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Social Development In The Hare Krishna Movement - Finn Madsen

Jagat - Wed, 21 Apr 2004 19:41:29 +0530

The following text is an introduction to the contents of Finn Madsen's doctoral dissertation. I hope he will give us more detail on each chapter, as it seems that there are interesting ideas about social development that should be of interest to anyone involved in the life of devotion. Jagat.


Between 1995 and 2000 I collected the facts on which my thesis Social udvikling i Hare Krishna bevægelsen ("Social Development in the Hare Krishna Movement") is based.

Interviews were carried out in several European countries mainly amongst ISKCON devotees. The thesis consists of six chapters - not completely without misspellings or obscurities - but apparently content won over form. I defended it successfully at Copenhagen University in September 2000.

Philosophers Poppper/Kuhn have made it a common practice in serious scientific work, that scientists attempt to falsify - or critically attack - their own fundamental hypothesis. The more such attempts a hypothesis "survives" the stronger it appears, until the hypothesis gains status of having a "probability amounting almost to certainty." Since Popper/Kuhn ‘Absolute Truth’ has had an insecure position in the sciences (chapter 1).

My own most important hypothesis, or basic assumption if you like, is that A. C. Bhaktivedanta initially worked to establish Gaudiya Matha branches that were 1:1 copies of the mathas in India he came from himself. As far as I can see the textual sources are strong enough for this hypothesis. However transplanting the Gaudiya Matha's ideas, behaviour and structure to the West turned out to be difficult, and he gradually had to settle for less.

Visiting the Gaudiya Matha in India in the early 1990's I could not help but notice one important rule: that no woman can stay in the matha overnight. It is a fixed rule - it is simple and it is of massive importance for the teachings and the organisational structure. The presence of women in the mathas is felt to lead to marriage and as a consequence the temples would over years lose their brahmacarins and sannyasins. In such cases, the tyagin would lose his status and have to return into society, back to the caste he came from.

If you remember the teaching is, that since tyagins are withdrawn from the social life of mundane society, their caste-background is of no importance. The day they enter the temple world they become Krishna's slaves. And since it is their souls - not their caste - that gradually begin to go back to Godhead, they are considered souls transcending the caste system.

Living outside the matha, the families remain in the varna-asrama system and play their roles according to the ordinary caste rules that are in force in India. Not that they are pointed to by the tyagins, but there is a difference. The tyagins simply have a better chance to concentrate on spiritual life, since they are less interrupted by mundane occurrences.

Unlike Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who was reputed for making samnyasins and able to keep them as such, most of A. C. Bhaktivedanta’s tyagins eventually wondered off to marriage and family life after some time (chapter 2) - often several years - in the centres as sankirtan devotees (chapters 3 and 4).

This pattern of bhaktas joining, graduating to brahmacarin/brahmacarinis and even samnyasins and then leaving the centre as married couples, made things very complicated for A. C. Bhaktivedanta. Had he had only tyagins it would be simpler to organize. But with the families in the centres the importance of establishing the varna-asrama-system became clear to him. Eventually he never got around to doing it himself. But during the late nineties a couple of attempts were made by his heirs to simplify this very complicated varna-asrama issue and make it a part of daily life by transforming it into a way you do things instead of having it looming as an abstract thinkingmatter (chapters 5 and 6).

In 2000 when I stopped the fieldwork it was clearly too early to evaluate the effects of the attempts to implement varna-asrama in ISKCON. And this part of my thesis was more of an account of an ongoing evolutionary process than an analysis.

Anyone who wishes to ask Finn questions or make comments may do so