Understanding ISKCON’s Internal Cultural Tensions

by Krishna-kirti das

Historically and culturally, within the last 400 years, Westerners have progressively sought to understand their world through the scientific method, without reference to religion. This characteristic distinguishes Western culture from other cultures. “The fact of the matter is that Western civilization is the only civilization that is explicitly non-religious or post-religious. This is the radical difference of the West from the other civilizations,” [1] writes distinguished political scientist James Kurth. “It helps to explain why there are new conflicts between the West and the rest. It predicts that these conflicts will become more intense in the future.” [2]

Kurth’s insight may also explain why large and important sections of ISKCON’s members want to further accommodate with Western culture. Kurth distinguishes the West from “the rest” on account of the West’s non-religious world view. Other civilizations such as Orthodox (Russian, Ukrainian, etc.), Islamic and Hindu, by contrast, are civilizations identified by religion. Religion significantly informs the thinking of these civilizations whereas it has been largely banished to the periphery of Western civilization. In place of religion, empiricism predominates the Western paradigm, which maintains the idea that real knowledge in all aspects of life is discoverable by the scientific method. This conflict between religious and non-religious world views is prominent within ISKCON.

Faith in holy books and holy men and faith in empiricism are two prominent modes of thought that permeate ISKCON’s body politic. A shastra-based world-view is inherited from ISKCON’s disciplic succession, and empiricism has piggy-backed into ISKCON on the minds of its Western members, who to begin with have a proclivity to view the world through the eyes of science. Within ISKCON, A tension between these two world views in some important ways resembles the intercivilzational rivalry between the West and “the rest” described by Kurth. Devotees experience this on a personal level as doubts, internal conflicts between reposing faith in shastra and reposing faith in science. These individual doubts are widespread and percolate to the social level, where they manifest as liberation movements which closely resemble their mundane counterparts such as the feminist and gay rights movements. Naturally enough, such liberation movements unwittingly create opposition from the side that favors the non-empirical, shastra-based world view.

Although for years empirical thinking, the Western Way, was suppressed, it is on the rise in ISKCON because its members have endured a long and bruising series of personal and institutional setbacks that have fueled their doubts about a shastra-based world-view. We need not mention the specifics of these personal and institutional failures. They are well known. What is important to understand is that many see past attempts to run their lives and run ISKCON through a shastra-based world-view as having not delivered on promises. So a significant section of devotees at all levels are retreating to ways that are more familiar with them. ISKCON’s Western members are rediscovering their cultural roots, and that is the main source of ISKCON’s internal, cultural conflicts.

End Notes

[1]James Kurth. “The Real Clash” The National Interest. Issue 37. Fall, 1994. Page 3+
[2] Ibid.


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