Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Trip to New York

I spent a week in New York in August in order to do some fundraising. It was nice to encounter devotees in the Sanctuary, where a small group of brahmacharis enthusiastically follow the morning program. I say a small group, but in fact, their number is quite large by current standards--more than 10. I attended japa sessions, mangala arati, Bhagavata class, etc., several times and was enlivened. The temple room is small, but clean and nicely decorated. The Deities are effulgent and mesmerizingly beautiful.


Adipurusha Das

I was staying at Adipurusha's guesthouse on 3rd Street. Adipurusha is a New Yorker through and through. He has spent most of his devotional life as a sankirtan devotee and his facility is used regularly by many devotees who still come to New York to sell hats and whatnot to make money for various programs. This collection can be quite lucrative for those who have mastered the techniques, even though it remains controversial.

Adipurusha was the manager of the Sanctuary for several years, but he has backed out of managerial concerns with the takeover by Yajnapurusha and Iskcon. Nevertheless, he attends the program faithfully and enthusiastically, making salient comments at Bhagavata classes and playing the guitar from time to time in accompaniment to the kirtan. He also runs a food distribution program to which a part of the sankirtan money goes to fund, as its raison-d'être, so to speak.

He has an excellent head for business, as far as I can see, as he has built up his bed and breakfast business in a very short time and is able to keep occupancy at a very high rate most of the time.

We had an interesting conversation one morning when I was making some comment--perhaps after visiting the Brooklyn temple--that things could be going better in Iskcon. He remarked that H. Burke Rochford, the famous sociologist who has made a career of studying Iskcon, had stayed at his B&B and that he had made similar observations. He on the other hand was convinced that Mahaprabhu's sankirtan movement was growing and expanding in ways that we could not always see, and that we could not apply our mundane ways of knowing to understand how it was going on.


Kirtanananda Swami

I saw little sign of any politics at the Sanctuary, but then I was not there long enough to really find out. Somewhat to my surprise, I found Kirtanananda in his apartments, looking very frail and unwell. I talked to him for a little while, but he was not well and not in the mood for conversation. He did not remember me from the nine months I spent in New Vrindavan in 1974. I felt like holding his hand, but for some reason I did not. I think it was because he would have felt odd being an object of pity, though that is not exactly what I was really feeling; it was more like ordinary normal human solidarity, sustained by whatever common history we had as devotees. The next day he was taken to the hospital, but it was all so quiet, as if a nobody had left. It was only after leaving New York that I wondered if anyone had gone to see him in the hospital.


Pradyumna

Pradyumna Das is also living there in the Sanctuary. He was pleased to see me, and I him. We ended up having a scholars' type of conversation, about our projects and scholarly work. Pradyumna is working for a NGO at the UN called Religions for Peace. He is the head researcher and gets to do quite a bit of travelling around the world. He is often consulted by devotees from all over who want him to check their translations. He has good contacts with a lot of people in the field on the Eastern Seaboard at least. He is a sharp fellow and seemed a little disappointed at not having pursued an academic career with a bit more determination. I was very glad to renew acquaintance with him, whom I had not seen since the time of his famous letter back in 78 or whenever it was.


Dayananda

I had an interesting meeting with Dayananda, who is living in Jackson Heights, right near the biggest Little India of the NY metro area. Lots of Bengalis, especially Bangla Deshis. There are many mullahs with tables full of books about Islam in Bengali and English. I did a little collecting there, mostly in Hindi and Bengali. Met at least one Bengali Vaishnava with tilak markings, but he did not seem particularly happy about being asked for money. Life is tough.

Dayananda is retired and comfortable, but is dedicating his time to the Sankirtana Yajna project (www.sankirtana-yajna.com), which was mostly about trying to find new ways of evangelizing for Iskcon. Like many others I met on this trip, he was generally upbeat about the progress of the movement, seeming to think that it was in Krishna's hands. Nevertheless, he felt that too much emphasis was still being placed on the recruitment of brahmacharis and that new ways of expanding new householders was necessary.

Dayananda feels that most of the Iskcon preaching going on today is done to the "low-hanging fruit." Meaning that it is inward looking, rather than trying to expand outwards into finding new blood.

He spoke favorably of Mormon and Jehovah's Witnesses door to door preaching strategies, based on a rather more sophisticated knowledge of how those sects operate than most of us might have. His very simple idea is that there should be followup programs, that books sales should be connected to some kind of in-house training instead of leaving the books to operate all on their own. He envisions this as an expanding program, with new people who are trained up setting up further contacts, etc.

He made what to me was a somewhat startling statement when he said that by his own definition he was among the most conservative in Iskcon, in the sense that he was more interested in preaching than in siddhanta. Indeed, he said that if there is a choice to be made between doctrine and management, he would always go for the latter. In other words, managerial choices should be made based more on practical considerations than on arcane theological points or misguided attempts to adhere to orthodoxy. Naturally, I found this quite radical a statement, and perhaps he would have adjusted it somewhat if challenged. He cited Prabhupada's analysis of governing systems and varnashram--shudras like communism, vaishyas like capitalism, kshatriyas like dictatorship and brahmins like democracy--if not anarchy. The institution has too important a role to be left to the theologians.

To buttress this point, he pointed to what he considered the worrying trend to competing lines of authority in Iskcon. According to Dayananda's analysis, diksha gurus in ISKCON are establishing independent lines of authority that bypass the "hard institution" of ISKCON itself, namely the temples. This means that these gurus have been building up networks of their own disciples with whom they can arrange programs and so on without having to make use of the temple facilities. Dayananda did not approve of this as it hollows out the society and dissipates its force.

I found this analysis interesting, as it confirms that the guru institution has a kind of innate centrifugal tendency, as Larry Shinn discussed so many years ago at the beginnings of the post-charismatic phase of the movement. Now even ISKCON, which has tried to maintain collegiality and centralized unicity while still maintaining the guru institution, is finally succumbing slowly to this tendency.

All in all, an interesting conversation with an old friend.


Nandanandan Das

The single devotee doing kirtan during sandhya arati at the Brooklyn temple was Nandanandan Das, a disciple of Prabhupada's godbrother Goswami Maharaj. Since I was something of a regular at feasts and stuff at Goswami Maharaj's math, we were acquaintances. Nandanandan used to accompany Pishima, Prabhupada's sister, who was also initiated by Goswami Maharaj, to Iskcon when she stayed at her guru's math. Nandanandan went to Iskcon after getting married and has been serving in Iskcon temples here and there for twenty years now. He has four daughters, all of whom are nearing marriageable age.

We had a fun arati together, it was as though we recognized each other from the kirtan. Maybe not so much as individuals, but certainly as devotees. He remembered me more than I him, I must confess. Nevertheless, we were pleased to see each other, and we talked at some length in Bengali. He told me that there were only five or six regular devotees at mangal arati--in that huge building. Indeed, though we talked to some other devotees who were there, the overall impression was of a dark, rather unappealingly decorated and lifeless building, whose Shriner (or whatever it was before) past still solidly peeping through the thin coat of Vaishnavism. I very much felt the contrast with the Sanctuary, which seemed so luminous.

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