A humorous billboard advertising a play at the recent Janmasthami. Put on by brahmacari actors, the play was successful at encouraging the festival-goers to get involved in ISKCON activities.
I was master of ceremonies last week for our Annual Supporters Dinner, and also yesterday for our weekend Janmasthami celebrations. We have a large, high-ceilinged marquee that can seat one thousand people comfortably, and the large stage offers a very good view of the entire crowd. As I surveyed one thousand friendly faces at the annual dinner and the audience at the festival, I could not help but feel grateful for all the support that comes from our friends who provide both funding and hours of volunteer service. Without them, such a large project as Bhaktivedanta Manor could not function. With their support and help, it is an indisputable fact that the Manor has gone from strength to strength, and has succeeded in implementing at least some of the orders that Srila Prabhupada gave. I am very happy with that. There is so much more to do, that’s true, but we can see improvements year on year.
But my sense of gradual growth is not shared by all. I know that some devotees are concerned by the fact that the Manor has come to represent some of the changes within ISKCON that they perceive as unwelcome and a hindrance to spiritual progress. They are not in the majority, yet they are vocal. They say that ISKCON has changed significantly from its early years; from a membership of mainly young, idealistic and frugal western converts, to a diverse movement of all ages, from all walks of life. They feel that through this change the movement has somehow lost its initial spiritual potency, and perhaps, as a consequence, its appeal to young people. They argue that the original purpose and pioneering edge has been eroded, and we have gone from a rugged, highly committed campaigning group on the fringes of modern society, to a much more socially accommodated organization for the middle classes – an established ‘religion’ even. This they find troubling.
In addition to this, somewhere along the way, during all the years of ups and downs, through all the meandering twists and turns that such a growing movement takes, we have attracted a huge amount of support from those of Indian background (or ‘east Indian’ if you’re in the USA). And when Indians come to ISKCON they bring with them, just as the western converts did, their cultural conditionings and existing religious perspectives, namely those of Hinduism.
Now, I’ve written about Hinduism before, and how its a generic, catch-all term that in its broadness defines nothing at all. Its a geographical designator, not a theological one, and was stuck on as a false label by both Muslim and British overlords in the days of invasion and subjugation. But now the label has stuck and most people of sub-continental origin, no matter what their particular religious affiliation, are quite happy to be regarded as Hindu, whatever the term means to them.
What devotees in ISKCON mean when they speak somewhat disparagingly about Hinduism and Hindus boils down to just three simple ideas. Ideas they find objectionable. The first is the notion that there are ‘many gods’ and that ‘all the gods are the same’. The second is that by religious ceremonies, morality and virtuous behaviour one can aspire to enjoy more sensual gratification in this life or the next. The third is that the ultimate state of existence is the soul’s merging with the divine, formless light known as Brahman.
Now these three ideas are also condemned as inferior beliefs by all Vaishnava schools of thought in India. Indeed, you will not find a great Vaishnava teacher, and certainly not the head of any of the traditional Vaishnava institutions, that will not have strong words about each of these notions. They are held as popular beliefs within other strands of Hinduism. But popularity does not mean they are true or in the best interest of the soul. All Vaishnava acaryas have consequently seen it as their duty to elevate mankind above those primary level religious ideas that are, in essence, selfishly motivated. The Vaishnavas want to help others towards selfless love of God, which includes the greatest and everlasting rewards for the true self . Accordingly, the founder of ISKCON also had strong words about such notions that were prevalent within the broad Hindu population. What is often seen, and what he spoke about, is that while on the surface many Hindus will vocally espouse the conceptions of selfless devotion of bhakti to Krishna, the three ideas mentioned above still lie just beneath the surface and therefore need to be addressed by robust teaching.
ISKCON devotees, as Vaishnavas, naturally feel they have a duty to carry out their duty to Srila Prabhupada by similarly condemning philosophies of life that he indicated as errors of philosophical judgement. And they also feel duty bound to convey the positive conceptions of Krishna bhakti as taught by all Vaishnava acaryas throughout history.
But they should also understand if Hindus residing in the west, brought up from childhood to admire and respect Krishna, are drawn to ISKCON. And if they come in their thousands because of the beauty of our religious services, festivals and shrines, that is certainly not a threat. What is a threat is if ISKCON compromises its theology, liturgy or governance structure to accommodate any one of the non-Vaishnava ideas identified above. Has that happened? I don’t know for every branch of our Society. I can say that it has not happened here. Could it happpen? Yes, of course. There is always a chance of ISKCON’s growth being compromised by any one of a number of factors.
So far as I see at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the reverse influence is taking place: our local Hindu community has been singularly affected by ISKCON and its message of practical devotion to Krishna; the very opposite of what is feared by some. New converts from ‘generic Hinduism’ to Vaishnavism are coming forward every year, and last year more than one hundred became initiated. During our last Summer Book Distribution Marathon – a core ISKCON missionary activity if ever there was one – over 70 participants were from Indian backgrounds. Our Janmasthami Festival, this year attracting some 70,000 visitors over two days; almost entirely staged by 600 volunteers who came every evening after their day’s work finished to give ISKCON an average of four hours voluntary service each. Then there is the considerable financial support: 400 major supporters and many thousands of donors, all of whom help to realise what Srila Prabhupada wanted for Bhaktivedanta Manor: the new agricultural land and driveway (£1 million), the new roof (£1.5 million), the new cow and oxen protection centre (£2.5 million), the new school, pushed forward by a combination of community involvement and central government funding (total £13 million) and many other projects, all of which help to establish the core activities that ISKCON’s founder identified as being essential.
We can never become complacent, however. Many is the religious organisation that was inadvertently, and gradually – sometimes over many years – profoundly affected by the divergent ideas of its members. Core values and foundational principles can be set aside for more pragmatic ones; policy making based on the founder’s wishes can fall victim to popular notions and more liberal philosophies or the process of modernization. Can Bhaktivedanta Manor’s outreach activities and considerable resources be more directed to the young spiritual seeker from a Christian, Jewish or Atheist background? As Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura termed them, the ‘fair-skinned English?’ Of course, more could always be done.
But we do not accomplish more in one direction of outreach by disparaging attempts in another. And far less is achieved by criticizing those attempts when they are successful, as they are at Bhaktivedanta Manor. To all those who would challenge that ISKCON has become ‘Hinduized’, I would ask: “What do you mean – exactly?”