Washington, DC – For the more than fifty ISKCON devotees who gathered here to attend the “Building Bridges” conference last month, there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that – judging by comments made by almost all of the conference’s esteemed presenters – the “good old days” of ISKCON’s in-your-face preaching have been officially declared dead. The good news, of course, was that the “good old days” of ISKCON’s in-your-face preaching have been officially declared dead.
ISKCON Founder-Acharya Srila Prabhupada. The Building Bridges conference explored how best to serve his mission of sharing Krishna with an increasingly post-modern world. (The deity pictured here is at the home of Anuttama Prabhu and Rukmini Devi, who helped to organize the event.)
“I wonder if we might not just retire the word preach altogether,” suggested participant Rukmini Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1968. “It has such a negative connotation these days, and seems so condescending. I think we should just stop using it.”
How did a conference dedicated to outreach end up offering the funeral eulogy for “preaching” as-we-know-it? By challenging participants to re-vision what it means to share Krishna with others in the 21st Century.
“We [in ISKCON] are doing too much navel-gazing these days,” keynote presenter Devamrita Swami playfully complained to the packed temple-room audience during his talk on Sustainability Outreach. “We need to learn how to get back in touch with people in a way that is relevant to where they are at.”
A panel of the weekend’s diverse presenters gathers for a final Q&A session with audience members.
The three-day conference, which ran from April 10 to April 12 and was co-hosted by ISKCON Communications and ISKCON North American leadership, featured presentations and panel discussions examining some of the most creative, successful, and dynamic Krishna conscious outreach going on in North America today. Despite a wide variety of approaches to outreach, all the presenters agreed that there are no short-cuts to meaningful relationship-building and encouraged devotees to connect with others through genuinely finding value in what they are doing.
Vraja Lila Dasi began the program on Friday night with an exploration of how Krishna devotees might seek to connect with social change organizations, using Non-Violent Communication (NVC) as one example. ISKCON Communications Minister Anuttama Dasa led a workshop designed to encourage “out-of-the-box” thinking and implored participants to see communications efforts – from friendly dealings with neighbors to relations with the mayor’s office – as part of effective outreach.
Saturday morning began with a bang: a panel on connecting with America’s mushrooming yoga and kirtan scene – featuring kirtan wunderkind Gauravani Buchwald, yoga instructor Balaramacandra Dasa, and yoga studio owner Hariyasva Dasa – asked audience members to see beyond sectarian boundaries and seek common ground with non-Vaishnava yoga practitioners, raising a few eyebrows in the process. A lively question-and-answer period followed, and some devotees didn’t pull punches in questioning how the panelists’ markedly liberal views tallied with certain more conservative statements found in Vaishnavism’s sacred texts. The result was a rich, honest discussion – leaving all to better understand one another’s perspectives, even while “agreeing to disagree.” (To illustrate that there were truly no hard feelings, even the most conservative among the audience members enthusiastically attended Gauravani’s yoga-studio-style chanting demonstration, held later that evening in the temple room.)
Anuttama Prabhu challenges his audience to think outside of the box — quite literally — with an exercise designed to encourage innovation.
Other sessions included a workshop by conference co-organizer Romapada Swami on outreach opportunities in the corporate world, an analysis of ISKCON’s internet outreach by Pancharatna Dasa, and Caru Dasa’s dynamic powerpoint presentation on – what else – powerpoint presentations. The conference also featured sessions on interfacing with the academic world (Radhika Ramana Dasa) and the need for ISKCON temples to “go green” (Bhakta Nitin).
Two panels explored the diversity of approaches even within traditional ISKCON avenues of outreach. Balaramacandra, Venkata Bhatta Dasa, and Ganga Narayan Dasa relayed their experiences, ranging from chaplaincy to vegan cooking, sharing Krishna consciousness on college and university campuses. A panel on the subject of Krishna conscious festivals – with Mitrasena Dasa, Visnugada Dasa, Rasikananda Dasa, and Caru – ran the gamut, from bluegrass eco-festivals among the local farmers of rural North Carolina, to a Ratha Yatra that included bagpipers and a Benjamin Franklin look-alike, to a Holi celebration that has more than 10,000 enthusiastic college students (most of them Mormon) making the Hare Krishna temple a hot Spring Break destination.
Keynote speaker Devamrita Swami echoed the conference’s themes of collaboration, relevance, and relationship-building. His presentation explored how Krishna conscious devotees might approach, learn from, and contribute to the current interest in sustainability. Sharing anecdotes from his own experiences – he oversees innovative loft-style outreach centers, inspires sustainability clubs and public gardens, and lectures on the links between sustainability and Vaishnava philosophy – Devamrita Swami challenged participants to go beyond old temple-centric or conversion-based models of outreach, and look at how to make Krishna consciousness understandable to a contemporary audience.
Devamrita Swami shares his concluding words, bringing the Building Bridges conference to a close.
“Yes, we know that ultimately our home is the spiritual world,” he told the Sunday morning audience, “but people want to know how we’re contributing to this world, as well. How are we making a difference? We can’t ignore that.”
Raising such questions may have been taboo a decade or two ago, but if the Building Bridges conference is any indication, today’s ISKCON doesn’t merely tolerate them—it welcomes them.
Video selections of the conference can be viewed here courtesy of Rasikananda Dasa.