A PROPOSAL FOR IMPROVING ISKCON
By Krishna-dharma das
A PROPOSAL FOR IMPROVING ISKCON’S ORGANISATIONAL STRUCTURE
In this paper I begin with a resume of why I feel that ISKCON’s present system of approving diksha gurus is ineffective and needs to be changed. I then explore an alternative organisational system for protecting ISKCON’s institutional and spiritual integrity. After this I discuss how ISKCON could deal with initiations within such a model. I also offer some thoughts regarding what would be required of us to effect helpful change in ISKCON. Finally, I discuss the need for cultural change.
A conflict between insititutional and spiritual authority
As we all know, currently ISKCON is facing many problems. I feel that our current organisational structure exacerbates many of these problems. At present, as I see it, ISKCON authority is divided into institutional and spiritual authority. Institutional authority lies with the GBC and Temple Presidents. But the GBC delegates its spiritual authority to ISKCON approved gurus. This delegation of spiritual power is effected through what is known as the ‘no objection’ certification, which is awarded to devotees by the GBC when they consider them fit to accept disciples. This is not meant to be an appointment to the post of guru, but nevertheless this is how it effectively works. Within ISKCON there are a number of devotees who are known as ‘ISKCON Approved Gurus’. No one else is generally seen as a guru, certainly not an initiating guru, and these devotees are set quite apart from everyone else within ISKCON. I believe that by approving gurus ISKCON has confused its lines of authority. The approved gurus often communicate with and instruct their disciples directly, or through their own senior disciples rather than through ISKCON’s managerial lines of accountability. This not only creates two lines of authority which sometimes conflict with each other, but it also makes it very difficult to ensure accountability from gurus and their senior disciples, as they lie outside of the institutional structure. Hence there is a need for voluminous, but ultimately ineffectual, laws. The gurus are extremely difficult to regulate, as they are viewed by their disciples as ultimate spiritual authorities. Insititutional authority is rarely, if ever, seen by disciples as being above that of their guru. And because the gurus are seen as ‘ISKCON gurus’, their authority is effectively seen as ISKCON authority. This makes management very difficult indeed for those who are not approved gurus. Certainly it is most difficult to assert any spiritual authority for such devotees, which of course is rather a problem in a spiritual movement like ISKCON.
This system also contributes to cynicism and mutual disrespect amongst our senior preachers, as there are no clear and objective criteria by which authorised gurus are created. When new devotees come to the movement, the importance of diksha tends to be emphasised, rather than the importance of receiving sound training in scripture. They are usually encouraged to give their allegiance to one of the many diksha “camps” in ISKCON, rather than to learn from the local preachers who represent the institution, accepting such preachers as siksha authorities. As I already mentioned, diksha gurus are invariably set apart from other preachers and put on high pedestals, surrounded by an aura of mystical superiority. By inference, other non-initiating preachers are generally seen as being impotent to teach the science of Krishna consciousness, and their association is regarded as not very valuable. I feel this has contributed to many problems, some of which are as follows:
1. Because there are two lines of authority within ISKCON – one from the GBC and one from the authorised gurus – ISKCON preachers often act in conflict with each other rather than synergistically.
2. Because diksha gurus are put on such high pedestals, any misbehaviour on their part seriously damages ISKCON’s reputation.
3. Because the emphasis is put on taking initiation from the “advanced” (no offence meant) and often charismatic diksha guru in ISKCON, rather than on the less mystical process of receiving siksha or scriptural training from familiar – but less mysterious – devotees, ISKCON devotees are susceptible to changing their allegiance to devotees outside the institution in search of an even more advanced and charismatic diksha guru, at least in their perception.
4. The no-objection certificate is deemed necessary to protect new devotees who lack discrimination. This approach creates a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ as ISKCON leaders rely on the no-obection certificate to protect new devotees, and therefore do not provide thorough and systematic education in scripture by which devotees could become qualified to discriminate for themselves. Consequently, ISKCON devotees are often immature in their scriptural knowledge and understanding, and thus easy prey to deviant philosophies such as ritvik-vada.
5. Where the authority is divided into institutional and spiritual, it becomes fertile ground for politics.
6. Because of unclear lines of authority and accountability, many competent preachers feel discouraged to preach.
However, if the GBC were to remove the no-objection certificate, could ISKCON protect its institutional and spiritual integrity? Many devotees fear not, but I believe if we adopt the correct organisational model then ISKCON’s institutional and spiritual integrity could be much better served than at present. I don’t believe I have all the answers. I am mainly trying to point out that we need to find a better way. Once we are convinced of that, then maybe by mature discussion among many senior devotees we can develop the whole picture. Here then is my attempt to explore another paradigm.
Here is a standard model for developing a strategic plan in any organisation:
Before we can define what type of organisational structure and mechanisms are best for ISKCON we need to be clear about ISKCON’s primary purpose. If I were asked to express the purpose of ISKCON in my own words, this is how I would put it:
ISKCON’s primary purpose is to systematically educate people in the proper understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s books and the proper application of that knowledge.
That is to say, I believe we should first interest people in Srila Prabhupada’s books (i.e. preach), then we should have programmes whereby they can be systematically educated in them. This training must give people more than just rote knowledge; we need to give them a sound grasp of the principles embodied in the books, with a view to empowering then to make correct decisions in their lives.
If we agree on this as ISKCON’s primary purpose, then we need to discuss what strategy is best to achieve this purpose. Once we have decided on a strategy we can begin to decide what type of organisation would best facilitate the strategy.
When it comes to strategy, I certainly don’t pretend to have everything worked out, but because I am hoping that we will all become convinced of the need to change our present paradigm, I will make some attempt to express my own perception of a good strategy.
1. I believe our strategy should encourage qualified devotees to develop centres in every town and village. These devotees should be viewed as siksha gurus. I list below, under ‘Organisational Structure’, some of the responsibilities I envisage them accepting.
2. I also believe that a good strategy must include some sound system for ensuring easy access to good scriptural training for these preachers. At present, devotees in the U.K. have to go to India for 4 months if they want any sound scriptural training.
3. The strategy should also mention all the different areas and skills where we feel training is required. For example, do our preachers need training in sastra only, or do they also require training in communication skills, conflict resolution, etc.?
4. The strategy should incorporate a system for ensuring institutional accountability so that local preachers do not become ‘loose canons.’
5. For the strategy to work I believe it is also important for us to emphasise the importance of siksha guru. Guru should be seen as the devotee who is giving us good scriptural training, care, and guidance. Diksha should be seen as the natural cementing of a sound siksha relationship.
6. I would also suggest that if diksha is to become the natural cementing of a sound siksha relationship, then we need to seriously consider lifting the current ban on initiating in the presence of one’s own diksha guru.
These are some basic suggestions for the things I consider most essential. Without doubt there are many more details that need to be considered, but the above would at least constitute a sound framework, in my view.
The organisational structure I envisage, based on the strategy I have in mind, is as follows:
National GBC representative
Regional GBC representative
TP’s department heads/assistants.
The GBC body are ISKCON’s parampara link to Srila Prabhupada. Their responsibility is to ensure the continued emphasis on teaching Srila Prabhupada’s books. In only fifty or so years from now there will be no direct initiates of Srila Prabhupada on the GBC. The GBC will be comprised of the initiated disciples of many different gurus. What common allegiance will give any cohesion to the body at that time? If we are struggling now when all the GBC representatives have a personal allegiance directly to Srila Prabhupada, imagine the possible mayhem when everyone has a personal allegiance to someone different. I therefore propose that the GBC’s common point of cohesion should be clearly established and articulated now as the responsibility to ensure systematic study and understanding of the principles in Srila Prabhupada’s books.
I envisage that their primary responsibilities should be:
1 To regularly meet together to study and discuss Srila Prabhupada’s books threadbare.
2 To establish appropriate standards for being a GBC representative. I suggest that they look for internal qualities rather than external status. I would therefore suggest that GBC posts be offered to devotees who exhibit at least the qualities of a brahmana as described in BG.18-42.
3 To choose competent National GBC representatives who could properly represent them in the different countries in their zones.
4 To facilitate and ensure that the national GBC representatives in their jurisdiction receive proper and adequate scriptural training commensurate with their level of responsibility.
5 To encourage and guide their National GBC representatives to seek and receive all the training required for executing their service.
6 To ensure there are proper appeal and grievance procedures in place that allow their National GBC representatives to have access to the GBC body in the event of any irresolvable misunderstandings.
7 To ensure that their National GBC representatives have similar grievance and appeal procedures in place for the benefit of the next level down in the organisation.
National GBC assistants assist their GBC representative by taking responsibility for one country. Unlike the GBC representative they would not need to go to GBC meetings every year. Rather they would be located in the country for which they are responsible. I envisage that their duties would largely comprise of:
a) Personal study and peer discussion of Srila Prabhupada’s books. b) Facilitating and encouraging the spiritual development of the devotees in the next level of the organisation, i.e. the regional GBC representatives. c) Choosing competent regional GBC representatives. d) Fostering a team ethos between the regional GBC representatives in his or her care. e) Encouraging and guiding the regional GBC representatives to acquire the appropriate professional skills required for executing their service. f) Ensuring there are satisfactory grievance and appeal procedures available to the regional GBC representatives in the case of any irresolvable misunderstandings developing. g) Ensuring there are good service contracts between his or herself and the regional GBC representatives, so that these can be referred to in the case of any disputes.
Regional GBC assistants take responsibility for a smaller region within a country on behalf of the National GBC. I envisage that their responsibilities would include:
a) Being easily accessible to the TPs within the region for which they are responsible. b) Spending some portion of their time studying and discussing in the association of their National GBC representative and other Regional GBCs and some time studying and discussing in the association of the TP’s in their care. c) Encouraging and facilitating the TPs in their care to achieve appropriate levels of scriptural competence. d) Encouraging and guiding TPs in their care to acquire other skills appropriate for executing their service. e) Ensuring that there are good service contracts for TPs. f) Ensuring that there are satisfactory grievance and appeal procedures in place. g) Developing a good team spirit between the TPs in his or her care.
The TPs are responsible for the preaching areas under their care. According to the size of the Temple they will either have department heads or a few assistants. In either case, I envisage that their duties would include:
a) Systematic education in sastra and all other areas necessary for their service. b) Ensuring that the devotees directly in their care receive adequate and systematic scriptural training. c) Ensuring that the devotees in their care receive proper training in the skills they require for executing their services. d) Developing a team spirit amongst the devotees in their care. e) Working with their team to develop good fundraising strategies, good reputation in the community and all other local preaching activities. f) Ensuring that the devotees in their care are properly and happily situated in their ashrama. g) Ensuring that the devotees in their care are properly engaged according to their respective abilities. h) Encouraging and facilitating the involvement of congregational devotees in the mission. h) Looking after all other areas of local management, such as providing satisfactory grievance and appeal procedures, service contracts, and a policy regarding residence in the temple ashrama.
Such a structure would facilitate regular and meaningful scriptural training and care from above, and accountability from below. These, in my view, are the two most important principles. No more ‘loose cannons’, or devotees who hold great spiritual power as guru, but are not within any insititutional line of authority. And no one overloaded with too much responsibility. Each leader cares for and trains his immediate subordinates. Everyone is answerable to someone and cared for by someone.
Once our organisational structure is decided, along with appropriate responsibilities for the various posts, we can decide which person is best suited for the different positions in the organisation.
If we make our plans using this model (i.e. first agreeing on our purpose, then our strategy, then our organisational structure, then how our personnel fit into the organisation) I feel we will make a significant contribution to reversing the current downward decline in ISKCON. Problems usually occur in an organisation when its policies, strategies and organisation are determined by the fancies and interests of its personnel, rather than by the organisational purpose. This is sometimes called ‘mission drift’.
What about regulating initiations?
Currently we try to regulate devotees’ decisions about who they should accept as diksha guru. We tell them that being in ISKCON means they must take initiation from someone approved by the organisation. In the model I am proposing, however, we would not try to control the situation in this way, i.e. by saying who you can or cannot accept as guru. Rather, from the very beginning we would stress the need for first developing proper discrimination on the basis of our books, and then we would make sure that we provide the necessary education for such discrimination to develop.
I propose that ISKCON’s institutional and spiritual authority be protected by its own institutional lines of accountability, and by service agreements for the posts within those lines. One’s choice of diksha guru does not have to be an issue, provided these other criteria are satisfied. For example, if a devotee wants to be an ISKCON TP, we could first of all get a written agreement both from his initiating guru (if he has one) and from himself, that, for the purposes of his service, he is to accept the siksha of his Regional GBC representative. His service contract could include this as a clause. Also as a part of his service contract, there would need to be a statement that his duty is to teach Srila Prabhupada’s books and other books approved by the GBC body. So he would need to be well versed and appropriately qualified in his understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s books, and he would have to use only Srila Prabhupada’s books, or other books approved by ISKCON, as his teaching material. This could be overseen and regulated on a local level by the Regional GBC rep, so that the integrity of ISKCON’s teachings is maintained. Though there would be no control of a devotee’s choice of initiating guru, there could still be careful regulation of devotees within the institution who wish to give initiation. For example, if someone were to ask the GBC man for initiation, he could discuss the request with the GBC body. They could discuss with him the qualifications of the candidate, and his own ability to execute his responsibilities. This could happen for each request he personally receives. Likewise, at every level of the insititutional hierarchy, the siksha guru could confer with his own spiritual authority before accepting a request to give initiation. For example, if the TP were approached for initiation, he would discuss the request with his Regional GBC representative. If a head of department were approached for initiation, he would discuss the request with his TP. Like this we could ensure the integrity and spiritual safety of our representatives, and make sure they do not get into a position where they are becoming victims to the allurements of name, fame, wealth, and illicit sex. Everything could be regulated locally in a very personal, and I believe much more effective, way than it is at present. One point to note here: In our present system we have made virtual ‘superheroes’ out of a few devotees by giving them the guru approval. This has led to them being approached for initiation by hundreds of devotees, whom they have felt somewhat obliged to accept. However, if we stop naming individuals as diksha gurus, then the numbers approaching them will fall significantly. Requests for initiation will come only where genuine siksha relationships form. And this forming of natural relationships will be greatly assisted by the increased educational opportunities on offer in ISKCON.
We can make a difference
For us to succeed in developing a more effective organisational model, I feel we need to become convinced of a few things:
a) We are not powerless to improve ISKCON. We have possibly all found ourselves discussing ISKCON’s ills and lamenting that the problems are the responsibility of others. Leaders lament it is a follower problem, and followers lament it is a leader problem. Or we may lament that how ISKCON’s very existence is now being threatened by the ritviks, the ex-gurukulis, the abusers, followers of ‘non-ISKCON gurus’, etc. When we see ISKCON’s problems in those terms, we are powerless to do anything to help ISKCON, for we have no control over these people. But I believe we must all take some responsibility for ISKCON’s present plight, and thus it is within our power to make the necessary changes in ourselves to reverse that situation. b) To effect change in ISKCON we need to operate as a team. I believe this is our greatest challenge. From my perception we are often ‘rugged individualists’. We have a vision, and then we roll up our sleeves and try to make it happen. The most capable may succeed, but the others fall by the wayside. We tend to have little patience for prolonged dialogue and consultation. We are quite often impatient when communicating with each other, not taking the time to properly understand the other’s position. After our meetings we frequently feel misunderstood, ‘shot down in flames’, or simply ignored. Unless we address this tendency in ourselves, we will not be able to work together to effect change. We need to make time for consultation, for understanding others and helping others to understand what we are trying to contribute towards the solution. c) ISKCON’s problems arise from our current paradigms, which arise from an improper application of scriptural principles. Surely if everything were aligned with scriptural principles then we would not be experiencing so many problems. Therefore if we ensure that our paradigms and practices are based on sound scriptural principles, then many of the problems we are currently experiencing will gradually cease to exist. The more closely our practical policies reflect a proper understanding of scriptural principles, the less likely that future crises will develop.
It is a widely accepted wisdom that for new strategies to be successfully executed within an organisation, they must be accompanied by deeper cultural changes. Here I would like to explore some aspects of ISKCON’s current culture that I feel we need to address if any attempt for institutional reform is to be successful.
Co-operation needs to be valued more than competition
For example; the question of rugged individualism, which I mentioned above. Why do we have this phenomenon in ISKCON? It is my belief that we encourage it by our culture of primarily recognising individual success. We gauge success and give esteem to individuals according to how ‘big’ they do. How many books, how much funds collected, how many devotees or disciples made, etc. We publicly praise such things, thus reinforcing a culture of individual achievement, rather than one of cooperation and teamwork. At present we have no organisational mechanism whereby these latter values are recognised and reinforced. In my view this would need to change. We need to value and appreciate devotees for their ability not only to succeed personally, but more so for their ability to help their subordinates succeed. A devotee’s success would not then be gauged simply in terms of how many disciples he personally has, but rather in terms of how many of his siksha disciples, and disciples of his siksha disciples, are also successfully taking responsibility for disciples. Success would not be seen simply in terms of how learned he is, but how learned his subordinates are. And good leadership would be gauged both in terms of how successfully one executes his own varnashrama duties, and also how well his subordinates execute their varnashrama duties.
We get what we value and feed.
If we constantly praise personal achievement, then everyone will always try to do big themselves, even at the cost of others not succeeding. But in my view, this culture is contaminated by materialistic mentaility. Though there is competition in the spiritual atmosphere, it is secondary to the primary principle of cooperation.
I remember asking one senior devotee if he would help me with the preaching in Manchester, and he replied, only half in jest, that he felt unable to, as it would be myself and not him who ‘got the score’. I feel we should be aiming for an ethos where how “big” we do is not measured just in terms of our individual achievements, but also in terms of the achievements of devotees in our care. We need to institutionalise mechanisms whereby we can validate and encourage the mentality of cooperation. One such mechanism might be yearly personal reviews with one’s authority.
Dharma vs artha
At present we often value results over and above proper behaviour. If moral behaviour such as honesty threatens our results, then that behaviour will very likely be criticised as being “contaminated” by the mode of goodness. But I feel this mentality has contributed to the current crises in ISKCON. We overlook bad behaviour, or even encourage it, if it helps us increase our results. But such results are not sustainable. Rather we need to value dharma, or proper behaviour over and above results. Dharma should never be sacrificed for artha. By proper adherence to dharma, we will in the long run get sustainable artha.
Training in dharma
As well as valuing the execution of dharma, there needs to be more emphasis on determining one’s dharma, and offering training in this area. Currently very little attention is given to this. When devotees “join”, little or no attention is given to understanding their varna and guiding them to become properly situated in the correct ashrama. It seems we have one pervading value in ISKCON at present: “do big”. Our first consideration is usually to get some immediate result from people, often justified in terms of ‘doing the needful’, although whether such engagement is appropriate for the individual is not given very much thought. This problem is exacerbated by the present guru system, which so often places gurus and disciples at some distance from each other, and also often creates gurus with far more disciples than they can possibly guide in such a personal way. But again, the temple authority is usually not seen as the spiritual authority, does not feel empowered in that area, and thus will probably not try to give such personal spiritual guidance to the devotees in his care. The result has been a very high turnover of temple devotees, who so often go away disenchanted and feeling that no one really cared for them. If on the other hand we do offer appropriate guidance and training for devotees, giving them personal care and making sure they are properly situated, then they will surely be far more likely to become long term supporters of ISKCON. From dharma will come artha, but dharma must be our main goal, not artha.
Brahminical Qualifications for leaders:
For our leaders to be able to guide and train people in the correct execution of their individual dharmas, they need to be properly trained in scripture. As I understand it Srila Prabhupada wanted devotees to pass different levels of sastric qualification: Bhakti Sastri, Bhakti Vaibhava, and Bhakti Vedanta. Very little has been done to realize this instruction, which probably shows how little we value its importance. Personally, I believe that for us to develop a new organisational model for ISKCON it needs to be accompanied by an emphasis on brahminical qualification. The greater one’s spiritual authority, the greater should be the minimum expectation of brahminical qualification. For example, all GBCs might be expected to become Bhaktivedantas, all National GBCs to become Bhakti Sarvabhaumas, all regional GBCs to become Bhakti Vaibhavas, and all TPs to at least be Bhakti Sastris – or some such system. Not only would this give more respectability to their spiritual authority, but it would ensure they have the appropriate sastric wisdom to properly guide people in their care in the execution of their dharma.
The unequivocal acceptance of the need for professional training
At present I detect a polemic in ISKCON with regards to the value of professional training. For the paradigm I am proposing to work, I feel it would be necessary to unequivocally accept the importance for leaders in ISKCON to seek relevant professional training. Such training need not be too time-consuming nor expensive. I have a Directory of Social Change training schedule in front of me, and the title of some of their one or two day workshops seem very relevant to our organisational needs. Here are some examples: “Develop and Implement Effective Appraisals”, “Managing for Managers”, “Raising Money from Companies”, “Performing under Pressure”, “”Developing Committed Volunteers: Supervision and Support”, “Effective Communications”, etc. I know that at present, some devotees feel the “non-devotees” have nothing of value to teach us, but I am inspired by the adage Srila Prabhupada taught us to the effect that true wisdom is the ability to take gold from a dirty place, or knowledge from a fool.
As I state above, my view is that ISKCON is an educational institution. Indeed, in the seven purposes which Srila Prabhupada set down in 1966 when forming ISKCON’s first constitution, the first purpose is “To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all people in the techniques of spiritual life…” ISKCON is meant for propagating spiritual knowledge with a view to educating people. That is the main business, in my understanding, and everything else is supportive of that. I mention this as a cultural change, as it is my perception that ISKCON is very often perceived as a mini state or country. We feel we need to set up everything within our society that is seen within the greater society, starting with a government of ‘kshatriyas’, i.e. the GBC. I question this, and would argue that we should be primarily a society of brahmanas – at least that should be our core mission. Of course, there will undoubtedly be many different types of people who come to Krishna consciousness, not all of them brahmanas. But I think that the most urgent work we need to do first of all is to get in place a structure that facilitates the educators, i.e. the brahmanas – then we can look at engagements for other classes, who after all will need to be educated in their duties. In any event, I am not convinced that ISKCON as a society will ever become the totality of greater society as a whole.
That then is my proposal which I hope will serve as a useful basis for further discussion. I sincerely hope that by being so direct I have not offended anyone. If I have I hope you will have the kindness to forgive me, as I am speaking only out of a desire to improve ISKCON. I would welcome any feedback.
This paper was presented to a meeting of ISKCON leaders in the UK, in October 2000.
Krishna Dharma das
26 October 2000