Thirty Years of ISKCON in Germany

ntegration and Reform Vaisnava Academy Conference Cologne, 29 January 1999

Arcana Dasi

In this article, Arcana Dasi (Alice Schumann) looks at the road ISKCON Germany has travelled since the 1994 Wiesbaden conference. At Wiesbaden, several principles for change were established, such as the need for self-critical analysis; the need for social in-tegration; a willingness to engage in dialogue; and a recognition of ISKCON's need to fulfil its educational mission. Arcana Dasi examines where ISKCON Germany is today in relation to the Wiesbaden principles, and notes the issues facing the Society in Germany after the recent fall of its most prominent leader. This article is a milestone in the self-analysis of a national ISKCON branch. The paper was initially given as a speech at a 1999 conference in Cologne marking thirty years of ISKCON in Germany.

In 1994 the Academy of Vaisnava Culture organised a conference in Wiesbaden (Rückblick und Ausblick / Retrospect and Prospects). This conference was a significant landmark in the history of ISKCON Germany because for the first time ISKCON members publicly and honestly addressed issues of social concern as perceived by those outside of our tradition.

A number of principles were outlined at this conference, principles that would enable ISKCON to function effectively in society and that would reflect the changing face of ISKCON itself.

A major principle was the need for social integration. It was found that we need to improve our relationship with the public and to understand that this relationship would have to be based on mutual understanding and co-operation if it were to endure. This principle of co-operation would particularly apply to the basic building block of society - the family. ISKCON would have to recognise the importance of spiritually oriented families as well as the concern of family members who are not ISKCON devotees themselves.

Another principle, a necessary by-product of the first, is the need for dialogue with the wider community. Such dialogue can exist only if ISKCON members give the same appreciation and respect for members of others faiths and cultures that they would want for themselves. This is an opportunity to learn and to teach.

Self-critical analysis was also a major principle: the need for ISKCON to have a long and honest look at itself and where it is going. How do we address pressing issues, such as sexual and other types of discrimination? What is the role of the temple and who should (or should not) be living there? How are the material needs of our members being met and to what extent is it our responsibility as a society to meet them? As a subset of a wider society, ISKCON needs to address these and many other questions; at Wiesbaden it was acknowledged that this would best be achieved by honest reflection and discussion.

A need to fulfil our role as an educational organisation was also accepted at the Wiesbaden conference. It was recognised that ISKCON was becoming more of a congregational movement than a temple-based communal movement. Therefore the role of the temple would need to change from that of a home to all devotees to that of a centre for devotion, training and communication - a facility for the ISKCON's new majority, the congregation.

Five years later we ask: What progress has been made in ISKCON's development of society, culture and identity? In what sense has ISKCON Germany actually realised its need for social integration? Have the projections and proposed principles of Wiesbaden become reality? Will they make for significant changes in the comparatively young Society in Germany?

Since the Wiesbaden conference much appreciation has been shown for the declarations of ISKCON's representatives and for the open analysis of its past by devotees and scholars. However, many also believe that it still remains for ISKCON to show that it can turn good intentions into practical action.

I will examine here how ISKCON has responded to challenges to these principles when circumstances have forced it to face adversity.



The role of education in ISKCON continues to shape the future of the society since Wiesbaden. The direction outlined in the Wiesbaden conference concerning education within and outside of ISKCON has been generally realised over the last five years, and ISKCON's culture of education has been strengthened.

In 1997 ISKCON's role as an institution with a primary focus on education was confirmed when its German National Council (NC) agreed to take the Vaisnava Training & Education (1) (VTE) Teachers' Training Courses. The rationale behind this was that the experience of teaching and being taught would help ISKCON's management make education-friendly decisions for ISKCON. The example set by ISKCON's leaders would also inspire other members to take education more seriously.

By aligning itself with the VTE and the ISKCON Ministry of Educational Development (2) (MED), ISKCON Germany has linked itself to international developments in education in the Vaisnava community. The VTE team is developing courses, including Teacher Training, Management and Leadership, Communications, Missionary Practice, Scripture, Pastoral Care and Care for the Sick & Dying.

Many of these courses are being developed in Oxford, England, where the VTE has its base. By working in co-operation with British educational consultants and government agencies, the VTE is working towards official accreditation for many of its courses.

As stated in the Wiesbaden conference, ISKCON centres and temples are places of mission and of worship for the community.(3) In Germany the educational role is being concentrated in one or two temples, which are developing into the country's first Vaisnava Theological Schools. To qualify for entrance for residential (asrama) training, members go through preliminary examinations and interviews. The duration of their stay in the temple is dictated by the length of their educational course. After their course of education most are expected and encouraged to return to their homes and employment or occupational education.

Selected students are offered training for ministry, and of those who qualify from the two-year ministerial training course, some are offered staff positions as teachers, tutors, priests or administrators in the temples. Thus permanent temple staff accept a vocational position while the missionary spirit of the preacher is still being encouraged in each and every ISKCON member. The membership being considered here includes both a lay and a clerical congregation.

This focus on education is revolutionising the way ISKCON sees itself and the way it plans its future recruitment and training programmes. It is also a natural extension of ISKCON's policy of social integration.


ISKCON Meeting Society

The vast majority of ISKCON's members have never lived in temples, left their employment or interrupted their education. The old image of the Hare Krsna devotee leaving education or employment to live in the temple, without the approval of parents, family members or friends, is now a thing of the past. There will continue to be difficulties, as there are always difficulties in family relationships and in conflicts of values and ambition; but significantly, ISKCON's recruitment and educational models will not contradict norms of behaviour accepted by the majority in German society.

Missionary research and practice is now concentrating on ministry and pastoral care of the Society's many lay members. Issues of care for the sick and dying are becoming relevant as are the care for the old and infirm. The need for health insurance and pension provision are important considerations for many members, and ISKCON has undertaken such developments for the good of the community.

As ISKCON's community develops, it begins to look more like a regular Vaisnava or Hindu community. The family institution is greatly valued and respected in Hindu or Vedic tradition and so too in ISKCON. The concerns of many parents of our first members have become the concerns of many of our present members, who are themselves parents. Thus, even though many of our German members do not have parents or a family who share our faith, we have worked over the last five years to increase and improve communication between family members associated with our tradition.

Devotees have attempted to facilitate the needs and concerns of ISKCON members and their families through a magazine for parents (Elternforum - Parents Forum) and regular nation-wide parents meetings. In order to broaden the dialogue, speakers at such meetings include non-ISKCON scholars and representatives of Christian churches. These efforts are proving successful and are useful in developing understanding and genuine respect among families. They also centre attention on the need for good family relationships and on social concerns rather than theological or cultural differences.

ISKCON culture has changed to the extent that the position of women is now an important and open issue. The question of equal rights, (a question that is certainly not adequately answered in German society as a whole) has naturally developed with both women and men holding leading positions in administrative and spiritual roles. In spite of the advancement ISKCON Germany has made in this field, the age-old differences and difficulties recognised in communication and behaviour between men and women, as found in all cultures and religions, continue to baffle us, and I suspect they will always do so.


The Issue of 'Guruism' in ISKCON Germany

One of the main criticisms made of ISKCON in Germany is in relation to the so-called 'guru-cult' or 'guruism'. The concept of guru is important in Vaisnavism and Hinduism, and we feel it has been grossly misrepresented and maligned over the last thirty years by representatives of the media and the Christian churches.

The particular analysis presented by the churches in Germany seems to be unique to this country. In many cases it seems that church members have looked at the guru concept solely in the light of their own theological tradition, its values and social norms. These norms and values do not serve well to understand Eastern cultures and religions and are generally used to undermine them. In short, the analysis is a Christian one and cannot be used to faithfully represent the viewpoint of the Vaisnava or Hindu traditions. Thus this approach excludes the possibility of an open and sincere dialogue.

By propagation of a distorted image of the guru, as one who demands absolute submission and who has total control over his followers, a prejudice has developed which perpetuates stereotypes of Hare Krsna devotees and members of many other Hindu groups as misguided victims of dangerous sects. Followers of gurus are supposedly not allowed to retain their discrimination or critical faculty. This is a misconception that greatly inhibits dialogue.

The misunderstanding has not only been one way. Some ISKCON members have also adopted the impression that the guru is a messiah or an oracle giving advice on each and every issue in the disciple's life. There has been abuse of the guru-disciple relationship by many parties and this area of philosophy and its application in ISKCON is in need of careful examination and re-evaluation. However, this process will not be successfully executed by interpretative religious encounter or in the media.

An important and definitive test of the guru's role, and of the extent of his power over his disciples, came for ISKCON Germany between June and September 1998.

Harikesa Swami (aka Visnupada) had been the undisputed managerial authority and spiritual leader in ISKCON Germany since the passing of ISKCON's founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, in 1977. Harikesa was the Governing Body Commissioner (GBC) for Germany and for many years the only guru allowed to initiate in Germany. Most of ISKCON Germany's second generation(4) were disciples of Harikesa. Harikesa's autocratic management style had been criticised by ISKCON members outside of Germany for many years, but within Germany it was seldom openly questioned.

In June 1998, shortly after accepting the position of Chairman of the international GBC, Harikesa began to manifest irrational behaviour. Furthermore, he gave up his vows of celibacy (sannyasa) and resigned from most of his official positions. Over the next few months he began to disassociate himself from ISKCON, advocating a philosophy that deviates from Vaisnava morality and values. Those whose perception of guru is that of a dangerous manipulator would expect that in such a situation the faithful disciples would either follow their guru blindly or lose their faith and begin a painful return to 'normal life'.

In general, neither of these occurred. Most of Harikesa's disciples rejected him and chose to stay with the teachings, principles and values of ISKCON's founder. The test, unwelcome as it was, proved the reality of the disciples' position to be one of individual choice of values and lifestyle, not blind following and immorality.

This case has significantly sped up the practical development of the Wiesbaden principles. The lid has been lifted off the pot and a more thoughtful and independent atmosphere has gained acceptance within ISKCON Germany. Devotees are reassessing their own relationship to the philosophy of Krsna consciousness and the relationship between their personal needs and ISKCON the institution. The idea that disciples are directed from above, without individual choice, by an all-powerful and absolute guru figure has been seriously discredited.

In an official media release, which was issued immediately after the suspension of Harikesa by the international GBC, one disciple said, 'The present situation is very sad. However, under these circumstances I do not want to support my guru, as he is questioning the basic teachings of the tradition.'

This case invites serious study and strengthens the argument that observers should engage in direct encounter with ISKCON rather than interpretative encounter. The affair has also prompted more and more of ISKCON's members to consider the social integration of Vaisnavism into German society a high priority. Consequently, open discussion and reassessment of social and philosophical issues have become the norm among ISKCON's members.


The German Government's Commission of Inquiry

The Commission of Inquiry (1995-1997) established by the German Government was the most important test of ISKCON's resolve to implement the Wiesbaden principles.

The Commission's existence resulted in deep controversy and ultimately great changes within the movement. For some within the management of ISKCON Germany, the Commission represented a threat, to which an aggressive response seemed most appropriate. Others felt that the old paradigms and responses, which bordered on extremism and which had been rejected at Wiesbaden, should be replaced with the risk of dialogue.

For instance, when ISKCON was invited to present itself before a hearing in the Bundestag, there was a debate within ISKCON's German National Council about who should represent ISKCON or even if we should go there at all. While some took the view that the entire Commission of Inquiry should be rejected as prejudiced because of having representatives of the Christian churches as members, others perceived a real opportunity to develop a discourse with society.

The latter course was chosen by the German National Council. It was a risk because it was uncharted water and there were few guidelines, except for the principle of open two-way communication and dialogue to which the NC committed itself in 1994.

The question of choosing ISKCON's representatives to the Commission proved interesting. If they were to represent the reality of ISKCON in Germany then they must represent the householders, who make up 96% of its membership and at least one woman (women comprising about half the membership).

This kind of representation was a marked departure from the previous culture of ISKCON which dictated that a hierarchy of spiritual status, institutional seniority and maleness should decide the issue.

It was decided that my colleague from Berlin, Harivallabha Dasi, a wife, a mother and the current Secretary of ISKCON Germany; Parivadi Dasa, a married man and a member of the Communications team; and myself should go to the hearing. These choices proved successful and the dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry continued during the entire period of the Commission. Speaking personally, I found that the opportunity to develop a real dialogue and to respond frankly to frank questions was a great relief. I was pleased to be able to present the facts, objectively and without prejudice.

In short, the Commission provided ISKCON with an important opportunity to implement its Wiesbaden principles; an opportunity that ISKCON took to heart and committed itself to.

The effect of the Commission's final report may be less exciting. Significantly, the issue of biased propaganda against religious minorities was not sufficiently addressed or restricted by the Commission and continues to produce prejudice and anxiety. The rift between academic analysis of such minorities on one side and the continuation of the anti-cult-propaganda on the other side is still wide. There are no practical plans on the Commission's part to develop a dialogue or an exchange of information.


ISKCON in Germany is learning from its past - from its successes and its mistakes. Senior members of the institution's management team are listening to critical feedback, from inside and outside the movement, and sincerely trying to address the issues raised. Internal problems are discussed in public forums, and there is greater access for members to influence executive decisions.

The willingness to discuss publicly difficult problems is even greater on the international level, especially in England and the USA. Recently the ISKCON Communications Journal published an article on past child abuse in ISKCON-run schools in the USA and India. The authors of this article were a scholar and his researcher, neither of whom were ISKCON devotees.

Not even declared anti-cult parties had published as many facts on this issue. Therefore, we are moving into a situation where ISKCON is becoming a reliable, primary source of objective information about itself. It is currently providing more information, both positive and negative, about itself than the cult action groups.

These developments are strategic and vital if ISKCON is to survive into its next thirty years, if even its own membership is to continue taking it seriously. Internally, dialogue and a self-critical approach have become the rule in ISKCON Germany. Thus the step to participate in genuine dialogue outside of ISKCON has become much easier and more rewarding for its members.

Almost all of ISKCON Germany's management is staffed by second generation members. The guru and sannyasa disciples of Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON's founder, are withdrawing from these positions, and it is expected that in the future they will be responsible only for their individual missionary projects. This is a significant development, as the second generation's perspective on social integration differs greatly from that of the first generation. For instance, the push for the Wiesbaden conference and the initiatives for dialogue with scholars and church representatives came from second generation members.

The greatest need now, if ISKCON is to realise its capacity for further integration, is for a better exchange of information and further examination and research. Anxiety arises mainly from ignorance. If we can establish forums for dialogue, mediation, study or round- table discussion, with all interest groups represented, the communication necessary to alleviate hostility and ignorance can begin to take place. For this to happen, ISKCON must look for help to its partner in dialogue, German society.

Is German society presently willing and capable of receiving ISKCON? ISKCON will remain an outsider until individual scholars, churchmen and politicians open the door. This will take great moral courage, a courage that is already beginning to be shown by various representatives of society. We are depending on the help and reciprocation of society in general, so that ISKCON can take its place in the German Republic and make a positive social contribution.






(1) Founded in 1992.

(2) Formed by the GBC in 1997.

(3) The reference here is to the paper 'ISKCON Deutschland: Rückblick und Ausblick', by Daya Dasi. The relevant passage reads as follows: 'The role of the the temple, or asrama, has also changed. ISKCON centres are now primarily places of education, worship and mission. Vaisnavas receive their spiritual education in the temple, after which most of them marry and establish a family.'

(4) In this paper the term 'second generation' is used to refer to Srila Prabhupada's grand-disciples (his disciples' disciples), rather than the children of Srila Prabhupada's disciples.