ISKCON and Me

How can a temple be in the present when it is presided over by a dead statue of a former guru as many ISKCON temples are? They also like to quote Prabhupad as saying “Don’t change anything.” A dead guru, a dead religion focused on the past. This was not Bhaktivinode’s view, and it is not mine. We must change things and make a contribution to the spiritual evolution of consciousness.

I gained my spiritual grounding in ISKCON and left because of a disconnect with the direction the organization was developing and Prabhupad’s part in it all. I am surprised and puzzled by ISKCON’s apparent vitality and credibility in the world community after the death of Prabhupad and so many scandals. I wrote off ISKCON as a place to develop spiritually or as a platform for preaching in 1974. I guess I had different standards. I was not into developing this big world-wide organization, but rather inner spiritual development. But, there was no room for that in ISKCON. I guess many religions survived scandals, and what one doesn’t have some?

As a student at the Graduate Theological Union, I learned how a living faith is able to change, grow and adapt to changing times and situations. I seek a much overdue major overhaul of Chaitanya Vaishnavism for the current day. Much religious writing is polemical. I must differentiate myself from ISKCON and its practices since that is what most persons know as Radha Krishna devotion.

In a Back to Godhead article, “The Scriptural Basis for the Greatest of All Mantras,” Satyaraj Das explains how “Modern scholars from outside the tradition” work and view things and how their methods are open to error. True. Yet Bhaktivinode accepted and employed this method, saying that later scholars could improve on his work. (Krishna Samhita) I also accept this method of examining the developing tradition. By acknowledging that the tradition developed over time, that opens the door for us to further its development. He then contrast this with “Practitioners and scholars from within the tradition” teaching “based on an oral tradition revealed at the dawn of time.” I find this unbelievable. I think we need to accept that descriptions of what happened at the dawn of time are myths and need to be interpreted as such, rather than presented as literal history.

Tied in with this are the ideas that Krishna spoke the Bhagavad Gita, 5,000 years ago, we have the actual words he spoke, the Puranas relate history as it was, and this is all perfectly revealed and transmitted unchanged through time. This flies in the face of current academic and cultural understanding. I think that if we accept these sorts of things as the myth that they are, and truly, humbly see ourselves as possessing a small piece of truth as do others, that is more honest. Now whether that will win as many converts, probably not.

When I see pictures of devotees all over the world in traditional Indian dress, with shaved heads and a lot of saffron, I cannot help but wonder, “Is this really necessary?” Why can’t there be a Russian expression of Krishna consciousness, and an American, and African, etc. without everyone having to look like a medieval Indian and becoming a renunciant? I think Indians who come to the West are generally better acculturated than Westerners who take up Indian culture in the West.

Well, it seems whatever ISKCON is doing works for the organization. I hope it works for the individuals as well, and that they are not just being chewed up and spit out with the attitude of the ends justify the means, as I and many others experienced.

Prabhupad said that he gave us the basics and it’s up to us to create the shape. I think that since varnashram dharma is secondary to bhakti, it may be jettisoned, and Western devotees may live within the current culture and its sensibilities thus avoiding excess social dislocation.

Many persons today seem to want black and white absolute answers to complex, gray problems. Hence, the growth of ISKCON and fundamentalist sects of other stripes. I feel the need to be an alternative voice of reason combined with faith. My goal is to present a holistic approach to devotion which allows the individual to grow physically, mentally and spiritually as an integrated personality. I follow what might be called the middle way.


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