ISKCON’s Socio-Economic Infrastructure and the Broader Vision
By Radha Mohan Dasa
Before ISKCON is ready to take on greater responsibility in society I believe it has to go much further to develop its own social infrastructure. Before he passed on, Srila Prabhupada left instructions for devotees to socially develop ISKCON after his departure – – the fifty percent of his work that he said he would have to leave for the devotees to organise. That was the introduction of the ancient Vedic system of varnashram, which organises society into four categories of occupational activity according to one’s natural tendency, and which integrates four fields of spiritual engagement at appropriate times throughout one’s life. Nearly every senior devotee would agree that these are yet to be fully implemented in ISKCON, and until they are, the movement will always have socially dysfunctional elements to one degree or another. For instance, if and when temple devotees move out to get married, the ISKCON community itself may well experience an acute lack of stable employment opportunities where they can continue to have regular devotee association (with some notable exceptions). This may result in devotees feeling cut off from the institution’s core and its goals. Ultimately, this may also be linked to the high divorce rate in ISKCON, where one or both partners struggle to maintain sadhana and such like.
I have sometimes considered that if immediately after Srila Prabhupada’s departure devotees had put more energy into lay-devotee empowerment, vocational and local ministerial issues instead of focusing on monastic-based autocratic systems, ISKCON’s social and economic structure today would be considerably more developed. Perhaps more trained devotee ministers needing to make a living could have become more proficient in potential areas within the Vedic paradigm such as Ayurveda, hatha yoga, astrology, esoteric healing and so forth. Perhaps then former full-time temple devotees would have been able to give substantial donations to ISKCON just as many members of the Indian community do today.
Of course, if ISKCON in its infancy had given greater attention to vocational and business concerns, then it would perhaps not have distributed so many of Srila Prabhupada’s books, which was and in some ways still is the main activity of many of the full-time devotees.
It could also be argued that if the monastic element of ISKCON’s economy had been decentralised early on in ISKCON’s history, then by now the movement’s impressive standards and philosophy may well have been diluted. After all, Srila Prabhupada created a monastic core to maintain overall standards, training, as well as for preaching purposes. Significantly, Srila Prabhupada did not ask his disciples to become teachers of hatha yoga or astrological consultants. Rather, he wanted all his followers to be expert preachers and practitioners of bhakti: devotional service to Lord Krishna as revealed in the Bhagavad Gita and in the Srimad Bhagavatam. It is perhaps ironic then that some larger temples now run courses on a wide range of subjects and activities. It was something that happened over time in an organic way, with mainly a Western audience in mind. But why not? Surely bhakti can incorporate a very wide range of activity. This direction however is not entirely welcome by everyone in the ISKCON community. As Rochford (1999) writes in “Prabhupada Centennial Survey: A Summary of the Final Report”:
To someone committed to a life of renunciation, preaching, and
communalism, ongoing changes in the direction of pluralism and
congregationalism can only be seen as trends that lead ISKCON away
from its true purposes. For others, these very same changes reflect the
building strength of the movement because it is increasingly reaching into
conventional societies in more diverse and perhaps influential ways.
Indeed, Srila Prabhupada clearly wanted his movement to be equally accessible to as many people of different backgrounds as possible and surely all preaching methods, both direct and indirect, may be explored for potential.
Seeing our potential within the wider society
I have often heard it said that devotees make good councillors. That is certainly true in my estimation, but due to the incredible resource of knowledge at our disposal I would take it further than that. I see no reason why qualified devotees would not make good advisors on peace-making issues in highly influential circles all around the world, especially helping to solve racial and religious disputes. Perhaps this would be a partial fulfilment of a true priestly (brahminical) role in society – – after all, in Vedic culture it was the function of brahmanas to guide the leaders of society. In the future I also foresee potential environmental and natural resource crises, with some international organisations working desperately to encourage people to live more simple, sustainable lifestyles, as supported by spiritual cultures across the world.
I therefore suggest that devotees keep an open mind to the type of opportunities that may be available in the future, for an insular and inflexible outlook could prevent devotees from having a role in many areas of society where Srila Prabhupada’s teachings is most needed.