Integrating Into Local Communities

Krishna Dharma Dasa

As ISKCON grows, we are increasingly encountering a certain polemic.� On the one side there is the desire for our own separate communities that evince the culture and philosophy of Krsna consciousness.� On the other is the need for us to live and preach within the existing community of non-devotees.� However, neither side need be mutually exclusive; indeed, we can find examples in ISKCON where they have been nicely reconciled.� However, they can, and often do, create a dichotomy. Based upon personal experience, as well as study of Srila Prabhupada's instructions on the subject, this article provides some insight into how devotees may favourably assimilate into local communities.

In terms of scriptural instructions, it may be of interest to note that included amongst the twenty-six qualities of a pure devotee, are the following: kind, peaceful, truthful, equable, magnanimous, mild, a well-wisher to all, simple, mannerly, prideless, sympathetic and friendly. That means twelve essential qualities relate to how devotees should conduct themselves with others.� It therefore behoves all of us to ensure that as far as possible we reflect these qualities in our own dealings.���

My personal experience stems from fifteen years full-time preaching within ISKCON, eight of which have been spent setting up a centre in Manchester. I have been a member of the Management Council since 1986 and was National Secretary of the UK Temples in 1992 and 1993.� My wife Cintamani, who helped set up the Manchester centre, has been a devotee for fourteen years.

Idealistic beginnings

When we first moved to Manchester, we were filled with idealism and fully expected to be greeted with open arms by the local people.� Devotees had been visiting the city since 1969, having distributed millions of pieces of literature since then.� We therefore felt that by opening a centre in Manchester, we would be offering an opportunity for worship to people who would otherwise need to travel long distances to the nearest temple - which at that time was Bhaktivedanta Manor, two hundred miles away.� Fully believing in the value and benefits of Krsna consciousness, we were convinced that we would be lauded as local heroes within a very short time!����

This illusion was soon to be shattered.� Although ours was perhaps the seventh attempt to establish a temple in Manchester, and despite all the book distribution, there was not a single person who could accommodate us for one night.� Although we had a long list of potentially interested people, mainly derived from mail responses to our books, we soon discovered that for the most part their level of interest was not that deep.� Indeed, many of the people on our list were reluctant to even speak with us.�

Although disappointed at the time, we now know that we should not have been surprised by this reaction. It is not enough to plant a seed (e.g. sell a book); the fledging plant has to be cultivated.� However, cultivation was not a serious part of ISKCON culture eight years ago, at least here in Britain.� It soon became apparent that it would require a great deal of cultivation before the people on our list would even consider visiting a temple, let alone those who had never heard of ISKCON.

Initial problems

We began our cultivation by renting a building and holding the traditional Sunday Feasts, which attracted the usual range of ISKCON clients - young men and women who were disaffected, disillusioned and unemployed. This is not meant as a negative criticism - people should never be judged by external appearances - but as an objective observation.� Consequently, such persons are soon associated with the Movement, and when coupled with the culturally alien appearance of full-time devotees, can cause problems with those who come into contact with them.� This is especially relevant if the temple is situated in a good area, as residents may be concerned that property values will be reduced by having such 'undesirable neighbours'.� This has been identified as a major factor in the dispute over the access road to Bhaktivedanta Manor; the local residents saw ISKCON and its congregation as having a negative effect on the value of their properties.

Again, this should not be surprising.� It is a well-known fact of human psychology that people fear things they do not understand.� We soon encountered that fear.� Within a few months of opening, the temple windows were broken several times, devotees' car tyres were slashed and we were asked to cease our activities by the local council following complaints from the local population.� All this was incited merely by our presence. Although we were initially surprised and hurt by this reaction, we decided to respond in a positive way rather than merely fighting back.� We also acknowledged that whilst we had done nothing to upset the residents, we had also done nothing to positively influence them.

Dressed in devotional attire, we began to go door-to-door to meet the local people, offering cakes and introductory leaflets. Within a month of starting this programme, the antagonistic behaviour towards us ceased and people even began to greet us on the streets.� Although we only stayed another two years in that location before moving to our present location, we remain on friendly terms with the residents and still undertake door-to-door visits in the area.� In the short term we were there, our difficulties were perhaps only superficial and were easily solved by these visits.� However, this sort of approach is certainly a good start to any programme in a new area and is something we have repeated several times since, always to good effect:

I am so pleased to learn that you have already attracted the neighbouring devotees by your presentation of prasad.� I am sure this prasad attraction will make our neighbours friendly.� (Srila Prabhupada letter to Hayagriva Dasa, 22 August 1968).

Government relations

When we were looking for a suitable temple property, we found a shop premises that would be suiltable for our needs. We duly applied to the local planning authority for permission to use the premises as a place of worship, but the application was rejected.� We decided to appeal and went to a local planning meeting to argue our case.� Again, we were unsuccessful.� We then decided to adopt a different approach.� We told the planning authorities who we were and what we wanted to do.� We were completed honest and even asked for their advice.� They immediately became very helpful, telling us exactly how to go about obtaining planning permission and pointing us to areas where we would more easily fit in.�

Following that advice, we brought a suitable property and within a very short time were granted permission to use it as a public place of worship.� In fact, to date, we have now applied for permission to worship at a total of six different locations and, with the exception of this first attempt, have always been successful.�� However, we also learned from the planning officials that, almost without exception, wherever we applied for permission to worship, the local people subsequently raised a petition against us.

Another useful experience followed a couple of years later.� We had constructed a large kitchen on the side of the temple for cooking and distributing prasadam, which the local health authorities would need to inspect and authorise.� Of course, we could have proceeded without telling anyone and simply hoped for the best.� Having learned from our planning experience, however, we approached the health authorities, told them exactly what we planned to do and asked for their help and advice.� This they were pleased to do and despite the fact that the kitchen was not completely up to standard, we were allowed to function.

Developing such good relations with the authorities proved extremely beneficial the following year, when the landlord who owned the property next door to the temple tried to have us evicted.� He wanted to sell the property and saw us as a possible impediment to that.� Thus he contrived to get us out, or at least to cease our operations, and thus complained about us to as many city authorities as possible.� However, as a result of our previous co-operation, the authorities subsequently requested my side of the story.� On hearing that these complaints were purely money-driven, they simply ignored them.

Our Food for Life programme has also attracted a certain amount of government support.� Having contacted the local social services department offering work with them, we have since received stocks of food from the government as well as a number of small grants.� I was recently invited to participate in a government-sponsored conference on finding solutions to the social problems encountered in inner cities.� I have also been able to form friendships with a few local politicians.�

Srila Prabhupada often instructed as to approach the leaders in society: 'We want the mass to support us, but we want the class to preach for us.' (Letter to Mukunda Dasa, 27 December 1972).� 'Governments and public leaders in every part of the world should support this movement.' (Srimad Bhagavatam, 6.2.4). Although the relationships we have developed are only a small beginning, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Food for Life

This food distribution programme is to be done very, very nicely . Generally people make a plea as to why there are so many hungry and naked people. So we invite all hungry and naked people to come to us and we will give them food and clothing and Krsna consciousness as well.� This will attract the general public . ' (Srila Prabhupada letter to Giriraja Dasa, 23 April 1972).

Food for Life has been a very powerful factor in gaining our centre a good local reputation.� We have ensured that the local people are aware of our activities in this field, and have also networked with social workers and other charities, giving them supplies of food that they can distribute to their clients themselves.� Whenever we embark on any Food for Life project, we have publicised it as widely as possible through press releases.� As a result of this, the media has also become more favourably disposed towards us.�

At the beginning, we distributed food from the temple; when it became known that we were agents for surplus government foodstuffs, we had many people coming to the temple asking for handouts.� Although it had good effect on our local reputation, it eventually became counter productive as the demand became too great for our small centre to cope with.� We now distribute food at various venues in the local area, with times and places for such distribution being widely advertised.� Although we still do get some people coming to the temple for food - whom we never refuse - we no longer advertise the temple as a distribution point.�

We have also found that by far by the most successful form of advertising for this project is word of mouth.� By regularly distributing food, we are seen by more and more people and the word just gets around.� I would say that this is far more effective than attempting to obtain maximum publicity from occasional distributions. There is, anyway, a certain public scepticism towards media reports as everyone in public life today tends to use it for image building these days. However, if we are constantly seen on the streets doing something to help people, this will be the most powerful propaganda.� This also applies to the way we conduct ourselves in public; being mannerly and kind also has an enormous influence on our reputation as devotees.���


A couple of years ago my eldest son reached school age and I was faced with the standard dilemma experienced by devotees in my position.� Not having any gurukula facilities, nor wanting to uproot and move away to a place where was one, and not having the time to offer home education, the only option left was the local state school.�� Although some devotees suggested sending him away to India, I was not keen on this idea.� Apart from anything else, if it was seen that the only acceptable way of educating my son was to send him to school three thousand miles away, what kind of message was that sending to the local people.� Would that be an example that they could all follow?� Obviously not; most of them had no choice but to send their children to a local school.� I felt I needed to somehow show them that regardless of what school our child was sent to, it was still possible for him and us to maintain our devotional lifestyle.

We were fortunate in that our son was under a teacher whose husband was a Christian interfaith worker who had a very positive attitude towards ISKCON and had even spent some time at the Vrindavan temple.�� However, we were still concerned as to how the rest of the teachers and pupils would react to our son being a Hare Krsna.� Our approach was uncompromising; we wore full devotional dress to school and ensured that to a certain extent our son did too - at least sihka and tilak, though not dhoti.� Again we were fortunate in that devotees were a fairly common sight within the local community and had a good reputation.� However, we have also worked hard to create good direct relations with the school.� For example, we include all members of the school - teachers, headmasters and children - when we give out festival prasad.� We also asked for opportunities to explain about our movement to the school and have since spoken at several assemblies and classes.� There are now four or five devotee children at this particular school and at our request, whenever there is a Vaishnava festival, these children's classes always observe it by distributing prasad� (provided by our centre) and speaking a little about Krsna.� We have made more friends in the community as a result of our children being at the school and this has certainly helped our mission as we are seen as being 'normal' albeit inclined towards a different dress and lifestyle.���

The net effect of this is that our children do not feel that their religion is marginalised, and don't have to hide their Krsna consciousness, whereas children who have been exclusively educated in a gurukula are sometimes fearful of revealing their beliefs in the larger non-devotee community.� I therefore feel that our children will benefit from growing our with Krsna consciousness in the broader community.� However, I realise that this may be a contentious issue for some and confess that even I would not see our situation as ideal.�� We would dearly love to open a gurukula in Manchester but this is something that is far above our present resources.� However, we are happy with the way things have worked out so far and see the establishment of a gurukula as a long-term goal.

A school life is into an impediment for becoming a full-time devotee; it is a question of devoting oneself sincerely to Krsna consciousness.� To prosecute Krsna consciousness there is no limitation, no material impediment can stop the progress of Krsna consciousness.� That is the symptom of spiritual life.� Spiritual life does not depend on material conditions.� We have many instances from the history of the devotees; life such as Prahlada Maharaja.� He was a small schoolboy; his father and teachers were all against God consciousness.� Still he flourished and converted all his classmates to be Krsna conscious in spite of severe trials upon his personal body.� So it is only the question of understanding the process of how to execute Krsna consciousness . as far as school is concerned, we know that modern education in schools is not very much helpful in advancement of Krsna consciousness, but still we have to take advantage of such institutions in the absence of any other good organisation.� (Srila Prabhupada letters, February 1968)


One final area I would like to address is that of interfaith.� We have worked hard to create good relations with other local religions.� Again, the Food for Life programme has been instrumental in this.� We have contacted local churchmen, who are always concerned with the community's social problems, and asked whether there was any way we could work with them.� This has not resulted in any major projects to date but has given us the means of reach these people and develop friendships.

We always accept invitations to interfaith gatherings, seeing them as opportunities to make friends.� Indeed, one local church has on several occasions invited us to their services to chant and speak about our beliefs.� In turn, I also attend some of the major Christian festivals.� During one Christmas service, my son gave a solo rendition of a carol he had learned at school.� This was very well received and made a lot of people seriously rethink their attitudes towards the 'Hare Krsnas'.


Although I am not suggesting that ISKCON should not develop its own self-sufficient communities -which are an important part of its mission - I feel that in common with other ethnic or religious minority groups, we can work more successfully and live more harmoniously by forming our own smaller communities within the larger community. It should also be remembered that Krsna consciousness is, at least from the Western perspective, an alien religion is a host culture, and although we do not want to compromise our personal Krsna conscious integrity, we also need to adapt to our environment. ��If we are both seen and accepted as nice people, we will have a far better chance of our culture being accepted; simply by interacting in a friendly manner in the course of daily life can been seen as an opportunity to give Krsna consciousness.�

My experience is that if people come into contact with Vedic culture in a non-threatening, friendly way, they are usually impressed and want to know more.� I believe that it is possible to see the influence of Krsna consciousness gradually spreading and purifying the existing culture.� However, if we go in with the attitude that this existing culture is rubbish and must be destroyed in toto and replaced with Krsna consciousness, we will find it very difficult to even live within that society, what to speak of getting our message across.� Rather we should follow the advice of Lord Caitanya (Srimad Bhagavatam, 4.7.44), who advised: 'All of you become spiritual masters. Your duty is to simply to talk to whomever you meet of Krsna or of the instructions given by Krsna.'� As Srila Prabhupada added in his purport: 'This International Society for Krsna Consciousness is operating for this purpose.� We do not ask anyone to first change his position and then come to us.� Instead we invite everyone to come with us and imply chant Hare Krsna . because we know if one simply chants and hears the topics of Krsna one's life will change; he will see a new light and his life will be successful.'