Three response to Dr. Lipner's

ISKCON at the Crossroads, ICJ Vol. 2, No. 1

Dhyana-kunda devi dasi, Krpamoya dasa, Virabhadra dasa

A 'Monk in the Gathering'
Dhyana-kunda devi dasi

First of all, let me express my thanks for your deep, touching and simultaneously thought-provoking article. Such a rare opportunity it is, and a valuable one, to hear someone 'from the outside' (I beg your forgiveness for this exclusive term), yet deeply religious, giving a frank, philosophical and friendly account of a meeting with us. Moreover, you expressed so much hope for our future growth and cooperation within Krsna's all-inclusive plan. This is indeed an offering of honey. I do hope you will want to associate with us more and let us hear more of your reflections.

It is so difficult sometimes for me (I believe I am not alone) to imagine how other people see us. So easy is the move from the position of a curious onlooker ('What a crazy folk, singing and dancing in the street!') to the opposite one ('What a crazy folk, running in the streets all day long, not wanting to join us in our chanting and dancing!'). Yet from the outside many things can be seen which would surprise us. Things we should want to know. Observations that tell something not only about our approach to people and how to improve it, but about our own spiritual life as well.

Of all your interesting points, the one that went most deep into my memory was the one about chanting. True, as we practice chanting day after day, year after year, we may lose the freshness of experience, along with the joy and gratitude for this most wonderful gift-Krsna's name. How is it, actually, that we tend to look so tense, hard-working, not enjoying, even though our famous slogan is 'Chant and be happy'? Chanting is hard work. One is confronted with one's obstinate and impetuous (friendly) enemy-the mind, loaded full with material memories, desires and plans. By the external appearance I may look like a devotee, but my chanting hours know how hard I have to struggle to become one. Yet, moments of joy are also there. Let me relish them and realize this is what the chanting is supposed to be-the source of spiritual energy, an uplifting activity. It doesn't have to remain hard work.

Does chanting close the devotees off from human contact? This was precisely my impression at my first encounter with the Hare Krsna members, ten years ago. I felt very uneasy. But soon I understood that the devotees were friendly. Chanting is meditation. Kirtan is meant to be performed together, japa is individual. In devotional practice there is time for everything, also for closing off from all the external influences and trying to only cry out to Krsna and hear His name. At the moment of death I will be alone with Krsna, just like I am now when I chant. While chanting, I do see devotees passing by and I appreciate their not stopping to talk with me, not trying even to have an eye contact. This I take as an act of their friendship and help.

I am also one of the 'monks in the gathering,' and as you said, I find it difficult to offer realistic advice to the householders living outside and having difficulties with fulfilling their daily quota of chanting. All I know is that this is our most important activity. At the time of initiation we vow to follow four regulative principles, but this is just to help raise us to a civilised state. The only other thing we vow is to chant at least sixteen rounds of the maha-mantra daily. This is the center of our spiritual lifes. Our founder-acarya, Shrila Prabhupada, said that if one only does that throughout his lifetime, he will go back to Godhead.

You call for a re-interpretation of the daily duty of chanting. I am not sure if I understand what this means. In a sense, the chanting was already re-interpreted 500 years ago by Lord Caitanya, who brought it from the Vedic scriptures out to the public light (previously only the brahmanas had access to it) and propagated it amongst all people regardless their caste, creed and habits as the most easy and joyous way to achieve love of Godhead in this fallen age. Then it was re-interpreted once again by Srila Prabhupada, who, seeing that his Western disciples were unable to chant 64 rounds a day (as the Gaudiya Math devotees were obliged to do) lowered the quota down to 32, and when they were still unable to chant that much, he established the sixteen rounds as the absolute minimum.

The experience of many devotees shows that decreasing this number, even though it may seem to save time, does not help anything, rather the contrary. If I ever happen to be in the circumstances of life which will make my prescribed chanting impossible, I pray now for the ability to pray then, with the feeling of a helpless child, for Krsna to save me by removing obstacles to my chanting. It is true that the Lord's grace is boundless and we should not fear He will ever abandon us. And certainly we should never despise anyone, even if he or she is not 'up to the standard.' Rather, we should do anything we can to encourage and help. But the instructions of the spiritual master are not the 'rulings' that should be abandoned for surrender to Krsna. They are our path to surrender.

I hope you don't mind my frank response to your article as it really touched me. Please do continue with your frank appraisal of our society and I would very much like to read more of your reflections in the future.

Your servant,
Dhyana-kunda devi dasi
Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Poland.


Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us
Krpamoya dasa

In `ISKCON' at the Cross-roads' Dr. Julius Lipner makes a number of important observations about ISKCON. As a religious scholar, and not merely a scholar of religions, he wrote of his experiences at an ISKCON Communications Seminar.

In ISKCON he sees a religious groups towards which he experiences considerable empathy. He is amongst a small, but growing number of scholars who appreciate our efforts and the contribution we can make to society. As a friendly observer, we may learn from him 'to see ourselves as others see us', and as an academic with knowledge of religious history, we can learn how to circumvent the classical problems of other religious institutions. Some ISKCON leaders, I know, will disagree, claiming that Vaishnava theology is sufficient in itself to exempt its adherents from the philosophical wrangling and schisms that have so plagued the Church. But a glimpse at ISKCON's twenty five year history would sadly prove otherwise. Divinely revealed theology is one thing and human nature something else entirely. A religious institution is a fusion of the two and inasmuch as we have philosophical parallels with religious bodies which have gone before us, we can, to a greater or lesser extent, expect to confront the same challenges.

Take Dr. Lipner's first observation for example, of the classic tension between monastic and missionary life. ISKCON as a group is experiencing exactly the same dilemma that has confronted all religions which have both pure practise and preaching at their hearts. A recent study in America revealed that the 'spiritually informed' public considered ISKCON to have 'the deepest, most consistent and intellectually satisfying philosophy' of all the new religious movements, but paradoxically the devotees of Krishna were perceived as being 'the least friendly of all the groups'. This was personally confirmed to me by Walter Schwartz, religious correspondent of 'The Guardian' newspaper who told me: 'I've always felt the devotees' activity of chanting in the streets to be somewhat anti-social because they are performing a religious activity in a public place with no explanation of what they're doing'. Vaishnavas have worship which is private, and outreach activities which are wholly public, but it is often seen that the two do get mixed, particularly by the new convert or by those who seem to think that personal purity is increased in the face of public bewilderment or disapproval.

Whilst the inevitable creation of barriers by such attitudes tends to produce feelings of security and exclusivity within the neophyte follower, it is certainly counter productive for missionary outreach and ultimately, therefore, for the integrity of the religious body as a whole. So often in history the monastic and the missionary have tended to go their separate ways-to the detriment of both. The two lifestyles do not often work together. In ISKCON so far there has been a considerable achievement in that the two have been reconciled to a position of `unity in diversity', but the mechanics behind this balance should be properly understood for this harmony to be maintained.

The original phase of Vaishnavism's growth in the west was through young, white, Judaeo-Christian converts. After the first two decades of expansion predominantly based on literature sales and entrepreneurial ability, the 'new Brahmins' found themselves without a supportive culture of pious (generous) congregates and as a result the ISKCON movement entered a period of grave social and financial instability. As one religious consultant in England remarked: '18 million pieces of literature over 20 years and you only have under 10,000 members-what have you been doing?'

Survival dictated that ISKCON improve its attention to nurturing, guiding, and supporting the spiritual lives of those who had already heard the message but who had not `converted' in the same way by joining religious communities and thereby giving total commitment to a missionary organisation.

It is said that if constant recitation of the Holy Names does not result in genuine compassion for others, something is wrong in one's practise. Perhaps it may also be said that if compassionate outreach does not result in a change of heart in others and a sustained growth in the numbers of new members and, more importantly preservation of the spiritual life of existing members, all may not be well with the collective compassion. Dr. Lipner advises that we, 'shape the future in the light of the past' and we would do well to heed him, for isn't it written that 'those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it'?

I liked Dr. Lipner's use of the term 'fortress ISKCON' and 'the theology of the drawbridge' and I'd like to think I understand what he means. I personally believe 'our' Vaishnava philosophy to be changeless, it's merely that the way in which we administer it within a rapidly changing world calls for almost constant yet subtle changes of approach. If that is what he means by 'forging a theology of hope' then I believe it to be wholly consistent with Srila Prabhupada's mood of preaching according to 'time, place and circumstance'.

Much can be discussed, and is being discussed of Dr. Lipner's comments on women in ISKCON. The experiment of celibates and female religious co-operating together in a monastic/missionary institution has produced many surprising successes as well as abuses. Many are the women, who in their early years of ISKCON have been encouraged to become preachers, interacting with dozens of men as a daily activity, thus culturing within themselves (at the advice of their male leaders) independence, assertiveness and the gentle art of firm persuasion, only to then find after marriage, that the very opposite qualities are prized by husbands desiring a model 'Vedic wife' (whatever that may be). The particular difficulty is that it has no cultural antecedent in India or Europe and perhaps in future years we will come to regard it as an expedient measure, adopted within a particular social climate rather than a blueprint for the future.

ISKCON is a missionary organisation, slowly coming to terms with its future identity as a fully integrated branch of human society. Children of the early members do not yet have the benefit of a fully developed and supportive social culture with concomitant educational opportunities, employment possibilities, and a range of experienced adults of all ages, occupations and degrees of religious commitment to whom they may turn. Although ISKCON stands in opposition to the popular Hindu practise of hereditary Brahminism, we implicitly practise it with our own offspring, expecting that they too, like us, will identify in their later years with a 'Vedic', yet still largely missionary, religious culture. Yet children do not as a rule grow to be what their parents expect them to be. Provision, and at least expectation, for their future independence must therefore be made.

The expectations of a highly exclusive religious group of their next generation are also classical. Like the case of the rabbi's son in Chaim Potok's 'The Chosen', parental pressure often produces the reverse effect. True, we have a right as parents to expect that our children will inherit the same religious values as we ourselves hold dear, but for 'devotees' we should not read 'missionary workers in ISKCON' and our education and training should reflect that. If, due to over idealistic expectations we drive our young away, or indeed, if, due to fear of this happening we neglect to give them adequate training in our own morals and spirituality, then on both counts we will be guilty.

In conclusion, ISKCON's immediate challenge is that we must understand what the essentials of Krishna consciousness are, how best to communicate them, and especially how they are developed and preserved, both by our children and new members ,amid an often un-supportive and rapidly changing society.

Krpamoya dasa
Facilitator for Congragational Development, England


Dealing with Constructive Feedback
Virabhadra dasa

 It is a pleasant feeling to go back in time and recall my first encounter with Dr. Lipner, whom I first met at the ISKCON Communications seminar at Radhadesh, Belgium in 1992. He struck me as an honest and sensitive person whose qualities enable him to perceive the subtlest characteristics of the people he happens to meet, even for a short time; and this article, is somewhat showing this fact.

When the seminar was over and I was back in Italy, I had the chance to exchange a couple of letters with him in order to get some bibliographical advice, which I promptly received, and which was remarkably professional. But now let's come to the themes that he has brought up in his article. I have been an active member of ISKCON since 1984, still I must say that I fully share many of his observations. In fact I don't want to comment on Dr. Lipner points as much as offering some reflections as far as the attitude one should have when dealing with this kind of observations, which are more and more frequently brought to the attention of the devotees by those who look at them from outside of the movement.

The real theme of this article is 'what to do with these observations'? Dr. Lipner mentions that in 1992 our movement was facing a turning point and that most likely we are still there; I would say this is a fact. I think that there is a lot of updating and re-defining to do, at least as far as the institution is concerned.

Our engagement in doing this is not to disqualify our present institutional arrangements but rather it indicates the healthy condition of a movement which is observing itself and wants to improve. The absence of stagnancy and a constant search for a transformation can undoubtedly be a cause of growth and improvement.

There are a few fundamental characteristics that a healthy social body must have. One is a basic stability, which, in our case, rests on the principle of guru [teacher] and sastra [scripture], and another is a kind of more 'epidermal' restlessness which enables the search for improvement to take place. This non-acceptance of one's own present (the movement's present) can produce two different kinds of results, just like everything else that exists in the world of duality: on one hand it can lead to pessimism which turns into discouragement and eventually defeat, and on the other hand it can generate and feed healthy reform new perspectives and ultimately a revitalised institution. This is a logical sequence because something that is totally accepted, internally and externally, will never undergo any amelioration, simply because one doesn't see the need for it!

Therefore, when facing some objective problems, like the one concerning ISKCON's teenagers, or the other problems which were nicely presented in Dr. Lipner's article, I think it would be useful and intelligent for us to observe the whole thing using a 360� angle of vision, and not with a unidirectional and tendentious outlook, which usually turns into attributing the responsibility of what's going on to the very subject in question.

In jurisprudence it is advised that before one expresses a judgement, one should 'wear' the dress of the representative of justice, but one should also 'wear' the dress of the accused. This is the best attitude one can have in order to approach a judgement with an open perspective, avoiding in this way to become a victim of any possible pre-judgement.

I personally think it is very important for us to openly receive the observations and opinions that come from outside of our movement, especially when given by people with such a positive and benevolent attitude as the one shown by Dr. Lipner. He obviously just wants to offer a contribution to the movement by helping its social growth and integration in the contemporary context of these troubled days.

Still somebody might want to raise an objection: But isn't this a questionable outlook, since we have the truth!?! But if this was really the case, then we wouldn't have all the unsolved problems we have and everything would 'already be solved'! Since it is not so, we have to work to reach that stage of perfection, and on the way let's try to take advantage of all the advice we can get almost indiscriminately (taking them all into consideration at least hypothetically), because Sri Krishna might use anyone to show us the way.

Many great masters in our tradition such as Srila Rupa Goswami (Anasaktasya visayan...nirbhanda Krishna sambhande...), Srila Bhaktisiddhanta (Hari sevaya yaha haya anukula ...), Srila Prabhupada (take the example of the swan, which can extract milk from the water) and others like Canakya Pandita (one should accept gold without discriminating where it comes from) have advised us to develop the ability of catching positive direction from practically everywhere, by seeing everything in relation to its source, Sri Krishna.

Certainly the way of dualistic judgement (black or white) appears simpler and more easily applicable, but the integration of a holistic judgement, which is complete and many faceted, is undoubtedly more noble and sattvic [in goodness] and it brings honour to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's movement.

Virabhadra dasa
ISKCON Communications Director, Italy.