Movinginto Phase Three

An Analysis Of ISKCON Membership In The UK

Rasamandala Dasa

In this article Rasamandala Dasa provides a concise overviewof the development of ISKCON in the UK, exploring and examiningtrends of membership development and the Society's maturation.�His analysis identifies what some would term gradual routinasationor 'institutionalisation of charisma'.� This is often consideredan unavoidable, even natural, stage of development for an organisationsurviving its first generation. �Rasamandala proposes a future paradigmof membership development based on an educational approach.� Hesuggests that this is the natural direction for ISKCON if it isto begin to become proactive about its future.

In this article I intend to explore the expansion of ISKCON in theUK within the context of the various sections of its membership. Byanalysing the different trends, I have identified two principal phasesof growth so far and suggest we are moving into a third. I've expressedeach phase diagramatically in terms of the main categories of membership.I have then used these models to examine further characteristics ofthe first two phases -specifically in terms of the movements of theindividual, the predominating worldview and the corresponding valuesystem. [1]

For the third phase (of which we are on the threshold, I believe)I propose a new model which may help devotees realistically analyseand meet the Society's needs. Primarily it is intended as a basisfor determining appropriate 'paths of involvement' for the individual.This study may further assist in clarifying the values and attitudeswe wish to nurture in our members and in establishing policies,standards and strategies for future growth. Rather than unconsciouslyreacting to circumstances, we can use this Phase Three model todeliberately and purposefully chart a successful course for theBritish yatra.

The first two phases become evident from a quantitative analysisof the two broadest categories of our Society, namely 'core' and'congregational' membership.

Core membership

By 'core membership" I refer to temple residents and those livingoutside with full-time devotional engagement. Although statisticshave not been consistently maintained, I propose that the diagrambelow fairly represents the trend in the numerical strength of coremembership (see Appendix 1).

Fig. 1

As is evident from the above graph, we experienced a steady anduninterrupted [2] growth in temple membership in the successful seventies. This continuedeven after Srila Prabhupada's traumatic departure. Then, in 1982came the change, the sudden levelling off. The outlook today mayappear rather bleak, until we consider the other main category ofmembership.

Congregational membership

The term 'congregational member', [3] refers to a devotee not included in the categoryof core membership, as defined above.

We have no detailed records of congregational membership. Nevertheless,it is widely accepted that in the seventies it was relatively smalland considered quite insignificant.[4] In the early eighties, with the beginning of FOLK (Friendsof Lord Krishna) and the subsequent Nama Hatta Programme, it beganto increase substantially. This is demonstrated in the graph below.

Fig. 2

Two phases From the above analysis, I will infer that so far therehave been two broad stages of development, as follows:

Phase Period Focus
One 1969-1982 Recruitment / Core Membership
Two 1982-1995 Nama Hatta / Congregational Membership

I will later refer to evidence which suggests we are moving intoPhase Three. For now, though, let us analyse the first two phasesin terms of membership patterns.

Phase one

Fig. 3

The model of the seventies was simple. In the above diagram, 'A'(within the circle) represents core membership and 'B' (outsidethe circle), the non-devotee world.[5]

The structural development of ISKCON at this time was largely confinedto opening temples. These were quickly filled with (largely) immaturedevotees, expected to demonstrate an extremely high level of renunciationin contrast to their previous lives. This gave rise to a highlydualistic worldview [6] where spiritual merit was measuredin terms of where one lived - whether in the ashram or outside.[7] Devotees identified members of the respectivecamps with corresponding descriptive words or phrases,[8] some of which are listed below.

Us Them
Devotee Karmi / Demon
Supra-human Sub-human (hogs, dogs ...)
Going up� Going down
Vishnudutas Yamadutas
No bad qualities No good qualities
Associate with Avoid / Preach to

These sets of diametric terms can be identified with correspondingvalues and attitudes fostered within temple communities. [9] I leave that analysis to the reader. [10] Suffice it to say that theseoften questionable values became enshrined within our language,even endorsed by scripture, and most vividly demonstrated in ourdealings with ourselves and others. For example, there was littleroom for individual or collective introspection, and open and honestdialogue was discouraged, if not condemned. This had significantimplications on the way in which the individual decided to jointhe institution, and also on their subsequent involvement. Let us,therefore, examine how this paradigm, and its associated value structure,worked in respect of movement of members between the Society andthe outside world, as represented below.

Joining ISKCON (represented by Arrow 'J'):

Fig. 4

Joining the faith was largely synonymous with joining the temple.It was on a non-contractual basis, with no clear definition of respectiverights and responsibilities. For example, as soon as one joined(or shortly afterwards) it was expected (or taken for granted) thatone would willingly dedicate twenty-four hours a day to service. [11] Enlistment wasassumed to be forever, or at least until the end of this life, withoutconsideration of future prospects. For example, within my generation,[12] most brahmacharis (I can't speak for brahmacharinis)never considered the possibility of marriage. Students were implored'to just depend on Krsna'. [13] In addition, joiningwas relatively soon after initial interest in Krishna Consciousness.Members then took initiation, with its lifelong and irretractablevows, usually within another six or twelve months. There was a senseof urgency, often at the expense of long-term vision. Core devoteeswere enthusiastic that prospective candidates join them as soonas possible, often citing the possibility of an early demise!

Leaving ISKCON (represented by Arrow 'L'):

Leaving the temple was termed 'blooping'. Devotees usually 'blooped'unannounced in the middle of the night, sneaking out with theirfew belongings and loads of guilt. Such events created waves withinthe community, who considered that the blooped devotee might nowbe destined for the 'hot place' and needed saving from at leasta severe singeing. This sometimes involved sending a posse, usuallyto the local bus and railway stations, to reclaim the lost soul.Such events stirred devotees to search their hearts for the causeof such a calamity. Full responsibility was usually apportionedto the absent devotee.

We will not explore these features in detail here. [14] They will, however,prove useful in analysing trends and in establishing policies forthe individual's course of involvement with the Society.

Let us examine now the basic principle which, I suggest, was behindISKCON's initial rapid expansion and which may no longer be appropriate. The balloon principle The diagram below is based on our Phase Onemodel and compares ISKCON to a balloon.

Fig. 5

We will observe that a balloon gets bigger provided it meets twocriteria, namely (a) that air goes into it and (b) there are noleaks. The ISKCON of the seventies operated on a similar principle.Expansion of the Society was based on (a) making more devotees and(b) preventing them from blooping.[15]

We could extend the analogy. For example, in blowing up a balloonall attention is concentrated on the nozzle. Similarly, most attentionin Phase One was on recruitment. Devotees openly demonstrated careand affection for the public who showed interest in Krishna consciousness,but often sadly neglected the welfare of community members. As withthe burst of a balloon we become aware of a drastic leak, so similarlya devotee's sudden and resounding absence would often be the firstrecognised symptom of any personal difficulty.������� Nevertheless,for some time this principle worked and ISKCON expanded rapidly.The early eighties, however, saw significant changes which precipitatedPhase Two in ISKCON's development.

Phase 2

The seventies paradigm gave core members a considerable degreeof commitment, enthusiasm and clarity of purpose; its shortcomingsonly became apparent in the early eighties. The reasons for thisare significant. Most notable perhaps was a growing awareness (atleast within individuals) that ISKCON had serious internal problems.Joining the Society did not necessarily provide the promised smoothtransition to the spiritual realm. This awareness was fuelled byleadership problems [16] and the recurring difficulties devotees facedin successful transference to the householder ashram. Consequently,throughout the eighties preachers became increasingly reluctantto recommend that potential candidates join the community. Rather,they encouraged and constrained them to stay at home and pursuethere the principles and practices of Krishna consciousness.

Fig. 6

The significant increase in 'the congregation' (represented inSection C of the diagram above) challenged the simple paradigm ofthe seventies. Its shortcomings became apparent in trying to establishthe identity of congregational members. In simple terms - are they'us' or 'them'? Do we validate their commitment (even though apparentlyit may be of a lower order), or by so doing are we compromisingour standards of purity? [17] Despite these tensionsthe eighties saw a growing awareness of the need to include non-coredevotees within the bounds of ISKCON and to validate their existenceand their contribution. Non-core membership, however, consistedof various sections, each identified by the way in which membersjoined. I have identified two main ways by which a person enteredthe congregational community:

1.�� From the non-devotee world (represented by Arrow X). Usuallythis was either:

a.�� through the Nama Hatta Programme (dealing mainly with theindigenous white population) or

b.�� through UKLM [18] (responsible for the Asian Hindu community)

2.�� From the core community (indicated by Arrow Y). This occurredin two principal ways:

a.�� Devotees got married (and few remained in full-time service)or

b.�� Devotees 'faded out' [19] (the sudden 'bloop' was becoming increasingly rare)

Fig. 7

Although the Nama Hatta and UKLM programmes faced their own challenges,more significant to this study were the often insurmountable hurdlesfaced by devotees making the apparently downhill transition from coreto congregation, either through marriage[20] or 'fading out'. [21] It is essential, I suggest, to explore these issues in depth.Nevertheless, for the moment it is enough to recognise that the vastmajority of devotees have passed through Section A (representing coremembership). In fact, from 1982 onwards the rate at which devoteesleft the core community was equal to the rate at which they joined.Despite this fact, it appears that only those few who remained ascore members received full validation from the Society.[22]

I'd like to propose a new model which exhibits two essential andhighly significant features. Firstly, it acknowledges the transienceof the student ashrams. Secondly, it validates all devoteeswho have or keep some connection with ISKCON through practisingthe principles of Krishna consciousness. At the same time it will,if properly implemented, ensure maintenance of the highest standards. [23]

Phase 3

Fig. 8

For our new paradigm (expressed above) it is convenient to changeour definition of Section A (the reason for which will become evidentlater). This grouping still refers to temple residents (i.e. brahmacharisand brahmacharinis) but now excludes householders in full-time service.The latter fall within the new category, Section D, which representswhat I've loosely termed 'the clergy'. Its members consist of thosedevotees who have completed initial training[24] and are now concentrating on actively spreading Krishnaconsciousness, whether as householders or renunciates.[25] They will have specific functions cateringto both the congregation (Section C) and the temple / student ashram(Section A).

Let us now study the possible options concerning the flow of personnel.

Fig. 9

What is immediately clear is that anyone 'joining the temple'[26] (or more precisely, the student ashram)does not stay there indefinitely. Even lifelong celibates move intoband 'D' - our newly-founded 'clergy'. Student life is a temporaryallocation, dispelling the misconception of joining the temple andstaying there forever! The ashram is now a place where thestudent enrols for training, with prospects that fall within two broadcategories, namely: (i) joining the 'clergy' or (ii) joining the congregation. [27] Although option (i) may be considered preferable,option (ii) is also valid, and hence should be validated through encouragement,practical support, and so on.

What we see now, in contrast to the balloon principle of the seventies,is an acceptance of the reality that the brahmachari / brahmachariniashrams are places one almost always passes through (largelyirrespective of encouragement to do otherwise). According to ourmodel, even lifelong celibates, move out of the initial stage oftraining by joining the 'clergy'. In other words, everyone[28] graduates from Section A within a finite (and hopefullyspecified) period of time.

In Phase One (and to a lesser degree, Phase Two), attention waslargely on recruitment. Now, I suggest, we should focus upon 'graduation'and mould everything accordingly, right back to our enrolment policy.In other words, we should 'keep the end in mind'. We may considerwhat we expect of devotees upon graduating from Section A. Specificallywe may ask:

1.�� How should they be? (i.e. what values and attitudes do wewant them to exhibit?)

2.�� What should they know? (what knowledge should they possess?)

3.�� What will they be able to do? (with what skills shouldwe equip them?)

This 'graduation' concept, I propose, identifies our two most importantareas for development. Firstly, (though this article does not directlyconcern itself with this) the need for a thriving [29] householder community [30] into which graduates can move. Secondly (andthis is the focus of my essay) systematic and pro-active trainingand education to prepare temple residents for householder life (or,in some cases, for a life of renunciation).[31] In addition to this residential training it is apparentthat the congregation needs similar support. In fact, I have identifiedthe end of Phase Two not only in response to various successful traininginitiatives, [32] but also in view of the current inertia within the Nama Hatta programme.

Phase Two is drawing to a close. Phase Three will see the developmentof systematic training and education, both for core and congregationalmembers. [33] These improvements will help theSociety to synergise its needs with those of its most importantresource - the individual devotee. Furthermore these initiativeswill enable ISKCON to establish a clear vision and a defined strategyfor the future, by providing the means for corresponding personneldevelopment. We must evolve from hunters and gatherers to cultivators. [34] As we do this,I believe we will move into a new and dynamic phase of development,synthesising the success, confidence and enthusiasm that typifiedPhase One with the maturity, experience and thoughtfulness thatemerged during Phase Two.

Appendix 1
ISKCON UK - Core Membership 1969–93

1969 6
1973 75
1977 150
1982 225 (125*)
1993 225

*This second figure represents mid-March after the leadership crisis.The first figure represents membership before that.


A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Srimad Bhagavatam.Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1985.

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada� Bhagavad-gita AsIt Is. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1986.

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa 1994. 'Clearing House and Cleaning Hearts:Reform and Renewal in ISKCON - Part One', in ISKCON CommunicationsJournal, Issue �3, January-June 1994.Rohininandana Dasa. Vaishnava Verse Book. Los Angeles:Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1990.

The Vaishnava Training and Education Syllabus for Stage One.Watford: Vaishnava Training and Education, 1994.


[1] It is important to recognise that these values may not havefound deliberate expression but were implicit within ISKCON culture.

[2] The author joined the Societyin 1973 and to him and his colleagues it was unthinkable - practicallyinconceivable - that ISKCON could do anything but expand quite perceivably.

[3] The term 'congregational member'does not automatically imply that such a devotee is of lower spiritualstanding than a 'core member'. This misunderstanding may be at theroot of some of ISKCON's problems, particularly regarding its systemof validation and reward. The use of geographical situation as ameans of demonstrating spiritual status is obviously subject toflaw. Nevertheless, it seems that all except the most spirituallyadvanced devotees, need the support of external indicators of aperson's status. In the 'Vedic' model, these include locationalpointers (i.e. the temple in the centre surrounded by the brahmanas,then the ksatriya class and so on). What becomes evidentfrom analysis is that ISKCON has placed the temple as central butthat also under this nomenclature fall aspects of ISKCON which arefar from exemplary (as they need to be in such a central position).This includes trainees, whose status is actually only tentativeand should be recognised as such (as in our proposed model for PhaseThree). This problem could also be addressed by establishing a moreassertive enrolment policy.

[4] The Asian Hindu community mayhave been considered significant in terms of making Life Membersand raising funds. Still, its contributions may not always havereceived appropriate appreciation from the more austere temple residents.

[5] Meaning, moreor less, outside of the ISKCON temple.

[6] Conversely it may be argued thatthe structural development of ISKCON was the symptom of such a worldview.I'd suggest that both statements are true - the cause and effectbeing somewhat interchangeable.

[7] Devotees now realise that the Hare Krishna Movementextends well beyond the temple (though the special role of the templeis not to be under-estimated).

[8] I'm not suggesting there is notruth in the authorised statements which ostensibly underpin suchattitudes. The devotee / demon paradigm, for example. What I willconstructively confront is our understanding and application ofsuch principles. Ravindra Swarupa (1994) has written, 'What I nowknow is that the line that separates the godly from the ungodlyis not congruent with the line dividing ISKCON from non-ISKCON.'

[9] This article is not a criticismof the Society. The phases through which the Society has passed,and the associated phenomena, are natural and certainly not exclusiveto ISKCON (even though it has its unique features). The Societycannot be legitimately blamed for its immaturity and concomitantshortcomings but it does have the responsibility to learn from themand move forward. What's more, whilst the value systems of the pastwere, with hindsight, somewhat naive they were also highly effective(and perhaps absolutely necessary) in laying down roots for thefuture.

[10] The reader may also considerwhether or not devotees imported certain values from their previouslives, i.e., from their social, familial or religious backgrounds.

[11] Again theauthor does not dispute the Gaudiya Vaishnava theology which extolsthe virtues of unmotivated and uninterrupted devotional service.Nevertheless, he poses the question, 'How can ISKCON best operateto evoke these natural tendencies from its members?'

[12] The authorjoined ISKCON in 1973.

[13] The author does not intendto question the value of learning to depend on Krsna. Nevertheless,the reader may consider (a) whether or not this precludes makingplans ourselves and (b) in the case of it being inappropriate toconsider one's personal future (as may be the case in the studentstage of life) whether or not devotee leaders should be concernedfor the future of their charges and thus make the appropriate arrangements.

[14] For an excellent study ofthese topics, and indeed the whole development of ISKCON, the readermay consult Ravindra Swarupa (1994).

[15] With usuallynothing but the best intentions.

[16] Beginning in the UK in March1982.

[17] The author suggests that thetension between liberality and purity is central to ISKCON's development.The synthesis of these apparently conflicting needs obviously cannotbe achieved through the Phase One model (where the only acceptablemeans of socialisation was living in the temple and getting a newname). Rather, it requires the definition of a progressive hierarchyof standards applicable to the respective sections of membership.For more information on this subject, the reader may consult RavindraSwarupa (1994).

[18] 'UnitedKingdom Life Membership', a term now relatively out of date (thoughstill in use).

[19] Fading out was usually dueto sensual weakness and / or difficulties relating to the devoteeswithin Section A. (It is highly significant that very few of thesedevotees abandoned their belief in the theology of Krsna consciousness.This points to the need for support beyond merely exhorting purityfrom the vyasasana). Although such devotees usually keptsome regular connection with ISKCON (unlike many of the 'blooped'devotees of the seventies) there was often considerable unease anduncertainty with regard to their relationship with temple residents.

[20] There are many issues to beaddressed here, not least the fact that the marriage samskarahas been viewed as a 'fall-down'. As a young brahmachari the authorwas recommended to completely avoid an ISKCON wedding ceremony,described to him as 'a funeral'. The reader may consider whetheror not ISKCON has somewhat confused the brahmachari ashramwith the fourth stage of life (specifically in respect of the valuesand attitudes it should impart). The reader may also consult andconsider Bhagavad-gita (Bhaktivedanta, 1986, chapter2 verse 40) and the Bengali proverb, ghute pore gobarhase, 'When the dry cow dung is burning in the fire, the softcow dung laughs'. (Rohininandana, 1980).

[21] One of the greatest difficulties,the author suggests, is with devotees who become (prematurely) intimatewith the Society and then fall away. Even if their behaviour ison par with that of a Nama Hatta member, the lapsed 'temple devotee'is viewed with greater suspicion and given less validation. Onepossible solution is to be more selective about who is eligiblefor residential training and to initially discourage involvementdemanding a high degree of renunciation. In other words, spiritualprogress and the recognition of this, should as far as possiblebe steady, and continuous throughout one's life. 'Going retrograde'should be avoided, both in real terms and in respect of perceivedspiritual progress.�

[22] The reader may find interestin studying ISKCON's system of validation. What do we reward inour devotees? The ability to produce short-term results? Or commitmentto a lifetime in Krishna consciousness? Willingness to conform?Or ability to demonstrate initiative (within clearly communicatedstandards)? Does the Society's system of validation promote ongoingspiritual development or the shooting-star phenomenon? Furthermore,is our system of validation commensurate with the values endorsedby scripture, or is it a reaction to circumstances?

[23] Purity is not ensured by tryingto bring everyone to the highest platform immediately, but by 'filteringout' those who can't and validating their interaction with the Societyat the appropriate level.

[24] The VTE (Vaishnava Trainingand Education) recommends that for managers, ministers and prieststhis lasts for a minimum of five years. Bhaktivedanta Manor alreadyhas structured training courses for the first three years of residentialstudies.

[25] Srila Prabhupada, in Srimad-Bhagavatam(1.9.26, purport), writes, 'The brahmachari ashram isespecially meant for training both the attached and the detached.'

[26] Increasingly this will occurfrom the congregation, i.e. those who have had some defined interactionwith the Society.

[27] The author suggests that thiscategory will feature an important sub-group consisting of lay-preachers.In fact, the training and education department at BhaktivedantaManor has already organised training seminars for leaders and teachersfrom within Nama Hatta groups.

[28] Hence the amendment at thisstage to our definition of 'core membership'.

[29] Traditionally, one of the dutiesof the grihastha is to generate wealth and to support membersof the other three ashrams. Significant to ISKCON's developmenthas been the temple's dependence on students for fund-raising andthe lack of financial support from householders (for various reasonswhich, the author suggests, are worthy of further exploration).In this connection, the VTE (1994) has written, 'Householders whovalue their training are more likely to voluntarily contribute towardsthe Society, freeing students from the debilitating constraintsof fund-raising.' It also adds, 'If our Society is to flourish,its members must give esteem to the grihastha ashram.'This latter statement points towards the need for mutual appreciationbetween the student and householder ashrams and for the necessityof developing appropriate values and attitudes within trainees.

[30] The author has used this termsomewhat loosely to refer either to self-contained rural communitiesor to householders integrated within the broader society.

[31] What is evident here is theneed for individualisation. Rather than debating the merits of thedifferent ashrams and trying to establish a single set ofstandards according to our personal preference, there can be differentemphases for different students, at least at a more mature stageof training.

[32] For example, the VTE in Europeand Bhaktivedanta Manor in England. Though the author has no detailedinformation, he has heard of similarly successful projects in Bombayand South Africa.

[33] The author suggests that boththese are essential. Even if emphasis is given to congregationalexpansion, as some devotees propose, this gives rise to the needfor highly trained 'ministers'. Such training may best be effectedthrough residential courses.

[34] The reader may have had theexperience of attending a meeting and formulating an excellent planof action, only to be balked by the task of� identifying the peoplewith the necessary skills to fill the newly-created posts.