We cannot precisely tell if ISCKON is shrinking or growing because of India where everything is so difficult to count, and even if counted, is hardly worth relying. For the purposes of religious studies we assume the number of ISKCON devotees being either at standstill or slightly moving in any way. A problem of much greater interest is profound loss of ISKCON’s positions in the West, ISKCON’s failure to inculturate into Western civilization.
On one hand, it looks like ISKCON is slowly growing due to new converts flow in India and post-USSR countries and this growth is powerful enough to substitute the losses in USA and Europe.
Another thing we can say for sure — ISKCON hasn’t passed the test of inculturation into Western World. The Hare Krishna movement’s fast rise in USA and Europe was co-working great with the 60-s’ and 70-s thrive for spirituality and counterculture, but since that times lots of ISKCON temples in USA have been closed and many will soon transform into India’s cultural and religious centers, sometimes moving far from original ISKCON theology and organization.
Globally, after its popularity peak in early seventies Hare Krishna movement becomes more and more marginal, comprehended more like a bright and recognizable cultural phenomenon with current spiritual and religious influence on global society close, but not equal to zero.
The main reason for loss of devotees in the West is what seemed to be a strong side of ISKCON – its rigid emphasis on ascetics and heavy every-day religious practice. Unfortunately, there’s not many people in Western world really ready for such a full-scale devotion and self-sacrifice as Srila Prabhupada’s maxims demand.
Another thing is the attempt to introduce Indian traditional social system into the West – an attempt doomed for failure. Varnashrama doesn’t work well even in India these days, for sure Western society is completely unable to implement it – people of middle class don’t want to live in ashrams and don’t want to let their youth do so.
In the West it’s much more difficult to re-create the idealized Indian tradition of people leaving in the ashram – one of many reasons is that it costs bigger money to survive there than in India.
Why did that happen? Why have ISKCON temples in the West become empty, closed or transformed into Hindu diaspora “cultural centers”?
ISKCON has turned out to be too conservative and too fundamentalist, refusing dialog with “dirty and sinful” society. Shrila Prabhupada’s gospel offered a good response to spiritual thirst and message well-understood by the “flower and mushroom generation”, but the Western society has changed much since that time.
I’m speaking not about preaching, but about dialog. Too radical in its views and often carrying Prabhupada’s “rascals!” mood, ISKCON allowed its members to adopt too aggressive attitudetowards the society, in its presumption of own moral superiorityforgetting that any new religious trend coming from different culture has to go through inculturation process.
Instead of changing to go better with the dominant culture of the society ISKCON has decided to stubbornly push its way. This choice to be “few, but faithful”, rather than “being many and mediocre” (missing the organization forms where both variants can co-exist) deserves respect, but it inevitably leads to the current situation.
THE FEAR OF HINDUIZATION
ISKCON temples in the West becoming (with no evil intent, for sure:) ) a target of Indian diaspora cultural attack and annexation is predictable trend that shocks only those who had drawn in their minds a stiff idol of early ISKCON.
Some “devotees” are so scared of Hindus that they demand to “stop the Hinduization of Prabhupada’s temples as Real pre-requisites for ISKCON’s growth”.
This means that some forces in ISCKON are turning it into a sect in a bad meaning of this word and shows that fear of change and reluctance to accept it will bring inevitable crash to Society, – history shows that rigid religious forms brought to new societies do not survive, if they don’t find flexibility and courage to change and wisdom to accept change.
A smart strategy would be not to get scared, but study new opportunities this “hinduization” brings – in the spheres of language, culture, Indian religious traditions that are much more tolerant towards Others and less aggressive than Westernized ISKCON.
The fact that so many in ISKCON are uncontended with its hinduization shows the truth about ISKCON’s claims to be “Vedic” and “preach an ancient-Indian tradition”. In the presence of real bearers of Hindu traditions it’s much more difficult to keep complacent face showing that ISKCON brahmacharis know the “Vedic truth” better who have been born in India and have lived many years in society largely influenced by true post-Vedic culture and spirit. If ISCKON was really and totally about heart and spiritual openness, there would be more encouragement to share and to study the Indian heritage, but not fear of hinduization.
this tendency can be witnessed in post-USSR ISKCON even in greater extent than in the West: Ukrainian and Russian ISKCON people I observe often are scared of India, its religions and its other-sampradaya vaishnavism (remember, some 500+millions of devotees) perhaps even more than Orthodox Christians are scared of demons. They are uncomfortable in presence of “real” traditional Hindu worshipers with their sometimes different, “wrong”, but also based on some scriptures attitudes to many theological and worship elements of ISKCON’s reality.
This arrogance and the attitude towards Hindus coming to the temples sometimes gets so ugly, that the word “racism” comes to mind… Or is it because of sublime notion that the Hindu diaspora are “true”/” real” and have some deeper understanding of vaishnavism than the white guys in white and orange clothes and what the latter doing here being just an imitation???
I didn’t say that – it’s just a notion appearing when you see confused Ukrainian devotees contacting with Hindu vaishnavas.
PATRIACHAL CHARACTER OF ISKCON
Another thing is typically Indian –disregard for the individual, his personality, and “rich inner world” that European civilization has nourished for so many centuries. ISKCON’s disregard of all this psychic activity and its demand to sacrifice all the ego-games “for Krishna” receive less and less understanding and desire to implement in the West. This controversy brings frustration and rejection to devotees and people leave – just because ISKCON “thinks Indian” ignoring the challenges of different culture.
One more problem is in the sphere of sex. Celibacy is hard to observe even for Indian saddhus who have developed this culture for centuries. Strict principle leaves devotees with no other chances than to feel guilt for their “illicit” life. Sad for ISKCON but true – the majority of modern people because of complex factors are not able to follow the celibacy principle. But the Society’s strict insistence on it brings problems. Another sexual problem is ISKCON’s patriarchal character — undermining female’s roles works very good in India and post-Soviet countries,but it’d be naїve to expect emancipated matajis of Europe and USA to tolerate such attitudes for long.
WHAT ABOUT ISKCON’s MISSION IN THE WEST?
Assessing ISKCON’s mission in the West is difficult. The Society has created lots of temples, devotees, beautiful works of art, music, created and translated lots of texts, introduced new philosophy and culture from India, create interest that drove hundreds of thousands people to India, to religion, spirituality, in sixties and seventies it appeared to be a warhead of some new spiritual supermissile that would transform the Western society.
It didn’t happen. After Prabhupada, despite all the kirtans, books, lectures, harinamas, and prasada distribution Hare Krishna movement hasn’t changed the Western society, hasn’t produced a new philosopher of religious leader, cultural or religious figure of size noticeable on the scale of humanity. It seems that they’ve even quit trying — majority of ISKCON’s spiritual life these days goes on in India and that’s why its greatest leaders like Swami Radhanath spend most of their time there.
ISKCON could have used its popularity to become a spike of counterculture, to shape, and direct one of its major spiritual streams. Instead, the Society chose the more fundamentalist path which inevitably pushed it ad marginem of modern West, to the way of decline and stagnation.
The movement’s glory has been left in times of the Beatles and hippie revolution and I seriously doubt that it will arise once more in Western Europe or North America. (Though ICKON has quite a serious growth and potential in post-USSR countries, it looks destined to remain marginal “new religious movement” without huge spiritual or cultural influence on these countries’ societies en masse.)
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Or could all this activity of ISKCON being just a smart move of Hindu maharajes to prepare the West for a new westernized religion that is to become basis for further Hinduism conquista of the West?
Sounds to much like religious conspiracy? Who knows, those Eastern guys are so subtle…
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