Family Formation Culture Change in ISKCON
This article is reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, 1997, pages 61-82.
Family Formation, Culture and Change in the Hare Krishna Movement
E. Burke Rochford., Jr.
The only way that the Supreme Lord can be worshipped is through the functioning system of varnasrama (culture). Because it facilitates, gives the maximum opportunity for success in the practice of sadhana-bhakti. (Prabhupada disciple, November, 1992.)
We have the absolute truth but we lack a culture to support it…And without culture, we find ourselves facing so many different problems as a society. How to educate our kids? Where to earn a living. How to live peacefully in Krishna Consciousness. So many things. (Prabhupada disciple, May, 1992)
The study of culture has been largely neglected by investigators of social movements (Johnston and Klandermans, 1995:20, McAdam, 1994:37). This oversight is surprising for a number of reasons. First, social movements represent collective responses to injustices found within mainstream cultures (Gamson et al., 1982; Turner, 1969; Snow et al., 1986). Secondly, social movement organisations are inevitably influenced by the cultures in which they operate (Tarrow, 1994; Zalf and Ash, 1996). And thirdly, social movements often represent conscious efforts to create cultural alternatives, perhaps involving the mobilisation of oppositional cultures (Gitlin, 1980; Taylor and Whitte, 1995), or social movement communities (Buechler, 1990).1
While bringing cultural analysis to the study of social movements represents a promising line of enquiry, the question of how culture should be integrated into the analysis of social movements remains less clear (Johnston and Klandermans, 1995). As the latter authors argue, ‘Unless we are able to construct theories that relate to variables we know already to be of influence such as resources, organisations, political opportunities, and perceived costs and benefits of participation we will not get beyond the descriptive study of aspects of movement culture’ (1995:21). Moreover, the study of movement culture must be tied to issues central to the field, such as how cultural variables influence the rise and decline of social movements and their organisational forms (Johnston and Klandermans, 1995:21). The present study attempts to move along these lines by considering the North American development of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). I will consider the interrelationship between the growth of marriage and family life, changing economic resources, social movement culture, and the processes of decline and transformation within ISKCON and its communities.
After first presenting a brief overview of marriage and family life within select American religious communities, and clarifying the methods and procedures used in this research, I will divide the remainder of the paper into four major sections. The first discusses marital and family life as it existed during the first half of ISKCON’s North American history. The second section traces the numerical expansion of married and family life within ISKCON during the 1980s and early 1990s. The third details the economic factors and circumstances resulting in the ascendancy of the nuclear family. The final section considers how the nuclear family played an instrumental role in the transformation of ISKCON from a sectarian institution2 to an inclusive organisation comprised of congregationally-based communities in North America. Here I will argue that the failure to develop cultural institutions to support and accommodate family life precipitated the exodus of large numbers of parents and their children from ISKCON’s communities. The paper concludes with a discussion of these changes in light of the teachings of ISKCON’s founder, Srila Prabhupada.
Marriage and Family Within Religious Communities
Marriage and family life have played a central role in the fate of communal societies, be they religious or secular in orientation. Kanter’s (1972) investigation of nineteenth century American communes found that marital and family ties often conflicted with a community’s need to build and sustain member commitment and loyalty. Only by renouncing couple and family relationships could intimacy become a collective good serving the interests of the community as a whole. As Kanter makes clear, utopian communities past and present face the delicate task of building relational structures ‘which do not compete with the community for emotional fulfilment’ (197:91). To do otherwise is to put the communal enterprise at risk (also, see Coser, 1974:136 49; Zablocki, 1980:146 88).
Yet previous research has demonstrated that religious communities, especially those favouring a more disciplined, sectarian way of life, fare much better than their more secular counterparts (Berger, 1981:129; Foster, 1991; Hall, 1988; Kanter, 1972; Zablocki, 1971). Two of the most successful American religious societies, the Shakers and Oneida, each eschewed the nuclear family, although for somewhat different reasons and by means that represented opposite extremes (Foster, 1991). Under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee the Shakers practised strict celibacy. Celibacy allowed women to escape the domestic demands of child-rearing, thus freeing them to devote their full-time energies to the needs of the Shaker community. It also afforded women the possibility of greater equality with Shaker men (Foster, 1991:31). By contrast, the Oneida community founded by John Humphrey Noyes favoured group marriage or what came to be called ‘complex marriage’. As the Handbook of the Oneida Community noted, in 1875, ‘Two people should not “worship and idolise each other….The heart should be free to love all the true and worthy, [without] selfish love”’ (in Carden, 1969:49).
Other sectarian groups devised still other ways to control marital relations. The early Mormon practice of polygamy simultaneously limited exclusive ties between marriage partners while creating an elaborate network of interconnected kinship ties that served the interests of group solidarity (Foster, 1991:205). The Amana communities reduced an individual’s spiritual status and community ranking following marriage (Barthel, 1984:55). The marriage ceremony itself included a text which read, ‘To be married is good, but to be unmarried is better’ (Kanter, 1972:8),
With respect to family life, successful intentional communities of the past restricted involvement and emotional attachments between parent and child (Kanter, 1972:90). Children were viewed as communal property, and child rearing became the responsibility of the community as a whole, instead of the biological parents. At Oneida, for example, young children were separated from their parents and placed in the communal ‘Children’s House’. Until the age of twelve they attended school, worked part-time, and received religious training. Parents had only limited involvement in the day-to-day lives of their children and were subject to group sanction for becoming emotionally attached (Carden, 1969:64 5).
Although we know that marriage and family life play a role in the fate of communal societies, we know much less empirically and theoretically about the circumstances under which they gain or perhaps lose control over these exclusive relationships. Below, I trace the North American history of marital and familial relationships within ISKCON, demonstrating how changes in the structure of the family during the 1980s initiated a process of internal secularisation defined by outward expanding congregationalism and accompanying decommunisation. My description and analysis emphasises how cycles of economic growth and decline influenced ISKCON’s ability to control family relations. Lacking the resources to develop and sustain a religious culture to accommodate family life, ISKCON became a congregational movement in North America by the end of the 1980’s.
Methods and Data Collation
Data for this paper was collected over the course of twenty years of research on ISKCON in the US and Canada (see, Rochford, 1985). During that time I have visited and conducted research in virtually every major ISKCON community in the United States. (For a more detailed account of these methods see Rochford, 1985:21 42, 1992a.). The present paper is an outgrowth of my ongoing investigation into ISKCON’s development over the past decade, especially as it relates to family life (Rochford 1995a, 1995b) and the fate of ISKCON’s second generation (Rochford 1992b, 1994a, 1996).
Over the course of my research, I have combined participant observation, interviewing, and the collection of survey data. I have also made use of ISKCON publications as a source of historical data, especially the published letters of ISKCON’s founder (see Prabhupada, 1992). My field research was conducted during two separate periods, 1975 1981, and 1990 1994. In 1990, I formally interviewed over 70 first generation parents affiliated with four ISKCON communities in the US. Since then, I have also interviewed more than a dozen ISKCON teachers, several ISKCON leaders and dozens of second generation devotees. Since 1991, I have served as a member of ISKCON’s North American Board of Education.
This investigation presents findings from two non-random surveys. The first survey was conducted, in 1980, with data collected from a total of 314 adult devotees residing in six major ISKCON communities in the US such as Los Angeles, New York and Boston. The survey focused primarily on questions of recruitment and the range of factors that influenced member commitment and conversion. It is used here as a comparative baseline to help track changing patterns of marriage, employment and family life within ISKCON during the 1980s.
The second survey was conducted during the autumn of 1991, and early winter, 1992, with a total of 268 respondents. The survey targeted first generation devotees affiliated with nine ISKCON communities in the US. In the end, however, a total of nineteen devotee communities in the US and three in Canada were represented as questionnaires were distributed widely by ISKCON members. The questionnaire focused primarily on family issues, questions relating to children and education, and the organisational and religious commitments of ISKCON members. Questionnaire respondents included core-ISKCON members, congregational members, and former ISKCON adherents. Findings reported in the present study are limited to core-members and congregational members (N=234).
Marriage, Family and Social Control During ISKCON’s Early Years
Until the early 1980s, ISKCON exercised considerable control over the lives of its membership.3 To practise Krishna Consciousness and be an ISKCON member required cutting ties with the outside secular culture and living a disciplined, communal way of life (Rochford, 1985). Despite the personal sacrifices involved, devotees willingly committed themselves to the requirements set forth by their guru, Srila Prabhupada. Perhaps in no other way was this more evident than in the realm of marriage and family life.
Sexual Politics and Marriage
When Prabhupada attracted his first followers from among the hippies on the Lower East side of New York City, in 1965 and 1966, he was surprised when a number of young women expressed interest in becoming involved in his spiritual movement. Within the first year he initiated his first female disciple (S. Goswami, 1980:184) By the time of his death, in 1977, Prabhupada initiated as many as two thousand other women into his Krishna Consciousness movement.
From the very beginning the question arose as to how to deal with the presence of both unmarried men and women within ISKCON. The spiritual ideal was for single men and women to be strictly segregated with little or no contact between them. However, Prabhupada realised that this was a difficult proposition in America where ‘boys and girls are accustomed to mix[ing] freely with one another’ (Prabhupada, 1992:865). The problem intensified, in 1967, when ISKCON opened a temple in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. Having attracted 150 200 recruits during its first two years in Haight-Ashbury, ISKCON’s communal structure emerged in order to hold onto the many young hippies who were otherwise without stable or permanent residence in the local area (Rochford,1985:158 59).
In 1967, one of Prabhupada’s first women disciples raised the possibility of creating a separate women’s asrama to house the growing number of unmarried women joining the movement. In his response to her, Prabhupada pointed to the inherent dangers of allowing men and women to freely associate with one another.
In the scriptures it is said that the woman is just like fire and the man is like a butter pot. The butter melts in the pot while in contact with the fire ... In spiritual life attraction of man and woman ... hampers very much, therefore some sort of restrictions are necessary to check this hampering problem (Prabhupada,1992: 851).
Creating separate living quarters for men and women provided one barrier to male-female interaction. Yet this proved only to be only a partial solution since men and women still remained housed within the temple complex, within close proximity of one another during the day. On those occasions where men and women found it necessary to interact these exchanges were formal and ritualistically structured. A male devotee was required to address a women as ‘mother’, and a women devotee was expected to treat a man as if he were her son.
Limiting contact between members of the opposite sex often required rather extreme strategies of avoidance. Consider the account of one woman who reminisced about her early days as a devotee in the early 1970s. The occasion was a meeting of ISKCON’s North American Board of Education.
W: I remember when I lived in Boston I had to try and avoid all association from all the men . . . Just one simple example. I wasn’t allowed, ever, to look up from the floor if there was a man around. (Laughter). In fact we [women] lived on the fourth floor. If there was a man going up the stairs and I was going down, I had to go all the way back up to the fourth floor. I couldn’t be anywhere near the stairs if there was a man on the stairs. And if a man walked near me, I’d put my face in a corner until they walked past. I’d face the wall and go like this (covering her face with her sari), in the corner (laughter). Man: Having lived as a brahmacari in the same temple at that time I would say you’re not at all exaggerating. W: Yes you were there at that time. I’m not exaggerating. Man: not even a bit. (Her emphasis. Atlanta 1992.)4
Given that the movement’s membership was comprised of young people in their late-teens and early-twenties, a life of celibacy represented a difficult goal for many. Prabhupada recognised that many of his male disciples would be unable to live the celibate life of a brahmacari. During his first year in America, Prabhupada received the first of what would prove to be many requests for permission to marry. While reminding his disciples that married life and the entanglements thereof made it ‘difficult to make any progress in Krsna Consciousness’ (Prabhupada, 1992:852), he nevertheless allowed marriage between his disciples. As he told one of his young male disciples, in 1969:
So far as your occasionally getting agitation from maya, the answer is simple; one must either strictly control the senses, or else he must get himself married. If one is strong enough in Krsna Consciousness, then there is no reason to become grhastha [householder], but if one is still disturbed by sex desire, then marriage is the only other possibility (Prabhupada, 1992:857).
Quite apart from the fact that some of his male disciples proved incapable of subduing their sexual urges in brahmacari life, the presence of a substantial number of women made the expansion of family life inevitable. As Prabhupada explained in a 1975 letter to one of his disciples:
Of course, it is better to remain unmarried, celibate. But so many women are coming, we cannot reject them. If someone comes to Krsna it is our duty to give them protection … So the problem is there, the women must have a husband to give protection (Prabhupada 1992:869).
In accordance with Vedic scripture, Prabhupada recognised that for his women disciples marriage and family life represented the basis of their spiritual and material fulfilment. Unlike men, for whom celibate brahmacari life represented the spiritual ideal, it was thought that ‘their natural propensity’ was to ‘desire good husbands, a good home, [and] children’ (Prabhupada, 1992:854).
In many respects, marriage represented two very different social realities for men and women within ISKCON. For women, marriage was seen as an aid to their spiritual progress in Krishna Consciousness. By contrast, for men, marriage represented a sign of weakness and ‘spiritual fall-down’. Only men incapable of controlling their senses found reason to marry. If a male devotee was committed to going back to Godhead he remained celibate, dedicating his life to spiritual activities. Because of the widespread acceptance of this philosophy, marriage involved loss of status spiritually and socially for men, while having the opposite effect for women.
In most cases ISKCON marriages were arranged. Often this meant that devotees entering into marriage had only a minimum amount of contact with their spouse prior to the marriage ceremony. The responsibility for locating suitable marriage partners fell generally on Temple Presidents and other ISKCON authorities.5 Frequently these decisions were guided more by community needs and economic considerations than concerns for marital compatibility. For example, if a man or woman raised significant sums of money doing sankirtana,6 a marriage partner would be chosen with an eye towards causing minimal disruption to his or her’s financially lucrative ‘service’. A Temple President might have even refused to arrange a marriage for a woman successful at sankirtana, especially if this meant she would be required to relocate to be with her husband. Whatever else went into arranged marriages, questions of romantic love were not a consideration.
Although the Vedic literature provides a somewhat different message, Prabhupada taught that householders could gain spiritual-realisation in their present lifetime. After all, he himself had been a family man for much of his life. Moreover, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, the father of his own spiritual master, preached that in the present age, Krishna Consciousness was best cultivated in the role of a householder (Prabhupada, 1992:861). Prabhupada considered householders celibate if they limited their sexual activity to begetting Krishna-conscious children and, only then, if they adhered to strict rules regulating sexual intercourse. Sex was permitted each month only when the women was most fertile. Sexual relations could only take place after both husband and wife chanted 50 rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra on their beads, a process taking six or more hours. To use sex to serve Krishna and the spiritual master was a sacred act; to have sexual relations for purposes of gratifying the senses was sinful. As Prabhupada explained in a 1976 lecture:
In this way you will find, according to [the] Vedic system, [that] sex life is practically denied. But because we are now in the conditioned state, it is very difficult to completely deny sex life. There is [the] regulative principle…no sex life. If you can remain without sex life, brahmacari, it is very good. But if you cannot, then get yourself married, live with wife, but have sex only for progeny. Not for sense enjoyment. Therefore even [if] one is married, if he’s sticking to one wife and wife sticking to one man, this is real married life, then the husband is also call brahmacari. Even though he is grihasta. And wife is called chaste (in Devi Dasi, 1992:6).
Given the prevailing understanding of marriage, and the controls placed on married life, there was little basis for ‘dyadic withdrawal’ (Slater, 1963) by married ISKCON members. This was all the more true given that male and female householders alike were engaged in full-time sankirtana, or some other work within the ISKCON community. If anything, it appears that householders were more willing to put their marriages at risk rather than fail to meet their obligations to Prabhupada and his movement. As one Temple President recounted:
It was a hard-core pressure. I know one of the primary reasons I’m not married anymore is because I was a Temple President. And it was expected of me that I would give everything I had. There was no question of vacation. There was no question of taking time off for myself. No question. I can give you an example. We had an apartment down here [in the community). We put a bakery in the front because we had a cooking business. It was a duplex. So the apartment in the back, it had absolutely no water power 80 percent of the time. At any time, all your water would go off. So no one wanted to live in the apartment, obviously. So I moved my wife and two young children into this apartment. With no water power! You know, my wife’s there washing her hair. The water shuts off. I’m not around of course...This is what happened. These were the sacrifices. She finally got to the point where she said, ‘That’s it. You quit as Temple President and get a job and you take care of me and the family, or that’s it’. And so then I was forced to make a choice.7 (Interview 1990).
Children and Family Life
In 1968, only two years after founding his movement, Prabhupada began to lay plans for establishing a Krishna-conscious school (gurukula). Because Prabhupada saw the school system in America as doing little more than indoctrinating ‘children in sense gratification and mental speculation, he called the schools “slaughterhouses”’ (J. Goswami, 1984:1). The ultimate goal of the gurukula would be to train students in spiritual life so that they could escape the cycle of birth and death. While academic subjects would be taught in the gurukula its primary purpose was to teach children sense control and practices of renunciation.
The students are taught to use their senses in Krsna’s service. They learn that their senses are meant not for personal enjoyment, but for Krsna’s enjoyment their enjoyment will come from pleasing Krsna. By learning to engage their senses in the service of the Lord, the students experience the highest standard of happiness (J. Goswami, 1984:2).
By being obedient and self-controlled, a young devotee could act on behalf of his or her guru. In this way one’s life could become successful (J. Goswami 1984:34-37).
Because the primary goal of the gurukula was to provide training in sense control, the movement chose to remove children from the care of their parents at the age of four or five. Given the naturally strong ties between parent and child, Prabhupada recognised that there was little hope for a child to learn self-control within the family context. As one parent and former teacher explained: ‘It’s understood that the parent is lenient and easily influenced by the child because of the ropes of affection. So this is why it is best if a gurukula teacher is instructing them’ (interview 1990).
Children attended the gurukula on a year-round basis, with occasional vacations to visit with parents. They resided in an asrama with 6 8 other children of similar age and same sex. An adult teacher lived in the asrama supervising the children and tending to their daily care. (For a more detailed description of the gurukula see, J. Goswami, 1984, and Rochford, 1992b).
Although all ISKCON children were expected to attend the gurukula at least until the age of fifteen, some parents resisted. When this happened parents were subject to both formal and informal sanctions to conform. In some cases ISKCON members faced expulsion from the community for failing to send their child to the gurukula. As one long-time teacher recounted, ‘I remember in New York the Temple President told one women, “You don’t send your kid to the gurukula you don’t live in the temple”’ (interview 1990). In other cases sanctions were less severe but the pressure to send a child to the gurukula remained, nevertheless. As one devotee woman who removed her child from the gurukula, in 1982, commented:
We did try the asrama for a week but she was very upset and unhappy. So you see that and think, you want your child to be happy. And even though there were various devotees around us saying this and that. Because I am a social person I was worried about what everyone was thinking. And even my spiritual master was saying, giving hints, ‘Why isn’t she here (in the gurukula)?’ … And believe me, it would’ve been easier just to send my child out to the gurukula. Much easier. But intuitively, I just thought it’s not right. I just can’t do that (interview 1990).
Other parents who wanted their children to live at home and attend the gurukula met with similar resistance. As ISKCON’s longest serving male teacher recounted, Prabhupada rejected this idea when it was proposed to him in 1975.
Prabhupada made this point strongly, even though we forget. Gurukula means residing. Jagadisa [ISKCON’s Minister of Education] asked him: ‘What if a parent wants to keep a child outside and bring them just during the day?’ Prabhupada said: ‘I’ve already told you. Gurukula means residing. We have room for children, not for parents.’ (Interview 1991).
Another explicit purpose and function of the gurukula was to free parents from the responsibilities of child rearing. With their children in the gurukula, ISKCON authorities required parents to commit their full-time energies to the needs of the movement. In the words of one Prabhupada disciple and parent:
Of course one of the main things that Prabhupada wanted to achieve was to free the parents from the encumbrance of the children. Because without children, and that responsibility, parents would be able to do more book selling and more preaching, and to devote full-time to institutional engagements (interview 1990).
Under the traditional asrama-based gurukula system, family life was effectively controlled by ISKCON. For all intents and purposes, children and parents lived separate lives. Being free from day-to-day family obligations parents devoted their full-time energies toward furthering the success of Prabhupada’s movement.
The Growth of the Grihasta Asrama
Perhaps no development in ISKCON’s North American history has been more striking and consequential than the expansion of married and family life. ISKCON’s early years were defined by the brahmacari and brahmacarini asramas, with the majority of its members being single renunciates. Slowly at first, and then with some pace, the number of marriages began to swell. In time, so too did the number of children.
Marital and Family Status of ISKCON members, 1980 and 1991 92.
I. Marital Status
Divorced and Remarried
As the data in Table 1 indicates, by 1980, ISKCON had about an equal proportion of unmarried renunciates and householders (grihasthas). Only about one-quarter of those surveyed had children. Conversely, by 1991 92 there was a sizeable increase in the percentage of married, or previously married, ISKCON devotees. Two-thirds of those surveyed were married. In addition, one in five were divorced, separated or widowed. Only 15% had never been married. Family life also expanded, with a substantial majority of those surveyed having one or more children.
As these findings indicate clearly, by the onset of the 1990s, ISKCON had become a householder’s movement in North America.8 Very few of its long-time male members had managed to realise the spiritual ideal of remaining celibate monks. Moreover, ISKCON had achieved little success attracting young unmarried recruits to its ranks during the 1980s.9
The expansion of the grhastha asrama occurred during a period when ISKCON’s communities were facing deepening economic decline and instability. This combination of events provided the impetus for the growth and ultimate ascendancy of the nuclear family as the basis of ISKCON’s social organisation in North America.
Economic Adaptation, the Ascendancy of the Nuclear Family and Declining Organisational Control
Two interrelated changes took place during the early and mid-1980s which contributed to the emergence of the nuclear family, and householders growing independence from ISKCON: (1) The dramatic downturn in ISKCON’s economic fortunes which forced most ISKCON householders to secure employment outside the movement’s communities; and, (2) The collapse of ISKCON’s traditional asrama-based gurukula system, leaving parents responsible for raising their children.
Economic Change and Shifting Patterns of Employment
Until the early to mid-1980s, ISKCON's communities in North America were supported financially by the practice of sankirtana. As sankirtana revenues began to decline, however, the occupational structure of ISKCON changed dramatically. With few moneymaking opportunities available within the movement, most householders found themselves working jobs within the conventional society.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s ISKCON’s communities were supported financially from donations received by devotees distributing incense and the movement’s Back to Godhead magazine on the streets of America’s cities (Rochford, 1985:173). The economics of sankirtana changed dramatically in 1971, and 1972, however, as ISKCON members began distributing Prabhupada’s commentaries on the Vedic literatures in public locations, first in parking lots and shopping malls, and then in major American airports. Book distribution expanded yearly through 1976 and provided large sums of money to help finance ISKCON’s worldwide expansion. One conservative estimate is that ISKCON’s communities in North America grossed over $13 million between 1974 and 1978 on hardback books alone (see Rochford, 1985:171 189).
By 1980, ISKCON’s book distribution had declined to less than one-quarter of its North American peak (Rochford, 1985:175). The corresponding loss of sankirtana revenues had a devastating effect on ISKCON’s communities. Although ISKCON’s leaders undertook a number of alternative strategies to forestall the movement’s economic demise (by selling record albums, artwork, candles, and food, in public locations for example,) these proved successful only in the short run, and were highly controversial both in and outside of ISKCON (Rochford, 1985:191 11; 1988).
With declining financial resources available to its communities, ISKCON faced a significant turning point in its North American history. No longer able to maintain financially its communal lifestyle through literature distribution and other forms of public solicitation, and without alternative means of economic support, ISKCON’s members had little choice but to seek outside employment.10 Given the relatively high cost associated with supporting families, most householders found themselves searching for sources of income from outside. As one long-time member of ISKCON explained:
What happened is that people got married and they just always assumed they would go on living in the temple. I mean I did. We were married in 77. So we thought like that. Life was gonna go on as it always had. It would be a little different. Not much. So eventually a lot of people got married and hung onto temples and that got very expensive to maintain. Suddenly householders wanted to retire from book distribution. They wanted a job in the temple. Yet you can only employ so many people in that way. In the end, we had temples overloaded with expensive householders. The brahmacaris began to say ‘Hey. Why should I collect [money on sankirtana] to support them?’ (Interview 1990).
As indicated in Table 2, there was a major shift in the occupational structure of ISKCON between 1980 and 1991 92.
In 1980 nearly all of ISKCON’s members worked in movement-owned businesses or within their local devotee community. One-fourth worked as sankirtana devotees. Almost none were self-employed or worked in non-devotee work settings. Also noteworthy is that all ISKCON members surveyed in 1980 worked in some capacity. This reflected the fact that devotees maintained by the temple were obligated to perform community service during this period. Being unmarried and/or free of family obligations, they were also available for work (see Rochford 1995a).
By 1992, ISKCON’s pattern of employment was strikingly different from its 1980 profile. Just over one-third of those surveyed worked outside ISKCON in a non-devotee business, or were self-employed.11 Somewhat more were employed in work settings with other devotees (that is in an ISKCON business, within an ISKCON community, or in a devotee-owned business. One-fourth were not gainfully employed at the time of the survey. Nearly all of the latter were women with family responsibilities, the majority (72%) of whom did regular volunteer work in their local ISKCON community.
Types of Employment for ISKCON Members in 1980 and 1991 92
ISKCON Business a
Local ISKCON Community b
ISKCON Business and Local Community
Outside ISKCON for a Devotee-Owned Business c
Outside ISKCON for a Non-devotee Owned Businesse
a-Includes working for ISKCON’s Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, ISKCON restaurants, record production company, gift store, natural food company, ISKCON administration.
b-Includes teaching in an ISKCON school, book distribution, Temple administration, deity worship, general maintenance work, cooking, office work, farming.
c-Includes working at a devotee-owned travel agency, art gallery, T-shirt business, Day lily company.
d-Includes growing and selling vegetables, photographer, tennis instructor, house painting, lawyer, astrologer, investor, artist.
e-Includes teacher, sales work, taxi driver, University researcher, computer programmer, engineer, social worker, physician, real estate agent, military service, dish washer, secretary, carpenter, housecleaning.
The Demise of the Asrama-based Gurukula
The downward turn in ISKCON’s economic fortunes had a number of direct and indirect effects on the demise of the movement’s traditional gurukula system.
By 1986, ISKCON’s two remaining gurukula projects in central California and upstate New York closed. Since both were subsidised by ISKCON’s North American Governing Body Commission (GBC), and by communities sending students to the schools, ISKCON’s eroding economic-base directly contributed to their demise. As a former asrama teacher in ISKCON’s central California gurukula recounted:
I remember while we were still in Three Rivers, they would give out fifteen dollars a week to the devotees teaching there, for expense. We didn’t have to pay for our maintenance, where we lived. We’d get $15 in addition. That had to take care of all the gas, things you needed to get in town. Usually we didn’t need too much extra. But there were telephone bills, which were pretty costly if you had to make a toll call. And then when you got your break time [for school vacations] to go down to San Diego to visit friends or relatives, everything had to come out of that $15 a week. And somehow or other we’d always put $5 aside, or $10. But then there came a time when they [authorities running the school] couldn’t even give the $15 a week. And then it was like, ‘What do you do?’. You didn’t even have gas to get into town. It got to the point where it was impossible.
But beyond questions of dwindling financial support was a more fundamental issue. As long as householders were going out on sankirtan the asrama-based gurukula was a practical necessity for ISKCON. But as sankirtana revenues fell, and as householders were forced into the outside labour market, the economic incentives associated with the traditional gurukula system no longer existed. As one ISKCON teacher who witnessed the demise of the asrama-gurukula system put it:
Also their [the leadership’s] main motive, which was to free up parents, didn’t exist anymore. There’s no sankirtana. The parents are all out there working [in the conventional society]…Why should the GBC and the leadership put money and time and manpower into something which they see as having no direct value to the organisation? None. The parents are living outside, doing something outside. If the school closes, parents will just end up teaching their kids at home, or sending them to karmie [non-ISKCON] schools.
There were other factors which also contributed to the demise of the gurukula in North America that should be noted. From the beginning, the gurukula suffered from a lack of experienced teachers and support staff. Rather than seeking qualified and interested devotees to educate the movement’s children, other criteria were often more important. It was not uncommon, for example, for devotees unsuccessful at sankirtan to be assigned to work in the gurukula (V. dasa 1994:11). This had two consequences for the survival of the gurukula system.
First, over time a growing number of parents began to realise that the gurukula was not providing the quality of academic education they wanted for their children. On that basis, some decided to place their children in non-ISKCON schools, or to school them at home.12 A second factor was the growing realisation that some of the movement’s children had suffered abuse, including sexual abuse, in the gurukula (McLellan, 1993; M. dasa, 1992a; ISKCON Youth Veterans 1992; Personal interviews 1990 3). Many parents who had not already removed their children from the gurukula did so after they became aware of the allegations of abuse. Finally, by the mid-1980s, it had become apparent that many of ISKCON’s teenagers had abandoned any idea of committing their lives to ISKCON. Because of this, some of the leaders began to openly question the need for gurukula altogether (Rochford, 1992b).
As a result of these developments, ISKCON’s system of education was more or less transformed by the end of the 1980s. Only three asrama-based schools remained in North America, in 1994. Two, for high school aged men and women, are located in ISKCON’s Florida community. The other, situated in Baltimore, Maryland, serves the educational needs of half a dozen elementary aged boys. Altogether only about 40 elementary and high school aged students currently attend asrama-based gurukulas.
ISKCON’s educational system in North America is now comprised largely of day-schools. In 1994 there were nine ISKCON day-schools operating in the US and Canada. Many of them face ongoing economic problems which threaten their survival (Rochford, 1992b). Two closed in 1992, and 1993, because of falling enrolment and related financial troubles (that is ISKCON’s farm community near Port Royal, Pennsylvania, and San Diego). A third school, in a splinter devotee community in central California, closed, in 1993, for the same reasons.
The majority of ISKCON’s children in North America attend non-ISKCON schools, or are schooled at home. The chairman of ISKCON’s Board of Education estimated that approximately 75% of all elementary school aged children, and 95% of all secondary level students attend non-ISKCON schools (M. dasa, 1992a). Most attend public schools (Rochford, 1994a, 1996).
De-communalisation, Congregation-building, and Transformation
The emergence of the nuclear family changed the very structure of ISKCON as a religious organisation. Devotee families became self-supporting and increasingly independent of ISKCON and its control. ISKCON could no longer assert totalistic claims over the lives and identity of householders and their children. Freed from ISKCON control, householders formed social enclaves between the larger culture and their local ISKCON community. The result was the disintegration of ISKCON’s traditional communal structure. Having lost control over family life, and with it the majority of the movement’s membership, ISKCON faced organisational change and transformation. Its sectarian structure and lifestyle gave way under the weight of growing congregationalism as householders took up residence in the suburbs of Krishna conscious social life (Rochford, 1995a).
Traditionally, the community served as ISKCON’s primary unit of social organisation. Like other communally based sectarian movements, ISKCON sought to combine all aspects of daily life within co-ordinated, centralised, and physically and socially bounded communities. Philosophically, and practically, ISKCON members understood that association with other devotees was vital to their spiritual progress. To wander outside the confines of the devotee community represented a potential threat to any ISKCON member seeking spiritual realisation in Krishna Consciousness. (See Greil and Rudy, 1984; Lofland and Stark, 1965; Snow and Phillips, 1980, on the influence of countervailing social ties for commitment and conversion).
ISKCON’s communal structure afforded members the opportunity to live and work in a reality-affirming enclave comprised of other devotees. As we saw in Table 2, in 1980, ISKCON members worked almost exclusively with other devotees. A scant 2% worked outside the movement. Work represented ‘devotional service’, an offering to Krishna and his devotees. Funds collected on sankirtana became communal property, used to support the community as a whole and to carry forward Prabhupada’s preaching mission. As Kanter suggests, the ‘sharing of resources and finances’ serves as the key arrangement distinguishing communes from other forms of social organisation (1972:2).
As the 1980s progressed, the economic strategies of ISKCON’s membership necessarily became more diverse and individualistic. Few devotees continued to hold to the view that outside employment was a sign of spiritual weakness. Only 5% of the ISKCON members surveyed, in 1991 92, agreed with the statement that, ‘Working at a job outside of ISKCON is maya’. But while there was a different attitude toward outside employment there was also a new understanding of individual versus communal resources. No longer did money earned by ISKCON members go toward meeting community needs. Instead, householders managed their own financial resources to meet the needs of their families. Although Prabhupada emphasised that householders were responsible for giving 50% of their income to support the movement (1992:860), few have been able, or perhaps willing, to make such a sacrifice. In large part, this reflects the fact that ISKCON families have little discretionary income to contribute. The median income category for ISKCON members, in 1991 92, was $6000 $15,000.
But ISKCON’s communal structure was undermined in even more direct ways. The 1991 92 survey revealed that two-thirds of the devotee respondents resided in non-ISKCON owned dwellings. Of those, nearly six of ten (58%) lived a mile or more from their local ISKCON community. Moreover, the majority (61%) reported that they wanted to maintain their household independently of ISKCON. One reason for this seems to be that many devotees have lost trust in ISKCON’s ability to tend to the needs of its membership. Sixty percent agreed with the statement, ‘I have lost trust in ISKCON’s ability to look after the material and economic needs of people like me.’ Other reasons can be found in the words of three householders living in ISKCON’s Northern Florida community, in 1993.
I don’t like living in too close proximity to devotees. I need my space! I have personal projects I wish to oversee, and it’s easier to do that with a little distance between me and the temple.
I don’t want to be under the thumb of any Temple President.
I value my own newly found independence. Therefore, I would not choose to live on an ISKCON property.13
As householders began to create independent lives for themselves and their families their relationship to ISKCON changed accordingly. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the householders surveyed agreed that work and family obligations had placed limits on their ability to commit more time to their local temple. Half (49%) expressed the opinion that their family commitments were more important than their commitment to ISKCON. Somewhat less than half (43%) agreed that they had increasingly withdrawn from ISKCON to become more involved in their family responsibilities. Finally, over half (53%) held the view that most ISKCON members were more inclined to look out for their own needs instead of the good of the devotee community.14 As these findings demonstrate, communal responsibility and sharing has been undermined, if not displaced, by the needs of family life (also, see Rochford, 1995a).
Rosabeth Kanter (1972) in her classic work on nineteenth century American utopian communities argued that marriage and family life represented a threat to group commitment; that members would naturally withdraw their loyalty to the group in favour of these relational ties. By contrast, Rochford’s (1995a) findings on ISKCON demonstrated that family life was a barrier to group involvement, but not commitment. Despite the contribution of each of these studies to our understanding of religious and communal life, neither explicitly focuses on the very foundation of group life-culture. More particularly, these studies leave unexplored the complex interrelationship between marriage and family life, cultural development, and the fate of alternative movements and communities.
During ISKCON’s early days in North America, when its membership was young and largely unmarried, and there were substantial revenues flowing into its communities from sankirtana, the movement was able to maintain a totalistic religious world within a communal context. But when sankirtan revenues declined in 1977, only to plummet in 1980, ISKCON was left without alternative ‘communal modes of production’ (Cooper, 1987:1) to sustain an oppositional religious culture. Without sufficient resources, and with the number of families expanding at an unprecedented rate, ISKCON confronted a cultural crisis that precipitated its decline and transformation. Lacking the internal social institutions required to support family life, ISKCON was left without the foundational elements of a religious culture. As such, it remained ‘culturally impoverished’ (Lofland, 1995) and incapable of meaningfully integrating families into its communities. This being the case, ISKCON witnessed the exodus of householders and their families, with the resulting collapse of its communal structure and sectarian way of life.15
ISKCON’s founder, Srila Prabhupada, foresaw the process of change described here in many respects. While limits of space preclude more than a cursory treatment, I would like to conclude by considering Prabhupada’s views on the role of culture in spiritual life.
During the years just prior to his death in 1977, Prabhupada gave increasing attention to the question of cultural development within his movement. He expressed concern that ISKCON had failed to develop a social and cultural system that would allow his disciples to live peacefully in spiritual life. The seriousness of Prabhupada’s concern is indicated by a comment he made to a disciple that 50% of his mission remained unfinished because the movement had failed to establish varnasrama culture (M. dasa, 1992b).
The following exchange reported in a morning class in the Dallas ISKCON temple, in 1992, echoes the same message.
Toward the end of Prabhupada’s stay [prior to his death], Prabhupada at one point turned to the devotees with him and said, ‘So I am going to die. There is no lamentation [on my part].’ Then a silence. Finally, Prabhupada spoke up and said, ‘Actually I have one lamentation.’ Bramananda asked, ‘What is that Prabhupada; That you haven’t finished the Bhagavatam?’ Prabhupada responded, ‘No. That I have not established varnasrama.’ (M. dasa, 1992b).
Beginning in 1974, during a series of morning walks with his closest disciples in Vrndavana, India, Prabhupada detailed his vision for the cultural development of ISKCON, as derived from the Vedic model of varnasrama. As he described in 1975.
The idea that I am giving, you can start anywhere, any part of the world. It doesn’t matter. Locally you produce your own food. You get your own cloth. Have sufficient milk, vegetables. Then, what more do you want? And chant Hare Krsna. This is Vedic civilisation: plain living, high thinking (Mauritius, October 5, 1975).
As he explained on one of his Vrndavan walks in 1974, the failure to establish varnasrama invited the possibility of social chaos.
First of all varna. And asrama, then, when the varna is perfectly in order, then asrama. Asrama is specifically meant for spiritual advancement, and varna is general division [within society]. It must be there in human society, or they’re on the animals [platform]. If varna is not there, then this is a society of animal. (March 14, 1974).16
Between 1974 and 1977 Prabhupada repeatedly returned to the question of varnasrama. One indication of this is suggested by a study undertaken by one of the movement’s foremost authorities on varnasrama. Of the 167 times that Prabhupada mentioned the word ‘varnasrama’ in his recorded conversations, 17% of these occurred prior to his well-known ‘Varnasrama Conversations’, in 1974. Over the course of the next three-and-a-half years leading up to his death, Prabhupada mentioned the concept ‘varnasrama’ the remaining 83% of the total recorded occasions (M. dasa, 1992b).
There is every reason to believe that Prabhupada’s preoccupation with varnasrama grew out of the ongoing difficulty that many, if not most, of his disciples were experiencing in spiritual life.
If you examine Prabhupada’s instructions at the end of his life . . . it’s obvious he sees that his devotees who he initially expected, or hoped, would come to the Brahmin Vaishnava platform, had failed. That they couldn’t maintain that standard . . . Prabhupada recognised that we needed help. And that help was varnasrama. Prabhupada realised that. He saw his devotees suffering from contact with the material energy. That they had an inability to develop a spiritual taste, and therefore were falling again and again into material activities (M. dasa 1992b).
As we have seen, Prabhupada’s disciples, and those of his guru successors, only became further entangled in the outside culture during the 1980s and 1990s. As Prabhupada predicted, the absence of a functioning movement culture left ISKCON and its membership vulnerable to the influence of mainstream North American culture.
1-Despite the fact that ‘culture’ and its study remain at the core of the social sciences, its definition and use remain a topic of ongoing controversy (see, for example, Swidler, 1995; Wuthnow and Witten, 1988). My interests here are less with the special substance of culture (such as values, symbols, beliefs, customs for example), or what Swidler refers to as ‘culture from the “inside out”’ (1995:25). Instead, my approach in this paper views ‘culture as operating in the contexts that surround individuals, influencing action from the “outside in”’ (Swidler 1995:25). Given this orientation, a central question for a cultural interpretation of social movements is how do social movement organisations create, or perhaps fail to create, institutional structures and related social contexts that allow members to act in culturally uniform ways.
2-Many ISKCON members will reject the idea that the movement is in any sense sectarian. From their point of view, Krishna Consciousness is a universal religion that can incorporate people of all faiths. Since Max Weber introduced the terms sect and church there has been ongoing debate about the proper meaning of these concepts among scholars of religion. Following Weber, sociologists have often used various correlates to define sects as distinct from churches. Sects were thus portrayed as religious groups appealing to the lower classes, that involved great emotional fervour, and that were led by non-professional clergy who were strongly committed to evangelism. But it is the attributes of a social phenomena, not its correlates, that are the basis of definition (Stark and Bainbridge 1979:122). I define sectarian religious movements as being ‘ideologically in a state of tension with the socio-cultural environments in which they operate. Sects reject the values and norms of the larger society while churches largely accommodate their beliefs to those of the dominant social order. In sum, the sect rejects society and in turn is rejected by it; the church is part of the society and in many ways simply reflects and reinforces the latter’s values and goals’ (Rochford 1987:11).
3-The death of ISKCON’s founder, Srila Prabhupada, in 1977, did bring about conflict, factionalism, and schism. These developments, for the most part, began in 1980 (see Rochford, 1985:221-255, 1989, 1995c, forthcoming). Succession problems in America, and later in other parts of the ISKCON world, for example western Europe, did become so serious by the mid-1980s that a reform movement was able to successfully alter the guru system and ISKCON’s governance structure (see R. dasa, 1994:10 16, and Rochford, forthcoming). Even with these reforms, however, controversy remains.
4-Perhaps ironically, these avoidance strategies may have only heightened awareness of the opposite sex. As this female devotee went on to explain: ‘What happened to me was that all I thought about was men and saris. “There’s a man. Is my sari on right? Is it the right colour? Do I have any hair showing in the front [coming out from where the sari is wrapped around the head]?” And that was all I thought about. I stopped thinking about Krishna and Prabhupada.’
5-During ISKCON’s first few years in America devotees desiring marriage sought Srila Prabhupada’s permission and blessing. In 1972, however, Prabhupada refused to personally sanction any further marriages. His reason was the growing number of marital problems among his disciples, including separation and divorce. In a 1972 letter he wrote, ‘I am so much disgusted with this troublesome business of marriage, because nearly every day I receive some complaint from husband or wife…so henceforth I am not sanctioning any more marriages…’ (Prabhupada, 1992:866.)
6-As I describe later in the paper, sankirtana, in the sense of being used here, refers to the distribution of religious texts or other products in public locations for money.
7-The combination of marriage being a loss of status for men, marriages being arranged for reasons other than compatibility, and pressures to commit oneself fully to ISKCON at the expense of family responsibilities, has played a significant role in ISKCON’s rate of divorce. Estimates by ISKCON members suggest that from one-third to two-thirds of all ISKCON marriages end in divorce. My 1991 92 survey found that one-third of all marriages ended in divorce, or separation. This figure is actually less than the rate of divorce within the US where one out of two marriages end in divorce (Riley, 1991:156). My findings may actually underestimate the rate of divorce since it seems likely that a greater proportion of those who defect from ISKCON are divorced from a devotee spouse. Marital and family problems represent one reason that devotees exit ISKCON, temporarily or altogether (Rochford, 1991:91). I also have no information about the number of times devotees are divorced and remarried. It is not uncommon for ISKCON members to have been married more than twice.
8-While there has been a remarkable growth in the grhastha asrama in America this has not occurred uniformly worldwide. In Northern Europe, for example, an effort was made by some leaders to discourage marriage and family life during the 1980s to successfully establish book distribution. As one devotee who spent many years in Sweden commented: ‘Because of the commitment to sankirtan, the emphasis was, “Don’t marry, or marry late.” Only now are they beginning to have children, although the devotees there are in their thirties. The children are like two, one [years old], just babies.’ (Interview 1990).
9-There is no statistical data available on ISKCON’s recruitment fortunes during the 1980s. In my early work (see Rochford, 1985:278), I presented numerical data showing how ISKCON’s US recruitment took a downturn as early as 1974. Unfortunately, the strategy I used then to calculate recruitment patterns is no longer available (see Rochford, 1985:295 96). I can, however, report the following: first, it is widely acknowledged by ISKCON members that the movement has attracted few new members during the past decade (see, for example Rochford, 1992b: 3). My own observations are in keeping with this. Secondly, comparing data from the 1980 and 1991 92 surveys provides indirect evidence concerning ISKCON’s recruitment fortunes. A comparison of the median age and the median year when my devotee respondents joined ISKCON suggests that little recruitment took place over this twelve year period. The median age of ISKCON’s membership, in 1980, was between 26 27 years. In 1991 92 the median age had increased to between 37 38 years. During the twelve-year period between the two surveys, the median age of the movement’s membership increased by almost exactly the same number of years. Equally revealing is the small change in the year that devotees reported joining ISKCON. In 1980, the median year joined was 1975. In1991 92 the median was between 1976 1977. These two findings suggest that ISKCON met with relatively little success with its efforts to attract new members during the 1980s.
10-During the 1970s and early 1980s ISKCON leaders rejected attempts by devotee businessmen to develop income producing business enterprises (Rochford, 1985:224 225, 1989:166 167). Business was viewed as ‘materialistic’ and, perhaps more importantly, as potentially in competition with book distribution. Ironically, during its early days in America ISKCON generated considerable revenue through the sale of incense. ISKCON’s ‘Spiritual Sky Scented Products’ reportedly was the largest incense producer in the US during the early and mid-1970s. Despite its success, however, the company never received the backing of leaders who favoured book distribution as ISKCON’s exclusive means of financial support. Because of the leadership’s generally unfavourable attitude towards business, ISKCON was left without alternative means of support when book distribution revenues dropped dramatically within the span of only a few years.
11-Although far from common knowledge, Prabhupada did tell some of his senior disciples as early as 1972 that married devotees should be required to ‘produce some outside income and live outside the temple’ (my emphasis) (Prabhupada, 1992:866). In actual fact, neither instruction was followed. Movement leaders found reason to disregard Prabhupada’s directives. First, the prevailing sentiment of the time was that any devotee who lived outside the temple community was destined to slip into maya, and thereby leave Krishna Consciousness. Secondly, Temple Presidents were reluctant to encourage devotees to gain financial independence from the movement. In addition to the loss of control this implied, it would have also reduced the number of devotees collecting money on sankirtan in support of the community.
12-The importance of a strong academic education for the second generation took on special significance after parents were forced to find employment outside of ISKCON. Parents realised that if ISKCON was unable to provide opportunities for paid employment and/or financial support for them, that their children faced a similar fate. In other words, parents felt the duty to see to it that their children were well educated and prepared to compete in the outside labour market as adults.
13-In 1975, when I began my research in the Los Angeles ISKCON community, it was considered scandalous for a householder and his family to move even blocks away from the temple community. Such a devotee was referred to as ‘fringie’, an appropriate description to the extent that those so characterised were looking to become more involved in the outside culture. One rarely hears this term used in ISKCON communities any longer. This, in itself, is a telling statement about the nature of ISKCON’s development over the past 15 years or so.
14-These findings are based on responses to the following four Likert scale items: (a) ‘Because of work and/or family obligations I am unable to commit more time to activities at the Temple’ (b) ‘Commitment to my family is presently more important that my commitment to ISKCON.’ (c) ‘I have increasingly withdrawn from ISKCON to become more involved in my family responsibilities.’ and (d) ‘Most devotees are only looking out for their own needs, rather than the good of the devotee community.’
15-There is some evidence to suggest that the trends reported on here are also occurring worldwide. A recent study (Rochford, 1995b) found that all but one among a sample of international ISKCON communities had more often considerably more congregational members, in 1994, than full-time dependent residents. It appears that this shift toward expanding congregationalism parallels the North American case economic decline and/or the inability to meaningfully integrate family life within a communal context has altered the membership profile and community structure.
16-Space limits my ability to describe varnasrama in any detail. Varna represents four general divisions within society on the basis of occupation and social standing. Brahmanas are the spiritual leaders and educators within society; ksatriyas are administrators and protectors of a society’s citizenry; vaisyas produce foodstuffs and are responsible for cow protection; and, sudras are responsible for a variety of skilled and unskilled tasks including working in the fields and giving assistance to people of other varnas. Asrama refers to living arrangements that facilitate spiritual activities and growth. The brahmacari and brahmacarini ashrams are for unmarried male and female renunciates committed exclusively to spiritual advancement. The grhastha asrama is a living arrangement for a husband, wife and children that allows them to structure their lives so that Krishna Consciousness remains at the centre of everyday life. The sannyasi asrama is comprised of renunciate men devoted to the life-long pursuit of spiritual learning and practice, and of full-time preaching. The vanaprastha asrama normally includes older people retired from family and work responsibilities who are able to devote their remaining days to spiritual activities. (For a more detailed discussion on varnasrama, see Prabhupada, 1974, 1992: 2525: 2571; Proceedings of the Conference on Rural Community Development 1992).
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Author's Note: I would like to express my gratitude to the many devotees, both in and outside of ISKCON, who have contributed to my research efforts over the past twenty years. It has been a remarkable journey for me, and one that I remain committed to.