Yesterday I got to the point where we award devotees with sannyāsa but then appoint them to lead our saṅkīrtana army as if they were generals. There are implications to this so let’s talk about it.
In a fight against atheism we certainly need leaders and we can’t expect our leaders to engage in frontline battles, standing out there on street corners and converting people one by one. That wouldn’t be an effective use of their abilities because one such leader can inspire thousands of other devotees who will contact thousand time more people and with a greater degree of success.
That last point is important – normal logic would dictate that since our leaders are the best than they should be better at preaching than their followers, so if a leader converts five people per day than one thousand followers would convert less 5×1,000=5,000. Maybe 4,000 if on average they are only 80% as good.
Kṛṣṇa conscious math doesn’t follow normal logic, however. Individually, the followers might not be as effective but when acting on the orders of the spiritual master they project the power of the entire parampāra. There are no limitations on what one devotee can achieve, no matter how mediocre they might appear to outsiders. Technically, a leader, backed up by the parampāra, can convert the entire world single-handedly, but so can any number of his followers, because we don’t know how many of them can turn into a moon and eclipse everyone around them. We have more chances trying with a thousand people than if we put all our expectations on just one.
That’s what Śrīla Prabhupāda did when he appointed eighteen GBCs and demanded them to work collectively. Far from finding the moon, but they have managed to keep ISKCON together despite huge losses, and we can’t attribute this success, however modest, to any one devotee in particular. Saṅkīrtana, after all, means congregation, it always works better in numbers.
Where was I? Ah, yes, we need generals to lead and organize our saṅkīrtana efforts but somehow we mislabel them as sannyāsīs. A general, a leader, must project image of power, fame, and opulence. Ordinary people won’t follow him otherwise, that is a defect of human nature that has become a lot more prominent in Kali yuga. People won’t pay attention to someone who has not “made it”, as simple as that.
I remember one Australian politician seriously proposing that unless a man can’t afford to drive a BMW he shouldn’t even try to run for office. Right now Donald Trump leads Republican pack of presidential candidates and his only claim to expertise of any sorts is that he has ten billion dollars. If he managed to do that he must be able to lead the country. Now, that might not impress everyone but that’s because all other alternatives aren’t poor either and can raise billions of dollars themselves. Bernie Sanders and his ideas don’t stand a chance, as I mentioned yesterday.
You can read Prabhupāda’s interviews with reporters in the US and lots of them don’t hide the fact that ISKCON’s financial success played a major part in stocking their interest. When we had a twelve story building in Manhattan as our temple they couldn’t dismiss us as weird ex-hippies pestering people at the airports, our wealth had made us count.
It was the same story in India. White dancing elephants or not, but we needed to build big ass temples to be taken seriously. Sometimes Śrīla Prabhupāda was frank about it – what’s the use of all my American disciples if they can’t build something awesome. He didn’t want us to be seen as penniless white trash begging even from poor Indians for sustenance.
Raising money was important and we gave this job to our leaders, but then we called then sannyāsīs, renunciates. The more money you could produce, the greater the chances were of you getting sannyāsa. Of course you couldn’t just buy it but raising funds meant the ability to command and control devotees, and if you have proven yourself at that, you were good for sannyāsa.
Well, we just didn’t have any other titles for our leadership, and we saw this drive to command and control as an example of yukta-vairāgya.
We argue that people can’t stop from feeling and willing and so real renunciation is to engage themselves in Kṛṣṇa’s service. There’s nothing wrong with this logic but sannyāsa traditionally means reducing one’s feeling and willing to a bare minimum. Śrīla Prabhupāda practiced that for a decade before being put in charge of a worldwide movement. And he took sannyāsa after he was thoroughly done with his household life. Our devotees, OTOH, had less than a decade starting from scratch, from a position far far lower than Śrīla Prabhupāda’s birth in a vaiṣṇava family, never ever having engaged in sinful activities that our ex-hippies were accustomed to.
It was implausible for us to wait out until they prove themselves sannyāsa-wise, they had to take leadership positions now and then. Śrīla Prabhupāda himself sometimes explained it as war-time rules. During the war soldiers get promoted to lieutenants right on the spot, to fill positions left by their killed commanders, there’s no time to wait for them to finish the academy. There’s no alternative, you simply have to pick the best available and go with your choice.
We aren’t at war anymore, though, are we? With fifty years of history we can afford to wait until our next generation of leaders mature and get necessary training, and we can finally award sannyāsa to mature renunciates, too. We can wait for people to prove their abilities in controlling their senses and we aren’t so fixated on GBCs being sannyāsīs anymore.
This doesn’t completely solve our problem with awarding spiritual titles to material leaders. We need to have people expert at manipulating our material resources but we also need to motivate them spiritually. Traditionally, it was the job of the kings, we haven’t got those yet. We haven’t got devotees who are so inspiring that people can ignore that they also require a degree of opulence and sense gratification. We ourselves aren’t used to the idea that our leaders can legitimately indulge their senses, we see it as a spiritual disqualification. We want sannyāsīs to raise millions of dollars in funds and build big temples like TOVP, or even organize massive preaching efforts, which we expect to be strictly Kṛṣṇa conscious. If we see our leaders monetizing preaching we find it unappealing, and if we see not so pure wannabe devotees allowed on the stage we think it’s a sacrilege and Śrīla Prabhupāda would never let them anywhere near the microphone.
This might be true, I’m actually pretty sure it is, but this is what moving forward with kings at our helm would eventually mean – all kinds of people being brought in and given a place and awarded respect.
The next step would be us realizing that we shouldn’t mix with kings, no matter how devoted they are, and stay away from them as far as possible, like Lord Caitanya did with King Pratāparudra. Our next generation of renunciates will be renouncing ISKCON!
I see nothing wrong with “diluting” our society for the sake of growth. As we embrace more and more people we will have to put up with their imperfections, Kṛṣṇa does that with not so exemplary residents of Vṛndāvana, Lord Caitanya treats Muslims living in Navadvīpa as His own, too. We need to treat everyone who takes shelter in our society as a family, we can’t reject them for the sake of purity, though the urge is sometimes difficult to resist.
We should better concentrate on our core, strengthen the spiritual position of our most dedicated members, and we should allow them to sometimes distance themselves from ISKCON’s “hoi polloi”. They are not after titles anymore and they don’t apply for sannyāsa, they are perfectly happy to chant without getting any recognition for their efforts but we should never forget that they are always there and they should be the source of spiritual strength for everyone else, including our nominal leaders.
I think we, as a society, are doing okay in this regard. It’s not a utopia but a reality, if one knows where to look.