Helicopter pilots. Everyone is welcome to become a member of their group. But first: can you fly one?
In all my four previous posts I’ve written that membership of ISKCON is a matter of simply making the choice to consider yourself a member. You’re basically a member of ISKCON if you want to be one.
While that’s true, it might also be an over simplification. In real life, you often have to meet certain expectations before you’re accepted by a group. The other members want to see what you’re like before they accept you. You may have to pass some kind of test, pay a membership fee, or pass through an initiation ordeal before you can truly belong.
Some groups will only survive if all their members conform to certain requirements. An association of helicopter pilots, for instance, may not allow you to become a member if you don’t hold a helicopter pilot’s licence. What are you going to talk about when you meet with the other members? You might not even understand what they’re talking about. Besides, if they allowed you to join, the group would immediately cease to exist as an association of pilots. It would become The Association of Helicopter Pilots and Some Guy who can’t Fly Helicopters. It would become a group with vague terms of membership, a confused group that no self-respecting pilot would want to join. End of the group.
For the same reason, you might not be allowed to become a member of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if you can only strum three simple chords on a banjo. You need some good musical qualifications to become a member. And some pretty hefty record sales. And even if you have the qualifications and the sales figures, you have to wait until you’re chosen to be a member. Its a Hall of Fame remember, and being famous is the primary qualification for membership. And banjos are not so rock and roll.
Or take the British Army SAS, or the U.S. Navy Seals. Its a pretty tough level of physical stamina, mental alertness, and courage that sorts out those who make it and those who don’t. And a nightmare of an initiation procedure. Only the toughest need even think of applying. Membership of these groups is open to only the very few. Then there are clubs, societies, associations – even some religious groups – that you can only join if you pay a rather stiff annual membership fee. If you don’t pay – even once – your membership period will expire and you will no longer be acknowledged as a member.
Religions often impose quite strict conditions upon their members. Sometimes only very small differences separate members of one religious grouping from another. Other religious groups don’t actually want more members, and they either prevent people from joining or they don’t go out of their way to invite you in. For instance, you won’t get the Exclusive Brethren going door-to-door inviting you for a Bible Study. And you won’t see the Amish evangelising in the streets. You can buy an apple pie from them, but they don’t really want you as a member. They’re doing just fine without you, thanks.
Academics who study religious groups refer to some as ‘exclusive’ and others as ‘inclusive.’ Vaishnavism is an ‘inclusive’ group. So inclusive, in fact, that it regards every single soul as part of Vishnu, or God, temporarily in a forgetful state, but intrinsically capable of ascending to the greatest heights of spiritual realization. With that theological perspective it is no wonder that ISKCON’s members are talking to thousands of people all over the world, of all classes, creeds and social status, every single day, inviting them to read a book, visit a temple, and take up the process of becoming conscious of Krishna, to whatever extent they can. Everyone – and that really means everyone – is welcome to become a member of ISKCON.
But in order to preserve its raison d’etre ISKCON must also reserve the right to choose who to have as members. If this sounds like a contradiction in fundamental values then yes, it is, and it can be confusing having a Society that is open to all, yet one where not all can be included. Why is that?
Well, firstly, ISKCON was established for the propagation of ‘spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all people in the techniques of spiritual life.’ So its not just another organization for chopper pilots, or the manufacturing of goods, or the provision of services for commercial profit. Although ISKCON values pilots, goods and services, the organization was started for producing something else. So if anyone is looking to become a pilot, or be a part of a large manufacturing concern and thereby derive personal profit, ISKCON would not be able to directly help them realise their dreams. However, if in addition to any other goal, they also wish to support the sharing of authentic spiritual knowledge and techniques then ISKCON would be an excellent choice.
But prospective members should be aware of one important condition of membership: ISKCON is geared towards propagating ‘a consciousness of Krishna (God), as it is revealed in the great scriptures of India, Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam’. And in addition: ‘To teach and encourage the sankirtana movement, congregational chanting of the holy name of God, as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. So if a person thinking about joining ISKCON felt they had a superior philosophical conception they wanted to share with the world, ISKCON wouldn’t be the Society for them. They’d only end up arguing with the other members. As indeed people do.
Back in 1911, the Sri (Ramanuja) sampradaya made a statement about a group that, because of its identical clay forehead markings and worship of Rama, was publicly perceived as a member of their Sri Vaishnava community. They were the north Indian Ramanandis, founded by Ramananda (1400-1476). Due to incremental differences in their philosophy over the centuries, the Ramanandis could no longer be considered members. So millions became lapsed members overnight.
ISKCON is not quite like that, at least at the moment. The Society doesn’t like to lose any of its members on purely philosophical grounds. The Vaishnava theology embraces many different aspects of belief, and our founder-acarya’s statements are embracing of relatively divergent approaches to serving God. Besides, most members of ISKCON are still in the process of learning many of the subtleties of theology and application, and some will choose to stress the importance of one aspect over another from time to time. ISKCON will always try to retain its members, even those who express themselves quite stridently.
But sadly, on occasion, some voices of philosophical dissension become such a source of persistent discord that their continued presence within the Society threatens the already fragile unity. Its at that time the governing body of ISKCON, charged with the responsibility of preserving a unified mission, must speak and act unequivocally. Deliberations are held and resolutions made and circulated as to the reasons that certain members are to be members no more. Any appropriate actions are then taken.
Of course, many members simply leave on their own accord. As I’ve discussed briefly before, they have disagreements on the classical subjects of dispute within any religious group:
Theology (what is believed to be true about God and the methods to serve Him)
Liturgy (what books are to be read and what books are to be avoided; what songs, prayers and rituals are to be employed)
Governance (who holds power within the organization, what is the structure, how are elections to positions of power held, and how are decisions made)