Questions about Prabhupāda and ISKCON

I recently answered a questionaire for a study about how modern people deal with some of the more socially challenging aspects of Prabhupāda’s books and, especially, how they are represented in ISKCON. I thought I might as well share my answers.

1. How and when did you encounter Vaishnavism for the first time?
Dad was carrying me on his shoulders, we were returning to our car. We were on a vacation to s.california, and went to laguna beach. On the way back to the  car we walked past the Hare Krishna temple, it was Sunday, late afternoon. It was the late 1970s maybe early 1980s. Chanting was pouring out of the temple and i was facinated. My mom said something like, “They are some weird cult.”
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Later I got exposed to it again by learning (via Thrasher Magazine) that the Cro-Mags were into it. A little later Raghunath (Youth of Today) explained a few things to me about it.

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2. What was your religious background and outlook toward religion/spirituality before encountering GV?
Catholic by culture but not a particularly theistic family, actually a very secular upbringing.
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Were you seeking something spiritual?
Yes, my entire life, but not always in a typical way. I was attracted to outer space, dinosaurs, elves and middle earth, dungeons and dragons, etc all because I was not satisfied with having my mind in the here-and-now since the here-and-now seemed so shallow.

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3. What was it that made you decide to be a devotee?
It was the introduction and opening verse of Prabhupāda’s Śrī Isopanishad translation. I was absolutely floored that spirituality could be logical, precise, and systematic.
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4. What was your attitude toward sexism, racism, and homophobia prior to encountering Vaishnavism?
The same as my attitude after encountering Vaishnavism… I feel that these things are divisive, and therefore a parcel of hatred, which is an effect of ignorance.

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5. When did you first encounter the disparaging ideas about women, people of African descent, and lesbians/gays?
I firs encountered racism when I was about 18 years old and our neighbor got furious with my dad for selling our house to a black family. I couldn’t believe my ears, the level of ignorance was mind-blowing.
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I never really experienced hatred towards women and homosexuals. My aunt is homosexual, it wasn’t a big issue.
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Did you find them in Prabhupada’s books, in conversations happening in and around the movement, or both?
The role that women played in ISKCON didn’t sit right with me. I thought there were statements in Prabhupada’s books that might be used to justify such a role, but it seemed clear to me that it was really the westerners actively usings those statements as excuses for their preconceptions or flaws.
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I didn’t really ever feel any sense of racism in ISKCON. Homophobia? Maybe a little. I didn’t really encounter it.
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What was your reaction upon encountering these ideas?
I mean, what do you expect? It’s only shocking so long as you are gullible enough to hope that anything existing in the world of ignorance can be absolutely perfect. We are a whole bunch of ignorant jerks. Our saving grace is that we are trying to improve. Nonethless we are still basically ignorant jerks. So what do you expect from us?
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I was a little more shocked not to see the sexism, but to see the resistance even to any open discussion of it. That part makes you wonder if we are really trying to improve or what?
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6. What was your view on the connection between the shastra and Prabhupada’s statements/purports?
Prabhupāda’s purports are his explanations of the śāstras, most of the time he relies very heavily on previous explanations by Śrī Jīva and Śrī Viśvanātha, which I think is very proper and admirable.
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7. How did you deal with the tension, if any, between Prabhupada’s teachings on these issues and your own previously held beliefs? Did you actively try to explain it/reconcile it/justify it/etc, or did you just not address it?
I actively took a combative role against it. I even published a small pamphlet calling the sexism an anartha and calling for specific changes in the temple policies. I distributed it around the temples in the NE America.
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Was your navigation of this tension, if any, solely internal, or did you try to take part in any actions in the community to address these issues?
See above. I also tried to support others who were trying to do something about it.
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8. What eventually caused you to leave the Vaishnava world?
I didn’t.
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I gave up my contact with ISKCON and so on, but that should hardly be deemed “leaving the Vaishnava world.” When a real relationship is established with Krishna, it is permanent and internal. I even gave up my sādhana for a while, but I don’t think even that should be considered “leaving the Vaishnava world.”
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I think it was around 2001 that I gave up on sādhana for a while.

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9. What led you back into Vaishnavism?
I became active in bhakti sādhana again because my friends Rasaraja and Trivikrama (from our band, 108) inspired me. They were great people without any of the things I disliked about ISKCON, and they were engaged in bhakti-sādhana, so this gave me a taste for it again. This was 2005.
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10. How do you view women’s, racial, and sexual issues now? How do you view the relationship between your views and those in Prabhupada’s books/statements?
I’m not a part of the ISKCON social group anymore, at least not nearly in the same way as before. So I kind of feel like its not my problem.
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My views and Prabhupāda’s statements are fine together, I don’t feel any unresolvable tension. But the way some people use Prabhupadas statement to justify their attitudes is just something I like to keep a healthy distance from.
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11. If there is a tension in that relationship, how are you dealing with it?
I keep my distance from people who can’t or won’t engage in a logical, rational discussion about it.
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I understand Prabhupada’s teaching in context. I think thats the key to having a sane, good understanding. “In context” means in context of who he was and what he was doing, and also in context of what he is trying to express, and how the same points were expressed by his own teachers. And most of all, in context to the direct Sanskrit scriptures themselves.
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Prabhupāda gave us great access to the Sanskrit directly, and I think people who don’t get down to that level of reading his books are really only reading about half of what he has given. Everything starts to make a whole lot of sense when you take what Prabhupāda opened up to us and follow it all the way back through Śrī Viśvanātha, Śrī Jīva. Śrī Rūpa. Śrī Krishna dāsa, and into the ultimate origin, the original Bhāgavatam itself, and the rest of the Vedic body.
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12. How do you now view the connection between Prabhupada’s statements and the content of the shastras?
He’s a guru, so he explains the shastra in terms of how it is relevant to the people he is talking to, and also in terms of his specific individual personality and frames of reference.
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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing, regarding the pamphlet calling for changes in temple policies, do you recall what those changes were, and did any get implemented?
    Haribol

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    1. The changes were that women should stand on the side, not in the back of the temple. Women should also give lectures, and lead kīrtan. I did not immediately get specific results, but I believe I contributed to these results eventually coming to be re-instated (as they were early in ISKCON). A few years later I spent a couple of years as the president of the ISKCON temple in New Jersey and we implemented these things.

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