ISKCON 2011 #2 Is ISKCON growing or shrinking? How do we measure it anyway?


ISKCON is a missionary organisation whose business it is to broadcast information of spiritual practises and devotional service to Krishna. We share information via books, conversations, periodicals, correspondence and the internet; and we do it for whoever is interested (and many who are not.)

But the aim of ISKCON is to work in such a way that the organisation itself grows, enabling it to do more for others, ISKCON must grow if it is to regard itself successful as a missionary organisation.

Growth can be estimated by the annual increase in ‘membership’. How do we define membership? One definition is that it is when a person decides that they agree with the teachings and makes a commitment to practise.

Practise is sometimes explained as ‘ABCD’ when a person chooses regular vaishnava Association, studies Srila Prabhupada’s Books, takes up the daily Chanting of the maha-mantra and adjusts the Diet to vegetarian food, offered to Krishna.

Growth of ISKCON is very much often a corollary of successful outreach activities such as book distribution, hari nam sankirtan, hall festivals, home gatherings, educational courses and personal cultivation; and spiritually dynamic temple programmes and leadership.

In themselves, these activities are the pre-requisites of growth but may not necessarily lead to growth in membership unless they are done consistently and in co0ordination with each other.

For instance, hari nam sankirtan may attract interest in Krishna consciousness but may not easily lead to direct growth in membership, unless there is literature distributed and a local temple where the enquirer can ask questions. If the temple itself is not spiritually dynamic then the enquirer may not return. If the temple is dynamic but does not promote its existence locally, no one may know of the existence of the Krishna devotees in that locality.

Therefore our outreach activities work best at attracting – and retaining – new members when they are done simultaneously and cooperatively. We may measure increases in our preaching activities and that is a measure of success. It means that devotees are enlivened to go out and preach. But measurement of the increase in pre-requisites of growth is not the same as measuring growth.

Book distribution may be increasing year on year, but, if very few are coming to the point of ‘ABCD’ then the book distribution figures only indicate growth potential, not the actual growth of the movement.

If ISKCON was a movement for book distribution only, such as the Gideon Bible Society, then measuring the number of books distributed would be a direct measurement of its growth.

We really do need to measure what’s most important to us, not simply what we do to broadcast the teachings and the Holy Name, but how many people join us as a result. That doesn’t mean how many choose to live in our centers, but how many choose to invite Krishna to live with them.



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9 responses to “ISKCON 2011 #2 Is ISKCON growing or shrinking? How do we measure it anyway?

  1. Madhu

    Very interesting topic! I find it fascinating how Buddhism, a religion not known for preaching, is so popular in mainstream society. OK, perhaps not every fan of Buddhism is meditating and living the Buddhist way, but they certainly do well for all the support and exposure they get. If we measure a religion’s success by how many people ‘like’ it, I guess they’d come out pretty high. Do you think that type of acceptance is something we should seek as a means to building bridges – a status that only comes by letting go of evangelical practices and relying on other ways of making friends and influencing?

    • I think I know what you mean, Madhu. The term ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek words eu- and angelion meaning the good news. By extension, the word ‘evangelical’ came to mean anyone who believed that the life of Jesus and his story – what came to called the New Testament – was ‘good news.’ OK so far.

      At different points in 19th and 20th century history though, the word became identified with various forms of ‘aggressive outreach’ and suffered because of it.

      Is Krishna consciousness also ‘good news’? Of course. Are we therefore ‘evangelicals?’ It would appear that we are!

      But I think that your question is really to do with the modes of preaching – the manner in which we conduct our outreach to the public. There are many more ways to attract the public to the life of Krishna bhakti other than the approaches that have become traditions within our movement. And naturally, we can also look to see if newest, youngest converts always make the most appealing communicators. In historical evangelicalism the ‘First Great Awakening’ was sparked by Wesley and Whitefield from around 1730-90; but there was a ‘Second Great Awakening’ after that, of a different flavour and mainly in America, from 1790 onwards.

      Maybe in ISKCON we need a Second Great Awakening. The first took place in America – how about the second being in Europe?

  2. Madhu

    Yes, I suppose I am using the word ‘evangelical’ in a negative sense, just as I think the word ‘preach’ also carries negative connotations. However, it’s not so much about the particular word we use. After all, we can swap the word preaching for outreach, but if the attitude remains aggressive, efforts are counter-productive. Words become out-dated, but so do behaviours and traditions, which is why I find it strange that young people – our most prized communicators, adopt words, mannerisms and attitudes that are dated and in many cases, offensive to social sensibilities. I hope I’m staying ‘on topic’! I’m new to commenting here!

  3. I really appreciate that you are articulating these thoughts. When playing sport, or retail, or teaching a class, we need to be clear about our “win”. In soccer the “win” relates not to how many times the ball was kicked, but how many goals were made. In retail it is not about how beautiful the store is, or how many people come in, but how many sales are made. Similarly, in school, the “win” is about how many students pass the exams and get good grades.

    In ISKCON we have so many programs for sharing Krishna consciousness that have become ends in themselves. The real measure, as you have stated however, is not about how many books sold, how many people at a festival, or how many plates of prasadam distributed, but about how many people have taken up Krishna consciousness, in one form or another.

    And yet, most of the time it is these other programs that are announced in newsletters, GBC discussions, and other forums, as the win. I believe our society would be in a much stronger position if these programs were understood as steps towards the real win of people becoming Krishna conscious.

    • Thank you Sri Prahlada prabhu. I was told of one story about Srila Prabhupada’s guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, who one day was standing with a sannyasi disciple looking at a gathering of devotees.

      The sannyasi pointed out one young man who had just started coming to the matha events and he commented: “Guru Maharaja, this young man will make a very good devotee.” Instead of replying with appreciation, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta cautioned: “Just wait until the harvest is safely in the granary.”

      The acarya was concerned that in the time between preaching to someone new and that person’s membership of the Gaudiya Math, so many things could happen. He could only count a person’s solid membership as a ‘win.’

      Similarly, between all of our various preaching and teaching activities, so many things can happen to lose a person’s initial interest.

      Srila Bhaktisiddhanta actually conceived an elaborate system to care for his disciples who did not live in the Math. It seems that we must also turn our attention to that, too.

  4. I was looking at one of the old Hare Krishna movies that we used to play for Sunday feast guests, and in it was a clip from Srila Prabhupada where he was talking about the importance of serving his Guru’s order, and he said his Guru Maharaja instructed him, “If you ever get money, print books about Krishna consciousness.”

    Then Srila Prabhupada stated that if we go on with book distribution, the movement will automatically increase.

    Of course, distributing books is not an end in itself. People have to read the books. People have to follow the wisdom that they learn from the books.

    But Srila Prabhupada has stated, and we have seen practically, that when we increase book distribution the number of members joining automatically increases, and those who are engaged in the distribution also feel very purified and happy, and they become effulgent.

    • In England, in 1973, Srila Prabhupada gave a list of six things to be done by his young, enthusiastic preachers. They were 1. Book distribution 2. Prasadam (at least some small thing) 3. Free information 4. Harinam sankirtan 5. Answer their questions and 6. Programmes in a hall or someone’s home.

      During the big book distribution push of the 1970s he was asked if the other five things should stop in order for us to concentrate on book distribution he firmly answered: “No, do everything – side by side”

      Book distribution certainly brings people to Krishna – and specially when the other five items are done simultaneously. I guess the main popint here is that it is not a competition between different preaching methods, but a joint effort that brings success.

  5. Payonidhi das

    Nice points, thank you Kripamoya. Akruranatha and Madhu prabhus!

    Please allow me to add some points.

    IMHO the way to measure it is by seeing how many souls are we ultimately able to somehow “induce” to love Krishna.

    The other activities, like book distribution, temple construction, management etc are meant as means to reach that goal and not as end by themselves as properly indicated above.

    Like a gardener that has to seed, nourish and protect his plants but his goal is to ultimately produce the fruit, right? And what fruit are we, as devotees striving to produce? Krishna Prema.

    Of course that brings the point of our own level of advancement. Can we inspire detachment if we have not developed it? We can spread attraction for Krishna, His Name, Form, Pastimes, Words and Devotees according to our own real level of relishing them.

    So are we growing or shrinking?
    IMHO we are definitely growing, maybe not so much as number of residents in Iskcon temples and communities but as souls becoming interested and favorable if not attached to Krishna both in quantity and quality.

    After all the temples are meant to educate-train people how to add Krishna in their lives and make them Krishna-centric so that then they can then find their real position in varanashrama and follow their particular dharma for the rest of their lives?

    They may not be all of them teachers (brahmanas) so that they will continue living within and under missionary Iskcon, serving as celibate preachers and “clergy”
    Most of these devotees naturaly are getting married and exercise either their ksatriya, vaisya or sudra propensities situating themselves in proper arrangements but with Krishna as the center. And this is already happening, right?

    It seems, 99% of those coming in contact with Krishna consciousness continue to accept Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead and practice devotion to a variety of standards.

    Our congregation is expanding everywhere, as far as I know, Krishna consciousness is becoming more and more known and accepted everywhere, many older devotees, disciples of Srila Prabhupada have become advanced and advancing more and more and therefore I think it would be safe to conclude Iskcon is expanding!

    Please allow me to remind Srila Prabhupada’s seven purposes of ISKCON that can also be used as a way to measure Iskcon’s growth:

    a) To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.

    b) To propagate a consciousness of Krishna, as it is revealed in the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam.

    c) To bring the members of the Society together with each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, thus to develop the idea within the members, and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).

    d) To teach and encourage the sankirtana movement, congregational chanting of the holy names of God as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

    e) To erect for the members and for society at large, a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the personality of Krishna.

    f) To bring the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.

    g) With a view towards achieving the aforementioned Purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, magazines, books and other writings

  6. anjali

    The ABCD analogy is quite nice.
    I know only in my area. For the last decade, there has been significant lack of outreach outside of the Indian community. The Indian community itself is imploding from the recession. Many work visas aren’t being renewed. Any step by step measures to extend harinam?

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