A Philosophy of Social Development for ISKCON

Perspectives from Bhagavad-gita

Ithamar Theodor

In this paper Ithamar Theodor proposes a model based on Bhagavad-gita and aimed at developing a philosophical basis for social development in ISKCON. Referring to previous studies of ISKCON, he argues that devotees' self-understanding is often not consistent with the values and principles of Vaisnava culture. In this paper he points out that a moral-religious foundation is the default position for a sustainable spiritual life for the individual and the community.

It is sometimes said that Srila Prabhupada built a house in which the whole world can live. Inspired by this idea, I would like to suggest a three-storey house model as a reflection of the nature of ISKCON. The idea is grounded in the Bhagavad-gita and is designed to offer a supporting framework for the sankirtana movement, as well as to further the ongoing discussions of implementing varnasrama within ISKCON. The house described here has three storeys, each having fundamental distinctions that can best be demonstrated by the differences in ontology and ethics characterising each level. The idea presented here favours an individual-centred, as opposed to an organisation-centred, paradigm. Before addressing the issue, let us acknowledge the two-dimensional realm in which ISKCON exists. Ravindra Svarupa Dasa writes:


... one needs to become acquainted with two contrasting social ideals, or models, transmitted to us by Srila Prabhupada. The first is that of a society of Vaisnavas, of transcendental, liberated devotees who conduct themselves spontaneously in accord with the principles called sanatana-dharma. The second is that of a society of materially conditioned human beings who strictly conduct themselves in obedience to the injunctions of the Vedas under the system called varnasrama-dharma. (Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, pp. 35-6)


This presentation lays a firm foundation for distinguishing the conditioned human realm from the higher spiritual realm and their corresponding ethical systems. In describing the three-storey house, the first floor corresponds to the human level, and the second and third floors correspond to the transcendental level.

First floor: Living in the world

The first floor is worldly, representing proper human life governed by dharma. Within this world, the human being lives a healthy life characterised by morality, law and justice, personal and social order, religion, adherence to duty, etiquette and social stability. The basic social structure derived from dharma is varnasrama, which is inherent in every individual's nature or state of existence within the three gunas. It stabilises one's personality and character by providing a supporting framework of duties. Thus, the individual is designated according to two basic parameters: his or her attitude towards renunciation, and his or her professional ability, with every varna and asrama having its own etiquette.

Many individuals living on this floor have a positive view of the world. It is seen as a place where a varnasrama society can and should prosper, its members living moral, productive and happy lives. Such a society is naturally inclined to protect its weaker members, including animals, and foster as well as educate its future generation, encouraging the development of various branches of knowledge, such as architecture, medicine and the arts.

Second floor: The struggle to get free from the world

This floor is fundamentally different from the first floor, and its residents are those who are struggling to free themselves from the cycle of birth and death. The world is no longer viewed as positive, but as a place of misery, wherein repeated birth and death take place. Thus the residents concentrate on two main goals: developing detachment from the world, and establishing a hold in the spiritual realm.

These residents are not obliged to follow dharma, as they have no interest in establishing proper worldly life, although they sometimes do follow the injunctions of dharma as an example to the first-floor residents. Their goal is higher, and the branches of knowledge cultivated by them are such that they see themselves as spirit souls rather than human beings bound by the three modes of nature. Their ethics are different from those of the first- floor residents.

Rather than trying to achieve prosperity in the world, they cultivate indifference towards success and failure. Instead of attempting to protect their society, they aspire to develop indifference to their enemies and their friends. They do not attempt to situate the mind in the mode of goodness, through art, beauty and culture, but seek to detach it from everything material and fix it on the spiritual realm. They perceive the world as dualistic and comprised of two elements that can never blend: matter and spirit. Their aim is to free themselves from matter and reach a plane of pure spiritual existence. They are absorbed in different forms of yoga that have a common aim: to detach the practitioner from the material and connect him to the spiritual.

Third floor: Full spiritual realisation

Here reside those whose struggle is over. They are completely established in the spiritual realm. The material world holds no attraction for them. The nature of their existence is of full spiritual consciousness, spiritual existence and spiritual bliss. Their absorption in love of God is so deep that they see no difference between residing in this world or in the spiritual realm. The pure emotional waves, or rasas, experienced by them have no comparison in the material world. From their point of view, only Lord Krsna, His expansions, His devotees and His service exist. The whole question of matter and spirit, worldly culture and renunciation, seems irrelevant to them. Material knowledge, such as that found in sophisticated cultural pursuits or high philosophy, may be perceived by them as an obstruction to their absorption in ecstasy, and may thus be rejected.

The staircase

So the question now is where do we go from here? We have found three groups of people living in completely different realms, so much so that there may be no common language with which they can communicate, and no common grounds on which they can agree.

Fortunately, this house has a staircase or a ladder connecting the first floor to the second, and the second floor to the third. This idea is best presented by Bhurijana Dasa as the 'yoga ladder'. (Bhurijana Dasa, pp. 59-68) These steps are an intrinsic part of the house, and they encourage all residents to continuously progress upwards towards the third floor. The stage on which one is situated is determined by the motive underlying his or her actions. For example, one motivated by the fruits of action can aspire to work without attachment for these fruits, or learn to offer them to Krsna. Likewise, one who performs his devotional service while maintaining a strong bodily identification through the performance of karma-yoga, may gradually elevate himself to a more spontaneous platform where he does not need to rely so much on a bodily designation to perform his service. In any case, the principle of constant progress underlies the whole system and may be its most important factor.

As soon as a sincere person is properly situated on a particular stage or floor and follows the proper etiquette, rules and regulations for that stage, he will feel happy in his progress and will strengthen and encourage the other residents, no matter where they are situated. Thus a sincere first-floor, or kanistha, resident would happily associate with a sincere second-floor, or madhyama, renunciate, their common ground being that they both accept the house, its rules and goals, and are trying to make progress from their present position to become third-floor uttama-adhikaris.

The common principle, therefore, is to be properly situated somewhere in the house, to thrive there and endeavour to make constant internal progress towards a higher stage. As soon as these conditions are established, the house could support unlimited residents, all living in harmony with each other. A member of ISKCON could thus be designated a resident of that house, irrespective of whether he lived within or outside the temple, whether he is an advanced devotee or a neophyte. The only qualifications for residence are his acceptance of the ethical obligations and duties appropriate to his position and a sincere endeavour to make progress.

Srila Prabhupada, who was situated on the highest level of love of God, or the third floor, raised, by his personal association, all those who came into contact with him. Indeed, ISKCON was established on the second and third floors. In other words, devotees could experience the deep renunciation and transcendental emotions of love of God during Prabhupada's presence, and also after his departure.

Endeavouring to implement Krsna consciousness in the Western world, Srila Prabhupada began by establishing the third floor, i.e. chanting of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, and later introduced the second floor, through preaching that the material world is a miserable place which is to be renounced. Although his books contain ample instructions on laying the foundations of the first floor, it seems this part of his mission remained unfulfilled. (See Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, 1999)

After Prabhupada's departure, ISKCON perceived itself as a society of second- and third-floor residents, considering the first floor a compromise for those souls who were unable to be fully Krsna conscious. These individuals were considered second-class devotees, known by various titles such as 'Friends of Krsna' or 'congregation members'. The common view of a second- and third-floor devotee was someone who was living within a temple, chanting sixteen rounds, following the four regulative principles, and who was situated on the transcendental plane, beyond the three modes of nature. With such prevailing ideas it was no surprise that organised missionary activities were at their peak, whereas community projects such as education, culture, social development and professional devotee businesses (as opposed to unprofessional missionary activities designed to raise funds) were neglected. ISKCON continued to function with these assumptions long after Prabhupada's disappearance, and although there have been significant accomplishments in many areas, there is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction among many members due to shortcomings in social and educational development; or, according to our model, due to the first floor not being properly or sufficiently maintained. Thus writes Dr E. Burke Rochford:


There is a striking lack of trust between ISKCON members and the movement's leadership, as well as between devotees themselves. ... there is a lack of honest and open communication between devotees. ... ISKCON has generally failed to integrate families and family life into its communities. Until recent discussions of 'social development', ISKCON has done little towards building an internal domestic culture capable of supporting householders and their children. ... A lack of employment opportunities within ISKCON ... . Inadequate educational alternatives within ISKCON ... . (Rochford, p. 17)


I would thus suggest that ISKCON urgently needs to heal itself and to firmly establish its first floor, thus allowing each and every member to make the best use of his energy and qualifications.

How can this structure be practically applied? Should we gather all ISKCON members and divide the assembly into three groups, saying: 'All those who belong to the first floor, please assemble over here.' This is obviously not desirable, helpful or possible, as the constant interaction between the three groups is beneficial for all. Moreover, the personality of most devotees may reflect all three floors to various degrees. For example, a person may take care of his health (first floor), contemplate how he is not the body (second floor) and on visiting the Deities, may experience ecstasy and love of God (third floor). It is not the members that should be separated from each other, but the floors.

Each floor has its own distinct ethos, finding its expression in different ideas, modes of behaviour, underlying assumptions, language, and so on. In other words, this three-storey model is a theoretical structure, similar to a grammatical paradigm presenting fictional forms such as roots and stems, which although not applied in the daily usage of a language, serve as its foundation.

It is my conviction that the obscure blending of these floors is preventing ISKCON from realising its true potential, and that by mentally organising and separating the floors, ISKCON as a society would make greater progress towards fulfilling the role designed for it by Srila Prabhupada, which is to become a 'cultural movement for the benefit of all'. (Prabhupada, p. 24)

I have a practical example of a person who has developed all three floors in his life; a devotee friend who exemplifies a perfect balance of all three storeys. His asrama is organised and clear; he is steadily married and living happily with his wife and children. His varna is well-organised; he is a professional, greatly respected at the firm where he works, and receives adequate remuneration. Being inspired in his Krsna consciousness, he manages a flourishing temple with high standards of Deity worship, and ample preaching programmes. His sannyasi guru is very pleased with him and relies on his considerable efforts. Being fully engaged, he is already contemplating the next asrama, hoping, in due course, to delegate his temple responsibilities and devote time to travelling and preaching. Belonging to all three floors, he understands the difference between them and is thus able to constantly move between them.

The organisation and the individual

Let us examine the issue in terms of the organisation (ISKCON) and the individual. ISKCON was established by Srila Prabhupada as an army of preachers whose main objective was to spread Krsna consciousness and fight maya (illusion). The heart of that concept is undoubtedly the spreading of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's sankirtana movement, which required considerable organisation. The mission was inherited by Srila Prabhupada, who delegated the responsibility to ISKCON's Governing Body Commission (GBC), who in turn passed it down to the temple presidents, and so on. Krsna Dharma Dasa writes:


Srila Prabhupada also gave some directions as to how the GBC should function. 'To map out a global preaching strategy for the worldwide society, while leaving details of local preaching to the local management'. (Krsna Dharma Dasa, p. 71)


Within that structure, as in the regular army, everyone's attention is directed upward to the generals, waiting for them to define the tasks. Once this has been done, responsibility is delegated to a lower executive level to devise a plan and perform the task. This was certainly the best paradigm for establishing a new movement, engaging divisions of young and inspired men and women, and may remain so for many highly motivated devotees. However, it tends to sacrifice individual needs to the higher cause, justifying the sacrifice of the individual as the price of participating in the sacred mission. Thus, 'Preaching is the essence, books are the basis, purity is the force and utility is the principle.' No doubt, this idea is firmly grounded in the Bhagavad-gita, where Krsna says, 'For one who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, pure devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.' (Bhagavad-gita 18.68) However, the Bhagavad-gita is also unique in its emphasis on individual development and, in fact, the whole Gita is spoken for Arjuna's benefit, showing him how, from every point of view, serving Krsna (through fighting the war) is in his own best interests.

The three-storey house is 'individual-centred', in that its point of departure is not the greater mission but the individual. In other words, for someone to define himself in that paradigm, he would have to start by examining, deeply and honestly, his own nature and his own state of spiritual advancement. Having done so, he could find his best situation or position in the model, stick to the rules of that position and make gradual progress at his own pace. For example, if a person defines himself as a grhastha, he would follow the principle of taking care of his wife and children. It appears then, that the definition of asrama is quite clear. However, the question of varna needs further clarification, as Urmila Dasi explains:


If we understand personality through the models presented in the Bhagavad-gita, the corresponding vocational direction becomes easier, as in that model personal qualities and work are closely entwined. In loose terms, those with brahminical qualities work as priests, in the teaching professions and as government advisors. Ksatriyas work in government administration and serve in the military. Vaisyas have work related to farming, business and trade. And sudras work in manual labour, entertainment, crafts and as general assistants to the other three types in society. (Urmila Dasi, p. 24)


It seems that one can define his nature, more or less, in terms of varna, and then project this according to present time and circumstance. In other words, if one is inclined towards business, he or she could be defined as having a vaisya nature, even though they would not necessarily exemplify the traditional vaisya characteristics, such as farming. Similarly, if one is inclined towards studying and teaching, he or she could be considered as having a brahminical nature, even though they may find themselves in a Western university and not in a hut on the banks of the Sarasvati River. Having said that, it follows that a different ethical code would be appropriate for each varna. For example, brahmanas should be austere, honest and learned, whereas ksatriyas should be courageous and generous.

The discussion of varnasrama has been taking place in ISKCON for many years now. A major objection to implementing this system is that 'ISKCON is meant for more than good marriages.' The argument is that ISKCON is a great spiritual movement, whose aim is to liberate its members from the world of samsara, not to arrange a comfortable material situation for them. However, the three-storey house paradigm uses varnasrama as a point of departure for spiritual life and as a supporting framework for the sankirtana mission, as opposed to perverted varnasrama forms, which promote different types of caste consciousness while ignoring the true spiritual goal.

The basic assumption of the three-storey-house model is that when one's psycho-physical nature is properly regarded, then one's energy for material and spiritual life is revived. A well-organised first floor creates the right atmosphere for developing the second and third floors. Conversely, a poorly developed first floor is a fertile ground for social unrest and even vaisnava-aparadha.

Where does the GBC fit into this framework? Are we proposing a 'do-it-yourself' system, where each individual can ascertain his own situation? To a small extent, yes, but in a way that will bring the members together willingly, as opposed to being forcibly controlled.

What is gained by applying such a structure? The graduates of a healthy first floor become steady residents of the second, who are then gradually established on the third. The first floor connects and holds society to the ground, providing the residents of the higher floors a medium through which to face the world. To paraphrase a common example used by Srila Prabhupada, although in a different connotation: We have to water the root, without which the whole tree will wither. The residents of the first floor need the residents of the higher floors, and vice versa, as the complete structure is a single holistic unit.

Although all three floors are important, it seems that at this point there need to be special efforts aimed at establishing the first floor, something that has not been sufficiently developed so far. I would urge the Society to undertake this mission for the benefit of all.


A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers. Sydney: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1992.

Bhurijana Dasa. Surrender Unto Me. New Delhi: VIHE Publications, 1997.

Krsna Dharma Dasa. 'Towards Varnasrama-Dharma: A Constitution for ISKCON', in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, July 1994.

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa. 'ISKCON and Varnasrama-Dharma: A Mission Unfulfilled', in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, June 1999.

Rochford, E. Burke. 'Prabhupada Centennial Survey: A Summary of the Final Report', in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, June 1999.

Urmila Dasi. 'Respect for Individuality', in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2, December 1998.