Many of the more than sixty temple presidents and GBCs attending this year’s ISKCON North American Leaders Meetings called the event “the best ever.”
This was largely owing to the upbeat mood brought about by ISKCON’s 50th anniversary, increasing book distribution successes, and the inspiring association at the meetings.
“It was very, very positive and full of proactive presentations,” says GBC and ISKCON Communications Director Anuttama Das. “The focus was on how so many wonderful things have been accomplished over the past fifty years, and yet there’s so much more to do to try to expand Prabhupada’s movement and fulfill his vision.”
The meetings, which were held from January 14th to 16th and were the first to take place at the newly opened mandir in Houston, Texas, began with a keynote address by academic and author Yogesvara Das (Joshua M. Greene).
Yogesvara spoke about his work in presenting Krishna consciousness to the broader communities of yoga practioners and spiritual seekers. He also introduced his new book “Swami in a Strange Land: How Krishna Came to the West,” a new biography of Srila Prabhupada aimed at a broad general audience and due out on May 23rd this year.
Book Distribution Strategizer Vaisesika Das then spoke about the incredible book distribution success that North America has seen in the past few years. After leaders at a previous meeting, spurred on by Vaisesika, agreed to work towards a collective goal, distributors have smashed their targets every year, increasing 26% in 2012, 28% in 2013, and 11.5% in 2014.
Temple presidents and other leaders gather in small group discussions to learn from each other’s experiences and plan 2016 programs for ISKCON in North America.
While devotees fell slightly short of this year’s 10% target, reaching 8% instead, it’s still a giant success, since each year sets goals to increase on bigger and bigger numbers.
Vaisesika commented that while there are still full-time book distributors – who he called “glorious” — what’s made the difference in recent times has been a much higher number of small temples, communities, and congregational members coming together to distribute Prabhupada’s books on weekends and whenever they can.
Meanwhile during his ISKCON 50 presentation, Anuttama Das inspired leaders to “50th-ize” all their events throughout the year, and reported on the many ISKCON 50 events that have happened and are planned, including Bhaktimarga Swami’s walk retracing the key places of ISKCON’s historical beginnings.
Anuttama also displayed a commemorative full-color magazine entitled “Hare Krishnas Celebrate 50 Years,” which was packed with impressive statistics and information about the Hare Krishna Movement. North American Leaders ordered over 50,000 copies on the spot to distribute to their congregations and the general public.
Speaking on a very hot topic in ISKCON currently, Kalakantha Das of the Gainesville Krishna House in Florida made a presentation in favor of women Diksa gurus in ISKCON. Kalakantha, who heads up a very successful student outreach program, made the case that ISKCON’s efforts are suffering in North America because educated young people like Krishna consciousness but dislike ISKCON because of what they perceive as its demeaning attitude towards women – characterized by the lack of female initiating gurus.
Kalakantha presented some of the arguments by GBC members and godbrothers against having female gurus, and then countered them with pro-arguments. He also showed a video featuring quotes from Srila Prabhupada and comments by Ravindra Svarupa Das, Visakha Dasi, Dr. Abhisekh Gosh, Dr. Larry Shin, and himself.
“It was really, really well presented and powerful – it wasn’t just emotional, but very informational,” says Mukhya Dasi, temple president at ISKCON of Alachua, Florida.
The presentation ended with a straw vote. Out of fifty-five temple presidents and leaders, thirty-nine, or 71% voted in favor of Vaishnavi gurus, nine, or 16%, were neutral, and only seven, or 13%, voted against. The results of the vote will be shown to the GBC’s executive committee.
Another well-received presentation was businessman Gopal Bhatta Dasa’s Friday morning session on marketing and online presence. While ISKCON has wonderful gifts to give like its spiritual knowledge and culture, he said, there is certainly room for improvement in how it presents these to people.
Gopal Bhatta Das leads a session on marketing and a new ISKCON online initiative.
“He talked about how to speak in such a way that people can appreciate it, and how to design our programs so that they attract diverse enthnicities, genders and age groups,” recalls Anuttama.
Gopal Bhatta also spoke about how ISKCON is somewhat behind the times online, and laid out ideas for putting together a small team with marketing and website design expertise that could help temples improve their Internet presence.
Other topics at the meetings included Deity worship, devotee care, membership, ethics, leader sexual misconduct, and a presentation on “Surving an Active Shooter” by the Houston Police Department. Sharing best practices through these topics was a major benefit for the leaders.
The meetings also included “Sanga sessions” led by Washington D.C. temple president Ananda Vrindavana Dasi, in which leaders got a sense of their shared work together in Krishna consciousness.
“The meetings were definitely inspiring for me,” says Mukhya. “It’s inspiring to hear the successes of other temples, and I like coming away feeling fired up. Sometimes things are just moving along day to day, and we get a bit lackadaisical. But really we should be improving all the time!”
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