Panel Discussion

Being Krsna Conscious in the Secular World

Rukmini Devi Dasi

One of the most valuable opportunities that the Vaisnava Family and Youth Conference gave rise to was open and public dialogue between groups that need to hear from each other. On the final day of the conference there was a panel discussion focusing on an issue with a special relevance to Vaisnava families: What does it mean to be a devotee in a secular world? What are the mistakes of the past and how can we rectify them?

Rukmini Devi Dasi
Living a transparent life

Sometimes in the media we hear reformed drug addicts or drug dealers talk about the difficulty they have getting simple, honest jobs after earning fast, easy, illicit money. I think that there's some of that syndrome in our ISKCON. Over the years in ISKCON, people of various abilities and inclinations have been pulled into illicit means of livelihood, such as living off dishonest collections; for them, that fast, easy, illicit money becomes like an addiction. It becomes very difficult to just stop and be humble and accept an honest means of livelihood.

Consider Srila Prabhupada's living in Ahmedabad as a pharmacist: Could you conceive of Srila Prabhupada watering down one of his pharmaceuticals, or cheating someone on the change they get back after purchasing some medicine? It's inconceivable. Or we can think of one of my personal role models and idols, Kholaveca Sridhara, who was very dear to Lord Caitanya. Kholaveca lived in poverty. He made a meagre living selling banana leaves. From this tiny income, however, he gave half for the worship of the Ganges. Lord Caitanya wouldn't eat unless the food was given to Him on the banana leaves from Kholaveca Sridhara. In fact, the last meal Lord Caitanya took before taking sannyasa was a preparation of kheer made from the flower of a squash plant that Kholaveca Sridhara had grown on his roof. Imagine this type of integrity, then view that against what we often see today in our society. It is very sad and scary.

It has almost become a clich� that, as his followers, we owe it to Srila Prabhupada to build 'a house in which the whole world can live'. So let's look at that house and its founda-tion. Let's look at the cracks in the foundation and what we have to do build something that will outlast and outlive us. We talk about first generation and second generation, but what about the tenth generation, what about the twentieth generation?

It is important to lead a transparent life: To have no conflict between the inner and outer life. Then, it would be a pleasant surprise for a business associate to find out you're a Hare Krsna devotee. They would ideally find it beneficial to know someone who has a spiritual practice and is working in the world with integrity.

Spiritual and social ethics

A year or two ago, an article appeared in the Washington Post that spoke about the best work environments: workplaces where people can be happy with a boss that they are peaceful working for. It advised that if we can find a workplace where people have done their spiritual work, then we can have a peaceful working environment.

It has been pointed out to me that it's easier to do this when you own a business and create your own work ethics. However, there are devotees who have come to a point where they realised that their values were very much in conflict with those of their employees, and they had to take a crucial step: to find work and employment somewhere else, even though the new situation offered less prestige or less money. Sometimes it is a choice between leading a double life or a spiritual life.

Recently I was interviewed for the business section of USA Today. The reporter, not interested in anything spiritual at all, was writing a story about how the attack on Washington on 11 September 2001, has affected business. A store of ours that is located at the airport is closed, largely due to the attack. The reporter wanted to know what are the patterns, what are the trends, what are we feeling, and how this is hurting us financially. As we talked, I tried to inject some kind of spiritual perspective, which he wasn't picking up on at all. He really just wanted to know how much this is costing us. As he was finishing up his article, he phoned and left a message: 'I just want to know, someone like you who has three stores, were you hoping to get rich by this? I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I'm just wondering, what were your intentions?' I phoned him back and said: 'There's a social trend here that you haven't spotted, and if you don't spot it you're making a big mistake'. I told him that I am one of a group of entrepreneurs who is working in the world to create a new social and spiritual ethic in the workplace. I told him if he didn't spot that trend, then he is making a big mistake. I told him I used to live in a spiritual community, and that I opened this business so that I could be more spiritually and socially effective in the world by working in the world. At the end he concluded: 'You know, at a time like this I think we really need something spiritual'.

Building a community within the community

In Washington, the radio traffic reports always identify the traffic as moving either east or west of the Mormon temple, but they don't refer to that building as the Mormon temple, it's just 'The Temple'. When we moved to Washington, my husband would cringe when he heard this. We would be in the car, and he would say, 'I'm so envious. Why can't we build a temple like this? Why don't we have a temple that is a city landmark?'

In the eight years we've been there we have come to understand that a temple like that comes naturally out of the hearts of people who build community. First of all, we have to build community, and that starts in a microcosmic way. In order to build community, you really have to go back to the individual and how the individual is inspired within his or her heart to act in an exemplary, honest way as a follower of Srila Prabhupada. We have to ask ourselves, 'How is Krsna seeing me, how is the world seeing me, how is Prabhupada seeing me?' Christians have a saying: 'With Jesus as my co-pilot'. So we have to think: with Prabhupada as my co-pilot, how am I acting?

Radha Devi Dasi
One foot in each camp

I think my experience when I first came to the Krsna consciousness movement was somewhat unique at the time, although it is more common now. I was already a mother and a lawyer when I first started going to the temple in San Diego. I have never lived in an asrama, and I didn't go through any training programme, so I'm quite ignorant about some things. At the same time, I've always been 'in the world'; I never really left it. I've always had the experience of trying to balance material life and spiritual life. Part of that is because I never really wanted to be a Hare Krsna.

I was in law school, and I knew that I needed spiritual guidance. It was very clear that my life was not going to work without a spiritual component. I was going to church and I was praying very sincerely to God, begging Him to show me the way. Someone gave me a copy of Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is; I read the introduction, and it was the answer to my questions. I was not at all happy when I found out it was from the Hare Krsnas. I did not want to become a Hare Krsna. I wasn't going to live the life, it was too weird. I tried to resolve the conflict by becoming a supporter. I had devotees come over to my home, and eventually I got to the point where I realised that I didn't have any other choices. If Krsna had given me any more, I probably wouldn't be here.

Spiritual life is about relationships

Except for two years, I've always worked outside the Hare Krsna movement. It's difficult in some ways, but it's very rewarding in other ways. One interesting observation from this is that we bring the same problems of perception and ego that exist outside our movement into our movement. A big part of my struggle in spiritual life is that I evaluate myself and others. I think they can be counted and measured. If it looks good on my r�sum�, if it fills my bank account, if somebody will write an article in Back To Godhead magazine about it, then it counts for something. I measure my self-worth by those things. But these aren't the things that really matter. They aren't the things that build our spiritual life. I've seen parallels between behaviours at work and behaviours in my temple community. They're not that different. We like to think that we are very different, but I'm not convinced.

One of the growing experiences that my husband and I have been going through is learning spirituality on a person-to-person basis, not just counting the value of building temples and doing big projects, essential as these may be. I've come to understand that not everybody can do something big, and not everybody is meant to. That's the message many of us have missed in our spiritual journey. For some time I felt guilty for not doing something big. However, my husband and I found that we're more effective when we deal with people one-on-one, rather than when we engage in big projects. The way my spirituality is expressed today is through individual relationships.

Our best service together, and our best preaching experience, is a little programme that we have in our home. Once a week, we invite friends, neighbours and Vaisnavas to come and chant, discuss spiritual literature, and take prasadam. It's very powerful because we connect with people on a one-to-one basis, heart-to-heart. This gets me talking to people, find-ing out what is going on in their life, perhaps offering some practical service or advice. It seems small, but when you see how much devotees appreciate that kind of help and rapport, you see that this is what it means for us to be the servant of the servant. I would like it if being the servant of the servant meant having a big position and a big title, and a special seat at the Sunday feast, but for me, being the servant of the servant means doing things like calling someone when they get sick.

Introducing people to Krsna

Another realisation I've had is that everybody I meet can accept at least some aspect of Krsna consciousness. Very few people I meet can accept all of the aspects of Krsna conscious-ness. When I hear the phrase 'make devotees', it often seems to mean to make people into the image of what we think they should be. It took me some time to realise that that is not our job. If I'm telling people how wrong and bad they are, and how I can fix them, then it's all about me. However, if I approach people with the idea of introducing them to an aspect of Krsna consciousness that they can accept, then we can begin a real relationship. For example, I used to try and distribute prasadam in the mood of looking for appreciation for being a devotee giving people this benefit. Very few people would take the prasadam. However, I find that when I have some relationship with people, when they see me as a person, even if it's just the parking attendant or a cashier, then there's no problem in distributing prasadam. That's one of the ways that I try to express my spirituality: I bake something, take it in the car with me, and pass it out to those I meet during the day.

It's not all bad

A benefit of being a part of the wider, nondevotee community is the different perspectives it offers on practical issues. Sometimes, because they are so close to me, devotees may not be so objective in their advice. It can be very useful to go to somebody outside the devotional community, talk to them and get their feedback. It's a little clearer sometimes.

My children have also experienced this broader perspective. For example, my son has always been in the world. Even during the few years he did go to gurukula he had friends who weren't devotees. He has always been quite apart from ISKCON. On a recent trip to the gurukula in Vrndavana, one of the teachers commented on how much of American culture my son had absorbed and how his consciousness was affected; he didn't use the word contaminated, but that was the word I heard. At first I felt defensive and a little hurt by that, but after a while I came to be happy that he has an understanding of both cultures. I know he wouldn't be happy living in a temple asrama. He is not a brahmacari by nature. He needs experience of both worlds, because he's going to live in both worlds. He gets along with people well. He can go from community to community, social group to social group, and he can make friends with anybody. He's even friends with the red-necks at school and with racist skinheads. He's friends with everybody because he's had that multicultural experience.

Anuttama Dasa
Being a devotee in public

Sometimes devotees are apprehensive about appearing in Vaisnava dress in public. Historically, it is not uncommon for a religion that is new to a particular social environment to face issues about social identification within the larger culture. The Salvation Army is an interesting example. Like us, the Salvation Army were not respected because they were making loud noises, walking up and down the street, and getting in peoples' way. For many years they faced persecution, prejudice and ignorance.

The Salvation Army, although often seen only as a charity, is a religion that grew out of the Methodist Church in nineteenth-century England. Its founder was William Booth, formerly a Methodist minister. Despite Booth's desire to preach to the downtrodden of London, the Methodist church officers kept sending him to country parishes. For some years Booth requested a change of assignment, and after constant refusals, he and his wife started their own movement.

Like us, they largely built their church from street sales of religious magazines. Now the Salvation Army is the largest religiously affiliated recipient of private donations in the United States. Last year they received something like $365 million in donations. This is a religion that a hundred years ago people didn't like or trust. In modern terms it would have been described as a cult.

Historically, many organisations get over these troubled beginnings; but that takes internal action. An old friend of mine told me he used to feel embarrassed to chant on the streets; people would laugh at him. But then he thought, 'you may laugh now, but if you want to get out of material life, you might have to do this too some day'. That gave him some inner fortitude.

Personally, I always travel with a dhoti, although I don't always feel comfortable. I feel that if people at least think, 'hey look, there's a Hare Krsna', then it's nice that they thought of Krsna. But it would be even better if they said, 'Hey, there's a Hare Krsna: they're the wonderful people who teach vegetarianism; they have a fantastic philosophy; they raise wonderful families; they're clean'.

When I teach communication courses I try to emphasise that when we take our vows, not only do we vow not to do four things (take intoxicants, eat meat, engage in illicit sex, or gamble), but simultaneously, and more importantly, we are vowing to do four things; we're agreeing be truthful, clean, merciful, and austere. We may be thinking we are following the regulative principles, but are we following the positive side of the injunctions as well as the negative? Are we clean, truthful, honest, personable?

The four things we vow to avoid are the grossest manifestations of what we consider irreligious activity. Acceptance of those values is important. People really will appreciate us. I think we all feel that pain in our hearts. It's a struggle to be proud to be a devotee. We're proud, and then we're embarrassed.

I'm not embarrassed by our philosophy; I'm embarrassed by misinterpretations of the philosophy. It is very important for us to sit and discuss what Prabhupada meant when he said certain things; why certain behaviours exist; what is the proper way to do things; how we can we treat each other better. We need to discuss what we can do to move forward a little, individually or collectively. We have to take what we have learned and carry it forward.

Margaret Mead once advised that we shouldn't think that a small group of committed people cannot change the world, because, indeed, that's the only way the world has ever changed. Sometimes there is a lot of questioning about when will ISKCON do this and when will devotee communities do that? The real question is: when will we find the potential in our own hearts to change ourselves and others? As Prabhupada showed, it only takes one or two people to make a difference. Prabhupada didn't wait for others. He tried to get others involved, but when he didn't get much help, he went on alone.

People first

Devotees in Russia wrote a declaration. Their main principle was to take care of people first, that the projects should serve the people. That's a very important principle. We often assume that if we have successful projects, people will automatically be helped. It wasn't that we didn't want to help people; so many of us gave up everything because we saw that people have all these material things and they are unhappy. We put aside all our material needs in order to give people some spiritual answers. However, as Bhaktivinoda Thakura said, there are two rails to the train track.

Some devotees are trying to get the priorities right, to take care of people. In communications analysis there is the idea of taking care of your core community. If your core community is happy, then everything else will work. If a mother and father are having problems, the family is going to struggle. If a family is having problems, the community is going to suffer. If the community is having problems, the state is going to suffer. We have to start close to home.

In some places we see that there have been lots of changes; for example, the temple president leaves and then everything becomes uncertain. What can happen in these situations is that members of the congregation step forward and take responsibility for holding the community together. The internal circle of concern, or circle of influence, is where we can make changes.

Valuing and involving all sections of our community

In the past we faced many problems in caring for and facilitating our women. There was a period in our history when temple leadership was almost entirely comprised of celibate men. This led to an aversion towards associating with women in any sphere.

In the early 1990s, attitudes began to change when gurus with many female disciples began to recognise that these women could also be intelligent, mature members of the community who had a lot to contribute. This change in perception of women quickly trickled down, but not everywhere, and women were seen less as a threat to devotional life and more as valued members of our society.

I think that we are now at a similar stage with our congregations. We now have many members of our congregations who are initiated; are professionally educated; are highly knowledgeable people in fields such as management, communications, medicine, social work or engineering. They are faithful to Prabhupada and the parampara. So when they start to exhibit some intelligence by noticing that the philosophy is great but the management is awful, we should be able to say, 'we're not threatened by that'.


We're not afraid of the technology of laptop computers, so why should we be afraid of the technology, the management skills, that built the laptop computers? Skills that could help us better manage, structure and inform our society. We talk about social welfare issues. So why don't we look at systems that other organisations use - whether it's the Mormon church or the US government - to make sure there is a social network for their members? Why is it that certain technologies are safe and others aren't? We need to learn from experts.

One way in which we can tap into these technologies is by becoming involved in relevant activities and organisations in the larger society. We can learn from these groups and bring the lessons to our own communities, and at the same time we can use our Krsna conscious principles to influence what is going on in the larger society.

In Christian circles they talk of the parent church and the parallel church. For example, there is the Catholic Church, and then there are Catholic welfare services. These welfare services are independent of the Catholic Church, but they subscribe to the values and teachings of the Catholic Church and use their Catholic inspiration to go and make a difference in the world. There are devotees who are very interested in this model; they see the need for independent, grass-roots structures that are affiliated with, friendly to, or supportive of ISKCON but that don't necessarily belong to ISKCON. Children of Krishna is a somewhat successful example of this. It accomplishes its goals independently of ISKCON, but it is there to benefit ISKCON devotees. We don't have to be one organisation; we can be many organisations. We live in a world full of organisations.

Inspiring new members

An important challenge for all of us, individually and as communities, is to inspire people when they want to be part of ISKCON. This is a big challenge to parents, senior devotees, community leaders, teachers, and certainly for the national and international leaders. We have to ask: 'Why would someone want to be part of ISKCON?'

For many of us who went through what I call the 'radical conversion experience', we have the sense that you simply have to become Krsna conscious because that's what's right. That's not very deep for a lot of people.

We have to understand what people need, what interests them, and how we are providing for these needs and interests. It's not that everybody is going to want or like every aspect of Krsna consciousness, so we have to find what it is about Krsna consciousness that people will appreciate, and how we can share that with them. At the Vaisnava Family and Youth Conference we heard from our young people for the first time in years. What do young people need to be inspired to be devotees? We won't get very far saying, 'you should do this because you should'. That doesn't work in any context. Why should they want to be devotees? Are we providing them with reasons why they can't imagine anything but being in ISKCON?

That's the real challenge.

Dhira Govinda Dasa

We've learned that most of our youth are going to interact in the secular world. There may be a few who are temple devotees their whole life and who won't need to interact extensively in the secular world. Practically all of our youth are going to have some vocation or relationship in the secular world. To ignore this would show that we're out of touch and don't really care.

Four levels of interaction

Devotees have different levels of interaction with the secular world.

One such level is represented by the devotee who is out in the world. His colleagues know that he is a devotee; they see that he is contributing to society, that he's a good worker, and that he's a responsible person. The colleagues of such a devotee become favourable: 'Oh, so the Hare Krsnas don't just dance on the street.' Of course, harinama is at the core of our mission, but many nondevotees perceive it as being something strange. Prabhupada writes that someone who is favourable makes advancement. Just by someone becoming favour-able, their spiritual life moves forward.

Another level of interaction is to be in the world and actively be Krsna conscious and give that to others. He may discuss the philosphy with interested people or he may distribute prasadam. At this level he is not just a devotee setting a responsible example, he is also giving Krsna consciousness.

Some may want to do more than that. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to show the relevance of Krsna consciousness, of spiritual life, to every field. We need to consider the mission. What about pleasing the great acaryas? What about continuing the mission of the parampara? I see that as a higher stage: where devotees are in the world as good members of society and are also showing the practical relevance of Krsna consciousness in every field, whether it's business, politics, agriculture, or academia.

Further than that, we have chosen Krsna consciousness for a reason; we see that it has some special attributes, that it's especially profound. We want to show that anything good in a particular field finds its perfection in Krsna consciousness. Of course, we do that in a way that is in accordance with time and circumstance, and we present Krsna consciousness in a way that is acceptable and palatable.

Applying a Vedic perspective to Western social sciences

Before I joined the movement in the 1980s, I had a degree in psychology. In the early 1990s I found myself in academia again. I had been working in social work and undertook a Mas-ters degree in social work. Devotees find themselves in academia for various reasons: some for economic reasons, some for preaching, and some because that's what they like best.

While studying, I tried to infuse my papers with Krsna consciousness where possible. I found that the professors were very impressed with the knowledge that was coming from Prabhupada's books. There was one assignment that seemed rather uninteresting. We were supposed to analyse some administrative structure. So I tried to infuse my paper with some concepts from the Vedic model of the administration of society, but without mentioning varnasramabrahmanas, or ksatriyas. The professor, a very senior man in his field, was enthusiastic. It was a new and different experience for him, and he went on to encourage me to undertake PhD study.

The social sciences are generally a very important sector in a university. Universities are often divided into three main sectors: the social sciences, the physical sciences and the humanities. We have devotees establishing Vaisnavism in all those areas.

In practice

My dissertation was on the effects of the maha-mantra on stress, depression, and the three gunas (the three modes of nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance).

We devised a personality inventory based on these modes. We used 700 subjects, all nondevotees, as we thought that the devotees may have been prejudiced in their responses.

In our study on the effects of chanting the maha-mantra, we did a rigorous experiment using the latest technologies and methodologies for research design, measurement, meas-urement sampling, and statistical analysis, helped by trained and qualified assistants. We had three groups, each of which took a pretest, post-test, and follow-up. There was a control group, the members of which did not chant anything; there was a maha-mantra group; and there was a mock-mantra group. I invented a mock-mantra, but I told the group that it was a real mantra. The idea was to present the maha-mantra in an academic framework, using academic methodology and terminology.

Although this is only my experience in this particular sector, other devotees are also introducing Krsna consciousness into the academic world. For example, a devotee youth, Ragunatha Dasa, is developing a very worthy project showing the economic viability and the economic advantages of each of the four regulative principles. Devotees talk about this during Bhagavatam class, but to convince the scholarly world of these ideas and to introduce these ideas to the wider society, which is enamoured by empiricism, we need to do research. Most Vaisnava practices lend themselves to empirical research. Krsna says that the truths revealed in the Vedic scriptures can be directly experienced; these truths are empirically verifiable. Dhira Dasi is considering writing her dissertation on the empirical effects of prasadam. The effects of prasadam could be studied empirically by organising a prasadam group and a vegetarian control group, and then measuring various effects.

We don't chant Hare Krsna or do bhakti-yoga to decrease our stress and depression; these are side benefits. But people are really interested in decreasing their stress and depression and having less marital conflict; all of these effects are dependent variables, and through empirical studies we can show the relevance of the Vaisnava practices to the world. The philosophy of Krsna consciousness offers a framework by which we can understand sociological and psychological phenomena. There's a lot of work for devotees - not just living in the secular world to earn a livelihood but to push forward Prabhupada's movement in every field.

Citralekha Devi Dasi
Raising devotee children in the wider society

When I joined ISKCON, it was 'give up everything and become a Hare Krsna devotee'. Srila Prabhupada gave my husband, Upendra Dasa, and I some gifts in his direction to us. He was cultivating us to go travelling, preaching and opening centres. He gave us the opportunity to do things independently and to have firm faith in the philosophy. Because we were often sent to remote places by ourselves, we learned to internalise our dependence on Krsna. Once we mentioned this to him: 'But Prabhupada, there aren't any devotees there'. He said all you need is two. So that was our training in Krsna consciousness. Throughout the years, we always had that independence. Some devotees might have classified us as 'fringies'. We didn't always live in a temple, or if we did, it was in India, where we were rather autonomous anyway.

In the 1980s, when the financial bases of the temples fell out, many devotees had to start working to support their families. My husband, as much of a Prabhupada lover and fol-lower that he was, was no longer involved in Krsna consciousness directly, and, although he held Prabhupada dear to his heart, being a supportive father and husband wasn't one of his strong points. I was left to raise my children on my own. During this time it took a lot of heavy decision making and faith in order to push on.

I knew my children would have to work in the wider society and that they would need to know how to relate to all kinds of people, so they started in public school. This was traumatic for them, and it was traumatic for me to find work because I didn't have a degree or any work experience in the outside world. I had never written a r�sum� or had a job interview. I was starting from nothing at the age of forty with three dependent children.

Also, after my children came back from boarding gurukula, we didn't have a very strong relationship with each other. My motherly instincts kicked in right away: I had to focus on their relationships; take care of their needs; make sure they got an education, and that they got Prabhupada. If that was all I could do, then that was my service. It was difficult, and sometimes I felt I wasn't able to do all of the spiritual practices that I wanted to. I had to have faith that the instructions that I had given my children when they were young would help carry them through some of the difficulties that we were going to encounter along the way. I felt very strong.

I taught gurukula for eleven years and was one of the teachers who was always pushing for a regular, outside curriculum. I felt our gurukula curriculum was insufficient, that it wasn't really giving the children the education they needed. It was a little radical of me at the time, but I felt that if we had faith in our philosophy and we gave our children that philosophy, then it didn't matter so much what textbooks we used; the philosophy would prevail.

So, with those lessons in mind, we proceeded. There were some very difficult years. My son had a lot of resentment because of his difficulties in gurukula. As the only parent present, he blamed me for all of that. We struggled through many years, but we hung in there. I resolved that my children weren't going to have the philosophy shoved down their throat. I saw many youths leaving and not wanting to be a part of ISKCON, so I resolved that I wasn't going to force anything upon my children. If they wanted to know, I was willing to tell them. I gave them all the direction I could based on the philosophy, and if they wanted to, they could remember it and keep it with them.

Now we have come full circle. My son appreciates a lot of the philosophy, and we've resolved our relationship. He holds Prabhupada and his early training years dear to his heart. I don't know whether he actively practices, and I don't ask, but I do know that when I go to his apartment, I see his japa beads there and a Bhagavad-gita, and he wears his neck beads. If that's what he can do, then that's great. As for my older daughter, her heart is there, even if her practices aren't the best. My younger daughter is still striving, so we're in that area where she doesn't know where she's at. She plops back and forth, and if her friends think Hare Krsnas are weird, then she doesn't want to have anything to do with devotees. We're still working through that.

During all these changes, I came to a point at which I felt like I was drying up inside. I needed something to give me some spirituality, some strength. So I started going back to school. I needed an outlet for spiritual exchange, and that really provided it. Interestingly, the first instructor I had at Penn State, my world religions professor, had practised Tibetan Buddhism for twenty years. We had many lengthy discussions. I invited him to the temple, and his first response was: 'I don't want you to convert me'. I was constantly battling that stereotype that we were just out to convert. All of my papers were infused with Krsna conscious philosophy. It was really my outlet for giving the philosophy to others without men-tioning Krsna, without mentioning varnasrama-dharma, or without any of the devotee clich�s. I was able to give our outlook on the world, and my instructors loved it. It was very satisfying, and it really opened up my life in many ways. It made me realise very quickly that everything I knew had been taught to me by Srila Prabhupada. That was my world view, and this was how I was able to give something back to Prabhupada: by offering others a little of what I had learned from him.


Question from Anuttama Dasa:

How do we take Srila Prabhupada's statements, some of which appear to be quite negative, about interacting with the world? Prabhupada talks of people 'working hard like dogs, hogs, camels, and asses'. He sometimes describes people who get degrees as being like stray dogs looking for a master. We hear nondevotee schools described as slaughterhouses. We hear Prabhupada talk about the danger of associating with nondevotees. Many people get these negative impressions from Prabhupada's books. How do we reconcile that with the idea of devotees getting degrees, looking for work, and holding regular jobs? How do we balance that with being Krsna conscious? Have we given up? Have we sold out?

Dhira Govinda Dasa:

We can look at our place in the world as a sankirtana spot, somewhere to talk about Krsna consciousness. I'm writing an academic paper, so this is sankirtana. Yes, we do have these state-ments in Prabhupada's books about dogs, hogs, camels and asses, but Prabhupada also said that in Vaisnava philosophy everything is Krsna's energy. If we reject Krsna's energy, then we are impersonalists. The question then is: if everything is Krsna's energy, how can I use it in Krsna's service? How can I use Krsna's energy in such a way that Prabhupada and the acaryas will be pleased. If I'm unable to use it properly, then I probably shouldn't be in that situation. But I see that Krsna put me in this particular position for a reason. Krsna put me in university for a reason. Krsna has me writing these papers for a reason. How can I take something that's material and 'Krsna-ise' it, spiritualise it, and thus make the world a more spiritual place?

The statements you mentioned are a warning: whenever we are in contact with the material energy, which is essentially all the time, we need to be on guard. We need to be very vigilant about our own Krsna consciousness, but we also need to remember Prabhupada's example. Prabhupada didn't stay in Vaisnava Vrndavana; he created Krsna conscious association.

There are levels of association with the world. The first level is to be in a situation and to show by behaviour that devotees are good people. The next level is to share some spiritual knowledge, to make Krsna consciousness relevant, and to openly practice aspects of Krsna consciousness. If I'm out there and I'm not showing how Krsna consciousness is relevant, then I'm probably going to be influenced by the situation rather than exerting influence.

Prabhupada gives different statements to warn us, but also statements to encourage us. Everything is Krsna's energy. How can I 'Krsna-ise' this office?

Braja Bihari Dasa:

We have to be very careful because Prabhupada is quoted very selectively in our society. We have to step back and look at the gamut of Prabhupada's teachings on a certain topic and try to understand them on a deeper level, rather than just quoting something off the cuff. To some extent, in our society, there has been a kind of railroading, based on selective quotes, to think that this is Prabhupada on a certain topic. Often, a more mature, detached, and broad-based research would deepen our understanding and bring us beyond superficial views. What is the context in which Prabhupada says something? Who is it being said to? How does one statement compare with other statements on the same subject? We need to be much more levelheaded and look a little more deeply into the teachings to present a better balance.

Question from audience:

How do we know that it's Krsna, not maya (illusion) or our own material desires that puts us in a situation?

Dhira Govinda Dasa:

Well, maybe it is my material desire, my karma, or maya, that puts me in a particular situation, but wherever we are, the question is, how can I act in a way that's pleasing to Prabhupada? How can I be Krsna conscious here? Maybe I'm not here for all the right reasons, but for whatever reasons I am here, Krsna wants me to be spiritual.

Question from Pancaratra Dasa:

Do we face an issue of entitlement in our society, based on past service? Do some of us feel that because we have given so much to the Krsna consciousness movement, we are entitled to earn a living without regard to normal ethical standards?

Rukmini Devi Dasi:

Yes, and then we passed that ethic on to the next generation of devotees and that's become our society's norm and ethic. That is a cause for tears.

Our children are imbibing that kind of behaviour by osmosis. They grow up thinking this is normal. There is a feeling that 'I should be entitled to receive something that is beyond my means' or 'I can do anything to feed my family. They are, after all, devotees, so it is transcendental'. With these attitudes we can tell any lie to make a living. We can say we are getting kids off drugs or feeding the poor. This lack of integrity creates a subculture that is very scary.

Our children often see this instead of an honest and humble endeavour to work at an honest job.

Question from audience

How does our behaviour affect the way the public sees us?

Rukmini Devi Dasi:

Recently, I read a story in Newsweek about the Mormons. The article starts off: 'What do you think of when you think of a Mormon?' What do you think of? You think of honest, clean-cut kids in pairs going out across the world preaching their religion. It's a question we have to ask of ourselves: 'What do you think of when you think of a Hare Krsna?' Unfortunately, I find the answers to this question are scary, even terrifying. We had the opportunity to study with Srila Prabhupada and read his books, and somehow, despite all that, we have given the public a very negative perception of our movement. We have to be able to change that now. We can't wait another ten, twenty, or fifty years.

I recently spoke with a devotee who is very brahminically inclined; a very scholarly, fine devotee, for whom I have a lot of respect. He has been selling hats for years, and he is miserable. As we were talking, I was describing the Bhaktivedanta College, which is planned for Radhadesh, and suggested he look at it as a place to go and study or teach or somehow be involved with. He went to the Communications Seminars there in July 2001, and that opened up whole new vistas for him. It gave him hope that that maybe there is some way for him to work according to his natural tendencies.

Of course, it's not that we all have to be involved in academic life, but we do all have to look at our own propensities, and the reputation of Prabhupada's mission.

Comment by Radha Devi Dasi:

This issue affects the type of new people coming to join our movement. When people look at our movement and think about joining, they generally don't sit down and literally look at the philosophy. Very few people will look at the philosophy and think they would like to change their lives to fit the philosophy. They do look at the people in the movement and question if they see themselves doing that. If all they see is brahmacaris, then we will attract a lot of people who want to be brahmacaris. If there is a strong subculture of people who take and sell drugs, then we will attract more of that type of person. If they see devotees who can work in the world, then we will attract that kind of person.

Comment by Anuttama Dasa:

One issue that we as a society have to address is to define what is acceptable behaviour and what is unacceptable behaviour. It's true, there are many stories of famous and respectable people who went through some very difficult times and who then turned to Christianity later in life and gave up their erring ways. But as a society, what is our social norm? There are many questions that come from this. Is it okay in an emergency to break ethical rules? Do we accept some of the ethical principles that are there in the larger society? Or are we above that? Are we able to set our own standards?

It seems in our society the real unacceptable behaviour is to work hard for eight hours a day, six days a week, with a humble income. It is seen as better to do something that isn't entirely straightforward for four hours a day and make more money. It is a problem that has seeped into our society and needs to be weeded out. In Bhagavad-gita, Prabhupada says that it is better to be an honest street sweeper than a charlatan meditator. Prabhupada also says that if one has a very menial job but is meditating on the fact that the fruit of his work is for Krsna, then that can be pure devotional service.

This is a critically important point. What is our ethic? We have to balance our needs to maintain our bodies and our families, but also we have to try and be Krsna conscious.

There is the example of Kholaveca Sridhara that Rukmini mentioned from Caitanya-caritamrta. He was earning a pauper's income from selling banana leaves, yet he is glorified in the sastra. He would rather live humbly from banana leaf sales than compromise his morals. We need to build a social network and a support network in which we help our fellow Vaisnavas make an honest living. We've been trying to dosomething like this with our youth. There may be limited resources, but at least we have to understand that we need to do something there. We need to build that support network and at the same time define and make clear what constitutes unacceptable behaviour.

We have to develop an unbreakable ethic of being honest and truthful in representing Prabhupada's movement to society, even if that means we have to work a little harder or a little below our means. If we don't do this now, these unacceptable behaviours get passed on to the next generation and become very difficult to weed out.