We have the most complete philosophy, and Srila Prabhupada has given us the wonderful process of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Part of that process is taking care of the devotees. Actually, Krishna says that He has nothing else to do but to take care of His devotees. And since His devotees are always thinking about Him, He is also always thinking about His devotees. So actually, devotee care is one of the primary angas or aspects of Krishna consciousness.
However, I heard that there was a study by some outsiders where they said that of all the schools, ISKCON has the best philosophy, but when they talk about taking care of devotees, then ISKCON is way down the list. So serving the devotees and taking care of the devotees should be a part of our religion, and we should be doing that as daily work instead of feeling it is something that should be forced.
What areas need care?
Of course, we should take care of devotees in all aspects, but there are some areas that deserve extra attention, like the children, elderly, ladies, the sick, those who are entering into a new ashram — these groups especially need to be helped. People who are visiting and becoming new members of the congregation also need help. Of course, not everything is to be done by the devotee care ministry — some services can be taken up by congregational devotees or by the temple — but at least some areas that are not dealt with by others can be picked up by the devotee care committee.
How can leaders show they care?
Sometimes it’s the small things that count. In the year 2000, I did some brainstorming to find out how the GBC could consider this idea in all its aspects, and what they were willing to do. I was surprised to note that about 75% of what was needed was local; the rest was divided between 15% national and 10% international. So most of the dealings are at the local level. If our leaders understand this and take an interest in devotee care, they can make a big difference.
Devotees believe that leaders should care. For instance, someone said that when an ISKCON leader arrives and devotees offer obeisances, he might stop only to acknowledge them, whereas if the leader of a Christian or other religious group sees someone offering obeisances, they often stop and inquire, “How are you”?
How will this help our movement?
If devotees see that this movement actually cares, they will be more confident to give their lives to Krishna, to give their lives to devotional service. Some may have needs, which if answered, make them feel much more satisfied and willing to serve the movement. The greatest help that can be given is to unite everyone. We should take care of our devotees, especially those who have given their lives to ISKCON. The various activities of devotee care will go a long way toward making one feel that Krishna really cares, also.
How did Srila Prabhupada show devotee care?
I had the good fortune of being in Mayapur when Srila Prabhupada would visit twice a year, once he would come in the summer, during the month of August, and in December he would stay a month and a half. During these times he would work on translations and oversee various projects. Then he would come for about two weeks during the Gaura Purnima festival. Of course, Srila Prabhupada coming here was very much necessary to unite the devotees. He called this the United Nations of the Spiritual World. Sometimes when Srila Prabhupada saw that people were struggling to control their senses, struggling to become Krishna conscious, he actually was seen crying! He really cared about the devotees. And he would give some instructions either to those devotees or those who had already surrendered, how to somehow help them.
In what ways do you suggest each devotee engage In devotee care?
We should make it a major part of our daily culture — Krishna consciousness and caring. We need to learn how to take better care of each devotee, according to his or her requirements. And of course, those who are in a higher position of responsibility are more empowered to help devotees. Some people feel that caring for devotees is more on the sentimental platform and may spoil them. Actually, those who think that taking care of devotees is sentimental also want to be appreciated and cared for. Krishna wants us to take care of His devotees. If someone is leaving their body, we should create a nice environment so they can think of Krishna at the time of death. This will go a long, long way in benefiting the devotee. If someone desires to many and we can help them to find a devotee partner, the chances of them marrying a non-devotee are much lower. In these simple ways we can make a big difference and avoid having devotees put in difficult situations unnecessarily, due to not having a care system in place. This is not sentimental. It is something very much needed and real.
Can you suggest some ways in which we can make devotee care popular in ISKCON?
To start, we can make the temple of Radha-Krishna a center of the community, a place that is there to help you. When devotees get sick, sometimes they are asked to go home to their parents. That’s ridiculous. We don’t hesitate to take them when they want to do service, but when they become ill, we send them home. In some countries, devotees have health insurance; in others, at least some medical needs could be supplied by members of the congregation. These acts will go a long way toward healing wounds and proving that ISKCON cares.