Give ISKCON Some Time

by Dean Dominic De Lucia [Dharmapad Das]

About ISKCON's wholesale alienation of it's membership and negative standing in the public eye ... on one hand, there has been at least some change and an effort to return to somewhat normal standards since the era of big-time book distribution, when the book distribution effort came to undermine a devoteeís spiritual edification by eating into time for sadhana and reading scriptures. And there has been change since the zonal acharya episode. Iíll concede, though, that there hasn't been much in the way of change over the last 10 - 15 years.

On the other hand, ISKCON continues an over-extensive, bureaucratic management orientation which has had that overall effect of alienating membership. Specifically, ISKCON extends its authority into the private lives of devotees and is very constrictive in its control. Devotee members usual come to know of behind-the-scenes, manipulative practices and often end up, over time, alienated. Not that an argument couldnít be made in support of any particular employment of a bureaucratic maneuver, even an intrusive one; however, I am reminded of the old adage of winning every battle but losing the war (for the hearts of its member devotees). And winning hearts is important, ISKCON is a volunteer organization.

So I have been asking myself and brainstorming as to ďwhy has there not been more evolution on the part of ISKCON management practices?Ē And one answer that has really stuck in my mind is that ISKCON leaders must have been reluctant to open things up and of becoming more liberal in its management of the devotees because of outside threats; specifically from Narayan Maharaj. This man, who is such a leader in the Gaudiya community, has almost single-handedly emptied out the temples of North America and large swaths of Europe, and has practically kept book distribution at an almost imperceptible level in those places. Earlier on, ISKCON had problems with Paramdwaiti Swamiís Vrinda Mission, which walked off with as much as a whole country in Latin America, i.e. Colombia, and there were other hints of threat from other groups, but the only problem that has persisted in a systematic way with the declared intention of draining membership has been from Narayan Maharaj, and he made it stick.

No wonder ISKCON authorities keep tabs on who comes to the temple programs such as the Sunday feast, what their political persuasion is, whom they talk to, who is friends with whom, who gets sweet on whom, who wants to marry whom, et cetera. They probably feel that if they donít keep their eyes open, they run the risk of losing the whole program, lock, stock and barrel!

This is unfortunate because ISKCON deserves the opportunity, nay, has the right, to mature as an institution, to work things out on its own. This is ISKCONís legacy from its founder, Shrila Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta Swami. And ISKCON deserves the time in which to do it without any ultimatums or threats breathing down the neck of its leadership, without losing half of its members and having large sections of property torn away from it (the King Nriga offense). In fact, ISKCON even deserved the right to fail; what ISKCON did with its legacy from Shrila Prabhupada, its assets and even its people assets was its own business, it had the right to sink or swim, the right to try to make good on its chance, right down to the last swing of the bat with two out and two strikes at the end of the ninth inning. Who had the right to rip their chance away from them, the ISKCON leaders, albeit imperfect leaders?

This idea of allowing time for institutions to mature is nothing new. George Washington, when he was the President of the United States in the 1790s, resisted the temptation of declaring war against the British on the plea that the countryís institutions were too young and fragile to bear the strain of a war with a major power such as Great Britain. This was well-documented in his correspondences during that time period. Thomas Jefferson also subscribed to this basic idea and steered the country away from war. The problem at the time was that the United States was supporting Napoleonís war effort against the British by engaging in commerce by sending supplies across the Atlantic. The British attacked and plundered American shipping in response.

When America finally engaged in war against Britain in 1812, America almost lost its independence. Such was the spanking that America received that the British even managed to raid Washington, D.C., and burn the White house! At the end of it all, the Russians pressured the British in favor of America, and the British owed much to the Russians for helping to deal with Napoleon, such that America escaped from that one by a hair.

Some 50 years after Washingtonís initial prudence, though, America did engage in a rather far-reaching war against Mexico which it handily won. By this time, America had a couple of generations of academy-trained officer corps for its Navy and Army, the luxury of naval infantry, armories such as the one at Harperís Ferry to produce gunpowder and more modern weapons than the Mexicans had, the country had built up a Navy, and its governmental institutions were on firm footing.

Americaís task of maturing its institutions, political and military, was in many ways easier than ISKCONís. America was composed of one dominant race, the white Caucasian, had one culture, an Anglo Saxon one, which spoke one language, English, and practiced one basic religion, Christianity. America had only to go with the flow and galvanize what was already in place. ISKCON has had to stretch itself around the globe, penetrate and gather together different peoples from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, introduce a new religion, and cultural and social practices, while largely having to generate its own support and be productive in the context of inhospitable host cultures.

No one has been more disappointed with ISKCONís impeded progress than the writer of this article. Even so, a case could be made that, if it were not for outside antagonism, ISKCONís evolution would have fared much better. Had the mainstay of ISKCON membership kept its identification with ISKCON intact, then there could have been more significant, meaningful and influential engagement with the GBCs and gurus in the post-Prabhupad period; there could have been more counterbalancing. As it ended up, the keys to the car were handed over to an ISKCON leadership with some rather dysfunctional elements to it, such that they remained unopposed and off kilter for too long, which, in turn, perpetuated further alienation and membership drain.

It seems that, right now, what ISKCON needs is to be left alone to lick its wounds and heal, it needs time for introspection and to incorporate the many lessons it has learned, and time to build up its strength. After all, ISKCON is a force for good in the world because ISKCON preaches and distributes Shrila Prabhupadís books. At this point, a sunshine policy as depicted in Aesopís The North Wind and The Sun is appropriate towards ISKCON:

If Washingtonís America needed 50 years to mature its institutions and leave its spanking by the British behind, then ISKCON should have had 50 years at the outset. Perhaps now we could even give it an extension since its spanking from Narayan Maharaj and other aggressions is still smarting. In all the years I have followed discussions about ISKCONís problems, I have never heard it mentioned that ISKCON simply needs some time to work things out, even though Time is supposed to be Supreme within this world, and a component part of any action, according to the Bhagavad Gita.


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