notion may worry some readers, and indeed, it should. It may also prod devotees to follow Srila Prabhupada’s mood and instructions. Such following will ensure that we maintain what Srila Prabhupada gave us and not be complacent, thinking that because we possess ISKCON letterhead all is guaranteed and nothing can go wrong. Such thinking is dull and sectarian.

The next question naturally arises, “What is the substance of ISKCON?” Another book would be needed to fully answer this question, because the substance of ISKCON is pure devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and Srila Prabhupada’s instructions point to that substance. Thus far, I have mentioned a few principles of bhakti in this work. The science of bhakti is the subtlest science for it deals with the soul, spiritual freedom and spiritual love. Unlimited books are required to explain this subject.

ISKCON is like Yamuna river because they both offer the Lord’s mercy to many people. Nowadays, refuse is expected in most rivers and is found in most organizations.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura also experienced his fair share of institutional contamination. Such contamination is external and introduced, often unknowingly, by an organization’s own members. I feel that most devotees want to improve the present situation in ISKCON and are prepared to adjust details to go forward. Improvement calls for intelligence and realization coupled with honesty and integrity.

If we have the same purpose—to please guru and Gauranga—then going forward, although slow will be sure. I am hopeful; otherwise writing a book on this topic has no meaning. How to go forward? That is not so clear. Perhaps these points will cause others to further consider our needs.

The ISKCON river has a subtle, internal system of cleansing itself. Although there is no palpable infrastructure for internal cleansing, somehow or other, cleansing does happen. Presently there seems to be pressure bubbling up deep within the entire river—a move to cleanse itself. If we possess a clear vision between substance and form, sorting through whatever emerges from the river will be much easier.

Again, form is not bad. It’s a great help if it carries the substance. That is the purpose of the Governing Body Commission. This GBC concept was given by the topmost paramahamsa, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura because he wanted substance to be carried into the future. He, however, also recognized that established churches or organizations spoil substance.

The idea of an organized church in an intelligible form, indeed, marks the close of the living movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dykes and the dams to retain the current that cannot be held by any such contrivances… Neither can there be any earthly contrivance for the permanent preservation of the life eternal on this mundane plane on the popular scale.

The original purpose of the established churches of the world may not be always objectionable. But no stable religious arrangement for instructing the masses has yet been successful. The supreme Lord Shree Krishna Chaitanya in pursuance of the teaching of the scriptures enjoins all absence of conventionalism for the teachers of the eternal religion. It does not follow that the mechanical adoption of the unconventional life by any person will make him a fit teacher of religion. Regulation is necessary for controlling the inherent worldliness of conditioned souls. But no mechanical regulation has any value even for such a purpose. The bonafide teacher of religion is neither any product nor the favorer of any mechanical system. In his hands no system has likewise the chance of degenerating into a lifeless arrangement. The mere pursuit of fixed doctrines and fixed liturgies cannot hold a person to the true spirit of doctrine or liturgy.

(Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s essay in The Harmonist, January 1932)

Sripada B.R. Sridhara Dev Gosvami says in Follow the Angels, “Organization is only necessary to spread truth to the people for their benefit. Mere organization has no value in and of itself. When the organization is distributing something healthy to the atmosphere, that organization is welcome. Otherwise, if any organization fails to distribute truth, it goes amiss, it commits suicide, and it fails to do its proper duty.”

The ISKCON organization can provide many advantages. The foremost advantage is that it facilitates powerful, strategic preaching: attracting new members at all levels and from all walks of life. ISKCON is a medium for offering Krsna consciousness to people all over the world. It also provides devotees with variegated devotional association and devotional engagements including farms, schools, restaurants, Deity worship, extensive literature, large-scale festivals, devotee business opportunities, and international and local congregations. Even devotees who have joined other Gaudiya Vaisnava organizations appreciate ISKCON’s large-scale preaching.

Most of us desire to see Krsna consciousness spread to every town and village because that is the desire of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. In the history of Vaisnavism, however, we are the first generation of Vaisnavas to preach globally, and the task is not easy. Preaching in the West, in any form, is a battle. And faced with the added problem of having to use an international organizational infrastructure to carry traditional Vaisnavism—we’re walking on thin ice.

Therefore, we can expect trouble. On top of these difficulties, our beloved Srila Prabhupada left us quite early. Almost all the senior leaders in ISKCON were in their mid-twenties when he left and they took the heavy responsibility on their shoulders. Some accepted disciples after only seven years of bhakti-sadhana. Accordingly, while discriminating and not being naive about our leadership, one must also be broad-minded and mature, which is the nature of a Vaisnava.

Narahari Sarakara Thakura advises us as follows:

No one should find fault with a Vaisnava for his activities or behavior. What person is free from the influence of Kali-yuga or has perfect, pure behavior and action?

(Sri Krsna-bhajanamrta Verse 39)

ISKCON is like Yamuna river.
ISKCON is like Yamuna river.

One may still question that if the institution no longer carries the original ideals of the founder, is it the same institution or just a reflected form? In other words, if the Yamuna becomes so contaminated that the pollution becomes overwhelmingly prominent—is it still the Yamuna? Or is it pollution with some Yamuna water sprinkled on it? Should a faithful follower of the original concept continue to support an institution that has become overly contaminated? It’s a question of degree and of subjective opinion. The more critical among us have given up hope, remaining nominally connected to ISKCON or not connected at all. Others feel that we are just going through growing pains, that existing faults are slowly being rectified, and the situation is gradually improving. And still others may feel that there are no serious problems.

If I had to slot myself into one of these three categories, I would choose the second since I still feel hopeful. Yet I would say that, although moving in the right direction, we are proceeding painfully slow and are causing many devotees, including our founder-acarya, unnecessary distress. This distress is due to many factors, but one important factor is sectarian institutional pride, which is closely linked with authoritarianism and focusing on form.

Sectarian institutional pride is just another brand of pride, and is founded on the premise that we like to present ourselves as indestructibly absolute. “I’m the center. Therefore, serve me. I carry the Lord’s authority. Come through me. You cannot attain Him otherwise.” But even Srila Prabhupada didn’t think or present himself as such. He truly felt, “I am not so expert. I have no good qualities. If I have any credit, it is simply that I’ve followed the instructions of my Guru Maharaja.” Factually, Prabhupada was and is absolute, but he did not think of himself as absolute. He commonly asked for opinions and advice before proceeding in many situations, and after weighing everything carefully, he made decisions.

When Srila Prabhupada visited Stockholm, he lectured on the four classes of men: brahmanas (first class men), ksatriyas (second class men), vaisyas (third class men), and sudras (forth class men). A student in the audience stood up and challenged, “You’re sitting on a very high seat and are decorated very beautifully with flowers. You think that you’re a first-class man, don’t you?”

Srila Prabhupda visiting Stockholm.
Srila Prabhupda visiting Stockholm.

Srila Prabhupada was silent. For a moment, nothing happened. Devotees became concerned. Prabhupada softly spoke under his breath, “Actually, I am not a first-class man. I am a fifth-class man, because I am the servant of everyone.” A tear rolled down his cheek behind his spectacles. He deeply meant what he said; he was a servant of everyone. He never considered himself qualified. He then addressed the student, “If I have any qualification that is that I only repeat the message of my spiritual master. If there is any success in this mission, then it is all the mercy of my spiritual master. If there is any success in the Krsna consciousness movement in this world, then it is simply because we have stuck to the principle of guru and Gauranga.”

Srila Narahari Sarakara Thakura makes a related point:

During this Kali-yuga, when the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Sri Nityananda Prabhu’s transcendental pastimes become unmanifest, Their Lordships become the object of transcendental research and discussion. At that time, all level of devotees including uttama-adhikari, madhyama-adhikari and kanistha-adhikari shall always be in anxiety, and it will be at all times. They shall almost feel uncertainty in their hearts regarding the correct understanding of the eternal truths of devotional service.

(Sri Krsna-bhajanamrta Verses 3, 4)

For a humble Vaisnava to feel almost uncertain in the modern application of Gaudiya Vaisnavism is natural. Individuals will have different opinions, so one should be broad-minded when forming opinions about preaching strategies or about other Vaisnavas. We needn’t be too confident and condemn others, because of their opposing opinions or because they belong to another organization.

For those whose substance is lacking, dependence on form is proportionately necessary. This concept is also true of our relationship with Srila Prabhupada; if we are firmly connected and secure in our relationship with him, we can accommodate or at least hear different ideas from many different people, even when the ideas are unconventional. We will not condemn Vaisnavas, because they have different ideas or because they left our organization. Their personal reasons may be valid for them. Yet there may be other reasons to shun them. Ultimately, all decisions and opinions should be based on guru, sadhu, sastra and common sense. Everyone and everything must be brought before these beacons of truth. If they fair well before them, then credit is due them.