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Home » editorials

Respecting the Democracy

Submitted by on July 3, 2017 – 12:33 am14 Comments

photo jambavan articleBy Jambavan Dasa

“One thing should be followed, however, as your countrymen are more or less independent spirited and lovers of democracy. So everything should be done very carefully so that their sentiments may not be hurt, According to Sanskrit moral principles, everything has to be acted, taking consideration of the place, audience and time.” Srila Prabhupada in a letter to Tamal Krishna Goswami, October 13, 1969

There has been a lot of discussion as to why our efforts to spread the teachings of Lord Caitanya have been crippled. Some argue that we have “watered down” our teachings in favor of accommodation, others say that we have become too focused on simply collecting money and not on teaching siddhanta, while others vie that we have not placed enough emphasis on hari-nama-sankirtana. There is, however, another cause that is not discussed and one that deserves attention as well: a respect for democracy. Yes, our line is by nature a rather hierarchical and autocratic one, but will such an absolute adherence to this style of authority attract people to the line of bhakti—especially Americans?

The simple answer is “no.” If you take a look at the leadership style of Srila Prabhupada, he rarely employed a heavy handed authoritarian approach to governing his society. True, in some rare cases with intimate followers he would reprimand them in a severe manner, but this was more of the exception rather than the rule. Srila Prabhupada’s early followers were attracted to him by his simple, humble, and giving nature. They didn’t flock to him because he was ready to pound them into submission with institutional hierarchy and bureaucracy. Now it is true that in time his early students came to revere and respect him as a leader, but they did so out of love, not out of fear.

Yet where is this model now? “Don’t hear from such and such or we will kick you out”, “Don’t go to such a such place or your position will be in danger,” or “Don’t read such and such book or there will be consequences.” How in the world can such flagrant despotism inspire anyone to increase their devotion? And what level of followers are you going to have if they are simply mindless robots who obey you due to the fear which results from a totalitarian regime? Srila Prabhupada never encouraged this model for running his society; and as you can see from his letter above, when Tamal Krishna Goswami tried to implement such a strategy, our founder-achayra immediately took umbrage with the tyrannical method employed. And why so? Because Srila Prabhupada knew that such a device would never work on his American audience, a people whose very basis of government is based on revolting against tyranny—sic semper tyrannis: “An end to tyrants!” flies the flag over the Commonwealth of Virginia.

As we see in this aforementioned letter, Srila Prabhupada’s strategy, as he reveals to Tamal Krishna Goswami, was to modify his method of oversight to the tastes of the local people. And what was the result? Overwhelming success! Why don’t we endeavor our best to once again institute this strategy of governance whilst spreading the message of Lord Caitanya. The strategy to do this is simple: teach, don’t preach; encourage dialog, not submission; give, don’t demand; and listen, don’t dictate. If we teach our students how to think, rather than what to think, we are only helping to better prepare them to face the world beyond the shelter of an isolated institution. The result will be that they will utilize their independent nature in a positive manner by encouraging their critical thinking skills so that they can effectively employ the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita in a modern world—an environment which is invariably volatile, unpredictable, and thus in need of an ingenuitive and pragmatic application of the ancient science of bhakti-yoga. Otherwise, what is the alternative? Are we going to bemoan the fact that Americans are independently minded people and berate them for not taking up Indian culture? Well, that is going to accomplish nothing positive and thus only result in animosity amongst the natives of this land. This is the field we are operating in and the only thing for us to do in order to be successful in our mission is to adapt to it. If we do not heed this warning from our founder-acharya we are only going to succeed in driving out the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin from our temples, and that was not Srila Prabhupada’s vision for his society.


  • prahlada bhakta dasa

    Well said Prabhu. i agree with your views.
    Nice to see a devotee within ISKCON speaking up like this.

    • Jambavan Dasa

      Thank you Prabhu. I hope that one day we will see a family of united Vaishnavas where open discussion is encouraged and leads to greater understanding.

  • Damodarpriya das

    Dear Jambavan prabhu,

    Thank you so much for this article. It is very wonderful and inspiring. Simple, succinct, and yet profound.

    I really liked the statement ‘If we teach our students how to think, rather than what to think, we are only helping to better prepare them to face the world beyond the shelter of an isolated institution.’

    I just felt like sharing my understanding on this. When a student is pursuing a bachelor’s degree, he is mainly asked to stick to standard textbooks and conservative views. However, once he has learned the basics and graduated with a degree, he is encouraged to pursue higher education (MS, PhD, etc.) and engage in research to move the scientific discipline ahead. Similarly, I feel that those devotees who are intellectually astute as well as have a good grasp of our siddhanta should be encouraged to do further research in order to carry on the lineage of Gaudiya-Vaishnavism and substantiate its presence in other circles. If elevated devotees are prevented from doing that, then our religion and philosophy will become static (and possibly extinct).

    • Bhaktirasa dasi

      Evolve or die. The evolution of the details, of how principles are put into practice, according to the environment, both macro- and micro-cosmically is the dynamic beauty and perpetuating force of the parampara system. It is goes against common reason, but it is this very “change” itself which safeguards the continuity of the substance of Gaudiya-Vaishnvaism into the future. Otherwise, as the article and your comment above brings out, most will not even come close enough to learn the core teachings, which over time, become encrusted in religious dogma making it difficult to separate the two.

      • Jambavan Dasa

        Thank you for your feedback Bhaktarasa Dasi,

        We can see that the application of fundamental beliefs into a contemporary situation has been a challenge since Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu appeared. It is thus no surprise that different Vaishnavas are now struggling with how to rectify this situation in our present time. My humble opinion though is if we practice empathy then the negative effects arising from these two tensions can be ameliorated. However, the challenge for the community of devotees is to learn how to instill empathy in others so that we can create more independent minded people who can do this naturally.

        Jambavan Dasa

  • Jambavan Dasa

    Thank you for your comment Damodara-priya Prabhu.

    Yes, the BA to PhD analogy was actually the same one I had thought about in this regard. Of course the problem we will have is that varying approaches will come about at the PhD level. But for me, this is not such a problem. Why can’t we just have different approaches? Why do we need to have a one size fits all model? I believe that spiritual life should be handled in a laissez faire manner in which it is de-centralized rather than centralized and thus individuals can take more ownership of their decisions rather than the institution. Otherwise, if the life of the institutions becomes the primary focus and the expense of individual’s needs, then what is the value of such an institution?

  • Damodarpriya das

    Dear Jambavan prabhu,

    Thank you for your input. Nice to know that you had also thought of the same analogy. I agree to the point that ‘one size fits all’ model will not be much effective. However, I am also afraid of the possible drawbacks if the system is completely de-centralized. Won’t it give rise to unwanted confusion and misunderstandings?

    Regarding this, I vaguely remember someone quoting Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakur: ‘Institutionalized religion is a necessary evil’. So, we have to accept the fact that there will be “evil” effects of an institutionalized approach to religion. But if we are able to infuse and inspire genuine devotional service in the hearts of devotees, then the gain of such an approach overrides its evils. So, I feel that the leaders of our institution should keep this goal in mind and at the same time try to adapt the philosophy to the time, place, and circumstances in which they are preaching. The barometer of success of our institution should be measured by how much we are able to inspire each other to increase our devotion and not by how much we are able to stick to the policies of the institution.

    Thank you once again!
    Your servant,
    Damodarpriya das.

  • Jambavan Dasa

    Thank you once again for your reply Damodara Priya Prabhu,

    Yes, you bring up a very good point: How to balance the necessity of an institution with the needs of the individual. This is a question that we are likely to face for years to come. Given the democratic nature of the United States I think this is inevitable, especially when you consider that this struggle has been existing since the formation of this country, i.e. the “pro centralized” Federalists versus the “de-centralized” Jefforsonians. So once Gaudiya Vaishnavism arrived on the shore here, it is thus no surprise that this influence crept in based on the nature of its hosting culture.

    I agree that arguments can be made on both sides of this argument and that there even is a need for an institution to further individual development. Like many things, the difficulty always comes in striking that balance right in the middle. I guess you could call me a flaming moderate now because as I get older I am trying to revert to the “mean” now than ever before. I guess my vision is more like a de-centralized institution where we place more focus on individuals, or as you said “The barometer of success of our institution should be measured by how much we are able to inspire each other to increase our devotion and not by how much we are able to stick to the policies of the institution.”

    Thank you again for your intelligent response. I hope these types of discussions will help devotees to focus back on education, empathy, and understanding. If we do that, we will really feel a culture of inclusion and compassion within our temples and homes, which will nurture and sustain the Vaishnavas in their practice.

    Your servant,

    Jambavan Dasa

  • Damodarpriya das

    Thank you so much prabhu for the insightful and thought-provoking discussion. I am a relatively new reader on this website and this is the first time I am taking part in a conversation like this. Looking forward to learn more and participate in future posts and discussions.

    Thanking you.
    Your servant,
    Damodarpriya das.

  • Antariksa das

    Dear Jambavan das et al,

    This is a much needed discussion, which, of necessity, needs to be an ongoing service to the planet-wide sanga of devotees.

    ISKCON is not only an Institution, but can be understood as a Society. In a society, there are always brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras, as Lord Krsna reveals to us in BG 4:13. It appears as if we have forgotten this essential knowledge, as we have moved forward through time since Srila Prabhupada left our physical vision.

    I do not need to give too many examples of why this is so. I will point out the tragedy of how many of Srila Prabhupada’s American disciples have “left ISKCON”, so to speak. What has really happened, I believe, can be understood in the context of what I suggested above. As Srila Prabhupada’s beloved ISKCON became more and more to be seen as what was quasi-fearfully, if no doubt sincerely, pronounced through the laws of the GBC, our vision of ISKCON began to take on the mood of an Institution more, and less of that of a Society of the planet-wide movement of Sri Gaura Hari’s Dance, of various local families of devotees, revolutionaries of humility, compassion and intelligence, well equipped to reach out to the fallen suffering souls, in their own cultures.

    How can we work on this persistent problem? One way, is this type of discussion taking place much more, on a regular basis, in all parts of Prabhupada’s House. And as far as practical application, I can point tothe Rupa Raghunatha Gaudiya Vaisnava Sanga in the Detroit Metro Area, as a living example. We try our best to be inclusive, transparent and accountable and warmly forgiving, in our interactions and our loving service to one another. In this way we attempt to create more and more loving and lasting relationships in our family of devotees.

    And lastly, in this ongoing type of discussion, I like to point to Srila Prabhupada’s organizational genius, which many other disciples and devotees have noticed. In the spirit of his Vani, he has included a set of Checks and Balances which would make the American Founding Fathers proud! In a difference of opinion, about power sharing matters, between the GBC, local management and local congregations of devotees, he has given the last word to the practical spiritual wisdom of the “people”, the various local congregations of devotees, all over Krsna’s blessed Mother Earth; this is a perfect vision for us to live, based upon the unlimited power of the congregational chanting of the holy names of Radha and Krsna, the great chant for deliverance, the Maha Manta, the All-Powerful and Sweet, Sankirtana Yajna, prescribed for this dark Kali Yuga.

    This is our only means of crossing over the fierce, fearful and very formidable ocean of illusion, that Kali Yuga is. Let us do our duty, joyfully, to bring ourselves and all fallen souls into the boat of transcendental knowledge, which, essentially, is the all merciful Vani, of the Founder and Acharya of ISKCON, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada. Hare Krsna

  • swami bv tripurari

    The article seems very much directed at Iskcon.

    • Jambavan Dasa

      Yes, Maharaja. My comment was directed at ISKCON–primarily, ISKCON in North America. Obviously, however, there are centers, preachers, etc. who do not take this approach. But this mood seems to be en vogue at the present.

  • Swami B. A. Ashram

    I agree with Swami Tripurari’s comment. Jambavan dasa’s article seems to address attitudes evident in much of ISKCON but not so evident among other missions advocating Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings. My own experience over the years has been just that. I haven’t seen leaders of other missions restrict the association of their members in the heavy-handed way Jambavan decries here. That’s not to advocate effacing lines between one mission and another, though. The presentation of Gaudiya vaisnavism worldwide is certainly enhanced, made more charming, by the variety of voices and flavors we find. But let’s let those lines be defined, as I have often suggested, by porous membranes rather than the tall walls topped with broken glass or razor wire some would have us erect. Or, maybe walls, but the kind of very low, maybe calf-high, walls found where I lived in rural Hawaii, where we could tell who was responsible for which yard, but we could easily step over the wall to visit each other. This would facilitate exchanges of ideas, devotional sentiments, Hari-katha, prasadam, and nama-sankirtan, much as the network of living beings in a forest ecosystem facilitates the exchange of information and nutrients. This is the kind of association I see encouraged among the missions with which I have had the good fortune to associate, and in happy sections of ISKCON as well. And this seems more in line with the spirit of Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu’s injunction that we keep company with like-minded, affectionately disposed sadhus, the kind of company that nourishes our progressive faith in and dedication to the mission of guru and Gauranga

  • Ishan das

    The American culture may be theoretically based on aversion to tyranny, but the fact is that America is becoming more and more of a police state, more about racial rejection of Latino and Islamic cultures, more about the enhancement of the lives of the wealthy and increasingly less about the concerns and needs of the other 99%. So far, the American aversion to tyranny has not seen fit to object to the present degree of despotism in the name of democracy.

    Srila Prabhupada was not against democracy. But he spoke strongly about the futility of extending the voting privilege to those who were of less than brahmanical status. The cheaters and the cheated are in bed together. The less intelligent people vote for those who tell them the lies that they want to hear. Anyone who tells the public what really needs to be done by government will never be elected by the common herd. In this sense democracy is a farce. But Srila Prabhupada speaks of the authority of brahmanical overseers to install and remove administrators. This is intelligent democracy.

    It is not expected that everyone will become a vaishnava. Even when Srila Prabhupada walked among us, there were the millions who were indifferent, and the many who were harsh critics, and those who put up much opposition.

    Regarding the ability to attract others to Krishna consciousness, there is only one qualification, and that is personal purity, and advancement in Krishna consciousness. “Purity is the force.”, Srila Prabhupada used to say. And in his books he made the point that one who can make devotees all over the world can do so only because he has been empowered by Krishna. Krishna empowers his pure devotees.

    Best thing is to examine ourselves and see how effective we are personally in spreading Krishna consciousness, and take that as an index of our own purity and spiritual advancement.

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