Vanity thought #1066. Case study in inequality

I don’t mean inequality in wealth, that’s boring and probably have nothing to with Kṛṣṇa consciousness. I mean inequality in customs and cultures that affects how we tell our devotees to live their lives.

A couple of months ago one respected devotee wrote an article about divorce in ISKCON. Another respected devotee replied, with references to śāstra and Prabhupāda, that our approach should be different. The first devotee defended his position, some supported him, some disagreed, he defended himself some more and probably made himself a few more enemies, too.

I don’t want to go into specifics of that argument and I don’t want to take sides, I just want to understand why people do or say those things and what we can learn from this whole episode.

Initial argument was about the problem of divorce, as I said. First question – why is it a problem? I mean it’s obviously better for spiritual progress to stay with one partner and treat marriage as a service, ie you don’t give up on it, it’s not for your pleasure, it’s your duty. On the other hand we have plenty of devotees who went through divorces and it didn’t affect them to the degree that every observer should swear not to do it themselves.

Ironically, the author of the article in on his third marriage himself. His divorces don’t seem to bother him, not a big deal.

Anyway, he said that divorce rate in ISKCON is higher than in the rest of the world so there’s something seriously wrong with our marriage and our devotees need attitude adjustments. Immediately people questioned his numbers. He said that they came from gṛhastha counseling seminar and all questions should be directed to the presenter there. It’s not how people usually respond to queries like that but let’s not dwell on it for a moment, though it’s a good point to return to later on.

Thing is, question of divorce rates in ISKCON doesn’t have a single answer. Think about the source of this statement. It’s most likely came from observation of divorce rates among our married couple from seventies, eighties, and nineties.

In the seventies it was too much even for Prabhupāda who simply washed his hands off all this marriage business. People just couldn’t stay together and he didn’t have time to deal with it. Who could blame them, really? They simply weren’t mature enough in the material sense to manage families, and whatever experience of navigating marital problems they had from before ISKCON was overwritten by stuff they *heard* was in the Bhagavatam (most of our devotees didn’t read it yet).

Then in the eighties we went through a massive zonal ācārya crisis when we lost too many men to count. Should we use divorce rates among them as part of ISKCON average? Did devotees who compiled such statistics, or even estimated them from their experience, count all ex-ISKCON couples? In my opinion – very likely, so I don’t think it truly represents divorce rates for strict ISKCON devotees.

Even if not, eighties were also the time when our devotees found the way to live their lives in the material world. It was the time when spiritual standards of purity dropped all across the board. People got jobs, started going out, watching movies, shopping, eating pre-cooked food and so on. We were not fanatical anymore. We tried to ape the material culture around us but stay true to our spiritual principles. I’m not saying it was a wrong thing to do, I’m saying that divorce rates from those kind of marriages should not be blamed on ISKCON only. Sitting on two chairs always creates problems.

Then came the nineties and with them an explosion of Hare Kṛṣṇa’s in the former USSR. When those devotees got married it was like seventies all over again, they had no experience, gṛhastha counseling wasn’t a thing yet then, they had no training and they got married because they were overpowered by lust. Marriages based on lust are doomed to fail, and so we can’t blame high divorce rates among that wave of devotees on ISKCON. Well, yes, in a way ISKCON should have prevented it but it’s a question of management, not of philosophy and proper attitudes.

Nineties was also the time when even more devotees left, some went to Gauḍīyā Maṭhas, some to bābājīs, some to ṛtviks. They were still our devotees, though, if they got divorced it was probably counted towards “ISKCON”, too.

On one hand it’s okay to count them as ours, it helps in addressing problems that affect us equally no matter where we are, on the other hand those aren’t ISKCON divorces, “real” ISKCON devotees probably had slightly different reasons for separation and they definitely had less reasons for separation due to their ongoing spiritual commitment rather than spreading their allegiances all over the map at will.

Then, in the first decade of this century, things started to change. There appeared a large number of devotees who wanted to stay true to Prabhupāda’s teachings and who haven’t had the baggage of the first generation. They tried to do everything right, they had better training, they were better prepared, they kept their noses clean from all that ṛtvik/māyāvāda/GM propaganda, their consciousness was cleaner, their knowledge more solid, and now they are the ones who dispute high divorce claims.

Divorce is not what happens among them, and it’s not what they expect to happen to them. They intend to keep their marriages together no matter what. It might not work out in the future but for now they reject divorce as an option.

Another major development is an explosion of Indian devotees and it happened all over the world, not just in India. Those people do not know what a divorce is, it’s not a problem for them, and they make up a very large portion of our congregation. They don’t need an attitude adjustment and probably shouldn’t even hear about other people separating and remarrying at will and then justifying it one way or another (it doesn’t really matter whose fault it is in the end, it’s the acceptance of separation that is important).

So, there you have it. We have two-three different groups of devotees with different experiences and different attitudes to marriage and divorce. Obviously, discussion on this matter should be conducted differently as well, and I think this is what everyone missed in the debate. First devotee didn’t realize that in his audience there were people who had every reason to disagree, while those who objected didn’t realize that there are lots of people who could find this advice useful.

Now the really complicated part is whether we should have different marriage rules for different devotees. Should people with a western background be allowed to divorce if the circumstances are right? Or should they be retrained the way Indians are, or the way “traditionalists” are? Or is it too late to change their nature?

Should we have different “marriage manuals”? Or should we try to train everyone in exactly the same way? Would it work?

I don’t know the answers, I think we should have a lot of leeway in this matter (don’t forget gays, too). but we should also be clear about what is ideal and what is a concession so that people do not make claims unsuitable to their status. Those who can’t follow the fourth reg strictly should not expect to be treated the same was as those who do. Those who divorce should not demand same respect as those who stay married, and so on.

I don’t know how to implement it, though, we need extra rungs on our devotional ladder, our hierarchy is not big and not flexible enough to accommodate such diversity, and I believe it should.

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