Why Should ISKCON Study Its Own History?

Rarely has anyone so eloquently described ISKCON’s past history and present need for historical self-reflection as Dr Thomas J. Hopkins in his article ‘Why ISKCON Should Study Its Own History’. An earnest admirer of Srila Prabhupada, a genuine friend of ISKCON from its beginning, and a scholar widely honoured for his broad, lucid thinking, Dr Hopkins here makes a profound and extraordinarily perceptive appeal to ISKCON to record, comprehend and express historiographically these crucial early days of a spiritual movement.

As Dr Hopkins notes, ‘ISKCON is now in a position to undertake such an effort and needs to do so while Prabhupada’s influence is still so powerful in living memory’. Dr Hopkins proceeds to demonstrate how three major religions – Buddhism, Christianity and Islam – made serious, contemporary efforts to preserve their early traditions, thus creating the possibility of critically assessing, at any given point in history, the extent to which they had stayed on, or strayed from, their original path and mandate.

Historically, the Vaisnava tradition has distinguished itself by its vast erudition and brilliant self-expression. Dr Gary Tubb, then chairman of the Sanskrit and Indian Studies Department at Harvard, once expressed to me at length his deep admiration for Rupa Goswami, who had emerged as a towering intellectual figure in his time through his application of ‘Rasa Theory’ to the pastimes of Lord Krsna in such works as Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu. Among our forefathers are such lettered figures as Vyasadeva himself, Jiva Goswami, Ramanuja, Madhva, Baladeva Vidyabhusana, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and of course Srila Prabhupada, who earned so much heartfelt acclaim from the international academic community.

ISKCON desperately needs to develop the ability to think intelligently, critically and historically about itself. When problems arise, we need to know that these same problems have manifested many times in the past, both within Vaisnava history and in the history of other traditions. We need to know what solutions worked and why, and which attempted solutions made matters worse and why. ISKCON devotees in the future will need to know how ISKCON developed, what really happened, what the problems were, how they were solved or not solved, and thousands of other issues that will empower them to serve as wise, experienced stewards of Srila Prabhupada’s movement. It is our grave duty to bequeath to future members of ISKCON this invaluable resource which only we can provide. If we don’t preserve the history of these days, much of it will be lost forever.

Most impressively, Dr Hopkins argues that ISKCON should write its own history: ‘This is not a job to leave to outsiders, although they may provide scholarly advice; it is a family job, to be done by devotees trained for the task, and conscious of the movement’s needs as well as the obligations of scholarship. ISKCON’s history over the past three decades must be studied with constant reference to what it could be, and should be, on the basis of Prabhupada’s fundamental principles, so that strengths can be recognised and built upon, and mistakes can be corrected before they cause future harm.’

At the same time, Dr Hopkins reminds us that the competent writing of history requires disciplined training and institutional support: ‘This task awaits devotees who have the historical training and the institutional support to carry out what will be even at this early stage of ISKCON’s development a difficult and time-consuming job of collecting the world-wide data of ISKCON’s expansion and evolution, organising it systematically and trying for the first time to provide a comprehensive understanding of ISKCON’s history.’

Once Srila Prabhupada had established his movement in India, he constantly consulted with educated friends and well-wishers regarding the welfare of his society. There can be no question that Dr Thomas Hopkins has proven himself to be an unusually supportive and learned friend of ISKCON from its inception. We must have the maturity to recognise the wisdom of his words, and, as Srila Prabhupada often said, we must ‘do the needful’.

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