This has been puzzling me for a while and I’m still not quite clear what it is exactly that is bothering me. Yesterday I mentioned a case where Kṛṣṇa seems to be appreciative of devotees aspirations and supports them every step of the way. I, otoh, can’t bring myself to follow in their footsteps. Is there something wrong with me or with them?
Many view being in Kṛṣṇa consciousness as ultimate liberation, freedom to do whatever they want, freedom to express themselves. Society usually puts restraints on young people but Kṛṣṇa doesn’t, He accepts everything. Whatever you want to do, do it for Kṛṣṇa and He’ll support you in your endeavors. Śrīla Prabhupāda has built a house for the whole world to live in, we all can fit here perfectly.
Perhaps it’s my filtered vision but everywhere I look I see devotees who have well adjusted themselves to Kṛṣṇa conscious lives and while they aren’t rich they do not have a shortage of anything and they put it down to Kṛṣṇa. He really provides and looks after well being of those who surrender to Him and they are living examples. Some quite openly “brag” about their material situation and generalize it to extend to the rest of our society. If they can do so, why can’t I? Kṛṣṇa consciousness does seem to work for those who have it.
This has led to a slow but profound shift in our culture and I think it’s irreversible.
I joined in the days when everyone remembered how people made devotees right in the shopping malls, sold them books on one floor, took them to barber shop to shave their heads on another, and bring these new bhaktas straight to the temples. All you needed to do was to show enthusiasm and desire to dedicate yourself, everything else was supposed to work out on itself, with Kṛṣṇa’s help.
There was a period where our temples were overcrowded, people slept in halls and passage ways, society grew by leaps and bounds, new centers were opening practically every day, the future was bright and no one really thought about it. “Kṛṣṇa will take care” was the mantra.
This doesn’t fly now. There are temples where there are no living devotees at all, someone just comes in the morning, opens them up, and then leaves for the night. Lots of temples have been abandoned and those that remained struggled for survival until they found a perfect balance between size and ambitions and their abilities.
The result is that you don’t just walk into the temple and expect to be accepted anymore. They don’t just pluck people off the streets or out of their families, I bet they have some sort of “job interviews” with long lists of boxes to be ticked off to ensure that you are perfect fit.
It’s understandable, if “temple” means three-four men and maybe their wives then personal compatibility must become a serious consideration. You can’t just blend in, there’s no crowd for that, you must become a member of a very small, tight-knit team, and no temple president will make this decision lightly. Who can blame them?
It’s not like if you need friends you can always find someone among a hundred of devotees who would listen to you. At your level of advancement and experience there would none. There’s also no society to conform to, if you don’t wake up for maṅgala-ārati that’s half the attendance down and you have only your alarm clock to keep you in line. All your personal life becomes focused on relationships with the other two-three temple residents and this might throw them off balance because that would double their load of personal stuff. It just won’t work.
Recently I listened to an eye-opening talk on management and I was surprised how things have changed since I last time heard this person talking on this same subject. I remember twenty years ago he was preaching taking care of devotees, he used the infamous example of temple presidents telling sick devotees to go and collect donations for their medicine. I don’t know if that has ever actually happened but in the 80s and 90s it wouldn’t have been completely out of line. The manager, we’ve been told, must take full responsibility for the devotees in every respect and make them feel safe and accepted in their surrender.
This time the tone was very different. No one should expect to be provided for by our authorities, it’s not ISKCON’s job. The main consideration should be what we can bring to the table, what we can surrender. ISKCON is not a place for bums and hobos who don’t know what to do with their lives, our members have to have a purpose themselves and they have to surrender this purpose to Kṛṣṇa. If they don’t have anything to surrender then ISKCON doesn’t really need them. They can read books and come to the programs but otherwise they have to figure out their lives for themselves. ISKCON will provide spiritual guidance but won’t take material responsibility.
What about “house for the whole world”? It’s still there, but it’s not that you will move into it, rather the house will extend its own boundaries to include your life. It’s not that you can come to the temple, say that you are going to surrender to Kṛṣṇa, and they will take you. Not anymore. Rather you invite ISKCON into your life and surrender whatever you have to offer and they’ll take it.
This might sound like ISKCON is after people’s money but no, far from it. This is what they genuinely think is in your best interests – stay wherever you are but make your life Kṛṣṇa conscious, not abandon it and bring your otherwise useless body to the temple for further maintenance.
Another example – there were times when if you wanted to go to college devotees would think you are nuts. This days they would think you are nuts if you drop out of college to pursue Kṛṣṇa consciousness. In the recent newsletter sent out by a local temple they interviewed one of the devotees, she recently graduated and got a job at Siemens. When asked about her goal in life she answered that she wants both material and spiritual progress, and it seems she is making it. These are the role models for the new bhaktas now.
I have to say that it makes perfect sense and I do not blame ISKCON for anything here, I do not question the motives of our leaders, nor do I question their rationality.
The only problem is that now I’m staring at this verse and it says something completely different (SB 1.8.26):
My Lord, Your Lordship can easily be approached, but only by those who are materially exhausted. One who is on the path of [material] progress, trying to improve himself with respectable parentage, great opulence, high education and bodily beauty, cannot approach You with sincere feeling.
This is the verse with the famous akiñcana-gocaram qualification — “one who is approached easily by the materially exhausted man”, as word for word translation says. These materially exhausted men, however, are not welcome in our society anymore, we are not running a retirement home, everyone must bring something to the table – parentage, opulence, education, fame etc. and then use it for Kṛṣṇa.
To me it just doesn’t add up. Give your material aspirations up and you automatically give up the company of devotees. If you want to be one of them you must make something of yourself in the material sense, too. But then you won’t be able to approach Kṛṣṇa sincerely.
Perhaps we need to redefine what ISKCON is and what it should be as we move forward. Perhaps these days renunciation and sannyāsa should mean giving up not only our connections to the outside world but our connections to ISKCON, too – our reliance on temple funds, devotees’ help, temple cooked food etc. Somehow historically it’s been our sannyāsīs that got the safest, most assured and most comfortable lives in our society. I’m not saying they don’t deserve it or that they have been abusing these privileges but as we move forward and more and more devotees, now second generation ones, approach the age of renunciation perhaps it’s time to rethink the concept.
Maybe the old “leave the world, join ISKCON” thinking should be replaced “leave ISKCON, seek Kṛṣṇa’s shelter” instead. And I don’t mean leave ISKCON philosophically, of course, I mean leave your dependence on ISKCON in your everyday life and become truly akiñcana-gocara. I mean ISKCON is helpless if you want it to provide your with shelter in your old age, only Kṛṣṇa can, and that’s who we should surrender our lives to. Sometimes Kṛṣṇa might act through ISKCON and for that we should be grateful but sometimes He won’t and we should not resent ISKCON for that, too.
Or maybe it’s just me acting out some old, Freudian episodes from my life. I think this idea deserves consideration, though.