A Dispute Resolution Programme for ISKCON

Arnold M. Zack with input by Braja Bihari Dasa

In this paper Arnold Zack, an expert in the field of dispute resolution, plots the progress and development of an ISKCON that can deal with internal disputes in a timely, fair, and mature way. Can ombudsmen and mediators, with their increasing acceptance in civil society, work in a religious organisation such as ISKCON? Can ISKCON show that the transparency of an institution can enhance the dedication and devotion of its followers?

We live in a world of increasing tensions and conflicts. The expansion of education and rapid strides in telecommunication that have made for a shrinking world can also make us more aware of our perceived entitlements and enhance our tendency to assert our perceived rights. This can lead to an escalation of confrontation and disputes. That is true among nations, among societies, within corporate institutions, and even within religious organisations.

The end of the ‘all-powerful church’

Long gone is the era where religious institutions could rely on their authority over this life and the afterlife to bring conformity to their precepts and submission to their priests. Recent scandals involving child abuse in the Catholic Church, for example, demonstrate the impact that suppression of protest and strict conformity to the dictates of leadership can have on congregants who have suffered wrongs that, in civil society, would have been early exposed and punished.

Suppressed and unreported wrongs will be uncovered in the end and impose a high penalty on any institution that doesn’t deal with such issues in a prompt and transparent fashion. There is evidence that belated exposure of wrongdoing exacts a toll on the institution that may be out of proportion to the long-passed alleged wrong, diverting its resources and energy away from its legitimate administrative and charitable obligations and its theological responsibilities. Furthermore, the success of claimants engaging in litigation against the institution tends to provide a further stimulus to more accusations, while leaving the less vocal and quiescent devotees and members isolated with unresolved issues of trust and faith and no comfortable channel through which to voice their concerns. The core mission of the institution is thus diverted into a defensive machinery to protect it from protests by the very members and devotees who should be rallying to its higher purpose and who should be its supporters and eager followers. The leadership of the institution, instead of being beyond the fray, is an active participant in the battle, even further eroding its expected position of leadership and respect.

Religious institutions, unlike civil societies or states, have usually held themselves exempt from accountability. The mentoring and stewarding or shepherding role of such leadership contradicts the grants of voice and rights that are such integral parts of the social contract of our civil societies.

The civil model and alternative dispute resolution (ADR)

In a civil society the leadership provides rules and it also provides procedures for challenging violations of those rules. Laws are enacted by edict or by democratic legislation and in most societies a procedure is provided where citizens can challenge unacceptable interpretation or application of those laws, with unresolved disputes being appealed to an independent judiciary to determine whether or not the laws have been violated. Evolving experience within that adversarial system has led more and more societies and institutions to develop informal procedures that help avoid resort to litigation and the courts. Aversion to the system has been intensified by growing distrust of the system, its reliance on lawyers, and intensified resort to depositions, discovery, and endless appeals that have made the courts into an increasingly unacceptable battleground.

The ombudsman

In an effort to avoid the pitfalls of litigation and the courts, Scandinavian governments introduced the concept of the ombudsman: a person, provided by the government, to whom the average citizen could appeal when traditional routes of complaint and administration proved unsuccessful. The ombudsman was the champion of the citizen seeking equity from government when it was unattainable through normal administrative channels. The ombudsman would receive the citizen’s complaint in confidence and then provide guidance as to where the complaint should be properly processed, or undertake to resolve the dispute as the claimant’s advocate within the government agency. This is a means of meeting citizens’ needs and an effective and expeditious tool for bypassing bureaucracy to bring about equitable outcomes of citizens’ complaints.

The ombudsman system has been recognised as an efficient means of achieving peaceful resolution of complaints without the cost, publicity, and confrontations that too often occur in more conventional channels of administrative or legal appeals. Ombudsman services are provided in many government and private institutions throughout the world as a private and confidential process for avoiding confrontation and improving the credibility and bona fides of the providing institution among its citizens or members who are able to speedily and privately dispose of troublesome issues.

The mediator

Another procedure of increasing acceptability and effectiveness is the concept of mediation. Mediation is provided to help disputing individuals within an institution resolve disputes that might otherwise escalate into serious disruption of the workforce or the citizenry. Simple interpersonal disputes can escalate into group conflict in the absence of a process for reducing or resolving the dispute in a timely and peaceful process. The mediator should be a readily available facilitator that both disputants use to reduce the issues in dispute so that the personal relationship is able to continue without the baggage of the festering dispute.

In mediation, unlike in litigation, the mediator persuades the disputants to work toward their own resolution. The mediator does not impose any decision, instead nudging the parties toward a mutual resolution of their dispute. By this procedure disputants can avoid the continued escalation of conflict, which could otherwise lead to the parties themselves losing control over the outcome; for example in litigation or administrative decision by the institution.

Recognition of the need for alternative dispute resolution

In many societies the courts have come to recognise that it is better for disputants to resolve their disputes than to submit them to judicially imposed outcomes. Before asserting jurisdiction and taking the issue from the control of the parties themselves, courts have encouraged disputants to try to mediate their conflicts. These two alternative dispute resolution systems, ombudsmen and mediation, are increasingly accepted as alternatives to traditional litigation and use of the courts. They have become common in government institutions, in private institutions and in international organisations; but, till now, they have not been adopted by any international religious organisation.

Alternative dispute resolution in religious organisations

A strong case can be made for providing dispute resolution systems not only for the benefit of the members or devotees, but also for the benefit of the leadership and for the benefit of the religious institution itself.

Below are some of the issues to be considered in determining whether a religious organisation, such as ISKCON, should adopt an alternative dispute resolution procedure.

Impact on the membership

For the member or devotee the availability of an alternative dispute resolution system operated by trained neutral ombudsmen and/or mediators can provide many advantages and avoid many perils.

  • It is a readily available vehicle for registering timely complaints when they are fresh in the mind; when information surrounding the claim or the incident is readily available, and when the focus of the claimant is on the issue itself and not on the way it might have been ignored, dismissed, or delayed.

  • It can provide a sense of worth on the part of the individual claimant. It indicates that their concerns are worthy of consideration and treatment by the institution.

  • It indicates that the leadership does not dismiss complaints as unworthy challenges to their power or authority.

  • It provides a sense of transparency within the institution; a sense that the institution recognises that there will be unrest or concerns, and that raising such issues and focusing on their resolution is not a challenge to the integrity of the institution but an endorsement of the institution’s willingness to listen, discuss, and resolve.

  • It avoids the intensification of unrest and the spread of dismay as individuals express their frustrations with the system, and the rise of resentment over the refusal of the institution’s leadership to listen to complaints. The failure to listen, rather than the initial dispute, can become the focus of unrest and dissatisfaction with the leadership and its handling of issues that might have initially been of minimal consequence.

  • It avoids the departure of thinking and outspoken adherents who might leave the formal institutional structure out of frustration at the leadership’s perceived lack of concern over issues that trouble the membership.

Impact on the leadership

A dispute resolution system is beneficial not only to the devotees, but to the leadership and the institution itself.

  • It provides a readily available method of resolving disputes, on their own merit, before they evolve into group disputes based on refusal to deal with the initial complaint.

  • It provides an opportunity to learn where problems are evolving, facilitating assessment of whether they can be corrected or avoided by administrative or personnel adjustments.

  • It provides a back-channel procedure for quietly resolving complaints. This helps all parties save face and get on with the real purpose of the organisation.

  • It enables the leadership, where appropriate, to avoid formal decision-making and side-taking. A side-effect of formal appeals is that they can result in antagonising larger numbers of adherents.

  • It creates an environment of member participation and challenge that can enhance the transparency and vitality of the institution. The institution is seen as being able to withstand, and even welcome, such member activity and challenge.

  • It shows non-adherents the vitality and transparency of the institution as a welcoming and dynamic environment worthy of joining.

Alternative dispute resolution in ISKCON

Early in 2001, ISKCON’s GBC (Governing Body Commission) authorised one of its deputy members, Braja Bihari Dasa, to explore the development of an alternative dispute resolution system for ISKCON. During the summer of 2001, Madhava-pandita Dasa discussed with me his interest in studying mediation in the hope that he could use it to help resolve some of the interpersonal, and intergenerational issues that he felt were weakening ISKCON. I agreed that informal dispute resolution systems could help resolve disputes that would otherwise impede the higher purposes of an institution and so Madhava-pandita Dasa placed me in contact with Burke Rochford, who provided me with the studies he had made of ISKCON, and with Kalakantha Dasa, who arranged for me to visit the ISKCON Community in Alachua, Florida. There I learned more about some of the problems facing the institution and suggested the use of some of the conflict resolution tools that have been successful in reducing conflict in governmental and private institutions.

In particular I considered the ombudsman system as a useful way for devotees to express concerns that they might have with the establishment leadership but that they might be reluctant to raise formally or visibly for fear of antagonising their mentors or jeopardising their future role within the institution. The ombudsman system could also provide a valuable tool for the GBC to resolve issues quietly without having to ‘take sides’.

I view the mediation function as being better suited to interpersonal disputes between devotees and higher ranking individuals, where both recognise that a prior incident might have soured their relationship, and where both seek to remove that obstacle to reconciliation to avoid its long term poisoning impact.

The introduction of mediation into the structure of ISKCON seemed to be consistent with its philosophical beliefs. Krsna Himself tried to settle the dispute before the battle of Kuruksetra, and the movement’s founder, Srila Prabhupada, was often involved in ironing out disputes amongst his disciples. Indeed, Prabhupada requested his disciples to cooperate as a sign of love for him, and stated that ISKCON’s potential failure would only come about due to internal conflict and impurities, not external threats. Prabhupada even indicated that much of the demise of his Guru’s mission came about due to in-fighting amongst godbrothers.

Mediation appeared so well suited to this institution that I could foresee its introduction into the curriculum of ISKCON schools, teaching youngsters the benefits of discussion, negotiation, and compromise in resolving personal disputes. Peer mediation, the introduction of negotiation, and mediation training and role-playing have become popular in elementary and middle schools in North American and elsewhere as a programme for teaching more harmonious relationships between youngsters. The goal is to train a whole generation of students in the skills of negotiation and mediation so that as adults they can be more sensitive in their interpersonal relations and more willing to employ negotiation and mediation in their dealings with others. It would be wonderful if that facility were built into the training of future generations of ISKCON devotees so that they would be sensitive to the use of mediation to resolve disputes with their fellow devotees and even more so in their dealings with associates outside ISKCON.

Having been impressed by the contemplative nature of many of the good listeners I met in my introductory experiences with ISKCON, I considered many devotees I met as having the innate qualifications to be good mediators and anticipated that, with training, they might be able not only to resolve disputes within ISKCON, but also gain the skills that could make them acceptable as mediators outside ISKCON, opening up the opportunity to work professionally as mediators in the outside world. I projected that if enough devotees could be trained in societies where mediation was an accepted vehicle for resolving disputes, then entrance into this field might help to improve the image of ISKCON devotees to one where they would be viewed as peacemakers in the communities in which they live and practice.

Implementing alternative dispute resolution in ISKCON

Following the Alachua meeting I was invited to attend and make a presentation at the annual meeting of the GBC in Mayapur, India, on 9 March 2002. In that presentation I set forth my rationale for the establishment of a programme for dispute resolution within ISKCON. The following day the GBC issued a statement of support for the undertaking and urged its initiation. Its undertaking reads as follows:


Whereas, the GBC seeks to assure devotees of their interest in their concern, and seeks to encourage the timely voluntary resolution of disputes within ISKCON,

Whereas, the universal practice of international organisations is to provide machinery of prompt resolution of internal disputes,

And whereas it is universally accepted that ombudsmen provide an effective and confidential means of addressing individual concerns with the organisation,

And whereas it is universally accepted that mediation entered into voluntarily by two disputant parties with the help of a trained mediator is a proven procedure for resolving interpersonal disputes to the mutual satisfaction of the disputants.

It is resolved that: The GBC announces the universal support of the establishment of a voluntary dispute resolution system to facilitate the resolution of members concerns.

To accomplish this end, we unanimously urge regions and local temples to undertake the establishment of regional based ombudsman and mediation structures.

Members of the GBC pledge their support in the development of these structures and in being responsive to the concerns of members brought to their attention through these processes.

A sub-committee of Braja Bihari Dasa, Madhava-pandita Dasa, and Arnold M. Zack shall coordinate these efforts on behalf of the GBC body.

Following the meeting, the next stage was to develop a programme which would: spread word of the GBC commitment; develop a structure for implementation of its objectives on an international and regional basis; educate members as to the nature and workings of an ombudsman and mediator and how they would fit into the ISKCON structure; select effective ombudsmen; train mediators for service on a regional or broader basis; develop an administrative focus for individuals with complaints seeking to use the procedure; and make these services available outside of ISKCON. Throughout this undertaking we were guided by the principal of transparency and have sought to keep devotees and members up to date on our efforts. We have also to be guided by the fact that the GBC, under financial pressure, has had limited funds available to help in the implementation of the programme it so enthusiastically endorsed.

Spreading the word of the GBC endorsement

Following the meeting in Mayapur, a report of my presentation was listed on the Mayapur web page (www.mayapur.com). In addition to the GBC Resolution, the announcement of our programme was posted on a number of ISKCON web pages such as Chakra (www.chakra.org). Since then, we have provided updates of our plans and undertakings to users of PAMHO (ISKCON’s internal e-mail system), Chakra, and VNN (www.vnn.org), soliciting comments and suggestions as to how we should proceed. The great majority of the responses were commendations of the undertaking and encouragements of our efforts.

There were some negative responses from those who viewed our undertaking as being material solutions to essentially spiritual problems, or who felt that we should only use those methods used by previous teachers in the Vaisnava tradition. It therefore needs to be made clear that alternative dispute resolution is intended as a proper implementation of the principle of yukta-vairagya: using material nature in Krsna’s service. Alternative dispute resolution is meant to be a practical system to serve ISKCON.

We also solicited, and received a number of responses from, devotees with experience in mediation and in mediation training.

Developing regional structures

Although there were representatives of all regions at the Mayapur meeting of the GBC, and although invitations were offered to visit all regions, we opted for the development of regional programmes in North America and in Europe as initial efforts to demonstrate the feasibility of the programme. Accordingly, measures were undertaken to speak to the North American region at its meeting in New Vrindavan in West Virginia in May 2002, and to the European region at its meeting at Radhadesh in Belgium in September 2002. Our goal was to speak to the local devotees at those meetings as well as to Temple Presidents, GBC members, and other leaders who were present and to develop, with them, a programme for each region.

In the New Vrindavan meeting we solicited devotees in attendance to determine who had had mediation training or experience. We spoke to Vrajalila Dasi, who had done considerable international training of mediators and devotees to familiarise them with the workings of the process, and Krsna-lila Dasi, who has spent a career training mediators for the New York Public School system. We determined to encourage Vrajalila to talk to temples and devotees about the use and procedures of mediation, and to use Krsna-lila to lead our initial mediator training programme scheduled for September 2002 at Towaco, New Jersey.

We posted a notice of the proposed training, offering a 40 hour, five day, certificate course in mediation for $30. We determined to make the course available to all who wished to attend in the expectation that it: would yield some graduates we would be willing to endorse and offer as mediators; would enable others to rely on the training if they sought work outside ISKCON as mediators; and, at the very least, would familiarise more devotees with the process and help advertise the value of the training in terms of self-examination and enhancing skills in dealing with other people.

While at New Vrindavan we learned of a training programme being conducted at the Vancouver Temple and have been in communication with the trainers in that programme to integrate their activities into our project.

We also spoke with North American leaders about our suggestions for ombudsmen to serve in that region and to be available elsewhere. We also discussed initial plans for the development of a structure for processing cases from devotee inquiries into the ombudsman and mediation channels.

In June 2002, we met with the leaders of the Radhadesh community in Belgium where leaders from several other countries were also in attendance. In addition to planning for a European mediation training programme in late 2002 we also made plans for assisting the funding of European attendants from several countries, and identified individuals who might serve as European based ombudsmen. Arrangements were made for including a unit on ADR for the Bhaktivedanta College at Radhadesh, and for returning to meet the European GBC leadership at their September meeting where we proposed to discuss the development of training programmes within the region.

Our expectation was that, with our experience in North America and in Europe, we would gain experience on the development process and other regions would learn of our approach and provide further opportunities for us to develop comparable programmes in other regions. Our objective for the first year is to extend our efforts to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and possibly India. Our hope is that once we have regional training programmes in place and have spoken with the leadership and attendees at their regional meetings, we will be in a better position to cooperate with national and temple groups in helping to develop mediation training programmes, hopefully in local languages, to make sensitive mediators more widely available and to move toward our ultimate objective of training large numbers of devotees in mediation so that they will have the skills to offer their services as mediators outside ISKCON.

Educating members about the processes

We aim to bring the message of our programme to as many devotees and members as possible through the web, regular updates, and participation in regional meetings. We have discussed the creation of a web page for our project where we plan to post information and articles on various aspects of mediation and dispute resolution, as well as listings of approved mediation training programmes in countries where we might not be able to develop our own programme. Once we have had mediation courses in the regions currently under discussion we expect to provide refresher courses, courses for mediator trainees, and access to mediation training in fields other than the interpersonal relationships on which we are currently focusing.

We also hope to use our training, talks, postings, and networking to encourage the development of peer mediation programmes for students at ISKCON schools. One pilot peer mediation programme is presently being start at the Gurukula in Vrndavana, India. We also want to encourage and train devotees who would like to establish peer-mediation programmes outside of ISKCON, in school systems around the world; there is a ready market for such work.

Selecting the ombudsmen

We are carefully identifying individuals within ISKCON to serve as ombudsmen. It is important that they have credibility among devotees and the GBC.

For the first year we want to develop a roster of six ombudsmen who would be representative of the various constituencies within ISKCON (male, female, temple devotee, congregant, young and old) as well as from different ethnic groupings, so that devotees seeking to use the ombudsman service would be comfortable in selecting someone in whom they had confidence.

We decided against soliciting self-nominations for ombudsmen in favour of selection. We felt that asking for volunteers would unrealistically raise expectations of devotees that they would be used as ombudsmen when the reality is that those serving as ombudsmen require a certain temperament, a reputation for protecting confidentiality, and an access to, and acceptability by, GBC leadership to function effectively.

Although none of those selected have yet undertaken to attend the ombudsman training programmes that are available, we expect that such attendance would be part of their developing expertise in this field. Some devotees, who would benefit from using the ombudsman process, have already brought some issues to our attention and efforts are underway to proceed with those initial concerns.

Training mediators

There a number of devotees, with experience as trainers in various types of mediation, that have come forward and offered to help train ISKCON mediators. Our initial focus is on mediation of interpersonal, rather than institutional, disputes. After our first training sessions we will assess whether it meets what we anticipate to be the needs within ISKCON. We can then adjust the content in later training or for training in other regions and may provide updates if we think our initial approach was less than relevant.

The training we use is a 40-hour course spread over five days, with considerable emphasis on role playing and mock mediations. The course is open to all who want to take it, with a limit of 25 per course. Only after we have observed the performance of the trainees will we make any determination as to whether we think they would be effective in our programme. Those who are chosen will be placed on our roster of mediators, which will be made available to those seeking to use the service.

Once the course is completed, we would expect to provide those on the roster with case studies of completed mediations (names excised) so they get a sense of the types of issues confronted in the programme, and we would use those case studies and the mediators of those cases for refresher training in regular regional meetings.

We will also develop a standard for adding to our roster the names of devotees who have prior mediation experience but have not taken the course. Their inclusion would be based on the effectiveness of their service, the areas where they have mediated, and our assessment of their potential usefulness to our programme. We would set a threshold number of completed mediations that would be the basis for entry onto the roster without our training.

Establishing the administrative structure

The administrative structure would oversee intake of potential ombudsman or mediation cases as well as funding and other administration. We anticipate an individual administrator working with the assistance of an advisory committee of leaders who are supportive of the programme and who are endorsed in that role by the GBC

The confidentiality that is so crucial to the success of the ombudsman programme should enable a complainant to bypass the administrative structure and make initial contact directly with the preferred ombudsman; although there would be no problem with a devotee coming to the administrator and asking referral to an ombudsman.

In the case of mediation the administrator may have a larger role to play. Of course, if two devotees jointly agree that they have a dispute that could be effectively mediated they could choose any mediator they wish, even if that person is not on our roster. However, if one party is eager to mediate with another, but the other party is either unaware of the interest, or unwilling to partake, then the administrator can be approached to attempt to induce the reluctant or refusing party into mediation. In a sense the administrator would also be a mediator, mediating one of the parties into the process. There may be other cases where a third party thinks that a deteriorating relationship between two people would benefit from mediation. In such a case the administrator might approach the two individuals jointly or individually to offer the services of the office to help resolve their conflict.

The administrator would maintain the roster of mediators and add names when approved by the advisory committee. The administrator would also serve to finalise and process any written agreements that might result from mediations.

We are currently considering the appropriate funding vehicle for the office. Hopefully, mediators would be willing to serve on a pro bono basis, similar to the judges who serve in ISKCON’s Child Protection Office. But we can envision the day when there is sufficient demand on the services of certain mediators that their heavy dedication of time to the work would justify their seeking compensation for their services. If the roster is tapped by outside users then certainly the mediators would be justified in charging fees. Accordingly we are proposing a mediator roster to be published in our ADR web page, which would list the background of each roster member, including mediation courses taken, the number and nature of cases mediated (with names of parties excised) and whether or not they will charge ISKCON devotees for their services. Those seeking to use roster members would then be on notice of the charges for such services and the paid mediator would be able to deal directly with parties and receive compensation from them. For those serving pro bono, their selection and reimbursement of their expenses would be handled by the administrator from funds collected from the disputants, or from funds provided by the local temple, GBC, or benefactors of the programme.

Making ISKCON neutrals available to the outside world

ISKCON devotees could make good mediators. The foregoing programme has the components and transparency that would enable ISKCON mediators to offer their services to the wider world. In my estimation, every citizen would benefit from some training on communication, negotiation, and mediation. The training programme we are championing is one that could benefit all ISKCON devotees and congregants. If the culture of ISKCON can become one that is known for its knack and effectiveness in resolving disputes within the institution, then it would follow that there would be a call upon its members to provide mediation services for disputants outside the institution. Mediation is an increasingly accepted and used process for resolving disputes worldwide, particularly as society becomes more and more concerned with the costs, delays, and loss of control to litigation and the courts. This might be a prime time for ISKCON to develop dispute-settlement experience for its members to use for their professional advancement in society at large.


Whatever else may happen, knowledge of negotiation and dispute resolution among members would certainly go a long way to aligning ISKCON’s culture to one more in keeping with the concerns of its founder, Srila Prabhupada:

We have so much work to do, we cannot lose our solidarity. Do not cause a crack there with any fighting spirit or competition. Whenever I hear complaints or disturbances in our centres my mind becomes ... disturbed and I cannot properly translate my books. So please spare me from such disturbance by cooperating all together, Godbrothers and Godsisters.1

Remember the story in Aesop's Fables of the father of many children with the bundle of sticks. When the father asked his children to break the bundle of sticks wrapped in a bag, none of them could do it. But, when they removed the sticks from the bag, and tried one by one, the sticks were easily broken. So this is the strength in unity. If we are bunched up, we can never be broken, but when divided, then we can become broken very easily.2

This paper presents our initial efforts at a vital experiment, vital not only to establish a culture of dispute resolution within ISKCON, but also vital to determine if a religious institution, such as ISKCON, can apply the concepts and standards which governments and businesses have come to accept as crucial for avoiding conflict and reducing tensions within their institutions. If it succeeds, ISKCON will have made an important contribution to the ability of its members and devotees to raise and discuss issues that are ultimately of mutual concern. It will also have made an inspiring contribution to world religions by showing that the transparency of its institution enhances the dedication and devotion of its followers.


Since the writing of this article, Arnold Zack and Braja Bihari Dasa attended the March 2003 ISKCON GBC meetings in Mayapur, India. There they presented their accomplishments for the year: training courses in the US, Europe and India; 70 trained mediators; nearly 100 cases mediated and about 15 ombudsman cases. They also presented plans for training courses in Russia, Hungary, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, and the west coast and south-eastern USA.

At the meetings the GBC Executive Committee delegated issues brought to them to mediators to attempt to work out differences. Six such issues were successfully dealt with in that way during the ten days of meetings. Such differences usually consume much time at the GBC meetings.

The GBC body also voted to allocate sufficient funds for the on-going progress of this project.


1. Srila Prabhupada letter to Malati Dasi, 7 January 1974.

2. Srila Prabhupada letter to Kirtanananda Swami, 18 October 1973