Why Should ISKCON Study Its Own History?

Thomas J. Hopkins

ISKCON began in 1965 and has since expanded into a worldwide religion, but to date no comprehensive history of its development, or systematic study of its teachings has been carried out. The need for such studies have become more and more important in the decades since Prabhupada's departure, but until recently there has been no institutional centre to support them. Such a centre has now been established in Oxford, England, and the foundation has been laid for ISKCON members to begin collecting the data and developing the scholarly resources needed to study their tradition. In this article, Tom Hopkins argues a strong case for the need for ISKCON's members to begin thinking seriously about what is needed to carry out these tasks.

ISKCON's institutional history is now a little more than thirty years old, if we consider A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami's arrival in America as the starting point. Within this time period, roughly a generation long, we can see two clear stages: a dozen years of dramatic success and worldwide expansion during Prabhupada's lifetime, and a more ambiguous period of both successes and problems since his death in 1977. In the first of these stages, the seed of ISKCON was planted and a young and vigorous seedling grew under Prabhupada's personal care; in the second stage, his followers have struggled to cultivate and tend the growing plant that has propagated throughout the world during the past two decades.

Not surprisingly, it is the first stage the period of Prabhupada's leadership and ISKCON's rapid growth that has received the greatest attention from ISKCON members over the years. A wonderful biography of Prabhupada has been written, journals of some of his early disciples have been published, his formal talks and even his informal conversations have been collected in several multi-volume series, and archives have been established to preserve and publish his works in various media. We probably know more about Prabhupada's life, works and teachings than we do about the founder of any other religious movement in history certainly more than we do about the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, or even Caitanya himself.

The second stage of ISKCON's history is a very different matter. It is, for one thing, a much more complex story to deal with. Instead of a single major actor to follow with the spotlight of attention, there are many different players acting at once in theatres around the world. The drama being played out, moreover, is not as consistently joyous as that of the earlier years. There are shadows on the stage, dark passages in the story, and many examples of human frailty. There is no longer an assumption that nothing can go wrong; the joyous first act gives way to an often painful series of leadership problems, organisational disputes and internal conflicts, and the clouds of mundane human affairs and human weaknesses often obscure the sun of Prabhupada's vision. There is a natural tendency, therefore, to prefer to replay the first act and avoid looking too carefully at what follows after the curtain closes on Prabhupada's departure.

Yet however reasonable this may be, the avoidance of the more recent past in favour of the halcyon days has had serious consequences for ISKCON's self-understanding. It is clearly more pleasant to recall the days with Prabhupada, and it is necessary to do so to keep him always at the centre of ISKCON's life. It is now more than twenty years since his death, however, and that is nearly two-thirds of ISKCON's total history to date. Many important decisions have been made during that period, many changes have occurred, and many new developments have taken place. Some of what has happened has been problematic and some has been painful, but much of it has been very positive. Most importantly, ISKCON has survived a very difficult stage in its development and is now healthier than it has been for many years. How has this happened? What went wrong in the past, and what responses were made that restored ISKCON's health? Without understanding these issues, it will be hard to preserve that healthy condition for the future.

ISKCON is certainly not alone in facing such problems of self-understanding. Every major religious tradition has had to deal with the transition from its origins and founding figure to the more problem-fraught period of new leadership and institutional development. Buddhism faced this problem when the Buddha died, forcing his followers to find new ways to preserve his teachings and maintain the monastic community he had founded. The transition was not easy, as we learn from the Buddhist texts produced over the next few centuries, but generations of hard work and self-examination finally paid off: scriptures were created to set forth the Buddha's teachings and their implications, institutions were established to maintain monastic discipline and serve the needs of householders, and new texts were written to aid Buddhist self-understanding of how all this had come about. Twenty-five centuries later, this early effort is still the foundation of Buddhist life and practice.

A better-known and even more relevant example is Christianity, which faced internal conflicts even before anything called 'Christianity' existed. Jesus' disciples were clearly confused about who he was and what his teachings meant, they quarrelled among themselves about the privileges they might gain when he came to power, and ultimately one of them the infamous Judas betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities. Peter, Jesus' most intimate disciple and 'the Rock' on whom the later Church would stand, twice denied that he knew the arrested Jesus or had ever followed him, and all of Jesus' disciples believed that his story had ended when he died on the cross. Even after the Resurrection, not all of Jesus' closest followers were able to accept what had occurred, and the early emerging community of 'Christians' or 'Nazarenes' struggled to understand what had happened and what its consequences might be. A generation later, as we know from the apostle Paul's New Testament Epistles to young churches, there was widespread disagreement among Christian communities about matters of fundamental faith and practice. Much of Paul's career, some thirty or more years after the death of Jesus, was spent on doctrinal, ritual, and organisational disputes that threatened to tear the new church apart.

How do we know about these problems in Buddhism and Christianity? We know about them only because both religious traditions believed it was important to face the disputes that had beset their early years, describe the conflicts openly, and show how they had been resolved. The same was true of Islam, where the death of the Prophet ushered in a dispute about his successor that has affected Muslim history down to the present day. Efforts to preserve the words of Muhammad, moreover, led to numerous questions about which words were truly his and when they had been uttered, and witnesses called to resolve the disputes disagreed on the time and circumstances of many sayings. Yet despite the anguish caused by such fundamental disputes and by the sometimes dubious behaviour of those involved, the early Muslim chroniclers believed it was essential to preserve a record of what had happened.

There is no doubt about the success of these three great world religions. Buddhism is now well into its third millennium, Christianity is approaching the end of its second millennium, and Islam is still expanding into new areas more than thirteen centuries after Mohammed's death. Clearly, they have prospered over the years despite their difficult beginnings. It would be simplistic to credit their historical awareness for all of their successes, but awareness of their early problems was certainly a factor in overcoming later challenges. One does not learn how to resolve problems if one denies them, and in the oft-repeated maxim, those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. Facing one's problems does not magically remove them, of course, but it provides the opportunity to learn and grow stronger through a better understanding of the past and a greater awareness of present needs and possibilities.

ISKCON as a continuation of Caitanya Vaishnavism is not a new religion, but ISKCON as an institution at this point in time is still in the first generation of Prabhupada's early disciples roughly at the same point in time when Buddhism, Christianity and Islam had to decide how to deal with their initial crises. It is natural that all newly-founded religions would face such decisions at about the same time: the memory of the founder is still strong, but those who knew him personally are getting older and many new members have never met him. New leadership has emerged, and their role vis-�-vis the founder is still unclear in terms of the succession of authority: who should be in charge now, and what is his or her right or perhaps mandate to initiate new developments in changing circumstances? The community of faithful has grown and faces new challenges, new institutions and new organisational structures are needed, and new opportunities can only be cultivated with new approaches. But who is to make the needed decisions, and how can they be both faithful to the founder's teachings and example and also open to the future?

There is no single or simple way to answer these questions. Multiple answers have been given even within the same tradition, sometimes leading to splits within the community: Buddhism developed sects or schools that differed in matters of doctrine and practice, Christian unity was threatened by political and doctrinal disputes, and Islam was permanently divided over the issue of leadership succession after the Prophet's death. What is clear, however, is that these religions would never have moved beyond the point of crisis if the questions had been ignored or suppressed. It is hard to face internal conflicts and challenges openly and boldly, but it is deadly for the future of a young institution not to face them.

ISKCON is very fortunate in this situation compared to most other world religions. Most obviously, ISKCON possesses a body of its founder's teachings that far surpasses that of any other religious movement before modern times. Almost every word that Prabhupada spoke was recorded on the spot, and everything he wrote has been published. Buddhists by contrast struggled for generations to remember, collect, and transmit over forty years of the Buddha's teachings orally, with a further lapse of several centuries before they were first written down. Early Christianity faced another kind of challenge, because Jesus taught a group of newly-recruited disciples for only a few short years before his crucifixion. Their differing backgrounds and often conflicting agendas affected how they remembered what Jesus had said, when or where he had said it, and what his sayings meant. The result was three different official accounts of his life and ministry (the three so-called 'Synoptic Gospels' ascribed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and a fourth account, the Gospel of John, which disagrees with the Synoptics in its portrayal of Jesus' life and teachings.

Early Muslims faced a somewhat different set of problems after Mohammad's death. His ministry and revelations were soon codified in the Koran with little dissension, but leadership of the Muslim community was almost immediately in question. At issue, among other things, was the content and meaning of what Muhammad had said on different occasions about succession to his leadership, whom he most trusted to carry out his wishes, and how the community should conduct itself in matters of morality and law. After long debate, Muslims decided to accept alternative versions or interpretations of Mohammad's sayings (the Hadith) and to legitimise several separate schools of law with different principles of authority.

What these examples from Buddhist, Christian and Muslim history show are that the period after the death of a founder is critical in a religious movement. The continuation of the movement is at stake at this point, because the overriding question is whether it can make a successful transition from the founder's charismatic leadership into an institutional form that will preserve the faith over time. Central to this process, as these examples also show, is preserving the message and example of the founder in as many ways as possible. Buddhists did this by collecting, editing and passing on orally all of the teachings of the Buddha that anyone could remember along with his rules and directions for the monastic community. Christians did it by preserving Jesus' teachings in a collection of 'sayings' that eventually found their way into narratives of Jesus' life, the three Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John, which became the foundation documents for Christian faith and practice. Muslims did it by memorising the Koran, the verbatim record of Mohammad's visions and revelations, and by collecting soon after the Prophet's death all of the various versions of his conversations with his followers the so-called Hadith or 'Tradition'.

ISKCON, as noted earlier, has already completed this stage of collecting its founder's teaching well ahead of schedule thanks in part to modern technology, but thanks also to the foresight of Prabhupada's initial followers who started recording his words (and music) almost from the beginning of his mission. There are no significant questions in his case about what he said and where he said it, as there clearly are in other religions. His teachings have been published in books, magazines, records, videotapes and CD-ROMs, and are accessible to anyone who wants to read, see or hear them. By analogy with other religions, the canonical scriptures of ISKCON have been established and the vital first stage in the transition has been successfully completed.

If we look further at other religions, however, we realise that this is only the start of a long-term process. Founders are essential to convey their personal example directly to their followers or disciples, and scriptures are necessary to preserve the founder's teachings for later generations. Without a living tradition, however, both become antiquities. It is too soon to say that this has happened to Prabhupada and his teachings, because ISKCON still has a direct connection to Prabhupada through present disciples who were with him for many years. There is a tendency in ISKCON today, however, to look on Prabhupada and his teachings as a source of proof-texts for ad-hoc policies and decisions rather than try to understand him and the tradition in which he stood more systematically. In what may seem a paradoxical way, it may be necessary to pay less attention to specific statements that Prabhupada made in order to preserve the vitality of what he stood for. Prabhupada himself was constantly changing not in his essential beliefs and devotional relation to Krishna, but in the decisions he made to meet new circumstances and take advantage of new opportunities. Prabhupada was a living person, and it was his personal application of devotional principles that gave life to ISKCON rather than any one teaching or even the whole body of his teachings.

Nevertheless, it is his teachings and the memory of his living presence that ISKCON now has to rely upon, along with and he would certainly be the first to say this the guidance of Krishna, the Divine Godhead. How does one use these properly to keep ISKCON a vital tradition? The answer certainly is not to use them in bits and pieces to support decisions made for more materialistic or egocentric reasons. It is rather to approach Prabhupada, his teachings and the tradition in which he stood the tradition of Caitanya Vaishnavism as mediated through earlier scriptures and the teachings of Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati in a more systematic manner to provide a dialogue with the past on behalf of the future.

The name for such a systematic approach is Theology, supplemented by what Christians have long called Church History history, that is to say, which assumes a divine basis for the institutions and practices of the religious community but nonetheless undertakes to study them as a part of human history. This is not to diminish the importance of the scriptures, the founder or the continuing divine guidance, but rather to take them all with the utmost seriousness as the necessary foundation for the community's ongoing religious life. The purpose of Theology and Church History or in this case, ISKCON History is rather to maintain a continuous check of the present against the core values and essential doctrines of the larger tradition and the spirit of the founder. It is, in other words, to keep the bright light of trained and devout attention on the way the Lord's human agents are presenting His teachings and managing His affairs.

ISKCON is now in a position to undertake such an effort, and needs to do so while Prabhupada's influence is still so powerful in living memory. The effort to create a theological tradition within ISKCON has, in fact, already started, although there is so far no solid institutional base to provide theological training and maintain an active theological community. The Institute for Vaishnava Studies is trying to develop such a base in the USA, and the Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies is working to establish a scholarly base at Oxford that could contribute to this effort. There is widespread, if not unanimous, support within ISKCON for developing a community of scholar-devotees who could take on the theological task for the movement, and this support should increase as more and more devotees gain the necessary academic training.

The study of ISKCON's history, however, has hardly begun within ISKCON itself. Numerous scholars outside ISKCON have studied its history, and some have done excellent work, however, non-devotees have neither the personal understanding nor the factual information to carry out a balanced study of ISKCON's institutional history. This task awaits devotees who have the historical training and the institutional support to carry out what will be even at this early stage of ISKCON's development a difficult and time-consuming job of collecting the world-wide data of ISKCON's expansion and evolution, organising it systematically, and trying for the first time to provide a comprehensive understanding of ISKCON's history. In the process, if the job is done well, many of ISKCON's internal problems the skeletons in its closet as it were will be made more evident. However, this is why institutional history must be done, and why it should be done by devotees who respect the movement and its members, even if this means that they reveal ISKCON's defects along with its strengths.

ISKCON should study its own history; this is to say, because it needs to do so for its own health and self-understanding. This is not a job to leave to outsiders, although they may provide scholarly advice; it is a family job, to be done by devotees trained for the task and conscious of the movement's needs as well as the obligations of scholarship. ISKCON's history over the past three decades must be studied with constant reference to what it could be, and should be, on the basis of Prabhupada's fundamental principles, so that strengths can be recognised and built upon, and mistakes can be corrected before they cause future harm. This history must also recognise the changing circumstances within which ISKCON is operating now in comparison with the past, such as the presence of a worldwide Hindu Diaspora that has given ISKCON a new ministry to Hindus abroad. Moreover, it must be serious, sustained and a central part of ISKCON's own programme of self-examination and self-improvement.

Can this job be done? Certainly it can, if there is the will to do it and the support within ISKCON to get it started, but it will take time and commitment to put in place the needed theological and historical resources, both human and material. In the meantime, ISKCON members everywhere should begin thinking about what might aid the process especially what records, documentation, personal accounts and local histories are available to fill in the historical record. Much valuable data has no doubt been lost over the years, but devotees should now at least begin to pay more careful attention to preserving the record of the past. It is a glorious past, and it needs to be studied with all the evidence possible, warts and all, if ISKCON is to remain worthy of Prabhupada's faith in its future.