A Guru in every Town and Village

After people have read one of Srila Prabhupada’s books, and if they want to know more, their first question is often something like this: “How can I find out more about all this? Do you have any meetings in my town?” or “Are there any other Krishna people living near me?” That was my first eager question at the age of 16 when I received a Back to Godhead magazine in the streets of Nottingham, England.

If you’re not English but you’ve heard the name of Nottingham before, the answer to your question is yes, the city still has a sheriff, although the Sheriff of Nottingham these days is largely a ceremonial functionary – and no, there’s not much of a forest today for Robin Hood and his merry men to hide away in.

But such things didn’t concern me when I was 16. I wanted to know where I could find out more, and if there were any other Krishna people living in Nottingham. I’d already had some sort of introduction to Krishna the previous year, although quite a mysterious one. My father worked for an office machine company and had brought home an old spirit duplicator. By using carbon paper to create a typewriter original, and fluid to transfer the purple print to a fresh sheet of paper, you could, by cranking a handle, produce any number of duplicates. I’m sure there were Xerox photocopiers already in existence, but I was 15, it was 1972 and I didn’t know anyone who had one.

My friends had formed a band and wanted to put on a show. So they asked me if I could design and print a flyer for the event. “What sort of design do you want?” I asked them, happy to oblige. “Well, it’s going to be called the Ananta Disco,” they replied. “How do you spell that word,” I asked, “and what does it mean?”

My two musician friends looked at each other, as if it was some kind of secret they didn’t want to reveal, then burst out laughing. “Ananta is a snake,” said one. “Kind of like a cosmic snake somewhere in the universe.”

“We met some Krishna people a few weeks ago,” said the other, “they had a flat up the hill on Mansfield Road. We had some of their food – it was yellow.`”

I duly designed the ‘cosmic snake’ so that the curves of the snake’s body spelled out ‘Ananta’ with the head on the final letter. When I brought over the batch of printed flyers my friends were happy, but I was intrigued. I wanted to know more but they couldn’t tell me anything, they had no books, and the Krishnas had ‘gone to London to sing along Oxford Street.’

So when I met a devotee on the street in Nottingham in the summer of the following year I really wanted to know where he lived and whether I could come over and ask questions. “We’re traveling” he replied, “and the nearest place is London.” I was disappointed, and the devotee seemed not to want to talk, and moved away to approach another person. “What’s your address in London?” He fumbled in his shoulder bag and gave me a small spirit-duplicated flyer with an image of a long-haired girl in a dress with her hands raised in the air, together with some words repeated down one side. And then he was gone.

So that was how I missed Srila Prabhupada at the Manor in 1973 when he stayed with the devotees for many weeks; an unusual length of time for him to remain in one place. Had the devotee actually invited me to come – which he didn’t – I would have come. Had he taken my address and written to me, I certainly would have made the effort to travel down to London. As it was, I thought that ‘here are George Harrison’s personal friends, and they don’t want anyone to disturb them by visiting them.’ So it wasn’t until the year after that I was actually invited.

But this blog is not about the personal warmth and after-sales communication skills of Krishna book distributors. Rather, its to stress the fact that spiritual movements like ours need to be prepared to help people whenever their spiritual needs are most urgent. And we need to be able to help them wherever they live. It is not good enough to direct people to the nearest city where there is a temple. Our work is enhanced by temples, but cannot be dependent on them. Medical care is enhanced by a hospital but can never be limited by it. People hurt themselves in the most unlikely of places and often the paramedics must come to them. Help must be given when and where it is needed, otherwise people perish.

Spiritual workers must be available in every village. That’s the request of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of Krishna who came in the form of a saintly teacher. He demonstrated his concern by walking village to village in India for six years, teaching the message wherever he went.

ISKCON has been way ahead of most other spiritual groups in its enthusiasm and competence for initial outreach. In the matter of getting out there and boldly going where no man has gone before we’re bold pioneers. Our book distributors have been everywhere: northern Alaska, Siberia, outer Mongolia, Cambodia and even Timbuktu, and we’ve given millions of people the chance to read about Krishna consciousness. It is nothing less than astonishing. We are still raising eyebrows in the publishing world where a ‘runaway bestseller’ is 20,000 copies, but the Hare Krishnas will only ever print 100,000 copies of a book.

Unfortunately, we haven’t done as well – so far – as other comparable groups in our geographic spread. You’ll find us in the major cities but we fade out in the smaller towns. And we’re not really known for our pastoral care either. Where the Jehovah’s Witnesses will sit down with you to study the Bible, we often can’t find the time to talk with people. But people do require the ongoing tuition, support, guidance and a sense of progress that should naturally follow the initial outreach.

If the devotees of Krishna do not provide these spiritual supports as a corollary of their book distribution, then other organisations certainly will. In the past 40 years everyone with something spiritual to say has set up shop pretty much locally. ‘Alternative Lifestyle and Philosophy’ has gone mainstream and is now available in every book store. And you’ll find some kind of guru or master in every local copy of the Yellow Pages. The disparity between our book distribution and our follow-up is such that, over the years, we’ve helped millions to become familiar with the basic concepts of eastern philosophy, then watched as they went to learn more from local teachers who didn’t tell them anything about Krishna. And those local teachers are quite happy with us and think us to be very helpful for their own private missions.

But as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Goswami said: “Krishna consciousness is so important, so exclusively important,” that it does not make logical sense for the Krishna consciousness movement to become sidelined into a movement for initial outreach and book distribution only – albeit one with highly decorated temples in major cities. We need more gurus. Not remote, world-travelling, highly qualified gurus, but locally accessible gurus. Thousands of them.

By guru I mean someone who is prepared to personally roll up their sleeves and accept responsibility for the spiritual welfare of a number of named individuals. No wide broadcasting of messages; no generic teaching to anonymous masses; but teaching, guidance, encouragement and support to named people in a local area. Only with thousands of men and women doing this will we be able to do what this great mission was set up to do.

At Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire, England, we have recently launched a scheme for locating and developing a network of ‘mentors’ who can be a spiritually knowledgeable, well-wishing friend to others. Here’s the intro video:


Filed under Guru-Disciple, ISKCON, Journal

9 responses to “A Guru in every Town and Village

  1. Bhakta Mike

    Wow this was so good to read. Ive been an aspiring devotee for nearly twenty years.because i have lived in a small rural village for the last 8 years, there is noone to say i am a suitable candidate for initiation and i don’t see this changing. I do not however become morose about this i just have to accept that’s how it is for me, i really didn’t want to leave my body without initiation though. All my association comes from the internet and very high quality too, for example ISKCON Desire Tree being one of my favourites. It is so heart warming Dear Kripamoya Prabhu that you still, even twenty years when you first inspired me, to inspire me again in exactly the same way.

    Jaya Srila Prabhupada 🙂

    • Thanks Mike. Good to hear that you’ve kept your spirits up all these years. Please keep in touch so that you don’t miss out when an event happens near you. You never know, your small rural village may just have a few bhakti-yogis living in it already. No, I’m serious.
      And if it would help you at all, we have a lot more devotees out on the road visiting remote areas. From time to time they can drop in to your village hall if you like.

  2. Bhakta Mike

    My main associations were also begun in Nottingham. Since then i have moved to rural France, i have visited the temple at the north but i live south which is around 300 miles away. One of my biggest comforts regarding KC progress is the ‘every town and village’ desires of Srila Prabhupada and so i consider myself a small outpost of Krishna Consciousness. I never feel alone though.

  3. Many years ago I heard Rohinanda share that he has a guest coming to the Soho temple who he spoke with. The guest told him, that “You have a great philosophy, but no fellowship.” I think in many cases this is still true. There are many types of devotees who need specialized care, not as you said generic preaching. Basically, if we become friends of interested persons and we click that will do more than only speaking philosophy. My wife and I have come to the conclusion, similar to you, that we need need village gurus, with a few disciples that the totally know and can really offer them meaningful guidance. There are many qualified gurus, but they often have so many disciples that they have no time to really spend with them. And at many temples devotees are over taxed and also, as you observed, have little time to give to prospective new people. Or they have time for them, only if they join the temple, and do service. I hope more devotees are thinking as you do.
    yours in service,
    dasanudas Karnamrita

  4. Anonymous

    Hare Krishna,
    A very wonderful thought. This is needed and it will help so much in training devotees personally. HH Radhanath Swami and HH Romapada Swami have such a system already in place. Maybe some others also, which I do not know. All glories to you…

  5. Pusta Krishna

    Mostly we can see that people are generally interested in themselves. That is the nature of conditioned souls. We can see that Srila Prabhupad placed everything on the line when he ventured as a 70 year old sadhu to a small park in the Bowery section of New York. While nowadays practically every part of New York city is “yuppified”, that was not the case then. The Bowery was notorious for being a place where drunks and drug abusers resided. The most fallen. That was his nature. Nowadays, we often see that temples will not allow some such people into the temples, lest the more “respectable” visitors become offended. What vision must one have to truly be called a “guru” in the first place. Simply to recite verses, even in Sanskrit, may make one a mere sophist, half wise and half fool. The heart of a guru is reflection of the heart of Krishna. Therefore, always look within, where your dearmost Friend, Krishna, ever resides. Then, what association you need will come to you without doubt…and you will not be cheated. Pusta Krishna das

    • Pranams to all readers. There is a book of Srila Prabhupada that has made so many positive changes in so many people’s lives and amongst others, this is the Sri Isopanisad. This book has it all covered as far as developing an open, kind and compassionate vision towards every living entity no matter their external status. This book is on a mission to create mahatmas out of duratmas. This book is real deep and it can make a devotee go as deep in Krishna consciousness, broadening his aspiration for a meaningful life in the Lord’s service. And when this is so, the world can be so much benefited by such transformed vaishnavas, within or outside of ISKCON.
      Actually, there is no “outside of ISKCON” because ISKCON, as a preaching instrument of Lord Caitanya, can claim the whole material world as its field for preaching. This is large enough to keep everyone engaged and blissfully absorbed in spreading the sankirtan movement in every nook and corner. And the need is great for mahatmas to do that. Broad minded preachers who can and want to do that.
      All glories to Srila Prabhuapda who has given us the matchless gift of Krishna conscousness. Now it is our business to pass it on without discrimination whatsoever. That will be the test of our best understanding of the philosophy that we have been so kindly given out of pure causeless mercy. All glories to all the preachers of Krishna consciousness all over the world. I beg for the dust of their lotus feet.

  6. Ananda Maya dasi

    Hare Krishna, my obeisances to all. I am always looking for association as often I am not located near my home or a temple either physically or by constraints of work and/or time. So even in a big city, as well as next door to a temple, sometimes you may feel on the outside by circumstances or otherwise. Therefore you must be able to associate in some shape or form, sadhu sanga or alternatively become ‘sad-dudes’ as my husband often remarks. I relish the insight and mindful reflection of considerate devotees and this was very refreshing.

    We have pockets of consideration within our movement and some exceptional individuals who can serve with great understanding, all members, would-be members and general enquirers. But even so close to our temples in cities, towns and other locations many are isolated as you have duly noted, our aftercare service doesn’t come with a warranty. I noticed this point most prominently even within my own family where a child can grow to adulthood in ISKCON and be left chasing, just as our friend ‘Mike’, looking for a guru or initiation having spent their life reading in Bhagavad Gita that we should surrender to the ‘self-realised soul’. After many attempts to pursue a path to initiation I have watched the frustrations and the feelings that they are not worth it, or not new enough or not part of the globe-trotting posse that it seems one must be in order to build a relationship.

    ‘Follow me on facebook’ is not enough to build such a considered relationship. There seems to be an overburden on those souls providing this service, a scarcity, and almost an ambivalence to our youth in some respects. My daughter has often remarked that she would fare better if she walked in off the street, not that there is anything wrong with a soul doing that, we all did, but she means in terms of being able to pursue her spiritual life. I have heard from many lectures: ‘act in a way that Krishna sees you and not demand ‘let me see Krishna’, to become qualified; but this is a good soul, doing service, 100% an ISKCONite and dedicated to Srila Prabhupada. However living beside a temple does not constitute living ‘in’ a temple for recommendations for initiation it seems, and remaining in a local area does not give the necessary platform to meet a potential spiritual master as in the ‘diksa’ role, and not everyone can travel continuously. So it can be so disheartening to make approaches to inspiring souls and not receive anything back, it is not reciprocal. I fear for our movement if we are not extending ourselves in community care from an internal and external perspective.

    When my son performed travelling sankirtana I used to print business cards for the team to ensure that the person had an email contact to follow up and build relations with, it was simple and effective but such a small thing to do. Given how much of our time is consumed with technology it is perhaps a part of training our travelling preachers, how to build on these links. As for the rest of us, we all have to inconvenience ourselves to preach in whatever way possible, but that includes caring for those on the inside also. If we cannot do that, it reflects on our weaknesses in caring for those coming to Krishna. We have planted so many seeds by distributing books for many, many years but without that personal connection sometimes the living entity is so covered that they simply cannot translate the goodness in the book into anything tangible, they need a personal connection.
    I was one such person, great books, fantastic music but found the personal connection more than sadly lacking. Eventually I plucked up the courage to seek more knowledge and was given that by one devotee while others simply wanted to sell books. Nobody explained the content, nobody helped me access it. Just one person and how many more sinful acts I committed waiting for that opportunity, I cannot say. Similarly when I was practicing, I did all the programme, offerings etc. at home. I aspired for initiation and looked forward to going to the ‘Temple’ that big event. When I got there I was subjected to ridiculous mundane chatter about my past and non Krishna conscious matter, so much so that I swore I would never go back. Luckily I did, and have stuck through the various changes in our society, but see the same struggles going on. Hopefully your insights and inspirations will encourage us all to make a difference and contribute to a more vibrant enactment of Srila Prabhupada’s vision. Many thanks. All glories to your insights and service. YS AMdd

    • All points taken seriously, Ananda Maya, thank you. We do have some tried and tested ways that devotees can become involved in a pathway towards initiation without having to travel the world ‘looking for a guru.’

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