Organised Religion: Devil’s Work or Divine Necessity?



The Devil always likes to help saints ‘organise’ religion, and organised religion can be problematic. But without human structures, the saint’s messages and good public works may not endure over the next three generations.

For thousands of years, whenever saintly people have searched for a good spot to live, they’ve chosen places of tranquillity, far removed from the noise and clamour of the town. In a quiet place, undisturbed by distraction or temptation, surrounded by the beauty of nature, they’ve said their prayers, studied their scriptures, and engaged in meditation.

Islands, deserts, mountains and forests have all been home to generations of monks, yogis and contemplatives of every religious description. The fact that so many of them have actually found transcendence and salvation through their solitude is glorious. The great literary works of spiritual guidance written by them – the outward fruits of their inner life – are a lasting treasure for the world.

But those of us who can’t lead a life of seclusion also want the inner happiness that they experienced. We too want to deepen our spirituality. We cannot retire to the mountains and forests, but we need a helping hand along the way. Somehow, it seems, the saints have to come out of seclusion to help us ordinary folks. Luckily for us, they always have. History is filled with tales of how male and female saints have set out to share their precious wisdom and insight with the world. They’ve left their quiet places and returned to the towns and villages simply to help others.

Sometimes it’s been quite a risky business, beset with opposition, poverty, and danger. But the religious history of the world would not be the same without them. How one saint turns his message and a few early followers into an entire religious movement is a great story, every time it’s told. It involves deep spirituality and sacrifice, compassion, friendship, service, and inspiration. Then there’s the teaching, training and preparing of disciples. Finally comes the sending out of those followers into the world, successful conversion, then organising of people into a human structure for perpetuating and preserving the original message.

Of course, history books are not usually so kind to ‘religious organisations.’ And in today’s world there is widespread and ingrained suspicion of institutions generally, and religious ones in particular. We don’t trust the combination of religion and power, however great the original prophet, saint, or guru was, and however noble the cause.

There’s an old story of a saint walking down the road, a peaceful smile on his face. A farmer sees him: “Where are you going dear saint?” he says. “I’m going to start a religious movement,” replies the saint, and carries on his way. Then the farmer sees the Devil walking some distance behind the saint but obviously following him. “But you,” says the farmer, “where are you going, and why are you following him?” “Me?” replies the Devil with a cunning grin, “Why, isn’t it obvious? He’s going to start a religious movement – and I’m going to help him organise it!”

But while there are numerous historical accounts of the institutionalisation that has so crippled the legacies of even the best of saints, it is also a fact that, at some point in its successful expansion, a movement of spiritual people must give itself a shape and systems in order to maintain its natural growth. Mother Nature herself has ordained that living structures of greater complexity require enhanced and disciplined systems if they are to grow. So it is with organic movements of people.

Yet the vitality that runs through such an organisation, that gives it its very life, must be goodness, compassion, understanding and love. Nothing else will keep a spiritual organisation factually spiritual. The proof that this is happening will be that people are coming forward to become devoted to Krishna – and remaining so.

The steady growth of ISKCON can be attributed to Srila Prabhupada’s deliberate founding of his Society as an organised mission dedicated to systematic propagation; an international body of spiritual practitioners who reach out to others to deliver his teachings. By the dedication of the early followers, his movement became established in hundreds of cities. The great challenge to ISKCON now, wherever it has spread in the world, is to ensure that both the practise and the outreach are continued through the next generation and beyond.

For this to happen, Vaishnava philosophy and culture must be understood and practised within the homes of its members, by committed families; and the children must grow as Vaishnavas. If practised by individuals, the individuals must reach out to others and bring them to the Vaishnava life. Where, by our strategies and efforts this happens, we help to create growth. Wherever this does not happen, the results of our considerable initial efforts will be reduced.

Temples are places of serious learning for the newcomer, and permanent residences for the celibate and the retired. They function as places where joyful worship is conducted, and where rites of passage are celebrated. But in the task of saving souls, and the longer-term mission of establishing a culture over three generations – the test of sustainability – they can only be truly considered successful if all that is taught and celebrated is then reproduced in the homes of the congregation – both those who live nearby and those who live at a distance.

How do we know when our preaching is successful? As Srila Prabhupada said, our aim is simply to increase ‘the members of Krishna’s family’. If we are looking for measuring the success of our mission it must be this. Ultimately, the number of Vaishnavas created is a permanent and important measurement of the success of all our efforts – and the endurance of our tradition.

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6 responses to “Organised Religion: Devil’s Work or Divine Necessity?

  1. Akruranatha dasa

    Can the author provide a citation for the quote about our mission being simply to increase the members of Krishna’s family?

    It is a nice quotation. I just want to make sure it is bona fide so I can use it.

    Sometimes the anti-organization wallas come back with quotations about how Prabhupada would consider his efforts successful if just one of his disciples became a pure devotee.

    We know he had other goals, like doubling book distribution, building certain temples (a planetarium), etc.

    Of course we should always remember that the essence is the consciousness with which we strive to accomplish these concrete goals. We do not want to put numbers of buildings built and members recruited and money collected and even books distributed above giving our devotion sincerely to Krishna (what else can we really offer someone who is the Supreme Controller and Enjoyer?)

    But we should not forget that what Srila Prabhupada wanted us to focus our preaching efforts on was actually showing mercy to all living entities by broadcasting the Holy Name of Krishna everywhere. We want to make everyone Krishna conscious as far as possible, and increasing the size of Krishna’s family seems to sum that up nicely.

    • I will have a look for that specific quote, although you could equally use the ‘Seven Purposes of ISKCON’ which, as you know, talk of ‘systematic propagation’ and bringing the members together etc.
      Yes, there seems to be lot of ISKCON-bashing around doesn’t there? I’m tempted to say it has become a new sport. What people often mean when they say ‘ISKCON’ of course is the ‘confederation of temples’ under the management of the governing body which, although it is the core of the organisation, is not the whole apple.
      But wherever our members are in the ISKCON apple it is still incumbent upon them to share the mission as they are able. After all, how much bashing can you do without looking inwardly and seeing what the real problem is?

  2. Akruranatha dasa

    Yes, Prabhu, I take your hint that ISKCON bashers are by and large motivated by something unclean in their own hearts.

    On the other hand, we ISKCON apologists should be responsible enough to admit lots of room for improvement (and there already has been a great deal of improvement) in the way many ISKCON managers treat junior devotees (and even senior devotees).

    Srila Prabhupada’s statement that he would consider his mission successful if he created a single pure devotee does reflect a powerful truth:

    The mission of ISKCON is personal and spiritual. We should never sacrifice the spiritual needs of individual devotees for the sake of achieving “big” donations, publicity, buildings, influence.

    Srila Prabhupada never acted that way, and more and more we are learning not to act that way. The “biggest” success is in truly reaching a sincere soul.

    Or, as H.H. Radhanatha Swami famously put it, rather than sacrificing the devotees to build a fancy temple, we should focus on building a temple in everyone’s heart.

    And if we can do that in all sincerity and with no ulterior motive or ambition, “big” donations and buildings and publicity and influence will naturally come to ISKCON.

    Sannyasis are advised not to accept many disciples or construct many temples because there is always a danger of being seduced by materialism.

    “Purity is the force.” Krishna, who owns everything and is the Paramatma in everyone’s heart, will reciprocate our sincere endeavors.

    But if we seek to exploit others for our own name and fame and wealth and prestige and real estate, even if we get those things, what will we have accomplished? Lots of organizations are wealthy and powerful, but ISKCON has something very precious and unique to protect and propagate.

    I had a Medeival History professor, a former Greek Orthodox seminarian, who said something in a lecture once that hit me so strongly I remember it word for word 35 years later: “As the world became more Christian, Christianity became more worldly.”

    The world will eventually come around to recognizing what masterpieces are Srila Prabhupada’s books. We must work to be instrumental in that process, but it is fore-ordained.

    A more important task is to become truly pure ourselves and to strive for such purity to be reflected in ISKCON’s leadership and management. ISKCON will inevitably grow in power and wealth and influence, but we have to vigilantly guard against it (and us)becoming more worldly.

    Thank you very much Prabhu for raising these important points and explaining them so thoughtfully.

    • I like your professor’s quote too, and I have written it down in my book of useful quotes.

      Some ISKCON observers, years ago, remarked that the purity of the movement would become diluted as the congregation expanded and became the dominant component of membership.

      But the way that influence can be moderated is if ISKCON avoids what every other religion has done: to become comfortable with a passive congregation. If we simply minister to the needs of a large and supportive membership, that will not help us reach the level of outreach we truly require. But if every congregation member also becomes a missionary – in effect, if we truly create ‘a priesthood of all believers’ then we can avoid the comfortable and dull path.

  3. Akruranatha dasa

    Thank you for your insightful comments.

    Someone was discussing recently the meaning of SBSST’s article about “Dikes and Dams,” and I think you have hit on the actual meaning.

    It cannot mean we are to remain disorganized, because SBSST and Srila Prabhupada clearly endeavored to create well-organized, effective preaching missions.

    It must mean that we always have to be vigilant not to become complacent, “professional” devotees who earn a living by flattering congregations and collecting money to solve the problems of eating and sleeping.

    The material tendency pushes us to elevate the organization and the positions of authority within the organization and symbols of that authority (like buildings) over Krishna, the real enjoyer of all our efforts and payers and meditation.

    The GBC system has the genius of forcing us to cooperate together for a common purpose and not preoccupy ourselves with the politics of “acharya-hood.”

    But still we have to remember that our common purpose is, as you have put it, to turn every congregation member into a missionary and create a “priesthood of all believers.” To inspire everyone to not only chant Hare Krishna, but to encourage their friends and families to chant, without offense.

    I wish I could remember my Medieval History professor’s name. He was at university of Miami, circa 1980, and he was elderly and had a Greek last name. That’s all I can remember.

    He also liked Krishna consciousness when I explained it to him. He liked that devotees were actually practicing sense control, and he remarked that “brahman, paramatma and bhagavan” reminded him of the mystery of the Trinity.

    • Thank you very much for your thoughts Akruranatha Prabhu, they are much appreciated. I also feel the same way about ‘organisations’ and I have shared my thoughts several times in these pages. Much comment has been made about Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Thakura’s dismissal of organised religious groups, but he did not intend to criticise those assemblies of pure hearted Vaishnavas that work to alleviate the world’s ills. Otherwise, why did he himself create a similar ‘organised religion?’

      But he wanted everyone to be aware of the dangers of creating the very dynamic that renders a pure religious society into a useless one: a passive, unthinking congregation matched by a worldy, grasping priesthood. Vaishnavas also have to be vigilant. It has happened before and it will happen again

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