By Hari-sauri dasa
I HAVE ALWAYS done a bit of travelling, at least since 1975 when I was fortunate enough to join Srila Prabhupada’s personal entourage. I got to travel India and around the world with His Divine Grace, and it gave me my first look at worldwide ISKCON.
I was impressed. Impressed with Srila Prabhupada and impressed with his disciples and the amazing scope of transcendental activity that was manifesting all over the globe. Unity was the key, and that was achieved through the presence and desire of Srila Prabhupada. Later, after His Divine Grace’s disappearance I served as a GBC for over seven years. It seemed like I was in the air or on the road more often than I wasn’t.
I had a far-flung South Seas zone and international duties to fulfil. It was a boom time: we went from four temples to seventeen centres, including three farms, two schools, with additional restaurants and two new BBT divisions. From 95 full time devotees (the official count in that zone in 1977) we jumped to over 400. It was time of rapid expansion and it seemed for a short while we could do no wrong. Of course, human frailty wasn’t far behind and mundane realities exerted themselves, individually and collectively. Maintaining what Srila Prabhupada had left us proved a difficult task.
The spiritual waves of preaching sakti, emanating from Srila Prabhupada’s personal presence, which had swept us almost effortlessly along, like a great tsunami surging around the globe, subsided. After 1984 I left management and became an ISKCON private citizen. I was much more stationary. I still travelled a bit, but nothing like the scale of my earlier years. I lived in England, then India, then Australia, then the USA and finally back to India for the last nine years now. In the last three years I have resumed a bit of travelling again, delivering a seminar series entitled Srila Prabhupada: The Living Bhagavatam.
I have visited Brazil, USA, England and several countries of the old eastern Europe – Croatia and Slovenia, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania. People sometimes ask me what Srila Prabhupada would think of the current condition of ISKCON. Having travelled with Srila Prabhupada throughout the ISKCON world when it was, by some criteria, at its peak in the west, I suppose they think I have some kind of special insight into how Srila Prabhupada views it now. I wish I had.
By what criteria do I make such a judgement? I certainly have no idea of Srila Prabhupada’s view of the world (if I had I would be a maha bhagavata!), and anyway, do maha bhagavatas make such assessments? I remember sitting with His Divine Grace in his room in Bombay on January 6, 1977. He told me, “You should always remember that you have taken a very, very difficult task, manusyanam saharesu kascid yatati siddaye. It is not a very easy task but one thing is sure, if you be successful or not successful, it is your victory. Because you try for this, Krsna will be very much pleased. It is not that in every case you will be successful, that is not possible. I went to your country not to become successful – that Bengali poem I wrote – I never went there to become successful. I knew, “Who will accept this philosophy? Still let me try, my Guru Maharaja has said.” And yet on another occasion in Mayapur in 1977 just before he became seriously ill, Srila Prabhupada had told me, “I want to spread Krishna Consciousness everywhere, at once.”
So on the one hand, anything that established Krishna Consciousness was a success because none was expected, and on the other, no amount of expansion could match the pure devotee’s ambition. Still there must be some measure by which we can understand if we are doing things to his satisfaction or not.
These are myriad and my assessment can only be subjective, so whatever I say, I pray my reader will understand that this is just one man’s observation, telescoped through the very limited lens of a conditioned soul’s coverings. I suppose the best criteria for making such a judgement is that set by Srila Prabhupada himself, the one we most often quote: “Your love for me will be shown by how well you co-operate together.” Or at least that’s the loose rendition, the sentimental one we like to refer to when we want to encourage each other, whether we are in or out of ISKCON, to respect each other and participate together in devotional activities.
Except that’s not exactly what Srila Prabhupada said. The actual quote is much more specific (and typical of Srila Prabhupada): “Your love for me will be tested how after my departure you maintain this institution. We have glamour and people are feeling our weight. This should be maintained. Not like Gaudiya Matha. After Guru Maharaja’s departure so many acaryas came up.”(TKG’S diary, May 23,1977) Srila Prabhupada was precise in stating his criteria. If we love him, not ourselves, then we will work co- operatively to maintain that specific powerful entity he set up, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, ISKCON. And just to emphasize what that meant, he gave the negative example for us to compare ourselves with – the Gaudiya Matha, which lost its unity and became fragmented by so many independent acaryas.
By that criteria, at least we can say ISKCON, good or bad, continues to exist. Wherever one goes around the world there are ISKCON devotees who are eager to receive you, to offer their services, to eagerly hear and chant with you, to take prasadam with. For sure, many centres are depleted from their original levels of attendance and occupation but then again the number of centres have more than tripled since Srila Prabhupada left us, and unimaginable events have occurred in places where, during this time, it was a criminal offence to simply possess a Bhagavad-Gita.
This year 2005 I travelled around the world with my wife Sitala, our daughter Rasarani, and her friend Radha. Not an easy task, but made a great pleasure by the wonderful hospitality extended to us wherever we went. Selfless devotees turned over their homes to us, fed us and catered to all our needs. Add to this the generous hospitality from temple managers in Honolulu, London, Belgium, Milan and Rome, and we had an exceptionally good time, sheltered and cared for by the kalpa-vrksa of ISKCON. Apart from this I did a two month preaching tour of several countries in Eastern Europe.
Everywhere I went I was received with generosity, gentility, and genuine friendship. Hundreds of devotees were eager to hear about Srila Prabhupada for as long as I could talk about him. There is a real thirst and excitement among the devotees to know more and more details about the life of our Founder-acarya. It’s a healthy sign, and a great encouragement for the future. Local cultural traits not withstanding, Krsna consciousness has taken root all around the world. The culture of spirituality, the lifestyle of bhakti, the characteristics of real transcendentalism have been irrevocably implanted in the most unlikely places, all through the aegis of that singular entity, ISKCON. It is undeniable that Srila Prabhupada’s brainchild has made, and continues to make, a lasting impact on the world.
Of course not everyone has the same experience as me. I received a letter just a few weeks ago from a godbrother who has been estranged from mainstream ISKCON for some years, expressing this in no uncertain terms: “In all reality when you are an older Prabhupada disciple who has not already made his mark in ISKCON, there is little hope for feeling comfortable amongst the leadership. You are kind of put under an emotional penury and have very little support–associating with most big gatherings of ISKCON illuminati for devotees like me is frankly depressing and humiliating – which is actually why so many Prabhupada disciples are not coming back into the fold. First the fold has to fold – if you get my point.
“It may be hard for you to imagine what it’s like for Prabhupada disciples like me since you are so famous and appreciated in ISKCON; as a whole your experience is totally different. It’s acknowledgement and support at every turn. My only chance of that is when someone with some power inside knows my service, like you! Such persons like that are just about non-existent for me in the ISKCON leadership now.”
It would be foolish to deny such sentiments and leave them unaddressed. The leadership of ISKCON clearly has a lot of work to do to make the Society a place where, to quote another well known adage, “the whole world can live.” ISKCON is, by any measure, a work in progress and none of us would deny that. But it does exist.
Although fragmentation has occurred (and who among us thought it would not?), the main body of the Society has held together. There is a unity and a determination to execute the desire of Srila Prabhupada that is tangible in countries all around the globe. As one senior godbrother told me, “Say what you like about ISKCON, but it’s the only act in town.” Who else is putting on Rathayatra in multiple cities? Who else is distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books on the streets and in the airports – literature that was written and has the potency to change the whole world? Who else is putting on festivals like the Odessa gathering in Ukraine or Anapa in Russia when 1,500-2,500 devotees dance, chant, and hear with great eagerness from a host of senior Vaisnavas? Who else is developing educational facilities such as the VIHE/MIHE, the BBT Sanskrit college in Govardhana, and Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium, to teach advanced courses in the science of bhakti yoga? Who else has temples like Juhu, Vrndavana, Mayapur, and the Manor, that regularly host hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on major festival days?
And who else has hundreds of centres all around the world where any devotee can be received in friendship with a place to stay and prasadam to eat? The list is a long one.
Wherever I travel I meet dedicated, sincere souls who are working hard to maintain Srila Prabhupada’s Society. They are inspired by his personal example, by the words in his books, and by the determination of his disciples and grand-disciples to preserve his work and not lay to waste his lifetime of effort. It is a tribute to his brilliance that in the midst of Kali-yuga, when it is far easier to find fault and flake away, his transcendental creation ISKCON has held together and continues to provide spiritual succor to the distressed and spiritually bereft. And it is a tribute to his sincere followers that despite the potential for disagreement and dissent, despite the deficiencies – both the personal and the collective – they continue working together with hope and confidence. This is love. In January 1976, Srila Prabhupada wrote to Bhurijana Dasa: “Unless there is loving feeling, how is it possible for you to always make offerings to me? The spiritual master is always instructing his disciples and they in turn are always trying to serve their spiritual master. It is a reciprocal relationship of love.”
And again in January 1977 Srila Prabhupada wrote to Mrs. Polly Perlmutter, the mother of Sravanananda Dasa: “Yes, our Society is depending on love and respect; we are bound by love.” We are bound by love. And by self interest we are rent asunder. Therefore Srila Prabhupada told us in 1977 “Your love for me will be tested how after my departure you maintain this institution.”
On a morning walk on August 11 1976 when Srila Prabhupada was visiting Tehran, he told us about passing that test: “To be recognized by Krsna as He says, na ca tasman manusyesu, one has to pass examination, severe test of examination. All the big, big devotees we see. Narada Muni, before becoming Narada Muni, he had to pass through severe examination, test–Faith means that you are meant for giving some service to Krsna. You should stick to that service, that path, in spite of all impediments. That is the passing of test. Generally, just like we are meant for preaching Krsna consciousness. So there may be severe test, but still we will remain determined. This is wanted.
“There may be so many impediments, punishments, still you should do that. That is test. Not that as soon as there is some difficulty I give it up. There may be severe test, but still we shall not give up. We must go on. That is determination.” “Passing the test means executing the order of the spiritual master,” Nava-yauvana said. Prabhupada agreed. “Yes, that is spiritual life. One has to take order from the spiritual master and execute it, despite all impediments. That is determination.”
Do we pass the test?
From this fallen soul’s perspective and experience, I think so. We may not get 100%, but a pass at least. ISKCON continues on as a united preaching force, and as long as it does, that is the passing of the test of love that Srila Prabhupada set for us.