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ISKCON as movement and organization

Wednesday, 19 July 2017 / Published in Articles / 2,764 views

By Sanatana Govinda das


I was long haunted by the desire to understand, what is ISKCON? What is this concept? Where are its boundaries? What is part of ISKCON and what is not? Who is a member of ISKCON and who is not?


Whilst studying Srila Prabhupada’s books, I have noticed something very interesting. Very often, we use the word «organization» when we speak about ISKCON, whereas Srila Prabhupada, in the vast majority of cases, spoke about ISKCON as a movement.

Let’s do a little research on, the official BBT website where all of Srila Prabhupada’s books are available in English. We will search for the word «organization»:

According to the website, this word was used only 58 times. If we exclude Prabhupada Lilamrita, written by Satsvarupa Maharaja, from this list, it turns out that in Srila Prabhupada’s books it was used around 30 times, and for ISKCON only once or twice. However, here it is important to note that on this site there are no letters, lectures and talks by Srila Prabhupada, only books.

Now let’s search for the word «movement»:

We see that this word is found more than a thousand and a half times.

Movement and organization

You may ask, «What changes this? What difference does it make which word Srila Prabhupada used?» 

However, let’s try to understand how the meanings of these words differ.

In the textbook «Political Science» edited by Professor S.V. Reshetnikova, Minsk, 2000, it is written:

«Public organization is a voluntary Association of citizens based on common interests, have a relatively stable organizational structure from top to bottom, fixed (arranged) individual or collective membership. For the public organization has a Charter, a specialized administrative apparatus, the relative stability of the composition, the material participation of the membership in creating a financial base (membership, target fees)…

…A social movement is understood as joint activity of citizens pursuing certain common goals, but not having a clear organizational structure and fixed membership. Social movements are mass, broad social base, organizational and ideological amorphousness, instability of orientation and composition, often a spontaneity, and spontaneity of action. Communication between members of the movement are mostly ideological and political, not organizational in nature.»

Thus we see that movement is a broader concept. However, we disagree on the following points:


An organization has a clear structure, defined managers and a financial system, whereas a movement does not have such mechanisms, but, it can consist of many organizations.

Management and credibility

Management is carried out by managers whose position is fixed by appropriate mechanisms. Members of the organization must obey their instructions, regardless of whether they agree with them or not. In a movement, the “centre of power” are the so-called “legislators of opinions” who are people that have gained respect in society and whose opinions are heard.


An organization has a clear membership; it is possible to draw a clear distinction between who is a member of the organization and who is not. In reality, however, this notion is blurred, and, in fact, each person is a party to a particular movement as much as one shares the ideals of this movement.

In the context of the Krsna consciousness movement

Let’s try to consider how the aspects of movement and organization manifested themselves from a historical perspective.

«So this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is not a new movement. It is there always in the Vedic scriptures, but people have forgotten. So we are trying to revive that movement, although in India the movement is there always, especially since the last five hundred years, introduced by Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu.» (Srila Prabhupada, lecture on wedding, May 06, 1969)

«This Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is not a new introduction of the mental speculators. Actually this movement was started by Kṛṣṇa Himself in the Battlefield of Kurukṣetra. At least five thousand years ago the movement was presented by Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavad-gītā. From this Bhagavad-gītā we can understand that this system of consciousness was spoken by Him long, long before—He imparted to the sun-god Vivasvān. That calculation goes to show that before the repetition of the Bhagavad-gītā in the Battlefield of Kurukṣetra, it was once before explained at least forty million years ago. So this movement is not at all new. It is coming down from disciplic succession, and in India from all great leaders of the Vedic society like Śaṅkarācārya, Rāmānujācārya, Madhvācārya, Viṣṇu Svāmī , Nimbārka, and lately, about 480 years ago, Lord Caitanya. The principle is still being followed today. This Bhagavad-gītā is also very widely persued in all parts of the world by great scholars, philosophers, and religionists. But in most cases the principle is not followed as it is. Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement means to present the principles of the Bhagavad-gītā as it is, without any misinterpretation.» (Srila Prabhupada, Lecture Press Release, December 22, 1968)

Thus, as Srila Prabhupada says, the Krsna consciousness movement has always existed. Furthermore, he mentions special milestones in its development, namely, how Lord Krishna spoke the Bhagavad Gita 5,000 years ago and how Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu spread this movement throughout India 500 years ago.

We can see elements of an organization as we now understand that this word began to appear under Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati when he organized the Gaudiya Math. It was a strong preaching organization whose influence extended to the whole of India. Later, when Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati left this world, because the older students were unable to implement the principles of collegial, joint management, this organization broke up into many separate organizations.

In the book Prabhupada Lilamrita, Srila Satsvarupa Maharaj explains in detail how Srila Prabhupada participated in the activities of the Gaudiya Matha while Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was present on the planet. But later, when Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati left this world, Srila Prabhupada made several attempts to link his preaching activity with the part of the Gaudiya Math that he considered to be the main part.

However, after several unsuccessful attempts, he came to the conclusion that he should act independently. After some time, he created the League of Devotees in the city of Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, India, and later, after arriving to the West, created ISKCON which was registered in New York in 1966.

«With further reference to your letter dated Feb. 16, 1968, I may inform you that this Krishna Consciousness movement is not a recent movement, started a few months or a few years ago, but this movement has been existing for a very long time, dating back to the Vedic Age. Without tracing the history of this movement, we can safely say that at least 5000 years ago, this movement was started from the Battlefield of Kuruksetra. Later on, it was organizedly recorded in the great voluminous literature, known world over as the Srimad Bhagwatam, and the very famous Bhagavad Gita, by the original author of Vedic literature, Sri Krishna Dvaipayana Vyas. Since that time, this movement is current in India, supported by great Acaryas like Ramanuja, Madhya, and Visnu Swami, and Nimbarka. Later on, about 500 years ago, it received great impetus from Lord Chaitanya, and since that time, there are millions of supporters for Krishna Consciousness in India. This Krishna Consciousness movement is still supported by conferences, seminars, and so forth, in several parts of India. Recently, we have started this movement in America, making New York as our center, with a view that we shall be able to attract the attention of the United Nations for spreading this important movement throughout the whole world for actual benefit of the human race.

It is not a sectarian movement meant for a certain class of men, but it is a necessary movement for all humanity irrespective of caste, creed, or color. So far I am concerned, I am a humble disciple of His Divine Grace, Om Visnupad Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Goswami Maharaj, who was the original pioneer of spreading this movement in the Western world. During his lifetime, up to 1936, he started 64 main centers all over the world, including centers in Berlin, Germany, and London, England. His Divine Grace entrusted me to spread this movement in the Western countries, and since 1965, I am trying in my humble way to spread this movement in this part of the world. I am recognized Acarya of this movement, as will be evidenced by the enclosed copies of different branches of the Goudiya Math institutions. The certificates enclosed herewith are signed by my God-brothers, who have now different branches of the same Gaudiya Math Institution which I am now spreading in this country. So, originating from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, there are thousands of centers all over India for spreading this Krishna Consciousness philosophy.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Mr. David J. Exley, February 21, 1968)

«Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja Gosvāmī therefore offers equal respect to all the preachers of the cult of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, who are compared to the branches of the tree. ISKCON is one of these branches, and it should therefore be respected by all sincere devotees of Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu.» (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Ādi-līlā, 10.7 purp.)

Unity and Difference

On one hand, we can cite many arguments and quotes in favour of the fact that the Krishna consciousness movement and the ISKCON organization are one, with no difference between them, yet, on the other hand, we can cite many arguments in favour of the fact that “movement” and “organization” are still different concepts. Therefore, our proposal is to understand this in the spirit of achintya-bheda-abheda-tattva, the philosophy of simultaneous incomprehensible unity and difference, and for the most complete perception, we need to understand both.

«The materialist without being able to adjust the varieties and the disagreements makes everything zero. They cannot come into agreement with varieties, but if we keep Krsna in the center, then there will be agreement in varieties. This is called unity in diversity. I am therefore suggesting that all our men meet in Mayapur every year during the birth anniversary of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. With all GBC and senior men present we should discuss how to make unity in diversity.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Kirtanananda, October 18, 1973)

For example, in Srila Prabhupada’s books, which, according to Srila Prabhupada’s plan, should become the law books for all of mankind for the next ten thousand years, Srila Prabhupada spoke specifically of the movement and did not even mention the organization.

«Our Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is genuine, historically authorized, natural and transcendental due to its being based on Bhagavad-gītā As It Is.» (Bhagavad-gītā, Preface)

«The Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement has spread all over the world within a very short time (within five years), and mundane people are very much astonished at this. However, by the grace of Lord Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, we understand that everything is possible by the grace of Kṛṣṇa.» (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā, 4.79 purport)

Whilst Prabhupada did speak about the organization, mainly when he gave instructions to his disciples, the leaders of ISKCON when talking to government officials, and for preaching purposes, inflated the fact that ISKCON is a major international organization in order to convince their interlocutors from all over to take seriously the movement of Krsna consciousness. Based on this, we can conclude that the goal is to spread the Krishna consciousness movement, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a means to achieve this goal.

«This ISKCON organization is duly incorporated in New York State and is registered as N.G.O. by the United Nations.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Mr. J. A. Hamilton Jr., June 11, 1968)

«The formula for ISKCON organization is very simple and can be understood by everyone. The world is divided into twelve zones. For each zone there is one zonal secretary appointed by Srila Prabhupada. The zonal secretaries duty is to see that the spiritual principles are being upheld very nicely in all the Temples of his zone.» (Letter to All Temple Presidents written by Karandhar dasa and approved by Srila Prabhupada, June 11, 1968)

«ISKCON (the International Society of Krishna Consciousness) is a non-lucrative organization, whose purpose is to promote the well-being of human society by drawing its attention to God. We are a non-sectarian society, and our members include people from Christian, Jewish and Moslem as well as Hindu faiths.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Roland Michener (Governor-General of Canada), August 24, 1968)

We know that the instructions of the scriptures can be divided into two categories: one instruction refers to the category of “naimitika dharma” (instructions concerning temporal duties), and others refer to the category of “sanatana dharma” (manuals concerning eternal duties). We will take the liberty to refer the instructions concerning the organization to the category of “naimitika dharma”, that is, to temporal duties, and the instructions concerning the Krishna consciousness movement to the category of “nitya dharma” or “sanatana dharma”, that is, eternal duties.

«So please do not take this Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement as any sectarian movement. It is the science of God. Try to understand the science of God.» (Srila Prabhupada, Lecture on Ratha-yatra Festival, July 18, 1976)

«Please rest assured that in this movement there is no question of imperfectness. This is a solid, genuine movement for the total spiritual rejuvenation of the human society. I am requesting in this letter through you that every honest and sincere boy or girl must immediately join with us in this movement. If one is actually serious to understand the problems of life, he will surely find the right answers in this movement. Please read carefully our book, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, and you will find yourself getting enlightenment to the fullest extent. There is no doubt of this.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Mr. Jim Doody, February 08, 1969)

Rejecting the importance of the organization, we risk becoming an amorphous, incompetent community, in which there will be no projects, large-scale sermons, temples and public programs as all these require organization and coordination, a financial system and so on.

«My request to you is that you try to follow the authorities there, the temple president, the GBC, etc.—co-operated nicely with them. Our movement is based on love and trust, so if we do not co-operate, then how is that love and trust? Follow all of the rules and regulations very strictly without deviation, chant 16 rounds, attend class and mangala arati and then everything will be alright.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Krsnavesa, January 16, 1975)

At the same time, at least purely hypothetically, we can assume that at some point the organization can become an obstacle to the development of the movement. 

«This is due to the general prevalence of atheistic disposition in the people of this world. The church that has the best chance of survival in this damned world is that of atheism under the convenient guise of theism. The churches have always proved the staunchest upholders of the grossest form of worldliness from which even the worst of non-ecclesiastical criminals are found to recoil.

It is not from any deliberate opposition to the ordained clergy that these observations are made. The original purpose of the established churches of the world may not always be objectionable. But no stable religious arrangement for instructing the masses has yet been successful. The Supreme Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, in pursuance of the teachings of the scriptures enjoins all absence of conventionalism for the teachers of the eternal religion. It does not follow that the mechanical adoption of the unconventional life by any person will make him a fit teacher of religion. Regulation is necessary for controlling the inherent worldliness of conditioned souls.

But no mechanical regulation has any value, even for such a purpose. The bona-fide teacher of religion is neither any product of, nor the favourer of, any mechanical system. In his hands no system has likewise the chance of denigrating into a lifeless arrangement. The mere pursuit of fixed doctrines and fixed liturgies cannot hold a person to the true spirit of doctrine or liturgy.

The idea of an organized church in an intelligible form, indeed, marks the close of the living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dikes and dams to retain the current that cannot be held by any such contrivances. They, indeed, indicate a desire on the part of the masses to exploit a spiritual movement for their own purpose. They also unmistakably indicate the end of the absolute and unconventional guidance of the bona-fide spiritual teacher. The people of this world understand preventive systems, they have no idea at all of the unprevented positive eternal life. Neither can there be any earthy contrivance for the permanent preservation of the life eternal on this mundane plane on the popular scale.» («Organized Religion» article by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur)

«Regarding your points about taxation, corporate status, etc., I have heard from Jayatirtha you want to make big plan for centralization of management, taxes, monies, corporate status, bookkeeping, credit, like that. I do not at all approve of such plan. Do not centralize anything. Each temple must remain independent and self-sufficient. That was my plan from the very beginning, why you are thinking otherwise? Once before you wanted to do something centralizing with your GBC meeting, and if I did not interfere the whole thing would have been killed. Do not think in this way of big corporation, big credits, centralization—these are all nonsense proposals. Only thing I wanted was that books printing and distribution should be centralized, therefore I appointed you and Bali Mardan to do it. Otherwise, management, everything, should be done locally by local men. Accounts must be kept, things must be in order and lawfully done, but that should be each temple’s concern, not yours. Krishna Consciousness Movement is for training men to be independently thoughtful and competent in all types of departments of knowledge and action, not for making bureaucracy. Once there is bureaucracy the whole thing will be spoiled. There must be always individual striving and work and responsibility, competitive spirit, not that one shall dominate and distribute benefits to the others and they do nothing but beg from you and you provide. No. Never mind there may be botheration to register each centre, take tax certificate each, become separate corporations in each state. That will train men how to do these things, and they shall develop reliability and responsibility, that is the point.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Karandhara, December 22, 1972)

«One thing, we can never expect to find any kind of utopia, even in the spiritual world. Where ever there are persons there are bound to be differences, so we should not expect any kind of perfect arrangement, especially here in the material world.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Jayarge and Lindon Lomese, May 25, 1972)

If we compare the features of a movement and an organization cited at the beginning of the article, we see that ISKCON has both features. Of course, there is a certain administrative structure, but it includes only those who occupy any particular administrative position in the organization. However, if we go further, we see that there is no clear membership, and most of the devotees are

«After settling in Oregon with my Godsister Dinatarine, Srila Prabhupada, while pronouncing us ‘independent’ to a concerned Godbrother, at the same time twice rebuked us when we approached him to leave. ‘You westerners are so restless,’ he admonished. ‘Why can’t you remain in the same place? Stay where you are.’ We questioned, ‘But Srila Prabhupada, they are saying that if we aren’t in ISKCON, we lose your blessings and cannot make advancement.’ Prabhupada replied, ‘ISKCON is where you are chanting the holy name – that is ISKCON.’ We rejoined: ‘They are saying we don’t have any association here and are therefore in maya.’ He replied: ‘Association can be two or two hundred. If you are two and compatible, you can become perfect in Krsna consciousness. If you are 200 and are not, then no one will make advancement.» (Yamuna Devi Dasi, Presentations to the GBC, March 2000, Srila Prabhupada’s Transcendental Sweetness and Beauty)connected with ISKCON through their personal faith in Srila Prabhupada’s instructions and trust in other devotees.

«Everyone is under the clutches of maya. If we follow the regulative principles we can get out and come to spontaneous love. A diseased man is always under the clutches of disease. But if he follows the prescribed orders given by the physician he can be cured. Now, how to reform? If we ask him to go away the whole society will be finished. In the hospital many patients are there and the attempt is made to cure them, not to tell them to go away or to kill them. They try their best to cure them. If they tell them to get out of the hospital or if they kill them, that is easy.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Rupanuga, April 28, 1974)

«The fact is that once combined in Krishna Consciousness, one cannot be separated at any time but the incident of separation from the society of Kirtanananda and Hayagriva is accidental. I had advised that Kirtanananda should be asked to not speak but I never asked that he should not enter the Temple.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Rayarama, November 5, 1967)

«When a person is willing to help with our mission, he is also a devotee, so there is no question of him being nondevotee.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Krishna dasa, February 13, 1969)

Thus, ISKCON cannot be called an organization in the full sense of the word. And even more so, it will be a mistake to lower ISKCON to the level of an ordinary organization, which exists prominently in the materialistic society, using the same materialistic methods of management.

«As far as your grhastha community committee, I have no objection as it has the approval of Karandhar prabhu and he is there for you all to take advice from. One thing is though that we should not take such meetings and committees too seriously, as in the ultimate capacity our chanting is the only thing that will save us. However, if sometimes devotees should like to come together and chant Hare Krsna and discuss, just as we instituted our Istagosti program, then this of course I have no objection to.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Umapati, November 26, 1973)

«So factually, Krishna Consciousness is non-sectarian movement. There is no sectarian question. But if somebody without understanding this non-sectarian philosophy thinks otherwise, he himself becomes immediately sectarian. I therefore think that you should try to convince Mr. Rose about our philosophy of Krishna Consciousness, and let him become actually non-sectarian. Without understanding Krishna everyone is sectarian, and combination of such non-Krishna Consciousness persons will never create any institution of non-sectarian nature. That is not possible.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Kirtanananda, June 30, 1968)

And perhaps, at some point, using the principle of “accepting everything that is favourable and rejecting anything that is unfavourable,” we will have to act outside one organization, just as Srila Prabhupada once, in the name of spreading the Krsna consciousness movement, had to act outside the framework of the Gaudiya Math organization. Of course, we can assume that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati would not have been happy to learn that his organization had broken up into separate parts and that his mission continued within another organization. His sincere student also certainly could not feel joy being forced to act outside the organization founded by his spiritual master. But, more importantly, the mission to spread this movement still continued.

When Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was present on the planet, the Gaudiya Math was developing and strengthening, but even before his departure, he predicted that the conflict would soon break out. As soon as he left this land, Gaudiya Math began to fall apart because of the competition between the spiritual brothers, politics and intrigues. As for ISKCON, of course, Srila Prabhupada wanted ISKCON to continue to exist as one big, whole organization even after his departure, which is why he founded the principle of collegial, joint management, which at the highest level of governance, was manifested as GBC. Unfortunately, as we know, after the departure of Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON also experienced many difficulties, yet, despite all the difficulties, ISKCON survived although we also cannot help but recall the many wonderful devotees who, for one reason or another, left this organization.

Now, the Krishna consciousness movement consists of many different organizations and legal entities and often we don’t even think about it.

«Now, so far the BTG and Book Funds are concerned, these matters shall be managed separately from the GBC by a body known as The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.» (Letter to All Temple Presidents written by Karandhar dasa and approved by Srila Prabhupada, April 22, 1972)

«Regarding the BBT and the Society corporation, yes I want this kind of umbrella corporation. But if there is any difficulty, we have got BBT already tax exempt in India. If there is difficulty in getting BBT tax exempt in USA then we have got it here. You say that the lawyer suggests that BBT be a satellite organ of ISKCON, but does that mean that BBT is separate from ISKCON or not? Ramesvara gives the hint that ISKCON may go into liquidation. I cannot think of it. But, anyway, I cannot at any cost risk BBT if ISKCON goes into liquidation. Why risk the BBT by amalgamating it into ISKCON? Therefore I want to keep BBT separate.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Hansadutta, December 08, 1974)

«Regarding the NGO section of the United Nations, I am enclosing herewith a statement addressing Mr. David J. Exley, explaining the very importance of our movement. You can inform him that the Gaudiya Math Institutions in India and in England, are also part of this Institution. And as my God-brothers have established in different parts of India and the East hundreds of institutions for this purpose, I am also trying to open such similar centers in the Western countries. Our activities are related with Gaudiya Math on the basis of Krishna Consciousness.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Purusottama, February 22, 1968)

«Another consideration is that of two well-known preachers in ISKCON: H.H. Radhanatha Swami and H.H. Bhakti Tirtha Swami. They both developed their own preaching fields in somewhat unconventional ways. 

In Chowpatty, Radhanatha Swami insisted on very high standards for the brahmacari asrama. He also developed various committees within the community to care for the spiritual and material needs of the members of all asramas. The committees covered the following topics: health, housing, employment, marriage, vocational guidance, financial assistance and spiritual counselors. This care of the devotees is unprecedented as most of our communities do little, if anything, for such needs. He also encouraged the development of a hospital as part of the community. This took much insight since it has never been attempted before.

Bhakti Tirtha Swami also developed his community in a slightly different way than most ISKCON communities. I should first mention that he is an Afro-American Vaisnava, and he often wore African robes when he lived and preached in Africa. In America, his preaching is often couched in New Age or Christian jargon. This suits his congregation, which consists largely of New Age professionals.

Both of these devotees began their own styles of preaching while they were temporarily outside of ISKCON. They were later invited to return to ISKCON and were appreciated for their successes. Someone might ask the following questions: “Would they have had enough freedom to develop their projects had they been within ISKCON at the time? Can we encourage other preachers to higher levels of success by giving them more freedom? Do we now have preachers who are stifled by a lack of freedom?”» (Purnacandra Das “Unspoken Obstacles On the Path to Bhakti”)

We must understand that by absolutizing ISKCON as an organization in our minds, we risk repeating the same mistake of creating an elite class of people proclaiming their monopoly on spiritual knowledge and, in fact, once again descending to the level of the bodily concept. Moreover, something similar was already in ISKCON in the form of the so-called “system of zonal acaryas”. History has the property of repeating itself so we must be cautious and constantly review whether we are making the same mistakes that have already been described in detail by Srila Prabhupada and other acaryas. And, worst of all, the consequence of these mistakes is that instead of developing our relationship with God, we will cultivate pride and other anarthas in our hearts.

«The word caṇḍāla actually refers to a dog-eater, who is considered the lowest of men. Even caṇḍālas can be enlightened in Kṛṣṇa consciousness due to Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s benedictions. Kṛṣṇa-bhakti is not the monopoly of a certain caste. Everyone is eligible to receive this great benediction given by Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. Everyone should be given a chance to receive it and be happy.» (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā, 15.41 purport)

«But by the guidance of a brāhmaṇa and by saṁskāra, one can become dvija, twice-born, and then gradually become a brāhmaṇa. Brāhmaṇism is not a system meant to create a monopoly for a particular class of men. Everyone should be educated so as to become a brāhmaṇa. At least there must be an opportunity to allow everyone to attain the destination of life.» (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 10.8.6, purport)

«ISKCON now has large internal schisms such as the Ritvikvadis, who are generally seen as deviant. Furthermore, the recent exodus of devotees toward other Gaudiya institutions has shocked ISKCON’s members. Some leaders feel that they should somehow combat these problems, but many have not considered that they themselves may well have created them in the first place.

If a guru is humble, thinking himself merely a priest, and simply tries to help his flock, then his disciples and others will respect and appreciate him. If, however, he thinks himself superior to others, being proud of his followers and position, then a group of people may appear to insist that he is just a priest, not a guru in the full sense of the term. This is poetic justice and may even be arranged by the Lord to teach him a lesson.

During the time of Srila Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvati Thakura, the mahäntas or temple leaders, due to greed, developed jati-gosai contamination and tried to covet a monopoly on worshiping the salagrama-sila and giving initiations. They claimed that only they could perform these activities due to their high brahminical lineage. After Srila Sarasvati Thakura challenged them, the mahantas, along with hired thugs, attacked his Gaura-mandala parikrama party in Navadvipa. Consequently, many of the townspeople, seeing their own mahantas attacking innocent Vaisnava pilgrims, lost faith in their own orthodox Gaudiya religion, and deviant apasampradaya sects sprouted up like anything.

There is a Bengali saying that a fish rots from its head. This means that religious leaders are responsible for deviations in their lineage or institution. Self-interest, authoritarianism and pride have created problems in Gaudiya Vaisnava history and have contributed to today’s problems in our communites. History often repeats itself.» (Purnacandra Das «Unspoken Obstacles On the Path to Bhakti»)

«“Prabhupada acted like one member of the discussion. He was not wearing his big founder-acarya hat and dictating all the rules. He was encouraging us, letting us voice our frank opinions without inhibitions, and training us to become his independently thoughtful men.” (H.H. Lokanatha Swami in his book Festivals p. 219)

These stories illustrate the fact that Srila Prabhupada wasn’t focused on his institutional position as the founder-acarya of ISKCON but rather as a humble servant of the Lord. He did not expect anyone to respect him simply because he was the founder of the movement. Furthermore, he was willing to learn, under most circumstances, from his own disciples or from people who were not even devotees. 

This behavior seems simple, but it is not so easy to follow, because the tendency to identify with, depend upon, covet, misuse and over emphasize one’s position is extremely strong, so strong that very few can completely free themselves from it. This holds true even for honest, humble devotees, who have the best intentions. 

In the West, ISKCON was previously the only Gaudiya Vaisnava organization and is still by far the most prominent one. This, however, engendered a sense of monopoly, at least in the West, because the only way to Sri Krishna was through ISKCON. This is, in one sense, natural, or at least logical. This sense of monopoly has been an accomplice to ushering in elitism and authoritarianism. 

Whilst residing in the UK, I experienced monopolization in trying to get a telephone installed in my flat. At that time, British Telecom was the only telephone company in the country. The installation fee was approximately two hundred dollars, and there were no fringe benefits or services offered. But as soon as the cable companies started springing up, offering free installation along with many extras like free local weekend calls, British Telecom suddenly dropped their prices and began offering many wonderful extra services, like free call-back, answering service and dirt-cheap long distance calls. They lost a few million customers but managed to stay in business.» (Purnacandra Das “Unspoken Obstacles On the Path to Bhakti”)

The last instruction of Srila Prabhupada is considered to be his words: “Your love for me will manifest itself in how you will cooperate.” In order to express our love for Srila Prabhupada and to act together, it is important for us to understand how unity is manifested in society and what causes it to split. If we talk about ISKCON as a spiritual organization, then the tree of unity grows on the basis of devotion to the Lord, humility, trust, sincerity, freedom from false ego, friendship, mutual understanding and mutual support and it is in this sphere that this unity should be sought. The administrative structure, managerial hierarchy and legal integrity, etc. are the trunk and crown of this tree, the part that is in sight. But, even if the tree has a large and strong crown, it will die if the roots do not get enough nutrition.

«I have asked you all to address your Godbrothers as prabhu. This prabhu means boss. If everyone of us thinks of his fellow worker as boss there is no question of misunderstanding. The mistake is that being addressed as boss or prabhu one thinks himself as exactly Prabhu or the boss. One should not forget himself as humble servant even though one is addressed as prabhu.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Nandarani, November 28, 1967)

«Relationship between Godbrothers must be very genuine and pleasing. Otherwise, the future of our institution will not be very hopeful. After all, very soon you have to manage.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Tamala Krishna, October 1st, 1969)

«The International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been established to facilitate these six kinds of loving exchanges between devotees. This Society was started single-handedly, but because people are coming forward and dealing with the give-and-take policy, the Society is now expanding all over the world.» (Nectar of Instruction, text 4, purport)

«I do not mind that they will do something separately, but I wish that there may not be any misbehavior between the God-brothers.» (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Brahmananda, November 5, 1967)

«A new ISKCON will be built on the foundation of authentic personal relationships in devotional service, and not on legislated bureaucratic control systems.» (Drutakarma Prabhu)


It turns out that concepts such as “organization” and “movement” are like form and essence, like a body and soul, and this is important, however, it is also important for us to understand how these concepts differ and how exactly they are related. The soul is an ever-living spark, and it always exists, but without a body, whether physical or spiritual, it cannot act. As for the body, it simply becomes a useless piece of matter without the soul.

«The Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is little different from… Why little? Completely different from ordinary movement. This is spiritual movement. This movement begins when one understands that he is not this body.» (Srila Prabhupada, Arrival Reception – Mauritius, October 01, 1975)

«Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change. This they have concluded by studying the nature of both.» (Bhagavad-gītā, 2.16)

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3 Responses to “ISKCON as movement and organization”

  1. bmdrns says :

    One of the best articles on understanding ISKCON. Thank you prabhu for brilliantly putting this article.

  2. Sanatana Govinda das says :

    I try to collect some reviews of famous devotees for this article. If you can help me with this, please contact me