ISKCON and Ethics: The Benefits of Paying Explicit Attention to Moral Philosophy

Rāsamaṇḍala Dāsa

Rāsamaṇḍala Dāsa
PhD candidate, Cambridge University, UK


In this essay, I seek to advance three proposals. First, iskconand its members would benefit from more explicit and deliberate engagement with moral, ethical, and social issues. Second, to achieve this, devotees must be adequately qualified— and systematically educated — to apply Kṛṣṇa’s teachings to moral questions (Greene 2013: 116). And third, to achieve both these ends, the Society requires an iskcon ethics; a coherent moral philosophy, standing largely independent of its metaphysics, soteriology, and epistemology.1 This last proposal rests on a broader premise: the view that iskcon’s global context and the practical orientation ofVaiṣṇava knowledge require not a unitary “theology” but a spectrum of Kṛṣṇa conscious disciplines (Rāsamaṇḍala Das 2018: 8), capable of authentic dialogue with “the knowledge that contemporary society has”(King 2013: 49).


Moral and ethical challenges

To support these proposals, I initially examine two sets of challenges confronting iskcon, which I call “moral issues” and “ethical issues.”2 By “moral issues,” I refer to examples within iskcon of both moral incontinence and deliberate transgression — together, instances in which moral shortcomings appear conspicuous against the Society’s own backdrop of standards. One salient example is the historical prevalence of divorce, as discussed by Deadwyler (2004b: 158–9). By “ethical issues,” I refer to cases of relative uncertainty about what constitutes good or bad conduct, such as contention over devotees’ propriety in purchasing milk from sources implicated in violence (Valpey 2020: 42n39).

In seeking solutions, I turn to Simon Blackburn’s exposition on the ethical environment, which he defines as “the surrounding climate of ideas about how to live” (Blackburn 2001: 1). Significantly, the current ethical climate in the Western world has departed from the optimistic, open-minded ethos of the 1960s,3 the decade of iskcon’s incorporation. Over half a century later, today’s moral sensibilities present iskcon with unfamiliar threats and novel opportunities. The attendant moral discourse falls within two main classes: academic (expressed via books and teaching) and popular (voiced through affirmative action and cultural media). I discuss both arenas, touching on their complex interrelationships (for an insightful analysis, see Russell 1996: 571). By interrogating the prevalent ethical climates within and beyond iskcon, I infer the need within iskcon circles for more explicit moral dialogue, spanning three domains: personal well-being, devotional community, and social contribution. I examine all three in depth. Next, I discuss recent features of Anglo-American moral philosophy, and especially the renewed interest in virtue ethics, the Western approach perhaps most aligned with India’s moral deliberation (Prabhu 2005: 357). After appraising the relevance of moral dialogue to iskcon’s trajectory, I present six practical proposals.

 Moral issues

There is a history to the discourse on iskcon’s moral foibles. Initially, most keen to advertise them were the Society’s detractors: anticult groups objecting to conversion (Shinn 1992) and newspapers favoring “a rather negative and uncomprehending press” (Lipner 2013: 58). Naturally, it was relatively easy to deflect such charges by claiming biased motive or flawed worldview. It was less easy, however, when criticism started to emerge closer to home, for example, from a disenfranchised devotee publishing her exposé (Muster 1997) or splinter groups alleging abuse of power and privilege (Desai, Awatramani, and Das 2004). However, responding reflectively became critical when shortcomings were identified by less-partial academics — for example, Burke Rochford, who mapped the Society’s record on child abuse and its “systematic denigration of married life” (Rochford 2007: 7). More recently, John Fahy’s ethnographic research in India revealed cases of alleged corruption linked to “land speculation and property development.” (Fahy 2020: 2)Over time, disquiet with moral turpitude shifted centripetally to afflict mature, committed devotees — even early on, some questioned the Society’s book-selling tactics (Rochford 2004: 283). As a result, iskcon-backed publications, such as this journal, began to address rising concern over human rights (Rādhā Devī Dāsī 1998), women’s issues (Rukmiṇī Dāsī 2000), and frailty in spiritual leadership (Deadwyler 2004b). Collaborative ventures between devotees and academics explored further social and moral challenges (Bryant and Ekstrand 2004; Dwyer and Cole 2007, 2013).4 This literature revealed another trend: Moral culpability was increasingly attributed closer to center, and to iskcon’s founder, Śrīla Prabhupāda, rather than his “young, immature disciples” (Deadwyler 2004b: 254). This made it even harder to sidestep accusations of moral laxity. Devotee scholars thoughtfully, and with historical awareness, responded to charges leveled against iskcon, and against Śrīla Prabhupāda himself (Gupta 2005: Broo 2006).

To some degree, then, the moral issues have been both acknowledged and addressed. Nonetheless, I wish to qualify this statement in two ways. First, pleas for honest disclosure (Deadwyler 2004b: 158) still meet resistance. Although iskcon has achieved much of which to be proud, an appetite for “presenting a rosy picture” (Resnick 2004: 254) continues to mask its internal problems. In favoring a generous interpretation, I take the view that most devotees balk at dialogue not through misplaced intention but on account of feelings of inadequacy, often underpinned by a lack of specialized training (Deadwyler 2004a: 346–7). Second, despite mounting awareness of moral issues and recent discourse drawing on many disciplines (sociology, psychology, theology, religious studies), only a few studies have framed iskcon’s problems with direct reference to morality and iskcon’s theoretical frameworks (Chatterjee 1996, Sesa Das 2002, Greene 2013, Fahy 2020). The apparent (but declining) aversion to deal with moral issues5 and address them from a well-informed ethical perspective is not new. O’Connell (2016: 137) notes “the reticence of the [Caitanya Vaiṣṇava] tradition’s scholars to chalk out explicit ethical theory.”


Positive acknowledgement

The two main hurdles (i.e., moral reticence and sparse or diffuse ethical theory) may be connected. For example, enhanced ethical literacy (underpinned by coherent theory) may help devotees disclose and redress moral issues with greater confidence. Here, Western moral philosophers yield two insights. First, “there is always . . . a gap between the real and the ideal” (Frede 2013: 137). Moral shortfall is to be expected. The attendant discomfort is also natural, since “To think about the virtues is to take measure of the distance separating us from them . . . to think about our own inadequacies” (Compte- Sponville 1996: 5). However, I make a further reassuring claim: The unsettling “aperture between precept and practice” (Fahy 2020: 20) can be attributed less to devotees’ low levels of conduct, and more to iskcon’s commendably high standards. Despite this positive assessment, the downside is that the resultant wide divergence equally attracts feelings of failure and charges of hypocrisy. Even with lofty intentions, the gulf separating personal practice from precept must still be acknowledged and traversed.

Extending the same theme to the societal level, the second insight of Western moral philosophers is that ethical discourse inevitably occurs in societies that are morally flawed. Matilal (2002c: 75) notes how modern Western democracies, despite their (somewhat tedious) critique of caste, are still haunted by their own class inequalities.6 On the societal level, then, moral shortfall is also inevitable. Reflecting this realistic and sobering outlook, Deadwyler (2004b: 150) calls for a shift of attention: “The real problem for iskcon has not been its natural failings but rather an incapacity to deal constructively with them.” The apprehension of moral arrears has been met in various ways, as in other religious traditions.7 These include attempts to “explain away the embarrassing elements” (Blackburn 2001: 13) and rallying calls to return to basics, rebolster ideals, and cement spiritual practices. iskcon has been especially censured for “raising the drawbridge” (Lipner 1994) and defending the “sacred fortress” (Squarcini 2000: 256). More positively, scholars, inside and out, have championed various types of reform: doctrinal (Joseph 2004), educational (Lipner 2013: 66) and structural (Deadwyler 2004b: 160). Gelberg has called for an epistemological audit to rectify the “tenacious defense of received truth in the face of potentially discomforting realties” (Gelberg 2004: 397). However, the thesis I wish to advance is that many of the hurdles facing iskcon are essentially moral, and solutions should be undergirded, in part, by ethical theory. Moral philosophy should lie at the heart of iskcon’s civic debate.

In promoting frank yet constructive dialogue, I strive to avoid both evasive denial and rancid finger-pointing. Therefore, to affirm both iskcon’s moral tenacity and its natural fragilities, I sketch out a few initial conclusions. Perhaps most importantly, the Society has tremendous moral potential. Through his research, Fahy (2020: 9) commends the movement’s many “moral exemplars” and members who exhibit “relentless introspection” (ibid., 76). All initiates vow to follow the four regulative principles (Deadwyler 2004b: 154, Fahy 2020: 65–7) and to cultivate the corresponding virtues (listed in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.17.24 as austerity, cleanliness, mercy, and truthfulness).8 We may note, however, how these strengths mainly fall within the personal sphere. This may be attributed to iskcon’s sharing the Platonic view that there is “no just political order except one populated by just citizens” (Blackburn 2001: 4).9 Plato holds that for social flourishing, moral individuals are necessary but insufficient.10 He thereby hints at iskcon’s two main challenges: (1) despite high personal standards (vital to any moral society), devotees often fail to maintain them (Fahy 2020: 9); (2) explicit redress of moral anomaly in the Society’s public domain is relatively frail.

Ethical dialogue, then, may help individuals and societies to admit moral blemish. It may also reveal hidden strengths. I wish to take the argument a step further. Well-informed discourse may address moral anomaly, and fortify resilience, by furnishing answers to the underlying metaethical11 questions. In iskcon’s case, a comprehensive theory may explicate the important causal links between morality’s personal and public spheres. For example, several seemingly intractable problems revolve around sexual incontinence (Gelberg 2004: 398–9). Blackburn (2001: 39) uses the example of celibacy to suggest that physical and genetic determinism often tightly constrain the scope of moral agency. Many young adults cannot avoid sex, despite sincerity of purpose, strength of will and “technologies of control” (ibid.). Blackburn suggests that futile attempts to “change fixed nature” lead to debilitating feelings of shame, guilt, and subservience. Put another way, these are the results of laying blame where free will and agency are wrongly presumed. This was the case in iskcon’s early years. Its rhetoric not only applauded celibacy — as it still does (Fahy 2020: 66, 74) — but its “leadership pressured [men] to remain brahmachari (celibate), held up as the natural state” (Deadwyler 2004b: 158). Marriage was belittled as an aberration, an indecorous fall from grace (Andrew 2007: 61–2). To redress such fallacies12 and their consequences, Vaiṣṇava teachings also provide sophisticated moral insights on the relentless dialectic between free will and determinism (for a useful study, see Dasti and Bryant 2014). Such ethical acuity may assist iskcon in constructively regulating sexual practices; for example, by attributing standards to members according to their respective degrees of conditioning (as exemplified by Caitanya himself).13

These observations are germane. When asking, Why has moral turpitude occurred in iskcon?, responses need to be nuanced, looking beyond just the direct perpetrator and toward the disparate causes of moral deficiency.


Ethical issues

The second area of concern is a burgeoning array of “ethical issues.” In contrast to the previously discussed “moral issues,” these debates are fired by relative uncertainty over what constitutes right or good conduct. Let me highlight just three controversies. One polemic revolves around conflicted responses to women’s appeal to be dīkṣā gurus.14 This controversy is often construed as religious or theological. However, the questions raised are distinctly and essentially ethical; for example, about moral and cultural relativism (for a lucid discussion, see Blackburn 2001: 17–26). A second polemic is the charge of hypocrisy brought against devotees consuming commercially produced milk. The dilemma is whether to respect the virtue of nonviolence, ahiṁsā, or the sanctified moral status granted to cow care (Valpey 2020) and dairy products (considered essential to a good, or sattvic, life). Some devotees advocate conversion to veganism;15 others resist the move.16 17 The third controversy is iskcon’s response to those homosexually disposed or experiencing gender dysphoria (King 2013: 52). There is a palpable tension between scriptural passages that reprehend homosexual practices (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 3.20.26p) and “the cardinal virtues of love and compassion” (Chatterjee 1997: 75), which call for no one to be excluded from Vaiṣṇava practices.18

In addressing these debates, devotees must navigate a judicious course between “the soggy sands of relativism and the cold rocks of dogmatism” (Blackburn 2001: 26). They must also mediate between premodern and late-modern sensibilities. Without mature conversation and granting due attention to both enduring principles and changing contexts, iskcon’s ethical issues can readily create schism (Lipner 2013: 68).19 As with moral issues, my hypothesis is that without ethical fluency, it is difficult to redress these theoretical topics without falling victim to the pitfalls that plague moral discourse (for a list of popular but unsound arguments, see Blackburn 2001: 9–38).


The ethical environment

Reflection on iskcon’s moral issues naturally invites the question, How did this happen? Or more pointedly, How did this happen to us ? The problems “were simply not supposed to happen,” observes Deadwyler (2004b: 150). The same angst-ridden queries attended the revelation of Nazi atrocities, which “to a great extent [were] committed by persons with a ‘proper’ upbringing and the requisite cultural background” (Frede 2013: 144). For insight, Blackburn turns to the ethical environment, the surrounding climate of ideas and moral sentiment (2001: 1–7). Unlike a physical environment, the ethical environment often operates covertly, undetected; at least until the results manifest. Only with hindsight was the reformer Martin Luther blamed for helping foment the anti-Semitism that later erupted in nineteen-thirties Germany (Eldridge 2006: 154–5).

But Blackburn notes that reflection on the ethical climate extends beyond “the private preserve of a few academic theorists in universities” (2001: 5). It engages drama, literature, and poetry. The “satirist, cartoonist, and novelist also comment on the ethical climate.” (ibid.) Politicians manipulate it to evoke feelings of pride or shame, hope or futility, endearment or outrage. Blackburn observes more profound effects: According to Hegel, the ethical environment “shapes our very identities.” (ibid.) Understanding an ethical climate, therefore, is crucial. Finely cultivated, it sustains human flourishing; exploited or neglected, it allows depravity to take root. As Blackburn affirms, “An ethic gone wrong is an essential preliminary to the sweatshop or the concentration camp and the death march.” (2001: 7)


The contemporary ethical climate

An ethical climate changes. For many contemporary thinkers, social activists, and policy makers, the moral queries from the 1960s have been answered; some say conclusively. Today’s non-negotiable rejection of privilege20 and hierarchy impacts iskcon. For example, scholars insist that the Society (along with its broader traditions) abandon varṇāśrama-dharma (King 2013: 56–7, Parekh 2007: 349, Bryant and Ekstrand 2004: 435–7).21 Further modern traits, quite conspicuous in the popular domain, include the prevalence of vicious, polarized debate (fueled by social media), adoption of human rights as “the currency of moral/political arguments” (Sumner 2013: 354), and vengeance toward the symbols and vestiges of (purportedly) outdated moral sensibilities.22 Through this analysis of the contemporary moral environment, a third impetus for embracing ethical discourse emerges (beyond the “moral issues” and “ethical issues”). By today’s moral standards, 97 iskcon appears less “cool” than during the counterculture years (King 2013: 44). Contemporary preoccupation with social justice, identity politics,23 and what Midgley calls “the socially-homogenizing notions of equality” (McElwain 2019: 116)24 may have exacerbated the negative criticism of Śrīla Prabhupāda and his teachings. In the twentieth century, he has been charged with denigrating sex, women, and Mayavadins (Lorenz 2004a) and imposing a hierarchical social structure (Lorenz 2004b). In response, iskcon scholars have called for giving greater attention to context (Broo 2006), hermeneutics (Andrew 2020: 733), and historical criticism (Delmonico 2004). However, few have used the discipline of moral philosophy to appraise the negative critique of iskcon and the broader impact of today’s ethical discourse on the Society’s trajectory.


Ethics and culture

Before appraising iskcon’s own (distinctive) ethical climate, I examine areas of overlap, the space in which different moral sensibilities meet and converse. King notes how “iskcon’s values will to some extent be shaped by the values and attitudes of the wider society” (2013: 53). One possibly inherited trait is the vitriolic tone of much moral debate in iskcon, especially when conducted over the internet. However, not all shaping has been so receptive or assimila-tory. Instead, a good deal has been insular and reactionary. Squarcini particularly censures iskcon’s perpetuating the “myth of a direct ‘sabotage’ of the materialistic social system” (2000: 262). The underlying anti-establishment tenor may have roots in the nineteen-sixties counterculture. Despite Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disavowal of hippy standards (Deadwyler 2004b: 153), his movement failed to sever these umbilical ties (Goswami 2012: 50). As a result, new recruits were urged to “abandon their previous ethical norms” (Shinn 2004:xviii) and discard their indigenous cultural capital, which, according to Best (2013: 128), “for the non-Indian [was] essentially useless.” However, that practice appears inconsistent with Śrīla Prabhupāda’s views on the moral ground shared by all religiously shaped cultures:

“The principles of religion, namely, austerity, cleanliness, mercy and truthfulness, . . . may be followed by the follower of any faith. . . . Sticking to the dogmas . . . without attaining the real principles is not good” (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.17.32p). In practical terms, a belligerent stance toward ‘other’ cultures leaves many iskcon recruits stranded in a morally vacuous “no man’s land” (Bryant and Ekstrand 2004: xviii).

A similar (maybe more recent) trend leans toward commending the Indian culture, usually associated with premodern goodness, and denigrating the West, considered the sole culprit for modernity’s ills (Dwyer and Cole 2013: 9). However, it is here that ethics, though insightful, is also disturbing (Blackburn 2001: 7). India’s moral status, in contrast to its spiritual kudos, casts doubts on claims about India’s cultural superiority. In The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan Das bemoans how moral failure “pervaded our public life and hung over it like Delhi smog. One out of five members on the Indian parliament elected in 2004 had criminal charges against him” (Das 2009: xxxiii). Media coverage of rape has further eroded India’s moral credibility. Siddharth Singh infers a “twisted moral compass.”25 It may, therefore, be best, as I propose, that devotees should not adopt Indian culture wholesale but retain and cherish their homegrown moral assets. Sardella affirms that the aspiration of Bhaktisiddhānta, founder of the Gaudiya Math, “was not that the West would become the East, but rather that it would embrace the core of Caitanya’s teachings from its own sociocultural standpoint” (Sardella 2013: 178).

These debates are sensitive. My purpose is neither to homogenize nor to criticize Indian culture. Instead, I have three aims. First, I suggest that Indians draw on their own rich moral resources to address their internal issues, especially as linked to social justice (Prabhu 2005: 366). Second, I wish to highlight the need to avoid both absolutism and relativism, especially by resolving the tug-ofwar between two competing imperatives: (a) the need to ground ethics in particulars and to acknowledge that “Morality which is no particular society’s morality is to be found nowhere” (MacIntyre 2007: 265–6) and (b) the drive toward non-sectarian universals and anchoring judgements “in ‘objective’, necessary or absolute criteria independent of the mores, customs and practices of a given culture, society or civilisation” (Bilimoria 2007: 5). Simplistic answers fail to  resolve this long-standing subjective-objective debate and similar tensions.26 My third aim is to nurture justified skepticism toward similarly simplistic or unhelpful traits within iskcon’s own ethical discourse.


ISKCON’s ethical environment

Exploring further this third aim, I interrogate iskcon’s mainstream narratives:27 the moral messages conveyed through lectures, leadership rhetoric, and corridor talk. I draw on Fahy’s ethnographic fieldwork in Mayapur.28 Fahy scrutinizes the pivotal role of failure in spiritual growth, using interviews, focus groups, and participant observation (Fahy 2020: 16). Through an anthropological lens, he provides authentic glimpses into the inner, everyday workings of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. His study, despite its many commendable traits, has a glaring weak spot. While surmising devotees’ preference to “inhabit the moral system” rather than “opting out” (ibid., 3), Fahy fails to assess the quality of the embedded conversation.29 Similarly, he little appraises his conclusion that “the narrative of moral failure itself becomes a privileged mode of self-cultivation.” (ibid.) Indeed, his perception that “moral failure is a way of defining oneself as a devotee” (ibid., 85) alerts us to the possibility of an unhealthy ethical climate.

In an earlier diagnosis of iskcon’s moral malaise, Deadwyler perceived a “virulent antinomianism,” the endemic view that “the saved are beyond the law” (2004b: 154). Fahy detects the same ethos, backed by the view (which he attributes to devotees) that “Kṛṣṇa consciousness does not necessarily depend on strict adherence to a moral code” (2020: 67). This view appears mistaken. Despite tangential or apparent scriptural support for transcending morality,30 Deadwyler (2004b: 154) asserts that the Bhagavad Gītā resists this conclusion.31 Fahy’s research, then, confirms Deadwyler’s diagnosis and, by extension, implies the departure of iskcon’s lived and expressed moral philosophy from its textual roots. I will now consider further conversational anomalies, often related to antinomianism and to alternative forms of seeking distinction or exclusivity, such as attempts to exalt spirituality over morality, or bhakti-yoga over the paths of karma and jñāna.


Obscured moral conversation

The main tendency is to deflect attention away from explicit and nuanced moral dialogue. This is expressed in three main ways. The first is to downplay the ethical dimensions of the Bhagavad Gītā. In common with many scholars, devotees view the text — like others on Vedānta and Sāṅkhya philosophy — as a treatise on “ontology, logic and epistemology” (Perrett 2016: 21). Ethics, distinct from metaphysical doctrine, is more clearly identified (by scholars and devotees) with other texts, such as the Manu Smṛti. However, the Gītā’s opening verse and Arjuna’s subsequent “moral predicament” (Agrawal 1989) attest to the book’s status as “one of the central ethical texts of the [Hindu] traditions” (Prabhu 2005: 359).

Related to the Bhagavad Gītā, a second tendency is to portray moral growth as passive, devoid of mindful striving. In my judgment, this view partly rests on a misreading of Prabhupāda’s use of the term “automatic” (Bhagavad Gītā 13.8–12p), by which he conveys bhakti’s ability to fulfill the aims of all other yogas. However, he discounts the interpretation of “automatic” as meaning “unconscious” and instead commends reflection on one’s virtues and vices, not just as a moral exercise but as a tool of spiritual self-assessment (ibid.). By this account, it is a mistake to divorce bhakti from dharma (Valpey 2020: 6), which itself demands rationality and deliberation (Matilal 2002b).

The third tendency is overreliance on rules and timeworn, threadbare narrative. Both disregard the fluidity and intricate texture of moral discourse. This disposition has a religious impetus, especially in attempts to sanctify and preserve (or fossilize) moral truth. Blackburn observes: “For many people, ethics is not only tied up with religion but is completely settled by it. Such people do not need to think too much about ethics, because there is an authoritative code of instructions, the handbook of how to live” (2001: 9).32 Authors sympathetic to religion have detected similar traits within iskcon, including scriptural literalism (Shukavak Das 2004) and widespread imitation of Prabhupāda, especially by “trotting out” his moral statements (Knott 2013: 78).33

In endorsing a more reflective approach, Kuṇḍalī Dāsa (1994) highlights another problem. He argues that devotees largely dismiss the triguṇa framework — consisting of sattva-guṇa (goodness), rajoguṇa (passion), and tamo-guṇa (ignorance) — and the requirement to attain goodness before one can transcend it. Some devotees even decry goodness as the most dangerous guṇa.34 Popular iskcon discourse also conflates (and thus equally denigrates) rajo- and tamoguṇa, or views them as little different (e.g., Kripamoya Das 2015: 66). In contrast, the Vaiṣṇava theologian Bhaktivinoda draws a wider distinction, granting rajo-guṇa a measure of credence by describing it as morally neutral (1936: 386).35 He prescribes its cultivation as a (temporary) antidote to the degrading addictions of tamo-guṇa (ibid.). ISKCON’s departure from Bhaktivinoda’s view, and members’ reticence to engage with the triguṇa in nuanced and meaningful ways (e.g., as a moral framework), may be fueled by antinomianism — in this case, a self-appraisal that prematurely elevates devotees above the triguṇas’ grasp (Bhagavad Gītā 14.26); this despite the salutary warning that advanced devotees never even consider themselves Vaiṣṇavas36 and especially not exalted uttama-adhikāris, situated in the third and final phase of spiritual progress.

My conclusion is that iskcon’s prevalent moral discourse is devolving.37 The reflective dialogue favored by the madhyamaadhikāri, or intermediate practitioner (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.2.46),38 is increasingly overshadowed by the static rhetoric dear to the kaniṣṭha-adhikāri, or neophyte (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.2.47).39 By restricting Kṛṣṇa’s presence and moral gaze to the temple, the novice barely extends his or her moral sensibility into everyday life. Intent on serving Kṛṣṇa, the kaniṣṭha may neglect respectful dealings with fellow devotees and members of the public. This trend is further marked by a bent toward labeling all nondevotees “demons” (i.e., nonvirtuous), thus failing to discern the pious from the malicious (as does the madhyama). As Nietzsche observes of Western religionists, neophytes shun direct “affirmation of their own way of life” and favor “negation of someone else’s” (Craig 2002: 96–7). At the immature level, then, moral standing is ascertained by material designation (often based on religious affiliation), despite Kṛṣṇa’s warning that illusory notions of the self are the root cause of strife and immorality (Bhagavad Gītā 2.11–13). This regressive trend in moral thinking raises the question, Who is responsible for shaping the ethical climate?40


Ethics and leadership

We turn, then, to the obligations of leaders, who are traditionally classified as managers (kṣatriyas) and educators (brāhmanas). Devotee-educators have long acknowledged, or at least interrogated, the importance of character formation as an explicit pedagogical aim (Rāsamaṇḍala Dāsa 1997; Best 2007: 6). Although teachers fashion the moral ambience of their classrooms, their tuitional aims are helped or hindered by the wider culture in which they invariably operate, over which they have little control. The surrounding ethos is largely molded by governance. Śrīla Prabhupāda affirms that administrators bear the prime responsibility for shaping the social and ethical climate, to “prepare the ground for the reception of . . . spiritual knowledge” (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.17.45p). We may surmise that there can be no successful iskcon without effective governance, especially for its capacity to socially embed values aligned with scripture and conducive to spiritual growth.

However, many iskcon leaders appear hesitant to assume moral responsibility. In part, this is reflected in the sweeping appeal to chanting of the holy name as the panacea for all personal and societal problems. I do not question this theological truth, if properly understood.41 However, devotees have expressed disquiet with the routine prescription of only spiritual solutions. Secondgeneration Yudhisthira writes, “I strongly disagree that leaders of iskcon should respond to crimes and immoral behavior . . . with only a so-called spiritual prescription” (Yudhiṣṭhira Dāsa 2001: 14).42 Wider disquiet was revealed by a recent small-scale ethnographic study into “devotee care.” A predilection for “placing the onus on the devotee to become detached to solve all problems” (Rāsamaṇḍala Das 2017: 18) was deemed an abdication of responsibility. This complaint finds scriptural sanction, most notably in the story of King Rantideva (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 9.21.2–18). The king did not appease his hungry supplicants by recommending chanting or detachment, but by donating his own food, despite suffering the effects of a forty-eight day fast. This narrative implies the need to complement the (often pedestrian) appeals for enhanced sādhana (personal spiritual practice) with virtuous governance and socially oriented moral strategies.

Further concerns about leadership and its different functions were revealed by the research into “devotee care.” Participants expressed reluctance to seek counsel from “those in positions of authority” (Rāsamaṇḍala Das: 17) on account of a perceived conflict of interest. Devotees suspected that guidance received from office holders was compromised by institutional and personal interests. This raises questions about possible dissonance between the respective values43 required of teachers and managers. I share the view expressed by Dante, and echoed by Luther, that “The Church had debased itself and sullied the moral landscape by confusing its secular and religious roles, by fusing the vengeful sword [with] the pastoral crook” (Malik 2014: 161). In iskcon’s somewhat different context, we may infer that the roles of educator and administrator should not be amalgamated. I write this not to advocate a normative imposition of the varṇa system, but to acknowledge its rationality, based on recognizing conflicting sets of moral and professional values.

Seeking to extend this argument beyond educators and managers, I claim that iskcon’s moral reductionism — while promoted mainly by leaders — also afflicts other members. By valorizing the generic devotional qualities, the Society often glosses over the virtues specific to each individual. As a consequence, devotees may slip and slide, even opportunistically, between the duties and virtues yoked to each varṇa and aśrama.44 Although this phenomenon is couched here in the language of varṇāśrama-dharma, it is not exclusive to Indic thought. English philosopher Bernard Williams lampooned deontologists and utilitarians for favoring universals and neglecting the moral worth of particulars, especially as revealed within personal, affectionate relationships (1972: 82–98). He thus advocated “a shift in focus from obligation, as a property of rules, to virtues, as a property of persons.”45

In iskcon’s case, we may surmise that eulogizing the devotional virtues alone smacks of the impersonalism that iskcon seeks to avoid (Bhagavad Gītā 7.24).46 It certainty falls foul of Kṛṣṇa’s warning to never adopt another’s duties, even when deemed morally superior (Bhagavad Gītā 3.35). This form of “values indeterminacy” also permits managers to select and promote values that subsume individual interests beneath institutional and fiscal imperatives, as when “exalting the principles of humility and service to ensure that the floors get swept and the bills paid” (Gelberg 2004: 397). Concerns over manpower and finance, although valid, hardly reflect the virtues expected of the noble kṣatriya, whose primary concern was the protection of dependents, and especially five groups of innocents: cows, women, children, brāhmanas, and the elderly (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.8.5p). I conclude that iskcon administrators must embody these specific virtues.

The interplay between ethics and governance is relevant for two more reasons. First, faith in Lord Kṛṣṇa is mediated through not only gurus (educational leaders) but also managers. They, too, corrode or burnish trust (Ravīndra-svarūpa Das 2000). Second, texts indicate that traditionally it was mandatory for governors to study ethics — as a future kṣatriya, even Kṛṣṇa was so educated (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 10.45.34).47 Without well-informed attention to ethics, a society’s prevailing ethical discourse may degrade to impede the individual’s personal growth. In this respect, Greene attributes iskcon’s moral paucity, in part, to a “sannyāsī dominated leadership” and an organizational ethos that privileged world-negation and the pursuit of salvation (2013: 122).


Three areas of moral discourse

Fahy likewise observes how iskcon’s moral dialogue tightly orbits the quest for liberation (2020: 3). In contrast, Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura paints a wider moral landscape that encompasses the world. He sketches out three domains, each sustained by a specific virtue. First, in relationship to the Lord, the devotee aspires for nāmaruci (taste for the holy name). Current dialogue underscores this, through the burgeoning popularity of mass kīrtana events. However, Bhaktivinoda acknowledges the scriptural conclusion that the all-important “taste for spiritual hearing” is contingent on the virtue of vaiṣṇava-seva, or service to Vaiṣṇavas (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.2.16).48 He thus broadens the moral conversation from self (and God), to community, the second moral domain. The third area of moral interaction embraces the broader public, undergirded by the virtue of jīva doyā (empathy for all living beings).49 According to Bhaktivinoda, an absence of such empathy indicates only “a semblance of devotion” (Ṭhākura 1979: 185–6). Therefore, devotional fidelity requires attention to all three domains. To confirm the role of morality in each, and to refute counterclaims, I next explore these three arenas.


Personal spiritual life

Amongst iskcon’s members, concern over moral turpitude was roused by threats to institutional credibility (Rochford 2013: 12). However, those early admissions, while laudable in themselves, deflected attention from other consequences. These include the repercussions of moral deficit on the well-being of individual members (Deadwyler 2004a: 346),50 including their spiritual growth. We have already noted how the devotee attains kṛṣṇa-prema, love for Kṛṣṇa, only after reaching the level of sattva-guṇa, goodness (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.1.1p).51 I present three further philosophical insights. First, an enduring spiritual taste depends on achieving the stage of anartha-nivṛtti, purging the heart of selfish desires. Consequently, without moral resilience, claims to spiritual advancement may be reliably dismissed (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 2.3.24p). Second, a moral deficit corrodes the mind and blunts the capacity for reflecting honestly and fixing the mind on the Supreme.52 Third, morality provides a safety net for the devotee experiencing spiritual frailty. Those attempting to (prematurely) surpass morality are more prone to a calamitous fall from grace.53

In further discussing morality’s contribution to spiritual growth, textual and historical evidence is compelling. Schweig (2002: 431–3) cites Caitanya’s strict observance of ethical norms. Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī states, “One hostile to morality or fallen from it can never be a spiritual man” (MacNaughton 1988: 88). In disabusing the claim that moral neglect is justified by transcending duality, Śrīla Prabhupāda writes (Bhaktivedanta Swami 1985: 12):


Yes, ethics form the basic principle of purification. We cannot be purified unless we know what is moral and what is immoral. Unfortunately, everything in

this material world is more or less immoral, but we still have to distinguish between good and bad.


Despite such statements, devotees’ skepticism toward morality persists. It rests significantly on the authority of one text which asserts that the Vaiṣṇava develops “all the good qualifications of the demigods” (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 5.18.12). However, there are two main ways of interpreting this verse, depending on the direction of causal deliberation. Favoring one view, a devotee concludes: “I am a devotee and therefore have all good qualities.” Adopting the opposite view, another reflects, “To what extent do I exhibit these qualities? To that degree, I may be a devotee.”54 This second option, intimating that devotees are recognized by their virtues, is supported by the prayer Śrī-guru-vandanā, sung daily in iskcon temples. In this prayer, the spiritual master is glorified (hence is qualified) because of his character.55 Thus, if devotees claim that character formation, and values education (Rādhikā Ramaṇa Dāsa 2017b: 13), fall short of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, they may be hard pressed to identify that “extra component” without some recourse to virtue.56 I conclude that personal virtue is essential to spiritual progress. The virtues may even be an impetus to receiving divine mercy, as Viṣṇu reveals to Pṛthu Maharaja: “My dear King, I am very captivated by your elevated qualities and excellent behavior, and thus I am very favorably inclined toward you.” (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.20.16)57


ISKCON communities

A moral perspective is also vital to building resilient communities. However, Fahy suggests that iskcon’s inherited doctrine obstructs this aim, since “. . . founded on notions of the individual as the moral unit of salvation where detachment is a central virtue, Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism’s ‘devotional ethics’ and ‘community’ exist in an antagonistic relationship” (Fahy 2015: 3). I suggest that Fahy is both right and wrong. He is right to negatively appraise iskcon’s capacity for community cohesion by measuring it against some observed praxis. Nonetheless, he is wrong to attribute blame to Caitanya’s actual precepts. As earlier discussed, immature devotees often misconstrue the Caitanya theology by privileging detachment over the “natural human affections” (Wolf 2004: 329). Green calls this “salvationist Kṛṣṇa consciousness” (2013: 118). Gelberg reproaches the underlying, fear-driven attempts to avoid the world (2004: 395). By these accounts, Fahy errs in his critique of iskcon’s inherited theology. He misses the full significance of Caitanya’s rejection of a desire for liberation (Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Antya 20.30)58 and his exaltation of kṛṣṇa-prema as the ultimate goal of life, “the fifth puruṣārtha,”59 which goes beyond even mokṣa (Mahadevan cited in Sharma 1999: 249). Caitanya’s move appears innovative, not just metaphysically but from an ethical perspective, because he unequivocally calls for his devotees to refute world-negation and, by extension, moral apathy.60

Another corrective to moral indifference, and a cold, clinical approach, has been offered by iskcon’s devotee-care initiative. It redresses the temptation to offer only narrowly defined spiritual solutions, especially when they are generic rather than individually tailored. While many iskcon leaders still fall back on the efficacy of chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa — and I doubt neither its spiritual status nor its key role in moral development there remain pressing questions about other solutions. As implied by both the devotee-care research report and by textual study, wider-ranging solutions often relate to governance, and an obligation to nurture the right ethos and mode of discourse. In this respect, iskcon has recently seen positive developments, such as the implementation of strategic planning and a gbc-training initiative.61 It remains to be seen how much these projects boldly tackle iskcon’s own moral, ethical and hermeneutical challenges.

However, moral reticence should not be prejudged as totally misled. Behind it may lie reservations that are legitimate and deserve careful attention. I perceive two main misgivings. First, scriptural injunctions and narratives censure undue criticism of others, especially gossip and back-biting. Devotees are sensitive to avoid the most grievous offense: blasphemy of Vaiṣṇavas (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 10.74.40). This is more significant for the counterpoised apprehension that fear of transgression and its dire consequences have been conscripted to stifle dissent or, indeed, any ruffling of the standard narrative.62 The second reservation is prompted by suspicion toward the outside world, its ethical climate, and its corrupting influences. Prabhupāda disparaged democracy (Lorenz 2004b: 369). His followers suspect that the contemporary stress on rights may undermine the traditional status given to dharmic accountability. Devotees may be aware of the (often unintended) consequences of social justice, such as resentment, an inflated sense of entitlement, and a culture of blame and compensation, with its “excesses of right claims” (Bilimoria 2013: 296). A further concern is that much moral reasoning may itself be little more than self-consolation and cheating, as the Bhāgavata Purāṇa affirms (1.1.2).63

Despite valid misgivings over addressing iskcon’s internal moral and ethical issues, these controversies show little sign of abating. Without resolute redress, they will continue to corrode members’ sense of belonging. There is, then, a pressing need to “grasp the nettle,” to boldly address these issues without falling prey to the pitfalls we have discussed. I underscore this conclusion by making a further observation: iskcon absolutely needs meritorious communities, led by virtuous leaders, to support its wider social contribution.


Outreach and social contribution

I propose that iskcon broaden its appeal and influence by giving well-informed attention to morality and ethics. To forward this argument, I first examine how “insiders” and “outsiders” respond to each other morally, especially through mutual appraisal of their respective vices and virtues.

Moral arrears become acutely poignant when devotees perceive their colleagues’ moral stature, or even their own, as relatively low in contrast to nondevotees. For example, in my early interaction with educationalists, I admired their relative courtesy in run ning meetings. To my mind, “our” values appeared less worthy than “theirs.” This phenomenon is not without precedent: We may cite the case of Scottish philosopher David Hume. Because he was critical of religion, his palpable virtue and infectious good cheer (even when facing death) riled some religious colleagues.64 They struggled to reconcile Hume’s “secular sainthood” with the exclusive position they granted Christianity (Mossner 2001: 604–8). How, then, are devotees to respond to the palpable goodness of “outsiders”?

One response has been to deny its reality. This is not unlike St. Augustine, who condemned virtues (for him, “vices”) that were not “rightly referred to God” (Wetzel 2015: 128). The Bhāgavata Purāṇa seems to agree, since “a person devoid of devotional service . . . has no good qualities” (5.18.12). This verse, I suggest, has been largely misunderstood. The dictum that nondevotional virtues are unreal cannot indicate nonexistence in the more literal monist sense. Fidelity to Vaiṣṇava Vedānta compels admission that such values are “unreal” only on account of their transience.65 When a person “hovers on the mental platform” — as the textual passage also asserts — values and goodness itself are fragile,66 contingent, and prone to loss. But the underlying virtues, albeit viewed dimly through matter, are real. For Vaiṣṇavas, virtue is rooted in the absolute, Lord Kṛṣṇa, the “reservoir of all good qualities” (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.20.27). Consequently, a mature devotee avoids deprecating the goodness of others. Prabhupāda set a precedent by describing the vice-chancellor of his college, Professor Urquhart, as “a perfect and kind-hearted gentleman” (Goswami 1980: 22).

Having discussed devotees’ attitudes, I look now to others. How might a devotee expect the public to react to iskcon’s moral dissonance? How should they respond to, say, a dirty ashram? How far does the defense that “we are devotees” stretch, before iskcon members measure moral credibility solely against institutional affiliation? Greene (2013: 120) decries this approach. Deadwyler (2004b: 149) notes his early recognition that “the line between the godly and ungodly is not congruent with the line separating iskcon from non-iskcon.”67 From this discussion, we conclude that success in outreach is contingent on virtue. Prabhupāda confirms: “We must all become ideal in our character and then people will be very impressed with such purity. A devotee is faultless. He has no flaws.”68

Prabhupāda affirms the need for exemplary conduct. However, when devotees reflect on teaching others, a further question arises: How much, and in what manner, should Vaiṣṇavas engage with contemporary moral issues? In this regard, Indian scholar Sushil Kumar De was scathing of iskcon’s literary heritage:


. . . there is also a self-centredness . . . and a lack of moral purpose, which . . . leave little scope for the moral struggles and aspirations of mankind. The whole literature of Caitanyaism, its elaborately composed theology, poetry and drama, is callously unmoral [sic] in ignoring this aspect of humanity, with the result that the larger humanity in its turn has practically ignored it. (De 1942: 432)


I forward the view that De’s assessment of Caitanya Vaiṣṇava literature and its apparent neglect of morality is misguided (for a similar view, see O’Connell 2006: 158–61). De’s conclusion may be based on an appraisal of popular, misconstrued practices rather than Vaiṣṇava ideals. Bhaktivinoda, living half a century earlier, alluded to a similar moral shortfall, indeed hypocrisy, when writing:


Men of brilliant thoughts have passed by the work (the Bhagabat) in quest of truth and philosophy, but the prejudice which they imbibed from its useless readers and their conduct prevented them from making a candid investigation.” (Bhaktivinoda 1936: 376; emphasis added)


Bhaktivinoda underscores the need for integrity. De, then, may be responding to practitioners who, though religiously well-attired, lack moral substance.

However, De goes further, to charge the Caitanya lineage with a callous lack of moral purpose, even theologically. But textual evidence implies otherwise. In likening Caitanya’s ideal of benevolence to the example set earlier by King Rantideva, Sharma (2009:249) concludes that mokṣa “has been altruistically transcended.” He affirms the Vaiṣṇava notion that morality — and a palpable moral purpose — exist in the spiritual realm, beyond karma’s egoism and jñāna’s nihilism. In examining iskcon itself, the allegedly missing moral impetus is also revealed, within the first of the Society’s “seven purposes”:


To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all people in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.


Here, the phrase “in order to” canonizes the nurture of virtue, elevating it above doctrine and praxis, and placing it as their goal. De, then, appears mistaken in his critique of the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava literature. Despite this failing, he astutely points out that people seek help in their moral struggles and that many genuinely seek moral truth, even while rejecting religion (such as the type censured by Bhaktivinoda). They may feel neglected if iskcon is unwilling or unable to help — or merely prescribes top-down solutions.

Textual evidence, then, endorses the need to enrich iskcon’s public engagement with authentic moral discourse. Green supports this view but laments a deficiency: “I don’t know too many people who are able to take Lord Kṛṣṇa’s teachings and apply them to areas of armed conflict, poverty, HIV/AIDS, education, women’s rights, children’s rights, [and] ecology.” He concludes: “We are not relevant yet. For 99% of the world we don’t matter” (Green 2013: 117). He would perhaps support De’s statement about humanity’s rejection of Kṛṣṇa consciousness when presented devoid of moral plenitude and generosity. More positively, Greene cites examples of devotee contributions to applied ethics (for further examples, see Prime 2002, Gor 2010, Devidasi 2011). However, this essay calls primarily for the support of a normative moral philosophy, which must be a coherent, exacting discipline, true to Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism yet capable of authentic dialogue in Western academic space. Fortunately, in academia at least, “late modernity is turning its ethical gaze towards the ways of the ancients.” (Nussbaum cited in Bilimoria 2013: 304)


Hindu and Vaisnava ethics

From the 1950s on, tangible shifts in the course of Anglo-American philosophy favorably influenced the reception of Indian and Hindu ethics as a nascent and respectable discipline. There were two salient trends. The first, attributed to Anscombe, Williams, and MacIntyre, among others, was the “rehabilitation of virtue theory” (Prabhu 2005: 357). This revival, fueled by angst over the state of modern moral philosophy — viewed as male-dominated, historically repetitive, or even “empty and boring” (Williams 1972: xvii) — nurtured an academic environment receptive to alternative views. Scholars now trace the genealogy of virtue theory back beyond ancient Greece to Daoism (Huang 2015), Buddhism (Goodman 2015), African ethics (Metz 2013), Chinese Confucianism (Ivanhoe 2013), and Indian thought (Bilimoria 2013).

It is not surprising, therefore, that Hindu moral deliberation attunes to virtue ethics, as lately reclaimed and reconstructed in Western academic space. Amongst academics, virtue ethics is often construed as a “third approach” to challenge (or complement) the two prevailing theories of deontology and utilitarianism (Perrett and Pettigrove 2015). The particularism typical of Hindu thought (Bilimoria 2013: 304),69 while favoring virtue-discourse, sits less comfortably with the mental abstraction that underpins “Kant’s negative view of emotions” (Hursthouse 1999: 108) and Bentham’s “calculative elegance” (Jenkins 2006: 47). However, since many Hindu and Vaiṣṇava scholars favor holistic thought, they may champion reconciliation of all three models — for instance, by privileging virtues while admitting the respective roles of rules and reason, and of happiness and foresight. Bhakti scholars, recognizing “the strong connection between emotions and virtue” (Bilimoria: 2013: 298), will also appreciate the recent literature on the morally determinant roles of the emotions (Bagnoli 2011). Devotional lineages, venerating male and female divinities, may be especially amenable to ideas on feminine moral sensibility (Gilligan 1982) and to innovative developments in care and relational ethics70 (Ruddick 1980, Noddings 1984). Overall, renewed interest in virtue ethics suggests an academic ethos receptive to Vaiṣṇava voices.

The second shift or trend is a revitalized interest in applied (or practical) ethics. By affirming the “close kinship between humans and other manifestations of human nature” (Prabhu 2005: 357), Hindu theory has proved pertinent to contemporary issues such as animal rights (Singer 1975), bio-ethical dilemmas (Crawford 2003), and the environment (Framarin 2014). These trends look set to continue. However, equally conspicuous is the lack of attention given to normative ethics. One main challenge, then, is that “the definitive statement of Hindu Ethics has yet to appear” (Creel 1976).71 ISKCON scholars, proficient in cross-cultural discourse, may be well placed to fill this lacuna.72



Indeed, a Caitanya Vaiṣṇava ethics might assist the Society’s outreach, by broadening its interest base and establishing its relevance. There is a case for suggesting that dharma (central to iskcon’s identity) is better translated as “ethics” (albeit theistic) rather than “religion” (maybe ethical). Ethical literacy might also facilitate confident redress of the Society’s natural shortcomings. We have also ear-marked an obligation to attend to the moral narrative, especially to resist a predilection towards self- and world-negation and a moral

discourse that tacitly approves monistic and nihilistic views. This may be the natural consequence of construing morality as necessarily “material,” thus inferring in transcendence a moral void; on the contrary, morality and virtue may be expressions, even when imperfect, of a bountiful and generous love for Kṛṣṇa. What may be fitting, then, is not a “transcendence of ethics” but a “transcendental ethics.” Indeed, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa commends bhakti as “the highest dharma” (1.2.6). Furthermore, love may be the highest virtue — an insight not exclusive to Vaiṣṇavism. British-Irish philosopher Iris Murdoch (2001: 45) affirms, “We need a moral philosophy in which the concept of love, so rarely mentioned now by philosophers, can once again be made central.” In asserting love as a virtue — and yet its paradoxical transcendence of virtue — Compte-Sponville (2002: 290) writes: “Love commits us to morality and frees us from it. Morality commits us to love, even in its absence, and must yield before it.” My proposal is that devotees acknowledge such insights, and furthermore, that Caitanya’s fifth telos, prema, be accommodated with a coherent moral philosophy, despite its surpassing morality’s lower, selfish, and binding expressions.

Based on this study, and on the notion of love as practical service, I submit six recommendations for devotees’ further consideration. ISKCON leaders might:

1 Resolutely redress iskcon’s moral and ethical issues. Define standards primarily against virtues.73 This would include promoting those virtues associated with the individual’s station in life.

2 Include ethics in training administrators, especially to help them: (a) shape the apt ethical climate, (b) promote moral success as conducive to spiritual life, and (c) develop the noble (kṣatriya) virtues.

3 In educational theory and praxis, prioritize values/virtues, which at the mature stage coexist with (a) fluid practice and (b) realization, which is more important than rigid philosophical conformity.

4 Collaboratively write (a) professional codes of conduct for various services and (b) a “vision, mission, and values statement” for each iskcon project.

5 Formulate a coherent moral philosophy, especially to (a) answer key questions, such as, “What is the ultimate good?” and “Where does, or should, moral authority reside?” (b) consider the role of the triguṇa, and (c) define the unique contribution of devotional practices to moral growth.

6 Actively enter the moral conversation in a well-informed way to promote the relevance of Kṛṣṇa consciousness to contemporary world problems.



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1 Although robustly engaging with them and addressing the much-discussed “fact-value” dichotomy. (Putnam 2002)

2 The terms “morality” and “ethics” are often used interchangeably (Harper 2009). However, their conflation may blunt discernment. Some respective meanings are shared, others radically different. Therefore, in this essay, I use “morality” to refer to any phenomenon linked to “right and wrong,” or “good and bad.” I use “ethics” more precisely to refer to the well-informed consideration of moral principles, and of their systematic articulation and application. Ethics, then, in this essay, refers largely to the long-standing discipline of “moral philosophy.” It also refers to more recent professional “codes of conduct” as applied to, say, law, medicine, and business. (For helpful historical overviews of moral philosophy, see Russell 1996, MacIntyre 1998, Malik 2015.)

3 Anna King (2013: 44) discusses “the subjective turn to the East” in the 1960s and iskcon’s then “cool image.”

4 This second publication, The Hare Krishna Movement: the Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, has been criticized for offering “a very narrow window on the Hare Krishna Movement” by confining its purview to the past, the United States, and temple communities (Gupta 2005). It may be, therefore, that some of the issues are not so widely shared, are historical, or have already been redressed.

5 This is despite devotees’ relative zeal in addressing the immorality they perceive in “the world looming outside the walls of iskcon.” (Gelberg 2004: 402)

6 Furthermore, citing select instances of misdemeanor is insufficient to condemn an entire culture or religion, as when the caste system, the satī rite, and idolatry have been highlighted to undermine the moral credibility of all Hindu thought (Fahy 2020: 12). On the basis of such practices alone, one cannot legitimately dismiss Hinduism as irrational. (Matilal 2002b)

7 I am hesitant to designate iskcon as a “religion” for fear of construing it too narrowly. As I later suggest, the word “ethics” may be a more apt (although incomplete) translation of dharma. It may be that the trend toward the Hinduization of iskcon has been contingent on accepting the religious label, which brings its own cultural baggage. For example, I question the wisdom of adopting the term heresy, which Resnick does (2004).

8 Although the latter component is often little stressed during the initiation ceremony. This privileges rules over virtues and runs counter to the tenor of virtue ethics in which “virtues and vices will be foundational…and other normative notions will be grounded in them” (Hursthouse and Pettigrove 2016). The Bhagavad Gītā appears to valorize virtues; for a useful list see Gupta (2006: 374).

9 iskcon’s founder more graphically suggests that for animals (i.e., those without moral discretion) no political order or social contract will avail. Whatever the system, citizens, and leaders especially, must be virtuous. (Bhaktivedanta Swami 1985: 136)

10 I refer, of course, to Plato’s The Republic.

11 Moral philosophy is often divided into three categories: (1) applied ethics, (2) normative ethics, and (3) metaethics.

12 iskcon wrongly exalted the virtue of celibacy over integrity. Lord Caitanya taught otherwise when he punished the renunciant Choṭa Haridāsa for a relatively minor moral infringement and embraced Śivānanda Sena when his wife gave birth to a child. Śrīla Prabhupāda concludes, “So sex life is not forbidden in this movement, but hypocrisy is forbidden. If you become hypocrite, then there is nowhere to... That is Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s teaching.” See Śrīla Prabhupāda’s lecture on Bhāgavatam 6.1.23, given on 23 June 1976 in Honolulu, Hawaii; available at: transcripts/760523sbhon/ (accessed on 3 September 2020).

13 See previous note.

14 See Jordan Blumetti’s article “ ‘It’s Latent Misogyny’: Hare Krishnas Divided over Whether to Allow Female Gurus” in the Guardian newspaper, dated 04/06/2019. Available at: world/2019/jun/04/hare-krishna-india-hinduism-florida-women (downloaded 20 March 2020).

15 See “Why I Became Vegan” by Gauri Dāsa on the ISKCON News website, dated 29 September 2017. Available at: why-i-became-a-vegan,6298/ (accessed on 20 March 2020).

16 See the article entitled “Should ISKCON Devotees Become Vegan?” by Hṛdaya Caitanya Dāsa, dated 28 February 2020, and published on the Dandavats website. Available at: (accessed on 18 March 2020).

17 An innovative third solution has been offered by the UK-based Ahimsa Dairy Foundation, which supplies devotees with karmafree milk. More information is available at: https://www.ahimsamilk. org/ (accessed on 5 May 2020).

18 See “Vaiṣṇava Moral Theology and Homosexuality” by Howard Resnick, available at:ṣṇava-moraltheology- and-homosexuality (downloaded on 24 April 2020).

19 Braja Bihārī Dāsa (2005) presents a helpful overview of schisms within iskcon and the various underlying motives. I make the claim that poor moral conduct, especially by leaders, is also a key factor.

20 Not just abuse of privilege, but privilege itself, perhaps based on the ideals of distributive justice, as addressed by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice (1971).

21 Chatterjee (1997: 75) concludes that “Chaitanya denounced” varṇāśrama-dharma. Śrīla Prabhupāda, seemingly aware of historical contextualization, considered otherwise. See “Varṇāśrama Must Be Introduced,” available at: 770214r2may/ (accessed on 3 September 2020).

22 There are many other traits. For example, since morality is mainly addressed through law, issues densely populate the public domain. For this reason, moderns “think that modern democracies are fine regardless of the private vices of those within them” (Blackburn 2001: 4). With neglect of the personal arena, the term “virtue” has become “obsolete if not unintelligible” (Frede 2013: 142). Singer (2011: 1–2) hastily (and with little rationale) dismisses sexual mores as “Victorian” despite a current preponderance of media coverage on sexual predation. Today, the tendency is to consider “mutual consent” to be the sole criterion for legitimizing sexual practices though some contest this. (Primoratz 2001)

23 Diamond (2012: 64) traces this back to the 1970s and defines it as “collective activism based on embodied experiences of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or nationality.”

24 This tendency for social hominization stands in contrast to the Hindu disposition to articulate and validate difference (Dumont 1980: 8-11).

25 See “A Social Explanation of Our Twisted Moral Compass” by Professor Siddharth Shekhar Singh. Available at: opinion/online-views/opinion-a-social-explanation-of-ourtwisted- moral-compass-1554402045227.html (accessed on 3 September 2020).

26 For useful studies, see Nagel 1986, Putnam 2002, Barua 2020. In critiquing science, Midgely (2003) warns about assuming moral authority by making spurious claims on objectivity. Blackburn (2001: 16) alerts religious figures to the temptation to “drape our own standards with the stories of divine origin as a way of asserting their authority.”

27 This is similar to what Squarcini (2000: 265n19) calls the “peculiar thought style adopted by iskcon.”

28 Over fourteen months during 2013 and 2014. (Fahy 2020: 22)

29 Blackburn (2001: 3) suggests that Nazism flourished not because people didn’t think but because they did think — that is, wrongly.

30 These include Mādhavendra Purī’s renouncing his worldly duties (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 2.4.3–4p), and the exaltation of the avadhūta (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.29.11p). However, my argument is not that “the Vaiṣṇava is not transcendental” but that the problem rests in thinking or advertising that one has attained this platform. To such claims, Śrīla Prabhupāda responded, “We don’t claim that we have become a perfect Vaiṣṇava. We are not so impudent.” See his lecture on Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.8.41 (dated 21 October 1974 in Mayapur). Available at: 741021sbmay/ (accessed on 3 May 2020).

31 For example, Kṛṣṇa refuses to exempt even himself from the obligation to establish moral precedent. (Bhagavad Gītā 3.22–24)

32 I do not doubt that religious authority can be a useful source of moral guidance. However, such guidelines do not enable humans to evade all moral complexities nor do they provide the absolute certainty some may seek. (Matilal 2002a)

33 Matilal warns how this resistance to change turns a tradition into a museum piece (2002d: 253). Deadwyler decries literalism by concluding that “realization alone makes the difference between a living and a dead tradition.” (2007: 120) 34 I base this on insights that devotee colleagues shared with me while I wrote this article. This misunderstanding may be based on the notion that goodness (sattva-guṇa) binds the transmigrating self to a sense of happiness and knowledge (Bhagavad Gītā 14.6). However, this hardly makes sattva the most dangerous of the three guṇas.

35 Prabhupāda similarly suggests that “The rajas stage of life gives a slight clue to the realization of the Absolute Truth in the form of fine sentiments in philosophy, art, and culture with moral and ethical principles . . .” (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.2.24p)

36 “Wherever there is a relationship of love of Godhead, its natural symptom is that the devotee does not think himself a devotee.” (Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Antya 20.28)

37 This is my own thesis, and not all iskcon members will agree. For example, Best suggests (while exploring the Hinduization of iskcon) that “the Indians are bringing a lot of moral stability to iskcon” (2013: 129). The trajectory of moral discourse is clearly complex. Nonetheless, whatever the factual historical changes, I stand by the point that the madhyama discourse should predominate or at least be promoted as the aspirational standard.

38 This verse reads: “An intermediate or second-class devotee, called madhyama-adhikārī, offers his love to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is a sincere friend to all the devotees of the Lord, shows mercy to ignorant people who are innocent and disregards those who are envious of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

39 Perhaps due to changing sources of income. In the early days, iskcon relied on having many saṅkīrtana devotees, whose service of book distribution required a madhyama mindset. Later, “temple authorities [were] more concerned with attracting patrons” (Rochford 2013: 18), whose Kṛṣṇa consciousness was more temple oriented and whose commitment was based on traditional affiliation rather that philosophical persuasion. This, of course, is a generalization, and does not hold true for all. The translation of Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.2.47 is: “A devotee who faithfully engages in the worship of the Deity in the temple but does not behave properly toward other devotees or people in general is called a prākṛta-bhakta, a materialistic devotee, and is considered to be in the lowest position.”

40 A related query revolves around how much gurus and teachers should acquiesce to the demands of popular moral discourse. In my judgment, one danger lies in offering entertainment rather than education and thereby merely “reinforcing pre-existing persuasions born of the emotions.” (Kripamoya Das 2015: 88)

41 I understand that the results of chanting include the development of character and the virtues, including those aligned to administration (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 5.18.12). Virtues, then, are linked to proficiency, to the Vaiṣṇava quality of expertise (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.20.16p), and to the skills sets required to push forward the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement.

42 Muster recounts how during a three-month health crisis she was prescribed only “rest and chanting” (2004: 312).

43 Which in today’s world may be embedded in codes of conduct.

44 For example, an iskcon administrator may assume the power and privilege of a kṣatriya. To dependants seeking shelter, he may proffer the advice traditionally considered the prerogative of a brāhmana. And, in strategic planning, he may favor the financial expediency of the vaiśya. (See Gelberg 2004: 397)

45 Baril and Hazlett 2019: 227.

46 The debates over personalism and impersonalism are often framed as metaphysical. I suggest that there are conspicuous ethical dimensions which, if considered, help reveal impersonal tendencies despite formal belief in a personal Supreme.

47 In the summary study of the Tenth Canto of Bhāgavata Purāṇa known as “the Kṛṣṇa book,” Prabhupāda appears to translate “ethics” as “dharma” in text 10.45.34. Scholars similarly suggest that “dharma” may be translated as “ethics” and that “The Sanskrit [word] for ethics is Dharma.” (Crawford 2003: 11)

48 Service to devotees is traditionally guided by codes of etiquette. See Vaiṣṇava Etiquette, by Bhakti Charu Swami, available at: (accessed on 24 August 2020). For a useful study of etiquette more generally, and especially the virtue of politeness, see Compte-Sponville 1996: 7–15).

49 I am grateful to Ravi Gupta for pointing out that some of the “three ideals” may extend beyond the corresponding three moral domains identified by me. For example, empathy for all beings may include devotees. My intentions are to adopt a best-fit model and to help build a framework for ethics that extends beyond the individual’s immediate relationship with God, which may reflect a degree of moral immaturity.

50 In isolation, those admissions seem to favor the institution over the individual, and expedience over integrity.

51 We might note the moral connotations of Prabhupāda’s translation for sattva-guṇa: goodness.

52 Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura affirms that with neglect of regular human rules, “one will not be able to take the mind . . . and direct it to thoughts of God.” (Ṭhākura 2004)

53 This is supported by Prabhupāda’s statement about “falling down into the mode of goodness.” The story is available at: bhakti (accessed on 20 April 2020).

54 I am grateful to Anuttama Dāsa for this observation, made during a lecture given in May of 2019, near Florence, Italy.

55 The line in Śrī-guru-vandanā is (in translation): “The Vedic scriptures sing of his character.” Available at: books/RP/SVA/gur-van.html (accessed 12 March 2020).

56 Or skills linked to virtue ethics, such as critical thought. The aim “. . . to build a deep, rational and emotional relationship with Kṛṣṇa,” mentioned by Rādhikā Ramaṇa Dāsa (2017: 12), is certainly distinctive. Even then, that relationship may not be entirely divorced from virtues (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.20.16). If one claims that truth is a key aspect of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, that, too, cannot be divorced from virtuous intention. (Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.1.2)

57 This refutes the idea that mercy overrides personal qualification. According to Deadwyler (2004: 152), a similar mistake is to consider the process cheap (rather than easy) not only by accepting that anyone (however qualified) can take to the process of bhakti, but by thinking it is equally acceptable to remain unqualified.

58 In this verse from Śikṣāṣṭakam, Caitanya rejects the desire for liberation by expressing the higher aspiration to serve Kṛṣṇa “birth after birth.” This verse also makes it clear that his ultimate rejection of the desire for liberation is not a regressive step toward a morality based on worldly success. This is a third option in which mokṣa is “altruistically transcended.” (Sharma: 1999: 249)

59 The four puruṣārthas are dharma (religiosity), artha (economic development), kāma (sensual satisfaction), and mokṣa (liberation). Sharma and others list them in different orders. He also notes how Caitanya’s positing a fifth goal of human life is not “conventional.” (Sharma 1999: 249)

60 This is connected to the controversial idea that mokṣa transcends dharma (Perrett 2016: 23). I am inclined to the idea that a world-denying worldview inevitably leads to moral indifference. Many scholars do not refute this so much as the underlying premise that Hindu spirituality is indeed life-negating. (Prabhu 2005: 358)

61 See the GBC College for Leadership Development, available at: (accessed on 9 August 2020).

62 Based on my experience, the tension between avoiding offense and airing grievance is widely discussed in iskcon. Lorenz makes some reference to it, largely in the context of the special respect offered to the guru. (Lorenz 2004b: 374, 390/n170)

63 However, this may beckon not for mere dismissal of the unworthy “other” but for a positive alternative, that is, a moral philosophy calling for greater attention to truth and truthfulness. Nondevotee philosophers have also noted the human capacity to embrace illusion and shun reality (Murdoch 1971: 71) and to be driven by the “fat relentless ego.” (ibid., 51)

64 Most notoriously, James Boswell (Mossner 2001: 604–8).

65 I do not dispute the possibility of pretense, or the idea that, to some degree, this afflicts most humans.

66 Nussbaum makes the case for this in The Fragility of Goodness (2001). There is a long-standing dialectic between agency and contingency especially in law and political debate.

67 We might replace “godly” with “virtuous” and “ungodly” with “vicious.”

68 A letter by Śrīla Prabhupāda to Batu Gopala on 1 February 1975. Available at: 7/ (accessed on 10 April 2020).

69 However, Perrett (2016, 324–5) disagrees with the view of Hindu ethics as “anti-theoretical particularism.”

70 Barua (2020) notes the Hindu notion of “identity-through-interconnection,” which according to much Vaiṣṇava theology continues even after liberation; that is, one perceives the true self in relationship to Vishnu or one of his forms.

71 This observation was made in 1976 but appears to still be true.

72 Carey (1983: 481) has also noted how iskcon is well-equipped educationally, and also notes “a clear set of moral and ethical directives.”

73 Without virtues, fidelity to praxis and doctrine remains empty and unfulfilled. The Gautama Dharma Sutra confirms this: “A [Brahmin] man who has performed the forty sacramental rites, but lacks [the] eight virtues does not obtain union with or residence in the same world as Brahman. A man who may have performed just some rites, but possesses these eight virtues, on the other hand, does.” (Olivelle 1999: 91).


RĀSAMANDALA DĀSA (ROSS ANDREW) joined iskcon in 1973 at Bhaktivedanta Manor and was initiated a year later by Śrīla Prabhupāda. Between 1990 and 2009, he founded and helped coordinate England’s iskcon Educational Services. From 2010–14, he was course director at Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium, overseeing the degree in Education Studies validated by the University of Chester. He has authored key texts, such as The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, was commissioned by the UK-based Avanti School Trust to help write the Philosophy, Religion, and Ethics curriculum, and helped develop iskcon’s highly popular Teacher Training Courses. He is presently a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, researching Hindu and Vaiṣṇava ethics (moral philosophy).