By Kaunteya Das
In discussing Bhakti-vriksha in a private forum, many stimulating points and questions have been aired that I plan to comment and answer. In one posting, for instance, Sita-pati Prabhu wrote:
“From what I've seen, the exponential increase in numbers is due to the "pulling in" of the existing devotee congregation and the melee of favorable persons milling about them open to getting more involved if given an opportunity. It's once this pool is exhausted it falters.”
Yes, I agree, some center that wants to start implementing the Bhakti-vriksha approach to community development will naturally target existing contacts and existing community members. After all they are already open to Krishna consciousness or already practicing, so it’s only natural to go to them and invite them to experience the Bhakti-vriksha meetings and the other aspects of the program. So, in this way it is plausible to expect that the initial spurt of (apparent) growth comes from the existing polls of candidates.
At the same time in one sense the pulling in of existing people (when not thoroughly trained and formed for the task) often results in importing old tendencies and parameters that are incompatible with the Bhakti-vriksha culture. So, the initial indiscriminate injection of manpower could become the cause of the collapse of the Program.
For example: an integral, essential part of the Bhakti-vriksha approach is inspiring and empowering devotees to preach, to introduce new people to Krishna consciousness, and to become reference points for others. Although this might be accepted on paper or formally on the basis of the many quotations from Srila Prabhupada, the reality is that often (not always) those living in an environment that does not encourage personal initiative and outreach (or even discourages it) might not easily imbibe the new mood. In other words, it’s easier to remain stuck in the psychology and attitudes one has cultivated for years. If one has been seeing himself as a spectator-worshiper, someone who only supports “the preachers” but doesn’t preach himself, it might be difficult to, all of a sudden, start seeing himself as a preacher and start acting accordingly. In other words: “You can’t teach new tricks to an old swan” (especially without systematic effort at re-orienting him and without the strong cultural support of the local administration).
So, yes, an initial swelling of the group or groups might come from existing members of the congregation, but, as Sita-pati Prabhu points out, this doesn’t guarantee any long-term (or often even medium-term) growth and expansion.
What I have seen is that when Bhakti-vriksha is properly implemented and the focus in on new people, they can start growing spiritually in tune with the concepts of Bhakti-vriksha (which are nothing but the modern application of the vision and instructions of Lord Caitanya and His bona fide representatives).
Often these key concepts (meeting in small groups, focusing on reaching out to others, expansion of leadership, etc.) are more easily digested and assimilated by new people than by old. Growing in an atmosphere where these principles are deeply accepted and daily implemented produces the generation of a “new type” of home-based devotee, open or actually eager to actively apply their new life-style.
Sita-pati Prabhu expresses a relevant concern. It’s a fact that someone might think: “Well, we started doing Bhakti-vriksha with the existing congregation; but the groups aren’t growing and actually some are closing down. What’s happening? Is it the system that is defective?”
The system (intimate meetings, focus on outreach, delegation of leadership, and multiplication of the groups) is only normal in a healthy, dynamic devotional community. Unfortunately in many of our communities these principles aren’t learned and internalized from the beginning, and when the community has the chance to adopt them, often the gap is too big, the training and support too small, old habits too hard to die… and the shift might just not happen. And then people might be tempted to blame the Bhakti-vriksha approach, which supposedly “doesn’t work.”