Integrating Temple and Bhakti-vriksha - A Temple Manager's Perspective
Temple managers may become frustrated in implementing the Bhakti-vriksha Program. This may happen in two ways; first: the high expectations from the Bhakti-vriksha Program don’t manifest. Second (just the opposite): the Bhakti-vriksha program is “too successful” and the temple manager suddenly finds himself competing with a seemingly independent program that is “out of control.” These two problems have their roots in misconceptions or misapplications of the micro- and macro-dynamics of the Bhakti-vriksha Program, both characterized by decentralization and empowerment of the individual. These two concepts may cause nightmares for preachers and managers as they may conjure up visions of rampant speculation, deviation, or Gaudiya Math style fragmentation. However, this doesn’t have to be the case.
The Bhakti-vriksha group functions differently from other preaching efforts. This isn’t to say that the Bhakti-vriksha Program is something new; in Krishna consciousness things are not “new and improved,” they are timeless. Bhakti-vriksha is not a new invention or even discovery. It is simply the logical development of what Srila Prabhupada gave us; it’s a matter of going deeper into it, understanding it more profoundly and adjusting our application accordingly. The Bhakti-vriksha vision is found in Sri Caitanya-caritamrita and in the writings of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura; many preachers are already familiar with Bhakti-vriksha concepts and techniques, as they have already applied them in a spontaneous, improvised or intuitive manner. This led to flashes of brilliant success in individual Yatras; the Bhakti-vriksha Program formalizes such techniques and makes success replicable on a grand scale.
We can analyze the Bhakti-vriksha micro-dynamics by examining one aspect of the group meeting, the discussion. Traditionally a session on the scriptures means that one person speaks and the others listen. Power—in this case the right to speak—is centralized in one person. In the Bhakti-vriksha discussion however, this power of speaking is decentralized; it’s given to all the members of the group. The purpose of the discussion is not simply to educate the members by presenting them information, but to empower them to convert information into knowledge. Information is jñana, knowledge is vijñana—information in context. By encouraging the members to speak, to think, and to analyze, the facilitator encourages them to relate the theoretical information with their own experience, and thus to identify themselves with the knowledge. This process forms devotees who are more deeply identified with Krishna consciousness. The information-gathering function is served through home-studies and seminars, and as the members discover that their personal study empowers them to make valuable and valued contributions to the discussions, they gain more enthusiasm for studying Srila Prabhupada’s books outside the meetings.
It is important that the facilitator understand the goal of the discussion, which is not to elicit “correct” answers, to test the members’ knowledge, or to display great erudition and discourage others from “displaying their ignorance.” It is about encouraging the members to apply, in a practical way, their theoretical knowledge. The speculators should be gently nudged around. Correct knowledge of the scriptures should be self-evident. Someone should be able to demonstrate how an explanation or vision based on the scriptures gives a more complete, more useful understanding. This should be done in a gentle way, rather than just coming down on someone, openly or subtly, for speculating.
This dynamic can also be applied in the temple for programs with the public. The lecture to a mixed audience—devotees and guests—can become a little schizophrenic; is it preaching or education? The new people need to be preached to at a very basic level, while the devotees want and need to go deeper. One solution is to have two classes to cater to the two groups; another solution is to use the underlying principles of the Bhakti-vriksha discussion: the lecture becomes theme-based rather than verse-based. The speaker addresses a specific issue relevant to everyone, bringing in the scripture to illustrate and explain the points. This is the format used in Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita. Interaction can be stimulated by asking the opinion of the audience, and then working that into the presentation. Basic philosophical points are thus introduced in a context that simultaneously demonstrates their practical applicability; this helps devotees to deepen their realization of the application and to learn how to preach. The newer members of the audience identify more with the discourse because it includes their input and the content is relevant to them.
My first involvement with Krishna consciousness was in “The Loft” congregational preaching center in New Zealand, with Devamrita Swami, Candrasekhara Swami, Bhaktisiddhanta Swami and Param Satya Devi Dasi giving classes in this way. I also watched them do it in temples and in people’s houses. The guests always feel more enlivened when they can talk freely. We should learn how to let the guests disclose the prevailing thought-patterns in society and then direct the preaching to their needs. In this way everyone benefits.
When we apply this interactive approach we should be careful that devotees in the audience don’t “show off” (as they sometimes do) their superior erudition. Sometimes the devotees contribute formula-answers that sound dogmatic and are packed with jargon. On hearing such pronouncements the new guests get the idea that if they speak they will look like fools, as they can’t talk the slang. They feel scared to participate; they feel intimidated, unwilling to reveal anything and afraid to contradict the prevailing paradigms. In this way the whole attempt at helping them to open up is spoiled.
My experience: doing in a temple anything that breaks the schema always generates resistance. If the preacher is experienced at least the new people immediately hook into the vibe; the old school might find this fresh approach a bit unsettling and might even become contemptuous. However, when it is well done everyone enjoys it.
We have to give up the atmavan manyate jagat mentality (thinking that others must be the same as oneself), a barrier to effective communication. An expert doctor diagnoses his patient before prescribing the medicine. The principle is progressive: accept the favorable and reject the unfavorable. One man’s food is another man’s poison. Or, as Srila Prabhupada put it more succinctly, “Do the needful.” As His Holiness Sacinandana Maharaja described in an article, Srila Prabhupada considered keeping the seats in a recently purchased church, so that guests would feel comfortable.
On 5th June 1976, during a morning walk in Los Angeles, Srila Prabhupada delineated a plan to host even those people who are unable to immediately follow everything:
Ramesvara: We’ve been planning for some time to prepare one flyer advertising our Vrindavana guesthouse . . . So the question is, these students and professors, they cannot control their senses from smoking and so on. So do we want to allow them to stay in our guesthouse, because it is certain that they will smoke in their room.
Srila Prabhupada: That is very difficult thing . . . Make one room, smoking room, that’s all right. Just like that kind of restriction is there in the airplane, smoking, not, non. So you keep a room separately, a smoking room.
Tamala Krishna: One time when I was staying in the Krishna-Balarama Mandira, I saw a man smoking a bidi in his room. If that happens—in the bedroom—should the managers go and say this is not permitted?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Tamala Krishna: They should. They should go down to the smoking room.
Srila Prabhupada: “Kindly go to the smoking room.”
This shows how dynamic a preacher Srila Prabhupada was; he analyzed the situation and tried different methods to reach the people, rather than following a prefabricated one-two-three plan.
Focus on the Individual
The personal approach, sensitive to the needs of the individual, is the practical manifestation of the Krishna conscious philosophy. Speaking to people in their own language will be more effective than demanding that they learn our language. Srila Prabhupada decoded the Sanskrit literatures into English so that we could have access to them; now we need to present it in the language of the present-day society so that everyone can appreciate and have access to Srila Prabhu-pada’s books.
A good example of the personalized style of preaching is His Holiness Bhakti-tirtha Swami. Maharaja can give a class that captivates both first-timers and seasoned, senior devotees. Another good example is His Holiness Devamrita Swami. Maharaja can give an interactive presentation that absorbs the audience and keeps people on the edge of their seats, waiting for what will happen next, and also laughing along with everyone else at themselves when Maharaja, in a good humored mood, disarms their speculation. Of course it takes maturity to preach in this way, but the Bhakti-vriksha Program can produce devotees whose nature is to appreciate the philosophy and such style of presentation.
Another aspect of the micro-dynamics is that it’s very personal. In the standard ISKCON scenario a guest may come to the temple, sit down, listen to a lecture, take some prasadam, and then leave, without ever having any personal contact with anyone. The Sunday Program doesn’t have to be impersonal, but unfortunately it can be and often is. The lecture, for instance, can be “impersonal.” It is one-way communication and often the speaker doesn’t take into account the needs of the audience. After a Sunday feast I accosted a new guest who was leaving and whom I had observed sitting by himself. I invited him for some more pizza and we sat down to talk. After a few minutes he revealed his mind: “I didn’t understand anything of the lecture, and no one treated me nicely.” The Bhakti-vriksha does not allow this to happen when the micro-dynamics are correct. The group leader is responsible for contact-ing each member of the group during the week and maintaining a personal relationship. At first it may seem a little artificial, but after a while it becomes natural for both the leader and the members. Relations are the real “glue” of the Krishna conscious society—not living in the same location, wearing the same clothes, having the same hairstyle, or knowing the secret handshake, “Haribol Prabhu.” For devotees who grow up in a personal environment like that of Bhakti-vriksha it is natural to go up to new people at the Sunday feast and make friends with them.
“Books are the basis” is a principle of our movement. The Bhakti-vriksha’s decentralization and empowerment of the individual mean that every member is a preacher. This means that every member can be a book distributor. First of all, the Bhakti-vriksha member grows up in a devotional culture where the basis of devotional life is the study and discussion of the books of Srila Prabhupada, along with japa and kirtan. For such a person, presentation and dissemination of these books is a natural part of devotional life. The Bhakti-vriksha home-study program should be structured in such a way that all members gradually accumulate a collection of Srila Prabhupada’s books in their home and systematically study them. The personal nature of the relationships makes the financial arrangements for paying the full Srimad-Bhagavatam and Caitanya-caritamrita easier. The old mentality was to sell to as many people as possible. We have to add the new mentality: to sell as much as possible to the same person—quality and quantity. In this way book distribution becomes more personal and cultivation becomes an integral part of the equation.
These are a few points about the micro-dynamics of a healthy Bhakti-vriksha Program: it’s dynamic, personal, and very much based on the study and distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books. In this sense it’s a return to the past, to the essential, more than being anything “new.” Adoption of the essential aspects of the Bhakti-vriksha micro-dynamics in the temple programs will be more beneficial than trying to replicate the existing temple programs in someone’s house and calling it “Bhakti-vriksha.”
This brings us to the second part of the article, the macro-dynamics of the Bhakti-vriksha Program. The word Bhakti-vriksha can refer to a Bhakti-vriksha group or to the overall Bhakti-vriksha Program. Problems with the interaction between the temple and the Bhakti-vriksha Program occur at the macro level.
One of the first things that the Bhakti-vriksha Manual tells us is that for Bhakti-vriksha to function properly it needs someone to run it. This means that the temple should make some devotees available and make sure that they have access to the resources they need. Who wants only half a hen won’t get any egg. The Bhakti-vriksha Program promises great results, and this requires great sacrifice. If the Bhakti-vriksha manager is also the head-pujari and the cook or is always collecting to maintain the establishment, then the Bhakti-vriksha Program is not really being given a fair chance to show its stuff. Temple managers who have not captured the vision of the Bhakti-vriksha system will be hesitant to commit resources to it. For this reason it is imperative that the first stage of implementation should be the deep examination of the Bhakti-vriksha approach, to understand what it is in essence.
On the other hand, what becomes apparent in a successful Bhakti-vriksha implementation is that the temple is not absolutely necessary. Decentralization and empowerment of the individual challenge the traditional role of the temple. Gone are the days of the myth: “you can’t become Krishna conscious without living in the temple.” However, this does not mean that the temple is not useful or that it should be done away with. It just means that its role needs to be redefined. In the new, deregulated marketplace of the holy name the temple has lost its monopoly and needs to reengineer (rediscover itself) to remain competitive (relevant). This can be scary for the temple manager and he may find himself approaching his regional authorities to complain that the Bhakti-vriksha Program is “out of control.”
In his book The Cellular Church Larry Stockstill explains that there are two different things: the cellular Church and the Church with cell groups. The Bhakti-vriksha model is that of the cellular Church, however, many temple managers have in mind the Church with cell groups. They view Bhakti-vriksha within the context of the temple—as another of its many programs—rather than viewing the temple in the context of the community built on Bhakti-vriksha principles.
Church with cell groups
In Sri Caitanya-caritamrita Lord Caitanya says that He Himself is the Bhakti-vriksha, the tree of devotion. In His pastimes as Matsya and Varaha He grew unlimitedly from a small size. When a temple manager permits the planting of the seed of the Bhakti-vriksha in his temple, he often doesn’t realize that the tree that will grow will be too big for his temple to contain. Decen-tralization and empowerment of the individual have an exponen-tial effect on growth. The result is that the total Bhakti-vriksha Program will grow to the point that the congregation won’t be able to physically fit in the existing ISKCON facility. This should be the goal of every Bhakti-vriksha Program Director. The recommendation in the Bhakti-vriksha Manual is that all members of the Bhakti-vriksha Program should meet once a week for the Sunday feast. As the congregation expands, more Sunday feasts can be held in different locations, for the local groups, by hiring facilities such as school halls. The entire Bhakti-vriksha community of a city can meet for large festivals by renting a sports stadium.
What would the role of the temple be if it loses its monopoly as the physical structure for meetings? What would the special role of the temple be if every home becomes a temple and every Bhakti-vriksha mem-ber a book distributor? Temple managers may feel uneasy as the Bhakti-vriksha Program advan-ces and these questions become more pressing. Ksatriyas control through manipulation of power—permitting or denying access to it. Decentralization of power threatens a management structure based on underlying ksatriya mentality and principles. Brahmanas influence others through knowledge and illumination rather than through the exercise of executive power. The potential exists for any Bhakti-vriksha node to outdo the temple, so the temple has to ensure its excellence in being the ideal Bhakti-vriksha node. The temple has the advantage that it can be hundred percent dedicated to preaching and educa-tion. The temple residents should include devoted brah-manas who have mastered the Bhakti-vriksha educational syllabus and can give seminars on a variety of topics, from “Communication” to “Conflict Resolution in the Bhagavad-gita.” There must be brahmanas who develop the home-study programs that allow the Bhakti-vriksha members to imbibe the scriptures. There must be experts in cooking, Vaisnava music, Deity worship, sankirtana, and all the other devotional activities. In other words, the temple should transform into the backbone of the brahminical culture that regulates the otherwise largely decentralized Vedic varnas-rama society. The temple must become the training and educational facility that ensures the propagation of Vaisnava and ISKCON culture in the Bhakti-vriksha community. Without this a massive expansion will lead inevitably to dilution and ISKCON runs the risk of becoming the new Hinduism.
The "Demigods" model of the temple
While all the members of the congregation might eventually not be able to fit in the temple at once, the Bhakti-vriksha groups can rotate to offer services in the temple, while the residing temple staff would provide the needed continuity. Using the same system that Krishna Himself established in the universe, the temple staff become the “demigods” of the temple resources, managing them and instructing the congregation in their correct use. A team of Bhakti-vriksha group members, for instance, may work in the kitchen under the direction of the temple cook, who teaches them kitchen etiquette and how to cook, and ensures that nothing gets broken and everything goes back where it belongs.
The leaders of the Bhakti-vriksha groups could meet in the brahminical atmosphere of the temple—an ambient purified by high-standard Deity worship—to discuss realizations and strategies, to pray for the spiritual strength to realize the desires of the acaryas, and to draw strength from each other’s association.
Gone are the days of accepting as a “brahmacari” anyone who needs a place to stay. In the Sri Sri Radha-Gopinatha Temple in Mumbai, India, His Holiness Radhanatha Swami only accepts candidates who have been following the four regulative principles and chanting sixteen rounds for a year and a half. Where will you find candidates like that? Up goes the poster in the lobby: “Join the Temple, Be All You Can Be.” Seasoned Bhakti-vriksha members who want to have a go at temple life can join the temple staff and dedicate full-time to powering Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement. They enter already trained and ready for action.
A huge congregation plus a temple that adds value to the devotional community equal financial support from grateful congregational members. In this scenario the congregation recognizes the temple as a vital resource in the Bhakti-vriksha community. The congregation doesn’t belong to the temple, any more than the varnasrama society belongs to the brahmanas; both exist in a symbiotic relationship. In this way all the devotees can work together to realize the vision of Srila Prabhupada and the previous acaryas for a Krishna conscious world. It takes vision to see a tree in a seed, and knowledge to plant it right. It will take time and energy to water and cultivate it, but the results will be worth it—a tree that can offer its cooling shade to the whole world. Don’t be afraid of the future, Bhakti-vriksha. Participate in the pastime.