I talk to many different types of people. Some of them tell me that they ‘dislike organised religion’ and are therefore reluctant to become members of a religious group. What surprises me is when Vaishnavas say the same thing. This post was written with some of them in mind. It is long and gets rather pointed in places. Just remember that I wrote it on a painful day after abandoning my chemical painkillers…
Are you a member of a group? I think that you probably are. You might be a member of a group based around your favourite hobby, for instance, or a sports group, a political or campaigning group, parents group, residents group, social group, a spiritual or religious group, or even the small group that most of us have to belong to, whether we like it or not: the family group.
Groups are really hard to avoid, even if you dislike being a member of a group. As soon as you want to do something, become something, or even say something and be heard, you’ll find that your purpose can often be served better either by consulting a group already formed for the same purpose, or joining together with people who think or act the same way that you do.
In fact, we usually join groups only for that purpose: we feel that by living, working and learning with others we can achieve more, and our happiness in life will be enhanced. Some activities are actually only available to people who do consent to joining a group. Football, for instance, can be hard to play if you dislike being part of a group. And you might like to re-think your career in politics if you have a hard time being a member of anything bigger than yourself.
What groups have you been a member of in your life? Why did you join that particular group? What did you want to achieve as a result? Did you leave the group, eventually? Why did you leave?
People who leave groups – which is probably most of us at various stages of our life – usually say they left them for one simple reason: they had stopped achieving the purpose for which they joined. The reason they joined was no longer there. They reached the end of a period of study, for instance, and the group naturally disbanded; they became too old for the youth group; they lost the weight they had aimed for and attendance of the weight-watchers group no longer held the same compulsion; they changed the way they were thinking about the fundamental realities of life and moved to the church down the road. All of these are perfectly natural and legitimate reasons for leaving a group.
Having a bad experience once you’re a member of a group, however, can make you wary of joining anything ever again. What are those experiences so bad as to scar someone for life? People who now don’t like groups as a result of previous experiences speak of fellow members as being inward-looking and small-minded; the feeling of being uncomfortable or trapped, the pressure to be something you’re not and being made to feel a failure or ‘difficult’ if you don’t comply with group norms.
Former members of groups sometimes feel understandably reluctant to join another one, fearing they will have the same negative experiences. Yet they remain attracted to the benefits of belonging to something. This duality often leads them to want the benefits of a group but without the hassle of actually becoming a member. They still want the advantages but don’t want to lose themselves in the process. They would like the product without the price.
It is a good thing, surely, to avoid joining groups (or movements or organisations) that may harm you. A black teenager in Peckham, London, may consciously avoid joining a street gang for instance. That’s a good choice, but he may not attract the peer recognition he wanted. He may have to actively avoid some neighbourhoods as a result. If you refuse to join a group that threatens your individuality in the name of conformity that may be a good choice too. Some groups do ask for a great level of uniformity from their members. If you don’t like that idea then don’t join them. But if you want to join your country’s armed forces – and it seems that thousands of young people still do – don’t expect that preservation of your individuality will be uppermost in the group’s list of priorities.
So I think it is rational that each of us considers carefully about possible groups we join: how they may help us, how they may harm us; what the advantages might be and the possible disadvantages of membership. We should study carefully what the group’s expectations of us might be; what we might be asked or expected to make as our contribution, financial or otherwise; what are the processes by which decisions are made in the group and how and by when we’ll be able to reach our own personal goals as a member.
But at some point we must make a choice as to whether or not to become a member of a group. If we decide not to be a member, then we forfeit our right to certain resources and privileges. By exercising our preference for personal freedom outside of the restraints of the group we gain something and we lose something. Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. And if you are a member of a group and enjoying the benefits, you can expect to be required to render some contributions in exchange for resources. Nature and the laws of the universe do not often provide for being a full member of any group yet simultaneously making no contributions, offering no duties, accepting no responsibilities and yet enjoying all the privileges of membership. There will be a price to pay, some personal sacrifices to make, some individual choices or preferences lost to the collective body if one is to be a fully functioning participant of a group that’s making a difference to people’s lives – including yours.
I remember a pilgrimage to India that I had organised some years ago. After I’d made all the bookings of flights and hotels, worked out our detailed itinerary and travel arrangements I discovered that another group of devotees had secretly booked the same flights and hotels for the exact same period. When I enquired as to what their plan was they explained that they were not part of my group – officially – except on days when it suited them and on those days they were sure I’d have no objections to them taking advantage of the itinerary, travel arrangements, and my local knowledge! They wanted the benefits of being a part of my group but without the restrictions. It transpired that they actually wanted to see all the sights in that part of India, enjoy all the spiritual experiences that might be gained there, but did not want to be under my pilgrimage leadership which they had heard could be quite demanding! I suppose we all have a tendency to get what we want for minimum outlay of effort. At some point, however, this can develop into a self-serving cheating mentality which, in the long term, will be spiritually unhelpful for us.
Srila Prabhupada called upon a time-honoured example to illustrate that this cheating mentality is a perennial state of human nature. In ancient India it is called ardha-murgi-nyaya or ‘the logic of half-a-chicken.’ There was once a farmer who had a chicken who was larger than all his others. The chicken laid enormous eggs which gained him handsome profits at the local market. However, the chicken ate more than all the other hens and thus cost the farmer dearly. The farmer considered the situation logically and decided to preserve that part of the chicken which made him money, but to remove the part which cost him money. He cut the hen in half with an axe. His false logic was rewarded with nothing at all – the chicken was dead.
The acarya of the Hare Krishna movement explained that most people approach the yoga system with this half-chicken logic. “Let me keep the parts I like, and remove the parts I don’t like.” Therefore the word yoga has become a by-word for an oriental health system and the celibacy, meditation and God-realisation have been cleaved away with the sharpened axe of their materialistic intellect. People want to keep Tantra, yet reject Mantra and Yantra. But the result of this exercise of false logic is that the entire system becomes dead and unfit for its original purpose.
Unfortunately, I find it quite the same with a certain minority of Vaishnavas and their relationship with ISKCON. There are innumerable benefits of being a member of the movement set up by Srila Prabhupada. He created it in just such a way that it would deliver the best Vaishnava knowledge, training and fellowship – sangha – to its members. But to be a part of it they had to at least accept the principle of working within certain organisational confines and under the direction of a spiritual authority. If members lived, for example, in a temple community or on a farm, their spiritual authority would direct their lives and their participation within the life of the community. Their spiritual authority was, in turn, working under another higher authority. Granted there were problems with the system – it depended on a certain level of spiritual purity for which no legitimate organisational power could be a substitute – and it is understandable that in a number of cases ISKCON members side-stepped the preferred system to arrive at other alternatives.
It is true, as I have mentioned before in a previous post, that the majority of ISKCON members today no longer live communal lives where their service contribution and adherence to the tenets of Vaishnavism are monitored daily by such a spiritual director. It is also true that ISKCON has gathered many members who choose their own levels of spiritual practise and personal discipline.
And yet regardless of a member’s physical location, their family or career situation or their miles trodden along the path of bhakti, there are essential principles of ISKCON membership which do not change. Being a member of ISKCON – and availing oneself of the spiritual benefits of membership – at some stage means to recognise the movement requires your active contribution, an investment of your time and practical service, philosophical fidelity, and a certain level of compliance to its behavioural requirements and organisational rules. Were it not so, the ISKCON organisation would neither deliver to its members what they needed, nor would it be an organisation worth belonging to. Who would join an organisation that failed to deliver to its members the very spiritual knowledge and culture it was set up to deliver? And what movement, organisation, society or institution – groups, of course, by other names – could survive without such contributions from its members? What group has ever survived without requiring of its members a certain conformity and compliance with its norms of membership?
ISKCON attracts hundreds of thousands of spiritual aspirants. These include those members who might be termed ‘self-serving free spirits’. They are naturally very attracted by Krishna and His worship; the Vedanta philosophy appeals to their intellect, as does spiritual community life with its strong and daily devotional practise. Naturally, I must also include colourful festivals and delicious feasts in the list of attractions for this type of devotee.
Nothing is wrong of course; we are all attracted by these. For this kind of member, however, these features are the ‘good’ half of the ISKCON chicken. The other half of the chicken – the part they wish wasn’t there – is most of the entire organisation itself, its leadership structure, and any duties membership might require of them. The parts of ISKCON that remind them that they actually belong to something bigger than themselves and that requires something of them. Particularly the notion that members should serve the group, and not merely the group serve the members.
Please don’t get me wrong. All our members are wanted, needed, and very much loved. It’s just that sometimes we have to point out to some of them that membership of any organisation is not a self-defining exercise. The group that already exists – the one you chose to join – gets to tell you, the member, what membership means, not the other way round.
It wouldn’t be so bad if our ‘free-spirit’ members didn’t regularly try to cut the head off the ISKCON chicken. One Vaishnava who has been our congregational member for a very long time (long enough to know better) came to me the other day with a proposition. His group, he had decided, was no longer an ISKCON group, merely a group of friends who met together for kirtan, Bhagavad-gita discussion and prasadam, and who came regularly to the ISKCON temple for feasts and festivals, darshan and sangha.
Now, if someone wants to start a group of Vaishnavas and be separate from ISKCON that is fine. We do not hold any monopoly on the path of Bhakti. There are so many Vaishnava organisations in the world and the world needs many more. But in this particular case, this particular member had simply moved to the town after the group had already been established. It was the efforts of the London ISKCON temple which had created a local group in the town. Many months of activity by ISKCON devotees visiting the area, many lectures, feasts and festivals; many conversations with local people who’d expressed interest; all played their part in the formation of a fledgling group of devotees. And into the nest of fledglings came a cuckoo.
You would have thought that a little more gratitude might have been shown. Or perhaps just a hint of loyalty. Am I worried? Ultimately not, since these little episodes have happened before and will no doubt happen again as the years pass. What was going on in this thinly-veiled case, as usual, was the need of a member to do the two things that we all come into this world to do: to control things and other people, and to enjoy them. Sadly we do not give up these propensities even after much philosophical instruction on the matter and despite joining a spiritual movement. When we try to control and enjoy within a spiritual movement it stands out like a wolf among the lambs or, yes, a cuckoo in the nest.
Members, only some of them thankfully, do make these mistakes and then become surprised when they discover that the spirituality they had has slowly ebbed away. They make a material distinction between the teachings of Krishna and that which offers them to the world. And it’s a common mistake to make but becomes very costly to ones spiritual life in the end. That’s because ISKCON is not merely a mundane organisational structure but the very mission of the spiritual master who created it. It’s the way he established the means of delivering the teachings of his Lord and preserving them within the world. If you try to usurp the mission from a pure devotee of Krishna there will be a necessary and concomitant reaction. His mission to establish Krishna consciousness within the world is the very embodiment of his devotion and that is recognised by Krishna.
So finally, to my dear free spirited friends, and particularly those friends who would consider themselves full members of ISKCON: Please do not try to dismiss as unimportant, relativise, cut away or usurp those parts of ISKCON which do not immediately fill your hearts with love and light. They are essential. They are there for a purpose although that may not be immediately clear to you. Know that loss of pride and ego is not a loss but a gain and that through service to a spiritual authority you can lose these and thereby gain much. Make your practical, humble, and valued contribution to ISKCON and all the other members as if your very spiritual life depended upon it – it does. Treat all other members with great respect; they have been placed on your spiritual path after much searching through countless lifetimes by you. And serve with us as this great movement becomes everything it was destined to be.