Pizza or Pakoras

Reconciling Conservative and Liberal Viewpoints in ISKCON

Braja Bihari Dasa

Drawing on his experience in conflict resolution in ISKCON, Braja Bihari Dasa examines one of the core factors of conflict—the division between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ positions on the understanding and application of a shared set of teachings. He uses several models for understanding such conflict and from these he draws solutions that aim to enable conflict to be resolved, where appropriate, or to be acknowledged for their potential to form the basis of healthy, productive dialogue.

Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), often voiced concern about internal conflicts in his growing ISKCON society:

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. (Srila Prabhupada letter to Malati, 7 January 1974)

You have dedicated your life for Krsna and therefore you should be ideal. We are introducing Krsna Consciousness movement for the harmony and good will of humanity. But if you yourselves are suffering from the very ills we are trying to remove, how can the people be influenced favourably? Stop this fighting, tolerate. (Srila Prabhupada letter to Trivikrama, 1 May 1974)

Only after exhausting every possibility of peaceful solution shall we fight anyone. Just like Krsna. He did not call for fighting until after every chance for settlement failed. (Srila Prabhupada letter to Balavanta, 13 December 1972)

This paper analyses some of the causes of conflict in ISKCON, particularly, as the title suggests, in the conservative/liberal realm. Should ISKCON stick to tradition as closely as possible or can we adapt Krsna consciousness to the surrounding culture when appropriate: Can we offer Krsna vegetarian pizzas or must we only offer traditional items such as pakoras? The paper ends by offering a number of solutions in keeping with Prabhupada’s desire for cooperation in his Society.

Causes of conflict

There are many causes of conflict. In his book, The Mediation Process, Christopher Moore outlines the main ones (pp. 64–5):

  1. Value conflicts: caused by parties having different criteria to evaluate ideas, or by different lifestyles, ideologies, or religions.
  2. Relationship conflicts: caused by strong emotions, misperceptions, miscommunications, and regular, negative interactions.
  3. Data conflicts: caused by a lack of information, different interpretations of data, and different views on what is relevant.
  4. Interest conflicts: caused by competition over substantive interests, procedural interests, or psychological interests.
  5. Structural conflicts: caused by destructive patterns of behaviour, unequal control and ownership of resources, unequal power and authority, time constraints, and geographical/environmental factors that hinder cooperation.

Moore suggests interventions for each of these sources of conflict. As Arnold Zack mentioned in an article for ISKCON Communications Journal (Vol. 10), organisations worldwide are recognising the need to address such conflicts and are finding promising results from their foray into Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Zack describes the way ISKCON has begun a programme to deal with cases of conflict within the organisation. Without repeating his detailed article, I would like to further explore conflicts as they relate to religious organisations, and of course, as they apply specifically to ISKCON, and even more specifically, between conservative and liberal viewpoints in ISKCON.

In Managing Church Conflict, Hugh F. Halverstadt adds to Moore’s list by citing three causes of conflict particular to church settings (p. 2). Of particular interest to this discussion is Halverstadt’s first point: Church conflicts are intense because we have attached our commitment and faith to them. He writes:

For one thing, parties’ core identities are at risk in church conflicts. Spiritual commitments and faith understandings are highly inflammable because they are central to one’s psychological identity. When Christians differ over beliefs or commitments, they may question or even condemn one another’s spirituality or character. Their self-esteem is on the line. (Halverstadt, p. 2)

Perhaps more than the average churchgoer, ISKCON members make sacrifices and major lifestyle changes when taking to Krsna consciousness. They change how they eat, sleep, dress, and speak; they develop new friendships and frequently relinquish the old; and they develop a new set of life aspirations. To become devotees, they also adopt a drastically different outlook on life from the one with which they were raised. They invest a lot of themselves in becoming Krsna’s devotee, and thus if aspects of their core identity are brought into question by someone with a different point of view—especially by someone in their own ranks—conflict often results.

There are a number of factors that influence a devotee’s ‘take’ on Krsna consciousness. The first is cultural diversity. There are ISKCON temples in 103 countries, and although they afford a basic uniformity of theology and practices, the host cultures each bring in much variety. Prabhupada infers this in one of his commentaries: ‘A candidate for Krsna consciousness in the Western countries should be taught about the renunciation of material existence, but one would teach candidates from a country like India in a different way. The teacher (acarya) has to consider time, candidate and country.’ (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 23.105, purport) Other significant differences in ‘takes’ are caused by devotees’ early training in Krsna consciousness, their level of spiritual advancement, their purva-samskaras (mental impressions from previous lives), their conditioning in this life, their socio-economic status, their intellectual capacity, their choice of friends, their habits, and more. Thus although all are members of ISKCON, there is variety in how members perceive, experience, teach, and practice Krsna consciousness.

Understanding how that variety manifests is an essential tool in analysing ISKCON’s conflicts and coping with the confusion those conflicts create. Srila Prabhupada was fond of quoting the Sanskrit saying, atmavan manyate jagat, ‘I think like this, so the whole world must also think in the same way’. Ross and Ward of Stanford University give a detailed outline of a similar concept (pp. 110–11). They coin the phrase ‘naïve realism’, and describe the concept as follows:

  1. That I see entities and events as they are in objective reality, and that my social attitudes, beliefs, preferences, priorities, and the like follow from a relatively dispassionate, unbiased and essentially ‘unmediated’ apprehension of the information or evidence at hand.

  2. That other rational social perceivers generally will share my reactions, behaviour and opinions—provided they have had access to the same information that gave rise to my views, and provided that they too have processed that information in a reasonably thoughtful, and open-minded fashion.

  3. That the failure of a given individual or group to share my views arises from one of three possible sources:
  • The individual or group in question may have been exposed to a different sample of information than I was (in which case, provided that the other party is reasonable and open-minded, the sharing or pooling of information should lead us to reach an agreement);
  • The individual or group in question may be lazy, irrational, or otherwise unable or unwilling to proceed in a normative fashion from objective evidence to reasonable conclusions; or
  • The individual or group in question may be biased (either in interpreting the evidence or in proceeding from evidence to conclusions) by ideology, self-interest, or some other distorting personal influence.

I prefer the term ‘subjective realism’ to the more pejorative ‘naïve realism’; for me, ‘naïve’ tends to make this syndrome sound undesirable. Rather, thinking in these ways is natural—it is clear that this influence is frequently at work in most people’s lives—the only undesirable part is when we don’t recognise it in others or ourselves. Indeed, if we look at Moore’s five causes of conflict, it’s reasonable to say that subjective realism can play a part in nearly all of them. We see the world differently from others, and we are often willing to enter into a dispute because of that. ISKCON members are no exception.

It is important to clarify that when applying these considerations in ISKCON, I’m not implying that the standard spiritual truths mentioned in Vaisnava sastra (scripture) are up for subjective reinterpretation. Clearly ISKCON has a standard theology to which all its members must adhere if they are to be considered members at all. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada has established certain incontrovertible standards, including the initiation vows (no illicit sex, no gambling, no intoxication, and no eating of meat, fish, or eggs, and the promise to chant at least sixteen rounds of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra a day). In fact, these common understandings held by all ISKCON devotees are essential and will be discussed later as a possible means to overcoming differences.

Thus, although I use the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’, it should be clear that (1) these terms are used in relation to non-core practice and that each party would agree on the core ISKCON theology, and (2) these terms are used relative to ISKCON practices (even the ‘liberals’ would generally be considered highly conservative by current Western standards).

Still even within this narrow definition there is plenty of room for individual emphasis, interpretation, and realisation—based on spiritual inspiration, practical and material considerations, and a combination of these. Differences arise, ignited by subjective realism and stoked by the age we live in.

The argument culture and Kali-yuga

The Vaisnava sastra (scripture) repeatedly explains that we are now living in the age of Kali, of quarrel. This is a time when people all too easily enter into conflict. Although conflict is inevitable in this age, how a person or organisation deals with it marks the difference between that person’s ability to excel or simply limp along. Spiritual organisations, although meant to be reservoirs of peace, are not exempt from this influence. Indeed, for all the reasons stated above and more, religious groups have long histories of quarrel. Even a relatively new institution like ISKCON has already built conflict into its history. In her book, The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen explains how this tendency towards quarrel is affecting today’s society: ‘. . . conflicts can sometimes be resolved without confrontational tactics, but current conventional wisdom often devalues less confrontational tactics even if they work well, favouring more aggressive strategies even if they get less favourable results. It’s as if we value a fight for its own sake, not for its effectiveness in resolving disputes’ (p. 23).

Kali-yuga’s beginnings seem to exemplify this tendency. In Srimad-Bhagavatam we have the story of Srngi, an unqualified son of a brahmana, cursing the great devotee-king Pariksit to die within seven days after the king had apparently offended Srngi’s father when the brahmana did not offer him a proper reception. While this particular event is viewed as the Lord’s arrangement meant to bring about the speaking of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, it is also said that Kali-yuga’s influence began when Srngi chose an aggressive strategy even though alternatives were certainly available.

Kali influences in another substantial way: it breaks down authority. Tannen quotes Robert Bly who writes in Sibling Society that present-day citizens ‘. . . are like squabbling siblings with no authority figures who can command enough respect to contain and channel their aggressive impulses. It is as if every day is a day with a substitute teacher who cannot control the class and maintain order’ (Tannen, p. 25). When I joined ISKCON in 1977, the authority structure was strong and firmly intact. After Prabhupada’s departure that year and the subsequent difficulties centred on questionable leadership decisions and the moral shortcomings of some of the renunciates, the authority structure has weakened considerably. History is yet to reveal how well this weakened structure will survive in ISKCON. Some say that ISKCON is doing relatively well in keeping the Governing Body Commission intact, but, for the present, ISKCON certainly suffers from the ‘substitute teacher syndrome’. With a decrease in authority, opinions proliferate with the understanding that one opinion is not better than any other. Lack of strong authority encourages subjective reality to run amok, resulting ultimately in more disagreements.

The medium affects the message

Authority is also weakened by the advent of desktop publishing and the internet. Previously, if one wished to publish a book, he or she had to convince an ISKCON publisher of its value—often a daunting task. Now anyone with an idea, a computer, a printer, and a small investment can publish a book.

Websites, with their anyone-can-say-anything aspect, are even easier to establish.1 It is a fact that many of the disagreements that take place in ISKCON exist only in cyberspace; the devotees involved may not even have met in person. The internet has connected us in ways never before possible. It has also extended the influence of both subjective realism and Kali-yuga beyond all boundaries: people can now send mail to hundreds of receivers all over the world in a matter of seconds. Furthermore, if we were to accept the popular statistic that 10% of communication is in what we say, 30% is in how we say it, and the final 60% revealed in our body language, then e-mail is clearly not a useful tool for discussing topics that have emotional and philosophical components. E-mail is quite useful for knowing when to pick someone up at the airport or other innocuous dealings, but it is not a fit medium for working out long-standing disagreements. For example, recently the Executive Committee of ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission (GBC) was called upon to referee a complicated issue involving the alleged misbehaviour of a regional leader. Over 1000 e-mails were exchanged on the subject with little progress but much miscommunication and some ill feelings. Realising that e-mail was not bringing the problem closer to a solution, the Executive Committee chairman called a meeting of the involved parties. Within a short time the problems were sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. While it’s true that the meeting was much more costly in terms of time and travel expenses and that the e-mails had cost nothing, still, the meeting proved much more efficient in coming to a solution. It also seems clear, however, that e-mail will continue to fuel ISKCON’s conflicts, despite its usually negative effects.

Another technological hazard in ISKCON is the Vedabase, a searchable compilation of all of Prabhupada’s writings, letters, and transcribed conversations. While it is a wonderful facility for a researcher or a traveller who doesn’t want to carry books (all the books fit on one DVD), it has its downside. The front matter of the Vedabase states, ‘The Bhaktivedanta Vedabase is a powerful tool, and like all tools it may be used either well or badly. Used well, it can help us discover, gather, and bring to light many teachings the scriptures and Srila Prabhupada give us. Used badly, it can help assemble false evidence, fallacious arguments, and wrong conclusions’. All too often devotees approach the information contained on the Vedabase with an agenda, and then use the Vedabase to find quotes to confirm their prejudicial views. Rather than trying to understand Prabhupada’s statements and how they fit in with his other statements and the scriptural conclusions, it seems that many people only turn to the Vedabase to find ammunition in their attempts to defeat others.

Conservative and liberal

The above-mentioned causes of conflict are best visible today in ISKCON in a variety of conservative versus liberal conflicts. There are a number of subjects affected by the conservative-liberal dichotomy, including the role of women, ISKCON’s relations with the wider world, approaches to missionary activities, the usefulness of interfaith dialogue, and the degree of inculcating traditional culture.

At the risk of over-generalising, here is a brief synopsis of the viewpoints: liberals take an egalitarian approach to the role of women based on the inherent equality of all souls on the spiritual platform. They feel ISKCON needs to be relevant to the outside world and that we can learn much from others. We should therefore be creative in our missionary activities, adjusting them to time, place, and circumstance. They also feel that the give-and-take of interfaith dialogue is helpful for ISKCON and for others, and that while cultural traditions are important, they are secondary to higher, spiritual principles. Implementing a traditional culture in ISKCON, they say, has to be done carefully, because previous attempts were immature and left scars on those who were part of the attempt.

Conservatives accept a complementarian approach to the role of women: women have a distinctive role centred on being wives, mothers, and are in no way competing with men. They believe we should give to the outside world but that there is little we should take. While adjustments can be made to the culture for outreach activities, we already have a perfect, if yet to be fully implemented, culture; we need only execute our teachings with faith. Conservatives believe we should be wary of interfaith dialogue; after all, we already have the truth and others should learn it from us. They believe we have little to gain from others. We need only preach and exemplify the Vedic culture, which is glorious—supremely so. The closer we come to following it, the happier we will be, as will those who come in contact with us.

Both parties present evidence from sastra as well as examples from Prabhupada’s personal application of it to substantiate their viewpoint. It may be that on some issues, based on sastra, one party is right and the other wrong, but until now in ISKCON, neither the liberal nor the conservative position has been established as dominant, nor is that likely to happen in the near future. In the ongoing debates, both continue to quote legitimate passages and attempt to connect those passages to the present-day institution.

An example: the issue surrounding the role of women in ISKCON

What is the role of women in ISKCON? Can women take leadership positions? Can they be gurus? Should they rather play a complementary role to men as pious wives and mothers protected by their fathers in youth, their husbands in marriage, and their grown sons in old age? Much of the contention in this conflict centres around hermeneutics: on how ISKCON should interpret the scriptures and Prabhupada’s comments on them. What constitutes an unchangeable spiritual principle? What constitutes a detail, a time-and-place attempt to apply a principle that can be changed when time and place differ? Are the cultural varnasrama2 considerations a principle or a detail? What is to be done when two parties emphasise different and apparently opposing principles?

Egalitarians emphasise the oneness of all souls and that bodily differences are of secondary importance. Bhakti, loving devotion to Krsna, is a function of the soul; it has nothing to do with the external body one happens to inhabit. Men aren’t men eternally, nor are women eternally women. Egalitarians believe we should be evolved enough to ‘get off the bodily concept of life’ and respect each other as souls, as eternal servants of Krsna. We should be careful not to allow mundane concepts to enter a spiritual society. Egalitarians quote passages from Prabhupada’s letters and writings like these:

Regarding lecturing by women devotees: I have informed you that in the service of the Lord there is no distinction of caste, or creed, colour, or sex. (Srila Prabhupada letter to Jayagovinda, 8 February 1968)

Sometimes jealous persons [from India] criticise the Krsna consciousness movement because it engages equally both men and women in distribution of love of Godhead. Not knowing that men and women in countries like Europe and America mix very freely, these fools and rascals criticise the boys and girls in Krsna consciousness for intermingling. But these rascals should consider that one cannot suddenly change a community’s social customs. However, since both men and women are being trained to become preachers those women are not ordinary women but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krsna consciousness. Therefore it is a principle that a preacher must strictly follow the rules and regulations laid down in the sastras yet at the same time devise a means by which the preaching work to reclaim the fallen may go with full force. (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 7.38, purport)

The complementarians protest the growing acceptance of a feminist agenda in ISKCON. They fear the creeping in of a materialistic, left-wing mindset that runs contrary to ISKCON’s stated goals. ISKCON, which is based on an ancient culture, is, they say, being influenced by modern, materialistic considerations that run contrary to the varnasrama ideal that ISKCON is meant to establish. While they certainly accept the philosophical point that ‘we are not these bodies’, they maintain that the varnasrama social norms are an important vehicle for attaining the spiritual platform. They consider varnasrama the support culture upon which the spiritual Vaisnava culture will be built. They also feel that without the support of this Vaisnava social model, we will by default embrace the culture of Western hedonism, a culture that will not support our spiritual aspirations. They cite scripture such as the following, to support their points:

A chaste woman should not be greedy, but satisfied in all circumstances. She must be very expert in handling household affairs and should be fully conversant with religious principles. She should speak pleasingly and truthfully and should be very careful and always clean and pure. Thus a chaste woman should engage with affection in the service of a husband who is not fallen. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.11.38)

Women need to be protected by men. A woman should be cared for by her father in her childhood, by her husband in her youth, and by her grown sons in her old age. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.18.42, purport)

The role of women is a high profile issue. If it is handled with care, respect, and sufficient attention, its resolution can go a long way in giving ISKCON members confidence of their ability to overcome differences and work cooperatively.

Pizza or pakoras?

In his article, ‘Conflict in Groups: The Cross-Stitching Effect’ (p. 247), Ron Kraybill discusses two different church congregations. In one church, various members agree with one person on one issue and another person on a different issue (see fig. 1). In one instance, A, B, C, and D agree; on another A, B, F, and E; and on a third A, B, G, and H. In the other church, members vote according to party lines, consistently siding with the same people (see fig. 2). Kraybill says that the first church paradoxically invites disagreements, as they are dealt with respectfully and have an outcome of bringing people closer together. The second church generally avoids conflict, but when it arises the members become polarised, which leads to politics, mistrust, misrepresentation of views, and potentially a split.

Fig. 1 Pizzas Fig. 2 Pakoras
Pizza Pakora

I presented these diagrams at a lecture entitled ‘Pizza or Pakoras’ in July 2004 at the ISKCON European Convention. Looking at the diagram, someone in the audience said, ‘Church One looks like a pizza, Church Two looks like two pakoras, but which one is ISKCON?’ I hadn’t intended that this diagram to be linked to my lecture’s title, and the metaphor doesn’t fit exactly, but it got me thinking about the question: Which church does ISKCON most resemble?

My analysis, based on living in the heartbeat of ISKCON Vrndavana, India, and dealing on a daily basis with ISKCON ‘issues’ as the director of ISKCONResolve,3 is that both Church One and Church Two scenarios exist in ISKCON. However, because of ISKCON’s diversity, members tend to lean towards Church One despite the vocal minority entrenched in Church Two dynamics as liberals or conservatives. The Church One people, according to Kraybill, already deal with conflict in healthy ways. The question remains as to how ISKCON can help its Church Two liberals and conservatives deal with one another in mutually satisfactory and beneficial ways?


Increased dialogue

Presently, conservatives and liberals often communicate within their own groups but do not engage in many constructive dialogues with devotees at the other end of the spectrum. Inevitably this leads to misunderstandings about the other’s viewpoints and, especially, motives. Straw-man positions are presented and attacked. Polarisation occurs and positions harden. Miscommunication abounds. Ad hominem attacks—a special tool for fuelling conflict and discouraging cooperation—are not infrequent.

Dialogue can go far to ameliorate the above scenario. A structured dialogue—assisted by a neutral third-party—clarifies intentions and viewpoints. Parties can hear one another respectfully. Without dropping their own positions, they try to understand one another. Dialogue separates the real issues from the perceived ones and de-escalates the mistrust and fears shared between the parties. A de-demonisation takes place, and the atmosphere becomes conducive for empathic communications.

In the case of ISKCON’s conservatives and liberals, some steps are being taken in this direction in the form of dialogue via an e-mail conference. Because ISKCON is an international organisation and in-person dialogue is not always possible between disputing parties, we have conceded to setting up an e-mail conference despite the risks. Also, the GBC has requested parties on both sides of the ‘women’s issue’ to participate in a dialogue to ‘seek out possible resolutions for these contentious issues and report back to the GBC body’. When properly established, dialogue is a powerful tool for ISKCON devotees. It is a primary teaching in ISKCON to respect all others without requiring respect in return. It has been my experience that dialogue becomes easy when the disputants practice Vaisnava humility.

Dialogue, as a first step, is essential, and it can often lead to tangible decision making. Jennifer Lynch coins the term ‘D2D’ (dialogue to decision). Often, by sincere dialogue divergent groups come to conclusions on their own regarding how best to proceed with the issues at hand. That may certainly happen on various topics between ISKCON’s conservatives and liberals. Further, I would suggest ISKCON leadership look at the idea of allowing a variety of positions on a given topic to be acceptable within ISKCON’s official stance. As Prabhupada once stated when writing to a GBC member:

If we keep Krsna in the centre, then there will be agreement in varieties. This is called unity in diversity. I am therefore suggesting that all our devotees meet in Mayapur every year during the birth anniversary of Lord Caitanya. With all GBC and senior devotees present we should discuss how to make unity in diversity. But, if we fight on account of diversity, then it is simply the material platform. Please try to maintain the philosophy of unity in diversity. That will make our movement successful. (Srila Prabhupada letter to Kirtanananda, 18 October 1973)

Much conflict and politicking takes place among liberals and conservatives in ISKCON because of an unwritten understanding that ISKCON will accept only one view on a subject. Perhaps much of the energy spent on each group trying to establish its view as the view could be better spent on ISKCON’s primary purposes—becoming Krsna conscious and helping others to do the same—and on living with diversity on many of the less central issues. In offering this suggestion I realise that we open up yet another contentious question: What is a core issue and what is not? I still suggest, however, that this question is easier to deal with than the differences surrounding the issue itself.

Systems approach

Since Arnold Zack’s article in the last ISKCON Communications Journal, ISKCON’s Alternative Dispute Resolution work has developed and is moving towards what is called an Integrated Conflict Management System (ICMS). ISKCONResolve, ISKCON’s ICMS, offers a spectrum of services to ISKCON devotees, including mediation, dialogue, arbitration, conflict analysis, and an ombuds office4. ISKCONResolve offers these choices so devotees can address their concerns, complaints, conflicts, and suggestions in positive, effective ways. In addition to facilitating the existing debates, it provides conservatives and liberals with an effective, positive means to be understood and heard both by one another and by ISKCON’s leadership. As Tannen concludes, ‘There are times when we need to disagree, criticise, oppose, and attack—to hold debates and view issues as polarised battles. Even cooperation, after all, is not the absence of conflict but a means of managing conflict. My goal is not a make-nice false veneer of agreement or a dangerous ignoring of true opposition. I’m questioning the automatic use of adversarial formats—the assumption that it’s always best to address problems and issues by fighting over them. I’m hoping for a broader repertoire of ways to talk to each other and address issues vital to us.’ (p. 26) ISKCONResolve is an attempt to offer that broader repertoire to its members.

Part of the systems approach to conflict is ‘capacity building’ (Schirch), training members of an organisation in alternative methods of dealing with conflict. ISKCONResolve has trained over four hundred ISKCON devotees in mediation. That’s a start, but now we are developing a short seminar to be made available to a far larger number of members. This shorter course will provide basic theory and skills for individuals to address conflicts that arise in their lives. The seminar will also include points on how they can take advantage of the services ISKCONResolve has to offer. A course is also being developed for use in schools and Sunday schools affiliated with ISKCON.

Another essential aspect of a systems approach is the follow-up. Sustained cooperation and peace don’t come easily. Disputants often experience satisfaction with dialogue or mediation, but disappointment when the actual changes turn out to be negligible (Kraybill p. 69). Often we underestimate the amount of work needed to resolve a dispute. Decisions need to be tested and communications followed up. ISKCONResolve tries to follow up on a case as long as required.

Returning to the essence

In May 2004 I was invited to speak at the Sunday school at the Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Prior to my talk, I attended the sermon of Phil Kniss, the Church’s pastor. He spoke of a significant schism in the Mennonite Church. I have to admit that I was surprised to hear about this schism, because Mennonites are famous for their interest in peace and their ability to invoke it. I thus listened carefully as Kniss implored the congregation to be wary of quick-fix, smiling-face solutions that ignore the depths this conflict has reached. He said that as a Church they have a duty to God to not simply deal superficially with this crisis but to go to the roots of their faith in Jesus and find a spiritual solution:

Let me suggest, at the risk of being the bearer of bad news, that if all we do is help a church full of diverse people be friendly, get along with each other, and not fight very much, then we simply make church nothing more than a polite, neighbourly, social club. And we settle for a cheap substitute for Christian community. (Kniss p. 4)

Ultimately, he prescribed transcendence of the conflict by singing the Lord’s praise: ‘. . . if real unity in the church is ever going to be achieved, it will happen when we get together and sing’ (Kniss p. 10). I could relate to that. His sermon sparked my thoughts about ISKCON and the need to transcend our differences by absorption in things that bring us together: our devotion to Krsna expressed through singing, dancing, feasting, worshipping, studying, and serving together. Not only do these activities bring us together, they are the essence of devotional service, and, according to all Vaisnava sastra, the most effective means of cleansing our hearts and making them suitable to receive Krsna’s instruction and audience. These are superordinate practices (practices we can all agree on and work together to perform), leading to the superordinate goal of making ISKCON an attractive and pure society of dedicated devotees. By emphasising these positive ways of associating with one another, we naturally build our capacity to transform conflict and we place our differences with one another in proper perspective. Techniques, systems, and training are important in resolving our conflicts, but they should be linked to the very transformational purpose of ISKCON. Conservatives and liberals will continue to have their differences no doubt, but I hope by employing the above mentioned ways to address those differences that their conflicts will strengthen ISKCON. And, like the warriors in the Mahabharata who fought the enemy in the day and socialised with them at night, ISKCON’s conservatives and liberals will continue to differ and then come together at night to chant Hare Krsna, dance in kirtana, and feast on Krsna prasadam5—pizza and pakoras.


A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Letters from Srila Prabhupada, Mexico City: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1987.

—— Sri Caitanya-caritamrta. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1975.

—— Srimad-Bhagavatam. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1988.

Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International. The Bhaktivedanta Vedabase. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, 2003.

Covey, Stephen. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Free Press, 2004.

GBC Society of West Bengal. Minutes of 2002 Annual General Meeting. Resolution 502.

Halverstadt, Hugh F. Managing Church Conflict. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press 1991.

Kniss, Phil. ‘Unity: Are We Really Ready For It?’ Sermon. Park View Mennonite Church. Harrisonburg. 23 May 2004.

Kraybill, Ron. ‘Conflict in Groups: The Cross-Stitching Effect’ in Carolyn Schrock-Shenk (ed.). Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual, (Fourth Edition). Akron, PA: Mennonite Conciliation Service, 2000.

Lynch, Jennifer. ‘May I ask You Some Questions?This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (8 November 2004).

—— Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation. ‘ADR Systems Design’ CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution Vol. 22, No. 5 (May 2003): 99–113.

Moore, Christopher W. The Mediation Process (Third Edition). San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003.

Ross, Lee, and Ward, Andrew. Naïve Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding. (1995)

Schirch, Lisa. JustPeace Map, 2002.

Tannen, Deborah. The Argument Culture, New York: Random House 1998.

Zack, Arnold M. ‘A Dispute Resolution Programme for ISKCON’, in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 10, 2002.


1 When a university librarian recently taught me the hierarchy of reliable research information, he mentioned websites last, speaking with disdain and obvious distrust of the information they contain.

2 The division of society according to occupational inclinations and marital status (student, married, retired, renounced). The present caste system—often exploitive and based on one’s birth—is a corruption of this ancient stratification of people according to their interests and abilities.

3 ISKCON’s office for conflict resolution and transformation.

4 For more information on ISKCONResolve:

5 Food first offered to Krsna.