By Kaunteya Das
I am reading The Rise of Christianity, by Rodney Stark; “How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries” and I am planning to jot down considerations and reflections as they come along. In fact I only just finished the first chapter, but I already found considerable stimuli for further exploration, especially regarding the dynamics of expansion of Lord Caitanya’s movement in general and of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in particular.
In his career Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion, seems to have always focused on studying religious groups. I wouldn’t be surprised if the faitful of any tradition (including Vaisnavism) would raise their eyebrows in suspicion and alarm at hearing that a social scientist (especially a non-practiccioner) might attempt to gain insights on the processes of conversion, which they, in unshakable, implicit conviction, might consider as pure and exclusive manifestations of the Divine interlinking on the human plane, processes thus beyond the reach of rational sociological analysis, quantification or intellectual explanation. A more accurate research, though, reveals that great spiritual teachers (and in this writing I will focus on Srila Prabhupada, the Fouder-Acarya of ISKCON), may have closely observed sociological trends in chalking out their strategies for diffusion and in instructing their followers on how to effective proselytize.
What is sociology anyway? My dictionary says that it’s: “The study and classification of human societies.” For a more robust definition I search the web, and Wikipedia comes up with: “Sociology is the study of society and human social action. A sociologist studies the social rules and processes that organize people in society as individuals and as members of associations, groups, and institutions . . . sociology tends to deal with the how and why of society, while still looking at the when and where.”
Now, the following exercise is for the younger readers, say around 12 years of age. See if you can spot “sociology”and sociological considerations in these instructions by Srila Prabhupada on how to effectively establish Krishna consciousness:
1. As they passed the shuffleboard courts and the old men playing checkers, Prabhupada stopped and turned to the boys. “Just see,” he said. “Old people in this country do not know what to do. So they play like children, wasting their last days, which should be meant for developing Krishna consciousness . . . It is most unfortunate. But they will not listen. Their ways are set. Therefore we are speaking to the youth, who are searching.”
Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita, Ch. 22, episode happened of 1967.
2. “My request to you is that you enter into the universities and colleges wherever possible and preach there with a view to recruiting some first-class devotees for helping me manage and push on this movement all over the world. Overall there is shortage of first-class, experienced men to manage things just to the highest standard.”
Letter to Sukadeva, 13 December 1972.
3. “Before opening a center you must have perfect worshiper, perfect devotees. Not perfect; at least those who are willing to become. Then open. Otherwise, simply chant.”
Lecture, Los Angeles, 23 July 1975.
4. “Local men should not simply become a visitor but they should be trained up to take charge of the temple. That is what I want.”
Letter to Ramesvara, 26 September 1976.
Now, some of the above directives might have been faithfully followed, while some might have been tragically neglected. It would be interesting to analyze what could the state of ISKCON be if the above instructions, given some thirty-plus years ago, would have been rigorously obeyed, but this is not the focus of this article. My point here is that these statements certainly contain many sociological considerations: the age-group of the prospective candidates for Krishna consciousness, the intellectual and educational status of the prospective leaders, the communal logistics of opening and maintaining places of worship, and so on. Srila Prabhupada might not have openly introduced such statement as sociological, but sociological in nature and content they nonetheless are.
Just like a legitimately popular word in contemporary ISKCON: empathy. Actually I couldn’t find any single instance of Srila Prabhupada using this term in the Bhaktivedanta Vedabase (FOLIO). Nonetheless Srila Prabhupada did repeatedly conveyed the import of “empathy,” understanding and entering into another’s feelings (e.g.: “Everyone should be unhappy to see others in distress and happy to see others happy. Ātmavat sarva-bhūteṣu: one should feel the happiness and distress of others as his own.” SB 6.10.9p). Thus no honest and learned person could claim that Srila Prabhupada never talked about empathy. Similarly no one can claim that Srila Prabhupada did not carefully regard sociology in his missionary activities.
Back in the book The Rise of Christianity, the author “debunks” the pious but apparently inadequate versions of the spreading of Christianity through miracolous mass conversions or socially-inexplicable membership-multiplications. Bu referring to ancient documentation and straitghforward mathematics, Stark concludes that in its first several centuries Christianity grew at the rate of 40% per decade; which corresponds to 3,42 percent per year (a respectable but reasonable rate of growth). The following table is based on this projection (he calculates the total population of the Roman Empire as 60 million):
Year Number of Christians Percent of Population
40 1,000 0,0017
50 1,400 0,0023
100 7,530 0,0126
150 40,496 0,07
200 217,795 0,36
250 1,171,356 1,9
300 6,299,832 10,5
350 33,882,008 56,5
We also learn that the above rate of growth is very close to the average growth the Mormons have been sustaining for more than one century: 43 percent. So, if the Mormons have grown and are growing through a comprehensible progression of conversions, there is no need to postulate some otherwordly growth for Christianity in the first centuries. Something to keep in mind is the counterintuitive features of exponential curves: although in the above chart it might appear that Christianity grew much more rapidly in the later centuries, in fact the rate of growth is uniform. It is the massive increase in absolute numbers that may give the impression of a supernatural act of God (Stark drily observes: “Whatever one does or does not believe about the divine, obviously God did not cause the world to become Christian, since that remains to be achieved.”) Stark clarifies that while he doesn’t intend to “reduce the rise of Christianity to purely ‘material’ or social factors,” the book “is a work of both history and social science.” He maintains that: “No sacrilege is entailed in the search to understand human actions in human terms.” Now, independently from whatever stand Prof. Stark chooses to take on metaphysical matters, I consider his sociological approach revealing and useful (and often sorely lacking in the discussions on missionary activities and strategies).
Let me also state that I find his underlying framework limited and limiting for the purpose of explaining completely the dynamics of conversion into Christianity (but, to be fair, I must also say that he never claims his methods to be all-encompassing). For instance I envision that he would neglect to factor in reincarnation in his analysis. P who had been exposed and did some progress in the Christian lifestyle in one life would have an inborn inclination to take up Christianity in their next life. Of course, if in a later chapter Stark will include reincarnation in his calculations I am ready and willing to backpedal on this.
Anyway, regardless of the philosophical outlook a researcher subscribes to, sociological considerations are relevant if not essential in the spreading of theistic missionary work. Otherwise it would be incomprehensible that, for instance, Srila Prabhupada wrote in 1975: “When I started this movement, I wanted to bring some men from India. The problem was that in India the men who joined the Gaudiya Math mission were not very educated. So I declined to bring them in the Western countries.” One might ask: “Why? The potency of God can’t manifest through people who are not very educated?” Of course God can manifest His potency through any means (a dog could start uttering Vedanta, if Krishna wants, but the preacher would be iresponsible to just breed dogs and wait for the miracle to happen). The missionary need to use his intelligence (discrimination) and assign specific tasks to those individuals that most likely will perform them appropriately (a learned devotee would more likely be effective in lecturing at universities than a simple devotee farmer). Another example? Srila Prabhupada wrote in 1976 to an Indian ISKCON leader: “Concerning the new bhakta program, unless one is educated, we should not admit anyone and everyone without discrimination. One who has got culture and education, he can be accepted.”
Of course spreading God consciousness it’s not simply a matter of focusing on the most qualified. Sometimes the mission might focus exactly on the opposite, as Srila Prabhupada shows in a letter about Nairobi, Kenya: “There are also many Indians living at that place, and they are also wealthy businessmen, and the African black people are poor, neglected, not very much educated. So at the beginning Brahmananda was mixing only with those Indians, and they were giving profusely money, and there were so many plans for temple and deities. In this way he was neglecting to do the real work which was preaching to the black Africans.” (The discerning reader might have alredy noticed the sociological considerations included in this brief passage…).
An insteresting statement Stark makes, one for which he claims universal valence is: “Although several other factors are also involved in the conversion process, the central sociological proposition about conversion is this: Conversion to new . . . religious groups occurs when, other things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to nonmembers.” In other words developing strong personal ties is crucial in the joining of a new religious community. This idea that “conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments,” strikingly resonates with the concept of sva-bandhu-mandala penetration (sva – own; bandhu – relative, friend; mandala – circle), presented in ISKCON literature in the Bhakti-vrksa Manual, Chapter 13 (which you can find here). The chapter includes a quote from Srila Prabhupada (spoken on 11 May 1977) that reveals that network-outreach is not a new idea in spreading Krishna consciousness: “That is Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission. He said, “Every one of you become guru and deliver your surrounding persons, either you are in family or in neighborhood or in society or in nation, as much as you can.” amara ajnaya guru hana tara’ ei desa. So whatever limited circle, you just become guru and deliver them. Deliver means deliver from the ignorance . . . So we have to follow this path, that you become guru, deliver your neighborhood men, associates.””
Stark offers the following illuminating data: “When [Mormon] missionaries make cold calls, knock on the doors of strangers, this eventually leads to a conversion once out of a thousand calls. However, when missionaries make their first contact with a person in the home of a Mormon friend or relative of that person, this results in conversion 50 percent of the time.”
Unfortunately in ISKCON we generally don’t keep detailed track on our progress (or regress). With the exception of the pieces of literature distributed, the data about growth (or shrinkage) in other areas of the mission is sketchy at best. To give an instance: the Congregational Development Ministry recently received an official list purporting to show the congregational status of every center in ISKCON. While grateful for the useful information, I can’t but notice that the data is approximate (and even potentially inaccurate because compiled with different frames of reference in mind). For instance, a temple in Australia reports “good” under the column “rating,” and “better” under the column “compared to previous year.” Very nice; but what does it mean? How are we supposed to understand what is “good”? “Good” according to what? What if it’s simply an optimistic (and unrealistic) evaluation? Could someone else with slightly different values and vision in congregational developmentdefine the performance of the same temple as “very bad”? And what “better” (than previous year) actually mean? A five percent average increase in attendance at the Sunday Program? Three percent? Ten percent?Two devotees from the congregation took initiation compared to the one who took it the previous here? Did they circulate some questionnaires that unambigously revealed that the members of the community think the situation has improved this year? Or is it just a feeling, based on unverifiable considerations? Many such questions could be asked, but in absence of numbers and percentages it would be hard to find the answers. Anotheror temple, this time from South India, reports the rating as “good” and the comparison with the previous year as “same.” This is puzzling: if the rating is good why there is no growth or improvement since last year? This is all the more baffling when we read that their congregational department is listed as “Bhakti-vriksha Program” which is supposed to also focus on attracting new members and expanding.
Are all the devotees compiling this questionnaire understanding it in the same way, according to standard, quantifiable parameters? Porbably not? We sadly see that a temple in Italy reports “bad” in the rating of their congregational development and “worse” in the comparison with previous year. But how bad and how much worse? How many previous regular members stopped visiting? Did they decrease the amound of regular donations? Some Bhakti-vriksha group closed down? Again, I am grateful for the endeavors of those who circulated the survey and communicated the results, but it is obvious that we can vastly improve our self-analysis, or should we wait for some sociologist who, after two thousand years, will try to reconstruct “The Rise of Krishna Consciousness” from scanty archeological evidence and fragmental documentation?
I close this essay on the first chapter of the book by reporting some observations from Stark, statements that could set off intriguing discussions on the past, present and future of ISKCON: “The basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments . . . Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks able to reach out and into new adjacent social networks. And herein lies the capacity of movements to sustain exponential rates of growth over a long period of time.”