Ashram Changes and Temple Development

By Bhurijana dasa - 29.7 2019

Most devotees’ lives and views on devotional service change as their ashram changes. When several devotees pass through ashram changes at approximately the same time-or even if one respected devotee within a temple changes his ashram-a temple can become affected.

My writing down these developmental stages, which is similar for both individual devotees and temples (If the majority of devotees within a temple are in a similar ashram situation, it can be said that that temple is at that particular stage of development.), does not seem revolutionary, for these stages have been perceived and acted upon over the years by many experienced ISKCON leaders. The goal of this paper is to assist leaders in becoming more aware of these stages, and their ramifications, so they may more effectively guide individuals under their care and guide temples to grow into mature, thriving communities.

My thoughts on these points have lead me to view temples as developing in stages. These stages, rather than being mandatory progressions for either temples or, for that matter, for individuals, represent tendencies that I have noted in the areas of the world in which I have traveled, specifically the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and England. But I have also seen these same tendencies exhibited in India, South Africa, and Belgium.

Temples in other areas of the world may have developed differently due to their individual histories, especially the histories of their previous authorities-sannyasis, GBC’s, and gurus. In some areas, the authority structure may have remained strong, which will strongly effect how a temple should best be managed.

Challenges and Fatal Flaws

To successfully lead, one must meet challenges and overcome tendencies that could develop into fatal flaws. The term challenge means “something that by its nature or character serves as a serious test”. Or “difficulty in a job or undertaking that is stimulating to one who is engaged in it.” A “fatal flaw,” is a “defect, weakness, or blemish” that may prove “capable of causing death, ruin, misfortune, or destruction.” We will use both terms within this paper to underscore important elements that must be dealt with using proper, long-term vision if a temple and its community are to prosper and grow.

One general challenge is that a leader should, through his vision and preaching, insure that the activities and contributions of each prior stage of a temple’s development exists alongside the current one. For example, within a temple in which many young brahmacaris and brahmacarinis have recently gotten married, the natural dwindling of preaching–and hence devotee-making–will tend to limit the number of brahmacaris and brahmacarinis that join. Temple life then spins towards being dull, spiritless, and self-criticizing. In other words, awareness of stages, challenges, and fatal flaws can assist leaders in giving direction for the future while insuring that the foundations of successful Krsna conscious temple life are not lost.

Stage One: Youthful Success

Young brahmacaris and brahmacarinis may join a temple due to the sincere preaching of the devotees. Or many may join a freshly opened temple. Such a temple bursts with enthusiasm and financial success.

One challenge for a temple manager is to recognize that the “fully-surrendered” stage of a brahmacari often only lasts for two or three years. Despite the fervor and commitment of young devotees for and to Krsna consciousness, a leader must avoid the temptation to think it will necessarily last forever. He should preach about pure devotion and the characteristics of such devotion, including enthusiasm, determination, confidence, etc.. But, in addition, he should practically plan for the future of the temple and its members, considering that many will not remain as free from material encumbrances as they are now.

Knowing this, when a young man or women wishes to join the Society, we suggest he joins in several steps:

a. Every aspiring devotee should be encouraged to accept some training, even if it is only for a limited amount of time. Appropriate curriculum and activities should be formulated into an initial bhakta program, which consists mostly of philosophical training as well as training in basic devotional practices. After completing the bhakta program, the graduate is awarded a certificate of completion.

b. Some graduates leave the temple and continue practicing Krsna consciousness as “congregational” devotees, living at home for example, or while still participating in their school or profession. Others may not be suitable for ashram living due to their own debilitation. Still others will continue in temple life, “signing-up” for another 1-3 years. This does not necessarily mean that any of the above groups of devotees have only entered into a short-term commitment to Krsna consciousness. All individuals who exhibit a life-strong dedication and commitment to developing their Krsna consciousness, regardless of their ashram or living situation, are qualified to take initiation.

Those committing themselves to 1-3 years of brahmacari and brahmacarini training continue to learn sastra, proper behavior, and to serve, preach, and surrender. Ideally, their occupations should be study, preaching, including book distribution, and menial service.

c. At the end of their 1, 2, or 3 year term, they, along with their temple leaders, examine the direction of their lives. Those who are inclined or determined to remain brahmacaris should be strongly encouraged and protected.

Young men should not be encouraged in any way to forgo brahmacari life for Krsna conscious marriage. Just the opposite should occur. Brahmacaris should be encourage to remain brahmacaris, and they should hear of the difficulties and entanglements that result from marriage. Yet, despite good preaching and a strong brahmacari spirit within a temple, many young men will not remain brahmacaris, and these devotees should be directed towards an occupation or a career that is harmonious with their advancement in Krsna consciousness. Even if most young men will eventually get married, the mood should not be projected within a temple that marriage is inevitable and brahmacaris should begin preparing for marriage and money making as early as possible.

The stage of a temple where there are many young brahmacaris and brahmacarinis often provides a temple with a large income due to the collecting power and youthful enthusiasm of the freshly joined. Leaders must beware of the fatal flaw of over-expansion, thinking that money will necessarily and steadily roll in forever. In addition, the fully-surrendered manpower of this stage allows the management to expand the Deity worship and add many new preaching projects: restaurants, food-for-life, padyatra, etc. Yet, it is a leadership challenge to insure that the temple’s main project, devotee making, must continue as an integral and practical part of all other projects and as the priority of the temple.

Stage Two: Young Married

Most young men and women, after a few years of brahmacari and brahmacarini life, desire to marry. Once married, these newly-weds are often accommodated within the temple or temple facilities and given service. Direct solicitation of funds is generally not suitable for such devotees, for they often feel that they have “already collected for too long.”

Temple leaders quite naturally often engage such devotees in “back-up” services, such as treasury, temple management, restaurant management, food-for-life management, etc. But most married devotees tend not to continue year after year financially dependent upon the temple. Due to the natural blossoming of their families, newly married couples have children, need security, and require more money. The relationship of these young householders to the temple often, and unfortunately, turns sour, for their expanding needs either frustrates the temple treasurer (the householder requires more than the treasurer thinks the temple can afford), the householder himself (he accepts less than he needs), other householders (he gets more than they), the collectors and congregation (their collections and donations are spent maintaining householders), and the temple president (he is criticized by all–the treasurer, the householder, the other householders, the collectors, and the congregation).

There are several further challenges at this stage of a temple’s development. Primarily, both at this stage and, in fact, at all stages, the temple must make new devotees. Failing to do so means future difficulties.

A mistake at this time is if, with a view to keep a householder within the purview of the temple management, the management blanketly promises or hints at full future financial support without clearly having worked out the responsibility of the individual to the temple and the temple to the individual. This flaw is easy to fall into, for not supplying a householder’s needs may mean that the temple will lose valuable manpower. This mistake may escalate in intensity if the relationship between the householder and the temple becomes sour and leads to bitterness and criticism that spreads throughout the community.

A fatal flaw at this stage is to buy an expensive farm thinking to keep all the householders productive, dependent, and in the fold.

It is a flaw, also, to try and save brahmacaris from householder life by heavily condemning the grhastha ashram. Doing so creates a rift in the community. Nor will it keep as brahmacaris those who actually wish to or need to get married. Rather, brahmacaris should be protected by helping them increase their desire to remain brahmacaris. This can be done by their having good association and sufficient time for hearing and chanting, increasing their opportunities to preach and helping them strengthen their commitment to the preaching mission, preaching to them about the importance of following the practices of sadhana and the rules and regulations of brahmacari life, being engaged appropriately (generally not management, especially not management of ladies), and by their regularly hearing of the simplicity and unparalleled spiritual benefits of brahmacari life.

Stage Three: Independent Householders

Householders tend to desire financial independence from the temple. This places them only indirectly and voluntarily under the control of the temple administration. This can be quite frustrating and difficult for the temple management, who, for many years, may have depended on these same devotees for temple finances and service. The management, however, must avoid criticizing these householders. Failing in this challenge becomes a fatal flaw. Better to treat independent householders with affection and respect, and to adopt a “How can we serve you?” attitude. The temple leadership must be patient and understanding of independent householders, for even moderate financial and career security often takes 5-10 years to achieve. Lack of friendship, moral and spiritual support, and practical well-wishes for householders often sends them adrift from the temple and Krsna consciousness practices.

Whether theoretically desirable or not, brahmacaris do get married and then need financial support. Then, as householders, they do become, albeit to differing degrees, independent. Some householders will finance themselves directly from the temple, others from temple related enterprises, and still others independently. Practically speaking, as soon as a brahmacari becomes determined to change his ashram, he should be counseled about his financial responsibility to support his family. In addition, those in the “young married” stage should be allowed to make money without directly taking it from the temple. Again, most will support themselves independently of direct temple income and will need money. Those householders changing from dependence on the temple to independence from the temple will need as much help as can be practically given to make smooth this transition.

As one of its most important services, a temple’s congregation can help newly-weds become situated. Most other groups support their members in this way; Koreans, Chinese, Jews, and Blacks all have community councils and other similar organizations to help. This service is ideally suited to the congregation the independent householder will join. Providing this service is much less suitable for a temple, for it involves not preaching, but vocational guidance, housing choices, business acumen, money loaning, etc. Not having a congregation already in place by this time may mean that a temple may loose those devotees making the transition from the dependent to the independent householder stage. Developing a congregation is thus an essential challenge, even at the outset of a temple’s existence, and it will especially prove crucial in this third stage of a temple’s development.

Independent householders and farm communities

At times independent householders neglect the city option, and possibly even a career, to own land with the hope of eventually living an agrarian lifestyle as per Srila Prabhupada’s desire for self-sufficient rural communities. The issues involved in establishing a rural community are complex, with many devotees having differing yet strong opinions on how it should be accomplished. On the other side, many temples have inaugurated farm community projects that have later failed, often because householders, without the security of owning the land-which is often in ISKCON’s name-have not committed themselves to the project. Other communities have failed due to centralization of finances and management, which goes against the grain of most householders. At times, the independent householders themselves finance rural projects and even wish to begin a temple on their project.

Here are some fatal flaws to avoid when beginning a rural community:

1. Don’t think a perfect community management plan exists. The management style of the community should develop and suit the community’s members.

2. Don’t think you can satisfy and keep everyone in the fold.

3. Don’t think of the temple as the community or as its controller. Know, rather, that the temple is part of the community it serves.

4. Don’t undertake a huge financial commitment in an effort to provide the householders a farm. This can be done, however, if a practical sub-division plan is worked out wherein the householders can quickly buy back parcels of the land, or if the householders will be satisfied with a long and secure lease with the Deity as the land’s owner. In parts of Europe, where ownership of land is rarer than in the United States or in Australia-New Zealand, the householders’ need to own land as security may not be as great.

5. Don’t whimsically begin a Gurukula. A fatal flaw at this stage is to haphazardly start a Gurukula without understand the practical commitment and resources a successful Gurukula demands. Nor should one assume that all householders will favor a Gurukula education for their children. Householders are generally independent by nature and have their own desires for their children, which range from the ideal–which as stated by Prabhupada is that the children train as preachers–to their child’s entering the “real” world with a University degree.

All previous spiritual training can be tested during the independent householder stage of life, which may last for 25 years. If they are dealt with respectfully, as devotees should be treated, they will gradually contribute with their knowledge, skills, and the fruits of their work. Accept gratefully the service they can render, for if independent householders are welcome within a community, they help, even if only to a limited degree, with finances, temple and festival organization, congregational preaching, book distribution, local newsletters, regular Sunday feast cooking and preaching, adult education, community health plans, and home-preaching engagements. In addition, as we have mentioned, these devotees can head-up and participate in committees that help young householders smoothly enter the independent householder stage. Householders should preach, and it is powerful (and healthy) for them to organize, host, and participate in congregational-nama hatta preaching.

Helping independent householders in their struggle for existence

Independent householders who struggle with the material energy each day quickly realize the value being a “full-time” devotee. Yet, regardless of how or if they express their appreciation, the temple should maintain a non-fruitive, service attitude toward them. Often, especially with a family in it’s early growing stages, such devotees cannot tangibly offer much help but can nevertheless benefit greatly from affectionate, Krsna conscious support. In other words, they should–regardless of how they can currently contribute–be thought of as part of the community of devotees.

A fatal flaw is to create tension with the independent householders through criticizing their material entanglement and lack of ability to do much service. These independent householders often have served selflessly for many years and feel quite justified to use their time now fulfilling the material needs of their family. Criticism can create an irreparable barrier between the temple and the independent householders. If dealt with improperly, independent householders easily become estranged, bitter, and critical. Tension and criticism may not only push them away, but it also may push the temple plummeting back to square one, which may require years and years to again build into a flourishing community of young brahmacaris and brahmacarinis.

Again, a great challenge is for a temple to continue making brahmacaris, for at all stages of development the absence of brahmacaris causes difficulties. If all brahmacaris marry and no senior brahmacaris exist, the temple leadership should examine if they can do more to protect its brahmacaris

Stage Four: The Vanaprastha and Sannyas Ashrams Complete the Cycle–the Re-entrance of Mature Householders

After many years of fulfilling their household responsibilities, when their children have grown up, householders should begin preparing for the inevitable death of their bodies by fully rededicating their time to spiritual pursuits. For these devotees, vanaprasthas, Prabhupada recommends Deity worship, living in Vrindaban, increasing hearing and chanting, and traveling on pilgrimage.

The return of the mature householders to the preaching field, after years of family life adds greatly to the preaching movement. Along with the skills they have gathered within their lives, vanaprasthas can manage, advise, worship the Deities, hear, chant, study sastra, and preach. Their fatherly and motherly presence in a community will be helpful, for their maturity can help younger devotees keep a balanced perspective through the difficulties of living and preaching within the material world.

Sometimes senior men and women return to Krsna consciousness alone, without a Vanaprastha partner. In any case, whether or not these senior, returning-to-temple-life devotees are inclined to again participate in full temple life often depends on how they have been treated as independent householders. Secondarily, it may depend upon the facilities they are offered at this mature stage of their life. We should keep in mind that senior householders have different physical and spiritual requirements than younger members of the community, and it will be a fatal flaw to not recognize this and, as far as possible, facilitate them.

Some men, leaving their wives with their grown-up children or within a senior lady’s ashram, will take the Sannyas order of life and preach.

The presence of all the elements– enthusiastic brahmacaris and brahmacarinis, young householders, varieties of independent householders, vanaprasthas, and sannyasi’s-each serving Krsna and the vaisnavas according to their personal capacity and their ashram makes a complete and attractive community for which all temples can strive.