“One thing should be followed, however, as your countrymen are more or less independent spirited and lovers of democracy. So everything should be done very carefully so that their sentiments may not be hurt, According to Sanskrit moral principles, everything has to be acted, taking consideration of the place, audience and time.” Srila Prabhupada in a letter to Tamal Krishna Goswami, October 13, 1969
There has been a lot of discussion as to why our efforts to spread the teachings of Lord Caitanya have been crippled. Some argue that we have “watered down” our teachings in favor of accommodation, others say that we have become too focused on simply collecting money and not on teaching siddhanta, while others vie that we have not placed enough emphasis on hari-nama-sankirtana. There is, however, another cause that is not discussed and one that deserves attention as well: a respect for democracy. Yes, our line is by nature a rather hierarchical and autocratic one, but will such an absolute adherence to this style of authority attract people to the line of bhakti—especially Americans?
The simple answer is “no.” If you take a look at the leadership style of Srila Prabhupada, he rarely employed a heavy handed authoritarian approach to governing his society. True, in some rare cases with intimate followers he would reprimand them in a severe manner, but this was more of the exception rather than the rule. Srila Prabhupada’s early followers were attracted to him by his simple, humble, and giving nature. They didn’t flock to him because he was ready to pound them into submission with institutional hierarchy and bureaucracy. Now it is true that in time his early students came to revere and respect him as a leader, but they did so out of love, not out of fear.
Yet where is this model now? “Don’t hear from such and such or we will kick you out”, “Don’t go to such a such place or your position will be in danger,” or “Don’t read such and such book or there will be consequences.” How in the world can such flagrant despotism inspire anyone to increase their devotion? And what level of followers are you going to have if they are simply mindless robots who obey you due to the fear which results from a totalitarian regime? Srila Prabhupada never encouraged this model for running his society; and as you can see from his letter above, when Tamal Krishna Goswami tried to implement such a strategy, our founder-achayra immediately took umbrage with the tyrannical method employed. And why so? Because Srila Prabhupada knew that such a device would never work on his American audience, a people whose very basis of government is based on revolting against tyranny—sic semper tyrannis: “An end to tyrants!” flies the flag over the Commonwealth of Virginia.
As we see in this aforementioned letter, Srila Prabhupada’s strategy, as he reveals to Tamal Krishna Goswami, was to modify his method of oversight to the tastes of the local people. And what was the result? Overwhelming success! Why don’t we endeavor our best to once again institute this strategy of governance whilst spreading the message of Lord Caitanya. The strategy to do this is simple: teach, don’t preach; encourage dialog, not submission; give, don’t demand; and listen, don’t dictate. If we teach our students how to think, rather than what to think, we are only helping to better prepare them to face the world beyond the shelter of an isolated institution. The result will be that they will utilize their independent nature in a positive manner by encouraging their critical thinking skills so that they can effectively employ the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita in a modern world—an environment which is invariably volatile, unpredictable, and thus in need of an ingenuitive and pragmatic application of the ancient science of bhakti-yoga. Otherwise, what is the alternative? Are we going to bemoan the fact that Americans are independently minded people and berate them for not taking up Indian culture? Well, that is going to accomplish nothing positive and thus only result in animosity amongst the natives of this land. This is the field we are operating in and the only thing for us to do in order to be successful in our mission is to adapt to it. If we do not heed this warning from our founder-acharya we are only going to succeed in driving out the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin from our temples, and that was not Srila Prabhupada’s vision for his society.