Published On: Thu, Jul 11th, 2013

Hare Krishna Bureaucracy


BureaucracyThere is nothing inherently evil about ISKCON bureaucracy, nor of the bureaucratic setups of the other Gaudiya Vaishnava organizations. Hare Krishna, Vaishnava bureaucrats are generally well-intentioned. But bureaucracies have always had their dark side, and it could only be helpful to explore this side and bring the negative aspects out in the open. This is especially so in light of the fact that we have seen the wholesale alienation of not only one generation of ISKCON membership, and not only of Srila Prabhupada/A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami initiates. At this time, could it be that the recent passing of the principal acharyas of other Gaudiya organizations, who have always been attractive and trusted personalities, is opening the door to similar alienation?

It would be easy to blame this alienation on exaggerated cases, such as child abuse or the prostitution of lady devotees in order to sell books, but we don’t want to overplay these unfortunate incidents and end up overlooking a stronger and more general cause.

Nor would it behoove us to invent demons and blame ISKCON’s membership losses on big bad wolves lying in wait around the corner in the form of Srila Prabhupada’s godbrothers. Objective analysis would benefit by focusing on the fact that ISKCON has shot itself in the foot thanks to its own management practices. In this way, we may better understand this mostly-overlooked cause.

Taking a look at the typical behavior and results of organizational management might provide us with a clue. Generally, organizations are bureaucratic and alienate their members. One effect can be conceived of in the form of a pyramid, with the tip top management layers thriving while the vast majority of the members, the flattened-out portion of the pyramid, become alienated and demoralized to one degree or the other. The career managers that thrive and find life in organizational management are usually the ones who are willing to twist a few arms, inform on the activities of others, or to be manipulative in some way; this type of person simply goes hand-in-hand with the general scheme of organizational-cum-bureaucratic management.

An organizational bureaucracy usually asks of its followers some type of sacrifice for the good of the whole, while minimizing considerations, privileges and the rights of individuals. Thus, the rank and file become worn out and even ground up, although the upper echelon thrives upon their effort. It is also typical that when the rank and file members lose their utility to the purpose of the bureaucracy, or to upper management, they are cast out in some way. Hence the common expression in management circles, or in the circles of the managed, “Don’t love a bureaucracy because a bureaucracy won’t love you.” Alienation sets in and is an invariable part of the bureaucratic experience, and this is so even though bureaucracies are known to pay their members relatively well.

In fact, this last point is a very good one for ISKCON in particular. ISKCON management shouldn’t think that the implementation of professional management techniques is appropriate for their field; workers under a corporate management scheme may be fairly tolerant and functional, but they are paid to do so, and their personal lives can prosper and thrive by doing so. The opposite is true in the case of ISKCON because ISKCON members are volunteers! The truth be known, the personal lives of ISKCON members will thrive if they leave the ISKCON management structure and go off on their own. This is a temptation that they have to resist on one hand while they are being alienated on the other by over-bureaucratic and over-extensive meddling: “between the devil and the deep-blue sea.”

Corporate bureaucracies typically claim authority over the work life of their members. But they never dare to extend their authority over the private lives of their members. For example: with whom one marries, when one marries, i.e., one’s married life, how many children one should have, where one should live; whom one’s friends should be, whom one should speak with in the temple room and whom one shouldn’t speak with; where one should live, etc., are all out of bounds for them. Why? Because bureaucracies aren’t crazy. They know that the bureaucratic experience is already hard enough and they don’t want to unnecessarily torment their members and push them beyond the limits.

At this juncture, it should be more than obvious that if one wants to see a real mess, one should just sit back and watch ISKCON’s bureaucratic hierarchy oversee the institution of marriage and courtship. These, of course, are personal affairs and best left to the families and individuals that have to be responsible and suffer, or enjoy, the reactions over the long run. I am so often reminded of the words of former President Ronald Reagan, who used to say: “The best government is that government which governs the least.” This goes double for ISKCON, which typically fouls up the lives of its members when it involves itself in their personal business. The movement simply barks up the wrong tree when it tries to provide stewardship for the married life of its members, i.e., be it before, during or after. This is because a devotee’s family life is none of the movement’s business; its officers are generally quite unqualified to intervene in the first place, and bureaucratic considerations often compete with the best interests of the personal and even spiritual lives of its member devotees.

Another good point is that slacking the intensity of its bureaucratic excesses doesn’t help ISKCON to avoid paying the price of member alienation; it merely delays the accumulation of frustration. Nor does hiding its bureaucratic exaggerations help because the membership comes to know – everyone comes to know sooner or later – what goes on behind the scenes, what tactics have been employed, etc. And when the pent-up effects are finally loosened, the results can be dramatic.

Truly, the only management schemes on the planet which claim such far-reaching jurisdiction over their members are to be found in the heavily socialistic and communistic states, such as Cuba or China. Of course, ISKCON doesn’t usually back itself up with brute force and rifles and such, but the overall effect can be dysfunctional and stifling, all the same.

One standard management practice is to not publicly chastise its managers who are seen as being overbearing or beyond the limits. This is natural because when managers are chastised in public, they lose their moral authority over the underlings and their ability to carry out their managerial agendas. But when this practice becomes commonplace, management pays the price in the form of resentment and alienation on the part of its members; and management goes down with the ship.

ISKCON hierarchy, and the management hierarchies of all the Gaudiya organizations, need to be willing to back off and respect the individual rights of the members and their private lives. (How about a bill of absolute rights for ISKCON members?) In the classic literature, such as in the Bhagavatam or Caitanya-caritamrita, we don’t see the private lives of the devotees being the subject of any organizational management (e.g., ladies who are good book distributors being pressured to marry this one or that one in order to keep them around). Along these lines, ISKCON needs to be willing to divorce itself from pragmatic perspectives and lose a few battles in order to win the war, so to speak; it has to show its members that it will be honest, open and straightforward in its dealings, even to its own detriment. Such an attitude on the part of management could work wonders for membership retention over the long run.

We have seen a lot of goodwill and even changes on the part of ISKCON leadership over the last 10 or 15 years, so there seems to be something to work with. Any such willingness should be cultivated on the part of the grassroots. Srila Prabhupada was known to make changes, so we don’t have to engage in dysfunctional practices generation after generation. More adjustment is necessary.

Published in its original form by The Sampradaya Sun

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