What ISKCON is for

In a recent Bhagavatam class in Mayapur an influential speaker asked for an answer from the audience – what do devotees expect from ISKCON in the future? What do we tell people when they ask us – what are you expecting in return after dedicating your life to ISKCON? No one volunteered an answer and the speaker joked that they all must be pure devotees. Then he adapted a famous JFK quote – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Then he moved on giving a reason why nothing should be expected from such a young society yet.

This was a short moment in the class, which was focused on approaching ISKCON in the mood of vatsalya. If it’s supposed to live for ten thousand years then ISKCON must be only a six month old baby now, for example. This makes sense – we are not mature as a society yet. We don’t know how to take care even of ourselves, let alone of our aging and ailing members. Plus the category “ISKCON member” has expanded enormously in recent years so as to render the original question moot anyway. Still, I want to reflect on this answer.

Everybody in this world wants shelter, safety, and assurances in his life, even devotees. We want to know that whatever it is we are doing is going to bring us some auspicious results, feeling protected and taken care of is one of them, perhaps the most primal one. This is, interestingly, is a big part of a definition of “dharma” – it’s not only duties, but also that which sustains  – from the root “dhara”. I think it’s impossible to separate duties from results here, both must be there. Sometimes results are not obvious, sometimes our duties seem to bring only ruin, like in the case of Bali Maharaja who lost his kingdom, as was predicted by Sukracharya whose advice he neglected. Lord Ramacandra had to insist on performing His various duties even when results were extremely inauspicious at the first glance. Still, He persevered and in the end everything worked out alright. In any case, dharma implies reciprocation, otherwise it’s meaningless.

Now, let’s consider devotees’ reaction to the news that ISKCON is not going to provide maintenance or sustenance in one’s old age. One way or another people WILL find another source. In the West it generally means making a career and building a retirement nest. Possibly investing in various retirement funds, buying a property in Mayapur or Vrindavan etc etc. In this situation serving in ISKCON becomes a hobby – an activity done in one’s spare time with spare resources. In India it might mean building up a family and supporting it by any means necessary. If you have five children and tewnty five grandchildren then someone will surely give you a place to sleep and whatever little food you require in old age. A mature devotee, on the other hand, might find his personal connection with the Lord that gives him confidence and protection. We all should always feel helpless and totally dependent on the Lord and there are may ways we can find this shelter. It could be the holy name, it could be association with other devotees, it could worshiping their deity, it could be reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, it could be listening to his lectures (very popular choice nowadays). Once this activity is found the devotee will naturally start developing it and dedicating more and more time to it. Service in ISKCON then might become something like a distraction from what actually nourishes one’s soul.

No one can count how many times Srila Prabhupada talked about reciprocation with the Lord in one’s service. If there’s no reciprocation then we are not dealing with Krishna in any of His forms. So, if ISKCON doesn’t offer this reciprocation by design, then what it’s for? What or who does it represent?

However I look at this answer, it just doesn’t look good. And let’s not forget thousands of disaffected devotees who will unleash their own torrent of complaints about feeling forgotten and abandoned after giving ISKCON best years of their lives. Or what about Srila Prabhupada’s vision of varnashrama? It’s a community of people completely dependent on one another, there’s no such thing as “don’t expect anything in return for all your hard work” there. This answer seems like a total no go, a non-starter, yet I believe still there’s hope to make it right.

One way is to take the example of the gopis – they didn’t ask for any reciprocation and Krishna Himself declared that He is unable to repay them anyway, so He left bhakti itself as a fully sufficient and fully satisfying result of their service. This is also reflected in the last verse from Sikshashtaka – no reciprocation is required. For this category of devotees the answer is totally acceptable and very inspiring. How many nitya siddha gopis we are hoping to find in our ranks, however? What about all other rasas devotees exchange with the Lord, including vatsalya itself? One needs to have resources to look at Krishna as one’s dependent and where are these resources suppose to come from? This, again, turns ISKCON into a hobby of sorts – you make money somewhere else and then use it to nurture the organization. Could also be described as karma yoga.

I guess karma yoga approach is totally fine, but then it becomes unacceptable to gopi like devotees I discussed above. Pure devotional service should be free from all karma and jnana, as we know. We can’t turn ISKCON into a karma yoga project without undermining its core identity, and this jnana-karmadyanavritam prescription is for everyone, including aspiring karma-yogis themselves.

Let’s circle back to “mature devotees” from above. They have found their relationship with Krishna in one form or another and this means they start to see the rest of the world as part of that relationship. Job is there to buy stuff for the deity, family is there to cook for the deity and so on. When this vision of the world fully develops, ISKCON is going to take a central part in it, but it might not function as was expected in the beginning. It might be like Vishnu accepts sacrifices through fire, which acts like the tongue of the Lord. Similarly, ISKCON provides for so many life nourishing ingredients – books, lectures, seminars, festivals, temples, devotees – everything we know comes from or at least through ISKCON. In this way ISKCON is indispensable even if it doesn’t provide sustenance. Lord’s limbs can perform actions of other sense organs as well so sometimes even ISKCON can guarantee one’s retirement, but that is not strictly necessary.

In the beginning we tend to think that ISKCON is Krishna and outside world is maya. It’s true, but this maya outside does not have independent existence and it’s her service to provide nurture and protection to devotees’ bodies. It’s the same ONE Krishna who stands on the altar, dances on your tongue when you chant, and gives you a bed and protection from elements. It’s like we all need to go to the toilet every now and then but we don’t insist that all our toilet facilities must be provided by ISKCON. It’s not what it’s meant for.

There’s yet another consideration. These days ISKCON processes a large amount of money and thousands and thousands of devotee work-hours. Surely somebody somewhere gets at least some benefits of that. Why is it some can expect a slice of this pie and others cannot? Doesn’t it look like ISKCON belongs to some but not to others? I think it does, but that is also not the reason for resentment. God will always have a lot of hangers on, people who milk His mercy for their own benefits. I’m afraid it’s impossible to avoid them altogether and someone somewhere will always be skimming off the service you and everyone else offers. So be it. We do not depend on them and we do not care for their little schemes. They cannot take away from whatever we offer with *pure* hearts (an important condition), and they cannot take away anything from whatever the Lord offers in reciprocation. They are not in control of our destiny or our karma – unless we engage in “karma-yoga”, of course – then there are no guarantees of anything. In karma yoga we should have no claims on results, though, so even if they steal everything it should not bother us – it’s just that the Lord has decided to distribute the results in this particular way.

I think this is a fundamentally better way to look at whatever improprieties GBC is accused of, for example, but also at the whole organizational structure – because “ISKCON” means different things to different people. Some can talk about it in terms of management, others come to hear Krishna Katha and sing in kirtans. Some can see the properties, others see the deities. All these visions are true in their own way. Ultimately, the only thing that unities us is our loyalty to Srila Prabhupada as our Founder-Acharya. Everything beyond that is extraneous and a subject to potential disagreements. We just have to make sure that these disagreements do not matter to us more than the fundamental principle of loyalty to Srila Prabhupada.


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