A Summary of the Final Report
During the 1992 Mayapur meetings ISKCONs GBC (Governing
Body Commission) established the ISKCON Global Ministry for
the Centennial Celebration to plan and coordinate activities
for Prabhupada's centennial in 1996. The following year the
GBC passed a resolution to conduct a worldwide survey of ISKCON's
membership. As stated in the resolution, the survey was intended
to provide one basis for building a stronger and more unified
That the Centennial Ministry organise a global survey or
audit of devotees living both within ISKCON communities and
outside as well as those who have left the full-time practice
of Krsna consciousness, in order to help understand the steps
that can be taken to develop a strong and united ISKCON.
(From Project Unity: Uniting Prabhupada's Family and Strengthening
In the end, 1,996 devotees from 53 countries took part in the
survey. As one might expect, the survey was more enthusiastically
supported in some parts of the ISKCON world than others. Overall,
however, the Prabhupada Centennial Survey proved a remarkable
success. The survey was a massive undertaking requiring the
cooperation of many many devotees around the world.
This paper provides a summary of the major findings and recommendations
from the Prabhupada Centennial Survey Report submitted to the
GBC in November, 1998. For readers interested in reading the
report in its entirety it can be located on both the "Vaisnava
News Network" (VNN.org) and "Chakra" (Chakra.org)
There were of course many topics that might have been considered
in the report. In the end I chose four. I have done so because
these issues were identified by survey respondents as significant
concerns or "problem" areas across regions of the
ISKCON world. Moreover, my own research has likewise revealed
their importance to ISKCON's development over the past 10-15
years. The four topics considered were: (1) Family, women, and
children; (2) Economic development and employment; (3) Leadership
and governance; and, (4) Factors influencing devotees
commitments to ISKCON. It should be clear that each of these
in various ways, directly and indirectly, fit within the overarching
framework of social development and the ongoing project of building
an alternative social order capable of supporting a Krsna conscious
Before discussing the four substantive issues identified above,
I will first provide the reader with some background information
concerning the Prabhupada Centennial Survey.
Purposes and Goals
The Prabhupada Centennial Survey was meant to provide leaders
GBC and Temple Presidents and devotees in general,
with a comprehensive understanding of the movement's worldwide
membership. This information promises to have a number of practical
Accurate information on the movement's membership
can help guide the GBC and other leaders as they seek to formulate
local, regional, and worldwide strategies and policies to
shape the movement's future (e.g., economic development, preaching,
education, involvement of congregational members).
- Given the diversity among devotees both between and within countries,
the survey allows for identifying the concerns and issues that
affect various constituencies of the movement's membership.
- By identifying those issues and concerns that most influence
the spiritual and everyday lives of devotees, the survey's findings
will help leaders to focus their collective attention on concerns
most vital to the movement's present and future development. Too
often, those holding strong views have been able to create or
diffuse issues because leaders and others lack a comprehensive
understanding of the movement's rank and file membership. The
Prabhupada Centennial Survey affords an opportunity to gain an
accounting of the views, attitudes, and life circumstances of
devotees in and outside of institutional ISKCON.
The survey serves an important symbolic
purpose. The very act of conducting the survey communicates
to all devotees that ISKCON's leadership is willing to engage
the serious issues that confront the movement. The survey
conveys that leaders are genuinely concerned with the health
of Prabhupada's movement.
The findings presented in the report demand discussion and
debate. Without it there can be little basis for constructive
change and progress toward realising the potential of Prabhupada's
movement for his many followers worldwide. I am pleased to say
that these discussions are already well underway as suggested
by recent Social Development Conferences, Women's Conferences,
and the creation of GBC Ministries addressing social development,
grhastha life, women, and youth. All of these efforts have sought
in various ways to address aspects of ISKCON's social and cultural
development. Of equal importance of course have been the many
ongoing discussions among devotees about the state of the movement
and how to bring about a greater sense of balance and harmony
between their spiritual beliefs and practices, and other aspects
of daily life. The issues that have emerged raise serious questions
about the state of Prabhupada's movement, as indicated by a
report released in 1998 from the ISKCON Commission for Social
Development. The report begins with the following observations:
As the GBC concluded at its 1996 special meeting in Abentheur,
"ISKCONs house is on fire." The movement faces
serious social problems. Devotees are dissatisfied, confused
about their responsibilities and hampered in achieving their
full potentials. Everyone is suffering, leaders as well as
rank-and-file. Women, children and cows are unprotected and
abused. Many who for years dedicated themselves to preaching
and devotional service are now outsiders. Others are "hanging
on" with diminishing hope of finding a secure, decent
life in ISKCON. Others who should be free to be models of
renunciation and spiritual leadership are perceived to be
entangled with money and power.
(Social Development Report, ISKCON Commission For Social
Development February 1998)
Issues and Questions
The initial step undertaken was to gain a preliminary sampling
of the views and insights of devotees from various parts of
the world. This included identifying issues of concern for all
devotees; grand disciples, uninitiated devotees, as well as
disciples of Srila Prabhupada. Advice was sought from committed
ISKCON followers as well as from more marginal devotees and
even those estranged from ISKCON. Formal and informal discussions
also took place with various members of the GBC and other ISKCON
Issues addressed on the survey were identified primarily through
working groups of devotees from various parts of the world.
Groups in North America, Western Europe, and India contributed
detailed suggestions and even specific questions to include
on the final questionnaire. Individual devotees also wrote to
me directly offering their ideas. In addition, a group comprised
of myself and eight devotees reworked a preliminary draft of
the questionnaire at the Mayapur meetings in 1994. The questionnaire
was subsequently revised still further, given the suggestions
made by members of the GBC subcommittee for the Prabhupada Centennial
The following issues were identified by devotees as potential
areas of inquiry for the Prabhupada Centennial Survey.
ISKCON's priorities for preaching
- The role of ISKCON's gurus
- New devotee relationships with Srila Prabhupada
- Family life
- The role of women in the movement
- How to be responsive to the spiritual needs of congregational
- The need for varnasrama in ISKCON
- The authority system and managerial role of the GBC
- The rights of devotees and the system of justice
- How to build and maintain a system of education
- Relations with non-ISKCON Vaisnavas including the Gaudiya Math,
Sridar Swami's followers, New Vrindaban's followers
These and other areas of inquiry were addressed in the Prabhupada
Centennial Survey. The full range of topics and issues can best
be discerned by reviewing the questionnaire itself (see Appendix
1 in the final report). I think it important to note that approximately
80% of the questions appearing on the final Centennial questionnaire
were based on questions submitted by devotees in and outside
The final questionnaire was translated into eight languages
(Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, Polish, Italian, German,
Czech). Translations of the questionnaire were completed either
by native-speaking ISKCON devotees, or by language teachers
at Middlebury College. The latter translations were checked
by ISKCON members who spoke the language to be certain that
translations were accurate and reflected devotee ways of speaking.
Sample and Sampling Procedures
Perhaps the most important yet most difficult part of the Prabhupada
Centennial Survey was distributing the questionnaires throughout
ISKCON's worldwide community. This proved a massive and at times
difficult undertaking, requiring the good will and practical
assistance of many devotees.
Distribution and sampling guidelines were provided to Temple
Presidents and/or designated survey representatives along with
a copy (or copies) of the questionnaire itself. Copies of each
document were mailed to all of ISKCON's communities and preaching
centres worldwide. The actual sampling and distribution guidelines
are included in Appendix 2 of the complete report.
Despite efforts to ensure a degree of rigor in the sampling
process, the results were uneven at best. Some communities did
follow the guidelines carefully; others simply asked everyone
in the community to complete the questionnaire; some only distributed
the questionnaire to temple devotees; and, some communities
failed to distribute the questionnaire at all. Given this pattern
of distribution and the resulting sample, a few words about
representativeness seem appropriate.
The data collected from the Prabhupada Centennial Survey can
not be considered representative of the total ISKCON membership.
Neither can the findings from a particular region or country
be considered representative. Despite efforts to ensure a more
or less representative sample, the final sample is not a probability
sample. A basic principle of probability sampling is that "a
sample will be representative of the population [in this case
ISKCON's worldwide membership] if all members of the population
have an equal chance of being selected in the sample" (Babbie
1998:200). Obviously this did not happen here for a number of
reasons. Many ISKCON communities don't have accurate lists of
their members. Moreover, the scale of the Prabhupada Centennial
Survey hardly allowed for careful and precise sampling techniques.
But even carefully selected samples are often less than perfectly
representative. It is also fair to say that most surveys done
in the social sciences are based upon less than representative
samples. I dont raise these issues here in order to dismiss
the data and findings from the Prabhupada Centennial Survey,
for the fact is that the information gathered is the most comprehensive
ever collected on ISKCON or, for that matter, any worldwide
religious organisation that I am aware of. However, it is important
that the reader view the findings presented here as reasonable
estimates, rather than precise figures.
Data and Data Processing
After collecting the nearly 2,000 completed questionnaires
the data had to be entered onto the computer before analysis
could begin. This task took many hundreds of hours of work and
proved costly. The questionnaire was over 20 pages in length
with over 300 variables having numerical information. There
were also several open-ended questions where devotees wrote
out answers to questions. Students from Middlebury College were
paid to enter the data on the computer. This took one year to
Units of Analysis
The units of analysis for the report were: (1) Types of devotees,
or ISKCON members (i.e., full-time ISKCON members, congregational
members, former ISKCON devotees). As one might reasonably expect,
the views, commitment, involvement, etc. of the three devotee
groups varied on some, if not many issues. Where appropriate,
I have given emphasis to these differences in the analyses presented
in the report; and, (2) Region of the world (i.e., North America,
Northern and Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the CIS, Latin
America, Australasia, Africa, and Asia). Countries were placed
into regions using the classification in "Centres Around
the World" as found in Back To Godhead Magazine. I had
expected to treat India as a separate region but the limited
number of respondents did not warrant doing so. Table 1 reports
on the number of respondents by country for each of the seven
Number of returned centennial questionnaires
by country and region
Northern & Western Europe
N. Ireland 18
Eastern Europe and CIS
Czech Republic 45
El Salvador 7
Trinidad, W, Indies 21
New Zealand 26
South Africa 75
Hong Kong 14
Missing Data 16
Total Number Collected Worldwide 1,996
Summary of Major Findings
The following represents a summary of the major findings presented
in the Prabhupada Centennial Report. Interested readers should
consult the final report for a detailed presentation of the
findings including both qualitative and statistical data.
There is a striking lack of trust between
ISKCON members and the movement's leadership, as well as between
devotees themselves. Survey respondents across regions expressed
the view that there is a lack of honest and open communication
between devotees; that impersonalism has been allowed to dominate
devotee relations in place of friendship, respect, and caring.
The findings presented also demonstrate that a lack of authority
(and a related lack of trust) attributed to the gurus and/or
the GBC institution has had major consequences for devotees'
commitments to ISKCON (full-time, congregational, and former
ISKCON members alike).
- Many devotee respondents expressed the view that ISKCON suffers
from poor management and that leaders are not always responsive
to those they serve. There is reason to suspect that this only
breeds mistrust and a sense that local as well as regional leaders
are out of touch with the needs and lives of the average member.
- A set of concerns expressed by devotees worldwide falls under
the general heading of social development. As the data demonstrate
conclusively, the nuclear family has effectively displaced communalism
as the movement's foundational structure of social organisation
in most parts of the world. Even in the newly formed ISKCON communities
in Eastern Europe and the CIS, a sizeable percentage of householders
are living and working outside the movement's communities. By
favouring a renunciate-sectarian model organisationally in the
face of an expanding grhastha asrama, ISKCON has generally failed
to integrate families and family life into its communities. Until
recent discussions of "social development," ISKCON has
done little toward building an internal domestic culture capable
of supporting householders and their children. Two elements of
social development were given special attention by survey respondents:
(a) The lack of employment opportunities
within ISKCON. As the findings demonstrate, a large portion
of ISKCON's worldwide membership is working in conventional
jobs. As sankirtana has become (and becomes) less of
a source of revenue for ISKCON's communities, devotees have
been forced to seek employment in the outside labour market.
This has primarily affected householders. The result is that
devotees working in non-devotee work environments are less
involved in and committed to their religious beliefs and practices,
and to ISKCON as a religious organisation. Of telling significance
is that 80% of the respondents working outside of ISKCON say
they would work within the movement, if employment was available
allowing them to support themselves and/or their families.
The survey findings give further support
to ongoing discussions concerning the urgency of developing
varnasrama within ISKCON. Although varnasrama
appears to mean different things to different devotees it
nonetheless remains clear that there is a pervasive belief
that something must be done to ensure that ISKCON members
have the opportunity to work together, rather than in non-devotee
(b) Inadequate educational alternatives within ISKCON. Findings
from the survey suggest that children, like their parents,
are spending a good portion of their daily lives associating
with non-devotees while attending schools outside of ISKCON's
communities. As the evidence presented suggests, parents report
that their children often grow up having few commitments to
ISKCON and, more often than not, remain more or less uninvolved
in the practice of sadhana-bhakti. While such a finding is
hardly unusual, as many young people become estranged from
their religious faith in adolescence, it still raises questions
about ISKCON's future given the paucity of new adult recruits
to the movement in at least some parts of the world. In the
case of young devotee children who attend public/state-supported
schools there is another force at work which differs from
the average non-devotee young person who withdraws from his
or her faith during adolescence. As I have shown elsewhere
(Rochford 1999), attending public/state-supported schools
for devotee youths tends to erode their collective identity
as ISKCON members; although many hold to their identity as
devotees of Krsna. In seeking social acceptance from their
new non-devotee peers, devotee young people have essentially
felt the need to subvert their ISKCON identity to avoid the
stigma attached to being a Hare Krsna.
Without adequate schools to train ISKCON's children spiritually
and academically one can only expect that more and more parents
will choose to educate their children outside the movement.
While most survey respondents suggest a preference for asrama-based
gurukulas one wonders if such a view continues to hold given
recent revelations about child abuse within the asramas during
the 1970s and 1980s (See Bharata Shrestha Dasa 1998; Rochford
1998a). It may be that the asrama-based schools are seen as
a viable alternative because some parents express general dissatisfaction
with the spiritual and academic training provided by their local
ISKCON community day-school. Also, of course, Prabhupada established
these schools with the spiritual interests of the children in
- Both women and men recognise that (mis)treatment of women within
the movement over the years has negatively affected women's sense
of self-esteem and limited their ability to make spiritual progress.
Most also agreed that the climate toward women within ISKCON has
improved in recent years. Men and women supported the idea that
women's roles should be expanded within ISKCON and that women,
being the spiritual equals of men, should have the same opportunities
for devotional service where performance, not gender, is the determining
criteria. As was true during the early days of the movement (see
Jyotirmayi Devi Dasi 1997) respondents tended to agree (with some
gender variations) that men and women should worship on different
sides of the temple (rather than women at the back), chant japa
collectively in the temple (slightly less than a majority of men
support this idea), that women should be able to lead public kirtanas
in the temple, give classes, and serve as Temple Presidents when
qualified. Fewer men and women supported the idea of women serving
- Of critical importance to the stability of ISKCON has been
the erosion of traditional religious authority in the face of
scandal and controversy involving ISKCON's gurus and sannyasis
(see Rochford 1985,1998b; Tamal Krsna Goswami 1997). These very
scandals have served to promote ritvik ideas, both within ISKCON's
communities and among dissidents outside ISKCON's ranks. But even
among devotees who reject the ritvik philosophy there still has
been an effort to further elevate Prabhupada as the primary source
of religious authority within ISKCON. In sum, the authority of
the present gurus has been openly questioned and Srila Prabhupada
has become the source of legitimate religious authority within
ISKCON and the broader movement.
Because of continuing scandal involving gurus, survey respondents
expressed a desire to place strong bureaucratic controls on qualifications
for becoming an ISKCON guru, and on the behavior and lifestyle
of the gurus. Many respondents offered the view that the reform
movement of the mid-1980s did not go far enough in placing adequate
controls on the independent authority and power of ISKCON's gurus.
- Related to the demise of religious authority has been the apparent
decline of GBC authority among some portions of ISKCON's membership.
Many congregational members for example expressed the belief that
they have been left with little input in how ISKCON is governed.
As a result many felt that the GBC had little real relevance to
their lives as devotees. This is perhaps most pronounced in the
area of the GBC's failure to address the needs of householders
and their children. A sizeable percentage of ISKCON's congregational
members believed that a representational form of government would
help broaden the variety of viewpoints found on the GBC. Full-time
members, congregational members and former ISKCON devotees alike
expressed the view that the GBC had not gone far enough in its
efforts to control the gurus and the guru institution.
As the statistical analyses presented in the report demonstrate,
member commitment to ISKCON is most influenced by views about
the GBC and ISKCON's gurus (among a number of other variables,
see Tables 12-14 in the report). For full-time members the authority
placed in the GBC had a strong influence on ISKCON commitment.
Those full-time respondents who viewed the GBC favorably (having
a high level of authority) were also most likely to be highly
committed to ISKCON. Conversely, those who saw the GBC as having
little authority were more likely to have less commitment to
ISKCON. Interestingly, guru authority was not a significant
predictor of ISKCON commitment for initiated full-time ISKCON
members. For congregational members the authority of the GBC
had a significant influence on commitment to ISKCON; yet the
strongest influence for initiated congregational members was
the authority of the gurus. The pattern among former ISKCON
members parallels the findings for full-time members. The authority
of the GBC had by far the greatest influence on ISKCON commitment
with the authority of the gurus having no significant effect.
The findings presented in the report document the ongoing change
of ISKCON as a religious organisation. It points to the existing
and building tensions between a monastic, high commitment, and
communal form of social organisation and one characterised by
independent householders whose religious and organisational
commitments are often less intense and whose involvements are
more irregular and segmental. These findings are compatible
with other studies of ISKCON in North America (Rochford 1995b,
1997) and in Western and Eastern Europe (Rochford 1995a, forthcoming).
With the decline of communalism many devotees especially
householders and their children spend much of their everyday
lives within mainstream cultures, either working outside jobs
and/or attending state-supported or other non-ISKCON schools.
As devotees have moved outside the movement's communal structure
to establish independent households, ISKCON has lost its previous
control over the lives and behavior of its membership (Rochford
1995b). Communal control has been vastly reduced and individual
devotees freely make choices about how they wish to live their
lives and raise their children. ISKCON, as this implies, can
be characterised as an increasingly pluralistic movement comprised
of members with strikingly different commitments and levels
of involvement. Given this pattern of change the question of
paramount importance is how will ISKCON go about the task of
integrating this increasingly diverse congregation into its
communities? Perhaps more to the point, is it the position of
the leadership that families should be, in fact, more fully
integrated into ISKCON and its communities? But this question
raises a broader one that I think must be answered by leaders
and anyone else who claims either membership in ISKCON, or to
be a follower of Prabhupada.
What is your image of what ISKCON should be. What should it
aspire to in the future? Is the ideal ISKCON you hold in your
mind's eye tied largely to the movement's past; communities
of devotees living communally, members dedicated first and foremost
to missionary activity, a membership with high levels of commitment
to and involvement in ISKCON and Krsna consciousness, sannyasis
with considerable political as well as spiritual authority and
power? Or, is your image of ISKCON one that more reflects ISKCON
as we see it today in the West, and increasingly in other parts
of the world; a congregation of people holding varying levels
of commitment to ISKCON and their Krsna conscious beliefs and
practices, where members are as much or more involved in the
conventional world as with ISKCON?
I raise these questions only because the meaning that readers
give to the findings presented in the report relate directly
to their visions of ISKCON and what Prabhupada's movement "should
be." Just as obviously, any person's recommendations about
what must be done to make ISKCON a better instrument for Prabhupada's
movement will also be derived from these at least somewhat idiosyncratic
images. To someone committed to a life of renunciation, preaching,
and communalism, ongoing changes in the direction of pluralism
and congregationalism can only been seen as trends that lead
ISKCON away from its true purposes. For others, these very same
changes reflect the building strength of the movement because
it is increasingly reaching into conventional societies in more
diverse and perhaps influential ways.
As a sociologist, my own images of ISKCON are seen through
lenses shaped by theory and research in the sociology of religion.
I assume that change is an inevitable part of the development
of any religious organisation or community; though, it is true,
that some groups have remained far more resistant to change
than others. Yet there is a clear tendency in the social science
of religion to attend to the social forces that push religious
groups and movements in the direction of secularisation (accommodation
to the conventional secular culture and its values and way of
life). I believe, for example, that the inability to integrate
family life within ISKCON's communities has been a (if not the)
major force giving rise to growing congregationalism (Rochford
1995a, 1995b, 1997). The widespread concern throughout the movement
today with issues of social development suggests that many devotees
share such a point of view. For, in fact, social development
as presently being discussed in ISKCON is largely about families
and family life.
I offer the following recommendations for no reason other than
to help guide the leadership as it considers the question of
ISKCON's social development and the broader future of the movement.
I am not trying to tell the leaders what to do, although at
times it may seem like it. Rather my intention is to suggest
what could be done and what areas represent the most immediate
problems requiring attention.
In the most general terms, it is time for ISKCON's leaders
to move beyond the crisis mode. Most well informed members or
observers of ISKCON realise that ISKCON's leaders have spent
the last 20 years "putting out fires" of one sort
or another. While this has been a necessary stance it has made
it impossible for the leadership to address the fundamental
needs of ISKCON's membership. In fighting battles of one sort
or another, be they internal (e.g., guru issues) or external
(e.g., lawsuits), the fact is many devotees, most particularly
householders, have come to believe that the leadership has failed
to vigorously address their needs. ISKCON has evolved as a religious
movement, but that evolution, more often than not, has been
unplanned and spontaneous. As the findings presented here suggest,
members often feel estranged and powerless because they believe
that the leadership is generally unresponsive to their needs
for devotee-based employment, education for their children,
fair-minded and efficient management, and the like. Please understand
I am talking perception. But this perception has ultimately
eroded the fundamental trust between those who lead and ISKCON's
membership. I believe that one result of this is that many devotees
are aligning themselves with the ritvik movement and other challenging
groups not out of any conviction about what Prabhupada intended
for the guru system, but because they are frustrated and even
angry that ISKCON's leadership has not responded constructively
as they struggle to raise their families in Krsna consciousness.
I think it time for the leadership to dedicate itself (even
in the midst of present and future "fires") to making
progress on a few specific issues that will benefit ISKCON's
membership. In saying this I realise that progress has been
made on a number of fronts such as child protection and education.
But more could be done and this should be made an institutional
priority and not one that grows out of an immediate problem
that must be fixed. Think and plan pro-actively. There is both
real and symbolic value in such an approach. Devotees' needs
will be better served and, in time, the membership will come
to trust that the leaders have their interests squarely in mind.
Given this perhaps overly bold preamble, allow me to raise
a few specific issues that are candidates for immediate attention.
Some will take long-term planning and involve considerable resources.
Others could be done rather quickly given the will of the GBC.
I begin with economics, because I think a number of other things
rest on building an adequate economic infrastructure to support
devotees and ISKCON's communities.
(1) Building an Economic Infrastructure. As this report
has amply demonstrated, devotees especially householders
have been forced to seek employment outside of ISKCON's
communities. The results of this trend have not always been
beneficial to ISKCON or to the spiritual lives of devotees themselves.
ISKCON members working outside are less likely to remain as
involved in their religious practices, are less involved in
and committed to ISKCON, are more involved in the outside conventional
culture, and less committed to a Krsna conscious worldview.
But the unavailability of movement/devotee-based employment
has other implications for ISKCON and its membership. Over the
last few years greater attention has been focused on education
within ISKCON. This has involved educating new adult members
to the movement as well as children growing up in ISKCON. While
most people would applaud these efforts it remains the case
that, even should ISKCON build a laudable system of education,
a serious problem remains. Even if ISKCON were able to build
a gurukula system that was "ideal" (however defined),
it still remains the case that young men and women who complete
their secondary education have little or no future within ISKCON's
communities. This is because there are few paying jobs that
would allow devotees to be self-supporting, especially if they
have families. However educated ISKCON's young adults become,
they ultimately have few viable options open to them except
to seek employment in the conventional labour market. This very
fact suggests that ISKCON's social needs must be considered
holistically. It is not enough to "fix" one part of
ISKCON's social system without addressing the system as a whole.
Prabhupada, and many of his followers, have suggested that varnasrama
provides such a holistic solution.(2)
Leaders have to think of sankirtana primarily in terms
of preaching, rather than in terms of the financial resources
it brings. Without question sankirtana has brought large
sums of money into ISKCON and has bankrolled ISKCON's worldwide
expansion (Rochford 1985). Yet in every case that I am aware
of, sankirtana revenues begin to diminish in time, most
often at the very moment when householder life expands and the
need for resources increases. Sankirtana should be considered
a short-term economic strategy; one that can help finance other
types of entrepreneurial activity supportive of ISKCON's membership
and ISKCON itself. Without a stable financial base ISKCON's
communities have fragmented and devotees have in various ways
lost the social supports that encouraged their spiritual pursuits
and goals for self-realisation.
I recommend that the GBC immediately establish regional economic
committees comprised of devotees who have proven themselves
productive businessmen and businesswomen and/or economic strategists.
I say regional because I expect that while a movement-wide economic
strategy might be possible, it is more likely that economic
plans will vary by region, country, and perhaps even by community.
These planning committees should be given authority to develop
economic proposals, raise funds to launch businesses, and maintain
a degree of autonomy that allows for working without being compromised
by political considerations. I think the goal of these committees
should centre foremost on employment for devotees, not raising
money per se. Entrepreneurial activity that is labour intensive
and capable of employing large numbers of people should be favoured.
Computer businesses may be profitable for example but they are
usually incapable of employing significant numbers of people.
Work, not profit, should be the fundamental goal.
(2) Restoring Trust in the Leadership. This report has
shown conclusively that the authority (or lack thereof) of ISKCON's
gurus and the GBC represent the most significant predictors
of member commitment to ISKCON. Quite simply, it is clear that
many ISKCON members (temple devotees, congregational members)
and former members alike place minimal trust in ISKCON's leadership.
Child abuse, the mistreatment and abuse of women, the neglect
of householders, guru scandals, etc., all have eroded the trust
that binds devotees to Prabhupada's movement. In organisational
terms as well as spiritual ones, ISKCON at its core is in the
midst of a crisis of trust. As Seligman argues, the "existence
of trust is an essential component of all enduring social relationships"
(1997:13) and is indeed necessary for the continuation of any
social order. Leaders can only be effective when followers have
faith in those entrusted with positions of leadership. This
is not uniformly the case in many portions of the ISKCON world.
Now, with the demise of Harikesa Dasa, there is reason to believe
that this crisis has grown deeper.
I recommend that the GBC immediately form a committee whose
purpose is to consider how the movement's leadership can restore
the trust of ISKCON's membership as well as among those who
have chosen to leave the movement. The committee's work should
not be about how to strategically defend ISKCON against its
critics. Rather it should focus on how to honestly address the
concerns of devotees who have been mistreated and abused directly,
or by the policies of ISKCON's leadership. As an act of good
faith, the committee should consider the possibility of including
a limited number of devotees who have been critical of the leadership.
Obviously such persons, like all other members of the committee,
would be required to affirm his or her commitment to the committee's
goals and purposes.
(3) Re-enfranchising ISKCON Women. It is clear that
both women and men see the need to expand women's spiritual
and material roles within the movement. As the findings demonstrate,
there is considerable support for women playing a more active
and equal role in ISKCON's spiritual and community life. Men
and women overwhelmingly agree that Prabhupada viewed his male
and female disciples as spiritual equals. And there is evidence
that Prabhupada implemented policies and procedures that were
meant to be inclusive of women. It seems clear that the majority
of the devotees surveyed want women to have rights and responsibilities
as given to them by Srila Prabhupada before a backlash against
women occurred in the early and mid-1970s (see Ravindra Svarupa
Dasa 1994; Jyotirmayi Devi Dasi 1997; Radha Devi Dasi 1998).
While ISKCON has an obligation to protect women (Executive
Committee Letter 1998), leaders also have a responsibility to
keep ISKCON a functioning organisation able to preach and meet
the spiritual needs of its membership. Given the manpower shortages
that exist in many temples, ISKCON can ill-afford to disenfranchise
a large portion of its membership. While wrong theologically
(Jyotirmayi Devi Dasi, 1997), and with respect to fundamental
human rights (Radha Devi Dasi 1998), it is also simply foolish
as an organisational strategy. While many regions of the ISKCON
world are in desperate need of human capital to deal with the
day-to-day functioning of temple communities, it remains the
case that women and women's contributions too often remain under-valued
and under-utilised. Organisationally ISKCON can't afford such
a position and in fact there are growing numbers of women serving
as Temple Presidents and holding other significant management
and administrative positions (Rochford 1998c).
I recommend that ISKCON leaders immediately move to restore
the rights and responsibilities afforded women by Srila Prabhupada.
Men should be educated accordingly. (A good start for everyone
would be to read the articles by Jyotirmayi Devi Dasi 1997,
and Radha Devi Dasi 1998.)(3)
Guru and non-guru leaders should teach respect for women; women
should again be viewed as capable devotees in the service of
Prabhupada's movement rather than as temptresses or other such
derogatory characterisations. To do so would immediately increase
the self-esteem of women and make them more productive members
of ISKCON. By acknowledging women's value and worth as human
and spiritual beings it will also make the movement more attractive
to potential members who view ISKCON's position on women as
antiquated and morally objectionable.
(4) Education and Children. ISKCON is slowly losing
its most significant resource for the future: its children.
A startling percentage of the movement's children are leaving
ISKCON or are choosing to remain marginal to it (see Kraybill
1989, on the retention of Amish children into adulthood). Friendships
and ties with parents often have more holding power on ISKCON's
second generation than ties to ISKCON, or even to the practice
of Krsna consciousness. Certainly, child abuse has directly
and indirectly affected a significant portion of ISKCON's now
young-adults, but this is only one part of the story. For the
fact is that ISKCON has yet to find an adequate replacement
to the asrama system of schooling. Many parents in the survey
express the view that the ISKCON day-school in their community
is not adequately meeting the spiritual and academic needs of
children. Teachers too often feel that ISKCON has not done nearly
enough to support them in their efforts to create better schools.
Over the past two years ISKCON's leadership has committed itself
to improving education within the movement both for adult members
and children. From what I can tell, a substantial start has
been made on this front. Yet this initiative has recently been
hampered by the defection of Harikesa Dasa and the loss of resources
he had committed to educational projects. Yet ISKCON must begin
to build for the future, and like any society that prospers,
education must become part of the equation that produces that
prosperity. Here I mean education in the broadest sense of the
word. Parents, with the assistance of ISKCON, must educate their
children, but this education must be centred on goals and purposes
that are distinct to ISKCON as a religious organisation. Because
of this, ISKCON has a central role to play in the socialisation
and education of the movement's youngest members. In doing the
job well, ISKCON promises to reap the benefits of a core of
young, enthusiastic devotees wanting to push forward Prabhupada's
movement. To fail means that ISKCON has essentially squandered
its most vital resource and the basis of its future. One only
has to stand to the back of any temple in North America to see
that there is a clear "graying of the Hare Krsnas."
(This too will likely be an issue of significance in the immediate
I believe that the movement has to continue in its efforts
to acknowledge the mistreatment of second generation devotees
in the 1970s and 1980s. It also has to do whatever possible
to respond to the real needs of these young men and women. Certainly
"Children of Krsna" is precisely such an initiative.
But ISKCON's leaders must continue to work with and provide
resources to teachers and schools if the movement is to nurture
the development of its children.
I recommend that recent efforts to improve education within
ISKCON continue at full-pace. The education committee now in
place must continue to receive the financial and other means
of support it needs to promote education in ISKCON. Of equal
importance, the leadership must not waver in its commitment
to education and thereby to ISKCON's future hope. Educators
and children must be seen as the keepers of ISKCON's future,
not simply as parties who make demands on scarce resources.
The sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, writes that any new
religion which hopes to succeed must "find important things
for young people to do on behalf of their faith" (1987:25).
It is time that ISKCON provides the training and support its
children need in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead
for ISKCON in the twenty-first century.
(1) I would like to express
my appreciation to Middlebury College for providing substantial
funding so that this project could be completed.
(2) I have consciously avoided
any discussion of varnasrama in the report. I did so
largely because this is an ongoing discussion and there are
varied ideas about what varnasrama is and how ISKCON
should implement it. I will make only one comment: It is important
to understand that "simple living and plain thinking"
in the context of a land-based agricultural society does not
fit the character and background of many Western devotees and
others. Moreover, devotees are now working in a great variety
of positions in and outside of ISKCON. Whatever version of varnasrama
that comes to the fore must consider who might be pushed out
under such a system as well as how the system should work. Remember,
"time, place, and circumstance;" the wisdom of this,
sociologically, can not be overstated.
(3) I am aware that some
leaders and other devotees believe that the essays by Jyotirmayi
Devi Dasi and Radha Devi Dasi do not accurately, or fully, represent
Prabhupada's position on women in ISKCON. Should the GBC remain
split on this question, a research group should be commissioned
to investigate the issue further. Of course even this is a tricky
proposition since Prabhupada's views are inevitably "frozen
in time" and, therefore, we lose a sense of "time,
place, and circumstance." Much has happened in the past
21 years and it is impossible to know what Prabhupada's views
on the "women's question" might be in the present.
Of course the theological significance of the problem I am pointing
to goes well beyond debates about women's roles within ISKCON.
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