(August 24, 2014, by Veni Madhava das)
You are taking sannyasa at Goloka Dham, Germany, on Janmastami. What made you decide to take this step?
What made me decide to take this step was no single event. It was the culmination of a process of reflection that I’ve been having for quite some years actually. I was cautious because we have seen in ISKCON’s past what you might call sannyasa casualties, and I didn’t want to be a part of that statistic. So I thought it was better to wait and make sure. I also felt that since Srila Prabhupada gave sannyasa to senior devotees, he had a purpose for this and I want to respect that purpose and, I think, to expand my service by making this commitment. And in one sense people say I’m already a sannyasi. That may be the case, but I’d like to have it confirmed. And since it’s Krishna’s arrangement that there are four ashramas, I thought, “Let me also take advantage of the ashrama.” All of the ashramas are meant to be supportive for devotional service, so I also see the sannyasa ashrama as a means of support for my spiritual life and also as a way for helping others in their spiritual life.
How do you feel about it?
Good! I feel like it’s a good move. Time will tell, but I think it will be good. All the indications are positive. All the senior devotees that I have consulted were very positive, the GBC was very positive, and even the astrologers say it’s positive.
Do you think that this change is going to influence your approach to your disciples or other devotees or non-devotees and in what way?
If it’s a change let’s hope it’s in a positive way. But I don’t have any specific plan to make some specific change. I hope that I can inspire devotees more, and I think that is facilitated by the ashrama.
How do you see the future of your academic activities after taking sannyasa?
As I began two years ago to sort of step back from regular teaching in universities so I could focus on Bhaktivedanta College, that is still my program. I do plan to continue doing the writing and research that I do, and I think the sannyasa will not be affected. Or that the sannyasa will affect that, one way or another. I hope that I can continue without distraction.
Last year you were made the Dean of Studies at Bhaktivedanta College at Radhadesh.
Yeah, that’s what they call me. What does that mean? We’re still trying to figure out what that means [laughs]. We are still trying to figure out what it is that we are trying to do at Bhaktivedanta College. The College is still very young and it has a lot of potential. The Dean of Studies means an emphasis is put on attention to academic quality, overseeing the classes offered to be sure they have a high standard of content and teaching delivery. It also means being connected with the teachers, and seeing that we are all on the same page. We also have to be sensitive to our position with relation to our accrediting institution, Chester University. As long as we want to have that accreditation, we have to follow various requirements that they give. These are the general areas, and then also trying to understand how to facilitate students’ learning, how can they better receive what we are trying to offer, and whether what we’re trying to offer is what they need.
What is the significance of Bhaktivedanta College for ISKCON?
Right now its significance for ISKCON generally is rather minimal, and that is something we hope to change. We would like that Bhaktivedanta College is recognized by the wider Vaisnava community as a significant resource for communities to send students to. They can become qualified to go back into their communities as nicely trained and nicely educated leaders. That’s our idea. Again, we are still a quite young institution, and it could take some time before that happens. We are working on it.
Last year a book called Bhagavata Purana: Sacred Text and Living Tradition was published, edited by you and Radhika Raman Prabhu. Tell us about this project and the second volume you are working on.
Yes, this is indeed the first of two volumes that have been contracted by an academic publisher in America – Columbia University Press. Initially we proposed to them only this first book, and we proposed it as what we called a companion volume. It would be a companion to the Srimad Bhagavatam for people to appreciate better the Bhagavatam through these articles. There are twelve articles given through twelve different themes, important ways of understanding or entering into what for most people is very foreign material. So, the publishers looked at our proposal and they liked it, but they said: “Where is the Bhagavata Purana for which this book will be the companion?” We might have answered: “Well, it’s already there – Srila Prabhupada’s multi-volume Bhagavatam.” But they didn’t want that, they wanted a one-volume book, so actually they proposed that we ourselves make an abridged Srimad Bhagavatam. We took this as Krishna’s mercy and that’s what we’re working on now, which means that we are doing our own translations from the Sanskrit – selected passages from the Bhagavatam with connecting paragraphs to give it continuity. And then these two books will be a set. They’ll go very much together, and they’re being marketed for classroom use in universities in English speaking countries. We hope these will have some positive impact.
These two books combined constitute what we consider phase one of a four-phase, or maybe it’s even a five-phase research project that we based in Oxford called The Bhagavata Purana Research Project. With this we want to apply all the contemporary methods of academic study of such literature and in effect become the authorities in the academic world on the Srimad Bhagavatam. So, that’s a longer term project – maybe a lifetime project.
Recently, you did a tour of universities across China. Was it any different from the West?
Well, the language is different, and I don’t speak Chinese, so we always had translation. It was a nice opportunity to meet some professors and some of their students. We had very nice reception. People are appreciative, because they want to know something about Indian philosophy and religion. This is kind of exploratory work that I am doing, to see how can we develop something more solid, something more substantial, to get something going in the academic world in China. The big obstacle for me is language, because to learn Chinese takes a whole lifetime, and at my age it’s not going to happen. So I’m just trying to explore what can be done, and maybe others will take it up. There are some good prospects, but right now things are still in the beginning stages.
What would you say is the area that devotees in ISKCON today need to work on most, or what are the main obstacles we are dealing with? How can we become better devotees?
I was in Mayapur in early 2014. We had quite a large gathering called ISKCON Leaders Sanga. There were some 800 leaders from around the world. Two years ago they had this and it was half that number, around 400 devotees. The focus is on what they call strategic planning, and I think there are a lot of good initiatives going on. I suppose in one sense you could say there’s everything there on that level, it’s being taken care of, devotees are becoming engaged in different ways. They had many, many seminars, many of them were focused on one or another sort of outreach and that’s as it should be. I guess my thought when I was there was where is the seminar on “inreach”? What about going inside? What about aids for devotees to more deeply cultivate Krishna consciousness? And of course we see that such things are going on. In recent years we have japa retreats, especially by Sacinandana Swami and Bhurijan Prabhu, and others have developed these retreats. I think that’s a very good sign, very necessary and devotees feel that need. I think there’s also a need for more systematic education projects. Shastric education is there. But how many devotees are actually getting that? I think it is still a very small percentage of the wider population of devotees. So I think there could be more of all the good things for more devotees.
One of your interests has been community development. What is the most important thing to have in mind when we face conflicts in spiritual communities if we want a successful outcome?
I guess one starting point is to recognize that conflict is going to be there because we are individual human beings. Prabhupada said that having different opinions is not a bad thing. It shows that we are persons, and as personalists, there can be differences. Sometimes we become too quickly anxious that if there are different opinions, then something is wrong. But I would sometimes think, Well, can’t we just have space for the different opinions? Do we have to come up with only one opinion about this particular issue or can we have different approaches? We talk a lot about unity in diversity. Some anxiety I think is there, whenever we encounter some conflict. Usually the problem has to do with communication. We’re not very good at communicating and listening. It’s not such a complicated thing to improve communication, it takes a little time, takes a little humility, patience. It means actually listening to the other person and actually exploring where there may be some truth in what they’re saying, even if we may disagree. It takes a few basic communication skills, which we don’t have to invent ourselves. Others have done so much in these kinds of practices. We can take advantage. I think also to allow ourselves to be in a state of uncertainty. Usually when some issue comes up, we’re in anxiety because we need to come to some conclusion – it’s either like this or it’s like that. It seems to me that the more beneficial position can be: “Well, we have different opinions about this, so let us reflect. Let us not rush to conclusions.” One reason we think we need to have single conclusions is, as an international mission, we value uniformity and that’s natural, because we think if new people are coming, and they hear this opinion and then that opinion, they’ll become confused; their confusion may lead them to give up the process. Well, maybe that’s so. Or maybe they’ll appreciate that we have allowance and space for different opinions. That’s another possibility. That we don’t all become like automatons – we all say the same thing and think the same thing and do the same thing, all the time the same thing. That could not be very attractive for many people.