Endangered Species

Endangered Species: ISKCON Ashramites in the West

By Indradyumna Swami - 27.10 2020

How to Make Devotees in the West

Indradyumna Swami: “Endangered Species: ISKCON Ashramites in the West,” nicely outlines the shortfalls of ISKCON’s past while providing valuable advice and direction for ISKCON’s future. The strong statements in this book will remind ISKCON leaders about the benefits of ashram training. In addition to being very much a part of the Vedic tradition, ashrams were integral to ISKCON’s initial worldwide growth. Krishna House proves that such ashram training is still applicable even today. Having seen the success of Krishna House firsthand, I wonder why other leaders have not followed its example. Nothing speaks louder than success.

“Endangered Species,” which is 90 pages, is available for free download in
either PDF or e-book formats at iskconashramites.com.

Foreword

Akhandadhi das

Some days when I enter the corridors of Bhaktivedanta Manor, time stands still. The fragrance of a certain incense and the frying of spices in ghee transports me back to the day I first walked into this Hare Krishna ashram that sunny afternoon in July 1975. Apart from the mystical sound of Srila Prabhupada singing ‘Krishna Meditations’ emanating from a record player in one room, the Manor building was deserted, for the devotees were enjoying a picnic lunch on the sunlit lawn.

As I had arrived late and prasadam had all been served, various devotees offered me preparations from their own plates. We lounged on the grass and chatted. “This is what it’s all about,” I thought, “discussing real spiritual philosophy with learned devotees.” I had found my people and the way of life for which I had yearned.

Our philosophizing was curtailed when one devotee announced it was time for service. Service? That was a new concept to me. “Sure,” I thought, “if that’s what you do here.” And off I went to pack peanuts for distribution for a festival soon to be held on the streets of London.

Later, I was taken to the ashram dormitories. I had naively assumed that ashrams would have similar facilities to university Halls of Residence: a small private room and shared bathrooms, perhaps. My host brought me to an unfurnished room on the top floor of the Manor, pointed to a body-sized area of bare boards in one corner and offered: “There are ten devotees in here. You can have that spot.”

Elements of my story are surely typical of many devotees who decided to enter the ashram as full-time residents. The place, the circumstances, the personnel varies, but the emotions and insights gained by fully giving ourselves to Krishna are familiar. Though most of us no longer reside in temple ashrams, we attribute the lion’s share of our realizations, purification, advancement and devotion to those formative ashram years.

Realizations arise from tapah, austerity. In the ashram, austerities were both unavoidable and somehow delightful, from the moment we awoke to the last thought at night. Through austerity we controlled our activities, words and thoughts, discerning the helpful from distractions in service to guru and Krishna.

Such a constant application of bhakti diminished the fire of lust in our hearts. We rose to challenges that brought out skills and character that we never knew were there. The austerities we shared with our ashram colleagues helped establish us as the lifelong devotees we are today.

Today the Manor has one of the most expansive networks of devotee householders outside of India, most of whom have come to Krishna Consciousness through various congregational programs. After serving as the Manor’s temple president and now a congregational member myself for many years, I am constantly amazed by these sincere devotees who are so devoted to Srila Prabhupada. Their devotional practices, regulated home life, sattvic behavior and strong social morality are an absolute credit to our movement. At the same time, I see how much these congregational devotees rely on those who do (or did) live in the ashram for inspiration and guidance.

Endangered Species reaffirms the imperative need to facilitate the first ashram of spiritual studentship. Residential ashrams for interested young adults are crucial for the mission of the only spiritual movement with the authority and energy to make a real difference to this unenlightened world.

Why are residential ashrams so important? Ashramites build congregations, as evidenced by Bhaktivedanta Manor’s phenomenal constituency. Congregations can enlarge themselves; they can percolate into social, economic and political areas of society that ashramites cannot access. Yet congregational members rarely encourage someone to move into an ashram or take other steps in spiritual life that they themselves, for whatever valid reason, have not taken. Further, congregations are often challenged to cross comfortably beyond their own cultural and social boundaries.

What then will happen to the so-called ‘Western’ constituency— those unfortunate individuals without the benefit of dharmic upbringing and familiarity with Vaishnava culture? It is clear to many of us that ISKCON in the pascatya-desa has lost momentum in its Western outreach. We are not even sure how to phrase it. Sometimes it seems divisive to raise the issue. Are we criticizing the value and contributions of our congregations? Of course not. We simply acknowledge that Srila Prabhupada’s mission was to engage all spirit souls, regardless of background, in Krishna consciousness. While Srila Prabhupada was so very good at it, today ISKCON appears to have lost confidence in its ability to reach people of diverse ethnicities. In many centers and projects, we seem unsure how to do it, or if we can, or if we should.

Some say that the idea of joining an ashram or commune is passé, a hangover from the drop-out anticulture of the 1960s that is not the way of today’s Millennials and Generation Z. Based on my experience, I disagree. For the past twenty years I have run the UK’s largest retreat center, bringing me in direct contact with all sorts of religious and personal development groups consisting of serious adults often preparing to enter some sort of monastic or communal life. From these encounters I have observed that although young people today are less driven to turn their back on society, they have a greater awareness that they must care for themselves as holistic beings, striking a sustainable balance between their outer and inner lives.

Sadly, lacking authorized Vedic guidance backed by appropriate care and facilities, these young people usually interpret their spiritual need in all sorts of mundane ways: futile practices or useless tech gadgets; swimming with dolphins; walking the Inca trail, and other such vain efforts to ‘find themselves’.

ISKCON is well behind the times in terms of understanding the public’s widespread demand for spiritual

nourishment through immersive retreats and long-term ashram residency.

We talk of succession planning for ISKCON, but from where will the future leadership of our society come? Certainly, many will be drawn from inspired members of our congregations as well as the extraordinary offspring of long-standing devotee families. But, if the future make-up of leadership does not include a significant presence of new devotees trained in ISKCON ashrams, will our movement reflect its original mission? Will residential ashrams be promoted as vital to the life of the movement, or relegated to a relic of outmoded value?

I am therefore so grateful to Jitamitra and Kalakantha prabhus for their perceptions, wisdom and enthusiasm in reviving a dynamic ashram and producing this book to explain how they did it. They have challenged us to acknowledge the plight of the dwindling population of residential ashramites—a species facing with potential extinction, possibly even within our lifetime, because of the destruction or loss of its habitat.

Thanks to our congregations, we are now in a strong position to recover the ashram habitat and rejuvenate the species. Will our congregational leaders see the value in providing suitable ashrams so

that those dedicating themselves full-time can invest in devotion, study and character development while further spreading the sankirtana movement? The facility is there—if we have the will.

Endangered Species is an important book, one that I hope will open widespread consideration on this subject.

Akhandadhi das, ACBSP, Wales, UK