It looks to me that our ISKCON gradually transitioned itself into a new era, not quite what we had when Śrīla Prabhupāda was present. For a couple of decades after his departure we tried to maintain the same spirit but now we are firmly in the new epoch. Some holdouts would say it’s a degradation, those living it now think they are living the dream, otoh. Who is right? Who is wrong? Should we continue or should we try to change our course before it’s too late?
A few days ago I mentioned Navīna Nīrada as the last vestige of saṅkīrtana and it turned out that he just gave a class (mp3) in Māyāpura on the topic. It’s that time of the year when ISKCON has a worldwide Prabhupāda marathon to take advantage of the holiday spirit, when people are ready to part with their cash somewhat easier than usual. These days it might be necessary to explain that “marathon” here means book distribution marathon.
Management arranges for inspirational talks by saṅkīrtana leaders and invites old timers to revive the spirit. Navīna Nīrada is fifty, for example. Again, it might be necessary to explain that saṅkīrtana here means book distribution, not group chanting in the streets. Hmm, for a while we’ve seen transformations of this word, too.
At first it meant harināma, when we had no books to sell. Devotees would accompany harināma parties and hand out leaflets. Then we got books and selling books meant money so temple authorities preferred book distribution to singing in the streets. This has inspired HG Aindra Prabhu to start his revolution of 24-hour kīrtana in Vṛndāvana. In the West, meanwhile, devotees discovered that it was easier to sell lots of other stuff, like candles, soap, paintings etc, and that came to be called saṅkīrtana, too. Thankfully, it didn’t last forever and books were soon back in the center, but distributing books is hard so we went back to chanting, but not by walking the streets but by holding nondescript yoga classes and anonymous bhakti festivals. I hope for most devotees going on saṅkīrtana still means distributing books but just to be clear…
Several things have changed in the world. One is that everybody knows Hare Kṛṣṇas, we are not a novelty anymore. Some play on the feelings of nostalgia but hardly anyone plays on surprise and a violent assault on the senses that was so overwhelming in the early days – I mean bright colored saris and dhotis, drums and karatālas, amazing free sweets, awesome, top quality books, and the enthusiastic chanting. We still do that but somehow it’s not very “assaulting” these days, sometimes it’s just a lonely devotee walking in the crowd singing to him/herself.
Another problem is that people do not read paper books as often as before and that makes us feel apprehensive and outdated. I’m sure saṅkīrtana devotees can turn it around to their advantage and present our books as something really valuable, compared to electronic junk filling their gadgets, or they just ask for donations with books given away as an afterthought, which isn’t cool.
I’ve noticed that these days devotees often ask for donations first, on the strength of their religiosity or our charitable activities, and then give a corresponding value book as a reward. That’s not how our books should be distributed – one single sentence from Prabhupāda’s books is more valuable than all the charities in the world. Books are not afterthought, they are the most valuable thing our society has ever had. We should make people want books and be ready to give an arm and a leg for them, and that’s what devotees like Navīna Nīrada do when they distribute them.
When Hare Kṛṣṇa exploded in Soviet Union all Russian books were printed in Sweden and therefore were outrageously expensive, Bhagavad Gīta cost something like a quarter of a monthly wage, and yet devotees were so inspired and convinced of its value that they sold them by thousands a day. Price is not an obstacle – our lack of conviction is. We don’t see them as valuable ourselves, we think we know them, we understand them, and they are our possessions, we have so many of them lying around. We’ve lost the feeling of urgency, having spent years trying to change our own lives, most of it in vain. We are trapped in the period between neophyte excitement and paramahaṁsa realization of our books spiritual value.
The most profound change, however, has been in how our temples maintain themselves. Because book distribution is relatively hard our managers found easier ways – by relying on congregation. We serve people and people donate. Likewise, one successful business can maintain a temple quite easily, we don’t require that much to function. We also reduced the number of temple dependents by marrying off our brahmacārīs. Some temples do not even have resident devotees anymore, maybe a paid pūjārī and that’s all.
Means of sustenance dictate everything in materially conditioned life and so we ceased to see ourselves as a book distribution movement. Big festivals like Ratha Yatras give us more exposure and more fame anyway, we can invite ISKCON big shots to preside and participate, big shots attract big congregation and bigger donors, that’s the way to go forward. If you want to succeed you need to get appropriate credentials as a pūjārī or as a scholar, become someone who fits in this new scheme of things. Book distributors usually aren’t a part of this, even if successful ones are valued as sources of income, too.
In this atmosphere old school devotees like Navīna Nīrada appear as a dying breed and no one takes them seriously anymore, only as a tribute to the tradition, not as an inspiration to move forward. As usual, he asked the audience what they were doing in Māyāpura. Most were studying something, taking vaiṣṇava courses and advancing their vaiṣṇava education, the rest were various temple devotees, which usually means providing some profitable services because no one lives in Māyāpura for free. He asked how many were saṅkīrtana devotees and he got only a few hands rising.
To him it was a crisis of identity because he was taught that we are all saṅkīrtana devotees, only that some of us have to stay back and provide essential supporting services. In his view there are no kitchen devotees, only saṅkīrtana devotees who have to go and help in the kitchen. Similarly, the pūjārīs are needed so that saṅkīrtana devotees can be inspired by a darśana of nice deities during their morning program. Even temple deities are supposed to serve saṅkīrtana that way, and why wouldn’t they? It’s a movement of Caitanya Mahāprabhu, it’s HIS mission, why would He be interested in simply eating, sleeping, and getting dressed?
This clarify of vision is not there anymore and Navīna Nīrada was right that we have a crisis of identity. People do not see themselves as saṅkīrtana devotees, they see themselves as aspiring pūjārīs, managers, scholars, valuable businessmen – whatever personal aspirations they have in our movement, but it’s rarely book distributors.
I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that it’s a bad thing, though. It’s not ideal, but if we want to have a sustainable society and build varṇāśrama we have to get to this stage, it’s unavoidable. Varṇāśrama is not a system for book distributors, it’s a system for common men to fulfill their common desires and get some spiritual benefit out of it as well. Book distributors need to find themselves some other place, even in daivī-varṇāśrama the goal is to please the Lord, not necessarily book distribution or any other forms of preaching. The model of daivī-varṇāśrama is Vaikuṇṭha and there’s no preaching there, book distributors will not be appreciated.
Saṅkīrtana is a gift from Goloka – golokera prema dhana, hari-nāma-saṅkīrtana. It has no comfortable place in this world and it will always be in some crisis of identity or the other, and we can’t expect everyone in our society appreciate it equally, not unless we are all on the same transcendental platform. We can be trained to respect saṅkīrtana but unless it manifests its glory in our own spiritual life it will be just words, we should not be surprised by our lack of natural enthusiasm.
I can’t claim to know what saṅkīrtana is, but thanks to the old training I can’t see myself as part of this new ISKCON either, even if I have nothing against this development and support it wholeheartedly, it’s just not for me. I’d rather die with good memories than invest myself into something I see as spiritually legitimate but still inferior.