The following in no way purports to be conclusive. Rather it aims to stimulate discussion that may continue for many months or years before definitive statements are formulated.
Fingerprints, voiceprints, snowflake and leaf patterns are unique. People are unique.
Soldiers, activists, businessmen, criminals, and tribals have different mentalities. But at the same time, there is a common thread. They're all human, they all live and die, and they have skin, hair, minds and stomachs.
They are different, but they’re also one.
The concept of unity in diversity is not new. There are historical roots. According to sociologist Roxanne Lalonde, the idea “…has been implicit in the organic conceptions of the universe that have been manifest since the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations through medieval Europe and into the Romantic era."
Several countries, including India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and South Africa have officially adopted the slogan “Unity in Diversity.”
The UK government advertises that it is “Celebrating Diversity.”
In 2000, the European Union (EU) adopted the phrase as its official motto (Latin: In varietate concordia). According to EU documents, the phrase means that Europeans are united in “working together for peace and prosperity, and that the many different cultures, traditions and languages in Europe are a positive asset for the continent.”
It’s interesting to note that the principal slogan of the Coca-Cola company for many years had been “Think globally, act locally" and that it is now “Think locally, act locally.”
What’s interesting here is that Coca-Cola, one of the first and still one of the largest global companies, has always, and continues to be, tightly controlled from its international headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. This is Coke's convoluted way of adopting unity in diversity.
So even though the soft drink giant promotes itself as locally oriented, it still maintains consistency throughout the world -- a common name, a common logo and a common taste (ugh).
The United Nations (UN) is a glowing example of diversity gone mad. Millions of people have died in communal and nationalistic violence, despite UN efforts to keep the peace and achieve international friendship and unity.
As a USA schoolchild in 1955 – a decade after the UN was formed -- I remember obligatorily diving under my desk when the air-raid drill siren sounded.
Atrocities continue, notwithstanding lofty proclamations for humanity to embrace peace and love. “Make love, not war” was a famous adage for the hippies of the 1960's.
And the United States of America? Many will scoff at the very name. Still in all, that county, although its empire status is on the way down, had for about two hundred years maintained a modicum of unity in diversity. That nation's federal and state governments operated cooperatively with minimal conflict.
More enlightened versions of the unity in diversity principle, eschew uniformity in unity and fragmentation in diversity. But that’s academic and sort of new age-ish.
How does unity in diversity apply to ISKCON?
In a 1973 letter to Kirtanananda, Srila Prabhupada wrote, “…but if we keep Krishna in the center, then there will be agreement in varieties. This is called unity in diversity. I am therefore suggesting that all our men meet in Mayapura every year during the birth anniversary of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. With all GBC and senior men present we should discuss how to make unity in diversity.”
Lord Krishna reminds us that becoming attached to one’s land of birth is unintelligent (Srimad Bhagavatam [10.84.13]).
Srila Prabhupada wrote about the “peace formula” being embedded in the Bhagavad-gita (5.29). He said that if people would only realize that God (Krishna) is the ultimate owner of all lands that “Peace and prosperity” would be “the immediate worldwide result.” (SSR).
In the purport to Caitanya Caritamrta (CC, Madhya-lila 6.163), Srila Prabhupada writes, “According to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s philosophy of acintya-bhedabheda-tattva, the living entity and the Supreme Lord are accepted as one and different at the same time.”
In the Sanskrit language, the word acintya is generally defined as “inconceivable.”
In The Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says, “By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (9.4) and “The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts… (15.7)
Such thoughts may be “inconceivable,” but that does not mean that those in learned circles should not discuss them. When such topics arise in august assemblies, the deliberation is known as istaghosthi.
One way to understand such scriptural references is to remember that the living soul is always linked with the Supreme Lord, and yet at the same time is not the same as God.
In many ways, ISKCON is becoming increasingly diverse. Some of the many examples of this variety include the growing number of offerings from “other sources” in the global Vyasa Puja book, the different ISKCON restaurant names, logos, and menus, the varying styles of ISKCON temple architecture as well as the variety in ISKCON poetry, dance, prose, music, fine art, sculpture, drama, websites, cinema, life-styles and youth and children’s activities. Also, approaches to education, the environment, interfaith, health, technology, and finances are – within ISKCON -- many and varied.
However, there is unity among ISKCON temples: they smell the same, their Deity worship is the same, their mood is the same, and their books are the same.
Moreover, all ISKCON temples are based on the teachings of founder-acarya Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s "pre-eminent siksa guru." For the most part, he is revered as the person upon whom ISKCON is founded and is for all intents and purposes regarded as the fundamental teacher of ISKCON's philosophy. Therefore, all ISKCON devotees embrace the same basic philosophical and metaphysical principles.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I had several personal encounters with ISKCON’s founder. As I wrote in the Foreword to The Science of Self-Realization, “Srila Prabhupada was not just another oriental scholar, guru, mystic, yoga teacher, or meditation instructor. He was the embodiment of a whole culture, and he implanted that culture in the West. To me and many others he was first and foremost someone who truly cared, who completely sacrificed his own comfort to work for the good of others. He had no private life, but lived only for others. He taught spiritual science, philosophy, common sense, the arts, languages, the Vedic way of life—hygiene, nutrition, medicine, etiquette, family living, farming, social organization, schooling, economics—and many more things to many people. To me he was a master, a father, and my dearmost friend.”
Srila Prabhupada taught me how to play the harmonium and the mridanga. He personally told me that when Britain ruled India, the Englishmen “patted” Gandhi, who in many ways didn't precipitate the violent anti-British rebellion of 1947. In personal encounters, Srila Prabhupada systematically destroyed many of my heroes, including Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
There is a universal sense of unity among all life forms. Every being is related to God. It is said in the Caitanya Caritamrta, “Pure love for Krishna is eternally established in the hearts of the living entities. It is not something to be gained from another source. When the heart is purified by hearing and chanting, this love naturally awakens.” (CC, Madhya-lélä 22.107)
This unity co-exists with the fact that each of us is unique. We all are similar to one another and at the same time eternally different.
In corporate, governmental and other organizational environments, differing forces are often in conflict. The conservative versus the liberal is ever-present. This presents great difficulty for ISKCON administration.
Some feel that ISKCON’s diversity will continue, and that this is normal, healthy, expected and to be welcomed. Others think that this tendency is dangerous, divisive and that it inevitably leads to unwholesome fragmentation and alliances with mayä, the illusory energy that pervades most countries.
Achieving unity in a diverse global setting is problematic. In today’s world, languages, traditions, conventions and mentalities differ widely. Where a central headquarters cannot establish its authority over its “divisions” by financial control, a huge challenge surfaces, not only for ISKCON, but also for all non-for-profit organizations.
“Unity in diversity,” already exists in ISKCON, but for many, genuine unity is becoming alarmingly distant.
Becoming “too liberal” is sometimes regarded as too diverse. Sometimes so-called liberality became extreme. For example, in the 1980’s one prominent ISKCON temple exhibited a life-size Deity of Jesus Christ (it has subsequently been removed). ISKCON’s current "love affair” with the yoga and kirtana trends is sometime seen as divisive and polluting. Maybe this is so, but maybe not. This is a somewhat controversial topic.
Where does one draw the line? Is the yukta vairagya principle being compromised?
There are those ISKCON members who now feel estranged, alienated and/or uncared-for. This type of diversity has not brought about a state of tranquility for numerous initiated ISKCON members.
“Unity in diversity” is often an attractive-sounding phrase or a facile slogan that eclipses a lack of proper administration. It can be a deceitfully alluring maxim that invites one into a warm and cozy cocoon.
And then there is the opinion that an enlightened state of unity in diversity cannot be achieved in the present age.
Some members of ISKCON feel that nothing should be done and that nothing needs to be done. A section from a purport (Srimad Bhagavatam 4.30.8) is interesting and instructive in this regard. The passage reads as follows:
“…The unity of the individual souls attempting to satisfy the Supreme Lord or rendering service to the Lord is real unity. In the material world such unity is not possible. Even though people may officially unite, they all have different interests. In the United Nations, for instance, all the nations have their particular national ambitions, and consequently they cannot be united. Disunity between individual souls is so strong within this material world that even in a society of Krishna consciousness, members sometimes appear disunited due to their having different opinions and leaning toward material things. Actually, in Krishna consciousness there cannot be two opinions. There is only one goal: to serve Krishna to one's best ability. If there is some disagreement over service, such disagreement is to be taken as spiritual. Those who are actually engaged in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead cannot be disunited in any circumstance…”
It is difficult – some would say impossible -- for any organization to achieve a truly benevolent form of “unity in diversity.”
Srila Prabhupada wrote in a Srimad Bhagavatam purport “By pleasing the Supreme Personality of Godhead, a devotee can achieve even the impossible.” (4.8.37)
The late Sridhar Swami once told us, "If it’s difficult, it will take a long time: if it’s impossible, it’ll take a little longer."