From HH Niranjana Swami’s book: Taking Care of Krishna’s Devotees
Istagosthi with Brahmacaris – August 8, 1999
The counselor system is a topic that is very important to me. I am happy to speak about this subject whenever the opportunity arises.
I wanted to express my convictions today, not based upon my position as an “authority”, but from a personal and open-hearted viewpoint of someone who has had 27 years of experience in ISKCON. If you see any validity to these years of experience, then maybe when I open my heart to you, it may influence you, in some small way, to understand why I feel that this counselor system is important.
I am not here in the capacity of the GBC for Moscow. I’ve come to realize that hammering from the GBC doesn’t open anyone’s heart. Frankly, I’m tired of hammering, and therefore I put away my hammer many years ago. If I ever use a hammer again, it will be only to hit a nail. I am not going to hammer on your heads to accept this system, although I may try to open up a few minds, and hopefully some hearts as well.
Just before I came here, I was thinking that if I opened my heart first, it might have some influence. I’m therefore just going to express to you why I personally feel it’s important to have this counselor system.
With that introduction, I hope you now understand why I have come. And I hope it’s clear that your GBC is not coming today. Forget that. The GBC is not talking to you. Niranjana Swami is talking to you.
I have personally seen in my years of experience in Krishna consciousness – or should I say in the Krishna Consciousness Movement – a diversion take place. Sometimes this diversion is very prominent and sometimes it’s not very prominent.
When I think back about my reasons for joining the Krishna Consciousness Movement, I remember that in my heart I joined the Krishna Consciousness Movement to develop devotion to Lord Krishna. I wanted to learn how to become Krishna conscious. In those years when I joined the Krishna Consciousness Movement, there was not that much of a developed organization. Srila Prabhupada had established many temples in the world by the time I had joined, and he had also just established the GBC shortly before I had joined. It was obvious to me that there was some structure. But our temples were based upon very simple principles.
There were no such things as bhakta programs or membership programs. I don’t even think we used the word “department” in those days. I don’t remember hearing the word used at all. There was a Temple President, there was a Temple Commander, and there was a temple full of brahmacaris and some brahmacarinis. There were also householders living nearby. But mostly brahmacaris were living in the temple. Life was very simple and austere, because the movement was not so developed. We did not have much money back then.
I remember that during my first winter in the temple, there was no heat for some time. All the brahmacaris were given snorkel coats, but since the temple didn’t have very much money, they were pretty cheap coats. They probably cost about $20, because that’s all we had. So at night, everybody would zip up their coat, and for those who had sleeping bags, they would crawl into them and go to sleep – very simple life. We would wake up for mangal arotik, chant our japa, and take breakfast, which consisted of a slice of orange, a few chickpeas, and some oatmeal.
Then we cleaned and went out on harinama, practically all day, every day. We had lunch on harinama, which consisted of bread and potatoes, and we would sit down and eat outside or in the subway. We would then return to the temple at about 5:00 in the evening. Sometimes the harinama party consisted of two devotees. Sometimes when everybody was really fired up, there would be four devotees. But that’s because there weren’t that many devotees in the temple. When I joined, we didn’t have a lot of devotees in the temple, maybe 15, or sometimes it might have been even less – about 12 devotees.
Then we would come back in the evening, take a shower, go to sundara arotik, and then to Bhagavad-gita class. Every day was just like that. Book distribution started to increase a little bit more the year that I joined. But most of our activities were centered on worship of the Deities, harinama, distributing prasadam on harinama, and distributing Back to Godhead magazines. Life was very simple and regulated. Srila Prabhupada emphasized these activities for the development of our Krishna consciousness – harinama, distribution of BTG magazines, worship of the Deities, and attending classes every day. In this very simple environment we learned how to transform our previously complicated lives into a very simple life of Krishna consciousness.
In those days, temple life was like one family. We had our difficulties. We had our arguments. We had our financial problems. We were struggling. But we were all struggling together. And because we were all struggling together, we were helping each other. In our efforts to help each other, we were all able to take advantage of each other’s strengths. I remember having many friends in the temple, one of which was the Temple President. All he would do sometimes was come and pat me on the back. I needed that because sometimes it was very difficult. I was struggling, especially when I started book distribution. But I always felt like somebody was watching over me. And I felt safe. I was happy. Even though I was struggling, I felt that somebody actually cared. I’ll never forget those beginning years in Krishna consciousness.
I’m happy that that same devotee who was my temple president then is still very active today. I’m also grateful to him for the care that he showed me. He preaches in Italy. He has been preaching there for the last 15–20 years. Had I not had that caring concern from my Temple President and from my Sankirtan leader, I don’t know if I would have made it through those difficult times.
It came to the point when I was being recommended for initiation. My temple president recommended me to Srila Prabhupada for initiation, and Prabhupada wrote back, accepting me as his disciple. Prabhupada wrote, “I have accepted,” and he gave my previous name, “as my initiated disciple and his name is Niranjana dasa. Keep him carefully now.” It’s right there in the letter. Prabhupada said the President should take good care of me because Krishna consciousness means to create ideal men.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see that letter then. Actually I didn’t see that letter until about 15 years later. My Temple President never showed it to me. I don’t know why he didn’t show it to me. But I saw it much later. And when I saw it, I was thinking back, appreciating the care and concern that Prabhupada had and the care and concern that my Temple President had.
What I’m revealing to you is that in my early years of Krishna consciousness, because of the care that I felt, it helped me to remain committed to Krishna consciousness. It was not a forced care. Forced care does not work. I didn’t feel that my Temple President was caring for me because he was being forced by some duty that he had to take care of Bhakta So-and-so. He cared about me. And not only that, but what really made it so attractive is that I felt that he cared about me because he wanted me to be Krishna conscious. He didn’t care about me because he wanted somebody to wash the pots. He didn’t care about me because I was the only carpenter in the temple and I was always fixing up the temple with so many different projects. He didn’t care about me because I was practically the only one who had a driver’s licence in the temple.
Somebody may say, “Well maybe you think he didn’t care about you because of all those reasons you gave, but I know better than that.” But I didn’t feel that. I never felt that way about him. I always felt that he cared about me because whenever he came over, he would sit down and tell me something about Srila Prabhupada. In those days, there weren’t even so many meetings. I don’t remember going to the Temple President’s office for a meeting. Our meetings took place when he came up to me and patted me on the back. We would sit down and talk for a few minutes, and I would feel completely cleaned out, encouraged, inspired and ready to go on with my service. And because we were all struggling together, the Temple President was somebody who was able to speak to everyone in the temple this way, in order to show his care and concern.
I remember that the temple was having big financial difficulties. All we were distributing was a few Back to Godhead magazines. We were distributing them for only 25 cents each. If somebody distributed 20 Back to Godhead magazines, it was phenomenal. We would be talking about it all day. So even though we were struggling financially, he was never pushing me to go out and make money. He wasn’t really pushing me to do anything. But because he would just come and tell me things about Prabhupada, and say a few things about Prabhupada’s mission, I just naturally felt inspired to go on.
Naturally as the movement started to grow, we started to acquire bigger temples. More devotees were joining. Book distribution really started increasing around 1974 or ’75. More Laksmi was coming. We started to expand different programs. Srila Prabhupada was encouraging us to expand in this way, because he had a vision for really taking over the world and spreading Krishna consciousness. But he always emphasized that the purpose of establishing our temples and spreading Krishna consciousness was to give Krishna consciousness to others – because that’s the heart of our movement.
Sometimes we say that book distribution is the heart of our movement. But book distribution and distributing Krishna consciousness are synonymous. The heart of our movement is to give Krishna consciousness to others. Srila Prabhupada taught us that we should selflessly preach, giving up personal ambitions for profit and fame, and that we should try to sincerely serve the order of guru and Krishna, giving Krishna consciousness to others.
I have personally seen over the years that sometimes emphasis had been placed more on external expansion than internal expansion. But Srila Prabhupada, during his manifest presence with us, was always pushing us to remain internally and spiritually strong. For Srila Prabhupada, both internal and external were the same, because he was on the completely realized platform. He always saw everything connected to Krishna. So for one who is always connected to Krishna – internally and externally – there is no conflict between internal and external. But for those who are not fully in Krishna consciousness, they have to be careful that they don’t become too much attached to the external and forget the internal. If we start equating Krishna consciousness with the external activities, then what happens is that gradually we can become attached to these things. This is called taranga rangini.
Taranga rangini means that one becomes attached to the external developments of both himself and that which is around him. In other words he becomes attached to the comforts of his position, or he becomes attached to the gratification which he has accummulated as a result of some steady service.
For example, someone may say, “I have served for so many years as a brahmacari in the asrama, and now I can enjoy living in my own room or in a room with only 2 others.” Or, “I have control of money now and I can use this money according to my own desire.” The attachment to the external positions and accumulations can lead to a falldown.
For brahmacaris, Narada Muni has given his instruction in the Srimad Bhagavatam. A brahmacari has to practice controlling his senses. He has to be very submissive, and he has to develop an attitude of friendship towards the spiritual master. With a firm vow, the brahmacari should live in the asrama only for the benefit of the guru. These are Narada Muni’s instructions on brahmacari life. Also in those same instructions, he says that the brahmacari should regularly study the mantras of the Vedas, and every day before studying the Vedas, he should offer his obeisances to his spiritual master with great respect. And when he completes his study of the Vedas, he should offer his respectful obeisances to his spiritual master.
Narada Muni also says that the brahmacari should be very active, and he should be expert, and he should maintain firm faith in the words of his spiritual master and sastras. He should be very well-behaved and simple, and he should never collect or eat more than is necessary. In other words, the life of a brahmacari is a life of simplicity. It’s a life of education. And it is a life of discipline.
In the same verses, Narada Muni gives the example that the brahmacari, every day, should go out and beg alms for the spiritual master, and then he should come back and give everything to the spiritual master. If the spiritual master does not call him to eat for that day, the brahmacari will fast. That’s a famous verse. It’s all contained in the verses and instructions in the Seventh Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam.
Brahmacari life is a life of discipline. For those who are self-disciplined, it is easier for them to accept the discipline which is given to them while they are living in the asrama. But the whole purpose for living in the asrama is to accept this discipline and to learn Krishna consciousness, practice Krishna consciousness, and as Narada Muni says, to dedicate his life for the benefit of the guru.
So this is the whole purpose for which Srila Prabhupada established these asramas. But I have personally seen, also, over the years, and it’s painful sometimes, that more people are coming into the asrama and are forgetting this principle. They may quickly forget. Some seem that they were never even conscious of it at all when they moved in. But this is the whole reason for living in the asrama. Asrama living is to maintain a life of simplicity.
Ask anybody who has become a householder after living as a brahmacari the difference between brahmacari and householder life. When they compare their life as a householder with their life as a brahmacari, they generally think back and remember the simplicity of brahmacari life. What were the anxieties then? “Oh somebody stole my kaupins. Where is my dhoti?” These are the anxieties. Maybe sometimes, “Not enough prasadam.” These are very simple anxieties compared to the anxieties that can accummulate in householder life.
When I travel in America and visit godbrothers who have 3, sometimes 4, children, I personally see their anxieties: “My daughter is 13 years old. She’s associating with karmis. She’s writing letters to boys. I’m going to have to think about getting her married soon. And my son. He has no attraction for Krishna consciousness. All he does is play computer games all day.” There is so much anxiety for them to be in about their children.
It’s a lot more complicated in householder life. Brahmacari life is meant to be very simple. A brahmacari should study and should learn how to preach Krishna consciousness. He should not be so much absorbed in economic development. Economic development is for grhastas. It’s not that a brahmacari shouldn’t go out on book distribution. But when a brahmacari goes on book distribution, he goes out to distribute Krishna consciousness and to beg alms on behalf of the spiritual master. He does not go out with the consciousness that this is economic development. He goes out with the consciousness that this is service for the spiritual master. I have to perform my service for his pleasure.
But we see that sometimes the brahmacari may forget, and internally he starts feeling pushed or pressured to go out to do these things. If he forgets the purpose and loses his focus, he will lose his satisfaction. It becomes worse when he starts looking outside himself, and starts to feel as though everybody is telling him what to do but they don’t really care. This happens, because now we have so many departments, so many programs, so many temples, and it all has to be maintained. Devotees are feeling pushed to maintain it all. When somebody is asked to do something, he is not feeling, “He is asking me to do this because he cares for me. He just wants to get something done.” Where is the inspiration to do it?
We can get so caught up in the externals that we forget about the internal. And then devotees start feeling, “I’m dispensible. No one cares if I am here or not. All they care about is paying bills.” That’s what happens. People start to think that way although it is not why Srila Prabhupada started this movement. It is not what I felt when I was living as a brahmacari in a temple. I honestly felt that somebody was caring for me. And it was the most important thing for me. It was so important that I remained dedicated to serving in that temple all these 27 years.
Actually, I never went to another temple independently. There was not much temple hopping in those days as it is very current today.
Of course, it is not possible to recreate those days. I am not blindly reminiscing about those days, thinking that they can be recreated. But what I can say, and what I want to say, is that the spirit we experienced in those days, of all of us struggling together and caring for each other, that can be recreated. When that very spirit that Srila Prabhupada wanted to see in his temples – simplicity, learning, and preaching – gets lost, and everybody forgets what the goal is, it is very painful, because we want people to live in the temple to give them Krishna consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada says very clearly in a purport of the Fifth Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam that the temples are not meant simply for eating and sleeping.
I realize that the personal relationship with the Temple President is not as easily accessible as it was in those early days. But these same principles that Srila Prabhupada established must continue to be applied. The devotees who are taking the responsibility as counselors, from what I’ve heard, have been selected by you. They were selected, not because they are in some administrative position, and not because they are going to push you into engagements that you don’t want to do, but because they are devotees whom you actually trusted, and who, to some degree, can show the willingness to care, to teach what they have learned, and to help keep everything in focus for the devotees in the temple. In this way there can be a common struggle in the temple, shared amongst everyone. When that common struggle is there, it creates a bond. We should not have to struggle alone. We should try to help each other. One of the principles in spiritual life is to reveal one’s mind in confidence and to inquire confidentially.
So I can only appeal to you. I am not going to hammer. Based upon my 27 years of experience in the Krishna Consciousness movement, I am convinced that this system of establishing counselors for devotees is the best alternative to create a mood similar to that which I spoke about of my early years of Krishna consciousness.
When this alternative is applied, some devotees may come to realize, “Maybe I just can’t live in the temple anymore.” That may happen. There may be fewer devotees living in the temple. But at least the temple will be a place where everybody wants to be and wants to struggle together. The atmosphere in the temple will be inspired and that enthusiasm will be contagious and will spread to those living outside as well. Because it is based on a very simple principle of spreading Krishna consciousness to others, and, just as important, to themselves as well.
We cannot spread Krishna consciousness if we are not feeling Krishna conscious ourselves. If we are not feeling Krishna conscious ourselves then our activities will become external. We’ll think that we are making money instead of distributing transcendental knowledge. Our efforts will not have any significant spiritual impact on others. Spreading Krishna consciouness includes ourselves also. We should, therefore, not exclude ourselves from the process of becoming Krishna conscious. Srila Prabhupada has given us the process of becoming Krishna conscious by performing sankirtana, which means that we perform it together.
I can only appeal to you to take part in this system, to attend regular meetings with the counselors, and to openly discuss doubts or questions. You should inquire about personal concerns. This is not the place to address your concerns about others or to even talk about others.
In July 1999 I gave a seminar of six lectures about prajalpa, and after finishing this seminar, it became crystal clear in my mind that Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur gave very, very clear instructions about when we should talk about others and when we should not talk about others.
Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur explains that for one who is practicing bhakti yoga, if his mind is absorbed in speaking about others, either out of pride or out of envy, then one can never fix his mind on the lotus feet of Krishna. So we should not have these meetings simply to talk or complain about others. We should have these meetings to get benefit from them for ourselves.
So I also feel that for my own benefit I have spoken about this to you. I tried to open my heart a little bit to you to explain some of the things that are painful to me. It is painful when I see these very simple principles that Srila Prabhupada established for the Krishna consciousness movement are being lost.
Prabhupada has given us a very simple and perfect formula for becoming Krishna conscious, and it works. It will work, if we sincerely practice what Srila Prabhupada has given us. Srila Prabhupada also used to emphasize that Krishna consciouness is a very simple process. Don’t try to complicate it. Don’t try to make it more than it actually is.
I remember Prabhupada said once in a lecture, “Don’t be overintelligent. Don’t think that you know more than your spiritual master.” He said that we should simply hear and repeat the words of our spiritual master, and if we become overintelligent, then the whole movement will be lost. To be simple means that we shouldn’t try to make something more out of what Srila Prabhupada gave us. If we follow the simple process, then we will feel ourselves becoming Krishna conscious.
So we should therefore try to simplify our life and simplify the activities of the temple, and center everything around these principles.
Question: “In those early days when you were together, it is easy to understand how you were united and struggling together, but in this temple we have many groups and everybody cares about his own benefit only. How can all the devotees begin a mutual struggle, and what will be the basis of their being united?”
That’s why I said that sometimes groups of devotees are forming different departments around a particular type of activity aimed towards bringing resources into the temple. There’s the membership department, book distribution department, prasadam distribution department, the cafe. . . I don’t even know them all. They are all doing something which is aimed towards bringing money, people, or resources into the temple. Each department also has their individual goals. But, as we said, the whole purpose of maintaining the temple is to provide a place for the devotees to become Krishna conscious and to give Krishna consciousness to others. On that basis, therefore, Srila Prabhupada established the spiritual programs in the temple – classes, harinama, etc.
Of course, even though only a few of us at a time went out on harinama in those early days, everyone went out, because we would rotate so that everyone living in the temple could get a chance to go on harinama, and on Saturdays, the whole temple would go on harinama together. This helps to unify the temple, because it puts everybody in focus on what the temple is for. And everybody was attending the temple programs too.
We have to struggle if we want to become Krishna conscious. We should not equate Krishna consciousness simply with the external duties. Sometimes devotees think that if they just go on doing service, then one day they will just naturally become Krishna conscious. But while they are doing the service, their mind is rejecting it, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t like doing this. I want to do something else.” He thinks that if he just keeps on going on doing this then all of a sudden he will wake up and Krishna will be standing there, embracing him. I don’t know where this philosophy came from. Prabhupada did not teach it.
We have to practice Krishna consciousness, Even if our mind is always rejecting the service, we must struggle together to become Krishna conscious! Therefore, the kirtans, the classes, and these spiritual programs are meant for uniting devotees. Then we can experience a combined struggle to become Krishna conscious.
Everyone should experience how much of a struggle it is to inspire Krishna consciousness in others during class with a temple room full of devotees. The Bhagavatam speakers are supposed to be thinking, “Somehow I have to inject Krishna consciousness into their hearts!” It is not so simple; it is a struggle. The speaker has to pray in his heart, “Krishna, please give me the potency. Let me somehow speak something so that they will be able to remember You.” That type of struggle should be there in everybody’s mind. And all the devotees in the temple should be learning how to lecture in this mood on Srimad Bhagavatam. That’s a struggle. The speaker has to struggle to instruct and to help other devotees to become Krishna conscious. And the audience has to struggle to hear attentively, and to ask relevent questions for the benefit of everyone. Isn’t that what took place in the forest of Naimisaranya? The questions were for the benefit of everyone. “O sages, I have been questioned by you. Your questions are glorious because they relate to Lord Krishna and are therefore relevent for the world’s welfare. Only questions of this sort can satisfy the self.” This is sacrifice. When we are chanting Hare Krishna or listening to Srimad Bhagavatam, we are performing a sacrifice. And that will unite the temple.