The Family and Youth Conference covered twenty hours of presentations and discussions covering a range of subjects. At the end of the conference, several participants were asked to speak informally about the impressions they had gathered and any lessons that had been learned.
The healing power of the conference
For me, the most constructive part of the conference was the discussion about bridging the gap between the generations. As a second-generation devotee, it was very fulfilling that people were interested in my opinion and were appreciative. Even though it has been very easy to stereotype ISKCON - and I personally have at times been very resentful towards ISKCON - it's nice to realise that it is a community of devotees; and as much as I blame ISKCON for sometimes being very impersonal, I understand that I've also been impersonal in my thinking about ISKCON. That has been a first step in bridging that gap.
Even when I've been resentful towards ISKCON, I've always had some respect for the philosophy. I've always respected my parents for keeping discussions on Prabhupada's books in perspective. I remember my mother being very upset when I first left gurukula and I was using the word 'karmi' all the time. She would say: 'No, that's the wrong way, this is Mr. Zigger the farmer, this is so and so'. So, throughout my life, through my parents, there's been a kind of liberal understanding of the philosophy. This conference has reminded me that they are not the only ones that think that way about Krsna consciousness.
A very practical thing that I play with, use, and understand is misuse of language. This came out very well in the discussions about how the language of Prabhupada's books, and for some gurukulis even japa, can trigger things. Part of bridging the gap is to understand the role that language and symbols play. I am wearing this orange five-dollar shirt from GAP; I looked at it in my bag today, and I realised that there are connotations for me wearing saffron (the colour worn by brahmacaris and other renunciates). Something as simple as a colour can make a difference in how you are perceived, in how you are accepted, and how you relate. This was a very valuable part of the conference.
Some commonalities were also revealed during the conference. This conference was originally envisioned as a youth conference to deal with some of the tensions between the first generation and the second generation. Then it very quickly encompassed family life and parenting and other related issues. We know that the youth suffered in many ways because of things that happened in ISKCON, but it has also become very obvious that women also suffered, and so have whole families and married couples. It's larger than just a youth issue. There is a commonality; we weren't the only people that got the rough end of the stick.
Then there is whole 'third culture' idea presented by Norma McCaig, who showed the commonality between Vaisnava youth and people who have converted to Vaisnavism. Of course, there is a large difference between growing up as a 'third-culture kid' and being someone who has developed some sense of identity before travelling between cultures. Still, I think every person in that presentation found something that they could relate to.
When I was fifteen, coming out of gurukula, I don't remember seeing many gurukulis being really serious about being a devotee. It has become obvious that more than half of the children who grew up as devotees after my time are very proud to be devotees. Instead of having an inferiority complex about it, the way we did, they have some sort of superiority complex, and I think that's very healthy. That has also been very heartening. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have participated.
Visakha Devi Dasi
Integrity and marriage
I've noted three basic themes during this conference. The first is integrity.
Integrity has been very much overlooked in our society and in our individual relationships, and we've suffered immensely from that. We often lacked integrity in our dealings with the children, being unable to perceive their suffering. My husband and I were in Dallas in 1974 filming when Srila Prabhupada was there, and I would watch these young children offering their prostrated obeisances to Srila Prabhupada. I was totally oblivious to what was going on in that school at that time. When I look back on how oblivious I was, I feel awful. We are now reaping the results of our failure in this field of integrity. Rukmini Devi Dasi eloquently expressed that as representatives of Srila Prabhupada and Krsna we should display the highest integrity, and that if we continue to fail in this, then Prabhupada's movement will be on very rocky terrain.
Another aspect of this issue of integrity came up in Burke Rochford's paper. He noted that the focus of ISKCON is shifting from the temples to the family, and that the family unit is less likely than a temple community have a leader impose himself upon it. Instead, individual family members can be inspired by devotees with integrity and Krsna consciousness, and with qualities that they want to emulate and imbibe in their own lives. This is a fundamental and important shift.
The second basic theme of this conference has been Krsna conscious marriage. This is another important field that has often been overlooked. What are the problems? How do we solve these problems in a Krsna conscious way? Who do we look to for answers? Can we go to nondevotee counsellors? There are many major questions we have to face.
The third theme is awareness, which can be integrated with integrity. The whole idea of the 'third-culture kids' that Norma spoke of raised awareness of the issues our children faced. Again, we were oblivious. My daughter was saying that we moved every two years for fifteen years. When she was ten she had been going to school for five years, and she had been to five different schools. I wasn't aware of how that would affect her. Now I'm more aware, and now we're trying to have a more stable situation for our second daughter.
This conference has been an opportunity for devotees to share their perspectives. I hope there are many more such conferences.
Nataka Chandrika Devi Dasi
The importance of the family
As I began listening to and assimilating the presentations at this conference, the same theme kept surfacing in my mind: the role of family. The importance of a loving, solid, Krsna conscious family cannot be overestimated. If our grhasthas had been given more guidance, training, and counselling in what it means to be good parents, many of the problems that we have today would not exist. In a letter to Hamsaduta in 1967, Srila Prabhupada writes: 'A child is a rare gift given by Krsna, but at the same time, a great responsibility. Every parent has the respon-sibility to see that his child grows up in Krsna consciousness. I know that you understand this, and will always make Krsna the centre of your home'. In Krsna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Prabhupada writes: 'An affectionate mother takes great care of her child and is always anxious to see that the child is not disturbed even for a moment. Mother Yasoda set the example for all affectionate mothers'.
We as parents have a great responsibility to create loving, stable homes with Krsna in the centre. It is not an easy task, but I have hope that we have learned from our past experi-ences, and can move forward. I strongly advocate premarital counselling, and would suggest that grhasthas who have been married for a long time share their wisdom with new couples. Workshops should be offered covering all aspects from childbirth to graduation. It is our duty to help future generations establish and maintain loving Krsna conscious families.
Before this conference my first reaction was, 'oh no, not another one'. I've been involved with these conferences since 1989 and have become a little jaded. It seems that after we have all these wonderful discussions, everybody goes home and nothing happens. But this conference was special. I was impressed by how much depth of realisation and maturity some of the young people have developed, particularly Prajyumna and Yudhisthira. Sometimes in my service I feel I'm the only one who cares about our youth, but then I see Prajyumna's and Yudhisthira's presentations and I feel a lot of hope for the future of our movement because their vision and their maturity and their way of looking at things is very refreshing.
I was also interested in Dhira Govinda Dasa's view of the outside world as a place for preaching. For my generation, when we go into the outside world, we don't typically view it as a preaching opportunity. Generally the last thing we want to tell anybody is that we are Hare Krsnas. And why is that? I've been trying to examine this phenomenon, and I'm still struggling with it. Why am I embarrassed, sometimes even ashamed to be seen as a devotee? Sometimes the more I work with the youth, and the more I work with the child protection office, the more I become ashamed to tell people that I'm a Hare Krsna. Why?
The recurring answer, to me, has to do with respect and honesty. It would help if we could just be decent human beings and be perceived in public as such, rather than being perceived as people who harass you and who you want to run away from. It would also help if we would respect every human being and not look down on them; if we could dispense with the attitude, 'you're just a karmi, therefore I can do all kinds of activities and justify them'. If we can develop these attitudes, we can help to change the public's perception, and we can create a movement, an ISKCON, that our children can be proud of. When they go to public school, they can be proud to say they are Hare Krsnas, rather than feel they have to hide the fact.
I never told anyone at school that I was a Hare Krsna. I never told anyone at my job that I was a Hare Krsna. I was afraid I would be judged according to the common percep-tions of what it means to be a devotee.
Citralekha Devi Dasi
I wasn't sure what to expect from the Family and Youth Conference. I had been working on coordinating it for months but was unsure of how it would turn out. What I found was an incredible coming together of knowledge, experience, and insights from a variety of speakers, ranging from second-generation youth to ISKCON well-wishers.
The first day was very powerful, starting off with Burke Rochford's scholarly presentation (read by Anuttama Dasa) about ISKCON's transitional years, which held everyone in rapt attention. Also, Arcana Siddhi's Devi Dasi's skit and workshop on relationships gave much-needed skills for devotees to work through solving difficult, real life marital and relationship problems.
The evening youth session stands out most in my mind as the door leading from the past to the future. When Prajyumna and Yudhisthira read their papers about their lives growing up within the confines of ISKCON I was struck with grief, and simultaneously was in awe at how intelligently they used those experiences to provide an inner strength. The youth in the audience resonated strongly with Yudhisthira's and Prajyumna's views, which then led to a discussion between the generations in an attempt to understand each other's sensitivities to actions and words that might trigger negative emotions.
By the second day, the momentum for open-minded reception reached new heights as Norma McCaig spoke on the topic of 'third-culture Krsna kids', a new concept to most in ISKCON. The response was very positive as parents, teachers, and youth sought to apply what they heard to relationships, life strategies, and school curriculum.
On the final day of the conference, the professional and business expertise of Dhira Govinda Dasa, Rukmini Devi Dasi, Haridasa Dasa, and Radha Devi Dasi, offered a progres-sive perspective on how to maintain a devotional identity while working in the world; a frequent challenge in our present ISKCON society. It is not always easy to keep a devotional focus while pursuing a career path so all aspects of the discussion were seriously considered as invaluable information.
As the conference was wrapping up, people-watching became my barometer to evaluate the overall attendee experience. Small groups gathered to exchange thoughts and ideas while others offered their congratulations and asked when the next conference will take place. My impression? The conference was a great success.