The International Society for Krishna Consciousness has potential as a peaceful extra-governmental force for this kind of change, nationally and internationally. In 1966, Srila Prabhupada included in ISKCON’s articles of incorporation a far-reaching statement of the movement’s purposes. Among them: “To bring the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler, more natural way of life.”
Srila Prabhupada did not, however, recommend high-pressure lobbying. Instead, he emphasized the establishment of self-sufficient agrarian communities. “If these farm projects are successful,” he wrote to a disciple in 1975, “then all this industry will be closed. We do not have to make propaganda, but automatically people will not want [it].” Srila Prabhupada also envisioned gardenlike towns that would be more habitable than today’s cities and suburbs.
People want a secure and satisfying way of life. If they can be shown attractive alternatives to life in industrial society, they will make the right choices. In the long run, this is more effective than organizing campaigns to curb toxic emissions from factories.
Most environmental problems, such as global warming, are so expansive that even national governments are unable to confront them alone. Coordinated efforts by many nations—indeed, all nations—seem to be required.
The United Nations, therefore, is becoming more active in environmental issues and related causes, such as sustainable economic growth. Some propose giving the Security Council a mandate to deal with environmental problems. Others have suggested creating a separate UN Ecological Council, with powers like those of the Security Council.3
With help from the UN, many assume, the magnitude of the world’s environmental crisis will compel nations to cooperate. But environmental issues may simply become another source of dispute and conflict. We already see this happening. Developing countries often resist calls from developed ones to slow industrial growth for the sake of the environment. A country may even resort to environmental warfare, as Iraq did by burning hundreds of oil wells during the Gulf War of 1991.
So, despite collective efforts on all levels, the environmental crisis deepens. The number of extinctions and endangered species increases. Rain forests and other kinds of forests continue to be lost. Large-scale mechanized agriculture, operating with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, degrades more and more of the earth’s arable lands. Mountains of trash keep piling up in the developed nations of the world, as recycling efforts fail, partly because of lack of a market for recycled materials. No really safe ways to dispose of toxic and nuclear waste have yet been found. Despite decades of government regulation, levels of water pollution and air pollution remain intolerably high.
Further, the problems of global warming and ozone depletion have compelled nations to conclude that drastic measures are required. But governments appear to lack the will to institute such measures. For example, in 1992 heads of the world’s nations met in Rio de Janeiro at an environmental summit meeting. They watered down the centerpiece of the conference, a treaty on global warming. They also struck down rules that would have mandated lower emissions of carbon dioxide. They met again in 1997, but again little was accomplished.
Most collective attempts to cope with pollution rely on end-of-the-pipeline control and treatment rather than prevention. This approach has not, however, succeeded. A way has to be found, it seems, to stop pollution at its source, but this has proved almost impossible. One difficulty is that most individual and collective attempts fail to recognize the philosophical dimensions of the problem. Our environmental crisis has its roots in incorrect and imperfect conceptions of the self and the universe. When we understand our true spiritual nature, our unlimited urge to consume things and to produce things for consumption can be curbed. The natural result will be a better environment in which to pursue spiritual growth instead of excessive economic growth.
(Divine Nature book. DN 3:2. BBT 1998.)
“We shall call our society ISKCON.” Prabhupada had laughed playfully when he first coined the acronym.
He had initiated the legal work of incorporation that spring, while still living on the Bowery. But even before its legal beginning, he had been talking about his “International Society for Krishna Consciousness,” and so it had appeared in letters to India and in The Village Voice. A friend had suggested a title that would sound more familiar to Westerners, “International Society for God Consciousness,” but Prabhupada had insisted: “Krishna Consciousness.” “God” was a vague term, whereas “Krishna” was exact and scientific; “God consciousness” was spiritually weaker, less personal. And if Westerners didn’t know that Krishna was God, then the International Society for Krishna Consciousness would tell them, by spreading His glories “in every town and village.”
“Krishna consciousness” was Prabhupada’s own rendering of a phrase from Srila Rupa Gosvami’s Padyavali, written in the sixteenth century. Krishna-bhakti-rasa-bhavita: “to be absorbed in the mellow taste of executing devotional service to Krishna.”
But to register ISKCON legally as a nonprofit, tax-exempt religion required money and a lawyer. Carl Yeargens had already gained some experience in forming religious, political, and social welfare groups, and when he had met Prabhupada on the Bowery he had agreed to help. He had contacted his lawyer, Stephen Goldsmith.
Stephen Goldsmith, a young Jewish lawyer with a wife and two children and an office on Park Avenue, was interested in spiritual movements. When Carl told him about Prabhupada’s plans, he was immediately fascinated by the idea of setting up a religious corporation for an Indian swami. He visited Prabhupada at 26 Second Avenue, and they discussed incorporation, tax exemption, Prabhupada’s immigration status, and Krishna consciousness. Mr. Goldsmith visited Prabhupada several times. Once he brought his children, who liked the “soup” the Swami cooked. He began attending the evening lectures, where he was often the only nonhippie member of the congregation. One evening, having completed all the legal groundwork and being ready to complete the procedures for incorporation, Mr. Goldsmith came to Prabhupada’s lecture and kirtana to get signatures from the trustees for the new society.
Prabhupada is lecturing.
Mr. Goldsmith, wearing slacks and a shirt and tie, sits on the floor near the door, listening earnestly to the lecture, despite the distracting noises from the neighborhood. Prabhupada has been explaining how scholars mislead innocent people with nondevotional interpretations of the Bhagavad-gita, and now, in recognition of the attorney’s respectable presence, and as if to catch Mr. Goldsmith’s attention better, he introduces him into the subject of the talk.
I will give you a practical example of how things are misinterpreted. Just like our president, Mr. Goldsmith, he knows that expert lawyers, by interpretation, can do so many things. When I was in Calcutta, there was a rent tax passed by the government, and some expert lawyer changed the whole thing by his interpretation. The government had to reenact a whole law because their purpose was foiled by the interpretation of this lawyer. So we are not out for foiling the purpose of Krishna, for which the Bhagavad-gita was spoken. But unauthorized persons are trying to foil the purpose of Krishna. Therefore, that is unauthorized.
All right, Mr. Goldsmith, you can ask anything.
Mr. Goldsmith stands, and to the surprise of the people gathered, he makes a short announcement asking for signers on an incorporation document for the Swami’s new religious movement.
Prabhupada: They are present here. You can take the addresses now.
Mr. Goldsmith: I can take them now, yes.
Prabhupada: Yes, you can. Bill, you can give your address. And Raphael, you can give yours. And Don… Roy… Mr. Greene.
As the meeting breaks up, those called on to sign as trustees come forward, standing around in the little storefront, waiting to leaf cursorily through the pages the lawyer has produced from his thin attache, and to sign as he directs. Yet not a soul among them is committed to Krishna consciousness.
Mr. Goldsmith meets his quota of signers—a handful of sympathizers with enough reverence toward the Swami to want to help him. The first trustees, who will hold office for a year, “until the first annual meeting of the corporation,” are Michael Grant (who puts down his name and address without ever reading the document), Mike’s girl friend Jan, and James Greene. No one seriously intends to undertake any formal duties as trustee of the religious society, but they are happy to help the Swami by signing his fledgling society into legal existence.
According to law, a second group of trustees will assume office for the second year. They are Paul Gardiner, Roy, and Don. The trustees for the third year are Carl Yeargens, Bill Epstein, and Raphael.
None of them know exactly what the half a dozen, legal-sized typed pages mean, except that “Swamiji is forming a society.”
For tax exemption, in case someone gives a big donation, and for other benefits an official religious society might receive.
But these purposes hardly seem urgent or even relevant to the present situation. Who’s going to make donations? Except maybe for Mr. Goldsmith, who has any money?
But Prabhupada is planning for the future, and he’s planning for much more than just tax exemptions. He is trying to serve his spiritual predecessors and fulfill the scriptural prediction of a spiritual movement that is to flourish for ten thousand years in the midst of the Age of Kali. Within the vast Kali Age (a period which is to last 432,000 years), the 1960s are but an insignificant moment.
The Vedas describe that the time of the universe revolves through a cycle of four “seasons,” or yugas, and Kali-yuga is the worst of times, in which all spiritual qualities of men diminish until humanity is finally reduced to a bestial civilization, devoid of human decency. However, the Vedic literature foretells a golden age of spiritual life, beginning after the advent of Lord Caitanya and lasting for ten thousand years—an eddy that runs against the current of Kali-yuga. With a vision that soars off to the end of the millennium and beyond, yet with his two feet solidly on the ground of Second Avenue, Prabhupada has begun an International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He has many practical responsibilities: paying the rent, incorporating his society, and paving the way for a thriving worldwide congregation of devotees. Yet he doesn’t see his humble beginning as limiting the greater scope of his divine mission. He knows that everything depends on Krishna, so whether he succeeds or fails is up to the Supreme. He has only to try.
The purposes stated within ISKCON’s articles of incorporation reveal Prabhupada’s thinking. They were seven points, similar to those given in the Prospectus for the League of Devotees he formed in Jhansi, India, in 1953. That attempt had been unsuccessful, yet his purposes remained unchanged.
Seven Purposes of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness:
(a)To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.
(b)To propagate a consciousness of Krishna, as it is revealed in the Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagwatam.
(c)To bring the members of the Society together with each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, thus to develop the idea within the members, and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).
(d)To teach and encourage the sankirtan movement, congregational chanting of the holy name of God as revealed in the teachings of Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
(e)To erect for the members and for society at large, a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the Personality of Krishna.
(f)To bring the members closer together for the purpose of teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.
(g)With a view towards achieving the aforementioned Purposes, to publish and distribute periodicals, magazines, books and other writings.
Regardless of what ISKCON’s charter members thought of the society’s purposes, Prabhupada saw them as imminent realities. As Mr. Ruben, the subway conductor who had met Prabhupada on a Manhattan park bench in 1965, had noted: “He seemed to know that he would have temples filled up with devotees. “There are temples and books,’ he said. “They are existing, they are there, but the time is separating us from them.'”
The first purpose mentioned in the charter was propagation. “Preaching” was the word Prabhupada most often used. For him, preaching had a much broader significance than mere sermonizing. Preaching meant glorious, selfless adventures on behalf of the Supreme Lord. Lord Caitanya had preached by walking all over southern India and causing thousands of people to chant and dance with Him in ecstasy. Lord Krishna had preached the Bhagavad-gita while standing with Arjuna in his chariot on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Lord Buddha had preached, Lord Jesus had preached, and all pure devotees preach.
ISKCON’s preaching would achieve what the League of Nations and the United Nations had failed to achieve—“real unity and peace in the world.” ISKCON workers would bring peace to a world deeply afflicted by materialism and strife. They would “systematically propagate spiritual knowledge,” knowledge of the nonsectarian science of God. It was not that a new religion was being born in July of 1966; rather, the eternal preaching of Godhead, known as sankirtana, was being transplanted from East to West.
The society’s members would join together, and by hearing the teachings of Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam and by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, they would come to realize that each was a spirit soul, eternally related to Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. They would then preach this to “humanity at large,” especially through sankirtana, the chanting of the holy name of God.
ISKCON would also erect “a holy place of transcendental pastimes dedicated to the Personality of Krishna.” Was this something beyond the storefront? Yes, certainly. He never thought small: “He seemed to know that he would have temples filled up with devotees.”
He wanted ISKCON to demonstrate “a simple, more natural way of life.” Such a life (Prabhupada thought of the villages of India, where people lived just as Krishna had lived) was most conducive to developing Krishna consciousness.
And all six of these purposes would be achieved by the seventh: ISKCON would publish and distribute literature. This was the special instruction Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura had given to Srila Prabhupada. He had specifically told him one day in 1932 at Radha-kunda in Vrindavana, “If you ever get any money, publish books.”
Certainly none of the signers saw any immediate shape to the Swami’s dream, yet these seven purposes were not simply theistic rhetoric invented to convince a few New York State government officials. Prabhupada meant to enact every item in the charter.
Of course, he was now working in extremely limited circumstances. “The principal place of worship, located at 26 Second Avenue, in the city, county, and state of New York,” was the sole headquarters for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Yet Prabhupada insisted that he was not living at 26 Second Avenue, New York City. His vision was transcendental. His Guru Maharaja had gone out from the traditional holy places of spiritual meditation to preach in cities like Calcutta, Bombay, and Delhi. And yet Prabhupada would say that his spiritual master had not really been living in any of those cities, but was always in Vaikuntha, the spiritual world, because of his absorption in devotional service.
Similarly, the place of worship, 26 Second Avenue, was not a New York storefront, a former curiosity shop. The storefront and the apartment had been spiritualized and were now a transcendental haven. “Society at large” could come here, the whole world could take shelter here, regardless of race or religion. Plain, small, and impoverished as it was, Prabhupada regarded the storefront as “a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the Personality of Krishna.” It was a world headquarters, a publishing house, a sacred place of pilgrimage, and a center from which an army of devotees could issue forth and chant the holy names of God in all the streets in the world. The entire universe could receive Krishna consciousness from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which was beginning here.
(Satswarup dasa Goswami. Prabhupada-lilamrita. Ch 18. Breaking Ground.)
Srila Prabhupada would often say of his devotional service in India, “Vrindavana is my residence, Bombay is my office, and Mayapur is where I worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
Bombay is the biggest commercial city in India. Prabhupada’s “business” was pure devotional service to Krishna, and in Bombay he dealt more with the managerial aspects of Krishna consciousness in India. He had incorporated ISKCON in India with the main branch in Bombay. All other branches of ISKCON in India, therefore, were legally part of the Bombay incorporation. In Bombay, Prabhupada had cultivated more lawyers and businessmen as life members and earned more friends of his Society than in any other city in India. So whenever he was in Bombay, he often sought legal advice, not just about the Bombay center but also about his other affairs in India.
Since Bombay was a modern city with professional and office facilities on a level with many Western cities, Prabhupada wanted to locate the Indian division of his Book Trust there, for printing Hindi translations of his books as well as English versions for the Indian market. Bombay, unlike Vrindavana and Mayapur, was not a dhama but a bustling, wealthy city. ISKCON’s biggest donors lived there. Although Srila Prabhupada’s demeanor was entirely transcendental in Bombay, and his activities were often the same as elsewhere—speaking on Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam and worshiping the Deity—nevertheless, Prabhupada called it his office. And though it was his office, he wanted a temple there.
“Mayapur,” Prabhupada said, “is where I worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” Prabhupada conceived of a temple to be built in Mayapur that would be the grandest of all temples in his movement. He and his devotees would worship the Supreme Lord there in such a magnificent style that the whole world would be attracted to Prabhupada’s place of worship, the Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir.
According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the prescribed worship for this age is sankirtana, the chanting of the holy names of God. Sankirtana worship emanated from Mayapur, the original dhama of Lord Caitanya. “In the age of Kali,” states Srimad-Bhagavatam, “Lord Krishna appears in a golden form, as Lord Caitanya, and His activity is to chant Hare Krishna. People with sufficient intelligence will worship Him in this form.” Srila Prabhupada wanted to make the most wonderful worship of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in His birthplace and thus completely fulfill the predictions of the previous acaryas, who foresaw a great Vedic city rising from the plains of Navadvipa.
Mayapur could also be considered Prabhupada’s place of worship because his spiritual master, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, had preached extensively there and because his samadhi was there. Since Srila Prabhupada’s entire preaching mission was in the service of his spiritual master, he worshiped his spiritual master through preaching in Mayapur. Mayapur was the origin and symbol of preaching Krishna consciousness, because there Lord Caitanya and Nityananda actually began the sankirtana move ment that Prabhupada was now carrying all over the world.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu wanted to preach the sankirtana movement of love of Krishna throughout the entire world, and therefore during His presence He inspired the sankirtana movement. Specifically, He sent Rupa Gosvami to Vrindavana and Nityananda to Bengal and personally went to South India. In this way He kindly left the task of preaching His cult in the rest of the world to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Vrindavana is Prabhupada’s residence. Religious people in India as well as religious scholars in the West saw Prabhupada as a Vaishnava sadhu—from Vrindavana. When he began his preaching in New York City, he would often introduce himself as “coming from Vrindavana.” “Here I am now sitting in New York,” he once said, “the world’s greatest city, but my heart is always hankering after that Vrindavana. I shall be very happy to return to my Vrindavana, that sacred place.”
The people of Vrindavana also thought of Prabhupada as their hometown success. Upon retiring from family life in 1954, Prabhupada had gone to live in Vrindavana, first at a temple near Kesi-ghata and then at the Radha-Damodara temple. After taking sannyasa in 1959, he had continued to reside in Vrindavana and, when not living there, to reserve his two rooms at Radha-Damodara.
Vrindavana is the home of Krishna consciousness, the place of Krishna’s childhood pastimes, the place where the six Gosvamis, sent by Lord Caitanya, had excavated holy places, written transcendental literature, and built temples. Any devotee could feel at home there, and thousands of Vrindavana’s residents carried bead bags, chanted Hare Krishna, and wore the Vaishnava tilaka and dress. Vrindavana belonged to Radha and Krishna, and this was still acknowledged by the residents of the present-day Vrindavana.
Ultimately, Vrindavana is revealed only to the pure devotee. Vrindavana is the eternal residence of all spiritual souls in their eternal relationship with Krishna. The Vrindavana in India is a transcendental replica of Goloka Vrindavana, the eternal planet where Krishna resides in the spiritual world. The pure devotees aspire to attain to Goloka Vrindavana after finishing their life in this world, and Prabhupada, therefore, as a pure devotee of Krishna, naturally felt at home in Vrindavana. He sometimes said that if he were to become very ill, he would prefer not to go to a hospital but to simply go to Vrindavana and there pass his last days. To spread the glories of Vrindavana, Prabhupada had left Vrindavana, but like a traveler away from home, he always thought of returning.
(Satswarup dasa Goswami. Prabhupada-lilamrita. SPL44 – Let there be a temple.)