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New Book Looks at Past, Present and Future of ISKCON

By: for ISKCON News on April 19, 2013
"Hare Krishna in the Modern World": the book's cover
A fascinating new book has arrived this March from Arktos Media in the UK.

Hare Krishna in the Modern World, which arrives in the wake of Bhaktivedanta Manor’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, offers an eye-opening look at how ISKCON has changed over the years since it was inaugurated nearly fifty years ago, as well as some insight into how it can remain relevant in the future.

The book is an academic sequel of sorts to the 2007 book “The Hare Krishna Movement: Forty Years of Chant and Change” by authors Dr. Graham Dwyer and Richard J Cole (Radha Mohan Das).

That book came about after Dr. Graham Dwyer, a Research Fellow at Winchester University, finished his PhD in social anthropology in a Hindu community in Rajasthan. Wanting to continue his studies, he visited ISKCON’s Bhaktivedanta Manor, where he met and befriended Radha Mohan Das, the Manor’s communications secretary.

The two decided to collaborate on a book about ISKCON, with Dwyer providing the academic insight and Radha Mohan the insider contacts. As it was 2005, and forty years since the inauguration of ISKCON in New York in 1965, they decided to focus on ISKCON’s past.

With this new book, however, they are filling a gap.

Co-author Dr. Graham Dwyer

“We felt that there was a lack of literature about the present and future of ISKCON,” Radha Mohan says. “It was always looking into the past. Of course, that’s understandable, Prabhupada being the immense figure that he was. But we felt, let’s start to look at the future as well—the next forty years.”

Assembling an impressive roster of scholars both from within and outside of ISKCON, Graham Dwyer and Radha Mohan interviewed them in person for the book.

“We felt that would create a more spontaneous approach,” Radha Mohan says. “Because sometimes the spontaneous quotes can be the most honest. And that’s what we wanted.”

Hare Krishna in the Modern World opens with an introduction by Dwyer and Radha Mohan. This is followed by “Sociological Reflections on the History and

Development of the Hare Krishna Movement” by Professor E. Burke Rochford, who studied ISKCON for many years.

Next, there are interviews with seven different scholars. There’s Dr. Anna King of Winchester University. There’s Julius Lipner, Professor of Hinduism at Cambridge University, who mentored the late ISKCON guru Tamal Krishna Goswami during his PhD work. And there’s Kim Knott, who is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, UK, and has been familiar with ISKCON for many years.

Also interviewed are Kenneth Valpey (Krishna Ksetra Das), an ISKCON guru and Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies; prolific academic author Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Das); and Gita lecturer and George Harrison biographer Joshua M. Greene (Yogesvara Das), who was a key figure in the early days of ISKCON in London, Paris, and the US. Lastly, there’s veteran educator Dr. Edith Best (Urmila Dasi) who balances the book out with the female viewpoint.

Dr. Michael Gressett, who has a PhD specializing in Asian religions and new religious movements at the University of Florida, then wraps up the book in Final Remarks: The Legacy Of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Each scholar is asked roughly the same questions in their interviews, so that each topic gets looked at from several different unique points of view. Dr. Graham Dwyer and Radha Mohan began by asking the scholars about their first impressions of ISKCON, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Co-author Radha Mohan Das

“Because they were academics studying India, people like Anna King or Julius Lipner were already familiar with Hinduism,” Radha Mohan says. “But they hadn’t seen it transported to the West before. Therefore the tendency was to lump ISKCON in with all the other different movements from the East at the time. But as soon as they started scratching the surface, and realized that Prabhupada was a bona fide spiritual master and a bona fide scholar, they started to take it more seriously from an academic perspective.”

The scholars interviewed also discuss how ISKCON evolved over the years, from a focus on monastic life and missionary zeal in the early days, to embracing today what scholars see as the whole social and cultural package that comes with Vaishnavism.

Part of this was becoming a more family-centered community, which scholars like Julius Lipner felt was inevitable and natural, and in fact essential for ISKCON’s survival and financial stability.

It also included embracing the Hindu diaspora across Europe and America, which some critics have seen as a negative development.

Yet scholars interviewed in “Hare Krishna in the Modern World” felt that in accepting that it was part of the wider culture known to many as Hinduism, ISKCON would be recognized more by the mainstream.

“Certainly in countries like the UK, it makes us relevant,” Radha Mohan says. “It gets us into parliament, it gets us into schools, it has an important role to play. For instance at Bhaktivedanta Manor, we’re reaching children in schools and talking to them about Krishna consciousness. Those kids are one day going to be adults.

And those adults in turn will become future journalists, or teachers, or business leaders, or politicians.”

The early days of ISKCON -- devotees celebrate the installation of Sri Sri Radha Gokulananda at Bhaktivedanta Manor on August 21st, 1973

Of course, scholars such as E Burke Rochford also point out that there could be a price to pay—ISKCON is attracting less indigenous people than in the 1970s and 1980s. And thus as as well as seeing the positive side of embracing the Hindu diaspora, we must also remain relevant to indigenous young people in a changing world.

“That means bringing things up to date, not selling it as it was sold in the 1960s,” Radha Mohan says. “It’s important that the leaders of ISKCON get in touch with street level young people and find out what they’re thinking. Because they are the future. And therefore every youth club, every school, every gurukuli has to feel that ISKCON is relevant and practical for them today.”

In this regard, scholars in Hare Krishna in a Modern World discuss the importance of both liberal and conservative viewpoints in keeping ISKCON both relevant, and true to Srila Prabhupada’s original intentions.

They explain that the ISKCON conservatives can be too insular on their own, not embracing the wider society or learning how to reach people in a modern way. For this, they need the liberal minds of ISKCON.

Similarly, the liberals—ISKCON’s second generation and others—can be too soft, lacking boundaries and the kind of orthodox structure that is important. Thus they need the conservatives to keep them clear on what the core essence is, and where to draw the line.

“Sometimes we have extreme views or arguments within ISKCON where people say it has to go this way or that way,” Radha Mohan says. “But actually, any healthy organization needs both the conservatives and the liberals always at odds with each other. That’s good. That’s the sign of a healthy, mature movement.”

Devotees today celebrate the 40th anniversary of Bhaktivedanta Manor

Hare Krishna in the Modern World also discusses another very important topic—women and gender roles in ISKCON.

“There were periods of ISKCON where there was a kind of saffron ceiling, a male dominated culture, and an overemphasis of the monastic element, and thus many women felt excluded,” Radha Mohan says. “All the contributors more or less agreed that this was a thing of the past.”

It was found that although ISKCON is still somewhat male dominated—a man is still more likely to give class in the temple room, and women don’t receive sannyasa—the attitudes of celibate monks and other single males towards women have changed hugely.

This was of course seen as very positive for ISKCON’s future, in reaching out to people who make up fifty per cent of the world’s population.

Finally, Hare Krishna in the Modern World discusses the importance of the Internet in ISKCON’s future. Scholars such as Kim Knott found it interesting that the Internet—a very recent invention—could drastically improve the reach of a religion that dates back to antiquity, particularly as Krishna consciousness is a very visual experience.

Using the Internet, even small temples can have a digital congregation ten to twenty times the size of their physical one. And devotees living far from any temple can have online darshan of the Deity, view a live kirtan or abhishek ceremony, or even donate funds.

The scholars, therefore, felt that it was essential that each ISKCON temple have its own website and embrace digital outreach in order to be prosperous in the future.

All in all, Hare Krishna in the Modern World is sure to be a fascinating read for both scholars and devotees who are interested in how ISKCON got from where it began to where it is today, as well as how it can thrive in the future.

To purchase Hare Krishna in the Modern World, please click here:
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