Last Sunday I chaired a gathering of ISKCON group leaders and the following post is my reflection on the need for structured pastoral guidance within our movement. My apologies to regular readers if this piece is organisation-centred rather than focused on personal spiritual growth. After this piece, and so many ‘illness-centred’ posts we can return to normal – some time soon.
What is ISKCON and how can we better service our members? The presentations and discussions of more than fifty ISKCON Sangha group leaders attending an event at the Govinda’s Restaurant in Soho, London, England last Sunday helped to identify several requirements.
The event was the latest in a series of gatherings bringing together those members of ISKCON who have taken responsibility for training and guiding others in spiritual life – especially in a small group setting. In England there are some forty groups, or sanghas, of devotees who meet regularly for kirtan and readings; fifteen university groups; and three youth clubs – as well as seven temples. With so many Vaishnavas actively involved in either preaching or teaching within a widespread congregational community, it becomes necessary to bring them all together to find out what the latest good ideas might be. Not only that, but occasionally it is necessary for ISKCON’s constituencies to all meet up just to learn of their mutual existence.
For quite some years now, perhaps since 1993 and the addition to ISKCON’s vocabulary of the term ‘Congregational Preaching Director’ and the publishing of Bhakti-Vriksha Manual, our movement has become increasingly aware of its changing membership demographics. The expansion of Krishna consciousness into the newly opened countries of Eastern Europe in the Nineties had an enormous effect. So many people of all ages were attracted to Vaishnava thought and practise – with so few buildings to visit – that an alternative conception of ISKCON naturally began to evolve.
And it has not stopped since then. Whereas in its formative years the initiated and uninitiated devotees may have been easily identified by those who were, respectively, living inside the temple and ‘outside’, it appears now that ISKCON has all but turned inside out. In recent responses from eighteen ISKCON gurus to Vishnu Murti Das of the Bhaktivedanta Library Services – part of an ongoing survey – it was discovered that 95% of their initiated disciples were not residents of an ISKCON temple. This result, while perhaps not surprising for a successful religious organisation with increasing numbers of young married people of independent financial means, should serve to highlight an area where our thoughtful attention is required in order to ensure future institutional cohesion and stability.
When I became initiated in 1975, Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter to my temple president confirming his acceptance of me, but explaining that: “It is your duty to see that he chants his rounds, follows the regulative principles, and rises early for mangala-arati…” That, of course, was how Srila Prabhupada delegated his authority and cared for his disciples, and it was how he created a worldwide movement to introduce and care for people in spiritual life. He was the guru and the local temple president was his authorised representative in matters of both administration and spiritual guidance. I personally remember with feelings of gratitude all the advice and personal guidance I received from my temple president and other seniors. I did not feel that they were obstructing the flow of grace from my spiritual master, nor did I feel they were diverting my service to him. In today’s ISKCON it is quite possible, due to many different circumstances, to miss out on much of the personal guidance formerly provided by the local temple president.
Previously, the temple president was a direct disciple of Srila Prabhupada. The average ISKCON member – also a disciple of His Divine Grace – had no difficulty in at least acknowledging the temple president as his legitimate authority. Naturally, it helped that he was living and serving in the same small spiritual community.
Perhaps not everyone found themselves in complete affinity with their temple president but with the mobility within ISKCON at that time, everyone could hope to find a temple in which to serve and learn alongside others. Eating, worshipping and practical devotional service were communal activities, and daily singing, philosophical classes and discussions were enhanced by the presence of Vaishnavas who had, in many cases, made great personal sacrifices in order to bring ISKCON to that city.
These days, for a temple ashram resident, there’s often the situation of having been initiated by a guru other than the guru of the temple president. The TP may be initiated by someone about whom the devotee has hardly heard, or even someone he studiously avoided when it came time to choose a guru. In this circumstance it may be difficult for the disciple to regard his temple president as a conduit of spiritual knowledge and grace.
Faced with the prospect of viewing his temple president as a spiritual authority and pastoral guide but finding it a challenge, especially when discussing philosophical nuances about which there are differing opinions, he may make a slight yet often damaging psychological adjustment and choose to disregard the temple president’s potential as a spiritual advisor and accept him only as an administrative functionary. This state of affairs is further compounded when the devotee is not an ashram resident.
But the question might be raised as to whether there is still a need for the local spiritual authority in ISKCON? Does the disciple of today require locally available spiritual guidance? In our days of white-hot technological innovation, there are many digital devices that seem to bring the initiating guru closer to the disciple. Now the disciple can avail himself of transcribed lectures, audio CDs, recent photography, websites, pod casts, and even video linkups. With all this available, it would seem that the need for someone to guide the ISKCON members’ spiritual life locally has been entirely supplanted by the digitally enhanced international guru.
Yet although these devices bring knowledge and a sensation of intimacy with the guru, and although we will always argue for vani over vapu, there are still essential functions that need to be conducted locally. If these are missing then even the most well connected disciple will miss out on a vital component of spiritual life.
And those functions involve close observation of the disciple, especially at times of rapidly changing personal circumstances; disclosure from the disciple of difficulties encountered (often not revealed to the guru at times of personal visits) and consequent relevant advice and guidance.
The traditional guru-disciple relationship is begun after mutual examination for one year, at close quarters, in a functional spiritual community. The reason for this is obvious: the guru knows whom he’s dealing with when he watches how a prospective disciple responds to instructions and occasional challenges. He will perceive apathy or doubt in certain areas. He will stretch and test the prospective disciple’s memory, service attitude, and other qualifications. When he is satisfied he gives initiation.
Sometimes there’s just no substitute for an actual personal relationship, face-to-face. Although an ISKCON temple president does examine prospective initiation candidates quite closely for up to one year – or longer in some places – there does not always seem to be the imperative within our current culture that such close observation and individual guidance should continue post-initiation.
However, that is even more important as the new disciple will need all sorts of guidance and relevant instruction as he faces all manner of challenges during his life. Often a new disciple will be very robust and capable for up to three or four years after his diksha. After this, with the changes that life inevitably brings, it is often seen that more help is required.
Writing and conversations conducted electronically have been notoriously misleading, disguising as much information as they reveal. And a travelling ISKCON guru, however spiritually advanced, is not telepathic and cannot always be available just when the disciple is most confused. But a competent senior Vaishnava who is available locally, who has the spirit of unmotivated personal care can, through conversations and good counsel, encourage great transformations to take place in the heart and mind of a disciple.
When HH Jayapataka Swami was conducting his research into methods of congregational development he discovered anecdotal evidence that within the Gaudiya Math, the 10,000 (or many more) disciples of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura Prabhupada were to be supervised and instructed by additional layers in the Math’s hierarchical structure. Most of the disciples were, of course, grihastas and therefore needed a structure to belong to. Each disciple was to report to an upadeshika, or ‘instructor’ who in turn was to be supervised by a maha-upadeshika, who accordingly was guided by a sannyasi. Whether this structure became fully functional before 1936 and the passing of the acarya is not known.
What we do know now is that the ratio between disciples and their gurus keeps on increasing. Some gurus have charge of hundreds or even thousands in their care. If the percentage of disciples living or working far from an ISKCON temple president, or who may choose to regard that president as a manager but not a source of spiritual instruction – what to speak of correction – is factually more than 90% we may be looking at an organisation whose current structure and culture cannot adequately cope with its changed membership. Our successful outreach and attraction of new members may be good for mission but not for long-term maintenance. An unguided, unsupported grihasta can quickly become dismayed. ISKCON has many detractors now, just waiting with open jaws to snap at the legs of a doubting disciple. Unwittingly, and with all good intentions, we may have contributed towards an organisational culture which is effective at introducing vast numbers of newcomers to spiritual life, advancing them to a point of disciplined commitment, but which tends to be collectively less diligent in the art of prolonged pastoral care.
In this regard the local temple president can be a hero. He or she is a hero anyway, often overworked and naturally underpaid. Our temple presidents do not receive the praise they deserve yet they are factually the basic ISKCON unit of administration, leadership and care for the local devotees.
In providing the all-important long-term guidance for growing disciples the temple presidents, and their organisational counterparts where there is no temple – the congregational preaching directors – are the key. They can function as the factual latter day deshikas who are increasingly required to preserve the spiritual strength of our members.