This has been a hot topic from the very early days of our society. First big schism between those two groups of devotees happened on Prabhupada’s watch, with the most illustrious Radha Damodara traveling sankirtana party and temple presidents. In that stand off temples came out on top but the war was far from over.
Why am I using words like schism and war here? Because I believe this is a very serious matter that cannot be reconciled, ever. Archetypal sankirtana devotees cannot co-exist with archetypal temple devotees, if we want to keep peace in our communities we need to train people not see themselves as archetypes.
Sankirtana devotees see temple vasis as leeches of Lord’s mercy who do not contribute anything to Lord’s actual happiness. It’s silly to think that Krishna really really likes our chapatis or sweet rice or our flower garlands. He doesn’t care for all our opulent offerings at all.
Actually, ISKCON is sometimes criticized for worshiping Krishna as He was Narayana and people point out that we replace our lack of realization with our money. There could be some truth in there but I think there isn’t, it’s a matter for another day.
The point being is that in this age the proper way of satisfying the Lord is sankirtana, not temple worship. If we want to show Krishna our love we should go out and preach, and temples, well, Krishna appears in a murti form because we can’t see Him in the Holy Name, murti is a concession to our material senses. Krishna is adapting to our imperfections and therefore temple worship is, on some level, accepting Lord’s service, not offering Him ours.
There are no such concerns with preaching, it’s absolutely pure and selfless and it’s not conditioned by any material constraints. Books, pictures, devotees’ words – Krishna could be delivered to eager souls through practically every media.
No matter how you explain it, temple worship is inferior to sankirtana, especially in Kali Yuga.
There needs to be one disclaimer, though – I’m talking about neophytes here who can neither see Krishna in a murti nor hear Him in the Holy Name. For self-realized devotees there’s no distinction.
On the other hand temple vasis have their own complaints about sankirtana devotees – they are ungrateful and arrogant and have very high opinion of themselves and their service. There’s a lot of truth to it, too, and these concerns need to be addressed.
To reconcile these two parties our leaders proposed an easy solution – we are all promoting one mission but in a slightly different ways, that’s all. The mission, however, is sankirtana, temple vasis need to accept it.
The fact is that without temples sankirtana devotees wouldn’t last a day. Okay, maybe a week, or maybe even a month. Temples are our homes, temples are sources of our inspiration and our energy, temples are the places where we refill reservoirs of mercy to spread to the rest of the world.
Sankirtana devotees feeling superior to temple vasis is like misogynists forgetting that without women they wouldn’t even be born.
To sankirtana devotees our leaders proposed this solution – everyone in our movement is doing sankirtana, some are privileged to do it on the streets and others offer support back in the temples. Sankirtana is a team effort and while some people get to score goals the defenders and goalkeepers are part of the team, too.
To temple vasis our leaders offered the same solution, too – you are sankirtana devotees, just not on the tip of the arrows that mortally wound conditioned souls with the poison of love of God. Without the rest of the arrow the tip won’t fly.
This was a brilliant idea – that all our devotees are sankirtana devotees, both those on the streets and those providing backbone services in the temple kitchens. This approach worked magic in places like Russia but then the times changed.
In the early days ours was a temple movement – we had temples as bases for preaching. Nowadays we are a collection of communities, not temples. Most of our devotees live outside of temples and in some places they actually take turns to come and perform essential temple service as there are no resident devotees at all.
The main function of our temples thus shifted from serving sankirtana devotees to serving needs of the communities. Before that shift main thrust of our classes was on how to preach and how to keep our consciousness absolutely pure, now we need to talk about how to deal with our material problems.
For sankirtana devotees material problems simply don’t exist, they are not their concern, for temple communities, however, material problems is what they are forced to deal with every day of their lives. That’s what naturally happens when you try to perfect your own life rather than think about preaching to others.
How to reconcile these two parties in current ISKCON – I do not know. I just heard a lecture by one life long book distributor and he was giving his usual pep talk: “Raise your hand who here is a sankirtana devotee.” Not one hand shot up, not a single one, and it was in Krishna Balaram Mandir.
No one there saw himself as a sankirtana devotee, they didn’t think of themselves as preachers at all, or even as supporters of the preaching mission.
How to bring them back to sankirtana? Should we try to bring them back? Aren’t they are properly situated already? Maybe so, but personally I think that without serving preaching mission of Srila Prabhupada and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati before him we are not doing Krishna any service at all, just leeching off His mercy – He lets us reside in the Holy Dham and provides us with food and lodgings in exchange for our namaparadha chanting of His Name.
It’s a nice deal as long as we are being selfish. If, however, we decide to serve Krishna’s interests instead we should probably reject it. We should not seek accommodations for ourselves, we should seek whatever makes guru and Krishna happy, and with Srila Prabhupada and his true followers it’s as clear as day – constant, uninterrupted preaching.
We are not the first ones to misuse temples for our own comfort, though. When Gaudiya Math completed the famous Bagh Bazaar temple devotees immediately swooped down on it, sharing and dividing rooms and facilities, and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati commented that it would be better to sell off the marble and buy a printing press instead.
We shouldn’t make the same mistake and we should think very hard how to prevent our temples from becoming places of enjoyment. We should probably watch out for temple worship slowly substituting sankirtana mission, that won’t work in Kali Yuga, intelligent people do not do that, as Srimad Bhagavatam says (SB 11.5.32).
This new role of temples, however, is part of the varnashrama system and I hope to discuss how that dovetails with sankirtana tomorrow.