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.
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.