Mission Drift ISKCON and social welfare

Mission Shift
Artwork by Nataraja Dasa

In 2001, Sripad Jayadavaita Swami gave a lecture series titled “Food for Death”, which is still available on his website at http://www.jswami.info/seminars#food and which examined how prasadam distribution seen by the public as ordinary welfare work affects ISKCON’s core values. Sripad Bhakti Vikasa Swami in his 2011 lectures titled “Some Concerns About ISKCON” and “Further Discussion on Concerns About ISKCON” addresses the same issue Jayadvaita Swami addressed but in a more generalized context that includes other welfare initiatives.[1] Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja in his lectures also addresses what he identifies as fundamental, philosophical differences that have emerged within our society.

As far as social welfare is concerned, the lectures of both Swamis make a common point: the time and resources devotees increasingly give to indirect preaching in the form of welfare work, at the expense of direct preaching, reflects ISKCON’s growing acceptance of karma-kanda as a part of its core mission and, hence, core values.

Mission drift and Vyasa’s dissatisfaction

That as grand a spiritual institution as ISKCON could itself become mundane is not a new idea. In the Bhagavad-gita at the beginning of the 4th chapter, Krishna describes the system of the guru-parampara and how, in the course of time, the succession had been broken and the knowledge of the science of yoga was lost. On some occasions, Srila Prabhupada himself said that ISKCON could be destroyed not by outsiders but by insiders. Such changes are the result of a gradual drift of the disciplic succession away from its original message and mission.

Mission drift usually does not occur suddenly, like some natural disaster. It almost always happens over long stretches of time, over generations. The manner in which it is likely to occur is suggested by Srila Narada Muni in his conversation with Srila Vyasadeva about the reason for Vyasa’s despondency. Narada Muni says,

“Whatever you desire to describe that is separate in vision from the Lord simply reacts, with different forms, names and results, to agitate the mind as the wind agitates a boat which has no resting place. The people in general are naturally inclined to enjoy, and you have encouraged them in that way in the name of religion. This is verily condemned and is quite unreasonable. Because they are guided under your instructions, they will accept such activities in the name of religion and will hardly care for prohibitions” (SB 1.5.14 – 15).

With regard to mission drift, Narada’s statement is relevant in these two respects:

  1. Describing reality without connection to the vision of the Lord agitates people’s minds.
  2. Where Krishna is not directly and sufficiently glorified, conditioned human nature all but guarantees a perverse outcome.

The first attribute would correspond to an absence of direct reference to Krishna in any stated purpose or description of the activity itself. For example, in the Gita itself Lord Krishna criticizes the pretentious followers of the Vedas known as veda-vada-ratah, who take the various rituals and sacrifices offered in the Vedas as ends to worldly enjoyment. They perform religious acts that are disconnected from krishna-bhakti, because, as Narada suggests, the connection between the acts and the Lord are not obvious.

It may be said that indirect worship of the Lord can be performed with the expectation of making spiritual progress as long as the performer himself remembers the true connection. But the second attribute in Narada’s statement explains why that almost never happens. Because people in general are inclined to material enjoyment (especially in Kali Yuga), their perverse nature predisposes them to forget the original purpose of such indirect worship of the Lord and give up the regulative principles that must also be followed in the course of its performance.

A view of the world separate in vision from the Lord need not be totally separate to cause people to gradually become disinterested in religion. The disjuncture may be partial. Vyasadeva’s former works that left him dissatisfied were not devoid of krishna-katha. The Mahabharata, after all, features Krishna and the Bhagavad-gita itself. So how could it lead to dissatisfaction? As stated by Narada, Vyasa gave too much emphasis to pious activities and not enough to bhakti. “Although, great sage, you have very broadly described the four principles beginning with religious performances, you have not described the glories of the Supreme Personality, Vasudeva” (SB 1.5.9). Vyasadeva was trying to gradually purify people by dovetailing their propensity for enjoyment into religious activity. Yet that did not have the effect Vyasa intended. As stated in the purport to this verse,

“The prompt diagnosis of Sri Narada is at once declared. The root cause of the despondency of Vyasadeva was his deliberate avoidance of glorifying the Lord in his various editions of the Puranas. He has certainly, as a matter of course, given descriptions of the glories of the Lord (Sri Krsna) but not as many as given to religiosity, economic development, sense gratification and salvation.”

Again, symptoms that one’s spiritual program has the same problem identified by Narada include emphasis of its alleged material benefits while speaking minimally about its spiritual benefits. It is like basing a large-scale preaching program on telling people that Krishna’s holy names “recharges your batteries”, gives you peace of mind, while hardly speaking about their true spiritual benefit.

Although the above criticism of spiritual activity devoid of proper understanding is put forward by Shri Narada himself, one may still question whether proper understanding is even necessary. For example, saying “Hare Krishna” in a mocking or derisive way to taunt devotees will nevertheless purify the person who utters Krishna’s name in this way. This is an example of ajnata-sukrti. Valmiki Muni is the quintessential example of how transcendental activity performed unintentionally nevertheless has the same transcendental effect as if it were performed intentionally. This is also Sukadeva Goswami’s point in narrating the Ajamila moksha-lila. Like medicine, the potency of Lord’s holy name does not depend on the understanding of the person who hears or utters it. The same can be said of Krishna prasadam.

So then it may be asked what harm is there in clandestinely distributing Krishna prasadam to the masses, as if one were conducting yet another mundane welfare program popular among the karmis? The expected outcome is that the karmis give us their money and good will, we give them prasadam, they get purified, and we expand the Krishna consciousness movement. It sounds like a win-win-win-win situation. What could possibly go wrong with it?

The key assumption made here is that devotees will maintain a level of purity sufficient to keep themselves from falling into materialistic consciousness while engaging in activity that purposefully avoids krishna-katha. The time one spends extolling the perceived material benefits of prasadam (which you call food now, not prasadam) is time spent NOT glorifying Krishna. One is not engaging in krishna-katha while one is trying to avoid describing Krishna. Distributing prasadam while not presenting it in relation to Krishna has the same kind of problem Narada pointed out to Vyasa. Although it is prasadam that is being distributed, it is not presented in relation to the Lord. For this reason the devotees will not be able to maintain for long the requisite level of purity required of such a clandestine effort to distribute prasadam to be successful. This is why Srila Prabhupada insisted that prasadam distribution be accompanied by kirtana.

It may be further objected that although some people are too neophyte to engage in any service other than direct hearing and chanting of the Lord’s names and pastimes, the devotees distributing prasadam in the guise of worldly food relief are strong enough in their own devotional service such that they will not fall down. This is not true. As Srila Prabhupada explains in the Nectar of Instruction (Text 5),

“The Krsna consciousness movement prescribes sixteen rounds daily because people in the Western countries cannot concentrate for long periods while chanting on beads. Therefore the minimum number of rounds is prescribed. However, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati used to say that unless one chants at least sixty-four rounds of japa (one hundred thousand names), he is considered fallen (patita). According to his calculation, practically every one of us is fallen, but because we are trying to serve the Supreme Lord with all seriousness and without duplicity, we can expect the mercy of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who is famous as patita-pavana, the deliverer of the fallen.”

If already it is admitted that 16 rounds of japa plus the 4 regulative principles are still deficient in terms of quantity of sravanam and kirtanam, and if, according to Srila Prabhupada’s assessment above, quotidian devotional service makes up for that deficiency, then a preaching program deficient in sravanam and kirtanam means that the devotees will not get sufficient spiritual support from their daily activities. They will lose their taste for spiritual life in the way that Narada describes to Vyasa.

Some examples of preaching disconnected from krishna-katha

In his lecture, Bhakti Vikasa Swami reminisces about how in the 1980s devotees started selling non-devotional paintings and other paraphernalia to accumulate money. This money would then be spent for preaching purposes. The collection program and the direct preaching program were separate.

The result? Devotees lost their taste for spiritual life, and the program proved unsustainable. As Maharaja points out, the best-selling paintings were pictures of dogs. They were “selling pictures of Dog, not God.” It is not that the money was not being used for preaching purposes. It was. Yet in the end the program proved unsustainable.

We also find in Srila Prabhupada’s letters similar, cautionary reminders to his disciples that selling incense is not their primary business. “Attention diverted to incense business is not a very good sign. We should give all our energy for distributing BTG” (Letter to Satsvarupa 21/6/1971). ISKCON has first-hand experience with the dissatisfying nature of activity in which sankirtana is at best a secondary objective.

Mid Day Meals lacking krishna-katha, lacking kirtana.

What makes something a secondary objective as opposed to a primary objective? Consider the Sunday Feast. Contrary to what the name implies, the primary objective of the Sunday Feast is not to give people prasadam. The primary objective is to give people a chance to hear krishna-katha. The secondary objective is to give people prasadam. Of course, prasadam is a necessary part of the program, as prasadam is directly the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, Himself. It is His mercy. Yet distributing prasadam is not the primary objective. We use it as an incentive to get people to come to our centers to hear our lectures. The emphasis of our program and hence its primary objective is on the propagation of krishna-katha. It is more important than any other aspect of our mission.

Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja in his lecture notes not only the lack of krishna-katha in the Mid Day Meals program but also that it is advertised as having mundane, not spiritual, objectives.

“The advertising for the Mid Day Meals program if you see their brochures is that ‘we’re helping to build the nation’, and that appeals to people. We’re helping to ‘build the nation’ by getting the children educated, giving them a good future. But that’s against our philosophy. The idea of ‘building the nation’ is totally mundane.”

Maharaja further notes how in India the India Regional Governing Body had dealt with the question of what may be considered appropriate and inappropriate in distributing prasadam, and one of the requirements they came up with was that it must at least be accompanied by kirtana and lectures. Yet the lack of devotees available to conduct kirtana and the secular Indian government interfere with this requirement.

The first problem, which Jaydvaita Maharaja also mentions in his own lectures, is that in the places where the Mid Day Meals program is conducted on a substantial scale, there is nowhere near enough devotees that can perform kirtana at each of the places where prasadam is distributed. Kirtana performers cannot be hired like bus drivers. So the prasadam gets cooked and dropped off at the schools and presented as if it were any other mundane meal.

Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja raises the question of whether Krishna is reciprocating in a way devotees running Mid Day Meals haven’t anticipated. What might happen if, for example, instead of our pujaris worshipping the Deities in the temple we hire non-devotee brahmanas to worship Them? Maharaja asks, “Is it prasada?” If a murti of Krishna is handled negligently, is Krishna still obliged to remain there as murti? Some of the same considerations seem applicable in the case of prasadam.

The second problem has to do with the secular Indian government, or secular governments wherever they exist. But in India in particular, in some places the government will not allow kirtana and lectures because whatever is given to the children or poor through the government must be strictly food relief. Religious elements are not always allowed. And for that reason kirtana and lecture would also not allowed.

And because devotees have collected extensively for these programs, it is nearly impossible to withdraw from places that disallow kirtana. Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja in his lecture gives the example of the day school on the ISKCON Juhu property, where, after some time, the devotees there saw how the school itself was taking up time and resources for no spiritual end, and it was not producing devotees anyway. But when they tried to close down the school, the parents and students objected, and now the temple has to raise huge amounts of money to relocate the school outside of the temple campus. Thus the devotees who run these programs will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to reconnect the Mid Day Meals program with kirtana.

Embracing karma-kanda within ISKCON

Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja raises a more serious issue: that the Mid Day Meals program is advertised as fulfilling purposes that are against the philosophy Srila Prabhupada taught. This is an example from the “Who Are We?” page of ISKCON Food Relief Foundation’s Delhi Mid Day Meals website:

“ISKCON Food Relief Foundation is a Non-Religious, Non-Sectarian, and Not-for Profit Charitable Trust” (http://www.delhimdm.com/whoweare.php).

The website’s vision page (http://www.delhimdm.com/vision_m.php) makes it even more self-evident that the prasadam distribution program embraces objectives opposed to ISKCON’s original core mission (bolding added).

Vision: Removing hunger and upscaling learning opportunities for underprivileged children

Mission: ISKCON Food Relief Foundation works with Government to provide hygienically cooked, balanced, nutritious, wholesome Mid-Day Meal food to children in municipal and government aided schools in India to improve access to good food and promote education.

Philosophy: ISKCON Food Relief Foundation believes that food is a fundamental right. Inadequate nutrition not only affects physical, mental, and emotional health of children adversely but also restricts their learning ability, development opportunities and effective participation in the community.

We believe that a simple way of breaking the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty is by providing them regular and nutritious food and this fulfills ISKCON’s mission.

Goals: 1. To promote the provision of distribution of sanctified meals all over the India; and 2. To promote food system education;

This is Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja’s response to examples like the one above:

The idea of “building the nation” is totally mundane. It is the idea that we will “build the nation” by having more people educated so they can become lawyers, doctors, or more likely become factory workers. It is also the idea that we are helping children to improve their life, and that’s also mundane. And that we want to help develop the present modern society. . .

But that wasn’t Prabhupada’s welfare program at all.  His social welfare program was to develop varnashram communities where people don’t have to live in this demonic society. That was Prabhupada’s welfare program.

It wasn’t that Prabhupada was callous to social welfare, but he wanted to do so through varnashram and varnashram education—that people will be educated according to their role in varnashram. So the advertising for Mid Day Meals is totally mundane.

And you may say it is just a way to induce people to give a donation for it, but the problem is that, when we start talking like this, our people go out and speak to the public, they meet businessmen and tell them, “OK, we’re helping hungry children, and building the nation. . .”, and you keep repeating it and saying it again and again and again, you start to think like that yourself. And instead of following Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s order jare dekha tare kaha krishna upadesh, you’re going to people to talk about mundane things. It changes the whole atmosphere of ISKCON.

Maharaja’s argument echoes the same point that Narada Muni made to Vyasadeva.

How the fall from suddhabhakti to karma-misra-bhakti takes place

Jayadvaita Maharaja in his own lecture series argues similarly, except that he follows through with his argument to its logical conclusion, which is the mixing of karma-kanda with bhakti:

There is a problem, or downside to that, apart from whether or not you’re actually doing something that you are supposed to be doing, or that you are authorized by Srila Prabhupada, by a Founder-Acharya to do. You have this problem:

First you say, “We’re going to make a strategy here. We’re going to do something charitable, and people are going to give us their appreciation. We understand that it is not really our business, but we’re going to do it, and people are going to see that we’re doing it, and that’s going to help us in our main business. We’re going to be able to distribute more books, people will give us more facility, and so on.” That is stage one.

Stage two is that as you start to get appreciation and as you preach to the devotees that this is what we’re going to do, the next stage two comes. That is, devotees start thinking that we really are doing something here, which is our mission. That really, “We are doing good work here. Really, we’re fulfilling Prabhupada’s mission. We’re helping the needy. We’re saving people afflicted by disaster.” That’s stage two, to the point where if anyone says, “Well, Prabhu, you know, this is not . . .”, then you’ll start getting heavy letters saying, “Don’t you know there are sincere devotees working all over the world, dedicating themselves, risking their lives. . .” That’s stage two—this IS our mission.

And stage three, four, five comes when you reach the mature stage, like the Salvation Army. I don’t know how they’re known in England, in America, when you have junk, that you would dispose of, rather than take it to the dump, you call the Salvation Army. And they cart away your old clothes, old furniture, old whatever-it-is, and distribute it to the poor. Or the St. Vincent DePaul Society. There are various organizations. . .

I knew of that organization. I used to see their trucks with the big shield on it, when I was a child, a boy. And I don’t think I was younger than about 20 before I found out that they had any sort of spiritual component to them. They are in fact a Christian missionary organization, they do have a message about Jesus and salvation and so on. But I had no idea what it was, and in fact, because in my tradition the word “salvation” is not a big term, as far as I understood “salvation” meant picking up your old garbage and carting it away, and that’s “salvage.”

So in the mature stage, you finally reach the point where even your leaders of your organization believe that this is your mission. The leaders of your organization, the theologians, the priests, believe that this is what Jesus, or this is what Jehova, or this is what Lord Chaitanya wanted us to do. And at that point, what is the distinction between you and a karma-kanda organization?

What is the distinction between you and the Red Cross or the Red Crescent Society? Now that you are doing the work of all these charitable societies, who is doing your work? Who is there to preach renunciation? Who is there to preach that you’re not this body? Who is there to preach that you should turn your back on material enjoyment and go back home, back to Godhead, now that you’re busy fully dedicated to the urgent mission of uplifting the afflicted people of the poorer classes of this material world, so they can have a decent life, who is going to do that other work?

Though Jayadvaita Maharaja focuses more on the end result—the establishment of karma-kanda as one of ISKCON’s core values—he and Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja make the fundamental point that because welfare activities like the Mid Day Meals program is promoted in a mundane way and in ways that stand against our long-held siddhantas, the transformation of ISKCON into yet another mundane religious institution is not merely a remote, theoretical possibility. It is likely.

And now, perhaps inevitable.

Some Quotes from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura on Altruism and Charity

From Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava, page 421:

The thousands of karmis who have opened innumerable hospitals, old age homes, centers for the poor, and schools, and the thousands of jnanis who have undergone meditation and severe austerities, are insignificant compared to a single kanishta-adhikari Vaishnava once ringing the bell before the Lord’s deity. This is not sectarianism, but plain truth. Atheists are wholly incapable of realizing this; thus they become either direct or indirect blasphemers of devotional service, or adherents to the doctrine of harmonistic all-inclusiveness (Amrta Vani 102 – 3; Sri Srila Prabhupadera Upadesamrta 174).

Being averse to Lord Visnu, countless jivas have come to Maha-maya’s dungeon to envy Lord Visnu in countless ways. To deliver teven one of them from Maha-maya’s fortress and make him a devotee of Krsna is unlimitedly better welfare work than the construction of countless hospitals and schools (Sri Srila Prabhupadera Upadesamrta 286).

Krishna-bhakti is the only way to deracinate miseries from the world. You are working only for the good of the body and treating the symptoms, not the original disease. Your patchwork schemes of various social, economic, and political ideologies are like blowing on a boil, which gives but a momentary and false sense of assuagement. The real cure is to lance the boil and squeeze out the pus. Similarly, the pus of material attachment must be excised by the sharp words of the expert devotee, the only genuine well-wisher of human society (Jati Sekhara Prabhu, disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura).

[Article originally published on 30 October 2011 at the Sampradaya Sun website]

End Notes

[1] Both lectures by Bhakti Vikasa Swami are available here:

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