In the first two of the seven purposes of ISKCON the word ‘propagate’ is used twice, as in ‘systematically propagate’ and ‘propagate a consciousness of Krishna.’ Srila Prabhupada seemed to like this word and used it quite a bit in his writings. It comes, of course, from the Latin propagare, meaning to ‘multiply from shoots’ and the derived meaning is to ‘spread an idea.’ That ideas should be spread like plants into the fertile soil of enquiring minds is a natural analogy that creates a picture of the preacher as a gardener. A caring, gentle-fingered nurturer, of something quite small and delicate.
But one thing gardeners must do is to count how many plants have actually begun to grow, and how many have failed. The very work of gardening carries with it the task of counting. Those who sow the seedlings but fail to count if they are growing, will never be able to determine whether their gardening is successful or not.
It’s the same for a preacher. Without actually counting the number of people whose choices in life are informed by the ideas he or she propagated, the preacher will be unable to determine whether growth is actually taking place.
Its nice to count the seeds you plant, but surely more important to count the plants that successfully sprout up? We count the number of books distributed – our seeds of bhakti – so why not the numbers of souls that begin to grow?
It’s a hard thing to do, of course, counting the number of people who are influenced by an idea. Where do you begin? In the case of the ideas of the Krishna consciousness movement, how would you know how many people whose lifestyle choices had been influenced? And when would the fact that they’d been ‘influenced’ really begin to be important?
We all know people who became vegetarians as a result of our wide scale distribution of ‘sacred food.’ And there must be hundreds of thousands of people who first became introduced to ‘Eastern philosophy’ and meditation through our books. But where would you begin counting the number of people whose appreciation of God consciousness as an intellectually admissible option had been initiated or developed through Srila Prabhupada’s writings? How could you possibly count them?
He himself would say that ‘if they just read one word’ they would be benefited immensely, and indicated that perhaps only a fraction of those who received the millions of BBT books would immediately take things further.
And it is certainly true that people don’t always read the books right when they receive them; that they often put them away for a rainy day; or even pass them on to friends or family. One young English man who is now initiated got his first book from his father, who’d had it on his shelf for 25 years.
But I would respectfully suggest, in the light of Srila Prabhupada’s letter in yesterday’s blog, that book distribution – and, indeed, all our preaching – is not simply long-term, but for right here and now. As attentive gardeners and preachers we are required to see the immediate results also and to help growth.
One new soul who has recently taken to the chanting of the Holy Names is the result of literally thousands of man-hours of missionary effort. And so our response and care of this new person must be equivalent to the amount of time and energy already invested.We must count them, because by counting someone as our member we attribute more value to them.
We also need to count those who leave us. The number of members who leave us can tell us a lot about how we’re caring for them. The numbers of initiated disciples are one measurement of how successful a Vaishnava teacher is, but also the numbers who leave him. And for sustainable growth, we really do need members who stay with us and feel happy about inviting others.
Of course, the notion of counting new devotees is nothing new. Srila Prabhupada was happy with Danavir’s Bhakta Programme Newsletter and said that we could count the new devotees just like we counted the number of books sold. The newsletter ran for quite some years, counting ‘sikha points’ for each new brahmacari joining a particular temple. Later on, while he was in England, Danavir created the Harinam-Amrita, a newsletter which also tallied the number of hours of harinama sankirtan in the streets of London.
The point in all this is not to indulge in overly-fastidious counting to the detriment of our preaching service, just to recognise that if you count something you value it. And if you don’t count it, you’ll not only not know whether its increasing or not – you may not even realise that its disappeared completely. Counting things can also help us to compile statistics without which we won’t really be able to understand ourselves as a modern Vaishnava culture. We will be lost every time some reporter asks us: “How many followers does your movement have?” We’ll also be lost for words when one of ISKCON’s detractors make glib statements about our movement.
So for this year, our ‘Grow’ project, part of the Year of the Congregation, will be counting so that we build up a real picture of our members: where and who they are, what they need, and how we can serve them better.