This paper, delivered at the Vaisnava Academy Conference, Wiesbaden, Germany, in January 1994 yea,r marks a watershed in the development of ISKCON in Germany -� a 'coming out' of ISKCON into German society. This paper was the keynote speech at the conference and represents an honest attempt to address the issues and concerns of the German people and to explain how ISKCON has started to reassess its attitudes and practices in light of these concerns. It also acts as an example of how an ISKCON community has acted to change a twenty-five year history of mutual misunderstanding and hostility to serve as a basis for dialogue and respect.
Introduction Twenty-five years ago, the first Hare Krsna temple was opened in Germany. At that time Hare Krsna in Germany meant a small group of idealists, dropouts and India fans. Now that we have grown into a multifaceted society, we have been forced to reconsider our self-perception and public image. Bridging the cultural gap, social integration and inter-religious dialogue are just some of the challenges we face.�����
This conference is a milestone in the development of ISKCON Germany. For the first time we are opening a public forum and we hope it can serve as a symbol for a new and better relationship between ISKCON and the German public based on mutual respect and understanding, and real co-operation.�����
We have learned a lot since the early days of ISKCON, but still have a long way to go. In retrospect, we need to recognise that we have made grave mistakes in our treatment of the public in general and families and public institutions in particular. These mistakes arose primarily from youthful immaturity, deficient philosophical understanding and difficulties in communication on the part of our members as they sought to attain integration into a society that not only considered them to be outsiders, but also treated them as such.�����
We regret these mistakes wholeheartedly and are sincerely endeavouring not to repeat them.� In my speech, I would like to elaborate on the role that ISKCON sees for itself today and the response it gives to certain important questions. We hope that our ideas can serve as a basis for discussion and open the door for further constructive communication.
ISKCON is a cultural movement for the re-spiritualisation of society, its goal being to contribute positively to the areas of religion, culture, social development and education.�� It is part of the ancient Vaisnava tradition, and is based on the Bhakti-scriptures (especially the Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavata Purana, etc.). Vaishnavism is considered to be the most popular of all of India's religious traditions, categorised under the generic term 'Hinduism'.�����
ISKCON's activities in Germany are governed by a national council of fifteen members. Each ISKCON centre is headed by a temple president, a vice-president and a secretary. ISKCON's international Governing Body Commission (GBC) is represented in Germany by a secretary, who is responsible for implementing and maintaining the internationally agreed ISKCON standards of management, worship and practice.
Facts and figures
There are presently eleven ISKCON centres in Germany: Berlin, Flensburg, Hamburg, Hannover, Heidelberg, Jandelsbrunn, Koln, Leipzig, Nuremberg, Weimar and Wiesbaden.� There are a total of one hundred and fifty students and priests living in these centres - eighty male, seventy female.�����
The age distribution of these temple communities is as follows:
Under 20 years of age:�� ��������
20-30 years:������ ���������
30-40 years:������ ����������
Over� 50 years:����������� ����
Additionally there are many ISKCON members who live outside the temple with their families, including temple presidents, priests and other officials. There is a growing congregation of approximately five thousand who partly or completely follow the principles of Krsna consciousness.
ISKCON's public image
As a relatively new phenomenon, ISKCON Germany has experienced many problems in its social integration. An analysis of the past would show that the difficulties and, in some cases, even the hostilities arose out of the social conditions of the sixties and seventies. When Krsna consciousness was transplanted into the West it attracted mainly young people who came from the social background of the late sixties, with all its ideals and enemy stereotypes.�����
A quarter of a century has passed since the establishment of ISKCON in Germany, and the senior Vaisnavas can no longer be seen as members of a youth sect.� It is now time for a reassessment of the present social perspective towards ISKCON in Germany.�����
Objective academic study is required to form the basis of this reassessment, to include the historical development of the relationships between ISKCON and the churches, parent groups, anti-sect organisations, government agencies and the media. Without a basis in such impartial research, it will be extremely difficult for any of us to change the paradigms binding us today.�����
An example of such an independent research unit can be found in the UK, in an organisation called INFORM, which is financially supported by the government, the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church and other major religious denominations. INFORM undertakes careful and objective research, acts as a mediator in disputes and provides counselling. It is interesting to note that since the establishment of INFORM in 1988, it has received no complaints about the Hare Krsna movement in the UK.
One aspect that has undergone a fundamental change in ISKCON is the relationship between temple and congregation. In the beginning, 'Hare Krsnas' were associated with shaved heads, saffron robes and temple communities. ISKCON today can no longer be limited to this image, our structural picture being very different. Congregational members form a much larger percentage of the ISKCON population than temple communities, comprising ninety-five percent of the total membership. This clearly shows that ISKCON is now a congregationally-based movement.�����
The role of the temple or ashram has also changed. ISKCON centres are now places for education, communication and preaching, and they serve the congregation as places of worship and association. Devotees who live in the temple receive a spiritual education, after which most of them marry and establish a family. Over eighty percent choose to live outside the temple and take up careers outside of ISKCON in areas such as medicine, the arts, business, farming, education, etc.� Those devotees who remain in the temple live as priests, preachers and counsellors - roles for which we provide comprehensive training.����
Minors are only allowed to live in the temple community with explicit written permission of their parents. Persons undergoing full-time vocational or professional training are advised to complete this before beginning their studies with ISKCON.� We also discourage members from giving up their occupational or family obligations, evidenced by the ten-fold growth in our congregation over that of our temple communities in recent years.
The high proportion of congregational members within ISKCON today has also forced us to consider more deeply our approach to family life. We respect and support the institution of a spiritually oriented family and recognise that it is essential for social stability and harmony.�����
We know that family members sometimes have difficulty with close relatives joining ISKCON. There are different reasons for this: lack of understanding of our culture and practices; previously existing tensions within the family; immature and insensitive actions by devotees, and the spreading of false information about the motives and aims of ISKCON. We very much regret this situation and are happy to work with government authorities, welfare institutions and other religious traditions to avoid these tensions and misunderstandings.� We have also gone some way towards addressing this problem by arranging meetings with family members of devotees. In addition, we will not allow minors to become members of temple communities unless we have first discussed it with their parents. Such actions may not bring about a final solution for all problems, but at least they offer a good preliminary contact. ISKCON's social ideals
In Germany, we have sometimes been accused of wanting to introduce the caste system to the West and that we are motivated by political interest. These are misunderstandings or incorrect assumptions that we must address.�����
In the Bhagavad-gita, Krsna points out that there are four natural social divisions (varnas) to be found in all societies: intellectuals, administrators, businessmen and labourers. Krsna stresses that individual qualities and behaviour determine which social order one belongs to. In the corrupt caste system seen in India today, social qualification is determined by birth. Such a system is only in the interest of the higher, elitist castes, that use it to maintain their own social position and thus avoid criticism or competition. In other words, the present caste system is a contradiction and distortion of the original varnashrama social system, as described by Krsna.�����
In the caste system, social circumstances reminiscent of the feudal systems in medieval Europe are dominant. For example, only Hindu priests are allowed to study Sanskrit, to read the religious scriptures and to perform temple ceremonies. For the proponents of the caste system it is out of the question for a non-Hindu, what to speak of a non-Indian, to perform these activities.�����
It was this exploitative and unjust caste system that Caitanya Mahaprahbu was opposed to. Five hundred years ago this great Bengali saint and reformer initiated a renaissance of the Vaisnava tradition in India, and founded the Hare Krsna movement. This movement stood open for people of all religions, castes and skin colours, and is today continued by ISKCON all over the world.�����
As ISKCON does not support the caste system, the movement is criticised by the proponents of this system who do not acknowledge us as being Hindu - an accusation that is sometimes quoted in the West as well.� However, this opinion is not shared by the majority of the Indian population.�����
Sri Caitanya has taught that love of Godhead is the highest goal of life. This goal can only be achieved by individual development of Krsna consciousness, not by political revolution. A religiously oriented social system, such as varnashrama, may support the development of such consciousness, but should never become a goal in itself.���� �
The aim of ISKCON is not a political revolution but a spiritual change of consciousness within society. Such a change of consciousness could make it possible for man to live and act more in harmony with his individual material and spiritual nature, which would go a long way in solving many of today's social problems.����� ISKCON has published several books and treatises as a basis for discussion on the varnashrama topic. Within the Society there is a wide spectrum of opinion in this regard. The international Governing Body Commission (GBC), however, has not yet reached a final decision and pursues no official policy in this connection.
The founder of ISKCON, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (more commonly known to devotees as Srila Prabhupada) was able to transplant the old Vaisnava tradition from India to the West in an innovative way without losing any of its essential religious teachings. This also applies to the role of women. Srila Prabhupada gave women initiation as brahminical priests, which was a revolutionary change. He emphasised in his teachings and by practical example, the spiritual equality of all persons irrespective of their social status, beliefs or gender.� He also allowed women to devote themselves on a full-time basis to the pursuit of spiritual life within the same ashram community, separated from the male members. This was another reformation in Hinduism, as traditionally ashram communities were for men only.�����
However, this innovation also created a problem: men and women now had to practise a celibate life side by side. Srila Prabhupada intended that both men and women share equal rights and duties, although men eventually set the tone due to their greater numbers. However, many more women have now joined the movement - constituting almost half the devotee community� - and there is presently an active internal dialogue about their role.����
As a result of this development, ISKCON Germany is taking concrete steps to avoid any kind of discrimination against women, in order to enhance mutual respect and support among devotees in our communities. These endeavours have already borne their first fruits; for example, a third of all seats in the National Council have, for some years, been held by women, and three of our eleven centres have a female temple president.
God is unlimited, both with regard to time and place. ISKCON does not limit God to a single religion or holy scripture, but accepts them all as revelations of the same God.� The various religions are but different ways to elevate people to higher and highest levels. The highest level, as the Bhagavad-gita teaches, has nothing to do with any denomination, but with consciousness itself: an internal attitude of pure, loving devotion to God. We want to draw people's attention to this proposal as being the common goal of all religions.
'Our world is going through a fundamental crisis: a crisis of world economy, world ecology, world politics.' This statement is included in the World Ethos Declaration of the Parliament of World Religions, Chicago, September 1993. We believe that all religions, when acting in a common effort and as equal partners, will play a vital and decisive role when confronting today's global problems.� In a world in which different ethnic, religious and social groups are violently fighting one another, the religions should come together to jointly work against fanaticism, conflict and moral decay.
An understanding of the realisation and experience of others will help one to avoid mistakes in one's own development. A genuine dialogue (i.e. two-way communication) requires the ability to accept and assimilate criticism, which is indispensable for a sound development of any society or religion.
The preliminary requirement for inter-religious dialogue is that, in our opinion, each person allows the other the right to define himself in his own terms and that one does not present one's own religious tradition as the universal standard or try to force this tradition on others.� ISKCON Germany now recognises the advantages that such a dialogue offers and has established a Committee for Inter-religious Affairs to help develop these opportunities.
Another important step towards a more intensive dialogue with other religions and academic circles is the Academy for Vaisnava Culture, founded in Bonn, Germany in 1992, by members and friends of ISKCON. The Academy's goal is to promote research into the meaning and contribution of Vaisnava culture in modern society, and to support academic investigation into ISKCON's role in this exchange of cultures and religions. This aim will be met by publications, seminars, conferences and other forms of research and communication.
Human welfare activities Our charitable activities vary according to the needs of the different countries in which we are active. For instance, we undertake the distribution of the bhakti scriptures, with the purpose of giving mankind spiritual knowledge that together with ethical guidelines, form the foundation of a stable, harmonious society whose members use the resources of this world in a responsible way.
Probably the best-known and most popular activity is our world-wide free food distribution programme, 'Hare Krsna Food For Life'. Srila Prabhupada once said that no one within ten miles of any of our temples should go hungry. Based on this principle, he founded 'Food for Life' in 1970, through which many millions of free meals have been distributed over the last two decades. In many places devotees liaise with local charity organisations and state authorities, thus distributing thousands of meals daily all over the world.
Recently, countries comprising the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have become the centre of extensive food programmes by ISKCON, including war zones such as, Sarajevo and Sukhumi (Georgia). In the townships of South Africa, over one million meals were distributed to the needy last year. During natural catastrophes emergency programmes are carried out; for example during the recent flood disasters in Bengal and the latest earthquake in Maharashtra, India.
In Germany, too, we have gathered experience with free food distribution in recent years as a prelude to the launch of a large scale 'Food for Life' project in this country.
Conclusion ISKCON in Germany is a young institution, and as such we have still a lot to learn.� We therefore need your help in this developmental stage.� We want a relationship that is based on genuine dialogue, not out-dated or false information, leading to open exchange of opinions and information. We hope that this conference will mark the beginning of a respectful , lasting and harmonious relationship.
Delivered as a lecture at 'Twenty-five years of ISKCON in Germany', Wiesbaden, Germany, 29 January, 1994, organised by the Vaisnava Academy, Bonn.