John Fahy had been living in Mayapur for 14 months, researching his PhD thesis. Since he was a member of our community in one sense but an outsider in another, I find his insights interesting. You can find information about him and links to other papers, including some about Mayapur, here.
- A Community of Communities
- Devotional Ethics
- Prabhupad on Community
- Devotional Ethics and Community in Mayapur
Paper presented at ISKCON Studies conference, Radhadesh, Belgium.
My PhD is based on 12 months fieldwork in Mayapur, having previously spent 3 months in Kolkata learning Bangla. Of course, as those of you who have been to Mayapur will know, I would probably have been better off learning Russian. During my time in Mayapur, I lived in both the grihastha area inside the complex and also further out by Abhay Nagar.
I spent a lot of my time in classroom settings, from the morning Bhagavatam class in the temple or the Gurukul morning classes with Bhaktividya Purna Swami and audited a range of courses including Bhakti Sastri and Deity Worship at the Mayapur Institute. I was also lucky enough to attend cooking classes, deity dressing and short courses on japa, and kirtan, for example. I tried to attend mangala arati as often as possible, but as it happens often was not possible. Despite my eagerness in the early months of my research, the further away I moved from the temple, the less likely it was that I would show up at mangala arati. I did however make it to the morning program most days, where I would, if nothing else, get some rounds done.
I was very lucky to have been able to attend the International Leadership Sanga conference, go on parikrama, do several tours of the TOVP, help out with the weekly the Food for Life harinam, and see the maha-abishek during Gaura Purnima. On one occasion, I found myself in a boardroom on the top floor of the Conch building, sitting in one of the annual GBC meetings wondering when somebody was going to ask me who I was or what I was doing there? I, of course, didn’t have a good answer. Outside of the temple and the classroom, I was able to do some seva for the community.
I offered free photography services and so was invited to weddings, to conferences and festival celebrations. Devotees would often remind me how lucky I was to get to meet so many sannyasis. After telling a friend of mine from Australia that I had just sat down with Kadamba Kanana Swami for a few hours, his response was ‘that’s bloody nectar mate’!
If I wasn’t to be found in the temple, in a classroom or with a camera in my hand, you would be sure to find me sitting in Madhus, tucking into an ‘aga saura’, catching up on all of the Mayapur gossip...of which it turns out, there was very little. Of course, as enriching, eye- opening and at times, bewildering as my field experience may have been, my role as researcher at this point is to encase that flow of everyday life in Mayapur in some sort of narrative. A summary of my PhD thesis might read something like this:
Since 1971, the small rural town of Mayapur in West Bengal, India has been home to a multi-national community of ISKCON devotees, popularly known as the Hare Krishnas. While the community in Mayapur comprises a wide variety of religious, national and ethnic backgrounds, devotees here share the common goals of developing a personal relationship with Krishna in the pursuit of the goal of ‘going back to Godhead’ at the end of this lifetime. This requires commitment to a set of ascetic practices that includes meditation and deity worship and following a set of ‘regulative principles’, as were prescribed by the founder of the movement, Srila Prabhupad.
Such practices are designed to facilitate a detachment from the material world, as devotees endeavour to put Krishna at the centre of their lives. However, while Prabhupad’s pedagogy of spiritual realisation was developed in the 1960’s and 70’s in the context of what was a ‘world-rejecting’ monastic movement that prioritised prosyletisation, and was aimed at, for the most part, aspiring monks, ISKCON today is predominantly a ‘world-accommodating’ congregational movement of lay practitioners who look to synthesise the spiritual and the secular in their pursuit of Krishna consciousness.
Devotees are then left in the precarious situation whereby recourse to Prabhupad’s teachings can only partially inform their attempts to negotiate conflicting sets of ethical imperatives in a changing world. An important place of pilgrimage and ISKCON’s global headquarters, it is here in Mayapur that Prabhupad envisioned the development of what devotees today describe as an ‘ideal Vedic city’.
While Prabhupad expressed his wishes for Mayapur’s development during many visits, he left the details of his grand ambitions to the devotees on the ground. His ideas, based on a 19th century prophecy, have been the catalyst for dramatic social, economic and infrastructural development over the last forty years that has accelerated with the commencement of construction on what will be one of the largest Hindu temples in the world, the Temple of Vedic Planetarium (TOVP).
Prabhupad’s dream of a spiritual city is widely felt to be an unfolding reality, however it is not without problems. Though there have been several master plans proposed for the project dating back to the 1970’s, for economic reasons ISKCON has not been able to guide the development of its headquarters as envisioned. Instead, as devotees continue to arrive, in the land surrounding the ISKCON complex large residential developments are springing up as the Mayapur area is undergoing unprecedented (and at times, unregulated and unplanned) urbanisation.
As the TOVP rises and Mayapur continues to develop apace narratives are emerging around divergent interpretations of what Prabhupad meant generally by ‘Vedic culture’ and in particular devotees are debating what exactly constitutes an ‘ideal Vedic city’. In the liminal space between an enchanted past and a prophesied future, devotees have come from all over the world to Mayapur to pursue a particular interpretation of the Gaudiya Vaishnav ideal of individual salvation. While devotees participate in intense practices of self-cultivation, they have also, as residents of the sacred land of Mayapur, inherited Prabhupad’s rather ambiguous utopian ideal of building a 'spiritual city'.
Devotees, then, are presented with two somewhat antagonistic ideals, one soteriological and the other social. On the one hand, devotees must actively endeavor to transcend mundane reality, eschewing all things that are not directly conducive to Krishna consciousness in order to go ‘back to Godhead’. On the other they must engage in an ambitious project of social and urban development, in contributing to (or simply living in) an 'ideal Vedic city'. The world they inhabit is both an obstacle to, and an opportunity for, salvation. My research looks at how devotees in Mayapur negotiate sometimes conflicting, but not wholly incompatible, sets of ethical imperatives.
A Community of Communities
This is an ad posted last week on the Mayapur forum (the online community forum where devotees buy and sell, advertise apartments for rent, or advertise temple programs, for example). Seminars like this are becoming quite common.
The 2014 ILS conference in Mayapur, for example, was based on the theme of 'More Devotees, Happier Devotees'. While ISKCON as a prosyletising movement has often focused on the former, it is now recognizing the need to pay attention to the latter. Under the theme of ‘devotee care’, it seems that ISKCON is making genuine and much needed efforts to address the not-always spiritual needs of devotees. “Do you Feel lonely? Do you Feel Isolated? Would you like to connect with Devotees?”
But why in the sacred land of Mayapur within a small community is there a need for a seminar on “How to Have Relationships with Devotees”? Intuitively, I had assumed that for those who had moved their lives to rural India, and shared such a common goal of serving Prabhupad’s mission, relationships would come easily. At various points throughout my research I found myself grappling with the idea of community.
What did it mean to speak of devotees in Mayapur as belonging to a community? What did they do or what was it that made them a ‘community’? In one sense, one need look no further than the boundary wall that cuts the complex off from the rest of Mayapur, or to the daily congregational temple program. One might also refer to the common purpose shared by devotees in Mayapur or the communal feasts, particularly on major festival days. When I would ask devotees about this, however, a common response was that Mayapur was not a community. Rather, I was told, it is a ‘community of communities’.
By this devotees meant that they did not feel that they belonged to one ISKCON community in any real sense, but to the Russian community, to the South American community, or maybe a community of Jayapataka disciples, for example. When I asked devotees why they came to Mayapur, most commonly, they would tell me it was to improve their sadhana, to get away from the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll of the West, and put Krishna at the centre of their lives. They often told me they wanted to ensure their children had the best possible opportunity to be brought up and educated in a Krishna conscious environment and that in Mayapur they could do so by living according to ‘Vedic culture’.
While it would be fair to suggest that devotees who have given up their lives in the West (to some extent) have come to Mayapur to be in some sense part of a community, for the most part they did not come here with the expectation of having to build one.
According to management, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 devotees from over 75 countries, including Russia, South Africa, China, and Australia live in or around the ISKCON complex in Maypur. On top of this can be counted another 3,000 or so local Bengalis as members of the wider ISKCON community.
The majority of international devotees, and the focus of my research, are the grihasthas, or householders. They live in the ‘grihastha area’ in the complex and in the surrounding neighbourhoods such as Gauranagar, where big residential developments continue to spring up.
In the complex there are several guesthouses, schools, and a range of restaurants including a seasonal rooftop Italian pizzeria and Madhu’s, a Russian bakery. There is a busy temple program, and a variety of classes to attend. There are constantly senior gurus and guest speakers visiting and on a Saturday where devotees can gather for scheduled ‘sadhu sanga’.
Every year thousands come from all over the world for Gaura Purnima. Though employment is one of several pressing social issues, there are opportunities for seva and a range of groups to join, such as ‘Mayapur Care for Ladies’, for example. While Mayapur might ostensibly have all the trappings then of a thriving town with a bright future, I was often surprised to hear devotees’ skepticism about the usage of the very term ‘community’.
In terms of building and sustaining a spiritual city, Mayapur faces some basic challenges. Typically though there are devotees who have been here since the early 70’s, most tend only to stay for less than 5 years. Reasons for this include a lack of economic opportunity, lingering commitments back home, visa restraints, or in some cases, disillusionment.
A constant turnover in membership of course is not a good basis for a stable and cohesive community. As one deputy director commented to me, “To establish a community you kinda have to have people who stick around”. Devotees often explain this lack of community feel with reference to national, linguistic and cultural difference.
While there are events and functions to attend, for the most part these spaces are not as as straightforwardly conducive to community as one might expect. Outside of overtly spiritual activities such as temple worship, kirtan home programs, or sadhu sanga, for example, devotees very rarely get together.
Though ISKCON has turned towards the Western aesthetic, opening up to the idea of counselling, self-help style seminars etc. it is still reluctant to open up to the idea that material problems might require material solutions. In the previous slide, for example, the solution to loneliness proposed was in ‘spiritual discussion groups’.
Though the situation I am describing here is of course not representative of every ISKCON community, I would suggest that it does resonate in the wider ISKCON world, as Julius Lipner noted in his paper ISKCON at the Crossroads? (ICJ, 1994):
“On a number of occasions - while strolling in the ample grounds, or wandering about between sessions of the conference - I passed devotees as they recited the maha mantra. Invariably their faces were tense and introspective. They rarely had the time to exchange a friendly glance or smile; they seemed to be engaged not in a labour of love, but in a chore that closed them off from human contact and that weighed them down. These impressions were confirmed in a remarkable session of the conference during which, in what I understand was an unparalleled display of frankness for such a public forum, a number of householder-devotees, both male and female, expressed how difficult they found it to fulfil their daily obligations to the maha mantra and also run a home or raise a family.”
Not only does such impersonability reflect devotees’ difficulty in straddling two worlds, but I would add, it speaks to deep-rooted anxieties that devotees have to face, in living with other devotees.
Though these are not universal sentiments, they are certainly widespread and most in Mayapur would be able to relate. But why are people lonely? Why is there not a sense of community? We could simply point to cultural or linguistic difference, or maybe a lack of economic interdependence? We could suggest that people don't stay long enough to integrate?
While I think these explanations all account for something here, I want to ask what we might find if we look closer at Caitanya Vaishnav theology, and in particular at the spiritual program that Prabhupad transmitted to the West, as is understood to be the foundation of ISKCON’s Mayapur project. Echoing anthropologist James Laidlaw in his book Riches and Renunciation on Jainism in Jaipur, I treat ISKCON here not as a cultural or ideological system but as a socio-historical phenomenon where theology, doctrine and discourse only comprise one aspect of what could be described as ‘devotional ethics’.
In this respect, the pursuit of a ‘good life’ is rarely a simple narrative of conformity as it is one of constant negotiation and interpretation, whereby devotees must constantly deal with the dissonance between the ideal and the real. I suggest that, founded on notions of the individual as the moral unit of salvation where detachment is a central virtue, Caitanya Vaishnav ‘devotional ethics’ and ‘community’ exist in an antagonistic relationship, and it is on the shoulders of the devotees as individuals that the weight of ethical indeterminacy rests.
Caitanya Vaishnav devotional ethics, as I understand it, revolves around two central aims: the cultivation of the self and the cultivation of a relationship with Krishna. A lack of explicit engagement with ethics in Vaishnav theology of course does not mean we cannot speak of a Vaishnav ethics, as Joseph O’Connell and others have underlined. What I will argue is that the underlying ethical system that is accessible for devotees teaches how to relate to themselves and to Krishna, but it is more ambivalent on how to deal to others.
I will firstly touch upon some theological issues as brought out by Joseph O’Connell, before turning to ISKCON’s history, and in particular to the concept of community in Prabhupad’s mission. I will then outline how anthropology might help us deal with the question at hand and finally I will conclude by asking what this might mean for Mayapur.
Joseph O’Connell, in the paper from which this conference takes its inspiration, writes that,
“There is no readily available systematic philosophical or theological texts within what we may call the Caitanya tradition that explicitly elaborates ethical theory as such”. In his words, there is no explicit “underlying ethical theory”.
While the founding fathers of the tradition have not elaborated what we might describe as a category of ‘ethics’, O’Connell rightly points out that devotional ethics is inherent in Caitanya Vaishnav philosophy,
“that customized “devotional ethics" is ethics nonetheless”.
The problem remains, however, if not explicitly elaborated, where might we find what could be described as ‘ethics’ devotional or otherwise? O’Connell outlines the various resources that the Caitanya Vaisnav tradition offers adherents.
Firstly, is the explicit enumeration of moral virtues in Vaisnava texts, such as the 26 qualities of a devotee listed in the Caitanya Caritamrta. Truthful, meek, peaceful, merciful, grave, silent. I know from my time in the ‘Brahminical Ethics and Etiquette’ class at the Mayapur Academy that devotees know these 26 virtues as well as I know the alphabet! O’Connell then quotes the equally popular ‘blade of grass’ verse from the Siksastakam, and underlines that elsewhere “personal humility, tolerance of injury or insult without retaliation, respectful treatment of others are virtues endlessly repeated in literature”.
This is true. He is quite right to suggest that devotees rely on Vaisnav texts to frame their own projects of self-fashioning to some degree. How though do we move from ‘devotional ethics’ that for the most part address questions of individual self-cultivation, the telos being to develop a relationship with Krishna, to a system of ethics that informs the maintenance of mundane relationships conducive to communal living? I would suggest, problematically.
O’Connell begins the second part of his paper looking at ‘Devotional Ethics within the Vaishnava community’ by suggesting that ideas of community and how to live with others can be extracted and extrapolated from of the central pursuit of bhakti. Looking to Krishna’s transcendental pastimes he writes that “there would seem to be obvious applications to analogous mundane social relationships of devotees and others exposed to Vaisnava expositions of Vraja lila”.
Though he offers a brief caveat about the difficulty of applying spiritual dynamics to the material world, he asserts that devotees’ understanding of a relationship with Krishna and amongst his devotees in the spiritual world would of course be in some way reflected in their dealing with others in the material world. The “devotional ethics” that informs devotees’ understanding of the spiritual world then is “maybe expected to have significant impact on how devotees actually relate to one another in whatever situations they interact”.
Maybe. But, maybe not. In conclusion, he writes, “All of this emphasis on loving devotional service of fellow devotees goes into fashioning a pervasive ethos and a theologically sophisticated system of devotional ethics conducive to collegial solidarity within the community of devotees of their common Lord, Krishna”.
Though O’Connell has rightly outlined that an explicit underlying theory is not a precondition for a Vaishnav ethical system, his arguments that seek to bring together devotional ethics and community, for me, fall short. Just because it might be the case that “inter-personal roles of devotees disclosed in such transcendental lilas...can have a paradigmatic function in shaping the conception of ethics appropriate within the community of fellow devotees”, does not mean they necessarily do.
Among other problems with the proposed analogous sociality, in Caitanya Vaishnav theology, the very relationships that are the most virtuous on the transcendental plane of Krishna-lila, are often those whose analogues on the material plane are widely stigmatised. Think of the extreme example of sahajiyas.
What I want to suggest is that while ideas of community might inhere in Vaishnav theology, history or sastra, a lot of work is left for the devotee to do to fill in the gaps, in order to mobilise such ‘appropriate ethics’ in everyday life.
That it is possible to extract and extrapolate patterns of what we might term ethical behaviour, as O’Connell has done here, is only a preliminary and rather speculative step towards describing how devotees actually go about doing this. As anthropologists working in the field of ethics have noted, the ideal and the real are very different spheres of an ethical system. It is the very attempt to live the latter in light of the former that is where anthropologists mark their point of departure.
Prabhupad on Community
Though, as I have suggested, the focus of Prabhupad’s program for spiritual realisation, at least in the early years, was individual salvation, looking at the goals of ISKCON, it is clear that for Prabhupad, the idea of a Krishna conscious society is an important one. One need look no further than the 7 Goals of ISKCON (see slide).
I have highlighted the goals that explicitly point to bringing members together, but of course it is somewhat implied in most of them. This almost goes without saying. Without other devotees, how can one fulfil the ethical imperative of ‘hearing the Bhagavatam’, how can one benefit from sadhu sanga? The Gaudiya Vaishnav aesthetic, simply put, depends on ‘assembled devotees’.
Soon after his arrival in America, this central feature of gathering Vaishnavas, coupled with ISKCON’s ‘world-rejecting’ tendencies, led Prabhupad’s movement towards experimentation with the idea of communes, or intentional communities. This may not be surprising. ISKCON was not the only example of an intentional community in the states, nor is today the only example in India (think of Aurovil in South India, founded in 1968 with the aim of building a city of 50,000).
Between 1965-75 more communes sprang up in the US than had been founded in its entire history to date, both urban and rural. Sociologist Benjamin Zablocki defines an intentional community as “a group of persons associated together (voluntarily) for the purpose of establishing a whole way of life. As such, it shall display to some degree, each of the following characteristics: common geographical location; economic interdependence; social, cultural, educational and spiritual inter-exchange of uplift and development. A minimum of three families or five adult members is required to constitute an intentional community”. The Mayapur project, one could say, fits this definition.
While Prabhupad was enthused by his devotees’ keenness to set up communes (typically agrarian), I would suggest that it was not to Vaishnav history that Prabhupad turned for a precedent. Rather, as was characteristic, he opportunistically appropriated a particularly American form of social protest to plant the seeds of his own cultural critique. This was a Vaishnav aesthetic grafted onto a utopian framework. Prabhupad embraced the “back to the land” thrust that was typical of not only 20th century American communes, but also a common feature in the history of the utopian impulse, from Thomas Moore (who was Caitanya’s contemporary) in the early 16th century to the eco-villages that continue to appear around the world today.
Of course, ‘simple living, high thinking’, was his very definition of a morally pure Vedic culture. Scholars have often pointed out that Caitanya himself never prioritised the idea of community (Kapoor, Chaterjee). Some insist that he rejected varnasrama dharma outright, while others contest that he simply prioritised suddha bhakti.
While varnasrama dharma may have been, for Caitanya at least, conducive to the pursuit of material prosperity at the expense of bhakti, for Prabhupad, varnasrama dharma was central to his idea of a Krishna conscious community, and a Krishna conscious community was foundational to path of bhakti. For Prabhpuad, varnasrama dharma was fundamental to his conception of a worldwide Krishna consciousness revival.
More than any of his predecessors, and more so towards the latter years of his mission, Prabhupad emphasised the importance of varnasrama dharma. While the caste system was for him a tool of social oppression based on material advancement, varnasrama dharma (or daiva varnasrama dharma to be precise) was a natural and timeless social framework for the spiritualisation and purification of society, one within which everybody could find a path back to God.
Though Prabhupad turned his attention to varnasrama dharma towards the end of his life, in both writings and conversations, ambiguity and controversy pervades his advocacy in some important respects (that we might leave aside here). He left behind little in terms of practical arrangements for pursuing the lofty ideals that he advocated, particularly in terms of the Mayapur project.
Though ideas of varnasrama dharma are still cherished by a minority of more conservative devotees around the world, for the most part it is considered an ideal that cannot be replicated in the modern world. While Prabhupad promoted communal living, such projects were often, as is Mayapur today, conceived as showcases or models of what a Krsna Consciousness society should look like. He wanted to show the world an example of an “unadulterated spiritual community practical for all persons”, referring in this case to New Vrindavan.
He typically advocated cow protection, subsistence farming and what he described as a “pure and simple life”. In his faith that chanting, taking prasadam and reading his books were all one needed to life a good life, however, while he may have created a ‘house where everyone can live’, he failed to equip devotees with the resources they needed to live together.
While he did have to make decisions, arbitrate various disputes and left devotees with a idealised conception of what a Krishna conscious community might look like, unlike his programmatic and comprehensive teachings on how to develop a relationship with Krishna, his lectures, books and oft- cited statements on the mechanics of communal living constitute a never fully-elaborated vision. At best they were contingent on ‘time, place and circumstance’ and worst they appeal to a utopian impulse that has long since faded.
While ideas of a simple life based on varnasrama dharma were maybe inspiring for the youths of the counterculture Prabhupad’s vision is no longer a realistic starting point for ISKCON devotees today. Prabhupad’s guidance on how to build a commune in the counterculture, I suggest, is a poor foundation for devotees today striving to build a community.
Of course, this leads one to the question, how do you go about building what Prabhupad described as a ‘magnificent international city based on Vedic culture’, but at the same time disregard the very foundation upon which it should be built, namely VAD. Along with VAD, Prabhupad’s vision of community has been side-lined in a changing world, as institutionally, culturally and I would suggest ethically, ISKCON has changed profoundly since Prabhupad’s death, as has been extensively written about, particularly by sociologist Rochford Burke.
While there is much support for a traditional rather than a modern aesthetic, devotees’ imaginings of the future of this Ideal Vedic City are pervaded by distinctly modern concerns. As one devotee responded to me when I asked what are the important aspects to consider in building an Ideal Vedic City (see slide). While there is much of interest in this list, I want to highlight here how not one of these concerns addresses what might be described as ‘Vedic’, or even widely speaking Vaishnav. These points would fit the agenda of the majority of intentional communities, prioritising sustainability, employment, education and moral conduct. Indeed, this list resonates strikingly with social, environmental and moral concerns of modernity in general, and there is nothing Vedic about it.
Allow me to make a brief detour now into anthropology and in particular the work of Joel Robbins where the theme of cultural change has been central. Robbins’ ethnography ‘Becoming Sinners’ is based on fieldwork amongst the Papua New Guinean Urapmin and focuses on conversion to Christianity and what he calls ‘moral colonisation’.
In the last 40 years the Urapmin have undergone a profound religious reorientation, in enthusiastically adopting millennial Christianity, curiously however despite a lack of direct missionary contact. Though they still live what he terms ‘largely traditional lives’ in most respects (in terms of social structure, interaction etc.), they have almost completed abandoned previously-held conceptions of the divine in the enthusiastic pursuit of conversion to Christianity. Such a dramatic shift however has not been as smooth as it has been quick.
Imposing new-found religious and therefore moral commitments in important ways ill-fitted for the traditional social structure they still maintain has caused what Robbins describes as ‘moral torment’. Robbins focuses on the Christian notion of the ‘will’:
“Christian ethics enjoins people to establish a new kind of relationship with their wills. Unlike traditional ethical notions, Christian ones leave no room for ambivalence about the will: they condemn it completely and declare its ethical expression impossible. In the Christian scheme, ethical behavior is motivated by the Holy Spirit and expresses God’s will, not that of the individual.”
In other words, to impose oneself as an individual, or to impose one’s will, is to be avoided. However, while the suppression of the will is understood to be a fundamental virtue of a good Christian self, imposing the will is equally necessary in the creation and maintenance of traditional social relations, in terms of kinship for example. A bride cannot accept a husband without exerting her ‘will’, or being in some sense an agent of her own destiny. In order to live in the traditional mould of Urapmin culture, one must be a willful agent. In order to be a good Christian however, one must renounce the will.
Living between these two moral systems, for the Urapmin, moral failure is inevitable. In the Christian understanding, the individual alone is the unit of salvation and could be described as an “essentially nonsocial moral being”. An essentially nonsocial moral being nevertheless who is embedded in social relations.
While Christianity addresses individual salvation and facilitates the pursuit of a certain ethical aesthetic, in terms of intersubjectivity, it can only lead to failure. This is a consequence of what he calls ‘cultural adoption’, where a community (in this case), in abandoning one moral system and striving to live by another, is caught betwixt and between two sets of ethical imperatives that at times lead to irresolvable conflict.
Robbins underlines the antagonism at the heart of these two ethical commitments:
“How does one live as a good person while existing in the midst of a social world that routinely draws one into sin?”
Devotional Ethics and Community in Mayapur
So let’s return to Mayapur. Finding this ‘lack of community’ to be a common theme in conversations with devotees, along with issues of isolation and loneliness, I asked them why they thought this was the case. It might be best to present their thoughts in their own words:
“There may be a prevailing understanding amongst some that emotion, being so personally about the self, is illusory - maya, or that bits of our own selves are somehow a block to understanding objective truth. And that rather than reveal this truly personal and individual part of ourselves, it is safer to hide it. Whatever the reason, it strikes me as unhealthy as without emotion, our relationships are dry and unsatisfying”
The theme of a lack of emotional support or empathy was often explained with reference to the concern that mundane emotions are considered maya and are not to be entertained, rendering relationships ‘dry and unsatisfying’. There are others who dismissed any such feelings of loneliness or the need for community, and insisted that the cure for all ills was chanting:
“...in daily routine life I feel my emotional and mental support comes from the chanting process and from Krishna directly. If one chants transcendence is achieved and mundane emotions connected with our material status are seen for what they are; temporary longings for unachievable permanent stability in a world of topsy-turvy rough rides. The real permanent emotional life of a devotee is within and his connection to Guru and Krishna are within. Chanting and sincere following heighten these spiritual emotions and by feeling the connection with God we are no longer bothered by mundane temporary emotional dilemmas. This does not produce a cold, isolated person but rather a mature god conscious, god centered human being. True maturity of human life is attained when one surrenders to God and shares the process that brought him to that state his fellow man”
While devotees today acknowledge their entanglement in the material world and their ‘fallen condition’, the resources that ISKCON offers them to address everyday problems are, as above, almost exclusively spiritual. I asked another devotee about counseling, as is offered in Mayapur, or maybe offering devotees support in some other way, such as confession, for example:
“Philosophically, such a need [for counseling or confession] wouldn't arise since the chanting of holy names is presented as such a universal purification process for the mind. There is no need for separate endeavor.
“Chanting and following temple programs is perceived as the way all would to fall into place, heal, and improve. This belief is so deep-rooted in ISKCON that hardly anyone dares question the comprehensive potency of the holy name. It would be making one of the ten offenses, namely "to think the glories of the holy name to be exaggerations."
“Even in the face of repeated evidence like the admitted loneliness of a large number of devotees in Mayapur, the two hours of japa, two hours of morning programs, daily service, daily personal maintenance and livelihood, are never to be sacrificed for less important practices. They are, in fact, the activities from which one theoretically overcomes the said loneliness in particular, and psychological disorders in general. If they don’t, the cause would have to be in the faulty performance of those practices rather than in a separate remedy such as emotional counseling.”
Of course, for those who feel that they are suffering or lonely or in need of emotional support, to be made feel that this is a result of their own poor spiritual practice only compounds the problem. Just like the Urapmin, but of course in importantly different ways, devotees in Mayapur inhabit a liminal space between cultures. They are committed to what Larry Shinn calls an “enthusiastic adoption of a new faith” but they are also in the precarious situation where “previous ethical norms are abandoned and new ones have not yet been fully appropriated”.
While Mayapur is built to facilitate the personal pursuit of Krishna prema or individual salvation, in terms of sociality and ideas of community, the Mayapur project is precariously underdetermined. While devotees gather, for example for sadhu sanga or congregational kirtans, they do so in ritual or ritualised spaces geared towards communion with Krishna. Such settings are framed by understandings of Vaishnav etiquette and any sort of interpersonal interactions beyond a smile, are suffocated by formality.
There are few social spaces or events where devotees gather outside of spiritualised settings, such as the temple, or the classroom. As one devotee noted:
“We have very few events and functions where it's possible to relate to each other personally. The summer 2 weekly fair is probably the main one. When I hang with my Jehovah Witness friends, we all go and play baseball together. They don't have to have separate workshops on the need to co-operate as they've already done that in the team games. Some here don't want to go that route, but I feel it's essential we attend to the building of relationships away from overtly spiritual activities, with the person next to you (this other child of Krsna if you like) as the focus”
Such spaces then facilitate a communion with Krishna, but are not necessarily conducive to community. Social relationships though critical to the pursuit of community and indeed central to the wider Vaishnav aesthetic, in Mayapur are never far from what some consider ‘maya’. Where they exist, they are often governed by formality, adherence to a set of norms (including gender, seniority etc.) that require a presentation of the self that belies spontaneity. While they can and should be ideally conducive to the pursuit of Krishna consciousness, there is an unease in Mayapur that places sociality in the mundane world, and along with all things illusory, it is often easier to avoid altogether.
Of course, I am not suggesting that social relationships are impossible, and indeed I could speak here of deep friendships and lasting relationships in Mayapur. What I am suggesting is that the social is a sphere, like in Urapmin, where moral virtue is not easily recognised, but where moral failure is an ever- present danger. In important ways then, sociality can be detrimental rather conducive to the pursuit of Krishna consciousness. This is one of the many ethical conflicts devotees must constantly negotiate in their everyday lives. To rephrase Robbins’ question, “How does one live as a good person while existing in the midst of a social world that routinely draws one into maya?”
ISKCON, I would suggest is yet to find an answer to this question.
My argument is founded then on three central points. I have suggested, against O’Connell’s interpretation of Caitanya Vaishnavism’s devotional ethics as inherently conducive to community, that at least in this case, the very theological underpinning that informs devotees’ ideas of a good life renders any pursuit of sociality in Mayapur a morally precarious venture.
Looking back at Prabhupad’s advocacy of varnasrama dharma and communal living as central to the pursuit of Krishna consciousness, I have suggested that considering the dramatic transformation that ISKCON has undergone in the last 40 years, his vision of what a community might look like no longer serves as a realistic goal, or indeed a starting point for devotees in Mayapur today.
I want to conclude by suggesting that while acknowledging, as O’Connell has, the various opportunities in the Caitanya Vaishnav tradition to bring devotional ethics and community together, we should at the same time be aware of the sources of friction between the two, inherent in Prabhupad’s presentation of Vaishnav theology in the West, and as are proving to be obstacles that ISKCON Mayapur faces in the pursuit of an Ideal Vedic City.