Who is an ISKCON Member? #7 What happens after ISKCON: The Way Out


This is the last in a short series of posts about ISKCON membership. I hope you’ve found them either interesting or useful. Today I am talking about those who have closed the door behind them, and taken the ‘Way Out.’

There are many who, at one time or another, were involved in ISKCON in some way, and now they are not. That is not to say their relationship with Krishna has been interrupted – no power on earth can do that – but their contributions to, support for, and social involvement with other members of ISKCON has lapsed. Some of them may have come across ideas or values they could not agree with, while some changed their minds as their life circumstances changed. A few others had conflicting views with how ISKCON should be organized, and still others found alternative leaders in other organizations that proved more useful to them at the time.

Some of ISKCON’s former members are relatively quiet and respectfully remain at a distance, some are rather vociferous in their antagonism and try to influence existing members’ opinions. All former members are people who decided that ISKCON was not meeting their current needs, interests, concerns or expectations so they stopped identifying themselves as members. Many didn’t even make a conscious decision to ‘leave,’ they just stopped meeting up, writing or calling. It happens.

Here are a few of my personal observations about members in transit:

1. The Dissenting Member

A member who is not out physically, but finds so much difficulty with the theology, liturgy or governance structure of ISKCON that he might as well be. He takes a position of permanent dissent from mainstream views. While healthy change in any organization often comes from the periphery, then later helps to change the core, this member seems to thrive more on his own sense of being special (and always right) than on an altruistic desire to help create a better organization.

2. The ‘I’m leaving if things don’t change’ member

Like the above, only he actually threatens to leave if others don’t start seeing things from his point of view. Sometimes, because he’s a leading member, and ‘too big to lose,’ he gets his own way. ISKCON is concerned that if he leaves, his followers will go with him. He will probably never leave, because he’s loyal at heart, but he uses his childish threats to good effect. Should ISKCON call his bluff? Perhaps. But in the past that strategy has often led to the next type of member…

3. The ‘I’ll Start a Separate Movement within the Movement’ member.

He also doesn’t leave but simply starts another movement along with his followers inside ISKCON. Sometimes using different names, styles, websites, appearances and so on, you’d never know his ‘alternative preaching strategy’ was ISKCON unless you asked. And sometimes its not. This member will register his ‘project’ in a different name and claim it as an ‘ISKCON affiliate.’ Trouble is, sometimes ISKCON members and supporters donate liberally to this affiliate, only to learn later that the new building purchased with the funds is not registered in ISKCON’s name. With the increase in the number of these ‘affiliates’ it is hard to know whether ISKCON is actually growing, or if some other aggregate of affiliates has taken over.

4.  The ‘I’m still part of ISKCON, but you’ve all got to change’ campaigning ex-member.

He is an ex-member for sure, either because his theology is just too extreme, or he just doesn’t like ‘institutions,’ or he was unceremoniously asked to leave, but within his slightly hot head he is still a member. Of something. Maybe he styles himself as belonging to a community he variously refers to as: ‘The Greater ISKCON,’ or ‘The Real ISKCON.’ If he really doesn’t like ‘institutions’ he will say that he no longer wishes to be a member of ‘Corporate ISKCON,’ and if he really thinks – as many do – that he knows ‘what Prabhupada really wanted’ then he might imagine that he has the founder-acarya’s blessings to be a member of ‘Srila Prabhupada’s ISKCON.’

The thing is that he wants everyone else to catch up with his brilliant philosophical insights and he’s wondering why they don’t get it. Until we all do he will start websites  – and campaign, come to ISKCON festivals such as Rathayatra and hand out magazines – and campaign, and come to Sunday feasts – and campaign. Somehow the idea doesn’t arise that – if ISKCON is so bad – it might be far better to start his own organization with his own unconditional understanding of Srila Prabhupada at the head. Unfortunately for us all, he will never do that, and in the meantime the internet enables him and a few friends to make themselves seem like a serious going concern. Beyond the website hyperbole though, its just three or four blokes in their bedrooms.

5. The ‘I left ISKCON because of the Zonal acaryas’ ex-member

Its true, he did leave way back. Maybe 25 years ago. We all know he left, and he knows he’s left, but he just can’t resist telling us all what we should do to. In fact, he really feels that ISKCON needs him and his vision now more than ever. He’s a lot older than other ex-members, and he has a few horror stories of ISKCON to spin out to younger members to justify his totally ruthless, vicious, online, anti-ISKCON campaigning to the world. Trouble is, in his mind he has re-written his own life story so that he really believes he left ISKCON for the most selfless of motives. The truth is that he left to go back to college, or to make money, or to find love. All reasonable needs for a certain time of life, of course, but not so compatible with the Fearless Seeker of the Truth he’d like us all to believe he was way back then. He has some legitimate concerns about ISKCON, and he knows how to express himself persuasively, yet its all mixed in with rumour and gossip from members 1 -5 and is therefore quite dated. He has pages of explanation about where ISKCON went wrong in 1978, but relatively few constructive suggestions for improvement in 2012. But even if he did have a constructive suggestion, he would never raise even a finger to do anything practical for ISKCON. He smiles as his days in this world pass by, content with the attention he’s attracting  – and the emotions he’s provoking – while writing in splendid isolation.

6. The ‘I have discovered true nectar’ ex-member.

He has well and truly gone, and gone on to greater things, apparently. This member was looking for purity, sweetness and light, and ISKCON was not good enough for him. Too many people told him that he had to serve others in order to develop humility – which he found curiously troubling. For this reason he doesn’t like too many Vaishnavas around him. He values his personal freedom, not being under the thumb of anyone else, whether guru or institution. He claims he has found a greater spiritual preceptor outside ISKCON, and wants all his old friends to know about it. So much so that he keeps turning up at ISKCON social gatherings and religious functions to network, collect members’ contact details and ‘just exchange love between devotees.’

He says he doesn’t know why we all can’t just get along, and protests that its ‘just not love if you have membership of anything, because it excludes people’. He really doesn’t understand the benefits of having boundaries in life. So he continues to come to the Sunday Feast, and the people he talks to – who find him quite loving, actually – continue to become initiated by his own, greater, spiritual preceptor.

Summary

The truth of the matter is that ISKCON is the largest international organization of its kind, and has a good balance of missionary spirit,  creative communication, gorgeous ritual and festival, and human and physical resources. As such it is a very attractive spiritual and social movement and will continue to do much good in the world as it continues to grow and steadily improve its service to others. It is no wonder that even those who leave ISKCON remain strongly connected in one way or another. Many members do leave though, and where preventable, that is always regrettable. The response of any organization is to look and see the valid needs of its members and to try to provide everything they need to persist on the sometimes arduous path of spiritual life.

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34 Comments

Filed under Devotees, ISKCON, Journal

34 responses to “Who is an ISKCON Member? #7 What happens after ISKCON: The Way Out

  1. gpd

    Why would anyone follow someone or a group who is presenting Srila Prabhupada and Krishna as Hindu or presenting Krishna and Srila Prabhupada as belonging to or being a part of a group or corporation?

    If a person is not folowing corporate ISKCON does it automatically folow that they are disconnected from Krishna or Srila Prabhupada?

    • As far as I know the term ‘Hindu’ is specifically used with certain audiences and is not part of ISKCON’s presentation to the general public.

      Regarding ‘corporate ISKCON’ I tried to point out in posts #1 and #2 that we are an apple with a ‘core’ and each member is both ‘fruit’ and ‘core’ according to what their contribution is. Since according to law ISKCON does have to be registered in each country as an organization, some individual members have to be legally accountable for the assets of the organization on behalf of the other members.

      The question is always what we feel ourselves to belong to, and what our contribution is. For many members it will be their local connection that gives them the greatest sense of ‘belonging.’

  2. dhirabhakta

    Haribol,
    Thank you for this short course on ISKCON membership; but I’m still puzzled as to were I personally fit in – I guess working through my own insecurities and inadequacies.
    Interesting the other day I was giving a small presentation to a local community project run by social services and NHS partnership; a quiet man sat listening; later as I packed he started to talk amazingly he had met Srila Prabhupada and was for a short time active in Bury Place; still after all this time chanted and identified with the teaching of Srila Prabhupada but found life in ISKCON difficult being a free spirit.
    Being still attracted but unable to fully commit this final posting has put much into context
    Pondering this your small insights and notes have been very useful and given me plenty to think about as to how we view others and our own position within this amazing movement

    • Thanks Dhirabhakta. These are just my observations and thoughts, nothing more.

      With any group of people that you wish to join there’s the NICE rule. You must ask yourself: ‘N’ – Are my needs going to be met through joining this group? ‘I’ – Am I interested in what they’re interested in? ‘C’ – Will the members of this address my pressing concerns? ‘E’ – I have expectations from this group, are they being met?

      Nobody wishes to become a member of ISKCON because its an organization. There are far better organized organizations to join. Considering yourself to be a member involves establishing connection with other people and finding their company helpful for reaching your goals.

      I have probably ‘left ISKCON’ in my mind quite a few times – but I’ve always joined the following morning! The technique seems to be finding all the good reasons for membership…

    • Dear Friend,

      I have appreciated your analysis of people who associate with our movement and who might be identified as members. I am a little confused because you have not mentioned once, the Shiksha Program.
      In your #2 article, you mentioned Congregational members in the ‘layered apple’, but you identified them as uncommitted. This is not true. There is already established in ISKCON a Congregational Membership Program which includes the following levels of commitment among the uninitiated:
      Shraddhavan (full of Faith), Seveka (Service), Sadhaka (Devotion),
      Prabhupada Ashraya (Shelter) and Guru Ashraya (Shelter of ISKCON Guru). Each level has a devotional and service standard which must be met in order to recognized in an individua’ls commitment to KC and ISKCON.
      Though I enjoy reading various concepts of Members’ Qualities; listing the actual Membership levels, that anyone can actually, solidly identify with, is very, very important.
      Since 1992, there has been GBC approved system for receiving and maintaining Congregational membership levels. Most of these membership levels fit in to some of your descriptions of Members as well.
      This system has been in use world-wide for decades. Please also see and note this Shiksha-levels Program as a clear-cut definition of committed members of our movement.

      Your servant, Rankin.

      • Thank you Rankin, for your response which is quite correct. There is indeed a tried and tested scheme of gradual spiritual commitment known as the siksha programme. Perhaps some readers will already be familiar with that. Those who are not familiar can go to http://www.iskconcongregation.com/ which is also permanently linked to the ‘Vaishnava Voice’.

        My posts were not an exhaustive look at ISKCON membership, by any means. My main purpose was to highlight some areas of confusion, the first of which is that there are different categories of member. In the ‘apple’ diagram in #2 the idea was not that there are ‘congregation’ who are all uncommitted and ‘committed’ who are.

        I was using the term ‘congregation’ to indicate ISKCON members who simply ‘congregate’ meaning that they come together regularly. And at some stage such coming together results in a commitment to personal spiritual development, above and beyond the act of simply congregating.

        Thus we have committed congregation and uncommitted congregation, but both categories are congregation.

  3. Janmastami

    Interesting topic and observations. It is important to remember that many of the ‘mainstream’ now were the ‘dissenters’ some time back in the movement. And likely this cycle will continue. Prabhupada himself was a great dissenter and started his own movement which is why we’re here now 🙂 If the movement could see it important to accommodate the diversity and personalism of its members and be transparent in its operations it would be more likely that we would have a house in which the whole world can live. However the more policies are narrowly defined at the sole discretion of the administrator who happens to have authority for a given zone, the more by necessity a greater number of members will have to leave in order to not compromise their Krsna Consciousness. It’s not that this is even good or bad, but more just a practical reality.

    • Thanks Janmastami. Yes, I come from a religious background of ‘legitimate dissent’ against the Church of England which historically gave birth to the Methodist Church. Dissent then continued later on within the Methodist Church to produce The Salvation Army! I guess that history will decide whether that process of dissent was ultimately helpful.

      You are right that dissent within an organization often produces helpful changes and I’ve said so here in the last post: “While healthy change in any organization often comes from the periphery, then later helps to change the core” My condition was only that the dissent should be not based on the member’s inability to work with others (since that is intrinsic within us all) or their sense of ‘specialness’ but must be a genuinely selfless desire to improve the organization.

      Yes, Srila Prabhupada was a member of the Gaudiya Math for quite a long time. Initiated in 1933 and started his own organization in 1966. I guess if you’re not happy with ISKCON after 33 years, its high time to start your own group. It may be the only chance you get, considering how short life is. I have admiration for anyone who, on the strength of their convictions, starts their own group and makes a success of it. There are maybe three or four examples of ISKCON dissenters who have done that and made a great success of it. But spiritual strength is required plus great determination. Blessings from guru and Krishna don’t go amiss either!

      There needs to be a greater sense of connection between members and each other, including committed members and the core of the organization. Without that there will be permanent feelings of disenfranchisement.

      Democracy within ISKCON is only used as a procedure within certain ‘layers’ of the organization, although it is there. It is not employed as a procedure to vote in policy-makers, although some argue that it should be. Whatever the case, a greater sense of contribution to policy formation through voting is only possible when it is established who is a member of ISKCON and for the criteria have to be firmly established. So I wanted to write something from my personal perspective. Thanks for reading it.

  4. Anonymous

    Oh, Zing! Nice writing.

    Even if I have issues with this administrator or that GBC, the International Society for Krsna Consciousness, Srila Prabhupada’s chariot for taking Krsna to every town and village, is bigger than my issues, more important than my issues, and deserving of my service, regardless of my issues. That’s how I see it.

    I’ve been scorched aplenty, but who am I to complain? How many have I scorched in the past (shudder)? Can’t I tolerate, for the greater good?

    Recently my character was impugned, unfairly, behind my back, by a leader I served sincerely, knew well and trusted even more – with the evident objective of stopping me from serving elsewhere. It was painful to hear about, but how much pain have I caused to others that I must endure this? Nothing in this world happens in a karma-less vacuum, save and except pure devotional service – and even then, the stalwart Vaishnava may be dealing with some residual ‘after-effects.’ And what to speak of someone like myself, who can’t claim to be a Vaishnava at all?

    Krsna has a way of wringing out our problems, if we’ll just stick to the program and learn a little humility. From what I’ve seen, those devotees who go bounding off, angry and self-righteous, generally don’t get to keep much going in terms of spiritual life. They hit a wall.

    • Thanks for writing. Your account is uncomfortable to hear and you have my sympathies. I feel the only way forward is if ISKCON membership is carefully defined, and the rights and responsibilities of members outlined and protected.

  5. Pancha Tattva dasa

    “He has pages of explanation about where ISKCON went wrong in 1978, but relatively few constructive suggestions for improvement in 2012. But even if he did have a constructive suggestion, he would never raise even a finger to do anything practical for ISKCON. He smiles as his days in this world pass by, content with the attention he’s attracting – and the emotions he’s provoking – while writing in splendid isolation.” – I love that passage – so true.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Pancha Tattva. There’s much more that could be written about the self centred posturing indulged in by ISKCON’s critics. Not one of them seems to be capable of producing anything substantially helpful to the world. As Srila Prabhupada said on occasion when devotees criticised: “Then you do something better.”

  6. Anonymous

    Haribol Prabhu, I also left the Detroit temple in 1978. I had a hard time with the ‘all or nothing’ strict rules of ISKCON, no matter how hard I wanted to continue to live at the temple. I chant every day, but I miss the temple more than ever now that I’m disabled and cannot walk. I keep up on the blogs and all ISKCON sites, what more can I do? Rudra Pandit Das .

    • Dear Rudra Pandit prabhu, my respectful obeisances to you.

      In keeping with probably many thousands of others you received your initial training in one of ISKCON’s temple centres and came to a point in your life where it was more appropriate for you to leave that centre and live elsewhere.

      For many people who’d spent several years in a temple it was quite a challenge to make the adjustment to regular life. Often educational or career paths were suspended when our members joined temples, and they had some catching up to do when they went back to regular life.

      By ‘regular life’ I do not mean to say that those devotees abandoned their spiritual practices. Of course not. But their accommodation, meals, fellowship, regular kirtans, temple worship, regular daily classes and circles of friendship were all interrupted. New patterns of spiritual practice had to be developed. And sometimes that proved to be difficult.

      It is relatively easy to practice sadhana-bhakti in a community, and less so when you are the prime motivator, cook, singer, class-giver and so on. Our temples are more accustomed to teaching beginners how to practice bhakti as a resident of such a community, and not how to practice bhakti within the home.

      For a healthier, stronger ISKCON, I would suggest that courses of instruction within our centres be more directed to teaching people how to survive spiritually in the home, college, career and family situation – the real life situations that the vast majority find themselves in – and will certainly find themselves in when their ‘temple life’ comes to a natural end.

      Statistics show that most devotees spend between three to five years in a temple community, then their life changes somewhat drastically. And these days, unlike in 1978, many never live in community at all.

      In your personal situation – and of course I don’t know your details – it would seem that more correspondence, emails, skype and phone calls would be a great blessing. And regular visits from devotees who live in the area, of course. Perhaps the temple has a list of members who would be prepared to offer you this companionship?

  7. Anonymous

    Nice series of articles Kripamoya prabhu. PAMHO. AGTSP.

    My twopence worth which is probably not worth the money! I don’t know if I can even find the right words, but here goes.

    Many devotees, ‘ex-members’ (or somewhere in between), as you have pointed out, gave a part of their lives to serving Srila Prabhupada and Krishna. An average of 5-10 years perhaps. Some more, some less. Surrendered to one degree or another. It was the done thing to ‘join’ the movement, become a ‘member’ for those who realized the importance of that ‘surrender’. No easy thing for most people. Giving up material life is/was a major sacrifice. To give up their families, friends, jobs, possesions, for something which just might be a glint of truth in this age of darkness. Or am I about to lose everything?

    In many ways it was a ‘leap of faith’. In any case it was a huge sacrifice for many. That should never be forgotten. We were warned of the dangers we faced, ‘tests’ if you like were inevitable. For a multitude of reasons, many fell away from the closer communities worldwide where association helped to shelter troubled minds. We forgot, perhaps, just how ‘sticky’ maya’s web was/is. Or how powerful she was/is. We are after all, very fallen in this age. I am NOT making excuses for anyone. Just stating the facts.

    Perceptions get lost. Understanding gets lost. Compassion gets lost. Confusion abounds and weak hearts panic and grab on to whatever or whoever offers shelter. Sadly that shelter comes in many forms, and remains a shelter as long as no help is offered. Surely those ‘members’ deserve more encouragement to return to the fold? For some, the fall may have been too far. Certainly some have become inimical, angry, hateful even. But is love not the best solution? Not abandonment? ‘Membership’ I feel should always be encouraged, and care taken not to lose those who once gave more or less EVERYTHING to ISKCON. When is a ‘member’ no longer a member? Where is the line? People who (for whatever reason) worship at home, are they members?

    It’s a funny word (membership) for me. I always felt that something inside, already there, had been lit up, revealed. Membership was not so much ‘given’, more ‘revealed’ as something that was ALWAYS there. Can something eternal ever be removed? Hidden perhaps. I know that ‘membership’ for many is a very alien concept and even distasteful.
    ‘Members only’ was always a concept I shunned as just another ‘ism’. Whites only. Men only etc. My ignorance perhaps. Even as a full time devotee (1970’s/80’s) I remember being truly shocked when I found out that a ‘Prabhupada disciples/members only’ meeting was being held. Perhaps again my failings but I was shocked at the time. Funnily enough I was asked to attend a ‘reunion’ just in the last few weeks and after getting excited about meeting some old friends was told the next day it was ‘Prabhupada disciples only, sorry’. I have to admit, yet again, I felt a little angry. Srila Prabhupada from my understanding was always saddened by the loss of any member of ISKCON. He asked for various members to be encouraged to return. In a practical sense organizational bodies are certainly required for the day to day functioning of any movement. And I do understand that lines have to be drawn somewhere.

    I just feel that in the broader view, ‘membership’ must be carefully considered, as some may feel discouraged and hurt that their valuable service has not been appreciated and that their ‘membership’ is no longer valid. Barred at the temple door. I’ve seen it. I am certainly no expert on these matters but a lot of hurt and pain has been caused by
    misunderstandings of ‘membership’. I was personally told that my membership would expire super fast and I would NOT go back to Godhead if I didn’t renounce a certain person and accept another…. the same person who not too much later fell from the tree. Love one another, love thy neighbour, love your enemies, what about ex-members?

    Sorry prabhu if I offend, just feel a little sad sometimes that ‘membership’ is all too easily taken away (it would appear, I may be wrong). After all, we are talking about a lost souls service to Krishna getting revived (or not) in the darkest of all ages. Surely not something to be taken lightly?

    Always your servant… Gopi Kanta das

    • Thanks Gopikanta Prabhu, you’ve contributed some important thoughts here. Where to begin addressing everything you mention? For me, it surely has to begin with understanding that all those who gave a significant portion of their youth to the ISKCON mission did indeed make a great sacrifice. And often, as you say, it was at a time in their life when they would otherwise have been developing either their career or their education. Five years between 18 and 23 can leave a man without much of a CV to show to a potential employer in the future after his missionary years are completed! As you might expect, I have been on the receiving end of many complaints from those who have been left disappointed by having their expectations of ISKCON dashed. They were attracted by the selfless mood at the time they joined, as well as the implicit understanding of lifetime support in exchange for spiritual sincerity and service. Had we organised in different ways, that would have indeed been possible. But you and I have a shared history and we know what happened to the expectations.

      Any organisation should naturally be deeply appreciative of all the efforts made by pioneer members in its early, foundational years. Without them there would be no organisation at all. I think that one of the misunderstandings of spiritual organisations – both by observers and sometimes of its own members – is that somehow the organisation will prosper due solely to its noble ideals. The real fact of the matter is that, as Srila Prabhupada said, ‘organisation and intelligence’ as well as responsible management, proper funding and accounting, and good people skills are indispensable. Asking more and more people to join ISKCON without simultaneously making some provision for their future living arrangements and ongoing support was something quite radical and was successful up to a point. But we failed to enact the second part of the master plan for the movement: the ‘simple living, high thinking’ that would have seen us on large farms, living off the land. And the idea of having a growing number of city temples with 12-15 members each would have complemented the rural communities.

      But we experienced the trauma of a series of leadership disappointments that dealt a hammer blow to faith, the all-important spiritual factor that gives people hope and enables them to make great sacrifices. And when members did leave there was perhaps very few remaining to persuade them to return. And return to what, exactly?

      Now our movement is older, a little wiser, and again experiencing boom years. For myself, I have not seen anything like this since the 1980s. Krishna consciousness is popular and knowing our historical mistakes has helped to change the way we work. We don’t promise everything to an ashram member, and around 90% of our membership has no intention of ‘joining the ashram’ as we all did in times gone by. The young men and women who do join the ashram are better prepared for it, and the remaining members – who make up the majority are supported in a variety of ways.

      But I do agree that ‘someone’ should be responsible for everyone who at one time lived and served within the temples. Many of them feel connected in some way and would describe themselves as devotees and members of ISKCON. I wish I could do more.

  8. Jiggy Nayee

    This is a really nice article, some of the points made are so important for our own introspection, because I’m sure that in leadership and management, the tendency for a lot of these selfish qualities are there, very helpful, thank you!

  9. Hare Krishna!
    You commented to Gopi kantha prabhu:
    “… And when members did leave there was perhaps very few remaining to persuade them to return. And return to what, exactly?”

    I like idea about 2 kinds of membership in your “TO WHAT”:
    (from Article of the Proposed Draft Constitution dealing with “membership” in ISKCON)
    ———————————————
    1. General membership

    A person, desiring to be a member of ISKCON, becomes a General Member of ISKCON by
    1) Accepting the teachings of ISKCON’s Founder-Acharya Srila Prabhupada, and
    2) practically supporting the mission of ISKCON, and
    3) participating in activities organized by ISKCON, and
    4) accepting the governance structure of ISKCON.

    2. Dedicated Members

    A General Member becomes a Dedicated Member by:
    1) Practicing daily chanting of at least sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, and
    2) Practicing the four regulative principles outlined by Srila Prabhupada, namely no meat, fish or eggs, no intoxication, no illicit sex, and no gambling, and
    3) Actively serving the mission of ISKCON in cooperation with the Governing Body Commission or affiliated ISKCON organizations, and
    4) Agreeing to adhere to rules and regulations, including those related to personal conduct, established for dedicated members by the Governing Body Commission.
    ———————————————-

    So – there is a big difference between Dissenting Member and General Member. As a General Member one have a rights to not agree with some of contradictional, organisational or other issues in ISKCON, and one can freely keep his own Krishna Consciousness level according time, place and circumstances – and this will not disqualify him from general membership, because of temporary differences, problems or positions. And such general membership should be cultivated with WAY IN and not WAY OUT.

    ys
    Nataraja Das
    General member of ISKCON 🙂

    • Thank you Nataraja. Yes, I think that, generally speaking, all of us feel ourselves to be members of something when we closely identify with what the group, family, tribe or organization stand for. And when we no longer feel the same way, we leave it. My point in this series of posts was to explore some of the aspects of membership of ISKCON. I read recently – somewhere, I can’t remember – that a circle with no circumference is just a point. Similarly ISKCON without a defined criteria of who is a member and who is not, is not even worthy of being called an organization.

      So of course I agree with the constitutional points you’ve forwarded, and I hope they become fully adopted.

  10. Anonymous

    Haribol Kripamoya! PAMHO. AGTSP. Excuse me while I preach to the converted, including myself.

    In the words of a song from days gone by…. some of us were ‘born to run’.

    In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway american dream
    At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
    Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
    Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin” out over the line
    Baby this town rips the bones from your back
    Its a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
    We gotta get out while we’re young
    `cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run…….

    As this ‘runaway American dream’ spreads it’s tentacles across the globe, in this ‘death trap’. in this ‘suicide rap’ of a world, there are those ‘born’ into it with a little intelligence who see it for all its worth. A rotting corpse. And their only solution…….. ‘Let’s run baby’.

    But run where? Into what? For most, it was a doomed race from the starting gun. For we ‘tramps’ are already stuck in the gigantic web of illusion. And in the deepest forests or mountain pastures someone, somewhere, wants to sell us this ‘American dream’ all over again. Some few fortunate souls, a handful out of billions, ran into the arms of the pure devotee. Who expertly explained to us that we were not ‘born to run’, but we were ‘born to teach’. To teach the world….

    Another song of days gone by said …..

    I’d like to build the world a home
    And furnish it with love
    Grow apple trees and honey bees
    And snow-white turtle doves

    I’d like to teach the world to sing
    In perfect harmony
    I’d like to hold it in my arms
    And keep it company

    I’d like to see the world for once
    All standing hand in hand
    And hear them echo through the hills
    Ah, peace throughout the land

    Srila Prabhupada had ‘the peace formula’. And he wanted to build an army of teachers to explain this peace formula to everyone worldwide. A house in which the whole world could live.

    And a fortunate few got all excited about helping with that noble cause. They never had any intention of supporting this ‘missionary’ work for a few years. This was a lifetime commitment. (It was for me). I gave up everything. Parents, job, career, possessions, everything. I sold them all. Gave them away. Abandoned all. For this noble cause was the greatest of all. The same noble cause that Christ himself had talked about.

    I gave my all. As many had done before me. GAVE UP EVERYTHING. This was the boat, the last train, the key, the way out of the maze of material life. The real solution to the world’s endless list of ailments, deforestation, mass slaughter of animals, endless wars, exploitation, hunger, etc. etc. This was the one single answer, the one single act of selflessness needed which could in a single master stroke solve ALL the problems. The material castle was built on a foundation with a serious fundamental flaw. Expose that, and it all collapses. Teach that, and you save yourself and mankind simultaneously. We fortunate few were not ‘born to run’, we were born to TEACH. The same flaw that Sri Krishna exposed to a bewildered Arjuna.

    Sadly, almost all, if not all of us, had already built up hugely detrimental bad habits. And when our guide and light in the darkness left, darkness started to push its way back in. Bad habits, as ‘habits’ do, returned. With a great ferocity for some. Yes our ‘shared history’ tells both of us that ‘casualities of war’ were inevitable. Our general had gone. Panic set in. Mistakes were made. Hundreds, maybe a few thousand fell. Some of the greatest teachers fell. Tragedy absolute.

    Even in physical wars medical centres are established. Doctors and nurses provided. Where were they prabhu? The most valuable people ON THE PLANET were left on the battlefield, dying for want of spiritual guidance. This wasn’t M.A.S.H. saving a few brave men with their blown off legs and arms, in a war only the politicians supported. This was a catastrophe where great spiritual teachers of men were abandoned. And not just abandoned. Disgraced!!??!! For what? For falling into the web, the ‘death trap’, the ‘suicide rap’ where we all came from? Yet no ‘M.A.S.H.’ was ever set up. No help ever given. No, just left to the wolves and thrown into the can of ‘ex-MEMBERS’.

    You know prabhu, I NEVER received a single phone call, letter, email, or any kind of APOLOGY. Not once in nearly 30 years. I can’t from Jayatirtha, he’s gone. But nothing from Bhavananda or anyone else.

    Please, forgive me. Perhaps I rant on a bit. And with all my heart and whatever humility I have left, I truthfully tell you that I am not expecting any letter in the near future. I don’t care either. Honestly I don’t. I have got on with my daily prayers (sat-saṅga) in some form or another, hearing, chanting, etc. for the last 30 odd years. I haven’t complained and neither am I inimical toward ISKCON. It is and hopefully will always be, at least to me, Srila Prabhupada’s legacy. To become inimical in my eyes is to become offensive.

    When I was a ‘bhakta’, Bhakta Brian, I would take lunch with all the other bhaktas, and a few times an older devotee would come down and sit with us. He usually sat next to me because I wore ‘white’ (married). Anyway he introduced himself as ‘Kulashekara’ and told us some wonderful stories about Srila Prabhupada. He was one of the very first UK devotees. He passed away recently. But his enthusiastic smile and wonderful stories I will never forget. He also received the brand ‘ex-member’.

    I’m not a ‘ritvik’ prabhu, I wouldn’t know what one was if it sat next to me. Or a sattvic or a pritvic or any other such heady sanskrit label. Despite regularly listening to Srila Prabhupada’s tapes etc. I never really had any desire to become a scholar of sanskrit. Or expert in slokas. I trusted Srila Prabhupada implicitly and his words were for me at least, God’s words, Krishna’s words. Of course some slokas he repeated often and those have stuck with me. For me, absolute truth became reality through him, through his words and his books. My heart told me this, not my brain or my university class intelligence. Humility is the inherent gain of the loving soul, not the right of the scholar. Surrender to God is never built on brain power. Become helpless Srila Prabhupada said, like a child for his mother.

    But somewhere along the line, quite quickly really in the scheme of thousands of years, and certainly after Srila Prabhupada left, the movement crashed. And badly. A plaster was put on a gaping wound and I pray that it is sufficient. I am certainly no expert or full of wisdom. Or a seer of the future …..

    The problem prabhu for me in answering these types of questions is that it’s difficult for the ‘comment’ not to end up just being seen as a ‘rant’ or a ‘whinge’ by some old person (me) and not taken seriously. One thing I learned from the ‘devotee/member’ side of Facebook is that there are a LOT of angry DEVOTEE people out there. Which deeply saddens me. I am truthfully neither whinger nor angered. I’ve always accepted that my life is a perfect reciprocation of my overall material and spiritual needs and desires and karmic rewards, good or bad. I have tried to avoid at all costs any sort of ‘blame game’, which for me as I have observed usually ends up in aparad going berserk. In other words, what’s happening to me is MY FAULT, and no one else’s.

    You say…. ‘We failed to enact the second part etc.’. Acceptance of failure in anything usually means acceptance of wrongdoing. Something was done wrong which resulted in the ‘failure’. Yes, not establishing farm communities was a factor (and still is) in the failure. But as important as that is (and perhaps its importance is somewhat neglected), most people would understand the difficulties in doing such a project worldwide. From the purchase of the land to actually running dairy farms (plural) is a project on a huge massive scale. Something that may certainly take years, nay, decades and a lot of money and physical effort by people who actually want to work on a farm. At least a first step is needed. On the other hand, it is an easy ‘scapegoat’. Put the blame or wrongdoing onto a ‘project’ (or lack of a project) rather than any person or group of people.

    You do mention the ‘leadership disappointments’ that dealt a ‘hammer blow’ to faith. You say ‘And return to what, exactly’? Well prabhu, into the arms of our Lord I would hope. Into the arms of a compassionate, forgiving, understanding and loving bunch of brothers and sisters. Ready and willing to enter the arena of discussions on the future path. A path where everyone is dealt with LOVINGLY. Where even ONE casualty is one too many. Where all efforts are put in to ‘saving Private Ryan’, or Bhakta Joe or Bhaktin Joanne. They went over the wall, into enemy territory, their sergeant is M.I.A. They NEED our help. What they don’t need is a hand in their face when they try to return and labelled ‘ex-member’.

    The movement is a little older and wiser. If one plus one equals 3 is not corrected, then boom plus boom plus boom years will still end up BUST. Srila Prabhupada repeatedly said we are not in this for ‘popularity’. If ONE person can reach the goal then his job was done. You say, ‘young men and women are better prepared’? Are their hearts constructed of kriptonite? Can they go through an atomic explosion of the heart? Perhaps once, maybe twice, well how many is too many before the spell of maya looks very safe to me? Honest John could be my friend, his arms are wide open…. no one else wants to be my friend, those others wont let me in, ‘members only’ ….

    I mean even from a theoretical point of view, how many is too many? I had two explosions in my young impressionable and weak heart. Could have been unlucky Gopi is on his 10th??? It is theoretically possible! Many mothers’ and fathers’ sons and daughters went through those explosions. And never returned. Forgive me for saying, what if it was one of your daughters prabhu? Genuinely how would you feel? That would bring tears to my eyes never mind yours.

    I’m pretty sure I lost my dad (in spirit) when I shaved up and put on a dhoti. My mother came round very slowly, especially after her niece who had been (or almost been) a nun explained it obviously better than I could (my mum’s side of the family was catholic, my dad was protestant though I only ever saw him in church at my sister’s wedding). My dad’s thoughts (about me joining) would have been that I’d be used and abused and end up in tears. From an external viewpoint he wasn’t far wrong.

    And old man’s whingin, I knew this ‘comment’ would end up like that. Or is it just my heartfelt expression? My genuine concern? I hope and pray that ISKCON has matured and learned (from it’s mistakes) and goes forward ‘better prepared’. Forgive me if I’m not totally convinced. The temple is sacred ground. The Lord and His beautiful companions are worshiped beautifully worldwide. Of that I am certain as a man could possibly be in my situation. Somehow or other my plan to give my life to devotional service (in the temple directly) was cut short. I have tried my best to continue from afar. Why that did happen to me is a mystery, but after spending some time reading the angry abusive aparad filled arguments on Facebook I wonder if a few episodes of Coronation Street aren’t so bad after all…. perhaps my ears have been protected from all of that mad elephant chatter. Either way my love for Srila Prabhupada and Krishna remains, I hope, blossoming, I pray.

    ‘Membership’ however I’m not convinced of. It creates cliques, bullies, jealousies, and abuses. Yes even in ISKCON. EVEN RECENTLY. I’ve seen it with my own eyes PAST AND PRESENT. I couldn’t go and meet some dear old devotee friends of mine just recently because it was ‘Srila Prabhupada members only’……. need I say more? What is that all about prabhu? I mean really, that is labeling gone berserk. Oh there wasn’t enough room….. sure I’m such a fool at my age I’ll accept THAT nonsense. I’m nearly 60, went to University and still treated like an idiot. You REALLY think ‘membership’ in that exclusive way is proper?

    I repeat I am not and never will be a member of any organization on the fringes of ISKCON. I saw Srila Prabhupada (and listened to and took his remnants) twice at the manor in 1976 and in November of 1977 just before he passed from our vision. I ‘joined’ in March of 1978 wanting to give my life to his mission. And then they all came back from the Mayapur festival and I was pointed towards JT. My ‘new’ guru. Ummm….. isn’t Srila Prabhupada? ….. no, it’s JT now. Worship him with all your heart. My first question….. what, did they all become pure devotees overnight?

    That question was NEVER answered, just pushed to the side. But I always thought that a flood of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples would ‘take over’ this world, spiritually of course, and save the planet. And I was going to be one of them.

    I can’t get that vision out of my head. All of us under ONE flag. No cliques, no secret meetings, all of us forever under Srila Prabhupada. Yes, with advanced loving souls advising, protecting, teaching and even initiating on his behalf. It’s how Srila Prabhupada set it up many years before he passed away. What spiritual potency would that have today if it had continued since 1977? I don’t care for all their sanskrit history or this book or that sloka, or this club or that membership. All I ever wanted was to serve Srila Prabhupada with ALL MY GODBROTHERS. Not… which
    disciple are you prabhu? Who’s group are you? Are you meant to be here prabhu? Am I supposed to be here????? Are you a member prabhu??? All of that WOULD BE GONE. Forever. IMHO it would have been so much easier and so much more powerful. But who am I? I don’t know B.G. verse and chapter. I’m just someone living the ‘life of Brian’.

    I wish I could do more. I wish I was more expert in quoting slokas and verses. One thing I haven’t read or heard from Srila Prabhupada is that the ‘guru’ is voted in, a bit like our democracy (or demon-crazy as Srila Prabhupada used to say). Where does it say that? Please, quote me chapter and verse where a voting process makes someone a guru. Or brings one the exclusive ‘membership’ of guru. For me, and it’s a personal understanding, when you turn around and you are face to face with our Lord, THEN you are guru. Up and until then, and even beyond that revelation, you remain meek and mild and helpless. Guru is heavy in position and responsibility. It can not and should never be given out cheaply like a free gift. That is greatly offensive in my eyes.

    Just a few months ago prabhu, maybe 3 or even 6 months ago, I got into a huge debate on Facebook on the whole subject of ‘Veganism’. This one devotee in particular turned on me (in an internet fashion) and after ranting on suddenly threatened me with a visit from Yamaraja if I didn’t become vegan. Despite my arguments based on what Srila Prabhupada had said on the importance of milk in our diet. I gave a huge slew of quotes from Srila Prabhupada and a lot of scientific evidence backing up the ‘brain food’ part (Cobalamine B12 etc.). Yamaraja! Like he had a red phone connected to Lord Yama! I was astounded, shocked, and even 10x more shocked when I found out a few days later he was an ISKCON guru!!!!!!!!!! If this is what a voting procedure is turning out………. how long till that devotee finds out he was ‘born to run’ ??? And his poor disciples with him!!! ???

    I pray prabhu with all my heart that ISKCON have got it right. And they are not just building on the blocks of a foundation with a fundamental flaw.

    Forgive me for I know not what I do, or say, or type….. your servant always, Gopi, or is it Bhagavat? Or maybe just plain old Brian. (All those fire sacrifices invalid?)

    Love to you and all the family.

    P.S. Your good self and your two beautiful daughters give hope to all of us……. PAMHO. ALL GLORIES TO SRILA PRABHUPADA!!!

    • Thanks for these comments Gopikanta Prabhu, I read them all carefully and with a heavy heart.Sad to say, but as you can imagine, there are a number of others who’ve shared these life-changing experiences. I’m sorry that no-one helped you when you most needed it.

      You are right when you say that ‘the movement crashed’ although, from the point of view of others, it crashed temporarily. But the movement failed you, and that’s what matters to you. How many ‘crashes’ such as you went through can the human heart endure? Well, some have proved resilient, but they are in the minority.

      You also said something to the effect that your old circle of friends looks comfortable compared to remaining in a circle of new friends and having to cope with the pain of losing your spiritual guide. That is true. We all come to Krishna because the Vaishnava path appears to be a better choice. We don’t come to experience further disappointment and confusion.

      Over the years its been a source of embarrassment and shame for me that the same pain was experienced by successive generations of spiritual aspirants. For every three people who came, we seemed to lose two. Was it always the fault of the movement? No, but since Srila Prabhupada said that if someone goes away it is ‘50% your fault’ we have to seriously look to see what went wrong and what can be improved.

      Can a guru be voted in? Not according to the scriptures we follow. A guru is someone you accept as a teacher and an exemplar of the tradition. If you accept him as your guru then he is a guru. If not he is simply another practitioner. A guru is not a title than can be conferred by anyone else except the student.

      Thanks for taking so much time to write with your thoughts.

  11. Sophia M.

    I think there’s a seventh type of people who have distanced themselves from ISKCON:

    7. The too-confused-to-stay person.

    The name says it all.

    • Yes, you’re probably right there.

      • Sophia M.

        Well, it is why I distanced myself. I was too confused to stay.

        The whole thing wouldn’t grieve me so much were it not that already before I visited a group of devotees for the first time, I prepared a series of questions for the brahmacari who led the group, and asked him those questions in the street. Because I didn’t want to just go there, I wanted to get a better idea of the requirements. By then, I wasn’t a newbie in spirituality anymore, and had some ideas on what to look for, what to expect, what to be ready for. So I specifically asked him what I would have to have, be, be convinced of that may be necessary for visiting there. And he said there were no such requirements.

        As hellweek turned to hellmonth to hellyear, I became sure that there very much were requirements for fitting in among devotees and for finding meaning in what they do.
        Except that to this day, nobody told me what exactly those requirements are. Forget regular chanting, studying scriptures, offering food, keeping the precepts, Vaisnava etiquette – these things were not a problem.
        There was apparently just that subtle something that others had and I didn’t.

      • Sorry to hear about your experiences Sophia. You are right that it is, often it seems, the undisclosed factors that allow us to feel welcome and fully participate in any type of community. Are you any more informed these days about what those mystery factors might be that prevented your full assimilation into ISKCON membership?

  12. Sophia M.

    And speaking of a person’s time after ISKCON – I wish ISKCON would have an exit program too, just like there is an introductory one.
    An exit program to help people deal with the fact that ISKCON has rejected them.
    An exit program to help people deal with the fact that they have been rejected from what is supposedly the best way to live by God’s will.

    By “rejected”, I mean both formal excommunication, as well as when devotees shun and ignore people to the point that those people leave on their own.

    If ISKCON is so great, then surely it could help us find closure after being rejected from it.

    Instead, some devotees have a downright schadenfreude attitude toward those who leave on their own. Like one devotee in a visible temple function once said – “When a person leaves ISKCON on their own, this is when Krishna is removing those who have no devotion from those who are full of devotion.”

    Lucky he – people leaving has convinced him that he is full of devotion …

  13. There could possibly be another type of devotee who ‘leaves ISKCON’, and that would be the devotee who finds a natural attraction in another branch of the Gaudiya Vaisnava tree, specifically within the Caitanya sampradaya. It is possible to accept Srila Prabhupada in your heart as a siksa-guru and not as your acarya. I know this because this is how it happened for me.

    -paramesvara dasa

  14. Anonymous

    Thanks for the emotive reply Kripamoya!

    I guess I could write a book on my own personal journey, as could all devotees. I don’t look back on my time serving within the temple negatively. They were for the most part some of my ‘happiest’ days. Despite not knowing Jayatirtha from Adam, I grew to love him as my spritual master and guide. And of course his wonderful wife Manjuali and their little boy Vaisnava Carana. Being his personal secretary for around a year was an intense but very enriching service. As I’m sure Srutakirti would say of his time spent as Srila Prabhupada’s secretary. Very long hours and making sure absolutely everything is ‘pukka’ and on time was a great honour for me and my wife Janmastami who served his wife Manjuali with great enthusiasm. Jayatirtha being one of ISKCON’s leaders meant a lot of other ‘gurus’, sanyasis, temple presidents, and other older devotees regularly visiting, giving me lots of extra service and association. What to speak of arranging and taping everything he said in classes, walks, ishtagostis, etc. Driving him everywhere to life members houses etc. etc. His departure was one of the most intense and saddest days… weeks of my life. By then I was serving in Detroit, having gone with him to the opening of Srila Prabhupada’s Palace in New Vrindavan, then visiting Detroit and deciding to stay there and serve in the growth of the new F.A.T.E exhibition, new Govinda’s restaurant and cultural centre. And then there was Bhavananda, that is another chapter…

    Getting back to ‘membership’, I understand your point of the ‘guru’ being the one who accepts the plea of the student to accept him as a disciple. My point was the other side of the ‘relationship’. Who appoints the ‘guru’? Particularly within ISKCON. How does one become a ‘member’ of that exclusive club? Is that a voting system? Where and when does one suddenly become ‘guru’? Or better question, when does one qualify for that lofty title? A voting system? And if so, where in the sastra is that authorized? How does one know the advancement of such a person? Clearly this voting system (if that’s what it is) has flaws… or else why are ‘gurus’ falling from grace? ‘Membership’ in that ‘club’ makes new ‘memberships’ with new neophyte fragile aspiring devotees. I understand there are different types of gurus, but surely one who accepts disciples has to be faultless, pure, etc.?

    ys Gopi

  15. Sophia M.

    “Are you any more informed these days about what those mystery factors might be that prevented your full assimilation into ISKCON membership?”

    As far as I can tell, I think think the biggest difference between myself and devotees was that they spoke with a tone of great certainty in matters of God (and what God wants), and I was much more reserved. I’ve never presumed myself to know the mind of God, and when talking to devotees, this meant that I was either silent or resorted to a general philosophical/theological argument as such.

    • Yes, I can well imagine how those conversations transpired Sophia. I had quite a few arguments with the devotees myself many years ago, and it was precisely their absolute conviction that annoyed me. I also thought they were a bit arrogant. But I persisted because I thought that there was enough that was good, and that the annoying people would annoy me less as I discovered for myself whether the Bhagavad-gita teachings were the ones I wanted to follow for myself. It so happened that the combination of the theology and the practical spiritual disciplines gave me a result that convinced me.

      I don’t suppose I can convince you to give it another go, can I? Or maybe you can write back to me with some of your old arguments. I’ll do my best to answer them.

  16. mohinder1

    Good series of articles on ISKCON membership. I also was quite enlivened and entertained by your video lecture on ‘Theological Imbalance’. The information about Srila Prabhupada taking permission for initiating in 1959 from Kesava Maharaja was intriguing. May I ask where I may read about this, as I had never heard this before? Haribol!
    – Mohinder

    • Its a story that was told by Srila Prabhupada’s godbrother Krishnadas Babaji. He found it amusing, and he was also amused when he sang kirtan at Srila Prabhupada’s sannyasa initiation ceremony and he asked him to sing louder!

  17. PAMHO AGTSP Hari-Bol Prabhu after I left a comment I read the ones others left all were very helpful thanks everyone for them I was directly initiated by His Grace Srila Prabhupada 1973 Detroit ISKCON lived there 1972- 1979 I follow the 4 regs chant daily and visit the devotee websites ,your unworthy servant

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