You don’t have to read Stillson Judah’s 1974 study, “Hare Krishna and the Counter Culture,” cover to cover to have some idea of the place in American society occupied by the Hare Krishnas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Hare Krishna Movement was then self-promoted as, “The Positive Alternative.” An alternative to the drug culture prominent among the young, yes, and perhaps an even more far out alternative to the mainstream world of their parents.
Far out no more, the Hare Krishnas have now been anointed a tradition. As reported on this site last week, on April 3, 2009 media giant ABC News ran an article on the On Campus page of their website that read, “Vegetarian Meals on the Cheap, Krishna Lunches become a University of Florida tradition.” Author Marilia Brocchetto writes, “The Krishnas have been there, in the same spot at the plaza, for more than 38 years” Students have made this lunch line so popular it is now featured in the Official UF Book of Traditions. It ranks almost as high as going to a football game.”
When covering the 40th anniversary of the Hare Krishna Movement for beliefnet.com a couple of years ago, Michael Kress noted, “If you think that Hare Krishnas disappeared when the Age of Aquarius ended, look in the next cubicle—they may be working in your office, wearing a suit, with a full head of hair. This week the Hare Krishnas celebrate their 40th anniversary, and they’ve joined the American mainstream.”
Tradition”¦Mainstream”¦sounds good to most, however, this transformation of the Hare Krishnas from alternative to tradition is not a fait accompli in everyone’s mind. Indeed, certain disturbing perceptions tend to linger. In 1973 Srila Prabhupada responded to a letter he received from Lynne Ludwig, a woman who apparently had a bad experience, probably involving money, with two young devotees. He wrote, “Your complaint is that you have met two of my young disciples in California and they appeared to you as having "a very negative outlook towards the people they meet.'' Of course, I do not know the case, what are the circumstances, but kindly forgive my beloved disciples any unkindness or indiscretions on their part. After all, to give up one's life completely for serving the Lord is not so easy thing.”
This attitude of mistrust persists to this day. Fakir, a blogger who wrote in response to the ABC News article announcing the tradition said, “Krishnas have become very greedy. They used to serve free meals. Now they charge $4 for a spoon of this and a spoon of that and call it a meal. That is a scam.”
Although Fakir has some issues involving theology that I will address later, religious tolerance and interfaith acceptance are the fields where the transformation from alternative to tradition is strong, whereas the issue of mistrust is still a weak point. One attempt to address the lingering issue of mistrust being undertaken by the ISKCON Governing Body Commission is the development of a constitution for ISKCON. There are few documents that speak more to tradition building than constitutions.
Srila Prabhupada wanted a constitution for ISKCON. He talked about it and instructed his disciples to do it. And, although ISKCON is still without a constitution, there have been serious attempts to create a constitution. Interestingly, in the course of the various failed attempts to draft a constitution similar themes have arisen from diverse corners of ISKCON. Themes such as the care and protection of our devotees, the rights and responsibilities of both ISKCON to its members and the members to ISKCON, and accountability are recurring. Additionally, because a constitution is not only an internal document, but also one that is an organization’s face to the world, I think the recurring concerns of people like Lynne Ludwig and Fakir and should also be added to the list of themes. The stumbling point always seems to have been a proper structure in which to enshrine these themes.
Learning from these failed attempts, the current attempt to draft a constitution for ISKCON seeks to take a step back from structural considerations and examine the culture from which a constitutional structure will naturally arise. Of course, ISKCON are not starting with a completely blank sheet in this regard. We have a culture of behavior in ISKCON based on Srila Prabhupada’s instructions and the scriptures. These building blocks are very much the foundation of the accepted transformation of the Hare Krishnas from alternative to tradition. Yet, ISKCON lacks an ethos, an articulated fundamental character or spirit of our culture, a clearly distinguishing character, sentiment, or moral value that easily guides our interactions with each other and society at large, the weaker aspects of the transformation. Here are some ideas being considered for an Ethos of Governance section of the proposed constitution:
ISKCON’s managerial system is meant to facilitate cooperation and provide leadership for the mission of spreading Krishna consciousness. Members holding governance positions within ISKCON shall strive to establish an environment where:
- Individuals can freely and actively participate in spiritual functions
- Individuals are engaged in service according to their qualifications and propensities for the satisfaction of Krishna.
- The respect, value, and safety of individuals is maintained.
- The exercise of authority is a benediction, an empowerment, and a shelter to the recipent.
Of course, these ideas are primarily focused on leadership and management, but the underlying ideals of fairness, and straightforwardness in dealings are meant to trickle down and thus fundamentally shape how we interact with each other and the public. Yes, at this point it’s still a work in progress, but a work that is based on the realization that ISKCON must also cross this bridge to become a lasting tradition.
In the meantime I do have a suggestion for our friend Fakir. You recall how he was distressed. He continued in his blog response to the ABC News article, “ And I hate it when they call themselves Krishnas”¦They call themselves Krishna Devotees and shorten it to Krishnas. They will never be Krishnas in this incarnation like I’m a hindu.”
Fakir, what we have here is a failure to communicate. I suggest we start with the apostrophe. Perhaps none of us truly realize the importance of the apostrophe. GrammarBook.com lists 13 different rules for the use of this simple grammatical symbol. There are also websites such as apostropheabuse.com that are dedicated to detailing the misuse of the apostrophe with photos and commentary. A better understanding of the apostrophe may help resolve a few issues here.
The most common use of the apostrophe is to show possession. Rule 2 states, place the apostrophe before the ‘s’ to show singular possession. So actually Fakir you are right, the devotees are not Krishnas. This is a philosophical misunderstanding based on misuse of the apostrophe. It is not that the Hare Krishna devotees believe one can become God or Krishna, which is indicated by use of the plural, Krishnas. Rather, as stated in the Bhagavad-gita, the devotees are Krishna’s, i.e. possessed by Krishna. Hope this clarifies things for you.
The correct use of the apostrophe should also help the Hare Krishna devotees. By understanding that we are Krishna’s, i.e. possessed by Krishna, perhaps we will begin acting as better, more mature, representatives of Krishna in our dealings with each other and with the public and we can finally get the ISKCON Constitution done.