Analysing ISKCON for Twenty-five Years

E. Burke Rochford, Jr.

For the past quarter of a century Burke Rochford has studied ISKCON. His research has been appreciated for its thoroughness and honesty by those inside and outside of ISKCON. In this, his latest report, based on a presentation made at the North American GBC Meetings earlier this year, he steps outside his normal role of a social scientist and gives a more personal and very direct analysis of ISKCON, its past, present and future. He expresses strong concerns about the ability of the GBC to act effectively on behalf of ISKCON's membership and in the general interests of Prabhupada's movement.

I want to make four statements that I hope will provide a basis for serious discussion. Before I do, I would like to make several preliminary comments. I feel the need to do so because the statements I make may seem overly harsh to some. I have been researching ISKCON for half my life. I recently turned fifty, and in the fall I will have been studying ISKCON almost continuously for twenty-five years. In a real sense, I have grown up with ISKCON. I have made lifelong friends. I consider some of these devotees to be my brothers and sisters because our relationships are that close and that caring.

While ISKCON has provided research opportunities and friendships, it has also been a basis for my own admittedly limited spirituality. I see and feel Krsna working in the world. I turn to Him when things go bad and even when things go unusually well in my life. I pray that He will intervene in the lives of all people in the world who are forced to endure suffering. I feel His presence when I am in the temple and in the midst of kirtana wherever it happens to take place. Sometime back, a colleague who studied and wrote a book on Rajneesh mentioned something to me that I have never forgotten because it rings so true with respect to my relationship to ISKCON. He said very simply, 'You know, Burke, I really wanted them to succeed. I was really pulling for them.' But, as we know, Rajneesh did not succeed in Oregon, and apart from the centre in Poona, India, the movement is now largely composed of scattered networks of members in North America and elsewhere.

The fact is, I want ISKCON to succeed. I want my many devotee friends not only to find salvation for themselves but also to build communities that represent an alternative to mainstream culture, an alternative that other people can become part of.

One of your members mentioned to me recently that he thought the GBC would, within a few years, become responsive to the needs of ISKCON's membership. He said that things took time, that membership in the GBC body was beginning to change and there was hope in the not too distant future. I told him, and I say to you now, that this is not good enough. It is not good enough because, as each year passes, many of my friends and many devotees whom I know only slightly or not at all are being hurt by an organisation that remains unable to respond to the real needs of real people.

While I have always been willing to express my opinion, I have in many ways held back in my discussions with the GBC as a formal body. I have expressed my honest thoughts to individual GBC members but have always felt it a foolish move to challenge the GBC or the leadership as a whole, and certainly not in a public way - thereby potentially being seen as politically motivated. I do not see myself acting politically here, although I fully realise that what I say has political significance. At fifty I find it easier to speak about my version of the truth because the personal fallout from doing so means far less to me today than it did ten, fifteen or even twenty-five years ago, when I challenged my old friend Danavira, who was then head of the Bhakta Programme (a training programme for newcomers) in Los Angeles. (At the time I was a bhakta in his programme for research purposes, although Danavir never saw my presence there in those terms. He knew why I was 'really' there.)

I am not a malcontent. But I am also not going to sidestep the questions facing ISKCON because they are difficult and because some members of the GBC may not like what I have to say. I am simply too old to worry about these things any longer.

So I present here my four statements, with some elaboration. My hope is for us to talk as friends, as brothers and sisters, who may respectfully disagree. My effort is not meant to make any of us defensive. In fact, I am really interested in developing a solid strategy that will benefit devotees and ISKCON itself.

(1) I have come to the conclusion that even if (a) ISKCON's problems are identified precisely and (b) real, practical and viable solutions are proposed, the GBC body lacks the foresight, resources and authority to act on behalf of ISKCON's membership and in the best interests of Prabhupada's movement.

Let me be more specific.

(a) Social organization.

The question of foresight is perhaps overstated, although a good portion of those I speak with emphasise this. I assume that GBC members see ISKCON's problems as they are, that they are not living in the dark ages of assuming that the solution to all the movement's troubles lie only in book distribution and individual sadhana. Please understand, I am not trying to diminish the importance of either of these. Rather, I believe that many of ISKCON's problems are social and organisational in nature, and that the leadership has been slow to respond to the needs of families, especially women and children.

Even in recent years (although I think the volume of this mantra must be more muted these days), I have heard sannyasi GBC leaders (of which there are many) stating that they are not responsible for the affairs of householders and family life, that it is inappropriate for sannyasis to be involved in these issues. Perhaps this is true. Yet ISKCON in North America and throughout much of the world is overwhelmingly a householder's movement. Such a principled stance of 'hands off' by sannyasis effectively means they are providing little or no leadership to the rank and file.

It is time that the GBC engages the needs of its membership; if sannyasis want to hold firm to the idea that this is not their business, they should remove themselves from the GBC or act only in an advisory role. Simply put, ISKCON needs leaders - active leaders who are responsive to the rank and file. Regretting the presence of so many fallen householders is no qualification for leadership.

(b) Resources.

Organisationally, ISKCON is an aberration. Try to think of an organisation where the leadership has little or no control over the resources that allow them to act on policies implemented by the Board of Directors. The GBC can make policy, but it often lacks the resources to bring it into fruition. The result is that rank-and-file members often see policy statements as strategy statements. The GBC votes for good things, but only occasionally puts up the funds to bring them about. This is a formula for cynicism. Again, there are exceptions, such as Child Protection, but even here many devotees believe funds are being provided largely to help fend off lawsuits and related challenges.

A few years ago, in my role as a member of ISKCON's North American Board of Education, I was involved in discussions about enhancing the movement's system of education. This was just after the departure of Harikesa and the demise of funding for education projects. One person who was party to these conversations and was himself a GBC member suggested that our efforts would be better served if we avoided the GBC altogether. His idea was that we should develop our own plan and our own sources of funding. In his view, engaging the GBC represented a wasted effort. As a whole, the GBC lacked both the interest and the resources to do anything to enhance the education of ISKCON's children. At first I argued that this was a GBC responsibility. We must get them involved - that's their job. In the end I had to admit that he was correct. But admitting this also meant acknowledging that ISKCON's leaders and governance structure remained weak and incapable of providing real leadership.

Simply put, the GBC must find ways to gain command of resources. Without them, it gives only the appearance of leadership (i.e. policy-making) that in the end accomplishes little. The result is that the GBC is viewed by many as politically self-interested and increasingly irrelevant.

(c) Authority.

As I have said before, ISKCON and its leadership face a crisis of trust. Without trust, why should any devotee offer respect to the 'authority' of the GBC? And without authority, the GBC lacks the very basis for leadership itself. Over and over, I hear devotees saying that the GBC is simply irrelevant. It makes little difference what the GBC has to say. For leaders, the biggest threat is not disagreement and conflict. Rather, it is members coming to feel that the leaders and their policies have lost relevance.

In my view, it is time for the leadership of this movement to offer not only apologies but also 'good works'. Authority and trust in today's ISKCON must be earned. I urge the GBC to move forward on a limited number of specific projects that will benefit devotees and thereby begin the process of restoring trust in the leadership.

(2) ISKCON's authorities, and thereby ISKCON itself, are, in many respects, frozen in time.

Again, I realise that this may be overstated. Yet in a curious way ISKCON's leaders remain tied to ways of thinking that ultimately limit their ability to deal with present and future issues confronting the organisation. I am likely to get into trouble here. While ISKCON's leaders hold dearly to the theological knowledge and insight found in Prabhupada's books and spoken words, they have overlooked, or been hesitant to act on, what I believe was Prabhupada's greatest insight sociologically: 'time, place and circumstance'. As sociologists Berger and Luckmann might say, 'ISKCON lacks dialectical thinking.' Perhaps because of the weakened authority of the leadership, many of ISKCON's leaders hold tightly to Prabhupada's words but not to his wisdom. Failing to act on the basis of time, place and circumstance has meant that ISKCON has lost its dynamic quality. Leaders must be more than theologians attempting to hold close to the words of the scripture. Prabhupada understood this principle when he came to America. He may have been criticised by his Godbrothers for changing things, but he also built a dynamic movement that influenced the world. Who among you is willing to stand up and apply Prabhupada's wisdom rather than simply recite his words? In the same way that Prabhupada's Godbrothers initially questioned his judgement for 'changing things', I suspect Prabhupada would think that the GBC is now acting negligently for not bringing about change.

Prabhupada did not hold to the letter of the law if he saw that making changes would expand the mission of his guru and Lord Caitanya. Yet you have often become passive, applying Prabhupada's words but missing the wisdom that allowed him to build an organisation that was vital, dynamic and often responsive to the needs of its members. Perhaps ironically, the failures of the gurus, the rise of the rtvik movement and ISKCON's continuing efforts to elevate Prabhupada's status make it more difficult to be innovative, to take the risks often associated with leadership. Yet there is a threat in remaining static and resistant to change.

(3) ISKCON's leaders must be careful about how they interpret organisational problems. This is not the time to blame individuals for what amounts to organisational troubles.

I have recently noticed a tendency for some of those who previously were reformers in ISKCON but are now firmly entrenched in the leadership to focus their attention on the faults of the rank-and-file. Of course, this is nothing new; revolutionaries who succeed often protect their newly gained but fragile positions by deflecting attention from the faults of their own administration and governance. Despite what some might think, I do not believe all of ISKCON's organisational problems would melt away if only the members did a better job in practising their sadhana.

Leaders must not be blamers. They must not fall prey to individualising what are fundamentally social problems. This may be good political strategy but it does little to further the well-being of the organisation they seek to oversee and advance. Leaders must be hard on themselves but compassionate towards those they are supposed to serve. In my estimation, reversing this is politics, and destructive politics at that.

(4) It is time for leaders and other devotees to stop acting on the basis of pretence, position or, more accurately, hiding behind these things. It is time to set the dandas aside - one's real and imagined authority - and talk straight.

This is a time for honesty and openness about ISKCON and its needs. Bluffing will not do. To do otherwise, I believe, leaves ISKCON at risk. While Prabhupada's teachings and Krsna consciousness itself promise to go forward in time, there is no guarantee ISKCON will. Despite what some might think, ISKCON does not exist by divine right. It was born of hard work and commitment, commonsense, organisational strategy and resources, as well as having a powerful theological message and a charismatic leader. To avoid becoming just another weak or failed organisation, ISKCON must earn its survival, its prosperity. This requires that 'position' not get in the way of good sense. Leaders and members alike must pull up their collective sleeves and work together. To do this requires mutual respect, trust, co-operation and setting aside elitist ways of thinking.

Look around this room. Note the age of the people here. Who will replace each of you? Even more importantly, who will replace ISKCON's first generation as its dies off over the next twenty-five years or so? ISKCON in North America has done poorly at holding onto its second generation. Over the past twenty years it has not had great success in recruiting new members to its communities, either. Given this, it seems reasonable to ask: Who will be worshipping in ISKCON's temples twenty, thirty, forty years from now? Will ISKCON become largely an ethnic church catering to the spiritual needs of ethnic Indians? Will it lose its ability to mobilise people from all backgrounds seeking religious life and salvation? I don't know what the outcome will be, but I do know the decisions made (or not made) today by ISKCON's leaders will certainly influence the fate of Prabhupada's movement. I pray that wisdom, a collective spirit of revival and an openness to reform and change will keep ISKCON a dynamic and relevant vehicle for promoting Krsna consciousness in North America and worldwide.