Monday Morning Greetings #6 – ISKCON’s Greatest Deficiency

February 8th, 2016

If you think this article is ISKCON bashing, then there is no need to read further. Practically everything I enjoy in spiritual life from most of the devotees I love, to the kirtan gatherings, to the centers of pilgrimage in India I frequent, are born from and maintained by ISKCON.

ISKCON has a great mission or purpose. Its mission, why it exists, is to lead a revolution in consciousness, both individually and the world.

ISKCON also has an amazing vision, what it does to fulfill its mission. ISKCON especially publishes and distributes sacred texts to share spiritual knowledge and it opens centers of devotion. It also has a myriad of other ways to share spiritual knowledge and inspire positive transformation from the distribution of prasadam to the Bhaktivedanta Institute for the synthesis of science and religion.

But like all institutions ISKCON also has its weaknesses; its most glaring one is its culture. Culture is how an organization goes about fulfilling its mission. In too many places this is done without the fineness of behavior and presentation that characterizes Vaisnavism.

There are many ways to understand what culture is, but more than anything, even more than the philosophy espoused, culture is revealed by the feeling people have entering into a community or organization.

For example, think of an ISKCON Center that really inspires you. What do you feel when you reside in or enter that center? Do you feel cared for, welcomed, and transformed? If so, then that’s its culture.

Think of an ISKCON center that disappoints you. Do you feel ignored, uncared for, or judged? Then in spite of its noble mission and precepts that’s ISKCON’s culture there.

Generally people don’t leave, distance themselves, or reduce participation in ISKCON because they doubt its mission. Of course, some people do, but many distance themselves despite their faith in Srila Prabhupada and his mission. They drift away because visiting doesn’t make them feel welcomed or inspired.  In a similar way, people also join or return to a community when its culture and values inspire them and they feel welcome.

The tragedy of a culture not reflecting an organization’s values is that members may eventually doubt an organization’s vision of fulfilling its mission.  I think that may have happened to the publication and distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books in ISKCON, one of the pillars of his vision for spreading Krishna-consciousness.  To the extent that the activity wasn’t supported by a strong culture of reading and practicing what was in those books, devotees became less and less dedicated to fulfilling that vision. I think it is significant that Vaisesika dasa, a very respected leader in ISKCON, has been commissioned to write a book about the distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books and over half of his book is dedicated to the culture of book distribution, how one distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books should live by and represent the values espoused in those books.

I think Vaisesika’s strategy is right on. Corporate and organizational studies affirm again and again that a strong culture increases morale and productivity.

Cultures of expedience, where one simply focuses on one’s mission at the expense of one’s values are bound to fail. And if they don’t fail, they will certainly morph into something that no longer represents its original mission.  A good example of the ill effects of a damaged culture on an organization was the empty churches in America in the 60s, or the growth today of mega churches based on “The prosperity gospel”,[1] a view very much antithetical to the simplicity and compassion that Jesus taught.

ISKCON was not spared from the culture of expedience, especially after Srila Prabhupada left. As a result many temples eventually emptied, books distribution waned and Srila Prabhupada’s vision of sankirtan morphed into selling paintings and wares simply to make a buck.

How to institute culture change? That’s a deep subject beyond the scope of this essay. I am including for those interested a short bibliography. * But I can share one major factor that most studies affirm. In successful and sustainable organizations, the leader helps define the organizations values and then focuses on ensuring that those values become part of the organizations daily culture through education and encouragement, even stressing adherence to the organizations core values more than stressing organization and productivity.  And this culture change almost never happens without a conscious effort.

ISKCON Chowpatty has grown into one of the major, if not the major, success stories in ISKCON. It has good managers and preachers, but more than anything else it is known for how welcomed and inspired people feel when they visit.  I think one of the pillars of its success is that Radhanath Swami, its leader, has prioritized the development of its culture by focusing on and repeating again and again to its members the foundational principle of Vaisnavism, that one must be “the servant of the servant of the servant.” I remember one parikram he led to Govinda Kunda in Govardhan where he even spoke on the subject for almost two hours. Arguably more than anything else, it’s the culture permeating ISKCON Chowpatty that has successfully sustained the morale, spiritual development, and outreach of the project.

Every year I organize several Bhakti Immersion Retreats for professional people interested in Bhakti. After studying culture change and wanting a sustainable program we came up with the following mission statement:

“Welcomed, cared for, transformed, all expertly done, in the service of Srila Prabhupada.”

That’s what we want people to feel by going to our retreat. “Expertly done” means that part of one’s culture is the quality of one’s presentation. As far as possible kirtan, cooking, fine arts and so on should be done expertly according to some tradition, or established expertise, to help fulfill its mission – the devotional transformation of its participants. A leader is thus responsible to empower the development of culture, not only in standards of behavior, but also in its arts and activities.

And the real caveat of such a defined culture is that it frees the leader from so much of the headaches of day-to-day management. When strong culture permeates an institution, the culture itself informs the decision making process and sets parameters of behavior without the over involvement of the person in charge. The leader then becomes free for activities that speak more to his passion and competency.

There are quite a few good examples of success in ISKCON, but if one looks at those examples carefully it is either naturally value based, or a leader has developed a strong culture by clearly defining its values and reinforcing them.  The former is much more likely.

There are also far too many examples of dysfunction in ISKCON where coldness and disorganization are projected, where temples are either relatively empty or hide their failure by overly catering to the Hindu diaspora. Unfortunately, in far too many places this lack of culture remains ISKCON’S greatest deficiency.

My sources are:

  • Soultools.org
  • The Culture Blueprint by Robert Richman
  • The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni


[1] “The Prosperity Gospel” is a preaching that promotes the worship of Jesus on the basis that the result of worshipping Jesus is material prosperity. Serious Christians condemn this approach.

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