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Strictness is the Strength of ISKCON

Sunday, 19 May 2013 / Published in Articles / 4,074 views

By Sita Rama das

It seems most devotees in ISKCON rely on intuitive assumptions regarding the psychology of the audience we preach to; however, our assumptions can be erroneous. Strictness increases the attractiveness of religious organizations. This paper presents the logic behind this assertion and some recent empirical research on the role strictness plays in religious organizations. I believe the data below is valuable information for the leaders of ISKCON as well as for devotees in general.

In “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” (1972) Dean Kelley presented data which showed that since the 1960’s, “liberal/mainline”, churches had been declining but conservative churches were growing. [This overall trend has continued into the 21stcentury]* This precipitated a large amount of research into the causes of growth and decline in religious organizations. The 1st section of this paper is a partial review of recent literature on church growth/decline. The 2nd section is a summary of a paper by Sociologist Laurence R. Iannaccone, “Why Strict Churches are Strong”, in which he presents a theory supported by later empirical studies. The 3rd section is a summary of one such, large scale, empirical study combined with some suggestions on how ISKCON should view strictness.

Section 1: Partial summary of a literature review:

According to the literature review found in, “Testing the Strictness Thesis and Competing Theories of Congregational Growth” (Thomas & Olson, 2010) published in the, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Kelly’s thesis in, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” (Kelley 1972) is that the growth of evangelical /conservative churches is a result of, “strictness” which satisfies a, “quest for meaning”. There is a casual chain -the quest for meaning produces strictness, strictness produces congregational strength, and this produces congregational growth. This was received well by executives in evangelical/conservative churches but less favorably by sociologists.

Many sociologists asserted that the growth in evangelical/conservative churches is more likely attributable to demographic factors; others claimed the concept of strictness is too abstract for empirical research, while others claimed evangelizing is more important than strictness. As a result the strictness theory was considered basically debunked until Laurence Iannaccone wrote, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.”(Iannoccone, 1994).

Section 2:

Summary of, “Why strict Churches are Strong”, by Laurence R. Iannaccone, Sociologist at Santa Clara University, published in the American Journal of Sociology (1994).

In 1994, Iannaccone noted that after twenty years the trend, which was noted by Kelley 20 years earlier, had continued unabated, “…so much so that "small sects" such as the Mormons and the Assemblies of God now outnumber "mainline" denominations such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.”(p. 1181). Iannaccone summarizes Kelley’s causal thesis to be- conservative church growth is attributable to demands for, “strict loyalty, unwavering belief, and rigid adherence to a distinctive lifestyle.”(p.1181). Iannaccone says he and Kelley agree that strictness increases commitment, participation, and resources; growth is a byproduct of these factors. He acknowledges that too much strictness may have a negative affect and gives a straightforward means for religious organizations to determine their optimal level of strictness.

Iannaccone states that Kelley describes strict/ conservative churches as those which:

… proclaim an exclusive truth-a closed, comprehensive, and eternal doctrine. They demand adherence to a distinctive faith, morality, and lifestyle. They condemn deviance, shun dissenters, and repudiate the outside world. They frequently embrace "eccentric traits," such as distinctive diet, dress, or speech that invite ridicule, isolation, and persecution (p. 1182)

For the purpose of his analysis Iannaccone defines strictness as- “…the degree to which a group limits and thereby increases the cost of non-group activities, such as socializing with members of other churches or pursuing "secular" pastimes.”(p. 1182). He acknowledges that attraction to greater cost seems to go against the, “essence of rationality”, which is to seek benefits and avoid costs. He notes that the Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Moonies and Krishna’s all have costs that are not required by the Methodists or Presbyterians; “Pleasures are sacrificed, opportunities forgone and social stigma is risked, or even invited.” One might ask, “How can burnt offerings and their equivalents survive in religious markets when self-interest and competitive pressures drive them out of most other markets?”(p. 1182). Iannaccone claims the answer is strictness increases commitment, raises levels of participation, allows a church to offer more to members, and reduces problems caused by, “free riders”.

Iannaccone says, much social scientific research has been done on the, “free-rider” problem. Religious experience is a very personal thing but it is a, “commodity” that people produce collectively. The spiritual satisfaction an individual experiences is an effect of the number of others in attendance, as well as their enthusiasm and commitment. The free riders do not contribute to this yet they use the resources of the highly committed. Direct monitoring or requiring contributions, attendance, etc, goes against the concept of voluntary following. But, seemingly unproductive costs of behavior regulations screen out free riders. (p. 1183 1184).

Conversely, in some organizations the average level of commitment is too low. He writes, “… case studies of cults and communes provide more striking examples. In such groups, which can only survive with high levels of commitment, the costs of free riding are laid bare.”(p. 1185.) He cites individuals who studied 19th century communes:

Charles Guide's observation, quoted by Kanter (1973, pp. 157-58), is particularly apt: "Perhaps the gravest [peril] of all lies in the fact that these colonies are threatened as much by success as by failure. . . . If they attain prosperity they attract a crowd of members who lack the enthusiasm and faith of the earlier ones and are attracted only by self-interest." This perverse dynamic threatens all groups engaged in the production of collective goods, and it applies to enthusiasm, solidarity, and other social benefits no less than to material resources (p. 1186).

Strictness, in terms of behavior guidelines, “increases the price” of prohibited activities. On page 1188, Iannoccone claims this increase in price reduces the demand for the prohibited activities and increases the demand for its substitutes. Although restrictions cannot be forced, deception in this regard has costs; “A secret sexual liaison is not at all the same as an open relationship, private drinking from a hidden bottle is a poor substitute for social drinking at bars and parties, and a concealed smoking habit may be more trouble than it is worth.”

The seductive middle ground is eliminated, and, paradoxically, those who remain find that their welfare has been increased. It follows that perfectly rational people can be drawn to decidedly unconventional groups. This conclusion sharply contrasts with the view, popular among psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and the media, that conversion to deviant religious sects and cults is inherently pathological, the consequence of either psychological abnormality or coercive "brainwashing" (Robbins 1988, pp. 72-89)

Iannaccone argues that his model based on the cost and benefits of strictness rationalizes, so called, deviant behaviors, extends Kelley‘s thesis, predicts empirical correlates of strictness, and spreads new light on the traditional church/sect perspective. Most noteworthy is his claim that theories on American Protestant growth are applicable to religious organizations in general.

Church to Sect theory is an abstract ,concept which sets sects apart from churches based on the level of distinctiveness or tension they have with the culture wherein they exists; with sects maintaining the highest level of tension. This typology is too idealistic and abstract for empirical study. Iannaccone argues that his cost based “scheme”, “… makes formal theory of church and sect more elegant, general, and empirically fruitful than its predecessors”(p.1192).

The cost-based theory of church and sect rebuts the complaint that religious typologies are inherently ad hoc, rooted in the particulars of Christian theology and European church history and inapplicable to other religious traditions (Roberts 1984, p. 225; Eister 1967). The theory grows from abstract considerations of collective production, rationality, and free riding and should therefore apply to other, collectively oriented religions, such as Judaism and Islam. This proves, in fact, to be the case. Data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reveal patterns of interdenominational variation virtually identical to those observed within Protestantism (p. 1194).

He begins his substantiation of these claims with a description of a study by Hoge and Roozen(1979) which operationalizes measures of strictness. They did a study which asked respondents to rate various protestant denomination according to the following criteria: "Does the denomination emphasize maintaining a separate and distinctive life style or morality in personal and family life, in such areas as dress, diet, drinking, entertainment, uses of time, marriage, sex, child rearing, and the like? Or does it affirm the current American mainline life style in these respects?" The results justified the labeling of certain churches as mainline and others as conservative by the National Council of Churches.* Consistent with this labeling, the “liberal” Episcopal, Methodists, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ scored least distinctive from the American lifestyle and the fundamentalists, Pentecostals and sects (Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons) scored most distinctive (p. 1191). According to membership numbers of the National Council of Churches, overall, the most distinctive denomination continue to grow while the, “mainline” churches continue to decline*.

In regard to other religious organizations, Iannaccone gives a detailed analysis, including graphs, from a 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. Iannaccone, as a respected academic, claims the data justifies a firm conclusion:

We thus arrive at a persistent and powerfully sociological finding. The character of the group-its distinctiveness, costliness, or strictness-does more to explain individual rates of religious participation than does any standard, individual-level characteristic, such as age, sex, race, region, income, education, or marital status. The impact appears across both Christian and Jewish denominations, and it remains strong even after controlling for personal beliefs. 24(p. 1200).

Footnote 24 argues that the data presented disputes the claims of several specific criticisms of Kelley’s thesis.

On page 1202, regarding the question of too much strictness, Iannaccone cites Stark and Bainbridge (1985, p. 184):

"Many sects fail to grow (and are never transformed into churches) because their initial level of tension is so high as to cause their early social encapsulation. Once encapsulated, a sect may persist for centuries, depending on fertility and the ability to minimize defection, but it will rarely be able to recruit an outsider."

A group must not lose its distinctiveness but too much strictness can be fatal. How does a religious organization know which strict demands will benefit the group and which ones will backfire? Iannaccone claims the answer is straightforward:

successful strictness must involve the sacrifice of external (non-group) resources and opportunities that the group can itself replace. In other words, a group can afford to prohibit or put out of reach only those "commodities" for which it offers a close substitute (p. 1204).

This would be a good point to discuss optimal levels of strictness in ISKCON but first other empirical data will be presented and then suggestion on what devotees can learn from it will be given.

Section # 3:

A summary of, “Testing the Strictness Thesis and Competing Theories of Congregational Growth” By Jeremy M. Thomas, and Daniel v. A. Olson Sociologists at Purdue University published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The literature review from the study was partially summarized in section#1 above.

Data Source for Current Study.

The authors of the study state that no previous study was known which simultaneously: “(1) measured at the congregational level; (2) was randomly drawn from many congregations across many denominations; (3) reported on direct measures of strict rules as actually practiced by local congregations; or (4) provided records that allow for the calculation of congregational growth as the main dependent variable.” Accordingly, none of the previous studies has produced results that both represented all American congregations and accurately evaluated the conceptual relationships hypothesized.” In contrast, this study used data from the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey (USCLS) which gathered information from over 300,000 parishioners in over 2,000 American congregations. Evidence is given which supports the claim that this data allows for the four necessary calculations stated above.

Constructs Empirically Defined:

The following constructs were, “operationalized” to render them sufficiently precise for statistical analysis:

Evangelical Theology:

Is operationalized from two questions on the USCLS. A, “Likert Scale” response to ones level of agreement with; ‘All the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth’?” (greater agreement shows weaker Evangelical Theology). The second question was to choose a statement that showed how one saw the Bible, on a continuum of responses from the two poles of accepting it literally to seeing it as, “an ancient book with little value [for] today”(accepting the Bible literally indicates strong Evangelical Theology)

Congregational Strictness:

Was operationalized by questions of whether the congregation had any, “special” rules or prohibitions regarding, smoking, drinking alcohol, what people eat, dancing, dress, hairstyle, jewewlry/ makeup, gambling, unmarried adults cohabitating, or homosexual behavior.

[ The authors of the study note that Iannaccone had argued that prohibiting these 8, “alternative activities” is useful for filtering out free riders. ]

Congregational Strength:

Was operationalized by measuring the amount of money and time parishioners gave to the congregation.

Parishioner Recruiting Activity:

Was operationalized by an interval level response to the question of how often parishioners invited friends and relatives to attend services.

Parishioner Perception of Value:

Was operationalized by asking survey participants if they agree/disagreed with three questions:

1. My spiritual needs are being met by this congregation. 2. I have a strong sense of belonging to this congregation. 3. Are you satisfied with what is offered here for children and youth?

Congregational Growth:

Was operationalized by calculating the mean percent change for five intervals over a six year period.

Demographic and Denominational Control Variables:

A significant amount of analysis was done to ensure that demographic and denominational factors did not act as confounding variables (factors outside of the ones operationalized which might affect one or more of the variables defined) including demographic and denominational factors.

Hypotheses:

The hypotheses of the study are: “(1) Evangelical Theology will be significantly and positively related to Congregational Strictness; (2) both Evangelical Theology and Congregational Strictness will be significantly and positively related to Congregational Strength; (3) Congregational Strength will be significantly and positively related to both Parishioner Recruiting Activity and Parishioner Perception of Value; (4) both Parishioner Recruiting Activity and Parishioner Perception of Value will be significantly and positively related to Congregational Growth; and (5) all other relationships will be non-significant.”

Findings:

The study found a significant bivariate correlation between Congregational Strictness and Congregational Growth .238 (p ≤ .001). The authors of the study assert, “Together, then, these observations provide some initial support for the basic claim that in opposition to the evangelical theology critique, the demographic critique, and the denominational identity critique, strictness does have an independent relationship to growth, which, no doubt, deserves further investigation.”

First, Evangelical Theology is strongly positively related to Congregational Strictness with denominational controls (.593) and only somewhat less so without denominational controls (.410). Congruent with Olson and Perl (2005), this suggests that without shared beliefs that justify strict rules, it is harder to implement and enforce congregational strictness. Additionally, this relationship implies that theologically liberal churches are less likely to have strict rules, at least not if one defines those terms as we use them in our measures( p. 632, bold added).

We feel a term other than “Evangelical Theology” could be found that expressed the construct more precisely. At any rate the study showed a strong correlation between greater congregational strictness and greater agreement by members that other groups are not equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth; and a strong correlation between congregational strictness and greater acceptance that the scriptures are literal truth. These facts support the reaffirmation of the, “ old school” ISKCON concept that forbids theological liberalism and boldly proclaims Krishna Consciousness and the Maha Mantra to be the best means for God realization. Without strictly believing in the literalness of the scriptures and the superiority of ISKCON it will be difficult to encourage people to accept strict rules prohibiting materialistic/sinful activities. As will be seen below (contrary to the intuition of some) strictness increases growth; it does not minimize it.

Second, both Evangelical Theology and Congregational Strictness are positively related to Congregational Strength. In particular, the Evangelical Theology to Congregational Strength relationship is moderately strong with denominational controls (.290) and becomes very strong without denominational controls (.553). Alternatively, the Congregational Strictness to Congregational Strength relationship is weak (but significant) both with (.155) and without denominational controls (.139). On the one hand, then, these findings offer validation for Iannaccone’s (1994) and Iannaccone, Olson, and Stark’s (1995) basic claim regarding the causal pathway between strictness and strength. Indeed, the fact that this relationship persists and is significant even after controlling for evangelical theology and denominational identity certainly lessens the likelihood that the strictness to strength relationship is simply a spurious product of either congregational theology or denominational identity.10 On the other hand, though, these results also suggest that Roozen and Hadaway’s (1993) and Hadaway and Marler’s (1996) focus on the central role of evangelical theology is surely on target. That is, in addition to strength being the result of rational choice mechanisms such as filtering out free riders and incentivizing parishioners for reasons predicted by game theory (see Scheitle and Finke 2008), it seems reasonable to assume that strength—measured here in terms of parishioners’ participation and donations—is also the result of evangelicals who simply give time and money to their congregation because they believe it is the right thing to do (p. 632,633).

We believe the conclusion supported by the data above is straightforward. The greater the belief in the literalness of the Vedic Scripture and the superiority of ISKCON and the more people will be willing to accept prohibitions, and this will lead to devotees doing greater amounts of service for the movement.

Third, Congregational Strength is very strongly positively related to Parishioner Recruiting Activity both with (.549) and without (.641) denominational controls. At the same time, contrary to our hypotheses, Evangelical Theology is also positively related to Parishioner Recruiting Activity, though only when denominational controls are excluded from the model (.277). Thus, again, it appears that these findings offer support for Iannaccone, Olson, and Stark (1995) as well as for Roozen and Hadaway (1993) and Hadaway and Marler (1996). That being said, however, the influence of Congregational Strength is much stronger than that of Evangelical Theology, suggesting that although theological beliefs may factor directly into the likelihood of a parishioner inviting someone to church, the bulk of the explanation has to do with the general strength of a parishioner’s congregation, which assumedly supports and encourages such behavior (p. 633,634).

This supports the claim that devotees who are contributing more time to serving the movement are, overall, more likely to encourage others to come to the Temple.

Fourth, Congregational Strength is very strongly positively related to Parishioner Perception of Value both with (.674) and without (.595) denominational controls. Accordingly, this persuasively validates one of the core axioms of Iannaccone’s (1994) and Iannaccone, Olson, and Stark’s (1995) version of the strictness thesis and, no doubt, makes intuitive sense: parishioners value strong congregations, which is to say that parishioners are far more likely to get their spiritual, social, and family needs met within the context of a congregation that has the strength and resources to meet those needs.(634,635).

It seems intuitive that perception of value would be strongly correlated with amount of time devotees serve the movement.

I believe the study has strong validity, in that the definitions, and measures, really measure what they intend to, and 300,000 participants is far greater than the amount required to show, statistically, the tendency of people in general who are involved (like the members of ISKCON )in religious beliefs, following rules, serving their church, preaching, and valuing their religious community. Overall the study supports the assertion that literal belief in the scripture as well as belief in the superiority of ISKCON leads to voluntary restriction of behavior which leads to greater time spent serving the movement, more preaching, and greater appreciation for Srila Prabhupada’s society.

There are some senior members of ISKCON who preach that for continued growth we must abandon the idea of accepting the scriptures literally. They also say that activities such as wearing devotional clothes and adhering to values that are inconsistent with mainstream society are detrimental to increased growth. I hope that such devotees will read this article and understand the fallacy of these convictions. Some devotees say we must compromise to grow, and others say it is wrong to compromise in order to grow, but I have never heard individuals argue that compromising will not increase growth. I hope those who argue against ISKCON becoming less distinct from mainstream society will use the evidence above to show that compromise causes decline, not growth.

The concept of too much strictness is also straightforward. ISKCON communities must be able to give something worth more to people than the things they are giving up to pursue Krishna Consciousness. I believe few will deny that, in the past, there have been cases of demanding too much from devotees (creating great numbers of devotees being, “artificial”). But the reaction to this has sometimes been kneejerk and counterproductive. I have, numerous times, seen devotees, in reaction to excessive strictness (often something they never experienced themselves) tell people, in various ways that ISKCON does not dictate everything a devotee must think and do. Such devotees should consider that although ( based on the past ,or rumors of the past) it is positive to them that ISKCON does not demand complete mental and physical obedience, still ,there is nothing about this that will be seen as positive to a newcomer.

People will be willing to accept the scripture as more valid than their personal opinion when they are convinced that what is available through its acceptance (eternal spiritual bliss) is worth much more than the price they pay by giving up their own conclusions as the most valid. We need not (and cannot) say we are the only true path but devotees must boldly say Krishna Consciousness the best path and then prove why that is a fact. If all paths are equal there is no incentive to join one over another. People are convinced that something is valid when they see that others, who have paid a good price for it, are satisfied with the reward. We should counteract over strictness of the past not by telling people what ISKCON does not require; rather we should emphasize the fact that ISKCON is a movement where people are currently giving a lot and are happy doing so. Srila Prabhupada also used economic language to describe true spirituality, “Krishna Consciousness is not cheap”. We should not attempt to counteract previous errors by making it cheap.

* A principal source of the data used by many researchers is the Yearbook from The National Council of Churches which began in 1916. I have the data archive disk which has the yearbooks 1916-2000. In the 1996 Yearbook we read, “The trend of declining mainline denominations continues.” (p. 1). In the 1998 Yearbook we read:

During the past decade and a half researchers have reported frequently on the decline of the classical Protestant churches. The rapid decline in membership of these churches has often been viewed in contrast to a similar rate of increase in the membership of evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Other researchers have noted a rapid decrease in membership in churches viewed as liberal in matters of theology and ethics, while contrasting this with the rapid increase in denomination membership in churches which are perceived as more, “conservative” in these matters (p. 11-12)

The editors of the year book say the above conclusion is questionable because the increase in the conservative, Southern Baptist Convention, had lessened over the past three years, while the decline of the liberal, United Methodists had lessened over the past three years. The editors thus implied a movement toward equilibrium which has not manifested. In 2000 the conservative, Southern Baptist convention reported loses for the first time. On the other hand the conservative Assembly of God showed continued strong growth. In the 2011 yearbook we read, “The direction of membership (growth or decline) remains very stable” It notes a “… continuing decline in virtually all mainline denominations”. As for conservative organizations, two Pentecostal organizations that are among the top 25 protestant congregations in the U.S. reported, “strong figures.” Also outside the mainline, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints both reported increases (Linder, 2011)

Virtually all, mainline denominations continued to decline and the editors of the yearbook found the decline in one conservative church noteworthy; thus, it can be inferred that virtually all conservative denominations remained stable or grew; and the decline in the Southern Baptist Convention is an anomaly within the trend and not a repudiation of it. Anyone interested in doing detailed statistical analysis can check the 2011 News from the National Council of Churches (http://www.ncccusa.org/news/110210yearbook2011.html) the disk with the membership data from 1916 till 2000 is available from this site for a reasonable price.

References.

Iannaccone, L. (March, 1994). Why Strict Churches Are Strong. The American Journal of Sociology. 99 (5): 1180-1121.

Kelly, D. M. (1972) Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press.

Linder, E., Rev. Dr. (Ed.) (2011). News from the National Council of Churches. Retrieved from: http://www.ncccusa.org/news/110210yearbook2011.html

Thomas, J., N., & Olson, D., V., A. (2010). Testing the Strictness Thesis and Competing Theories of Congregational Growth, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(4):619–639

 

16 Responses to “Strictness is the Strength of ISKCON”

  1. Puskaraksa das says :

    “Sectarianism is a natural byproduct of the Absolute Truth. When äcäryas first ascertain and instruct the Truth, it is not polluted with sectarianism. But the rules and regulations received through disciplic succession regarding the goal and the method of achieving it are changed in due course of time according to the mentality and locale of the people. A rule that is followed by one society is not necessarily accepted in another society. That is why one community is different from another. As a community gradually develops more respect for its own standards, it develops hatred towards other communities and considers their standards inferior. These sectarian symptoms are seen in all countries since time immemorial. This is prominent amongst the neophytes and to some extent amongst madhyama-adkikäris. Amongst the uttama-adhikäris there is no trace of sectarianism.”
    [Krishna Samhita by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur, introduction, p. 4]

  2. Part One:

    Interesting as this subject is, I do not think all observations recorded apply to us as Iskcon.

    Whereas strictness of faith and literal interpretations of the Bible usually means sectarianism, “We are the ONLY way…” Srila Prabhupada taught us a none-sectarian outlook. Whereas variations of strict congregational codes of conduct appear to help increase or retain numbers of followers, our 4 regs and minimum of 16 rounds chanted daily, exceeds those variations in strictness.

    Our basic spiritual standards are considered ‘strict’ by most other ‘religious’ standards, yet there is a liberality in our cause of none-sectarianism allowing for the different holy names of the Lord to be chanted, although in terms of rasa we prefer Krishna and other intimate names.

    If these studies are used to infer why our retention rate is not what we always hope for, and that ‘strictness’ is the criterion, then I’d say that other factors contributed to this.

    Observations of our recent history will reveal that ‘strictness’ had little or no impact on why “More devotees leave than stay.” During the 80’s when the relative “early” strictness still prevailed in Iskcon, it was the zonal acarya system that alienated many of the ‘acaryas’ God brohers and sisters, and it was the fall-down of those ‘acaryas’ that caused many to leave.

    Our same basic spiritual standards are so high that devotees left as well, especially when confined in close proximity with ashrama dwellers where lack of privacy meant being constantly watched.

    In general relation to our pizza/pakora ‘dichotomy’ there are valid compaisons to be made. However, it is worth noting that many apparent ‘liberal’ devotees are actually conservative at heart.

    What gives ‘conservatism’ a bad taste for ‘liberals’ is how ‘conservatism’ is usually accompanied by ‘strictness’ minus a smile. This will attract certain types of devotees no doubt, and it will also attract certain types of newcomers as well – but not all.

    Our basic spiritual standards already appeal to a broad range of individuals and thankfully, Iskcon allows expression of all those mind-sets. Whereas we share our common spiritual standards, we differ in opinion and outlook on preaching matters – and this is not a bad thing.

    Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa.

  3. Part Two:

    Now, if the claim is that we all have to be ‘strict’ according to our “old” standards, or according to more narrow definitions of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, and that this is meant to increase or at least retain our following, does it add up in Iskcon terms?

    I know devotees who are ‘liberal’ outwardly but are definitely ‘strict’ with themselves internally. So we cannot define ‘strictness’ in the same way as might apply to adherents of sectarian faiths. It is safe to say that all of us, whether of pizza/pakora disposition, while following the same basic spiritual standards, are strict.

    If being ‘liberal-strict’ is responsible for perceived slowness in spreading Krishna consciousness, it is certainly debatable. I am sure Srila Prabhupada would term such strictness, as “Purity is the force.” This is really the issue at hand.

    There are different guises of Purity. One can be an Avadhuta pure soul. One can be as Sri Pundarika Vidyanihi and not be recognised. His inner ‘strictness’ cannot feature in scholarly definitions of strictness.

    While there might be some merit in scholarly comparisons, they fall short when trying to compare with something as deep as genuine spiritual Purity, which possesses a force beyond the reckoning of social scholars. Besides, there is the empowerment factor of the Lord – also beyond measurement.

    If Iskcon is “none-different from Krishna,” another reason exists for suspecting comparisons of religions. It is true, some of our social issues do sometimes mirror those of others, but are the results of those subject to scholarly comparisons on all levels?

    What if there are cases where we want to consolidate and “boil the milk” as it were, rather than spread too quickly and end up being incapable of properly training so many newcomers? Would this lack of spread be construed as lack of strictness? No it wouldn’t.

    In many ways our Krishna conscious values of strictness are subjective, not being readily accessible for objective analysis. Perhaps I am being sectarian myself.

    Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa.

  4. krishna-kirti says :

    Great article, good research Sita Rama Prabhu Ji!

    At the very least, you have established that a traditionalist social model is also a viable model for growth through preaching.

    I look forward to more such well-written articles from you.

    ys, KKD

  5. pustakrishna says :

    Just for the sake of discussion: Sri Krishna notes that four categories of people come to the service of Krishna. These four categories consist of pious souls…those who are suffering, those desirous of wealth, those who are curious, and those who are seekers of the higher Truth. It may be that one will come to Krishna consciousness, and then later leave finding it very difficult to control the mind. Krishna also encourages saying that these pious practitioners who go away will have good future opportunity to continue with their spiritual development in future births. The point thus needs to be made that not all persons come to Krishna with the identical karmic background, and they should be engaged in devotional service and encouraged. Strictness, I hope, does not exclude compassion and mercy from the formula.
    When you look back at former days in relatively recent vaishnava history, even 50 years ago, there were not many families living in the ashrams, and very few single women. It is really the causeless mercy of Srila Prabhupad that he truly saw each individual as the spiritual person that they are, and engaged them in Krishna’s service. It is a realtively unique experiment and can have its bumpy road at times. There can be no doubt that ISKCON has transformed from a more monastic environment to a congregational one. Not everyone will prefer that, but this has come to pass for now. And, all should be given encouragement to engage in Krishna’s service. It is not an issue of liberality or an issue of strictness. It is our duty, as representatives of Srila Prabhupad, to encourage one and all to give to Krishna one’s body (senses), mind, words, and wealth(He is the ultimate Proprietor).

    In this regard, Srila Prabhupad did not encourage us to look upon Krishna consciousness as a religion, but rather as a spiritual culture. These are things which I believe can be considered in such discussions. Afterall, religiosity is one of the four spheres of human civilization (dharma, artha, kama, moksha), but Krishna consciousness is intended to revive the Sanatan Dharma of the jiva-soul, that being the eternal servant of Krishna.

    Pusta Krishna das

  6. Kulapavana says :

    The real value of strictness is in helping to achieve a desired goal. By itself it is not something that shastras recommend as a brahminical quality, or a mode of goodness quality. Strictness by itself can be seen as an attribute of the mode of passion, since it involves rigid application of rules.
    It would be nice to see a discussion using the Sanskrit terms relating to strictness, like sUkSmatA, azaithilya, and especially kAThinya.

  7. Krishna Kirti Prabhu,

    Your comment was clearly intended as a disagreement with previous comments. I respect your opinion, but disagree. Are you able to lend substance and merit to why such flawed scholarly material is deemed as, “jaya to the cause of traditionalism?”

    There are more reasons why comparisons with sectarian causes are flawed, that I have not mentioned. There is some validity in comparing our social occurrences, but certainly not the subjective Bhakti side with all that it entails.

    It appears that anything that trumps the cause of ‘conservatism’ will do, and that you are looking forward to reading more flawed material.

    Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa.

  8. pustakrishna says :

    One must appreciate the spirit of the topic. We can substitute a number of words for the term strictness, such as fidelity, exclusivity, and even faithfulness. The term “strictness” may imply that sacrifice is being undertaken. That may or may not be the case, depending on the feelings involved. For example, in love there is a natural tendency to remember the beloved. When the situation revolves around duty, then one sacrifices their impulsive tendencies and so-called self interests for the higher goal.

    Remember that Srila Rupa Goswami concludes that all rules and regulations are summed up in this: Always remember Krishna, and never forget Krishna.

    When one is fortunate to have love for Krishna, this is a most natural situation involving natural attraction and affection for Sri Krishna. He is all-attractive. When one is in the practicing or sadhana phase of bhakti, then one’s focus is on the higher goal. Krishna, afterall, is always with us, accompanying us as Witness, Sanctioner, and Friend.

    Thus, when all the elements of bhakti-yoga are considered, as in the discussion of practicing strictness or exclusivity, faithfulness, the key element is that Krishna is the focal point. Thus, I would agree with Kulapavana that strictness is a passionate position, but only if Krishna is absent from the equation. Once Krishna is included in the equation, then all such perceived modes of passion or whatever become merged into the transcendental offering. When the things of this world, which are only the creation and property of Krishna, become engaged in His divine service and remembrance, they must no longer be considered as belonging to the modes of “material” nature, for they are now the property of Krishna consciousness, hence transcendental.

    Please try to digest this and comment. It really is a good discussion and when challenged, we must try to avoid feeling that our ego is wounded. Our egos are false and circles around nothing. We can try to go deeper and try to discover a deeper reality that might satisfy the hunger of the soul. You are all great devotees in my vision.
    Pusta Krishna das

  9. Sitalatma Das says :

    Our sadhana is quite a bit more than 4 regs and 16 rounds and it does not allow for any kind of liberalism.

    Initially the perfection is in following all the rules as strictly as possible and on mature stages the perfection is in following all the rules even stricter and with genuine enthusiasm.

    Our acharyas didn’t leave any scope for wannabe Pundariki Vidyanidhis or self-proclaimed avadhutas so let’s not bring them into the equation. Even if such fully liberated devotees truly exist they should not be counted in discussing ISKCON as an institution.

    I find it hard to disagree with this:

    “People will be willing to accept the scripture as more valid than their personal opinion when they are convinced that what is available through its acceptance (eternal spiritual bliss) is worth much more than the price they pay by giving up their own conclusions as the most valid.”

    Change scripture for sadhana and it would still hold true – we should be able to show that devotees who live according to all the rules are much happier than those who indulge in ice cream on the side.

    As far as above cited studies go, we should define success first. Ours might be different from theirs.

    Do we want to have a society of pure devotees or do we want to rebuild a Vedic society which will come with karmis and jnanis and regulated meat eating and drinking, or do we want something else? Then it will be clear if we want numbers, outreach, or exclusiveness and internal purity, or a combination of thereof.

    In Christianity everyone is entitled to exactly the same reward, we, on the other hand, can have people moving from outside to the core through multiple lifetimes. People who leave our movement are not faced with eternal damnation in hell so we don’t have to worry so much about them and their numbers.

    What is wrong with accepting that those who can’t strictly follow all our rules will have to take birth again? We can’t promise everyone exactly the same rewards regardless of their lifestyle. We can have millions of people who are not quite strict and don’t expect very much but like to be better devotees anyway. What would the studies say about that kind of society then? I don’t know.

    There are no ex-Hare Krishnas, only people taking a bit more time. The studies, however, are based on clear in-out definitions and success in numbers.

  10. pustakrishna says :

    Yes, it must be a fact, since Krishna says that “bahunam janmanam ante…” after many, many lifetimes, then one may finally come to the stage of Krishna consciousness. And, we must also know that Krishna has empowered his devotees to enlighten others “tad viddhi…” to approach My bhakta, realized in the Truth, to learn about Me. Still, we must take time to reflect on where we reside now, in the Kali Yuga. There is quarrel between religions, and there are quarrels within religious traditions. It is the Age of Quarrel. What can bring unity out of the disunity. Enter, the Golden Avatar, the Yuga Avatar, Sri Krishna Chaitanya, with with divine weapon of Sankirtan. The unifying opportunity is present in encouraging spiritually interested peoples to glorify the Holy Names.

    Every tradition believes that it has the secret key to the Truth, whether Christianity, Islam, Vaishnavism, Buddhism, and others. I may know that Krishna is the Supreme Absolute Truth, the Creator, Destroyer, Sanctioner, Controller, and dearmost Friend. But, it will be next to impossible to expect others in flocks to leave their traditions and embrace the Vaishnava path. Neither did Lord Chaitanya request that, and neither did Srila Prabhupad request that. We are instructed to encourage others to work in the spirit of devotion. To take up the chanting of the Holy Names of the Lord, those of other traditions if that is what one has faith in, or the Supremely effective chanting of the Hare Krishna Mahamantra.

    And, while we may think that our faith is best, I must say that one can and should be inspired by others as well with faith in the Lord in different traditions. We must keep our “antennae” out to receive inspiration. We need to be enthused. The Gayatri Mantra is a prayer to be enthused by our agents of divine shelter. Such enthusiasm, capacity to be enthused, is the basis for love in separation. If my cup is full, it may not accept more immediate necessary enthusiasm. We must feel ourselves greatly dependent and always in need of Krishna’s divine shelter and presence, and the association with devotees who are so dear to Him.

    This discussion is very, very useful. Some will be more enthused by strict following of the Vaidhi rules and regulations of devotional service, and some will be more inclined toward a more spontaneous outflow of devotional service. Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur engages in discussion of this in his Jaiva Dharma. Affectionately, Pusta Krishna

  11. Sitalatma Prabhu,

    You wrote this: “Even if such fully liberated devotees truly exist (Genuine avadhutas and personalities such as Sri Pundarika Vidyanidhi) they should not be counted in discussing ISKCON as an institution.”

    By writing this you have revealed your state of consciousness. Are you saying that Sri Pundarika Vidyanidhi and genuine avadhutas do not belong to Iskcon? That they are not to be counted?

    Srila Prabhupada’s father requested all visiting sadhus to his home to bless his son Abhay with the mercy of Srimati Radharani. Srimati Radharani has a father – Vrshabhanu sute devi – who is Sri Pundarika Vidyanidhi. Are you saying he does not belong to Iskcon, or should not be counted among our objects of worship and mercy?

    The father of our sankirtana mission, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu cried, “Father, father, father…” in anticipation of Sri Pundarika Vidyanidhi’s visit. Is Lord Chaitanya’s father omitted from our Iskcon?

    Are avadhutas like the great Sri Nityananda Prabhu not counted either? What about one of the firmaments of our disclipic succession Srila Gaura Kishor Dasa Babaji?

    I thought I joined an Iskcon affording us unlimited potential in Bhakti, and access to pray to and receive mercy from all genuine Vaisnavas and avadhutas and Sri Pundarika Vidyanidhi included. To say that such rare personalities should not be counted in Iskcon terms is to depict Srila Prabhupada’s Iskcon as a limited scheme.

    We all worship Sri Sri Radha and Krishna in Iskcon, and while seeking blessings from Srimati Radhika, we tell Her that Her father is not counted among us, will this earn Her mercy? This is an insulting offence to Her, to Srila Prabhupada and Lord Chaitanya. It is like telling Krishna that His father is not to be counted either.

    When our Iskcon is portayed in limited ways like this, then by default, whatever opinions arise about strictness are also limited, as your first two paragraphs reveal – they are just partial.

    Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa.

  12. It is known that Srila Prabhupada stressed repeatedly to Strictly follow what he laid out for us – plain and simple. But this Strictness is not an end in itself as seems to be misunderstood. Srila Prabhupada never said that Strictness will increase our (Iskcon) following and numbers.

    Strictness is one of the means for spiritual success – there has to be added benefits such as mercy, desire, longing and so on. One can be in an atrocious state of mind and still externally appear Strict in Krishna consciousness. One can be Strict just for the sake of it – niyamagraha.

    Why did Srila Prabhupada emphasise Strictness in following? It is to help us progress further in Krishna consciousness and to become at least steady and pure. The means of Strictness cannot be compared to the Strictness of other limited sectarian faiths.

    We usually complain about Iskcon “being lumped in” with other faiths, and in these studies, this is precisely what has happened. It is as if Iskcon is just another Strictness machine. Unfortunately it seems that some devotees see Iskcon that way too, which is incorrect. Such thinking will opine that Strictness is the “be all and end all” of Bhakti.

    Even if fortunate souls attain raga-Bhakti and receive the mercy of personalities like Sri Pundarika Vidyanidhi, they continue to externally follow Strictly to set a good example for others, because we are a preaching movement. It Is not that such souls require Strictness in of itself, although by dint of inner purity their ability to focus inwards (mana-seva) is most Strict.

    Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa.

  13. pustakrishna says :

    Our goal in life is to become dear to Krishna, to attract His mercy and attention. Sri Krishna in His final instructions in the Bhagavad Gita has revealed how we can become dear to Him. I heard Srila Prabhupad also quote that sloka when His Divine Grace once said to me…”we are simply living on Krishna’s promise…that one who teaches the science of surrender to the bhaktas is most dear to Me in this world.”
    In this regard, we have to find a way to give encouragement to go forward, not to stagnate, and most certainly not to retreat. I conceive of it this way. When one first has a castle, they may try to keep out intruders by building a moat around it, with a draw-bridge to selectively allow people in and to keep others out. That may be a necessary step but certainly that is not the “house that the whole world can live in” that Srila Prabhupad envisioned. The difficulty is that we may be hurt by the bad association of those who might compromise their ideals. I think that Sita Rama das maybe can be placed in that category. It is a state of looking for safety.
    We all have had different upbringing in our spiritual lives. In one person’s case they may have enjoyed the relative safety and comradery of living in a large ashram with a strong daily program of sadhana. In another person’s case, they may have been requested to spread the sankirtan movement in difficult circumstances, such as during apartheid, or even more so in the difficult early days of Krishna consciousness in Russia. When we hear of the torture that Ananta Santi and others in Russia experienced without abandoning Krishna, we can appreciate the saintliness of such extraordinary souls. I am personally incapable of minimizing such souls, placing them in some kind of file so that I can close the drawer on them, as it were. These rare souls are magnanimous mahatmas, truly. And, they are very, very dear to Krishna.
    Someday, we must let the draw-bridges down to permit the flow of souls into and out of the sankirtan movement so that such sukriti will be spread about. Such pious souls may become great devotees in some future incarnation. So, how we view the sankirtan movement is vital. Lord Chaitanya sometimes chanted in the intimacy of the home of Srivas Prabhu, and other times He chanted in the public of impious souls, bringing hope and a future to such conditioned souls. How do you want to view the sankirtan movement? It is a fluid, and not a static question. Pusta Krishna das

  14. Sitalatma Das says :

    Dear Keshava Krishna Prabhu,

    I don’t know where you got the idea that I exclude Pundarika Vidyanidhi from ISKCON membership. I was talking about laying policies for our whole society.

    Srila Prabhupada didn’t leave us any provisions to accommodate hidden paramahamsas in our midst and we can deal with them on a case by case basis.

    Since zonal acharya days we, as a society, have stopped treating our gurus as super pure devotees on uttama adhikari level. Now we treat all our members as madhyama adhikaris who need to cleanse their hearts of their anarthas.

    Everyone must attend mangala arati regardless of his position, for example. Hidden Pundarika Vidyanidhis might not need to to but why would they miss this most beautiful and most intimate part of our program? So same rules for everyone.

    Strictness, of course, is not all that there’s to developing devotion, and strictness shouldn’t be confused with austerity either.

    To outsiders our diet appears very strict but very few of us are actually strict about our diets – if it’s Krishna prasadam we consume it with much pleasure.

    Today I got this quote in my inbox:

    “If our things have no market in the sense gratification society that does
    not mean we are going to change our principles. We are meant for satisfying
    Krishna, not anybody’s senses. That should be the principle of our life.”

    >>> Ref. VedaBase => Letter to: Jadurani — San Francisco 8 April, 1968

    Straight to the point of this discussion.

    There’s another famous comparison about diamonds – they are not for everyone and neither is pure devotional service.

    When Srila Prabhupada talked about house for the whole world to live in, as Pushta Krishna Prabhu reminded us, I think he meant that we should live there on his terms, not ours. If we don’t like the rules we can live elsewhere. I don’t think it was meant to drag everyone under ISKCON umbrella.

    I think studies quoted in this article are very relevant to ISKCON’s direction – empirical research shows that relaxing rules to attract more people does not work for other religious groups, and we don’t have any explicit instructions from our acharyas to do so, too.

    What is left in favor of this proposition?

  15. Kulapavana says :

    Pustakrishna Prabhu: “I would agree with Kulapavana that strictness is a passionate position, but only if Krishna is absent from the equation. Once Krishna is included in the equation, then all such perceived modes of passion or whatever become merged into the transcendental offering. ”
    I would argue that we must judge things by the results. Activities in the mode of ignorance never produce anything of value. Activities in the mode of passion produce things of value initially but later lead to suffering and loss. Activities in the mode of goodness produce good results that last long time and have no negative consequences. Activities which are transcendental produce results that increase spiritual consciousness and last forever.
    Over the years I have observed in our movement many activities supposedly performed for Lord Krishna’s pleasure. While I can’t say whether He was pleased or not, many of these activities have yielded some initial benefit but in the long run they were quite detrimental to the causes we tried to promote. Thus I believe that Lord Krishna really is ‘in the equation’ when the activity actually results in an increase of Krishna consciousness. If our strictness leads to an increase of Krishna consciousness it is good, otherwise it is not.

  16. pustakrishna says :

    I am very glad to see development of the positions being offered. Sitalatma das raises some good points in his comment #14. Regarding Srila Prabhupad’s ideal that ISKCON or Krishna consciousness is a “house the whole world can live in”…events and situations change but the underlying consciousness in the ultimate reality is unchanged, focused on ecstatic loving relationship with Krishna. I recall one morning in Mauritius in 1976 when Srila Prabhupad, Brahmananda Prabhu, and my self were walking alongside the ocean. Physically we were a little beaten up because the day before the three of us experienced a head on collision in the countryside. This occurred after Srila Prabhupad’s glorious 10 day visit to South Africa. Srila Prabhupad brought up the issue, “People are trying to be happy, but they do not know how to be happy (I am paraphrasing). It is natural that we want to be happy, we are part and parcel of the supremely ecstatic Krishna. But, they do not know where to look to be happy.” The point I want to highlight is just this. When people come to visit or come into association with Krishna bhaktas, we want to offer them some of the spiritual medicine that we have been offered, grace of Srila Prabhupad. It is the happiness that the soul is searching for, not the strictness.
    I offer this proposition. Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha…these four constitute the endeavours of civilized human society, but the Krishna consciousness movement is real spiritual culture, Sanatan Dharma. Sarva dharman parityajya…Krishna gives us the final instruction of His Bhagavad Gita when He, all powerful supreme Creator and Friend, declares that what He wants is that we take full shelter of Him, abandoning all other ideas of religiosity.
    So, how do we conceive of the organized Krishna consciousness missions? Are they facilities where strictness is the rule? Are they environments where the natural joy of devotional service for Krishna is allowed space to be expressed? Recall, that Srila Prabhupad came to uncover the service that only Krishna consciousness could reveal. When I hear of people changing for the worse after having appeared so apparently saintly previously, then I know the truth of the matter. Srila Prabhupad brought out the very best in us! When the material disease overtook such souls, karmic-ly, then their designated karma again reappeared. But, remember, karma is temporary. And, Krishna knows all past present and future. Pusta Krishna das

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