Good communication brings about a healthy relationship, as ISKCON’s Governing Body Comission and ISKCON guru Hridayananda Das Goswami found this month.
Hridayananda Maharaja’s Krishna West project began in 2013. But due to ill health, he had not had the chance to meet with the full GBC body about it until this October 15th and 16th, during their mid-term meetings in Ujjain, India.
This left the GBC hearing from a distance about Maharaja’s Krishna West presentations, in which by his own admission he was sometimes “critical of ISKCON leadership.” Meanwhile the GBC and some members of the ISKCON public developed misconceptions about Krishna West’s ideology and allegiance.
The recent meeting between Hridayananda Maharaja and eleven members of the GBC – which was a positive and friendly interaction for all – cleared up many concerns.
Krishna West is Part of ISKCON, Not a Separate Movement
One was the misinterpretation that Krishna West is a new, separate movement in competition with ISKCON.
In the meeting, and speaking to ISKCON News afterwards, however, Maharaja clarified that Krishna West is an ISKCON project, designed to serve ISKCON by helping to expand and develop it.
“I’m interested in fulfilling Prabhupada’s vision, which he often expressed to me, that ISKCON become a major world religion, and have significant influence on the history of this planet,” he says.
How Hridayananda Das Goswami aims to do that led to other concerns.
Krishna West Does Not Undermine Srila Prabhupada
ISKCON in India, Hridayananda Maharaja says, is thriving and full of young, enthusiastic devotees and inspiring programs. But in the West, he feels, the metrics for success of the Western mission are currently not good.
“Based on many years of studying world religions, sastra, and Prabhupada’s own statements, I have become personally convinced that in order for ISKCON to become a powerful, relevant, mainstream spiritual force throughout the Western World, we have to achieve a greater level of integration in society,” he says.
The intended integration would involve presenting Krishna consciousness in the West without any of what Maharaja calls its “ethnically Indian” trappings, such as dress, music style, and cuisine.
This approach had been interpreted by some as undermining Srila Prabhupada by saying ISKCON needs a different style of presentation to be successful than the one Prabhupada himself used. Krishna West has also been accused of “changing the philosophy.”
“The clarification from Hridayananda Maharaja was that no, not at all – what Prabhupada did was glorious, incredible, incomparable to anything anyone else has ever done; and now Krishna West is just trying to build on that success, by following Srila Prabhupada’s many examples of innovation” says GBC member Praghosa Das, who was present.
Krishna West Does Not Compromise on “Fundamental Principles”
Hridayananda Maharaja explains further to ISKCON News that during the period of the sixties and seventies when Srila Prabhupada established his movement, Indian gurus and spiritual paths were a major trend, and people were much more receptive to that type of presentation. According to him, this phenomenon ended a long time ago, so a different approach is now needed. Maharaja points to Prabhupada’s own flexibility in presenting Gaudiya Vaishnavism to the Western World as precedent.
“Srila Prabhupada had tremendous agility,” says Hridayananda Maharaja. “He just wanted to get the job done. He said many times that we don’t care about all these external things. And if you study the history of religions, and sociology, Krishna West is doing basically what history shows you have to do if you want to become a major world religion.”
Maharaja quotes chapter six of the Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, in which Rupa Goswami cites the fundamental principles of Bhakti Yoga which cannot be changed, along with details which can be. From Maharaja’s point of view, Krishna West is strictly following Prabhupada’s teachings by remaining uncompromising on the fundamental principles, while changing some details.
“By greater integration into society I don’t mean we should start eating ham sandwiches, or give up sacred marriage as the standard for intimacy between men and women,” he says. “I’m not proposing that we compromise any of our fundamental principles. But I think the way we present ourselves matters a lot. Prabhupada himself urges us, for example in his purport to the Bhagavatam 4.8.54, to take all risks and make all adjustments so that Krishna consciousness is convenient for Western people.”
Hridayananda Maharaja says that Krishna West presents the essence of Srila Prabhupada’s program – chanting Hare Krishna, explaining Bhagavad-gita, and giving people prasadam – but done in a way that “does not require people to become ethnically Indian.”
While there are already several programs in ISKCON that introduce people to Krishna consciousness with a Western presentation, Maharaja says the difference with Krishna West is that it is not “bait and switch.”
“I believe that if we use a Western presentation simply as bait to attract people, and then once they become hooked on Krishna consciousness, we Indianize them – in the West – then, we will never actually have a movement that a lot of people want to join,” he says.
Mutual Respect and Support
While Hridayananda Maharaja obviously has strong ideas on what is needed to revive ISKCON in the Western World, he clarifies that ultimately he just wants ISKCON to become a “powerful, relevant movement” and supports any way that can be done.
“It will be nice if Krishna West can play a major role in that,” he says. “But if other devotees, with some other project, can achieve it, I’ll be delighted. This is just the best that I can do. My ultimate concern is not that my project be successful, but that ISKCON be successful.”
In the joint statement released after the GBC meeting, it is clear that the GBC are willing to work with Hridayananda towards this goal. “The GBC Body and Hridayananda Das Goswami are jointly striving toward a better integration of Krishna West within the general ISKCON preaching strategy,” reads one paragraph.
In doing this, Praghosa of the GBC said there was a general agreement that when attending ISKCON centers, Krishna West advocates would respect the norms and standards of that center, and that likewise all ISKCON devotees would respect the norms and standards at Krishna West programs.
A Common Understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s Position
One other issue discussed at the meeting was the fact that Hridayananda Das Goswami had previously made statements which the GBC felt could be interpreted as undermining Srila Prabhupada’s position. These included Maharaja’s saying that Srila Prabhupada was “culturally conditioned” to explain some of Prabhupada’s more controversial statements.
To rectify any misunderstanding or doubt, the joint statement affirmed a common understanding of Prabhupada’s position: “As a liberated maha-bhagavata, Srila Prabhupada perfectly presented the teachings of Lord Krishna and the previous acaryas,” it reads. “Controversial or paradoxical statements should be understood and explained in a way that shows proper veneration toward Srila Prabhupada and protects his dignity as the Founder-Acarya of ISKCON, and a pure devotee of Lord Krishna.”
Looking Forward to a Positive Future, Free of Criticism
Further cementing the GBC’s faith in Hridayananda Das Goswami, the GBC Body also requested him during the meeting to serve as the co-GBC for Brazil with Dhanvantari Swami. Hridayananda Maharaja’s qualifications for the position include helping develop the movement in Brazil, and working with devotees there for forty-three years.
All in all, Praghosa says, the meeting was successful in its attempts to ease tensions and clarify concerns, particularly Srila Prabhupada’s position as a liberated maha-bhagavata.
“Those were more or less clarified to everyone’s satisfaction,” he says. “So now, we can march on together, working in unison. Hridayananda Maharaja is a very intelligent preacher, and we want him working with us as a fully-fledged part of ISKCON.”
For his part, Hridayananda Maharaja says, “I think what was really needed was for me to just sit down and talk with all the GBC men and women. When people don’t meet each other personally, and they say things about each other, that can lead to all kinds of problems.
“So we had a very good meeting, and it was very encouraging for me. I think there was much more mutual appreciation and understanding amongst ourselves. And at this point, we want to go forward in a very positive way, avoiding criticism, and just see what we can do for Prabhupada.”
Maharaja hopes that the meeting and the reports on it will clear up misconceptions about Krishna West amongst devotees in general too, and that it will “Establish much more clearly and strongly that we are all just one spiritual family trying in various ways to achieve a common purpose.”
As both the GBC and Maharaja continue to pursue a mutually beneficial and encouraging path forward, they also request the assembly of devotees to maintain a respectful attitude towards all involved parties and avoid criticism on either side of the issue.
Jun 25, 2022
Radhapriya Chawla, ISKCON Toronto Communications
Jun 19, 2022
Nrsimhananda das, Devotee Care Committee Member NA