Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #40 – Krishna West, Krishna Best, or Krishna Jest

October 5th, 2020

Krishna West, Krishna Best, or Krishna Jest [1]

 

Hridayananda Maharaja is a spiritual trailblazer. American-born, he learned Spanish and Portuguese fluently in order to successfully fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s personal request to him to establish the bhakti teachings in South America. Expanding his service, he went to Harvard University and got a PhD in Sanskrit in order to deepen his understanding of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition and to have more influence in intellectual and academic circles.

 

Over the past decade or so, however, he became increasingly concerned with ISKCON’s mission in the West. Not long after Srila Prabhupada left this world, Prabhupada’s once burgeoning Western centers emptied and were in dire financial straits. As a result, the Indian diaspora, who saw ISKCON as an embassy for their own culture, stepped forward to help. Eventually, the Indians in ISKCON became more and more prominent until they filled out the congregations and gradually came to manage most of ISKCON’s centers in the West, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. Hridayananda Maharaja appreciated that these devotees saved ISKCON, but he also saw a serious problem: ISKCON was developing even more of an Indian flavor, and so had ceased to be attractive to Westerners. This especially disturbed Hridayananda Maharaja because he had been personally trained by Srila Prabhupada to teach Krishna consciousness in the United States.

 

So, to create a comfortable space for Westerners he established Krishna West within ISKCON. His aim was to keep the essential principles and practices of bhakti while shedding the externals of Indian culture, which he hoped would make communicating Krishna consciousness to those born in the West friendlier, and their experience less foreign. He hung his monk’s robes in the closet and donned slacks and a baseball cap to make himself more relatable.

 

Seem reasonable? Not to everyone.

 

Venkata Bhatta is an intelligent, articulate, and accomplished person, initiated into the bhakti tradition, and now serving as the Hindu chaplain at Princeton University. He has completed a law degree and is also now finishing a PhD at New York University. He is Indian-American and capable of relating and communicating in any setting. He is also an outspoken critic of Krishna West, which he sees as creating an artificial division between Indians and non-Indians. He knows too many people like himself – people who don’t fit neatly into one or the other category. Although, like Hridayananda Maharaja, he sees the struggles ISKCON experiences in reaching Westerners, he feels Krishna West misses the root of the problem: that ISKCON failed to make itself inclusive and accessible. To him, Krishna West is part of that same problem: an exclusive presentation of Krishna consciousness that divides rather than unites people, and thus of limited relevance in a postmodern world.

 

Venkata Bhatta and Hridayananda Maharaja agreed to meet on The Late Morning Program with Namarasa podcast to discuss their differences.

 

The meeting was cordial. Venkata reiterated his concerns and assured Hridayananda Maharaja that he shares his perception that ISKCON needs to rethink and reform its presentation. He considers that the solution, however, is not an East/West divide but making Krishna consciousness a place of “diversity, inclusivity, and equity.”

 

Hridayananda Maharaja clarified that Krishna West is not exclusive, but open to Indians and non-Indians alike – anyone who shares the common goal of wanting to impart bhakti in a contemporary and relevant way. He acknowledged that because of the resistance he felt from the more conservative quarters of ISKCON, he has had to ramp up his polemic in order to get his point across, but as Krishna West has successfully taken root, that type of polemic is more a thing of the past. He questioned Venkata’s objective to see ISKCON centers become beacons of “diversity, inclusivity, and equity,” noting that in today’s world, what usually happens to those who profess such rhetoric is not diversity, but exclusion of those who don’t share their liberality. Institutions take time – years – to perfect themselves, and Maharaja hinted at that by describing how Krishna West has been maturing since its inception.

 

Frankly, I was also apprehensive when I first heard Hridayananda Maharaja promote Krishna West. I saw it as a reaction to a legitimate issue, but in the passion to solve it the solution didn’t seem balanced to me. This is how I hope Krishna West will evolve in its conceptions:

 

  1. They should acknowledge that Krishna West is not the only way to preach in the West. Although many ISKCON temples in the West have in fact become largely filled by Indian congregations, there are still a number of preachers and organizations successfully appealing to non-Indians, and many of them have been doing so even before Krishna West was conceived.
  2. The problem with ISKCON temples that have predominantly Indian-born congregations is not that they are exclusively projecting Indian culture and values, but that there’s a lack of diversity in the community, and that has made Westerners uncomfortable. Also, those temples, if their objective is to indeed create a diverse congregation, seem to lack some understanding of how and when to present the elements of Indian culture and tradition that Srila Prabhupada introduced. This holds equally true for temples in the West whose members are not predominantly Indian and are also unsuccessful in expanding their Western-born base.
  3. Although the externals in which any spiritual culture is couched are important to the overall presentation of it, that presentation isn’t everything. There’s also a special empowerment that comes from being sincerely rooted in tradition.

 

I will end by briefly giving examples that illustrate these principles.

 

Recently, a student of mine from New Zealand who had distanced herself somewhat from ISKCON was visiting Auckland to further her education. She saw an ad for a lecture to be given by Devamrita Swami, and decided to stop by the Krishna Lounge, where it was being held. She was impressed by what she saw: 150 Western-born people in attendance. I later found that 400 had attended. Maharaja has had this type of success for years.

 

The Bhakti Center in New York has maintained a congregation of hundreds of Westerners, and many are coming forward for initiation. The Center has actually achieved substantial status and respect not only within ISKCON, but in New York City as a respected spiritual organization. That’s a real statement about communicating bhakti in the West. The Bhakti Center doesn’t flaunt or hide its connections to the traditions of India that Srila Prabhupada introduced and appropriately uses aspects of Indian culture as part of its allure.

 

Raghunath Dasa has been preaching effectively to Westerners for years. As a result, hundreds of people have become serious devotees. His efforts have culminated in a morning Bhagavatam podcast, which he presents along with Kaustubha Dasa, called Wisdom of the Sages. Hundreds of people get up early to listen to the class, which airs at 5 A.M. Over seven thousand people from diverse backgrounds listen daily, most of whom have been only recently introduced to Krishna consciousness by Raghunath and Kaustubha. These two devotees don’t shy away, when needed, from using the culture of India to effectively present their message. Rather, it’s one of their main tools. In fact, both Wisdom of the Sages and the Bhakti Center have organized trainings in and tours to India where people become immersed in a presentation of bhakti culture rooted in Indian spirituality as a means to introduce and deepen people’s connection to bhakti.

 

Rama Raya Dasa has a traditional presentation of Krishna consciousness based on harinam-sankirtan, which he performs daily with a core group of devotees in the traditional ISKCON dress. Although at times I had questions about the refinement of its presentation, I can’t deny the results. Some of the most proficient and dedicated devotees in New York were introduced to Krishna consciousness by Rama Raya’s program; these persons may not have been attracted to a program that didn’t openly display Krishna consciousness with the same level of sacrifice, sincerity, and purity.

 

I could go with other successful outreach programs in the West that do not shy away from an external presentation of Indian culture, but this is already uncharacteristically long for a Monday Morning Greetings.

 

Srila Prabhupada defined realization as the ability to communicate. Without deep realization of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings one does one of two things: one expresses Krishna consciousness only as one has met it, in its traditional form, even at times when it would prove more effective to communicate the message in another form; or, in the attempt to communicate Krishna consciousness outside the traditional cultural form, one changes the form and in the process dilutes or even loses the original message. Devotees with deep realization are able to carefully adjust a tradition’s cultural expression when needed while keeping its original message intact. The ability to do this was certainly a great part of Srila Prabhupada’s success in the West. People with realization may thus inspire others to go out in ISKCON’s traditional dress and, say, meet the public while distributing books, but teach them to do so in an attractive manner; or they may develop programs where the identity and culture of India may be used selectively or not at all. Hridayananda Maharaja has chosen to do the latter. If he succeeds, kudos to him, but let’s also honor all those who have the realization to communicate bhakti effectively according to their capacity and nature, whether they shave their heads or wear an Indian sari or they don pants and a baseball cap.

 

 

 


[1] This is part one of a two-part series. Here we will deal with the culture of India that Srila Prabhupada introduced in ISKCON in terms of presenting Krishna consciousness. Part Two will deal with that culture in terms of its value in developing Krishna consciousness.

 

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