Congregational Development In ISKCON

Kripamoya Dasa

"The saintly teachers have ensured that the essence of Vaishnava wisdom always remains the same - but they have never failed to respond to a changing cultural climate in order to bring others closer to that wisdom". Kripamoya dasa is one of ISKCON's foremost thinkers in the field of congregational development and nama-hatta. In the following article he offers us some very practical suggestions to help us plan and improve our relationships with our members. Kripamoya's description of his innovative nama-hatta convention and the feedback he received from the participants proposes a simples exercise we could all try to repeat.

The other day I had to make a long train journey to Manchester, some three hours north of London, so I took the opportunity to read Navadwipa Mahatmya by Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura. In this book, which is an account of Nityananda Prabhu taking Jiva Goswami on a pilgrimage around the holy land of Navadwipa, Bhaktivinode Thakura describes the simultaneous oneness and difference of Sri Vrindavan Dhama and Sri Navadwipa Dhama. In Vrindavan Krsna dances with the gopis, and in Navadwipa, the holy place where Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is ever present, that same rasa is imbued with magnanimity - the closed circle of the rasa dance has been opened so that all living entities can take part.

Reflection on Krsna's compassionate outreach as His own devotee, led me to consider how in our Vaisnava parampara two things have always been going on simultaneously: one is the preservation of the Supreme Lord's teachings, unchanged over thousands of years; the other is the ever-changing way in which those teachings are made comprehensible to masses of ordinary people. The saintly teachers have ensured that the essence of Vaisnava wisdom always remains the same - but they have never failed to respond to a changing cultural climate in order to bring others closer to that wisdom. That sensitive response to change is based on their compassionate desire to communicate, and it has ensured that our sampradaya has always remained dynamic and relevant to the people of the day.

Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu took sannyasa simply to reach out to those who would only take His messages seriously if He did so. The Six Goswamis of Vrindavan were known as the greatest philosophers, and yet they took the time and trouble to extract the essence from all the dharma sastras in order to convey a simple message to ordinary people. The result was that common people were able to follow their simplified teachings, and loved them for giving them Krsna.

It is perhaps interesting to note that even though the Six Goswamis were usually depicted wearing nothing but loincloths and discussing Krsna underneath the trees in Vrindavan's forests, they nevertheless developed between themselves an organisation involving many devotees, all with their own specialised areas of responsibility. Since Caitanya Mahaprabhu had given them certain physical tasks to perform such as writing books, discovering the lost holy places of Vrindavan and establishing temples, they had to organise their collective practice and preaching in such a way that these objectives could be met. Hence, each Goswami and his disciples took a particular role. They named their organisation the Vishva Vaisnava Raja Sabha and there were divisions of responsibility for standards of Deity worship, purity of preaching, awards for recognition of study and service, and yet another division for challenging philosophies which opposed the Vaisnava conclusion.

Sometimes one may not think of the terms 'spiritual' and 'organisation' as being compatible, yet when a Vaisnava is trying to achieve a spiritual purpose within the material world, material energy must be moved in such a way as to ensure the divine objective is met. Krsna chose to speak Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna, not simply because Arjuna was His devotee, but also because he was uniquely qualified to achieve His aim, winning the battle of Kuruksetra. Indeed, this juxtaposition of divine objective and material arrangement is perfectly represented by the speaking of Bhagavad-gita and the events which followed over the eighteen days of the battle.

Awakening the dormant love for Krsna in the hearts of mass numbers of people has to be done with careful consideration for the prevailing circumstances, language and customs. The message of Krsna consciousness and its ultimate purpose remain the same but the means are, by necessity, different. Narottama dasa Thakura, for instance, took the knowledge contained within the Sanskrit works of the Goswamis and translated it into Bengali poetry. Sanskrit at that time was the language of scholars, yet Bengali was the common language of those to whom Narottama wished to communicate. He played musical instruments which captivated the minds of simple people and framed his poetry into songs which they could continue to sing long after he had left their particular village.

However, not everyone is satisfied by circumstantial adjustments. If we examine Vaisnava history, or indeed the history of any religious tradition, we will find that conflict always develops between those who are committed to preserving the tradition and those who wish to make the essence of that tradition accessible to all. Representing religious teachings to a world which has changed since those teachings were first recorded, often involves employment of translations or adapted language, a fresh look at prevailing intellectual arguments and in most cases, a departure from traditional styles of teaching. For a long-established religious body it may involve a departure from forms and structures which, although 'traditional', have now become stereotyped and inefficient. Such departures will seldom be viewed without protest.

In the Eighteenth Century, Vishvanath Chakravati Thakura wrote books such as Madhurya Kadambini in Bengali even after receiving death threats from dacoits employed by brahmanas who strongly objected to his literary use of vernacular language. Bhaktivinode Thakura struggled for years to establish the pure message of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in the face of so many sentimental religionists and pseudo Vaisnavas. He too, framed erudite philosophy in popular songs. He employed the popular melodies of the day, which themselves were conjured up by sahajiyas like the Bauls, and used these tunes to accompany his poetry. He wrote in English and thereby created an opportunity for millions of people to take part in Caitanya Mahaprabhu's movement. He also transgressed the social norms of the day by discarding threads for his brahmana family disciples in order to establish Vaisnava equality amongst all his followers. More importantly, he also waged a physical battle against dacoits and robbers who were plundering pilgrims on the way to Vrindavan, as well as yogis and mystics who were exploiting common people in the countryside around Jagannatha Puri. His life is an interesting example of a Vaisnava acarya undertaking social reform in order to accomplish divine objectives, and stirring up opposition when such reforms threatened the accepted order.

By the time of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, we see different approaches to achieving the same aim. Whereas his father, Bhaktivinode Thakura, had established Nama Hatta groups in the Bengal countryside, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta saw the need for an organised preaching mission that would produce the needed brahmacari recruits and preachers whose renunciation and learning were respected in society. In his day the Rama Krsna Mission had already become popular and the members of this group wore saffron cloth. British Imperialist culture dominated India at that time and this ruling culture was epitomised by grey suits and boots. Rather uniquely, Bhaktisiddhanta adopted both forms of dress for members of his mission, coining the maxim: 'Books are the basis, purity is the force, preaching is the essence, utility is the principle'.

Whilst his purity was appreciated, the rather novel way in which he enacted the fourth line of the maxim - 'utility is the principle' - was severely contested by the brahmanas of the day, even to the extent of both him and his disciples being stoned and shunned. He used motor vehicles, steam ships and printing presses, all of which were seen to be materially indulgent for a sannyasi who had ostensibly renounced the world. However, Bhaktisiddanta had seen the changing circumstances and adjusted his preaching accordingly.

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada took the purity of the Gaudiya Math mission and brought the teachings into a Western context. Rather than translate his spiritual master's works into English, he wrote entirely fresh commentaries, specifically for the Western mind. Striving to establish ISKCON, an international missionary body of highly committed young men and women, he made changes in preaching style which horrified many of his contemporaries. He mixed 'boys and girls' in the same ashrams and sent them both out to sell his books. He reduced the number of rounds required for initiation from sixty-four to sixteen simply to help his new Western students. He used every modern device he could, and travelled by aeroplane at regular intervals. By so doing he built a simple, yet highly efficient, international organisation which reached out to millions.

Srila Prabhupada was faced with a set of social circumstances that no acarya before him had even dreamed of. He stuck rigidly to some principles and compromised on others, all in a selfless effort to initiate, nurture and preserve the message of Krsna in an atheistic world. His balance of 'purity is the force, utility is the principle' succeeded.

Yet even during the twelve short years Srila Prabhupada was with us, ISKCON and its missionary activities grew in complexity and diversity under his guidance. Success led to growth, growth led to change. From the moment he announced to the bewildered boys and girls in New York that he was going to San Francisco (they couldn't see any good reason why he should ever leave New York), Srila Prabhupada was introducing changes which would enable his young movement to blossom.

�Are there circumstances in 1995 which suggest a need for new approaches in the missionary style of the Hare Krsna movement? Has our success, notably in literature sales and subsequent public interest, brought about developments which we, as a dynamic movement, would do well to admit? Should that success help us to plan for the future? I think so. Perhaps I can illustrate my point better by revealing to you some of our observations, deliberations and innovations in the UK over the past year.

First, some facts: in the UK there are at least one hundred towns and cities with a population of 100,000 or more. Each of those centres has had regular visits by book distributors over the years. To be specific, nineteen million books have been sold in one hundred towns over a period of twenty years. That's a considerable number of books per town. As one might expect, many people have read those books and become interested in Krsna consciousness. Some joined a temple or ashram, the majority didn't. Even without a national plan, some thirty-one Nama Hatta groups have arisen. This figure does not include ISKCON temples, small centres or brahmacari sankirtan houses. The fact that thirty-one groups with an average of ten affiliated members have each developed with almost no structured planning, indicates that the remaining seventy towns might also yield groups of interested people with a minimal effort on our part. Faced then with the realistic prospect of having one hundred flourishing devotee groups by the end of the century, how should we prepare ourselves? What should be our strategy? Do we have any responsibility to the two thousand congregational members which our book distribution has created? Will those groups of devotees be seen as 'ISKCON'? How should we train our present temple devotees so that they can be effective communicators of Krsna consciousness? How will our organisational structure have to change in order to accommodate our increased membership?

It was decided the best idea would be to ask the present members themselves.� In February this year we organised a Nama Hatta convention to which seventy delegates came from the various groups around the country. Between them they represented the hopes, wishes and suggestions of around six hundred new Vaisnavas, the very fruit of our preaching.

They were broken into groups in order to discuss several important topics. The first concerned personal spiritual growth: did they feel themselves advancing? If so, what was helping them most? What were the obstacles and how could they be overcome? How could ISKCON offer more assistance? The second series of questions related to the experiences of working with others in a group: What were the challenges to healthy growth? Were they happy with their meetings? What help did they need? The final discussion centred on sharing their spiritual understanding with others: did they talk to others in their town about Krsna? Did they sell books? How successful were their efforts? What could ISKCON provide to make their preaching more effective and enjoyable?

It was hoped this feedback would enable us to understand the Hare Krsna movement from the point of view of its newest members. It would provide information on gaps in our current procedures and give direction in forming organisational policies regarding future effectiveness and overall success. The conclusions of our members at the convention was, although predictable, quite surprising in its unanimity. Everyone agreed on what they'd like to see happening in the movement, what was needed to increase their own faith, knowledge and practice, and how they could play their own part in its development.

In the area of personal spiritual development, all the delegates expressed their satisfaction at having come to Krsna consciousness, but said that their growth was often severely challenged when family, friends or colleagues were intolerant of their new found lifestyle. This was particularly exacerbated when there was a geographical remoteness from anyone else who was into Krsna consciousness. Many interesting comments came up in the discussions, especially concerning the need for personal guidance: 'I want to see a red dot on my spiritual map - you are here - that's what I need. Someone to help me understand where I am and where I've got to go to.' The overwhelming request was for senior devotees and preachers to come and offer support, guidance and instruction. Although many of the delegates had reached a point where they saw themselves eventually taking initiation, many of them expressed a preference for a senior preacher whom they could have greater access to and regular association with. Others expressed the view that although they were as yet unready for the major commitment of initiation, they nevertheless required a spiritual guide in their lives: 'I don't want a guru yet - I'm not ready for it - I know that. Just someone to be my spiritual mentor and keep in regular communication with me.' Some delegates expressed the value of developing firm friendships with other devotees and being able to share a certain intimacy with them regarding their own spiritual progress. The necessity for discussing philosophical doubts also came up. Many members told of how their own personal growth had been very much helped by coming into regular contact with others who were ready to talk about their own doubts and struggles. Indeed, Nama Hatta groups themselves have often grown out of such open, honest and friendly discussions. Some groups asked for a list of preachers who would be willing to come and speak to them, offering to help with travelling costs and accommodation.

Others called for a formulated curriculum of study so that their philosophical training could be more structured. Still others wanted spiritual retreats or summer camps in the country. When asked about the productiveness of meeting together as a group, some expressed the difficulties they were having over various conflicts that took place between members. Common causes were different styles of leadership / followership, diverse personal and social backgrounds or different viewpoints and philosophical understanding. Some felt that the regular visiting preachers were exhorting them to a standard of practice that was far in excess of what they were presently capable: 'It's especially difficult when it comes to things like spiritual standards, our inability to keep up certain of the regulative principles, dietary requirements, number of rounds, reading.' Others considered that within the group there was an atmosphere in which they felt an inability to express their own philosophical doubts without 'being made to feel foolish'. But if tactless preachers were a problem, so too was the total absence of visiting preachers. The lack of regular input from mature, educated devotees resulted in 'laziness, lack of inspiration', and a 'need for further guidance on the details of devotional service'.

Questions were also raised about where the Nama Hatta groups fitted into the overall structure of ISKCON. What were their rights and privileges, and their commensurate responsibilities? Should they be doing more for ISKCON or should ISKCON be doing more for them? Others wanted to see a national department within the movement specifically catering for their very real and ongoing needs.

When it was time to examine the group's outreach in their home town, most delegates said they needed considerable advice and inspiration in order to accomplish anything like the things that temple devotees considered an everyday affair. 'We need guidelines on how to answer the common questions which people ask us. Perhaps we can have a small book on how to answer questions;' 'ISKCON should publish a guide on how to preach. We also need more simple introductory literature like pamphlets and leaflets.' One group came up with the suggestion regarding inter-group communication so that new groups could learn from more experienced ones how everything was to be done.

Based upon the many helpful suggestions made at the convention, and taking those as an indication of future trends, devotees in the UK have begun, if somewhat falteringly, to adjust their understanding of the movement's developmental strategy. We've implemented some ideas and hope to have many new developments in place by 1996. With considerable caution, and at the risk of being seen as an iconoclast, I would like to put forward the following suggestions for ISKCON leaders and preachers.


(1)������� Book distribution should be seen as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. 'Distribute books and everything will come' should remain our motto, but when 'everything' does come in the form of enthusiastic new members, then at least some of us will have to care for them. Training devotees to fully participate in this next stage of ISKCON's growth should begin now.

(2)������� After awakening their dormant interest in Krsna by reading Srila Prabhupada's books, most people want to talk to devotees, the living examples of bhakti-yoga in action.

(3)������� However, we are no longer the only movement which talks of the Vedas, bhakti, reincarnation, karma, mantra meditation and Krsna. There are even many other organisations who chant Hare Krsna. If we ourselves do not respond to the success of our own book distribution, then other groups will. They already compliment us by saying, 'ISKCON is very good at making members for us'.

(4)������� Young people no longer become hippies and 'drop out' as they did in the early years when they were 'our best customers'. Two decades of cults and pseudo religions has bred a healthy cynicism in people. Even for those who are seriously interested in spiritual matters, joining a religious community is merely one of many current options. Much more convenient alternatives are available in towns and cities everywhere.

(5)������� Therefore, at this important stage in its growth, ISKCON needs grass-roots support. If not a temple in every town and village, then at least one friend who can act as an information centre for others to contact. In this way the Hare Krsna movement will develop a 'local face'.

(6)������� Local contacts networking together could form the supportive basis of the activities ISKCON wishes to instigate. By effective ministry and organisation, ISKCON's preachers could help many hundreds of such local contacts and groups.


(1)������� A congregational development policy should be discussed and all devotees in the temples made aware of the part they can play. For example, book distributors can collect names of the most interested people they meet and some funds can be set aside to establish ongoing communication with these people

(2)������� An enterprising householder can establish a mail-order system supplying things such as books, tapes, etc. If possible, a National Congregational Development Office should be set up to co-ordinate the yatra's policy.

(3)������� As it develops, the Congregational Development Office can be funded by the congregation itself.

(4)������� A newsletter conveying both temple news and activities in the groups can be published. The aim is to encourage members who practice Krsna consciousness in isolation.

(5)������� Keep a list of contacts or groups in every town. Give copies to sankirtan devotees and temple leaders. Explain how widespread an influence their sankirtan activities have already had. Only when devotees come to understand that these people are the results of all their prayers and physical efforts will they begin to see that the movement we refer to as ISKCON extends far beyond their own temple.

Personal Growth

(1)������� Encourage experienced devotees to see themselves as teachers, and thus the need to take a few new devotees under their wing. Travelling may be necessary.

(2)������� Hold meetings with these preachers so that they can discuss the best way to help others progress from one level of practice to the next.

(3)������� Print a list of the preachers with telephone numbers and make it available to new members and groups.

(4)������� Try to arrange for members to meet up at conventions, festivals, retreats, weekends or summer camps.


(1)������� Write some basic guidelines for groups. These should be based on the genuine experiences of older groups. They should include descriptions of sadhana items like japa, kirtan, how to give a class and offer arati, standards for cooking prasadam and so on. The guidelines can include the real comments of congregational members themselves and not merely scriptural quotations.

(2)������� Preachers should ensure group members are aware of the four stages of group development (see ISKCON Communications Journal, Issue 3) and should encourage healthy relationships amongst members.

(3)������� Groups should be aware that there are other groups exactly like them. They should be able to see where they fit into the national ISKCON structure. They should be aware of their rights and privileges as members of ISKCON and of their responsibilities to the movement.

(4)������� Groups should be aware of resources and facilities open to them and whom to contact to obtain these.


(1)������� Devotees involved in congregational development should see it as their duty to train and support their members in preaching activities. Book distribution, harinama, New-age fairs, festivals and prasadam distribution are all opportunities for new members to share their enthusiasm with others.

(2)������� Information pamphlets on how to sell books and answer common questions can be prepared. Leaflets with introductory information on reincarnation, mantra meditation, etc. can be printed up in large quantities for distribution by members.

(3)������� Work out a system with the local BBT or temple for groups to have access to books for distribution and to arrange for any funds raised to be properly accounted. All the above activities can be recorded and communicated to devotees nationally so that an awareness of congregation development is fostered within the yatra.

By following these suggestions, we will be able to come several steps closer to fulfilling Lord Caitanya's prophecy: 'My name will be heard in every town and village'.