On opinions, dissension and ISKCON schisms




I wrote this after witnessing a long and drawn out internet exchange between devotees on doctrinal issues which, after a period of politeness, descended into self-righteous indignation and the insidious web behaviour of ‘flaming.’

Opinions, they say, are like belly-buttons. Everybody’s got one. You’d expect Vaishnavas to be articulate and forthright in their opinions wouldn’t you? What you might not expect is just how many different opinions there can be – from people who are all supposed to be following the same religion.

And every one of them you talk to will insist that his particular shade of understanding – or that of his guru – is the definitive conclusion of a particular matter and therefore not an opinion but TRUTH. If only being so convinced about something made it true; our existence in the universe would be a much easier thing. And running a religious movement would be a doddle.

Solipsists have it easy by comparison. They believe that there is only one conscious observer in the universe, and that’s them. All else is illusion. Even relationships with their nearest and dearest are nothing but mental projections on the void. They never argue with anyone, they don’t have to. The other person doesn’t exist. It’s a comforting philosophy I suppose, but they’ll never have a good football team. And they will probably never have a movement of the size and diversity of our ISKCON.

Religions seem to be OK in the beginning when there’s just the founder and a few listeners. One prophet or saint speaking on a mountain, a riverbank, or under a tree. Only one opinion, with no disputes or disagreements – easy. Its when there’s a few followers that the problems start. And when followers actually try to work together to achieve something, that’s the time to watch out. With philosophy, religion and politics, as everyone who’s ever had a dinner party knows, it’s so easy for feelings to escalate and to have heated conversations and disputes. And we certainly have a lot of philosophy, religion and politics in ISKCON.

Are we alone in this? Is ISKCON the only organisation where deeply held opinions over relatively minor points threaten to open up wide schisms? Of course not. Everybody’s at it. This is the Age of Quarrel after all, so feeling that you are right and the other guy is definitely wrong comes as second nature.

But isn’t ISKCON meant to be above all that stuff? Isn’t this the revolutionary, peaceful movement meant to spiritualise human society and rise above the dissension of Kali Yuga? Oh yes. And it would be so easy to do if arguing – and having the satisfaction of being right – wasn’t so damned tempting.

What do devotees mainly disagree about? The same things as other religions do: Theology, Liturgy, and Governance. If you study religious movements and their growth, gradual splintering, weakening and extinction, you’ll find they argued over these three things. These three subjects have fuelled the fires of controversy within each of the religions and kept them weakened for centuries. And if we’re not careful it will keep the Vaishnavas going for many more.

Theology – Who are we? What do we believe? Who is God? How do we interpret scripture? How is God’s grace attained? Who is a saint? How do they behave?

Liturgy – How do we worship? What books do we read? Whose songs should we sing? What language shall we use in our rituals? What daily practises will the believers perform and to what level of discipline? How do we publicly recognise membership of our religion and at what stage?

Governance – Who settles disputes on doctrinal issues? How and when do we assemble? How do we organise ourselves? Who leads us? How are leaders appointed? Who appoints them and how often? Who has a voice? Where does power reside? Who decides how money is apportioned?

Unity on these issues helped keep some religions relatively strong, whereas intractable disagreements rendered them weak or useless. Christianity, the fruit of just one preacher and a few early disciples two thousand years ago, has become a staggering 104 main denominations and 33,839 organisations, the majority of which have no working relationship with each other.*

With reference to this tendency for even well-intentioned human beings to be so much less than divine, and in light of his spiritual master’s mission dividing into factions, Srila Prabhupada said about ISKCON: “I am always afraid of this crack.”

It is, naturally, in everyone’s interest to keep the mission of Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON, as one international movement. Certainly it is part of his disciples’ sacred duty to maintain what he gave us. He wanted it. In 1976 he wrote a letter reminding his disciples of the story of the king who had many sons. He asked them to break single twigs, and then asked them to try to break a bunch of twigs. By this he indicated that after his death, if the sons stayed together the kingdom would not be broken. ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’

The founder of the Hare Krishna movement knew that his organisation would grow, and that it would ultimately attract millions of people of all persuasions and political shades. And he prayed that his most intelligent followers would not fall into dissent and party spirit, but act as a force for harmony and unity.

Otherwise, historians of the future will note that Srila Prabhupada was a great saint whose movement later fractured into schisms. He was afraid of that crack and so must we be. The solution? Tolerance. Always tolerance. And mutual understanding, negotiation, and compromise. Not over-reacting to differences of opinion but seeing how we can negotiate to an equitable solution whereby our most important service to our spiritual master gets done – and gets done together. Of course, we must not under-react either. There must be discipline within a movement such as ours, as well as organisation and intelligence.

ISKCON is already an extremely broad church. We can celebrate our diversity only if we are acting in Sattva-guna. The influence of Raja-guna will cause us to identify with party spirit and to polarise us into rigid political camps. And Tama-guna will propel us into acrimonious campaigning against each other. We have a choice.

* Figures from World Christian Encyclopaedia



Filed under ISKCON

7 responses to “On opinions, dissension and ISKCON schisms

  1. Dave

    As I was talking to one senior devotee he said one thing his spiritual master told him “It is best to be part of ISKCON with all it’s faults than outside throwing bricks at it”

    Yes, discussion and debate is good but this should not be of our own opinion, thought or feelings. But that of scripture and most important of the spiritual master. As HH Devamrita Swami once said “The message in ISKCON will always be the same, the way it is presented may be different” as the saying goes: ‘different strokes for different folks.’

  2. krishna-kirti

    Krpamoya: “The solution? Tolerance. Always tolerance. And mutual understanding, negotiation, and compromise.”
    I think a more satisfying answer would be, “It depends.” Sometimes devotees on one side of a contentious issue are right and those on the other side are wrong. And that sometimes means disassociating one’s self with the misguided devotees. Sometimes that means schism.
    This is the price for making any claim to having access to objective truth, because making that claim is simultaneously affirming that a) there is such a thing as an objective point of view, and b) we can know it.

  3. Jaya Tirtha Charan dasa

    Thanks prabhu, a wonderful article.

  4. I feel that it is because ISKCON’s basic messages to its members and the public are focused not on the philosophy of Krishna consciousness as much as the delivery system for the philosophy – the institution.

    Perhaps better and more sustainable progress could be made through
    ensuring that the public was understanding some of the key philosophical messages rather than focusing on them becoming members?

    This might also help to heal the heated discussions within ISKCON, or between ISKCON and its splinter groups?

  5. krishna-kirti

    I like the commentator Krishna’s suggestion to focus more on Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and less on the institution. If this is done, many of the institutional problems will work themselves out. However, this may be yet another suggestion that is great in theory but is unlikely to survive the real world. It’s Kali-yuga, and, even for people who take up the path of devotion, piety and enlightenment are often hard to come by.

  6. Nomad

    The solution? Tolerance. Always tolerance. And mutual understanding, negotiation, and compromise.
    It sounds so easy yet it seems so difficult…and why?

    Well how about introducing another element into the equation?
    With culture we should be able to tolerate diverse opinions, with culture we have the tool to negotiate with respect and compromise (not our principles) where we need to cross paths with our diverse and different opinions…

    Our lack of culture is prominent in our abruptness, our ability to judge with speed (without knowing the facts) and our lack of compassion to each other.

    Culture is a wonderful ally when dealing with troubles and strife. It gives you the strength when one is weak; it gives inspiration when one needs it. So how do you gain culture?

    Well in my humble opinion this comes with realising that in this extremely broad church that is ISKCON – it is truly wonderful that Krishna has assembled many voices with many ideas and visions for Srila Prabhupada’s house, yet with such differing moods the goal is the same – to serve Prabhupada and Krishna.
    So with this in mind we should embrace different ideas and different moods.
    We should encourage every devotee on the journey in spiritual life, we should become the pillar of strength for the devotees that are struggling and we should listen and learn more about the devotees who are different to us (we will be amazed to find that are similarities we can share).

    I believe culture is something that is very new to us (ISKCON) all – we have the philosophy, we have the history, we have the principles and ethics but how mature are we when it comes to giving each other advice? We can quote shastra and shout out ’Prabhupada said this’ –but are we really living what we are preaching?
    Culture is not something you can pick up by reading a self-help book –it comes with experience and practice…yes we will make mistakes along the way – but who doesn’t? – let us tolerate our shortcomings and help each other and let us encourage the different minds to make Krishna Consciousness attractive to the whole world.

  7. Perhaps a more underlying source of these problems is our lack of following the instructions of Srila Prabhupada to “distribute books, distribute books, distribute books”?

    Do you notice how when temples become centered around book distribution, these side-issues become petty?

    If there is any “cause” that we should stand behind, it is the cause to preach widely and distribute books as widely as possible.

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