A paper commissioned by the GBC Finance Committee and the GBC Organizational Development Committee
Written by Praghosa Dasa
How ISKCON devotees collect, manage, and spend Krishna’s laxmi generates much discussion, especially because we have little precedent as to how a structured Vaisnava organization conducts such matters. That said, few, if any, would argue the importance of the twin principles of accountability and using all monies received directly in the service of Krishna and ISKCON’s preaching mission.
Yes, the accounts must be kept very clearly. Then everyone will be pleased with us. Not a single farthing should be wasted. That will be our credit.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => How to Keep Accounts
Our sannyasis, they work very hard, preach, they collect money – but not a single farthing for himself.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Sannyasa Initiation Lecture, November 18, 1975
When I first thought about writing this paper, I intended to focus only on the issue of ISKCON devotees accounting for the donations they receive. However, it quickly became clear that this topic is far broader than the specifics of bookkeeping and accounting. Rather, it has, as with most of devotional life, a philosophical aspect.
The indications from Srila Prabhupada about the importance of devotees being both accountable and detailed in their accounting are convincing.
The idea is although he was a Vaisnava, he was not a fool how to manage a state. It does not mean that a Vaisnava will be fool and rascal because he’s Vaisnava. No. Vaisnava, twenty-six qualifications. One of the qualifications is daksa: he must be very expert in doing things very nicely. Not that because one is Vaisnava he’ll be callous in the worldly things. No. Therefore I repeatedly request the management that you must be very expert in managing these temple affairs. Everything to the right point. Not a single farthing should be wasted. A Vaisnava must be daksa, expert in everything. This is no excuse, that “I have become a devotee. Therefore I am callous to all material things.”
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.7.40, Vrndavana, October 1, 1976
And even more specific:
I’m so glad to learn that a scientific bookkeeping system is being introduced in our different centers. If possible, some instruction may be sent here in Bombay for this scientific bookkeeping system. Here in India, although they are trying their best, still it is not satisfactory. Perfect accounts means every information regarding financial and stock situation must be ready for immediate reference and not a single farthing should be wasted.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to Rupanuga, February 19, 1971
You must also keep proper account. Not a single farthing should be wasted. I will see the accounts personally when I return to Bombay.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to: Giriraja, Evanston, Illinois, July 4, 1975
As with other areas of ISKCON life Srila Prabhupada often focused on the bigger picture and was hopeful that if his disciples followed the four rules and strictly chanted their sixteen rounds of japa daily, then most, if not all, of the details of management would fall into place. Of course, if details still needed addressing, he would ensure that happened either by giving direction or personally intervening. As far as accountability and money management is concerned, Srila Prabhupada again and again stressed the importance of not spending any of Krsna’s money on our own comforts.
Just like according to Vedic system, begging is allowed. Begging allowed for whom? For the brahmanas, for the sannyasis, for the brahmacaris, because they collect money, beg from door to door for their benefit. Suppose a brahmacari is going to a householder’s place or a storekeeper’s place, “Give us some contribution.” He is not collecting that money for his livelihood. He’s quite competent to work. But that one dollar which he contributes to Krsna consciousness movement, it is good for him. At least, some portion of his energy goes to Krsna. That is the philosophy. Not that “Some way or other, I may collect some money and live very comfortably.” No. We cannot do that. But you can accept Krsna’s prasada. That is a different thing. But for personal comfort you have to work.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Lecture on the Bhagavad-gita, December 23, 1968
The renounced order of life is never meant for begging or living at the cost of others as a parasite. According to the dictionary, a parasite is a sycophant who lives at the cost of society without making any contribution to that society. The renounced order is meant for contributing something substantial to society and not depending on the earnings of the householders. On the contrary, acceptance of alms from the householders by the bona fide mendicant is an opportunity afforded by the saint for the tangible benefit of the donor.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 2.2.5, purport
Farms are especially meant for the grhasthas. Brahmanas and sannyasis are meant for begging food grains from the grhasthas. They depend on the grhasthas and the grhasthas treat them as their children. As the child is not a burden for the parents, so brahmanas and sannyasis are not a burden for the grhasthas. They simply take food grains to survive but they give transcendental knowledge for the benefit of society. They have no worries for producing and securing food. That is the business of grhasthas, but the sannyasis and brahmanas devote their time to spreading spiritual knowledge. That is the system.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to Balavanta, July 8, 1976)
The benefit for both donor and receiver is clear provided donations are used properly – the converse being obvious if donations are not.
Grhastha? Grhastha means to live with wife. This is the meaning of grhastha. And a grhastha is supposed to support others who are not grhasthas, just like brahmacari. Brahmacari means student life. So grhasthas support them. [break] … sannyasis, other three classes. Because they are engaged in a different subject matter, they have no time to earn their livelihood, and therefore, those who are grhasthas, they take charge of him. This is the Vedic system. But they should live also on the bare necessities of life. They should not be luxurious. A brahmacari cannot be luxurious. A sannyasi cannot be luxurious. A vanaprastha cannot be luxurious. Luxury is allowed only to the householder because they are earning their own money. Others are dependent. So one cannot be luxurious at the expense of others. That is not allowed.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB Lecture, October 23, 1968
It may be that Srila Prabhupada was being generous when he suggested that grhastha’s can live luxuriously. ISKCON has generally been less generous with them. But it could be argued that ISKCON has been lenient toward “luxurious” sannyasis. Srila Prabhupada’s comment above and below would indicate that such leniency is misguided.
Sannyasis should not be given any money. They should manage themselves and maintain themselves by taking small alms from different persons – not a lump sum from one person.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to Atreya Rsi, August 13, 1971
And here is clear instruction that all monies should be accounted for first, and then “necessary expenditure” can be handed back to the sannyasi(s) for their preaching:
I know you are a very good cook and I can understand that you have found the books useful for distribution. I have no objection to your printing it with the name Revatinandana Swami’s Cookbook, but the royalty should go to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Just as I am publishing Bhagavad-gita As It Is with MacMillan Company but the royalty is going to the BBT. I think this method is appropriate. If you yourself take the royalty it will be personal interest money and trade, and this will deviate your principle of sannyasa. Sannyasi means he is in renounced order and lives by begging alms for the bare necessities of life. It is not good to make trade to get money for personal expenditure. If the royalty is given to the BBT, we will keep a separate account from this royalty and necessary expenditures for your preaching may be supplied from the BBT.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to Revatinandana Swami, January 9, 1974
Traditional Vedic Model vs. ISKCON’s Model
An argument is sometimes made that our ISKCON brahmanas preachers should be independent, and the Vedic model is used as supporting evidence. The reference below raises some interesting points.
A brahmana is supposed to devote his whole life to understanding Brahman. Brahma janatiti brahmanah: one who knows Brahman is called a brahmana. Thus charity is offered to the brahmanas because they are always engaged in higher spiritual service and have no time to earn their livelihood. In the Vedic literature, charity is also to be awarded to one in the renounced order of life, the sannyasi. The sannyasis beg from door to door, not for money but for missionary purposes. The system is that they go from door to door to awaken the householders from the slumber of ignorance. Because the householders are engaged in family affairs and have forgotten their actual purpose in life – awakening their Krsna consciousness – it is the business of the sannyasis to go as beggars to the householders and encourage them to be Krsna conscious. As it is said in the Vedas, one should awake and achieve what is due him in this human form of life. This knowledge and method is distributed by the sannyasis; hence charity is to be given to the renouncer of life, to the brahmanas, and similar good causes, not to any whimsical cause.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bhagavad-gita 10.4–5, purport
We often read that traditionally, brahmanas and sannyasis went “from door to door.” One pictures them cold-calling on households where neither the preachers nor the householders know one another. But in ISKCON the brahmanas and sannyasis do very little cold calling; they know the grhasthas they visit, and many, if not most, of these grhasthas are already engaged in Krishna consciousness.
The traditional model promotes the idea of madhukari – collecting a little from many people. The madhukari model naturally protects against material indulgence on the part of the preacher. Srila Prabhupada encourages adherence at least to the spirit of madhukari:
In the material world, all distresses are due to extravagance. One acquires money extravagantly and also spends it extravagantly. Such activities are sinful. All property belongs to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and all living beings, who are sons of the Supreme Lord, have the right to use the Supreme Father’s property, but one cannot take more than necessary. This principle should especially be followed by brahmanas and sannyasis who live at the cost of others.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 8.19.17, purport
Part of the spirit of madhukari is to give association to materialistic persons without becoming contaminated by their materialism. As mentioned, ISKCON’s brahmanas and sannyasis know most of the grhasthas they visit. As ISKCON grows, an increasing number of these devotees are not properly situated in their Krishna conscious practices. They are devotees who have lapsed in their sadhana or families from the Indian congregation who are favorable but who have never really committed to the ISKCON standard of sadhana. Srila Prabhupada warns:
It is very risky to accept money or food from materialistic persons, for such acceptance pollutes the mind of the charity’s recipient. According to the Vedic system, one should give charity to sannyasis and brahmanas because one who thus gives charity becomes free from sinful activities. Formerly, therefore, brahmanas would not accept charity from a person unless he were very pious. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu gave this instruction for all spiritual masters. Materialistic persons who are not inclined to give up their sinful activities like illicit sex, intoxication, gambling and meat-eating sometimes want to become our disciples, but, unlike professional spiritual masters who accept disciples regardless of their condition, Vaisnavas do not accept such cheap disciples. One must at least agree to abide by the rules and regulations for a disciple before a Vaisnava acarya can accept him. In fact, a Vaisnava should not even accept charity or food from persons who do not follow the rules and regulations of the Vaisnava principles.
>>> Ref. VedaBase =>Cc., Adi 12.50, purport
But the traditional Vedic model can’t be seamlessly transferred into our modern-day ISKCON context, which of course is operating within Kali-yuga. For example, Srila Prabhupada instructed Kirtanandana Swami to focus on “outsiders,” not “insiders,” when collecting funds for New Vrindavan. The idea of “insiders” and “outsiders” doesn’t so much apply to the Vedic model but very much applies to the kind of preaching we’re doing in Kali-yuga.
So he should immediately begin his bahudaka program and collect money from outsiders, not from insiders. And as he is in charge of New Vrndavana, he may invest all such collections for the development of New Vrndavana, and before this Hayagriva must transfer the property to the Society’s name.”
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to Brahmananda, August 30, 1969
The brahmacaris will fail to execute their vows and become generally unclean, the householders will become beggars, the vanaprasthas will live in the villages, and the sannyasis will become greedy for wealth.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 12.3.33
In Kali-yuga, however, the entire system has gone topsy-turvy. The student lives in luxury at the expense of the father or the father-in-law. When the educated, indulgent student becomes a householder by the strength of university degrees, he requires money by all means for all kinds of bodily comfort, and therefore he cannot spare even a penny for the so-called vanaprasthas and sannyasis. The vanaprasthas and sannyasis nowadays are those who were unsuccessful in family life.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => LoB, verse 32
Another way that ISKCON differs from the traditional Vedic model is the relationship many sannyasis retain with their non-devotee families. When devotees first come in contact with ISKCON the relationship between them and their families is often strained, but it tends to improve over time. While this affords family members the opportunity to associate with their devotee relatives, devotees need to exercise caution if they find themselves regularly visiting or staying with their families, accepting service from them, and especially, accepting donations:
So Raghunatha dasa Gosvami, in the beginning he was accepting that four hundred rupees, but what he was doing, he was spending by inviting all the sannyasis, including Caitanya Mahaprabhu. So gradually Raghunatha dasa Gosvami said that all his men, father’s men, “You better go home. I don’t want your assistance. I don’t want this money. You go away.” The master …, so they went back. And there was no invitation. Caitanya Mahaprabhu inquired his personal secretary, Svarupa Damodara. So Raghunatha dasa Gosvami was entrusted for training to Svarupa Damodara. He asked Svarupa Damodara, “We don’t receive any invitation from Raghunatha nowadays, what is that?” “No, he has refused his father’s money. He doesn’t take. These men have gone back.” Then Caitanya Mahaprabhu went, “Oh, that’s very nice. He became a mendicant by taking help from home, it is not good. He has refused, that is very nice. But how he is eating nowadays?” “Now he is standing on the staircase at Jagannatha temple. When the priests go home, they give him some contribution of the foodstuff. He is maintained.”
Then after few days Caitanya Mahaprabhu inquired from Svarupa Damodara, “Oh, nowadays I don’t find Raghunatha standing there, what he is doing?” Svarupa Damodara replied that “Raghunatha has given up that business standing on this. He thought that it is standing like prostitute. ‘No, I don’t want.’” Then, “How he’s eating?” “No, he is collects some rice which is washed away from the kitchen, and he eats that.” Raghunatha dasa Gosvami was doing that.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Lecture, Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.5.1–8, Stockholm, September 6, 1973
And a final reference, suggesting that ISKCON brahmanas should not have the same level of financial discretion described in the traditional Vedic model but should hand their donations to the local center where they were collected:
Regarding your question about who shall get the money that is collected by you and your assistant, Jimmy, I think that because practically a sannyasi belongs to every center whatever is collected should go to the same center where you are staying. That is best. But this question may be settled in the meetings held between all the temple presidents. If you collect something where there is no center, that money you can take to your own center, New Vrindaban. But I think that all these matters should be settled amongst yourselves with the presidents of different centers. Now as we are growing in magnitude we should manage things in such a nice way that there may not be any misunderstanding between one center and another. That is my request. Everything should be done on the basis of mutual agreement. So far my opinion is concerned, any amount collected from a particular center should go to the center. That means if you collect anything while in Columbus center, that should go to Columbus center, and similarly if you are in some other center.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter, October 11, 1969
Broader Aspects of Fundraising in ISKCON
In addition to the type of fundraising already discussed, we need to look at other areas of fundraising in ISKCON, such as our Life Membership program. Of course, none of these accountability issues should be considered in isolation, and any adjustments that may be required to broader areas, such as general fundraising policy, will be much more effective if our leaders are ideal in their own financial accountability, as clearly indicated by the references given from Srila Prabhupada. If the leaders are not setting a positive example, is it a surprise that others will not be ideal, including grhasthas who take a percentage of their collections to maintain themselves (Life Membership is one area where they do so)?
Tamala Krsna: So we should preach strongly and they should know that we also preach.
Prabhupada: Yes, they should know that it is for their benefit we are making them life members, not for our benefit. And that should be the motive.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Room Conversation with banker, Bombay, September 21, 1973
Prabhupada’s statement underlines that we should be putting as much effort into developing the Krishna consciousness of the donors as collecting their money. Part of helping them in their Krishna consciousness is ensuring that their money is properly used in Krishna’s service. If a percentage of a life member’s donation becomes the property of the fundraiser, there may be a conflict of interest.
Furthermore Srila Prabhupada strongly advises us about the pitfalls of accepting money given to charity for one’s personal use:
Also, if someone accepts charity, he becomes indebted, and that debt has to be repaid, just as borrowed money must be repaid. Therefore devotees should not accept charity from anyone unless they intend to spend it in Krsna’s service. For a devotee to accept donations just to satisfy his belly is a great sin. Brahmanas and sannyasis who accept charity from others must accept it with great caution.
>>> Ref. VedaBase =>A Second Chance
“With great caution.” It is unlikely that any of our ISKCON sannyasis or brahmanas are accepting donations simply to satisfy their bellies. Still, it’s true that some of our brahmanas and sannyasis are using at least part of the donations they collect to cover their personal needs and/or projects. This may fall under Srila Prabhupada’s warning: proceed with “great caution.”
The following quotations state it even more succinctly:
A brahmana or sannyasi is qualified to ask charity from others, but if he takes more than necessary he is punishable.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 8.19.17, purport
Unless the sannyasi is freed from all cares and anxieties, like a white cloud, it is difficult for him to do anything good for society.
LoB, verse 32, purport
Raghunatha dasa Babaji: “Bheka is more a social custom than anything else. When bhava is enthroned in the heart, relish of the spiritual realm increases and the attraction for sensual pleasures diminishes until it is finally eliminated. This is known as the stage of virakti. Hence, any devotee who takes bheka after attaining virakti for the simple reason of minimizing his bodily necessities is called a virakti-vaisnava. Anyone who puts on the robes of a renunciant before having reached the stage of bhava is a charlatan and his status is not bona fide. Sri Caitanya highlighted this principle by chastising Chota Haridasa.”
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Part Ten: The Initial Discussion of Prayojana, the Highest Goal of Life
Honouring the Wishes of Donors and Enhancing ISKCON’s Reputation
The topic of honouring donors’ wishes and thus enhancing ISKCON’s reputation for financial integrity has gained increasing attention over the years. There are, of course, two connected aspects to this topic. The first is honouring the request of donors that their donations be used for the purposes they have specified. In the past, ISKCON was a little cavalier about this, and donations were often merged with the general temple coffers and used in whatever way the temple or other authority chose. ISKCON has improved its accountability on this point over the years, although no doubt more progress could be made. Regarding enhancing ISKCON’s reputation for financial integrity, that too has improved as donors have come to learn that their gifts are not likely to be misused. When we misdirect donations to other needs, naturally our donors become less likely to donate in the future. This has been particularly problematic when we’ve asked for donations for food distribution but diverted the money elsewhere. Srila Prabhupada writes:
Regarding the controversy about book distribution techniques, you are right. Our occupation must be honest. Everyone should adore our members as honest. If we do something which is deteriorating to the popular sentiments of the public in favor of our movement, that is not good. Somehow or other, we should not become unpopular in the public eye. These dishonest methods must be stopped. It is hampering our reputation all over the world. Money collected for feeding people in India should be collected under the name “ISKCON Food Relief.” Not any other name. And every farthing of that money must be sent to India, or better yet, buy food grains there and ship them here and we will distribute. But every farthing collected for that purpose must be used for that purpose. I have already sent one letter to Ramesvara explaining these points.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to Rupanuga Dasa, Bombay, January 9, 1975
I just saw your film last night and it was very nice. We can collect a lot of money with this film for ISKCON Food-relief program. But not a single farthing of that money should be used for any other thing. It should all go to our ISKCON food-relief fund, nothing else.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to Yadubara Dasa, Bombay, December 25, 1974
It’s clear from these references that Prabhupada was not in favour of playing footloose and fancy free with donations. It’s also clear that Srila Prabhupada was concerned with good communication with ISKCON’s donors and the public’s perception of his ISKCON.
Here’s another example of Prabhupada’s stress on using specific donations for the purpose they were given:
My Dear George,
Please accept my blessings. I am so much obliged to you for your valued cooperation in spreading my movement of Krsna Consciousness throughout the whole world. I beg to acknowledge receipt herewith of your contribution of $19,000 (nineteen thousand dollars) for publication of my book, Krsna, now going to the press within the week.
Please note that every farthing of this money will be employed in the service of the Lord.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to George Harrison, Los Angeles, February 16, 1970
Another challenge for ISKCON both now and going forward is how to honour the wishes of a donor who specifically requests that his or her donation is used directly for the benefit of an individual? Often but not always, this entails donations from disciples to their gurus. On the one hand it is a perfectly natural exchange, on the other if it grows to the point of near exclusivity and donations to ISKCON projects all but dry up, naturally that will be a major problem to the viability of ISKCON. Of course few if any disciples will have a problem if their guru chooses to direct their donation to an ISKCON project. Equally though the disciple will not have a problem if they don’t, so if all gurus were to choose the latter, ISKCON would greatly suffer. I don’t think there is an easy answer to this conundrum but it is something we all need to work on to find a practical solution. Either way of course all donations should still be accounted for.
It would seem that if one is a member of ISKCON, what to speak of one of ISKCON’s serving officers, and if we consider ourselves Prabhupadanugas, then it’s hard – if not impossible – to avoid financial accountability.
In essence, all monies received as a result of one’s service in and to ISKCON, regardless of varna or asrama, must be properly accounted for and spent exclusively for the service of the ISKCON mission. To avoid unnecessary criticism and the danger of mistaking our personal ideas about how best to spend money for the best way to use it, we should be careful not to leave financial decisions in the hands on a single individual. Financial decisions should be made by teams.
Ideally, the parameters for and reporting of this accounting should be guided by the GBC body, as Srila Prabhupada indicates:
GBC as a body, they should give direction to the sannyasis.
>>> Ref. VedaBase => Room Conversation, March 1, 1977