Observations on ISKCON's Communications

Brother Aelred/Caitanya Dasa

In this article Brother Aelred (Chaitanya Dasa) offers his observations on the effectiveness of ISKCON's communication of its key messages. These are particularly valuable in view of Brother Aelred's close association with ISKCON over the years and his unusual position of being both a practising Catholic monk and Vaishnava. He is frank and insightful,with a sincere desire to help devotees. As the Scottish poet Robbie Burns once said, 'I pray to God the power to give us, to see ourselves as others see us'.

When I first made contact with ISKCON, Prabhupada was still alive. At that time ― 1977 ― I was already 'falling in love' with the devotees. No doubt a percentage of that was romanticism ― being attracted to the externals of exotic appearances, sounds and lifestyle. After all, the sixties 'hippy' movement was not so far back in time.

Out of this emerges the first serious observation I wish to make. A significant number of ISKCON devotees are still effectively living in that 'exotic space' of the past. I have asked ― as have others ― whether some devotees would survive without this identity, whose elements include at least some of the Bengali cultural artefacts, the cultivated sense of being 'different' from mainstream society, the conviction of living in a spiritually superior movement, and so on.

The objection may immediately be raised that ISKCON does indeed create and provide a 'spiritually superior society". My response would be that yes, in a variety of ways it does. This is beyond doubt. This is not the content to which I am referring: rather it is the uses that are made of ISKCON's high standards of spiritual discipline. There are occasions when this lifestyle is used as a 'tribal banner', whose purpose is to enforce separation and distinctiveness. Where this is happening, spiritual pride may not be far away; a sectarian mood will certainly be very close. Effective communication with mainstream society will be seriously weakened in such an artificial and negative environment of ideas.

Even more seriously, there is the question of the extent to which various Vaishnava teachings (for example, on reincarnation or specific teachings of Prabhupada such as 'the association of devotees is our only consolation') are used to separate devotees ― at least to some degree unnecessarily ― from citizens in mainstream society.

This 'us and them' mentality interferes with the effective communication necessary for dynamic and convincing preaching. There are sufficient numbers of devotees holding this stance to undermine ISKCON's credibility, at least in the eyes of observant members of the public and government. These tribal attitudes also distort the perceptions and expectations of young devotees who have recently entered the movement.

There is another serious outcome of this mentality: many former enthusiastic Christians have either been blocked in their attempts to reconcile their past with their Vaishnava present or have developed a great burden of personal guilt and ambivalence with respect to their ongoing devotional attachment to Jesus Christ. I am now speaking from personal experience in counselling such devotees.

This crisis of 'Who am I? Where am I? What can I do with my continuing (secret) devotion to Jesus?' can create very real distress. Sadly, such devotees usually report that they have gone for years without finding anyone within the temple with whom they can share their confusion and distress. Obviously, I am delighted that I can contribute to 'setting the record straight' by sharing with them the many wonderful things which Prabhupada said about devotion to Jesus Christ (though not about Christianity as it is so often practised) I can also share with them the story of one who has successfully 'married' the two traditions, Vaishnava and Roman Catholic - my own story. This has been a major reason for publishing my most recent book Prabhupada Speaks on Jesus Christ. Devotees have told me that they had no idea that Prabhupada said such wonderful things about Jesus, and about the significance of devotion to Him.

I have gradually come to the conclusion that many of the difficulties in the area of communication experienced by ISKCON ― both intra and inter ― have arisen from a relative lack of systematic application of Vaishnava and Bhaktivedanta teachings. In other words, there tends to be a naive view that it is sufficient to simply quote Srimad Bhagavatam, Caitanya-caritamrta or Prabhupada's words , for a matter or issue to be resolved. This is what is happening ― at least sometimes ― when the call goes out in a particular temple that there should be 'a return to Prabhupada and the basics'.

But this may not be enough in some situations, especially if they are complex or ambiguous. We might consider, for example, the role of ISKCON women in management and other forms of leadership. Very often there will need to be in-depth analysis where although what Prabhupada taught or said is the basic reference point, there may need to be an application of his instruction (or indeed an adaptation of it) rather than a simple repeating of it. This application may involve devotees entering areas of debate which Prabhupada himself did not envisage in his lifetime. I think that we may expect this to happen with increasing frequency as the Movement goes into the ternty-first century . and beyond. Social pressures, demands, developments and technologies are set to change on a massive scale, and I fear that our 'born-again fundamentalists' will be left behind.

The very nature of our time incurs a need for real ideas. We live in a rudderless age of transition and ideas are anchors, Pole Stars, that have always been there and are still, if only we might know how to recognise them. That recognition is to a great extent dependent on the language used to convey them. We need a manner of speaking that addresses our present condition and is echoed in our personal experience1.

I put it to my readers that 'tribal mentality' is a great enemy of 'real ideas' and 'manner of speaking that addresses our present condition'. It also smothers the language of 'personal experience'.��

Yet having said all this, I am greatly encouraged to share with you some of the conclusions emerging from a Ph.D thesis written by an Australian Anglican priest who is a good friend of ISKCON. Fr. Ian Hunter's thesis is entitled Some Aspects of the Religious, Social and Personal Lives of Hare Krishna Devotees Exploring the Social Integration of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness'. (1993)

I repeat what I said at the beginning, that what I have written is based on personal observation. My conclusions will be more or less valid according to which part of the ISKCON 'landscape' is being explored. For this reason it is enlightening to have access to this piece of sociological research, with whichwe move beyond the personal and anecdotal (whatever validity these may have) into conclusions based on disciplined scholarship. In quoting some of Ian Hunter's conclusions, therefore, I hope that I am providing a reasonable perspective:

(1) . it is a tempting supposition that conversion to most other alternative religions would have occurred mainly in moments of crisis ... My experience, and that of most clergy, leads to that supposition, and this factor alone accounts for the sometimes surprised reaction of most conventional religionists when they actually get to know ISKCON devotees.

It is quite plain that for the most part, their experiences of family of origin and circumstances of origin, is regarded as an important spiritual foundation for their lives in Krishna Consciousness.

... as having close mental and emotional ties with their families and circumstances of origin (including religion of origin) and through them, a strong sense of identification with the general society outside of ISKCON.

(2) . Generally speaking, the ISKCON devotees in Australia present as mature religionists who welcome and even attempt to initiate such changes (a process of maturing) ... These changes can do nothing except forge more sympathetic connections with Australian Society generally and would certainly be the motive for devotees presenting themselves as constructive social beings and good citizens.

(3) ... it is possible to make a cautious affirmation that the interviewees were more closely drawn into normal society as useful social beings because of the concept (personalist) of God they had adopted ... like a key which unlocks their ability to make sense of the world because they can at last make sense o f God.

Without this, there would have been few points of contact for most of them (the ISKCON devotees) with ordinary social interaction and certainly no sympathetic interaction with anyone in ordinary secular society ...

Yet, for those who possess it, the 'personalism' of ISKCON's view of God, makes personal interaction with society at large possible for the devotees, where it might well have been problematic without it.

(4) ... The comments of Balarama and Stoka Krishna illustrate that existential significance for them meant a definite closing of the gap between religion and the outside world with which they wished to relate more fully ...

(5) ... The enthusiasm of the convert is still with all of the group and yet each seemed determined to respect the world outside ISKCON, although they regarded it as being enmeshed in dangerous illusion (maya). So there is a definite sense of belonging to secular society, even if there is an intense desire to save that society from its own self-imposed destruction by preaching to it the tenets of Gaudiya Vaishnavism ...

(6) In many cases, membership of ISKCON seems to have healed a perceived breach with Australian society experienced by the interviewees in that ISKCON devotees are certainly better functioning social entities than members of the 'hippie' culture or disillusioned social nihilists ...

(7) ... it cannot be denied that alternative religions can and do encourage a feeling of superiority in their members, and this can often blend with psychopathology of some converts ...

There would be as many potentially dangerous psychopaths in ISKCON Australia as there are in any other alternative religion ... (some individual devotees) are conspicuous by their scarcely-stifled anger at the outside world. It could be argued that these people would be much more dangerous in a religious system other than ISKCON which has powerful doctrinal and communal inhibitors which prevent that anger surfacing in anti-social ways ...�

ISKCON is a 'new' old movement ― in the West, that is. When I think of the history of ancient Christianity ― in particular the first five centuries ― I consider that ISKCON has done, and is doing, remarkably well. Vaishnavism in the West stands up well by comparison, but that is certainly no reason for smugness or complacency. The familiar dangers are always there.

One of the main dangers is the assumption that because ISKCON is Prabhupada's movement and the modern extension of Lord Caitanya's sankirtana movement, 'ordinary' fundamentals of social communication are 'beneath notice'; that Krishna's service is 'over and above' such mundane considerations.

1Houseden, Rodger. Fire in the Heart: Everyday Life as Spiritual Practice, Element Books, 1990, p .8.