Is institutionalization alien to Vedic culture? Did Gaudiya acharyas import if from Christianity ?
Question: Is the institutionalization that is there in ISKCON is not vedic ? Is it something that imported from Christianity with its institutionalized churches?
A: The very simplistic way of analyzing how tradition works. First of all institutionalization is a necessary part of every culture and there was institutionalizations with in the Indian traditions long before the Britishers came to India. Shankaracharya had his akadas and Buddhists had their monasteries. Buddhism itself is very well organized that the monasteries had very very systematically organized. In response to that Shankaracharya also very well organized the advaita very systematically and the response to that even the vedanta acharya had organized very systematically. In terms of Vaishnava vedanta acharyas, the personalistic vedanta acharyas like Ramanuja acharya, Madhava Acharya , they all organized things systematically and they also made succession plans and the organization was not just a part of Buddhism Advaitism and vedantic vaishnavism but even before that if we see the kind of Brahmanical culture that was there in India. There were hierarchies of priests in the sacrifice to perform. In the Rig veda itself it is said that there will be a priest for this and there is a priest for this and there will be a priest for that. There is a quite a lot of organization involved. Institutionalization itself is not a western concept. It is very much there in Indian tradition. No w the specific way in which the institutionalization is done may vary according to time, place and circumstance. That is just a natural part of institution run in relevant to its times. So yes, in GV itself there was not much institutionalization prior to Bhakti Vinod Thakur generally. Before that CMP himself is not an institution organizer. Although he empowered people and he delegated them with different missions. If we say in terms of institutionalization, we can say there are soft institutionalization, medium institutionalization and hard institutionalization. Soft institutionalization means it is a broad overall agreement of theology and practice of principles and practices. There is a wide variety, so we will see that the way the Kirtans evolved in Bengal and the way the Kirtan evolved in Oriya. There were some differences and that was perfectly acceptable. The goal is to glorify Krishna. Glorifying Krishna as revealed by CMP. By the time Bhaktivinoda Thakura, the things had changed substantially, because the Britishers had gained power and there was systematic attack on the institutions of Vedic culture, by both Christian missionaries and British Rationalists. The Christian missionary wanted to Christianize India and the British rationalists wanted to rationalize India. So either way the point is that the Vedic culture was under severe attack. When it was under severe attack, they understood this it is important to defend it. Just as a army is attacking in a particular way the counter attack is also should be in a way that will defend against attack. If the army is attacking with arrows and the defending army fights with swords . Swords will not reach out where the arrows were reaching and the defending army will be destroyed. So at that time when the British came to India they were quite organized. Within the Bengali tradition there was a renaissance and in that Bengali Renaissance there is a lot of change that has happened in Bengal in India at that time. That was how the tradition should be understood and how the tradition has to be presented. The contemporary spiritual teachers at that time, they took the responsibility of presenting and representing the tradition in a way that would be intelligible and defensible and appealing to their contemporary audience. So Bhaktivinoda Thakura,BST and Srila Prabhupada were present in those formative years of what has become modern Hinduism now. Yes, Bhaktivinoda Thakura did envision the structure of Namahatta and that was for the systematic propagation of holy names. Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s structure was although conceptually very deep but in terms of implementation Bhaktivinoda Thakura was a grihasta with lot of responsibility, a legal as well as familial. So it was a very loose institutionalization structure. BST was the person who build the Gaudiya Math. He created an institutional framework which did a phenomenal outreach. But BST also was bold. Now as I said because of the forces opposing Dharma and criticizing Dharma were heavily critical. So it is essential to counter them. Using similar institutionalization and that’s what acharyas did. But institutionalization always has the possibility of degenerating into evil. Instead of focussing on the purpose of the institution is made and focus on the periphery. Yes, there is hierarchy, there is power which will be centralized in some people, but the purpose of that power is effective dissemination of the knowledge and spiritual culture. But sometimes the people becomes power hungry and they focus on the power but not on the purpose of that power or rather they misuse the power. Instead of fulfilling the purpose of glorifying the Lord, they often rather glorify themselves. This can happen in any institution. BST himself has alerted us, alerted his followers saying in his famous lecture talking about Putana. He said just as Putana came to kill Krishna, there are mundane institutionalization while coming in the garb of a nurse meant to nourish the devotion can well poison devotion. That’s why one has to be very careful. Srila Prabhupada he himself build this institution and he himself quite strongly identified with this institution. He said ISKCON is my body. He also taught us that we are not these bodies. ISKCON is his body means there are two things, when we are existing in this world we cannot live without a body. But while we need a body to function in the world, still we are not the body. We have to remember that also. Similarly while practicing Krishna consciousness, Bhakti, without the institution of ISKCON, the worldwide propagation of Bhakti that happened would not have happened. The very fact that it has happened indicates that there is a special amount of the Bhakti involved. This is the special structure that enabled the decision of Bhakti. The body is there so that we can do our Bhakti and we can do our service. But sometimes that we become so bodily conscious that we start serving the body instead of serving with the body. So similarly it can happen that instead of using the institution to share wisdom, we can just focus on the institution and focus on trying to use the institution to glorify oneself and it can become a battle for ego, prestige and position and unfortunately it has happened in the movement. The way to deal with that is by purifying our purpose, it is not rejecting the institution. Without the form it will be very difficult for us to individually to maintain our Bhakti. Essentially what is a institution? Institution is a group of like minded people coming together and creating the infrastructure and facilities for pursuing their joint interest. So if we consider all of our individual Bhakti as a trickle of water, coming down from the mountain to the ocean of Krishna. Just as Kunti Maharani says, ” let my consciousness flow towards you Krishna”. So our individual Bhakti is like a trickle which is moving towards Krishna. This trickle if it has to move all the way from mountain towards ocean it will get evaporated, trapped or lost along the way. But if many may trickles or rivulets of water if they come together, they form a river. Then that river can move forcefully through various obstacles towards the ocean. So essentially an institution is just like that. There are different people with some spiritual urges who come together and the combined energy of the of those spiritual energies become forceful and they all inspire each other to move forward towards Krishna. So if we forget the purpose, why we have come, the purpose that should be motivating and moving us in our life towards Krishna and we thinking that I have to practice to gain position, I have to be in power, I have to become a councilor, I have to become a preacher, I have to become a temple president, I have to become this, I have to become that, if we become power conscious and position conscious then we become not the Krishna consciousness. This is the danger that is there. But the way to deal with the danger is by purification of intent. Not by rejection of form. If we reject the form then we will not have the benefit that the form this structure provides in terms of living as a systematic venue for channelizing our devotional aspirations. Even within an institution rather than focusing on structure or the form of the institution we focus on the purpose of the institution. If we focus on the fact that we are meant to love and serve Krishna and if we come together in the association of devotees to glorify Krishna. Then we can move onwards steadily in our Spiritual life. The sangha of devotees will inspire us, will help us to move onwards. So rather than accusing the Krishna conscious movement of having imported something from Christianity, we should recognize the system itself is a dynamic blend of what is received from the tradition and what is applied from the contemporary culture so that the message in the tradition’s culture can be used to be presented to the world. It’s not that Christianity has monopoly on the institutionalization, as I said the institutionalization was there in our tradition itself and our traditions were aware of the dangers of the institutionalization and our tradition has guided us on how to take care of those dangers. The specific form may have adopted in contemporary culture forms, but its not that some particular culture has monopoly over those forms. Just like say now we are using the internet for sharing Krishna’s wisdom. Are we going to say that because the internet was developed by some person who was an atheist, So the use of Internet by the Krishna conscious movement is the import from atheism. Therefore it is wrong? No, We should not have such a frozen idea of tradition as something which is a central core that is static, but its peripheral the way it interacts with the contemporary (rest of the) world that will vary according to the contemporary culture. That will naturally change and there are dangers in the interaction and there are dangers in not interacting in that way also. So we need to focus on the principle that we should do whatever it takes to make Krishna accessible and relishable to as many people as possible. Institutionalization provides the structure by which we can share Krishna’s messages far and wide. But we should also know that there is a danger that the institutionalization can create obstacles if the purpose is forgotten. If the there is systematic sadhana, there is systematic study of sastra, then we can remember the purpose and by remembering that purpose we can stay purposefully moving towards Krishna.