This Valentine’s Day seems a good time to consider booking a spot at ISKCON’s first “Vaishnava Marriage and Family Fest,” hosted at the Festival of Inspiration in New Vrindaban, West Virginia this May 8 – 10 by the Grihastha Vision Team (GVT), a group of professional marriage and family educators and therapists.
GVT husband and wife teams will teach a selection of workshops on how to choose a healthy mate, resolve conflict in family life, communicate effectively, and forgive your partner. “This is often where people get stymied in moving forward,” explains GVT member and certified family life educator Krishnanandini Dasi. “Things happen, and we’re not able to forgive or be forgiven, which stops us being able to make progress together.”
A youth panel, aged 18 – 30, will get the chance to discuss their concerns about grihasta (married) life at the event, including current challenges and issues from the past that may disturb them.
The lighter side of things will be left to Festival of Inspiration regulars Yadhunatha and his wife Beth, whose comedy sketches and stand-up will showcase the practical realities of marriage and family life.
But the event’s highlight will be a ceremony in which Vaishnava couples who have been married at least twelve years and are currently in a healthy marriage -- healthy doesn’t mean you have to be perfect, jokes Krishnanandini – will be honored and awarded certificates in appreciation of their commitment and steadfastness.
The Grihasta Vision Team will further honor a select five couples who are seen by their children and community as outstanding examples of a healthy grihasta relationship by inducting them into the Vaishnava Marriage and Family Hall of Appreciation. Each year, new members will be inducted into the Hall, and their names added to the GVT website as well as a yet unspecified physical location.
ISKCON devotees’ responses to the idea have been mostly enthusiastic, although some oppose it as incongruent with Prabhupada’s vision. Arguments run along the lines of: “If you’ve been married for thirty years, isn’t it about time you renounced it all and took sannyasa rather than being honored for it?”
“For the most part, we don’t have a set up like in the old times when there was community support for renunciants,” Krishnanandini responds. “So if a couple stays together, is Krishna conscious, and helps each other in preaching and being exemplary, then we see that as equally powerful, if not more so, than taking sannyasa.”
She adds that many young people tell her it’s important for them to see good examples. “It gives them hope,” she says. “These devotees have set examples for others, shown that a healthy marriage is possible, and I think they need to be recognized for their contribution to healthy community life.”
According to Krishnanandini, despite the strong spiritual foundation ISKCON relationships automatically inherit, there’s still a lot of work to be done. “In our history, the grihasta ashrama was often seen in an unfavorable light and talked about negatively – it’s almost as if people felt ashamed or guilty to be in it,” she explains. “So now we have to contend with those old paradigms, which, when you examine them, are not really Krishna conscious.”
Krishnanandini realized that devotees were taking the idea of being materially detached too far back in 1972, just after she had joined ISKCON. “I had begun to notice that many of the people I invited to the temple didn’t return,” she recalls. “Then one day, a visitor asked me, ‘Is anyone here married?’ Surprised, I replied, ‘Yes, most of us.’ She said, ‘Wow, you’d never know it.’ She said she felt so uncomfortable at the temple – she wanted to be part of a religion were families were important.”
Contrary to some misunderstandings, a look at Vaishnava scriptures reveal deep loving relationships between devotees. “We need to understand how to care for each other in a loving way and still make spiritual progress, and not see the two as contradictory,” says Krishnanandini. “Affection is a need of the spirit soul. And while we may not show much physical affection in public, there should still be an aura of care and concern. A look here, a question there, checking on your children or wife or husband – and not feeling that that’s not a spiritual thing to do. We need to reflect loving, healthy relationships so that people know they can be a part of ISKCON and still have their sense of family and have their emotional needs met.”
In a world where family, marriage and spirituality are thrown by the wayside, and the divorce rate is over 50%, setting good examples for healthy marriage is one of the best ways for ISKCON devotees to reach the public. “If we can take this wonderful spiritual foundation that Prabhupada has given us and use it to sow healthy, loving grihasta families that take care of each other, people will knock on our door to ask us how we do it,” Krishnanandini says.
The GVT will continue their mission after the Vaishnava Marriage and Family Fest with a planned set of weekend retreats where couples can share their concerns and get helpful tips about strengthening their relationships in an environment of education and group activity. Another future initiative aims to train healthy couples that have been married at least eight years to mentor other, younger, couples. And the GVT will soon add a more interactive online educational resource to their website vaisnavafamilyresources.org, allowing devotees to ask questions of their experienced counselors.