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ISKCON Leaders Grapple to Define "Who Is A Member?"

By: on Nov. 15, 2009
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After forty years, one thing is clear -- ISKCON needs more clarity on who is a member, and what their rights and obligations are.
Surprisingly, after forty-plus years of existence, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is still not clear on what it means to be one of its "members." Must a member be initiated? A regular participant at temples? A committed donor? Simple as it sounds, the term "member" brings with it various spiritual and social implications, as well as potential legal obligations, both from and to, the society. Thus, it's not surprising that the ISKCON GBC Constitutional Committee and others have recently started to tackle this issue: Who is an ISKCON member?

One recent attempt was made by Sivarama Swami, ISKCON GBC representative for Hungary and initiating guru, who presented his thoughts on the matter in a presentation "What is ISKCON, and who is a member of ISKCON?" at the European Leaders Meeting in October. The feedback to date seems to indicate that the "membership issue" needs delicate handling -- or it may divide more than it unites.

Quoting the Oxford dictionary, Sivarama Swami opened his presentation stating that a society is "A community of people living in a particular country or region and having shared customs, laws and organizations."  Further, he defined ISKCON as a global community of devotees, the members of which have compulsory rights and obligations, just like the members of any other society.

He cited some of these obligations as accepting the GBC as one's ultimate spiritual and managerial authority (in terms of ISKCON issues); being connected to ISKCON's line of authority; accepting initiation from a member of ISKCON -- in other words, chanting sixteen rounds and following the four regulative principles; being subject to the disciplinary and judicial system of ISKCON; giving 10% of one's income to the Society, and not divorcing one's spouse.

"The laws and bylaws of ISKCON determine devotees' values and conduct in all aspects of their lives-work, social status, and spiritual practice and aspiration," Sivarama Swami said in his strongly-worded presentation.

Those who followed such obligations, he said, would have the right to be officially accepted as being connected to Srila Prabhupada in our disciplic succession; reside, serve or be employed at ISKCON temples and farms; engage in leadership positions; perform ceremonies and worship such as giving class, worshipping deities, and becoming a guru; avail of birth, marriage, initiation, or sannyasa rites offered by the Society; and be part of ISKCON initiatives such as schools and education, the Chamber of Commerce, and residence in Mayapur.

Those who did not accept the Society's obligations, Sivarama Swami postured, would not be considered members or enjoy the benefits of full membership. He allowed that these obligations and rights would not conflict with, or minimize, members' individual rights and obligations.

His presentation, available now on electronic media, has raised questions and some indignation from around the devotee world. Some have questioned: Doesn't this definition ignore, or alienate a large percentage of devotees? Isn't Krishna consciousness for everyone? If we don't follow all of the obligations, does that mean we can't have the rights listed? Or are we not even considered ISKCON devotees?

Sivarama Swami anticipated some of the questions that would arise in reaction to his proposal. For instance: What about new devotees or second-generation devotees who do not fully follow the regulative principles or chant sixteen rounds? This simply means they have not made the decision to become a member yet, he said.

Sivarama Swami concluded that his proposal was an initial attempt to clarify who is an ISKCON member and who isn't, and that he didn't have all the answers. But, he hoped his presentation would move the discussion forward.

After forty years, one thing is clear -- ISKCON needs more clarity on who is a member, and what their rights and obligations are. ISKCON News will be following this story as it develops. For now, as some additional food for thought, here is Sivarama Swami's original audio presentation:


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