ISKCON BABYLON

I think we have more in common than it appears at first. Babylon is a Biblical city where they built a Tower of Babel. I would say that’s how historians interpret it in terms familiar to them but it could be just their angle on what is unquestionably implied already – Babylon was an organization.

When an organization builds a place for its members it would be called “city”, but you can’t have a city without having organization first. Two-three thousand years from now ISKCON Mayapur could also be seen as an ancient city and it would be so recorded in local chronicles, too – it doesn’t have any special name, it’s “ISKCON” for everybody living in the area, it’s a place, and it soon will be the size of a city.

The name “Babylon” comes from the local language for “Gate of God” and ISKCON is undeniably positions itself as the gateway to the spiritual world, too. Some argue that people can get there bypassing ISKCON but I would question that, it’s a different topic, however, let’s not go into it right now.

So we have two distinctive characteristics that are matching already – a spiritual organization that purports to transfer its members to the Kingdom of God. And then there was the Tower.

The account is recorded in Genesis 11, but there are so many translations there I have no idea which one is the best. The top of this tower was supposed to be in heaven, or reach heaven. And they wanted a name for themselves, too, so that they could be distinguished from the rest of the world. Like “Hare Krishnas”. We don’t say that the top of TOVP will be in heaven or reach Goloka, but we certainly hope that our “top” devotees will have full realization of their spiritual identity and reach Krishna’s personal association. We also have an organization that supports this progress to the top. It might not be an actual tower, but we use other words like “ladder” and “pyramid” so if the future historians come across them they might think we actually tried to built a pyramid reaching Vaikuntha.

Regardless, the meaning is the same – we have a structure that allows people at the bottom progress upwards and reach the top. We are proud of providing this structure, it’s our self-identification and the essence of our existence – preaching. We also want a “house for the whole world to live in” – how’s that not a tower? Okay, it isn’t a tower yet, not at the moment, where we assume that all our members are spiritually equal, all are deserving equal services and equal respect, but it’s a temporary vision and there is a great battle against this equality going on as we speak. In the end it WILL be a tower – some people and some sections of our society will be seen as being higher and some as lower. No one can resist varnasrama forever, it will assert itself because it’s the will of the Lord for how people should be organized in this world. The point is the same – we take people from mleccha and yavana background and we aim to promote them to the highest levels of bhakti, and, hopefully, to direct perception of the Lord. That’s what the tower does, too.

God’s reaction in the Bible, however, is not at all encouraging. There is no direct explanation given but God somehow didn’t want all these people in His heaven. His first words were already about how to squash this effort, not about why. In our ISKCON language it’s about rooting out sahajiya tendencies – only the purest of the pure can actually reach Krishna, not the sahajiyas, not the ones who take it very cheaply. For sahajiyas there is no entrance into spiritual realm whatsoever. They shall not pass.

Quoted from Gauidya:

The disease of prākṛta-sahajiyā-ism is very widespread. In a form that devours everything, takes various shapes, and steals the mind, it wanders throughout the universe, increasing the covering of those jīvas captured by a seemingly natural tendency to reject Kṛṣṇa, and by severe offenses to Vaiṣṇavas, it causes further degradation of the bound jīvas and uprooting of their devotional creeper.

Gauḍīya 11.409

In other words, while the endeavor for spiritual perfection is legitimate and there need to be a structure supporting one’s progress, unless there are guards in place to weed out less than perfect aspirants the Tower cannot be allowed to reach its destination. How did God go about that in the Bible?

The Tower of Babel episode is cited as an ancient explanation of appearance of many languages and that’s how it can be seen by historians, too, but that is the result, not the process, not God’s solution. His solution was to “confound their language”, which we can safely take as “ruin their common understanding”. Once people stopped thinking in the same way their cooperation stopped and so did the construction. Who has failed to notice the same scenario playing out in ISKCON right now, too?

Do I need to mention all the contentious issues of today? I hope not. What I did notice only recently, however, is that we began to understand the same passages very differently and become very sure in our interpretations as being right and the only possible. I don’t want to give examples of this happening in real life, but I have seen devotees from opposing camps literally unable to understand what they were talking about. A quote from the Bhagavad Gita purport is appropriate in this regard:

In the mode of goodness, one can see things in the right position, one can hear things in the right position, and…

BG 14.11, purport

We have reached the point where levels of our conditioning (or levels of purity, if you look from the other end) are so different that we can’t see and hear in the same way. Whether it leads to creation of a different language is only a question of time, I’d say. In the greater society they have already created a different language to explain themselves and I, like many others, have to rely on google to understand their newly minted vocabulary. Which I immediately forget, so it doesn’t really help.

So, with so many parallels between ISKCON and Babylon, is the fate of Babel Tower is our destiny, too? I hope not, and I’m afraid so at the same time. The current project of making topmost levels of spiritual advancement being easily accessible to all is surely going to fail and it is failing already.

Last year I signed up for a virtual Kartik parikrama and I had my fill of “Imagine you are immersing yourself in the waters of Radha Kunda. Imagine the …” stories for the rest of my life. Never again. People who indulge in these narrations and assume any of it is real will eventually get tired of them, too. It’s only a matter of time, and the fact that there is a large part of our society that thinks it’s a kind of sahajiya that needs to be rejected is a testament that God’s plan for Babylon is at work in ISKCON, too. In another example some incensed members recently called for boycotting fundraising for TOVP, the project which was supposed to unite all the people of the world around it, not just all the devotees.

That’s a negative projection, but I also hope that ISKCON will survive as an organization supporting the progress of its qualified members towards the highest destination. I myself need this. I need books, I need temples, I need devotees going to the temples and holding festivals and engaging in daily Krishna katha so that it then appears on Youtube. I need devotees buying books so that other devotees can write and publish them, or at least write blog articles and post things on Facebook. This won’t be happening without audience and audience means ISKCON should create and nurture it, for no other organization will. I don’t know about reaching heaven, but we all need to make steps up the ladder, and for that the ladder must exist and provide solid support.

I thought I would end here but there is another aspect to any organization – it stifles individuals. What some see as support others see as oppression. Or it might be an evolving view of one and the same person – as support in the beginning and as an impediment later on. So another kind of experience might be noticed, too – we are wondering around this huge structure, with all its staircases, lifts, and escalators, and people hurrying here and there busy with their own progress, and we keep looking for anyone who is still alive, whose spirit is still alive, who doesn’t hold grudges, who doesn’t fight the oppressors and who doesn’t lead revolutions, but knows his way around the place and can show us wonderful things hidden here and there, or who can bring us to the higher floors and open our eyes to the wonderful vistas available there. Meeting such a person would be a blessing, so we will keep looking.

And another thing – please don’t turn our kirtans into elevator musak. That would make it into a part of the tower, not live expression of the soul we are looking for here.