March 16, 2010

New Generations – New Strategies

Nancy Gibbs recently wrote an article for Time magazine entitled "Generation Next”.

She analyzes how today in the USA the generation gap is not as intensely felt or as intrinsically confrontational as it was in the ‘70s. Today’s “Kids and parents dress alike, listen to the same music and fight less than previous generations.” One sentence describing nowadays’ youth – she calls them “millennials” – especially caught my attention: "They are . . . the least officially religious of any modern generation, and fully 1 in 4 has no religious affiliation at all. On the other hand, they are just as spiritual, just as likely to believe in miracles and hell and angels as earlier generations were. They pray about as much as their elders did when they were young—all of which suggests that they have not lost faith in God, only in the institutions that claim to speak for him.”

Although she doesn’t specifically mention it, I suspect that the present youths also tend to believe in reincarnation or at least be open to the concept. They are likely to have developed, through exposure to popular culture, the sense that the person and the body are different (if you think of it, the whole Avatar movie is explicitly based on the idea that the self is different from its body; and that consciousness can be transferred from a physical structure to another while maintaining identity and personality traits intact).

The data Nancy Gibbs reports impacts (or should impact) our way of thinking about propagation in a number of ways. First of all, how to propose Krishna consciousness and the Krishna consciousness movement to people who tend to shun organized religion?

(One might argue that we are so disorganized that we have nothing to worry about it – but that’s another story.)

To me the fact that these youths pray to God – even though they do it at home and not in a church – opens up a whole horizon of opportunities; if that’s what they do, we could have internet courses on how to pray at home (and what mantras they could use). We could advertize things like: “We know you believe in God but don’t believe in those who claim to speak for him… Listen to him directly; read the Bhagavad-gita.”

These young Americans might not gather in a place of worship but they seem to crave community even more than their predecessors; as Gibbs point out: “they learned to leverage technology to build community, tweeting and texting and friending . . . They are the most likely of any generation to think technology unites people rather than isolates them, that it is primarily a means of connection, not competition.”

The internet, with its incarnations, its plenary and partial expansions, seems to be the place, the forum, the context to connect with them and to inform them about the wonders of the Lord (they are already praying to Him anyway), and about the matchless gifts bhakti-yoga bestows to the practitioner.

It also appears that some of their values are very much attuned with traditional, varnasrama ideals, “Asked about their life goals, 52% say being a good parent is most important to them, followed by having a successful marriage.” We have the info on how to be the best parent one can be and we know what a really successful marriage looks like… It seems that these kids are just waiting for us.

August 29, 2009

Food for Thought, Thought for Food

I found the TIME Magazine article"Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin," by John Cloud, informative and useful in shattering some commonly-held myths, which also devotees might implicitly accepts as facts.

Among the essential messages distilled by the author--a committed (self-defined) "gym-rat"--is the notion that "fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain." How could that be? Simple: After strenuous workouts people get hungry and eat more calories than what they loose; plus they tend to reward themselves with foods they would have avoided if they did not exercise; plus the fatigue accumulated tends to make them more reticent to perform more physical work during the rest of the day.

For me (who, confessedly, would highly benefit by shedding a few pounds) the article was an eye-opener. I found it well-researched (it quoted research spanning decades) and it reminded me of the practical wisdom of Srila Prabhupada's morning walks, as the research quoted by the author extols the virtue of lower intensity, regular physical exercise. It also reminded of one of the twenty-six qualities of a Vaisnava, mita-bhuk, defined in the word-by-word translation of SB 7.12.6 as "eating only exactly what he needs, neither more nor less."

If you are one of many ISKCONites who could improve both mental and physical health by acquiring a slimmer body, , might want to take a look at:,8599,1914857-1,00.html

July 23, 2009

Happy Birthday ISKCON!

Today is the anniversary of the incorporation of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness by its Founder-acarya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and I feel I should jot down some thoughts.

I see an ISKCON that is fragmented, in terms of camps of allegiance and standards of service (to the local community and to humanity at large). I see an ISKCON that is struggling with its identity and function in the world (are we neo-Hindus? Are we social revolutionaries? Are we agrarian or In some quarters there is a tendency to (almost) demonize the initiating spiritual masters, accusing that they are creating factions, but I beg to disagree: The gurus, by and large, are mostly doing their duty to inspire people in spiritual life, to offer shelter to those who wish to seriously practice, and to instruct their students; all actions well within the boundaries of their sacred office.

The problem is, in my opinion, largely “above” the gurus, in the lack of guidance, clarity, strength and instruction from the ultimate authority of ISKCON, the Governing Body Commission.

Some of you might think, “But the GBC is only the ultimate ‘managerial’ authority!” Well, that’s the expression found in Srila Prabhupada’s will (which, by the way, is worded with an eye to legal considerations, as revealed by the recorded conversations regarding the compilation of the will); but actually in Srila Prabhupada’s vision the GBC was to basically become his own successor, taking the helms in matter of ecclesiastic administration as well as doctrine and spiritual direction. This is documented in various ways, including the following excerpts; the first one is from a letter to Madhudvisa Das, dated 4 August 1975:

“Regarding Sydney, that the President has left, if one does not follow the regulative principles, then he will leave. That is a fact. Has somebody else been elected? This is the function of the GBC, to see that one may not be taken away by maya. The GBC should all be the instructor gurus. I am in the initiator guru, and you should be the instructor guru by teaching what I am teaching and doing what I am doing. This is not a title, but you must actually come to this platform. This I want.”

So, GBC as instructor gurus (siksa-gurus) for the Society (not just administrators).

Next is from an interview to a reporter in Los Angeles, on 4 June 1976:

Reporter: Is there anyone who is designated to succeed you as the primary teacher of the movement?

Prabhupada: I am training some, I mean to say, advanced students so that they may be very easily take up the charge. I have made them GBC. They are under my direct training, and I think they will be able to conduct this movement.

Less than a week later, on 10 June1976, another journalist brings up the same question:

Interviewer: What happens when that inevitable time comes when a successor is needed?

Ramesvara: He is asking about the future, who will guide the movement in the future.

Prabhupada: They will guide. I am training them.

Interviewer: Will there be one spiritual leader, though?

Prabhupada: No, I am training GBC, eighteen all over the world.

So, when asked about who would be the “primary teacher” in his absence, Srila Prabhupada indicates the GBC, to “conduct this movement” and provide spiritual leadership.

So, if I am allowed to express a birthday wish to ISKCON, I wish the International Society for Krishna Consiouscness a stronger conduction by its Governing Body Commission; an uncompromising but gentle guidance in full awareness of the developing trends, in a spirit of communication and dialogue but willing to take unpopular decisions if those would help the movement realign with the Founder-Acarya’s mood and priorities; and in a close and harmonious working relation with all the initiating spiritual masters.

In no way I am insinuating that the GBC isn’t providing some degree of leadership to the Society – in fact, for instance, the GBC has shown great resolve, sense of responsibility and the capacity to take up heavy burdens in many cases, such as with the Youth Fund. Individually, some of the GBC zonal secretaries are also providing extraordinary local leadership and inspiration.

But I still wish ISKCON a GBC with a more defined face (to establish a deeper relation with all the devotees), with a clearer and stronger voice (to express, as successor of Srila Prabhupada, precise directions to the Society), with more open eyes (connected to a mature, sharp brain—to be vigilant of tendencies and circumstances), and some masculine attributes (for sticking to the promotion of spiritual principles despite the opposition from various sources).

Happy birthday ISKCON.

June 2, 2009

Recommendation Politics

This is fresh, heard one hour ago: at the Bhaktivedanta Manor, near London, one initiation ceremony was held today, 2 June 2009. One of the initiates, a lady, had a recommendation from a devotee authorized to issue recommendations. She showed up, submitted the recommendation, fulfilled other requirements, and took initiation. You may tend to comment: “Haribol!” but no celebratory Haribols were heard from a temple president in another city who claims some “jurisdiction” over this person and who objects to the procedure, to the point—I hear—of saying that the initiation should be cancelled, rendered null and void. Another temple president, from yet another English city, is branding this reaction as “politics”… It seems that a holy ceremony for spiritual emancipation risks being tinged by power-politics and fuel some unholy game.

It’s with sadness and concern that I am writing this entry. I have been witnessing the sacred function of recommending a candidate for initiation debasing, in some cases, to a less-sacred social and psychological function of control and territorial jurisdiction.

I have seen a growing tendency of local yatras—on the city, nation and even continental level—imposing more and more demands on the candidates for initiation, a plethora of heavier prerequisites, even in direct contradiction and infringement of existing ISKCON laws.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, such edicts have often no foundation in sastric injunction or traditional Gaudiya Vaisnava practice (in other words, are products of mental speculation).

A couple of examples? In Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, the local temple arbitrarily decided that:

1. Candidates for initiation must accept a counselor if they ever want to be initiated.

2. All the members of the counselors’ council (ten people), must agree that the person is ready for initiation; even one objector has the power to veto the initiation.

ISKCON UK took the radical (and apparently illegitimate) step of doubling the preparation time for initiation: From six months (ISKCON law) of practice (sixteen rounds and four regs) before being able to request the pranama mantra from the guru of one’s choice to one year. After that, from six months (ISKCON law) waiting period before the initiation, to one year. So, from a total of a minimum one year of chanting sixteen rounds and following the four regulative principles, to a minimum of two years.

Not only that; they also demand financial contributions from the candidates, in open disregard of ISKCON law that clearly says:

15.4.1 - Initiation of Congregational Devotees . . . It shall be prohibited to require a minimum donation or financial commitment or other requirements not mentioned by Srila Prabhupada or ISKCON Law.”

I could go on with examples of such anomalies, these “requirements not mentioned by Srila Prabhupada or ISKCON Law,” but you get the idea.

This situation raises a few questions, which I consider important for the understanding and the future of the mission. For instance, who in ISKCON has the legitimate authority to establish standards for initiation and corresponding requisites for recommendation? My answer: The Governing Body Commission and no one else. Letting each smaller or larger ISKCON enclave establish its own norms is tantamount of declaring those branches and areas beyond GBC control in this most sacred and crucial field of initiating new devotees.

Unfortunately conditioned human (and animal) tendency is to attempt to dominate and control other living entities (tendency known in Sanskrit as “isvara bhava”); Temple Presidents and other officers who aren’t yet completely free from this tendency might rationalize “dovetailing” it in Krishna consciousness by establishing more stringent rules than the elaborate guidelines already existing in ISKCON law. I am not doubting that some of them might have genuine concern for the preparation of the candidates or sincere interest in seeing the process applied as purely and carefully as possible; at the same time the “isvara bhava” might creep in the form of:

1. Unauthorizedly forcing upon candidates new strictures and burdens.

2. Demanding some form of emotional, financial, social and/or service allegiance to one’s own project.

3. Enjoying the subtle (or gross) power of determining if the initiation will take place or not, while keeping the candidates on their toes and exerting some submission-inducing pressure.

4. Having the satisfaction of blockading or immobilizing the process of formal development of the relation between guru and disciple (perhaps unconsciously thinking: “I might not be on the level of giving initiation, but at least I can stop it from being given!”)

What could be the solution to this often painful social and spiritual stalemate?

While we should work to re-establish ISKCON law where it has been locally overturned and disregarded, I am proposing we take a good look at the possibility of deregulating the whole process by empowering other devotees to provide the recommendation.

What do you think about having three brahmanas signing the recommendation? Three devotees—in “good standing”—who have second initiation, who know the candidate well enough to be able to say: “To the best of my understanding I trust this person’s assurance that s/he is chanting sixteen rounds daily and following the four regulative principles.”

Why the temple should be bothered or burdened with the responsibility of being the only authorized outlet for recommending people? Any sastric evidence for such an idea, that the spiritual life of people should be somewhat negotiated only and exclusively through the administrative structures of the places of worship? In Vaisnavism we don’t have a demarcation between clergy and laity: second initiation and the privilege to directly serve the Deities are open to every member of the extended community. Why not empowering those who have come to the stage of being second initiated devotees with the opportunity to recommend candidates for initiation? Why a brahmana living outside the temple should be considered less reliable than every temple officer?

This simplification may well result in less headaches for the temples (who often don’t know the candidates very well); less opportunity for ego-centric controlling sprees; less psychological burdens and tensions for the candidates (who often feel forced to play the political game to be able to get recommended); less artificial strictures on the holy interaction between guru and disciple; less (apparently adharmic) domination by younger devotees who restrict more senior devotees (gurus) in their services to the movement.

I look forward to hear from you about the cases of local yatras inventing stricter rules than those already existing in ISKCON law and on your opinions on these delicate matters.

January 24, 2009

The Mongols, The British & ISKCON's Expansion

The Mongols of Gengis Khan were very good at conquering places. They reached from Mongolia all the way to Europe. Preaching is a form of conquest: conquering minds and hearts, shaping and transforming lifestyles.

The Mongols weren't very good at maintaining and ruling the territories they conquered; very soon their empire collapsed. In China they might have lasted longer, but because they connected with the Chinese style of administration.

In preaching we might have an early success in changing people's life and/or in establishing places of worship; but later we might experience that the people go away, internally and/or externally, migrating to other groups or becoming cold, inactive. Temples that were vital and vibrant become sometimes empty and poor.

Have we something in common with the Mongols?

Another feature of the Mongols' expansion was that they were very good at one type of terrain and warfare. They were most successful in the steppes, where they could appear with practically no notice, attack and pillage a city, and move on. When they've got to Europe they found hills and mountains. Their mount, the fast Asiatic horses, were not anymore a sufficient edge. New strategies and approached were needed. Their seemingly unstoppable advance stopped.

Srila Prabhupada's early followers focused on the hippies, but when the hippies disappeared teh movement faced a critical stasis. It then focuses on the Indians, and it gained some oxygen, but in a few places where there aren't any Indians the movement often struggle for a voice (and sometimes for survival). We need to adapt to a changing historical and social terrain, to the changing human landscape of the twentyfirst century to remain/become relevant and keep growing.

The British (I don't have a great spontaneous affection for the Brits and their attitudes, especially toward Vedic culture, but credit should be given were credit is due) were good examples of both conquering territory and managing it, and this in places as diverse as North America, the Caribbean, Africa, India, Oceania, Hong Kong or Northern Ireland.

They did lose their empire, but gradually, and their administrative capacity wasn't based on a single outstanding king or queen; it was a culture of organization. A few thousands of them ruled the whole India!

What can we learn from them?

We need adaptable strategies for diverse environment. We need systems that allow for growth, a culture of maintenance and not only of conquest.

Srila Prabhupada requested: "Don't make me Alexander the Great" (who conquered from Greece to India but who then rapidly lost all the lands he had gained).

Sattva-guna generates staying power (and happiness, satisfaction and illumination); passion brings excitement and short-lived success (which turns into pain and resentment); ignorance... well, ignorance it's just darkness and nightmares.

We can graduate to world religion status once we assimilate and apply the fundamental principles of community planting, community building, community keeping and community living.

December 15, 2008

A Shrinking Denomination Looking into the Cell Approach

I find this article relevant because I consider it to be a balanced, no-hype introduction to the concept of moving to a small group model in one's community.

This comes from the Anglican Church Planting Initiatives, from UK. The Anglican Church has been experiencing a dramatic decrease in membership.

Just to give an idea, this is the title and the beginning of an article from Christian Today, written in 2006:

Statistics Suggest Anglican Church of Canada in Huge Decline

The Anglican Church of Canada has experienced a huge decline over the past 40 years, according to a new independent survey.

by Daniel Blake
Posted: Monday, February 13, 2006, 18:50 (GMT)

The Anglican Church of Canada has experienced a huge decline over the past 40 years, according to a new independent survey.

Over the period of 1961 to 2001 the Canadian region of the worldwide Anglican Church has lost 53% of its members, with numbers declining from 1.36 million to just 642,000.

An even more worrying sign for the worldwide Church is that the survey suggested that the decline is accelerating.


From the article "The Shrinking Church of England" we learn that:

In the 35 years from 1971 to 2006 the Church of England has declined by 43.5%.

I.e it has just about halved in terms of it’s Sunday attendance.

In the 35 years from 1971 to 2006 the Population of England has grown by 9.37%

I.e it has grown by about a 1/10th.


It would be natural to expect that they would look into alternative approaches to evangelism and more effective Church dynamics in general.

A Temple with Cells or a Cell Community with Temple/s?

This is something I wrote a couple of years ago. I re-read it today and I found it still relevant; perhaps more relevant today (we are closer to the future today than two years ago, right?). As I keep working on the curriculum for "Building Vibrant Vaisnava Communities," these issues keep coming up and force themselves as fundamental for the consideration of our next generation of leaders.


A Temple with Bhakti-vriksha or a Bhakti-vriksha with Temple/s?

A friend raised the following points, which I found stimulating. I address them here, inviting others to share their doubts, views, experiences, insights and prescriptions.

"My observation of BV and trying to implement it, is that it is often a separate initiative from the temple and its bag of programs. It becomes another program that has to compete for mindshare and resources, rather than becoming the new strategic organizational structure for the yatra . . . It requires cutting back on programs and building the cellular focus as the basis for everything."

I find this meditation stimulating and urgent for long-term vision of how our movement should develop.

Historically, ISKCON in the West started small. I am not referring specifically to Srila Prabhupada's (an army or one) landing and gaining a foothold in the United States. I am thinking of the dynamics of the first few temples: small and intimate, family-like, and which after a short span of few months would "multiply": a few devotees from one center would pack their bags and move to another city to start a new temple.

This original dynamics of expansion of course reminds of the process of expansion of cell groups (or Bhakti-vrikshas, in our terminology). The difference being that the division and doubling in the cell system the multiplication mostly happens in the same city, while in the infancy of ISKCON would happen from one city to another.

Srila Prabhupada spoke clear directions on opening a temple while lecturing in the Los Angeles temple, which was previously used as a church:

"I am very much pleased that you are worshiping Deity very nicely, gorgeously. But in India you will find there are so many temples. Of course, it requires the energy. Otherwise here also, there are so many churches. Now they are being closed. This church, this was a church. Now it was closed. There was no customer. And now it is filled up. Why? The same church, the same men, the same spot. It is due to real knowledge. So if you go on simply opening centers, if there is no knowledge then it will again become a closed church someday. So don't do that. Before opening a center you must have perfect worshiper, perfect devotees. Not perfect; at least those who are willing to become. Then open. Otherwise, simply chant."

(Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.42, Los Angeles, 23 July 1975)

So, first of all apparently Srila Prabhupada was talking about to the set-up that includes regular Deity worship, not just any preaching center. Secondly, he instructed to open the temple *after* having devotees. I read in this instruction that the congregation, the community of worshipers, should come before the establishment of the temple, the temple (building and programs) a manifestation of their desire and need to congregate to worship the "Deity very nicely, gorgeously."

And actually it makes a lot of sense: a community of devotees ("those who are willing to become" perfect), decides that they want to upgrade their service to include elaborate Deity adoration, that they want to have a large common space for worship. They pull their financial capacity together and manifest the temple.

But, one might wonder, how the community will grow and come to the point of being able to open and maintain a temple *without* having a temple in the first place?

The question could be answered by another question:

One the community would grow if, instead of putting energy in building the congregation, we invest all our time and money to open and run a temple?

In other words--and we have seen it happening--when temple opening (or building or in some cases even renting) is given chronological priority over the building of the congregation, what may happen is that all the efforts focus on keeping the temple open and running, all the time is investing in collecting funds and worshiping the Deity, and as a result the temple-residents don't have neither time nor energy to cultivate the local human beings who could become devotees.

Building a congregation doesn't depend on having first a temple established (and, having the temple first might often reveal an obstacle to building the congregation). The congregation can be build when people are cultivated in a personal, individual way in small groups and when they are encouraged and empower to replicate the setting by taking responsibility to become reference points for other seekers. In other words, the cell approach: a group practices and grows in their faith and spiritual taste, in their vision and compassion, in their sense of duty towards the mission, and the mechanism should be in place to expand the number of groups to keep them intimate and to allow for leadership expansion. The structure of course should be carefully monitored and supervised for optimizing purity, care, quality and missionary performance.

A community of active congregational preachers can penetrate society and grow to massive proportions even before establishing an official location for gatherings and worship.

A key issue is the vision we have of the candidates for the community. Do we see new people simply as potential donors (milking cows) or as potential missionaries? Srila Prabhupada wrote: "We are interested more in preaching members than in the sleeping members" (letter of September 1955).

Temples have an important place in Lord Caitanya's movement; but they should be (sustainable) manifestations of the devotion of active communities of practitioners, not as imaginary pre-requisites for preaching, as (paradoxically) self-defeating attempts at expansion.

Often it's more of a psychological dependence on "the building," the mistaken notion that having secured a place (four walls and a roof) correspond to having established Krishna consciousness in a city.

Krishna consciousness is in the heart of those who practice it, and the power of expansion is with the madhyama-adhikari preacher. Without that presence building can turn into empty shells, difficult to maintain and unattractive to the public. The vibrancy of love in sadhu-sanga, the transformational clarity of Krishna-katha, the joy of the congregational chanting, the shelter and purification of japa, and the excitement of the missionary spirit are the infallible ingredients of expansion. When these elements are ignited, activated in the Bhakti-vriksha setting, lives will change, minds will illuminate, energy will spring forth like fire from wood. It will then be a matter of management to see that such groups are protected and monitored in an organizational structure.

Such structure (when spiritually healthy and properly supervised) has the power (spiritual and economic) to establish not one, but many temples, many centers for larger gatherings and assemblies. So, a Bhakti-vriksha Program, when properly developed, can be the source of temples; but a temple without a clear plan for cultivation, care and empowerment of its constituency (through small, cohesive, active and outreaching groups) might end up "like the burden of a beast or like one's keeping a cow without milking capacity" (SB 11.11.18).