Iskcon Cultural Divide, Or Unity?

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By Kesava Krsna Dasa

Inching forward with preaching successes worldwide, our conservative or modern pursuance of Krishna consciousness is often influenced by ‘Indian’ or Western concepts. While representatives of cultural differences aim for mutual ‘Vedic’ convergence on vital and important issues, we witness arguments for or against ‘Indian’ or Western culture. Who is right?

Prabhupada: “Your international feeling and my inter-national feeling are overlapping and conflicting. We have to find the proper center for our loving feelings…. That center is Kṛṣṇa.” (International Student Society, Boston, Dec ’69)

Is it not worth noticing how the “inching forward” is done by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mercy regardless of whether we preach with an ‘Indian’ or Western bias? Such mercy is above ‘Indian’ or Western notions. While some of us rack our intellects wondering how to implement VAD, we yet see how “catur varnam maya srstam…” is already prevalent before our eyes in human society. How can we create something that is already created by the Lord? Srila Prabhupada wanted it, but surely there must be a way to harness VAD to existing human divisions.

Prabhupāda: “Cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ [Bg. 4.13]. Varṇāśrama-dharma is there, but it is not organized. Varṇa… Because it is made by God, mayā sṛṣṭam, it cannot be violated. So… But it (is) in a perverted way. Therefore we are suffering.” (February 22, 1974, Bombay)

For instance, China had muzzled the natural vaisya human instinct under traditional Mao communism. As if they had taken a leaf out of Bhagavad-Gita, they have gradually unleashed the vaisya spirit, resulting in rapid national prosperity.

By ‘Indian,’ we refer to those who think that ‘Indian’ is closer to Vedic standards than elsewhere, and so have a ‘moral right’ to lecture to assumed derelict, and morally bankrupt ‘Western tinged’ preaching methods. Even devotees from Western countries who spend extended time in India, we find, are usually influenced the ‘Indian’ or ‘Vedic’ way, and tend to be more conservative than others are. No doubt, the enduring power of ‘Indian’ culture – some of it Vedic in origin – has defied centuries of Moghul and British disincentives. But…

Puṣṭa Kṛṣṇa: [break] “They use this argument against us, that the Vedic culture was most solidly founded in India.”

Prabhupāda: “But you have, I mean to say, curbed down. This rascal civilization, they could not take the Western civilization, and they lost their own civilization. This is India’s bad luck. The Britishers did not teach them how to take up the Western culture, but they killed the Eastern culture. You understand?” (October 18, 1975, Johannesburg)

But didn’t Srila Prabhupada venture Westward? Didn’t he utilise Western capital, talent and Bhakti enthusiasm of his disciples to spread Krishna consciousness? Wasn’t he proud to present his “dancing white elephants” to his fellow compatriots, who were supposedly guardians of Vedic Sanatana Dharma?

This staying power can clearly influence devotees, but there are still elements of ‘Indian’ culture that are not quite Vedic, and are cause for concern for Western (and Indian) human rights campaigners. Matters of honour killings, exorbitant dowry demands that end in violent fiascos, occasional enforced sati, the cruel and inflexible caste system, are some social problems. In general, there is gullibility to worshipping human spiritual leaders as God, pervasive pancopasana mayavada infiltration, imitating the West, cow slaughterhouses, and total disregard for things holy, like River Yamuna and mining in Mathura district and so on. There is substantial “loss” in Vedic culture.

In spite of this, the holy name and sadhana Bhakti side of Krishna consciousness strikes a chord with numerous Indian nationals who imbibe it within that “staying power.” Krishna consciousness has rapidly spread in India, but the former Eastern Bloc countries also have phenomenal growth. What then is to be said for China, whose people are accustomed to regimented lifestyles? Sadhana Bhakti should be natural for them.

In years to come, when more Chinese people become Vaisnavas – and maybe the best, as Srila Prabhupada predicted - and represent a formidable bloc on our world GBC, we will not be talking ‘India’ and the West, but also China and other Far-Eastern nations. Their cultural clout shall not be taken lightly. All this world cultural diversity remains however, subordinate to the mercy of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the liberality of the Lord’s holy names.

The challenge for us is how to spread such mercy and liberality and agree on certain topics amid diverse world cultures. Future society shall need a cultural base. Are we to expect our worldwide Iskcon society to not have regional or international variations? If we observe the oriental artwork adorning Srila Prabhupada’s Light Of The Bhagavat, then we’ll know that Srila Prabhupada appreciated cultural diversity in presenting Krishna consciousness.

At this particular time, we have a seemingly ‘superior’ traditional ‘high-ground’ connected with things ‘India’ in matters of presenting Krishna consciousness. Economically speaking India has risen to the top ten of world nations. This has made India more important in cultural terms. During Srila Prabhupada’s time in the West, India was viewed as, or was grouped into nations with stagnant socialist leanings riled with poverty.

Today, even Indian bodied devotees born and bred in Western countries experience sometimes-extreme cultural shock when visiting India, or the holy dhama (with material vision). The worldwide diaspora of Indian nationals presents an interesting cultural comparison. The “staying power” of Sanatana Dharma has ensured cultural stability of ‘Indians’ wherever they move, or were moved to by the British. Attribute the fact that many of these dispersion communities have taken to Krishna consciousness, could inadvertently give credit to the British for helping to spread Lord Chaitanya’s mission of love around the world.

Another cultural polemic for traditionalists is how our GBC and large percentage of initiating spiritual masters are of ‘Western’ origin. Their perceived ‘Western’ liberality is sometimes assumed to be at variance with ‘Indian’ historical claims for stern traditional applications of Vedic culture. But are they really liberal, as in a Western moral decline sense, or are they liberal as representing the liberality of Srila Prabhupada and the holy name? The latter is more realistic. Why?

Just as the same human rights campaigners worry about certain of supposed Vedic culture abuses earlier mentioned, the followers of the Bhakti path of love also want to see Krishna consciousness presented in preaching, and implemented as culture, in a humane, or rather, in a kindly and compassionate way. This is where our world cultural divergence can benefit - to soften the rigid and hardness of traditional expectations of Krishna consciousness with the sympathetic and generousness of ‘liberal’ intent.

If we put the colour of rigidity and hardness (red for passion) together with the colour of liberality and generosity (yellow for goodness), we’ll end up with an orange. So, Orange can be the colour of our cultural mix? Does this mean compromising? Will the same Orange keep us from exerting superiority over other forms of preaching?

(Bg 18.21) “That knowledge by which one sees that in every different body there is a different type of living entity you should understand to be in the mode of passion.”

(Bg 18.20) ”That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness.”

If Iskcon were a city or nation, our conservative or liberal preferences as aired in our discussions, pretty much mirror those of normal materialistic societies. What does this say about us? Does it reveal that collectively we have not transcended normal petty societal feelings? In countries like Egypt, battling for a newly democratic identity, there is fear and loathing among the moderates of being governed by a traditionalist Muslim Brotherhood sided with more extreme Sala’fist minorities. Our situation is not very different on a societal level. Aside from uniting in the liberal holy name, we are still trying to forge an identity as a society, albeit a diverse one.

While we can converge or reach consensus, the combination should result in moderation and balance. We can unite spiritually with citizen devotees of countries and nations who bare hostility and suspicion towards other nations and citizens on a governmental footing. This level of unity should surely help us in our efforts, which are above national and cultural identities. Yet, can’t Iskcon be a culturally varied family or society?

If ‘Indian’ cultural standards appear somewhat unfriendly for the liberal, think of areas of the world, like Northern Africa, where violent and excruciating cultural methods of controlling sexual urges are used, as with genital mutilation. Imagine how the painless procedure of sadhana Bhakti can help. Of course, sadhana can be painful in the beginning for most spiritual aspirants, but nectar awaits determined practice, which hopefully earns mercy.

We can also imagine a situation where, during Lord Chaitanya’s time, a close family member of Sri Ramananda Raya, Bhavananda Raya, was to be executed by being thrown upon raised swords. Does this sound barbaric? There is no record of Lord Chaitanya saying that such punishment was barbaric – it was generally accepted. Even within moderate cultural settings, there still has to be Vedic responses to six kinds of aggressors.

Vedic culture then, contains lethal means of punishment, law, and order, which cannot be done away with. This Manu Samhita type of awareness can however, add to a misplaced sense of superior masculinity though, and subsequent abuse of womanhood, under the guise of ‘women-at-home’ proposals presented by traditionalists, that modern western women are afraid of. Some of our educated and qualified female ‘Indian’ devotees would be worried too. In Kali-yuga, patriarchal dominance often equals weak macho exploitation.

Would the years of female education incurred at great expense to make them useful members of society, and assets for Iskcon, go to waste, by being confined to ‘women-at-home’ demands made by our conservatives, with VAD in mind? Wouldn’t such a waste of talent and usefulness be a form of abuse? It will be, because the imposition of cultural shock can be anti Bhakti, by not allowing human resources to flourish for Krishna’s pleasure.

Simultaneously, many of our lady devotees are favourable to this. It can be harder not to act on traditional impositions if a sizable number of female devotees approve. How can we reconcile this? A practical solution would be to allow our women devotees to live as talented, educated and versatile Mothers and Sisters. Such ability can still be presented on major preaching fronts.

If these terms and roles are adopted without questionable Guru Titles, this can at least appease both sides. While acknowledging that not everyone can adapt to ‘Indian’ standards of culture, with understandable fear of abuse and victimisation, let our ladies flourish in devotion wherever they are – West or East. Is this a cultural compromise? It need not be. Patriarchs first have to earn implicit trust of females before females submit themselves to VAD strictures. This is a fair observation.

While we concern ourselves with tradition and modernity, one great benefit in preaching to Western people is that they genuinely wake up to Krishna consciousness with an innocence, whereas those familiar with Vedic ideals (mayavada tinged people) have to be drawn out of pretentious sleep. These two challenges reveal how we have to retain Western and ‘Indian’ diversity - both are beneficial.

Then, aren’t we all ultimately meant to be singing, dancing, and playing with Krishna? If that is our combined goal in life, why can’t we lend joy and happiness to all who come to Krishna consciousness by being happily situated? If that happiness is found either in traditional or Western situations, who are we to interfere with this? If variety is the spice of life, it would make sense to allow cultural variations of Krishna consciousness that appeal to all, and even to each of us as we travel.

Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa

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1 Unregistered

Dear Kesava Krsna Prabhu, PAMHO AGTSP!
Your articles always attract me by your deep analysis of essential points. Thank you, they delight me! This one also reads as a balanced in-depth analysis. Except I cannot figure this passage: “A practical solution would be to allow our women devotees to live as talented, educated and versatile Mothers and Sisters. Such ability can still be presented on major preaching fronts. If these terms and roles are adopted without questionable Guru Titles, this can at least appease both sides.” — Where is the concession or compromise from the side of “conservatives” here? “Get educated but only be a mother and sister” - how is that different from the taliban/syrian type “She can own a car but cannot publicly drive it?”

I must be missing something here.

And it is not that many women wouldn’t like to be protected and stay home, but protection is not their responsibility - putting the onus on them is very effeminate from the side of ‘patriarchs’, as you also seem to note.

Comment posted by Adi on December 18th, 2012
2 Kesava Krsna dasa

Part One:

Thank you Adi Purusha Prabhu for your kind words - and again, for allowing me to expand on the unclear passage, which requires unpacking.

As with any situation where compromise is reached, there will be mixed emotional reactions and half-acceptence and so on - same here. Let’s begin with some compromises the conservatives would make:

(1) To acknowledge that the VAD idea of women strictly being homebound is probably feasible only for financially well-to-do devotee couples. Both husband and wife working to earn enough income and so on usually meet Kali-yuga high expenses for home bonds, education, life assurance and insurance. In comparatively rare situations where the husband is the sole breadwinner, maybe the housewife can remain at home. How many couples meet this criterion?

(2) To acknowledge that ‘high-profile’ or celebrity women like Tulsi Gabbard, Hazel O’Connor (former pop star) and many others – married or unmarried – can do wonders for preaching purposes. To think that all women who join Iskcon, or who promote the values of Iskcon and Krishna consciousness, must conform to ‘Indian,’’Vedic’ or traditional strictures alien to Western acceptance, can produce understandable apprehension.

(3) To acknowledge that supplanting ‘Indian’ or ‘Vedic’ female restrictions into Westernised cultural settings at this juncture of time, is premature.

(4) To acknowledge that promoting ‘Eastern’ cultural prohibitions can curtail our preaching efforts.

(5) To acknowledge that the power of the holy name is our first impact in cleansing hearts. Culture or VAD comes later.
(
6) To acknowledge that women can be Mothers, and yet hold powerful, essential or influential positions in society, or in representing Iskcon.

Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa.

Comment posted by Kesava Krsna dasa on December 18th, 2012
3 Kesava Krsna dasa

Part Two:

Here are some compromises that pro FDG positions would make:

(1) To acknowledge that cultural sensitivity surrounding lady guruship will cause problems. Many sincere lady devotees are opposed to this.

(2) To acknowledge that if someone were elected as lady guru, current resentment in many parts of our Iskcon world will result in disrespect and the committing of offences.

(3) To acknowledge that learned, experienced and influential lady Vaisnavis can still be major preachers without having a guru title attached.

(4) To acknowledge that Iskcon needs to showcase to the world how versatile and essential the Mother role can be in promoting family-centred living.

(5) To acknowledge that placing oneself as a woman devotee under protective care – married or unmarried – is exemplary behaviour.

(6) To acknowledge that promoting lady guruship is as ‘radical’ as traditionalists imposing stern female restrictions. We are not ready for either, as they are culturally too sensitive.

There are more, I am sure. I hope this clears up some uncertainties.

Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa.

Comment posted by Kesava Krsna dasa on December 18th, 2012
4 Unregistered

Thank you, Kesava Krsna Prabhu, for your answers!

You wrote: “(6) To acknowledge that promoting lady guruship is as ‘radical’ as traditionalists imposing stern female restrictions. We are not ready for either, as they are culturally too sensitive.”

It is already ISKCON law since many years. Except for a few (revered) ISKCON members in South India, lady guruship does not seem to evoke any special feelings in anyone in India - in our own Gaudiya line, either soft or hard versions, there are many examples of lady gurus (http://gbc.iskcon.org/2012/01/26/female-diksa-guru/), even in the more smarta-type of lines. Bhaktivinoda Thakura did not disrespect Bipin Bihari Gosvami on the basis of his diksa-parampara, starting from Sri Jahnava Ma and including other women gurus. So the present development (”ban lady gurus” - of whom we don’t have even a single instance:-) strikes me as something bizarre, since it imposes a restriction quite foreign to either Lord Caitanya’s movement or even larger Indian tradition. “Male gurus born in the West” are a much much more radical idea and Indians accept it. But now, after at least 500 years of “legal precedents”, some ISKCON members propose, in fact, to be more radical than the radicals!

Comment posted by Adi on December 23rd, 2012
5 Kesava Krsna dasa

Adi Purusha Prabhu,

I understand your reasoning. Depending on which side of the argument one belongs, the opposing arguments will always appear radical or extreme. Why did I use the word Radical?

I had in mind this recent uproar and reaction to Mother Urmila giving class in Mayapur in the presence of sannyasis and so on. Hundreds of comments written in opposition to this, mainly from female devotees, much of it with vehemence and reminders of Stri Dharma loyalties, indicated that sizable sections of our Iskcon world are poles apart.

What is not radical for FDG supporters is radical for opponents of it. Under the circumstances, I can foresee problems on the horizon if lady gurus are nominated at this time in the face of such hostility. Even if our GBC does nominate a woman, or more, then that GBC resolution is not going to earn respect.

A guru has to be respected. We know that Respect is not something that can legislated or enforced – even if it comes from the GBC - it must be earned, usually over time. A lady guru will be disrespected, as things stand now. This shows we are not ready yet.

Since more VAD education has influenced more and more of our Iskcon devotees, this has also raised increased awareness of tradition and Stri Dharma in particular. At this rate of VAD awareness expansion, the tide toward FDG is ebbing. Add that to the strength of the Indian yatra who ‘collectively ‘ are opposed…

Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa.

Comment posted by Kesava Krsna dasa on December 25th, 2012
6 Unregistered

Adipurusa Prabhu says: It is already ISKCON law since many years. Except for a few (revered) ISKCON members in South India, lady guruship does not seem to evoke any special feelings in anyone in India.

Possibly for the small circle of devotees Adipurusa Prabhu associates with in Vrindavan, “special feelings” are not evoked. But not for “All India.” For the majority of devotees in India, it is not an issue because they already take it for granted based on tradition that diksa guru is male.

It should be noted that Adipurusa dasa holds a senior position as well as he is a teacher at the VIHE (Vrindavan Institute of Higher Education). Mother Narayana dasi, who’s name has been put up for being the first female diska guru is also a senior devotee at the VIHE. And out of nine teachers for this years VIHE courses (Bhakti Sastri, Bhakti Vaibhava and Bhakti Vedanta), four were females: Laksmimoni Dasi, Urmila Dasi, Prasanta Dasi and Vraja Lila Dasi. This information can be found on the VIHE website http://www.vihe.org/index.html

So the VIHE is influenced by a small group of Western devotees and also by gender equality. It is sad that an institution entrusted with disseminating the conclusions of Sastra should not perfectly understand its conclusions “As It Is,” on the gender issue.

Comment posted by Nitai dasa on December 26th, 2012
7 pustakrishna

I want to let Krishna Kesava das know first of all that I actually read this article. It does jump around quite a bit. At the end of it, I felt a little neurotic…like some kind of control-freak. In summary, I think we need to depend upon Krishna. He is Chaitya Guru. We need to follow the Vaishnava-acharyas, they are Guru outside of us. But, we are not encouraged to follow the mind…which we are told should be beaten with a shoe 100 times in the morning, and 100 times in the evening. We are not controllers. At least we can be good observers, and channel Krishna’s energy for Krishna’s loving service.

The reactive problems we see whether in or outside of ISKCON are the result of conditioned souls trying to lord over the material world. Whether it be mentally, physically, socially…lording over matter is Maya. We have been given codes of ethics by every religious tradition and they should become common sense after a while. When there are incongruities, that is due to the illusory energy. We have heard from Krishna how to recognize one who is transcendentally situated, what their qualities and behavior are like. Practically, with one of Srila Prabhupad’s last instructions, he said that by hearing the topics of the Srimad Bhagavatam, on develops more and more goodness which is beneficial to progress in spiritual life. It is not contrived. The hrdaya-granthi, knot of the heart, is cut simply by hearing about Krishna. THIS IS WHAT THE HARE KRISHNA MOVEMENT IS ABOUT…TO GIVE PEOPLE THE OPPORTUNITY TO HEAR ABOUT KRISHNA. Not to encourage them to be part of any varna while neglecting the great opportunity of human life to connect with Krishna. The observations about varna are simply to clarify that people can work together without being envious of one another. They must however work to overcome lust, anger, and greed in order to properly execute the duties. It is God’s arrangement both to satisfy people’s material needs, and to create a simplified social system where Krishna, God, can be the Center.

Now, whether Indian, Western, metropolitan or agrarian, we must introduce the necessity of a God centric lifestyle. There will naturally be different cultural bias with Krishna consciousness, but we must emphasize over, and over, and over again, that Krishna consciousness is not Indian religion, and not only for Indians. It is for everyone. It is inclusive rather than exclusive. Pusta Krishna das

Comment posted by pustakrishna on December 27th, 2012

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