If Not ISKCON, Then What?
Someone just asked me: “If a person can’t really relate to ISKCON’s past, where else can they go to become Krishna conscious?”
First let’s consider the offshoots of ISKCON.
I don’t recommend many of them, because most of them seem to be obsessed with being antithetical to some specific detail in ISKCON’s history, so you don’t really wind up getting outside of ISKCON by going to them. The one that comes to mind first as being very worthy of recommendation is called Sri Caitanya Sangha, led by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciple Tripurāri Swāmī. It strikes me as a well-balanced group suited for intellectuals, without being overtly academic and dry.
A second group which seems similar is Sri Narasingha Chaitanya Ashram. There is also a group called VRNDA. Both strike me as worthwhile, but I don’t have any personal experience interacting with them, so I can’t say more.
There is also something called the World Vaishnava Association which is an attempt to form a cooperative platform for the many different groups of Vaishnavas. Again, I’m not experienced with them, but it seems like an interesting place to get some exposure to a wide variety of Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava groups.
Regardless of the group, ISKCON offshoots don’t stray too far from ISKCON in general. If you want to get further removed one option is to go “up the tree” a little. ISKCON is a basically separate branch of an older organization called Gauḍiya-Maṭh. There are two chapters of Gauḍiya-Maṭh besides ISKCON which I know of that still show vitality. One is Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math, founded by Śrīla Prabhupāda’s close friend and godbrother, B.R. Śrīdhāra Swāmī. The other is the branch very recently vitalized by B.V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja, which I think may be called the Keśavajī Gauḍiya Maṭh.
Both are active in the Western hemisphere. Both are really quite similar to ISKCON in most ways. Of course they all have different social and political history, and they all have a different management authority and structure. Besides these obvious points, I would say Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Maṭh is different from ISKCON in that it is (1) even more conservative about rāgānugā sādhana, (2) requires less quantifiable-commitment from its initiated members, and (3) grants more access to directly studying Śrīla Prabhupāda’s gurus: Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta and Śrīla Bhaktivinoda. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja’s effort, on the other hand, distinguishes itself by (1) Expressly bringing rāgānugā sādhana into a clearer, more prominent focus among the followers of Bhaktivinoda, (2) requiring similar quantifiable-commitments from initiated members, and (3) having a more recent founding ācārya who was prolific in lecturing and producing books.
All-in-all, Gauḍiya Maṭh branches don’t really get that different from ISKCON. For something still further removed, go still further “up the tree.” The challenge here is that not many other groups “up this far from ISKCON” are all that accessible to English-speaking people living outside Vṛndāvana. But, I can think of two options that are genuine Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava exponents not out of reach of people not living in Vṛndāvana.
Neither of them are in a lineage stemming from Bhaktivinode Ṭhākur, although both of them began their devotional journey as a result of Bhaktivinode Ṭhākur’s efforts.
The first is Ananta-dās Paṇḍit, who is recognized as the mahānt (“leader”) of the sādhu bābājīs living at Rādhā-kuṇḍa. Although I think he has no international branches or organization, he has nearly 5,000 disciples from all over the world, and many books in English. His focus is, as you would guess, entirely on rāgānugā-sādhana and is extremely liberal in granting practices and discussing the details.
Ananta-dās Paṇḍitjī sometimes seems to adopt an oppositional attitude towards Bhaktivinoda and (especially) his son, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvati. This may be an important consideration for many who have been introduced to Krishna through the mercy of Srila Bhaktivinoda, Bhaktisiddhānta and Bhaktivedānta Swāmī, as it may be too difficult for them to accommodate Ananta-das Paṇḍit’s apparent viewpoint on these personalities.
Another viable option is Dr. Satyanārāyaṇa dās Bābājī — a Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava devotee of unparalleled erudition, whose scholarship extends to all branches of Vedic philosophy, is recognized even by academics and universities, and particularly focuses on the teachings of Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī, especially the Ṣaḍ-sandarbha (essentially the “constitution” of Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava siddhānta). He lectures and writes in English, and maintains an organization called the Jiva Institute, through which one can interact with him relatively easily. He is headquartered in Vṛindāvana but travels internationally on a regular schedule.
It should also be noted that while ISKCON does continue to cling to many mistakes, it has made progress and is not as monolithic and fanatically shallow as it formerly was. Within ISKCON today, one can find a wide spectrum of teachers with different outlooks, personalities, and comprehensions. So it is also possible for many people to find a productive and fertile soil for their bhakti-latā-bīja amongst the teachers within and adjunct to ISKCON. I do not feel it is necessary to abandon ISKCON, but I’ve provided this article as service to those who will flourish more fully without being entirely under the ISKCON structure.