BY: ROCANA DASA
April 16, CANADA (SUN) A weekly response to Dandavats editorials.
Today's Obeisances is in response to the recent article by Praghosa dasa entitled "The Best Years of Our Lives". As most readers are surely aware, Praghosa dasa is not only the editor of Dandavats, he's also the GBC in charge of the UK. Dandavats is an official ISKCON website financed by the GBC of West Bengal. I mention this because what we find in his most recent article is what can easily be called the standard rhetoric we've been hearing for the last 30 years from those who call themselves the "institution of ISKCON".
In his usual writing style, Praghosa dasa likes to begin by describing anecdotal circumstances. He doesn't give us any specifics so we can't really know who/what he's talking about. He uses these non-descript scenarios as a springboard to get him into his real message. The author also likes to use speculative adjectives, like "perhaps", "somewhat", "it seems", "not sure", "apparently", etc. By using these words he establishes for the readers that he is not speaking from any spiritual authority. He doesn't refer to sastra, but makes it clear that this is just his personal perception of what he thinks is going on. Of course, this is somewhat hypocritical given the fact that he is actually writing as the Editor of a GBC publication and is a GBC man himself.
Given that the theme of this particular article has proven to be a repetitive theme in Dandavats, we can assume that Praghosa prabhu is trying to address a persistent problem experienced by someone in his position. That is, he is constantly having to deal with devotees who have sacrificed a great deal for the sake of serving Srila Prabhupada, and many of them have now become disheartened by the goings-on in ISKCON - or are at least beginning to question the GBC's questionable leadership.
The essence of the problem is contained within the acronym 'ISKCON', which stands for the International SOCIETY for Krishna Consciousness. The emphasis is on the word 'society', not 'institution'. When devotees get involved in ISKCON, they understand that they're getting involved in the Sankirtana Movement of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Most didn't join ISKCON because they thought they're getting involved in a religious institution. What makes it so difficult for leaders like Praghosa dasa is that they actually believe they're heading up a religious institution. This obviously means they have a different perception of ISKCON than those who are serving under them in the society.
Interestingly enough, the author offers a quote wherein Srila Prabhupada doesn't use the word "institution", but rather states that ISKCON is a "mission" that we have to cultivate all over the world. We are supposed to be about the business of organizing Lord Caitanya's Sankirtana mission. Clearly, a religion and a spiritual movement are two different things.
While Praghosa himself says that ISKCON is at a disadvantage on account of perceiving itself as an institution rather than an international society, he goes on to express a litany of institutional rhetoric that is the antithesis of the mood that should actually be prevalent in an international society. Clearly, we can see the author's confusion on this matter.
The main point Praghosa dasa, the institutional leader, is making is that unless you are actively involved in ISKCON, you have no right to make any criticisms of it. Your participation alone earns you the right to criticize. But according to Praghosa's conception of "participation", as soon as you stop "cooperating" with the authorities you are automatically no longer "participating". And once you cross that line, they expect you to remain completely quiet, because you no longer have any right to make yourself heard. Now does this sound like an institution, or an international society? Obviously, this is a very narrow-minded vision of the Lord's Sankirtana Movement, but Praghosa dasa reveals himself to be of just such a narrow-minded school of thought.
In the mood of a politician, Praghosa points out that a lone protestor standing in front of a government building will not be likely to get much of a result. But if that protestor joins up with a 100,000 strong march on the government, the politicians will be "shivering to the bone!" The point he is making is that if you want to be a successful protestor you must stay in the institution and advocate for change from within. To step outside is to lose your potency and ability to influence change. What he doesn't say, of course, is that it is the institution itself that typically pushes the protestor to the outside, not that the protestor wouldn't be perfectly happy to agitate for change from within. In fact, most would far prefer to stay "in" than be shoved "out". Nonetheless, those who are principled will continue to advocate for needed change whether they are disenfranchised or not. So in essence, we see that Praghosa is projecting fault upon the "lone protestor" that should really be borne by the institution itself - and that is, the fault for one being forced out of a cooperative, participatory role with the organization. And why does the institution behave in this way? In reality, it's because even one lone protestor who speaks truth in the form of criticism of the institutional leaders actually succeeds in making them "shiver to the bone". So much so that they are willing to ostracize the protestor even though they know forcing the individual to leave the association of devotees will likely result in having a serious, negative impact on the individual's spiritual life. But that's a price the fearful leaders are more than happy to pay.
It appears that Praghosa dasa is unaware of the fact that there are far more protestors outside of his narrow vision of ISKCON than there are insiders who are actually supporting him. He is playing to a rather limited audience. While the outsiders may not be holding placards and standing in throngs outside the temples, (although that day may well come), they have certainly manifested in throngs around sites like the Sampradaya Sun. While the number of devotees willing to publicly air their grievances in the form of editorials is growing slowly, the visitor traffic is growing steadily, month after month.
What Praghosa dasa is really trying to do is protect his remaining supporters from being influenced by what he considers to be the "hurlers on the ditch". (For those not familiar with Dublin slang, this means a 'non-participating critic who thinks they can do better than the one they're criticizing'.) In order to shore up his supporters Praghosa dasa has to preach, and this article is a form of his preaching, in no uncertain terms.
Praghosa dasa makes the point that when one becomes a 'non-participating critic', the honorable thing to do is to "break all ties". If you are not directly involved in the institution, then you should honorably just keep your mouth shut. So much for the concept of freedom of speech or devotees being able to express how they feel about circumstances surrounding their Spiritual Master's society. In Praghosa's world this is considered "dishonourable".
By the very definition of the institution the author is involved with, those members who are actively participating can be considered similar to 'civil servants'. They are civil servants in an institutional context, meaning their status is different from members of the general population. In fact, the ISKCON that Praghosa dasa is administrating over is composed mostly of congregational members, while staff members like himself within the temple or institution are in a different category than those who are just members of the congregation. Still, Praghosa feels that it's incumbent upon all members, regardless of institutional status, to just put their heads down and work hard no matter what goes on, and to cooperate with the authorities. He believes that this is what Srila Prabhupada and the past Sampradaya Acaryas were teaching us. Needless to say, I think he is completely wrong.
Not surprisingly, the author pulls out the much-used hammer that he calls the "prophetic words of Srila Prabhupada", about how our love for Srila Prabhupada is judged by how much we cooperate to keep the institution going. Of course, last week Hari-sauri prabhu informed us that this is not an exact quote. There's also no mention in Praghosa's article of the fact that the authorities have a much greater mandate to create an institution where the devotees are inclined to cooperate with each other, not just with the authorities.
After quoting this familiar tagline, Praghosa dasa introduces the very contentious subject of Tamal Krishna Goswami. He opens this pandora's box because Srila Prabhupada had made the statement about cooperation in response to a comment from Tamal Krishna. Praghosa writes:
"Srila Prabhupada spoke the above in response to a comment made by Tamal Krishna Maharaja. Maharaja was commenting that he was sure Srila Prabhupada’s disciples would come from all over the world to be with him in Vrindavan during his final days because they all loved Srila Prabhupada so much. Srila Prabhupada’s response left little doubt that he not only wanted his devotees to cooperate but that such co-operation would do more to show their love for him than anything else, including being with him during his final days."
Praghosa dasa obviously included this passage because he wished to use Tamal Krishna Goswami's "cooperative mood" as a way to illustrate his overall theme. By his use of this reference, Praghosa dasa reveals just how little he knows about ISKCON history. I find it truly astounding that he understands so little about our past.
As many of us have repeatedly stated for the history books, it was Tamal Krishna himself who sabotaged Srila Prabhupada's two final wishes. Srila Prabhupada, in the very last of his manifest days on this earth, made two heartfelt requests: that he be taken on parikrama around Vrindavan, and that all his disciples come to be by his side for his departure. I was personally in the room when Tamal Krishna subverted Srila Prabhupada's desire for his disciples to come be with him. Tamal Krishna, even during Srila Prabhupada's final hours, was firmly fixed on the Zonal Acarya take-over scheme. He wanted nothing to get in his way, including any activities that would fan the flames of spiritual emotion felt by the devotees at the time of their Spiritual Master's glorious departure. Tamal was carefully orchestrating a takeover that required maximum attention to be on the senior men, and not on Srila Prabhupada. The ruse worked; the leaders ruthlessly lied to the devotees and sent them home, saying Srila Prabhupada "had decided to stay" and not leave his body, so everyone could just go back to work.
For Praghosa dasa to use this particular reference as a means to illustrate the concept of cooperation amongst the devotees leaves one nearly speechless. In fact, it was leaders such as Tamal Krishna who did not cooperate with the Sampradaya Acarya's request, the result of which was that many of the disciples were cheated of the opportunity to be with their Spiritual Master upon his departure. But as we nearly always hear from the ISKCON leadership, the onus is on the membership to cooperate with the leaders rather than the leaders cooperating with the Sampradaya Acarya to create an institution that brings about harmony.
Praghosa dasa goes so far as to consider himself and the people in his group as being like a moon that may have some spots on it. It never occurs to him that the leaders are not a moon; they are actually just reflecting the Sampradaya sun, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada. Given their unwillingness to follow the orders of their Spiritual Master, they could well be Rahu. It's because they're not reflecting pure devotion that they're getting so much flak and critical feedback, which they claim they have the right to accept or reject according to their whims. And this brings us right back to Praghosa dasa's whole idea that "cooperation" means "service"; "service" means "service to the institution"; and the "institution" means that "they're the head of this institution". So ultimately, cooperation means cooperating with them, personally.
We can be quite certain that Praghosa dasa looks upon my writings, and in fact this entire website, as exemplifying the concept of "hurlers on the ditch". He tells us that this is not the healthiest of occupations, materially or spiritually. Of course, he doesn't clarify what that really means. In the kind of society we're living in, which is a free society, the concept of free press plays an important role. This reminds us of the kind of society that Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu manifested during His lila. Vaisnavas, brahmans and philosophers were invited to critique each other and be straightforward in their dealings, without fear of being ostracized. Their only consideration was whether or not there was an offense being committed. There are many stories in Caitanya-caritamrta and the Caitanya Bhagavat which illustrate this point. But of course, this type of vision does not fit with the western institutional format Praghosa dasa is participating in and trying to protect. And it's highly debatable whether today's ISKCON is what Srila Prabhupada and the Sampradaya Acaryas wanted to see manifest after their departure.
So while Praghosa dasa likes to relegate all the "uncooperative, non-participatory complainers" to the class of being "hurlers on the ditch", we know better. It's easy to pretend that because someone is advancing criticism against the leaders from outside the institution's walls, that person must certainly not be "participating" or contributing to the welfare of the institution. But I can speak for many of my godbrothers in saying that some of the most active participants I know of in ISKCON are "outsiders" who spend their lives absorbed in trying to understand Srila Prabhupada's instructions, in studying the history of ISKCON, and in producing their critical analysis of the ongoing mismanagement of the society by its leaders. They do this because they love Srila Prabhupada's ISKCON, and clearly see themselves a part of it, albeit currently on the "outside" of the institutional wall.
Leaders like Praghosa dasa would prefer that all such critics just disappear, never to be heard from again -- which means that they're totally, permanently disconnected. Praghosa thinks this would be better than their staying. Of course, what's really bothering the leaders is that so many of Srila Prabhupada's followers don’t feel that ISKCON is living up to the Sampradaya Acarya's expectations. The GBC wishes these annoying personalities would just go away but unfortunately for them, through the Internet and other means of global communication these person are only gaining in strength and number, as the facts of the matter are becoming widely available and more and more "insider" devotees are taking the time to get spun up on the state of affairs in ISKCON.
The critics will never go away because Srila Prabhupada has moved them so much. The pure devotee's writings and the philosophy of Krsna consciousness are so much greater than what's being manifested in the current form of ISKCON that this is a source of great agitation for them. But that's just the nature of this particular society. ISKCON is not an institution - it's so much greater than that!
While Praghosa dasa states that "external pressure will only have limited impact in the long run", it's obvious that he wouldn't have been bothered to even write this article if that were true. What's really true is that the disenfranchised "complainers" have an increasingly strong voice, and the leadership is coming face to face with them at every turn. We find a perfect example right in Praghosa's zone, with Gauri dasa. As the Temple President of Bhaktivedanta Manor and the chosen leader of the new I-Foundation school, Gauri dasa very likely felt himself impervious to the complaints of the "little annoying voices" around him. But the ex-gurukula students continued to make themselves heard, and the Sampradaya Sun gave them a forum for public discourse on their complaints. In his local environment, Gauri dasa's political detractors picked-up these news stories and made a lot of local hay. The result: members of the local Hindu community and those with a stake in the new school project have increased their scrutiny of this personality. And, ISKCON's CPO has renewed the old investigation of complaints that Gauri dasa was abusive of children under his charge in the gurukula. Eventually, the truth will always win out. And whatever the truth may be, muzzling the critics never works.
Individuals like Gauri dasa and Praghosa dasa define themselves as being leaders of an institution, but by definition this means that they're part of a larger society. That larger society is the country they live in. Those who wish to enjoy the benefits of wielding institution power will increasingly have to bear the institutional pressure that goes along with it. And as Gauri dasa now understands, it's no longer enough to be able to squelch just the voices of the 'little people' in ISKCON. There's a much bigger world outside, and pressure can be brought to bear from many directions. After many, many years of being stone-walled by the likes of institutional leaders like Praghosa dasa, the disenfranchised outsiders are becoming more sophisticated in their "complaining". Tired of being constantly ignored by the ISKCON bureaucrats, they've begun taking the fight into the public square where the global press and the social legal system may take them more seriously than the GBC.
We "outsiders" don't consider ourselves to be outsiders, because our vision of ISKCON is that it includes people like us. It's really only those like Praghosa dasa who think we're "out". In fact, constructive criticism is participating. Often times, institutions are terribly short-sighted. The leaders can only see as far forward as the length of time they expect to be in power. Fortunately it will be left to history, not Praghosa dasa, to determine who was and was not involved in helping ISKCON to grow and succeed in executing the orders of the Sampradaya Acarya.
Obeisances to Dandavats, and to HG Praghosa dasa.