An article recently appeared on Iskcon news entitled "Iskcon Leaders Grapple to Define "Who is a member?" I've been thinking about this for a while, especially as it relates to how I've tried to conduct my self and what my goals have been in my service of interacting with the people who are not members of Iskcon.
A little while ago I put together some thoughts under the tittle "Project for a New Iskcon Century," which is a play on the somewhat scary "Project for a New American Century."
This is not an answer to the question but just some thoughts I've been having on the topic. Anyhow, here it is:
Project for a New Iskcon Century.
Focus on the second half of Prabhupada’s mission the establishing of Varnashrama dharma.
The second half of Srila Prabhupada’s mission was the establishment of Varnashrama Dharma, which essentially means the establisment of social and moral order in society, without which the esoteric practices of internal gaudiya vaisnava sadhana are somewhat meaningless.
The Primary focus of varnashrama is to teach members of society to execute their moral obligations (occupational duties) as a service to God
This new phase of Iskcon will involve a focus on a respiritualization of society or widely disseminating spiritual knowledge to general society
One of the new major projects of this century is the creation of a viable alternative way of life based on Srila Prabhupada’s vision of “simple living and high thinking” established by the end of the century
This new century of Iskcon will see some major paradigm shifts:
A new member is not someone willing to move into the temple or even someone willing follow the four regulative principles chant sixteen rounds and to take initiation.
A new member is someone willing to use their talents, time, resources, connections, money, skills, abilities, money, to further the overall mission of Iskcon which is nothing short of a respiritualization of society to bring about real unity and peace in society.
There needs to be a shift in the way Iskcon views sexual relationships. Promote healthy sexual relationships according to principles of varnashram not celibacy, or healthy marriage over celibacy.
Create space for a non-literal reading of sastra, or not demand that one accept everything literally to be a member of Iskcon
An understanding that the perfection of guru is in his desire to serve Krishna, not in his understanding of everything about the material world
An emphasis of kirtan, attending public kirtan based worship services, and supporting the mission of the organization over an emphasis on rules and regs and personal sadhana.
An emphasis on devotion to God, not “Iskconism” or devotion to Iskcon. The vision of our acaryas is that Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s mission would actually influence and bring under its banner all the religions of the world. Would could practice their cultural religion but take advantage of the scientific knowledge of Krishna consciousness.
Character over ritual, a devotee is someone with good character, not some with a shaved head and neck beads. Hopefully in this new century with its emphasis on Varnashrama Dharma, proper moral and ethical behavior, we will see a shift in how we recognize who is a proper devotee.
This new century, with its emphasis on moral imperatives and move towards Srila Prabhupada’s vision of “simple living and high thinking” which will bring about a strong emphasis on simple living as a moral imperative, live simply so that other may simply live.
Here is something similar that I wrote a little more recently on what Iskcon’s mission and vision should be as it interacts with the public.
My basic vision for preaching is that we need to shift our focus away from “making devotees” and more towards teaching spiritual techniques for creating real peace and unity, which is the first purpose listed by Srila Prabhupada in his seven purposes of Iskcon wherein he says, “To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.”
If we are take Srila Prabupada’s mandate of respiritualizing the entire human society then I feel it means taking a broader approach than is normally taken by traditional Iskcon projects. The first thing it means is that we have to honestly recognize that most people cannot follow the four regulative principles and chant sixteen rounds everyday. If we are to influence the general society who will never be able to come up to that level what are we going to offer them. What spiritual techniques can we share with them that they can implement that will enrich their lives and also help to create real peace and unity in society?
The first thing that we have to offer is basic sambandha jnana or basic knowledge about the existence of God, that God does exist and that he is a person and basic knowledge about ourselves and all living things as spirit souls part and parcel of God.
This basic information offers people a spiritual foundation to their life, an answer to the basic questions of life and a purpose and meaning beyond eating, working, and reproducing. This basic spiritual understanding is what is missing in society and the foundation of all social problems and by spreading this spiritual knowledge we can inspire people to dedicate their lives to serving God by helping others. This is the basic principle of varnashrama dharma, performing one’s occupational duties for the God’s pleasure.
Following directly from this is the practice of vegetarianism, which is directly based on the moral and ethical principles of Krishna consciousness and the idea that animals are conscious beings just like us, and is the single most important thing a person can do to fight global poverty, disease, and starvation.
And we can offer people a very simple, wonderful, and joyus way of connecting with God, through the simple act of chanting his names.
There will always be a few special souls who will actually want to take initiation from a bonafide spiritual master and have the discipline to practice sadhana bhakti. If they have very exemplary moral character and healthy emotional development they will be spiritual leaders within Iskcon and within society but they only comprise a small percentage of Iskcon’s membership. Iskcon must serve their needs but if it only serves them it will be neglecting half of its mission.