Is ISKCON’s institutionalized structure an import from Christianity?
Transcribed by: Bhabesh Mishra
Edited by: Keshavgopal Das
Question: Is ISKCON’s institutionalized structure an import from Christianity?
Answer: This is a very simplistic way of analysing how tradition works.
Institutionalization is a necessary part of every culture and it was there within the Indian traditions long before the Britishers came to India. Shankaracharya had his akhadas and Buddhists had their monasteries. Buddhism itself was very well organised and in response to that, Shankaracharya also organised very systematically. Even the personalistic Vedantic acharyas such as Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, they all organised things systematically. They even made succession plans.
The organisation was very much a part of not just Buddhism, Advaitism or Vedantic Vaishnavism but even before that, there was organization in the brahminical culture in India. There were hierarchies of priests when a particular sacrifice would be performed. In the Rigveda, different priests for different rituals has been prescribed. Institutionalization in itself is not a Western concept. It has been very much there in the Indian tradition.
The specific way in which institutionalization might have been done may vary according to time, place and circumstance. It’s true that in Gaudiya Vaishnavism itself, there was not much institutionalization prior to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati or Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Before that we see that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu himself was not at all an institution organizer, although he empowered and delegated people with different missions.
If we classify on the basis of institutional theory, there is soft, medium and hard institutionalization. Soft institutionalization means that there is a broad overall agreement of theology principle and practice but there is a wide variety of institutionalization. It can be seen in the way kirtans evolved in Bengal and Odisha. There is some difference between the two but they both glorified Krishna as revealed through Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
However, by the time of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, things had changed substantially. Britishers had gained power and there was a systematic attack on the institutions of Vedic culture by both Christian missionaries and British rationalists. Christian missionaries wanted to Christianize India and British Rationalists wanted to rationalize India. Either way Vedic culture was under severe attack. In such a situation, it was important to defend it. If an army is attacking in a particular way, the counter attack has to be befitting. For example, an army attacked by arrows cannot defend themselves simply with swords.
When the British came to India, they were quite organised, whether it was for commercial or for conversion purposes. Therefore, within the broad Indian tradition, there took place the Bengali Renaissance and there was a lot of change that happened in Bengal and India. It was at that time the contemporary spiritual teachers took the responsibility for presenting and representing the tradition in a way that would be intelligible, defensible and appealing to their contemporary audiences. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Srila Prabhupada were present in those formative years of what has become modern Hinduism now. Bhaktivinoda Thakura did envision a structure of Namahatta for systematic propagation of the holy names.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s institutional structure although was conceptually very deep, but it was a loose structure in terms of implementation mainly because Bhaktivinoda Thakura was a grihastha with lot of responsibilities – legal as well as familial. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was the first person who built a Gaudiya Math and he created an institutional framework which did phenomenal outreach. In particular, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was very bold. Since the forces criticizing dharma were heavily critical, it was essential to counter them using similar institutionalization. That’s what the acharyas did.
In institutionalization, there is always a possibility of degenerating into evil. Instead of focusing on the purpose, the focus is on the periphery. Certainly, there is hierarchy and centralized power the purpose of which is effective dissemination of spiritual knowledge and culture. But if people become power hungry and they focus on power and not on the purpose, they misuse the power. Instead of fulfilling the purpose of glorifying the Lord, they often try to gather glory for themselves. This can happen in any institution. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur himself alerted us. There is a famous lecture where he talks about Putana. Just as Putana tried to kill Krishna, similarly mundane institutionalization in the garb of a nurse rather than nourishing devotion can very well poison it. Hence, one has to be very careful.
Srila Prabhupada himself built an institution and strongly identified with it. He said “ISKCON is my body.” But then he also taught us that we are not our bodies. That means that “ISKCON his body” means two things – (i) we cannot live without a body (ii) while we need a body to function, still we are not the body.
Without the institutional structure of ISKCON, the worldwide propagation of bhakti that has happened would not have happened. The very fact that it has happened indicates that this is a special structure that has enabled the dissemination of bhakti.
The body is there to help us do our bhakti and seva. However, sometimes we become so bodily conscious, that instead of serving with the body we start serving the body. Similarly, it can happen that instead of using the institution to share wisdom, we can just focus on the institution to glorify ourselves. Then, it can become a battle for ego, prestige and position.
Unfortunately, this has happened in the movement. The way to prevent such situation is by purifying our purpose, not by rejecting the form of the institution because without the form, it would be very difficult to maintain our bhakti. To explain the point, let us analyse what an institution is.
An institution is essentially a group of like-minded people coming together and creating the infrastructure and facilities for pursuing their joint interests. Consider that our individual bhakti is like a trickle of water, coming down from the mountain towards the ocean of Krishna. While moving on its way facing various obstacles, this trickle may just get evaporated, trapped or lost. On the other hand, if many such trickles come together and form a river which can move forcefully successfully negotiating various obstacles on its way towards the ocean.
An institution is just like a river. Different people with some spiritual urges come together. The combined energy of their spiritual urges become like a forceful river. They all inspire each other to move towards Krishna. However, if people forget the purpose of moving towards Krishna, and start thinking of gaining prestige and power, then the purpose is lost. This is the danger in institutionalisation.
The way to deal with that danger is by purification of intent, not by rejection of form. If we reject the form, then we will not be able to have the benefit that the form provides in terms of giving us a systematic avenue for channelizing our devotional aspirations. So even within an institution, rather than focusing on the form of the institution, we focus on the purpose – love and serve Krishna – then the sanga of devotees will inspire us.
Rather than accusing the Krishna Consciousness movement of importing something from Christianity, we should recognize that tradition itself is a dynamic blend of past tradition and contemporary culture so that the tradition’s message and culture can be most effectively presented to the world. Christianity does not have a monopoly on institutionalization. Institutionalization was there in Vedic tradition itself and the tradition was also aware of the dangers of institutionalization. In fact, our tradition has guided on how to avoid those dangers.
It may be true that some specific forms may have been adopted from a contemporary culture but it’s not that some particular culture has monopoly over those forms. For example, now we are using internet for sharing Krishna’s wisdom. Then is it to be said that since internet was developed by an atheist, use of internet by the Krishna consciousness movement is an import from atheism? No.
We shall not have such a frozen idea of tradition as something which stays eternally static. Tradition has a central core which is static but its periphery, the way in which it interacts with the contemporary world, that will vary according to the contemporary culture and will naturally change. Though, there are dangers in such kind of interaction but there are dangers in not interacting in that way also.
Hence, 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 message far and wide. At the same time, we should also know that there is a danger associated with institutionalization. It can create obstacles if the purpose is forgotten. Therefore, if there is systematic sadhana, study of shastra, then the purpose is fulfilled. By fulfilling the purpose, we can purposefully continue to move towards Krishna.
End of Transcription.