Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #6 – Movement or Mission?

February 8th, 2021

In a discussion with a friend, he distinguished between the Hare Krishna Movement (its structure and organization) and its mission (its goals or objectives), stressing the importance of the mission: awakening our eternal relationship with Krishna. It was a passing remark in a brief discussion, but as I reflected on his statement, I was inspired to give it some more thought. It seems important to make a careful distinction between the concepts of “movement” and “mission” in order to balance their relative value. I would like to deepen my understanding of that relationship by first discussing the views of two scholars on the subject, beginning with the thoughts of the late Joseph T. O’Connell, one of the most prominent scholars of South Asian religion in the modern era.


Professor O’Connell defined the purpose of an institution as carrying its culture – what is right, real, and of value – into the future.[1] He further divided institutions into two divisions: hard institutions, where the values are preserved by a hierarchical management structure, and soft institutions, where the values are preserved more spontaneously through its teachers, devotional practices, and, most importantly, its sacred literatures. In the history of Caitanya Vaishnavism, both have had a role in preserving its culture, but the latter has proven to be more important, because it deals more exclusively with Sri Caitanya’s mission. An example of such prioritization is demonstrated in a fairly well-known exchange between Srila Prabhupada[2] and his guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. His guru shared with him his concern about the terrible infighting that was occurring amongst his disciples over control of their lavish, newly built temple in Calcutta, and expressed his regret: “If I could sell this marble of this temple, and secure some money, and if I could print some books, that would have been better. That would have been better.” He then instructed Srila Prabhupada that, “if you ever get money, print books,” ensuring that his mission would be carried into the future. In other words, he prioritized the soft institution, where the mission is inherently embedded.


Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar and a prominent spiritual teacher and author. In his book Falling Upward, he also makes a distinction between the external structures of an institution meant to support spiritual life and an institution’s core mission. However, he focuses on such distinctions not in terms of formal organizations, but in terms of how they are relevant in an individual’s personal life. To highlight that distinction, he outlines the journey of the hero as expressed in classical literature, which is inevitably divided in two parts of life. The first part, the external function of religion, is developing the structures of life to hold our internal development. We have all done that in our quest for stable family, suitable occupation, reasonable self-esteem, and supportive spiritual community. In the second part of the hero’s life, by destiny, these same structures that were necessary become an impediment and collapse. The hero is then forced to take full shelter of their spiritual essence, which becomes the second part of the hero or spiritual aspirant’s life. As one’s material protective agents breakdown, one is impelled forward in spiritual life, which is a phenomenon Rohr called “falling upwards”. I assume most reading this who are on a spiritual path have experienced how the unintended failure of aspects of our external support systems have impelled us to take shelter of the real purpose of those systems – our spiritual life – which perhaps we had neglected or not fully utilized.


I think I now understand more fully my friend’s concern. Hard Institutions are very important in preserving culture and facilitating spiritual life. Therefore, much energy must certainly be put into maintaining and promoting them. The objective of those institutions—and I think he was obviously referring to ISKCON, where he is a loyal and respected member—is the careful development of our spontaneous relationship with Krishna as outlined in the tradition’s sacred texts. That focus becomes more and more a necessity as the institution grows older and more stable, and its membership matures and ages. The tendency of spiritual institutions, however, is to make the maintenance and expansion of the hierarchical institution its main focus, and, in the process, lose sight of its purpose or mission, which is to bring its individual members back to Godhead. In the case of the Hare Krishna Movement, that means an increased focus on the devotional practices the tradition outlines to achieve that goal.


I appreciate my friend’s concern. I hope I added something to our discussion, because there is nothing more important to a spiritual movement than clarity about its mission.




[1] Joseph T O’Connell’s article on the subject:  https://gaudiyadiscussions.gaudiya.com/topic_1446.html

[2] Srila Bhaktisiddhanta is also known among his followers as Srila Prabhupada. In this article I will refer to him as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, his disciple, as Srila Prabhupada, the honorific title that he is also known as.


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