Devotees and Their Parents
Dhyana-kunda devi dasi
Over the last thirty years ISKCON’s relationship with the various social environments in which it lives has been greatly affected by its reaction to the needs and concerns of the families of devotees coming from those social environments. In many cases, this reaction was inadequate and non-supportive, leading to misunderstanding, fear, anger and hatred among non-devotee family members. Sometimes these feelings led to organized opposition to ISKCON, primarily seen in the development and support of propaganda labeling ISKCON as a “sect” or a cult. In the following article, Dhyana-kunda devi dasi discusses the responsibilities both ISKCON and individual devotees have in order to uphold family values while maintaining the integrity of ISKCON’s mission.
What my mother went through during my teenage years! Single-handedly maintaining the family, which included our grandmother, my younger sister, and myself, and simultaneously pursuing her professional career, she was always concerned about our future and worked hard to give us a proper education. “Your most important asset is your knowledge,” she used to say, and so at the age of seventeen I was an avid reader and student, but had little social skills and no friends. Then (“Finally!”) a boyfriend appeared on the scene, and I enthusiastically threw myself into the new experience.
What could be more threatening to my bright future? In my mother’s mind, all the alarm systems went off, and I soon found myself under home arrest, our meetings strictly forbidden, our mail controlled etc. She didn’t understand and she didn’t trust me. The war was long and painful. She fought to protect her daughter; I fought, not so much for my boyfriend, but rather for the freedom of choice, without which, any “bright future” would lose its appeal.
At the age of eighteen I met some hippies and one summer day they told me about a Krishna farm at the other end of Poland. Out of curiosity I accompanied them there, against my mother’s hysterical prohibition. Or maybe because of it? The devotees, their dress and their habits - it all seemed weird. I would rather become a Christian than that, I thought. But I had to admit that the food was fantastic, and the sound of the kirtana reverberated in my memory long afterwards, along with the words of the Hare Krishna mantra.
I returned home three days later. By that time my mother had invented another means of bringing me back to my senses, or under her control . . . she kicked me out of the house. I remember her stern figure in the doorway at midnight, and me, standing on the stairs in my hippie dress. Oh, how I wanted to at least have the last word! To tell her something that would leave her speechless! And I found it, “Hare Krishna!” I blurted out, and triumphantly ran down the stairs.
If my mother had hoped that I would come back the next morning, contrite and repentant, she couldn’t have been more wrong. The hippies took me under their care. Soon I left my hometown and took up university studies: psychology, because this was where I hoped to find the meaning of life.
For the next three years my mother tried to win me back; but all was in vain. No visits, no letters. When she refused to pay for my education, hoping to bring me home in this way, I sued her in court. I grew stronger, she grew weaker. I had my own life at last, but the memory of her remained at the bottom of my heart, and it gave me pain.
Then one December evening, while I sat in my dormitory room dejected, reflecting on my existence, which seemed to be leading nowhere, a boy appeared in my door with a stack of books. This time everything was different. His words made sense. I was ready.
Once I took up the practice of Krishna consciousness, everything gradually fell in its proper place. “I am no longer afraid of my mother!” I discovered one day. Soon another realization came: I have reasons to be grateful to her -- for my skills, knowledge, and character traits, which she helped me to develop. Then I met Krishna Kshetra prabhu for first time (I was later to accept him as my spiritual master); I had a wonderful talk with him, in English, which I knew fluently . . . thanks to my mother, to her effort to pay for my private lessons, her constant urging against my protests, “Learn the language, learn, you will need it in the future!”
How strange, after so many years, to feel grateful. I felt an inner urge to thank her. Just go and show my gratitude. Give her something. But what do I have to give her? And won’t she throw me down the stairs? I cooked some halava, took my Gita, prayed to Krishna and went to see her. My legs were shaking when I rang the doorbell. She opened the door and her face broke into a smile of joyful surprise, “Oh, do come in! You haven’t been home for so long!”
She was eating the half-burned halava, as I sat there amazed and overwhelmed. Suddenly, she asked, “Could you please tell me something about your religion? Your sister told me . . .” She listened attentively and appreciatively. “And I am so grateful to you for my English!”
Now she is sympathetic to our movement. She is happy to help me and other devotees. She no longer tries to dictate to me where I should seek happiness. I am in awe of her love and understanding, her ability to forgive and adjust. I am ashamed of my own immaturity and cruelty in the past. Did it have to be such a “school of hard knocks”?
In a way, I was lucky. My family war broke out before I took up Krishna consciousness, and it was precisely Krishna consciousness that put an end to it. The bone of contention was a boyfriend, an ordinary life event -- not a foreign, obscure philosophy which makes teenagers secretly mumble incantations to a picture of “some strange blue woman with a flute,” or announce to their parents, “You are not my mother, and I am not Johnny anymore," and find their portrait in the pages of the Bhagavatam amongst illustrations of lower species of life.
Parents are definitely a special category, but in our books we don’t find many practical guidelines on how to deal with them. We can identify the first oppressed and misunderstood young devotee in the person of Prahlada Maharaja, and call his father, Hiranyakasipu, a pioneer of the anti-cult movement, with his allies Sanda and Amarka as the first deprogrammers. We meet the four determined celibates, the Kumaras, who boldly refused their father Brahma when asked to beget children. They didn’t heed Brahma’s anger and they are praised for that. We can laugh at Daksha, so concerned about his family, who cursed Narada Muni, after the sage diverted all of Daksha’s sons to the path of self-realization. In the purport, Srila Prabhupada comments serenely, with a spark of humor, “Prajapati Daksha cursed Narada Muni by saying that although he had the facility to travel all over the universe, he would never be able to stay in one place. In the parampara system from Narada Muni, I have also been cursed. I cannot stay anywhere, for I have been cursed by the parents of my young disciples.” (SB 6.5.43 purport)
In the world of the Bhagavatam, right and wrong are easy to distinguish from each other. The supreme obligation is to give up all material ties and set off in search of self-realization. No one will send the militia to bring you back home because you happen to be a minor. Where are the happy times of Narada and Dhruva, who could simply set out to the forest, forever forgetting all the material attachments, eat dry leaves (no need to ask their parents for a donation), and within days or months see the Lord face to face? Narada’s mother, who kept him tied to her with the knot of love, was removed from his path by the Lord Himself, as the serpent of time. Dhruva’s mother went straight to the spiritual world in a Vaikuntha airplane on the strength of her son’s wonderful spiritual achievement.
Where in the Bhagavatam are these parents who threaten to bring preachers to courts or who harass temple presidents with complaints? What about locking the child in a room with a cutlet, or sending him to a psychiatrist to convert him back to TV, free sex, and cigarettes? But on the other hand, do we find in the Bhagavatam devotees who, after years of practice, still fall asleep while chanting or attending the temple classes? Who steal temple money? Or who join, leaving wives and children behind, only to find a new devotee wife in a few years? Like our parents, we have been brought up in a very materialistic and degraded society. By Lord Chaitanya’s extraordinary mercy, we have begun the process of devotional service. But let us not think that we can now become saints without first becoming human beings.
In country after country, ISKCON worldwide goes through the difficult period of struggle with the anti-cult movement. This seems to be like a childhood disease, something one has to live through in order to gain lifelong immunity. And throughout the world, there is no country where the anti-cult movement is started and maintained by someone other than dissatisfied parents. Because parents do care. They are concerned about their children’s welfare, whether the latter consider it a curse or a blessing. As a devotee put it, “Parents are persons. Persons have relationships with other persons. And some of those persons are influential.”
It would be an over-simplification to think that the reason we should learn how to deal with our parents is merely to avoid trouble for the movement. Pain is usually an indication that one is doing something wrong. Generalizing, one can say that parents get angry because we don’t act properly. If we improve, we can gain more than just a cease-fire. We can develop skills and values important for our personal development. Can our dealings with our parents possibly have any impact on our spiritual life? But most importantly, what about the suffering they go through and how can we help them to overcome their fears about devotees? Ultimately, how can we help them in their spiritual lives?
How do we see our parents? As an obstacle to be removed on the path of self-realization? The haunting memory of our shameful past, to be forgotten as soon as possible? “My dear sonny, why don’t you smoke anymore? Why don’t you watch TV, have girlfriends, drink alcohol, and be normal?”, a mother lamented pitifully while her son pursued the career of a bold celibate preacher. Years later, when he fell in love with a dedicated female from his preaching team and married her, the mother welcomed the news with tears of ecstasy, “I have been praying so much for this!”
Or are they fallen souls heading for hell, only to be saved by our enlightening preaching? Well, they are genuinely interested in Krishna consciousness. In this, they differ from all the people in the street, who are too busy to look at the book, who sweep a preacher aside with an impatient, “No time.” Even if they don’t manifest it, our parents do care; at least most of them. They want to know what this thing is all about. But in our attempts to preach to them, we face one disillusionment after another. They are not humble. Instead of inquiring submissively, they scrutinize our motives. Trying to learn something about Krishna consciousness, they will listen to the neighbors, priests, newspapers… to anybody but us. And if they do listen to us, they stubbornly refuse to take our words at face value. They find everything in them -- but Krishna consciousness. “Aha, so you want to be a social parasite, without education, without a job? How will you get money? What if you get sick? How will you maintain your future family?” Introducing to them the idea of “depending on Krishna’s mercy” seems virtually impossible.
Parents are conditioned living beings, illusioned by the conception of being our proprietors and protectors. We could quote Lord Krishna’s words, “One who identifies his self as the inert body composed of mucus, bile and air, who assumes his wife and family are permanently his own. . . -- such a person is no better than a cow or an ass.” (SB 10.84.13) Nevertheless, let us not be too quick to condemn our parents’ concern for us as maya. Srila Prabhupada said that of all the kinds of material attachment, love of the mother for her child is purest. It most closely resembles spiritual love, because it is the most selfless.
Unfortunately, in our degraded age such wonderful, tender motherly love is becoming rare. Pathologies spread, families break or live without harmony and understanding. Still, we should not condemn our parents’ concern for us. It may become an asset in their spiritual life. Lord Kapila says, “Every learned man knows very well that attachment for the material is the greatest entanglement of the spirit soul. But that same attachment, when applied to the self-realized devotees, opens the door of liberation.” (SB 3.25.20)
Even though not yet self-realized, we can help our parents. It is a challenge, because we preach by what we are, rather than by what we say. I used to write to parents who complained about their children’s bad behavior, which they linked with Krishna consciousness, “Devotees of Krishna are trained to become perfect gentlemen. If your child takes Krishna consciousness seriously, you will see how he is gradually changing for the better. If he doesn’t, you should understand that he is not serious about Krishna consciousness.”
A devotee must know how to relate to his parents on the spiritual platform, but without violating the rules and traditions based on their bodily relationship. We cannot use our relationships to help our parents if we are simultaneously acting to destroy them. As the parent-child relationship is one of the closest, our communication with them must be extremely personalized. To teach those who consider themselves his teachers and superiors, a devotee must be adorned with the symptoms of a saint, such as tolerance and genuine compassion, which helps him keep self-control in trying situations. He must know the scriptures, but he will be unable to present Krishna consciousness convincingly unless his theoretical knowledge has already bore the fruit of spiritual realization. He must know how to apply the teachings according to time, place and circumstance (desa-kala-patra). All these qualities of a devotee are found on the madhyama-adhikari platform, the middle stage of self-realization. The kanistha-adhikari, or beginner, on the other hand, is distinguished by his lack of knowledge of how to relate to devotees and others.
Spiritual Progress Begins with Faith
There is no benefit gained by associating with devotees (sadhu-sanga) without faith (sraddha). In other words, our parents will not accept our life choices unless they trust us. If they cannot understand our behavior, motives, and values, they will not want to accept what they hear from us. The difficulty is that they judge us according to THEIR values, which may be very materialistic, and so they may see us as failures as long as we don’t pursue material goals. To evoke sraddha in society, Lord Chaitanya had to go so far as to accept the renounced order of life from an impersonalist.
It is not advisable that we compromise our basic principles or beliefs, however there are things we can do to help our parents have some faith in us. Here are a few tips I have collected from various devotees during years of counseling.
A devotee respects all living entities, understanding that the Supreme Lord resides in their hearts as the Supersoul. Aside from that, we have special reasons to respect our parents: raising a child requires a formidable effort. We have an obligation to them, and before we hurry to quote the famous verse that says, “One who has given up all material duties and taken full shelter at the lotus feet of Mukunda, who gives shelter to all, is not indebted to the demigods, great sages, ordinary living beings, relatives, friends, mankind or even one’s forefathers who have passed away” (SB 11.5.41), we should note that it speaks about pure devotees. Neophytes are never advised to give up carefully discharging their social duties.
Respecting parents is one of the pillars of the Vedic culture. In 1966, when Brahmananda dasa’s mother came to the temple for his initiation, Srila Prabhupada asked his disciple to offer obeisance to her. He encouraged temple devotees to write letters to parents regularly.
Our parents are much older than we, and they have more experience with life. Even if they are atheists, they may have something interesting to say. If we see them as demons, they may start acting like ones.
And, last but not least, there is the law of karma. The way we treat our parents now, our children will treat us in the future. Children don’t do what we say, they do what we do.
Don’t Take the Position of an Authority
You may be eighteen or older, you may have graduated, you may have a job and even your own family. You will be considered a grown-up, a mature individual, able to “kill his own snakes,” by everyone. . . but your parents. As Shaunaka Rishi dasa has put it, “Your parents remember you as a helpless baby whose diapers they used to change. This is the vision they worship.” He told a story of an 80-year-old lady whose 60-year-old son was a Christian monk. Whenever they met, she nagged him, “Why don’t you get married?”
You must somehow act consistently with your parents’ image of you as their child. Taking a higher position and sermonizing is certainly not what they expect of their child. “If you don’t stop eating meat, do you know what you will become in your next life? A pig!”, a devotee tried to convince his mother. She retorted promptly, “Well, I may become a pig, but you are one already!”
Your Parents Want to See You Safe
Don’t show extreme callousness toward your material situation. Even if it is a genuine dependence on Krishna on your part, (are you sure it is not just the carelessness of youth, or a simplified beginner’s understanding of advancement?), they will take it as a symptom of immaturity. Thus they will worry and conclude that they still have to ensure your safety—and so they will try to limit your freedom. Therefore if you are sick, do go see the doctor. Make sure you eat properly. Dress properly. Sandals in winter are not appreciated! Don’t travel without tickets or engage in risky business. Don’t drop out of school, especially not from primary or secondary school; education is important in life. There are many years ahead of you to realize it.
You can, however, gently discuss your views to your parents, giving them examples of how illusory material safety is. It’s best if these are examples of people they know.
Your Parents Want You to be Happy
Often one can hear parents saying, “I dreamed that my son would become [fill in the blanks]. He didn’t. But I can see that he is happy with what he is doing. What more can I desire?”
You are happy in the temple, with devotees. But do you ever show happiness or an optimistic attitude when you are at home with your family? Do you ever tell them stories of happy or funny events in your devotee life? There are so many incidents non-devotees can relate to, especially if you avoid jargon. Share such stories with your parents. They will hear about devotional service and become acquainted with the topic in an easy, pleasant way. Thus they may lose their fear of the unknown and it will make communication easier for all.
Your Parents Want You to Love Them
Every parent expects their child to show them love and gratitude. Take time to spend with your parents, remember their birthdays, try to please them in various little ways. If you live away from home, visit them or contact them regularly. If the relationship is tense, calling may be more practical.
Be firm in the basic principles of your behavior, but flexible in details. Show understanding for their sentiments. Don’t ridicule what they consider their holy tradition. There may be meat and alcohol on the Christmas table, but if you don’t agree to sit together with them, they will take it as a personal insult. They will be too hurt to be able to look at the situation from your point of view.
My personal experience was that when I tried to be flexible and tolerant in details, my mother would respond to my sensitivity and she would apologize to me for any inconvenience caused by her habits. Now whenever I visit her, she hides all “forbidden” substances or removes them from the home. I did not ask her to do it, nor would I even think of doing so, but this is her way of showing respect for me and my lifestyle. It is in itself a kind of service.
Don’t avoid bodily contact. Mothers tend to be especially sensitive in this regard. As their little child, you used to show affection in this way, and now your reserve (“Don’t touch me, I’m a monk (or nun)!”) can deeply hurt them.
One aspect of your loving response is being open to what they want to tell you. If you visit them only to preach (and take some money) but never have time to listen, how can you expect them to feel accepted by you? We have all read in the scriptures that a devotee associates with the materialists in order to give them spiritual knowledge, that he should not let himself be dragged down to their mental level. But preaching is an act of communication. And genuine communication must be open and two-way. It must be dialogue. How would you feel if your spiritual master limited himself to instructing you, without ever reading your letters or hearing about your life? Maintaining mutual relationships with people around us, including our parents, is not a waste of time. Besides, we do not have a monopoly on spirituality.
If your parents are favorable to it, you may sometimes try to ask their advice (“I feel that I offended someone in the temple, how can I clear up the situation?”). They will feel you take them seriously and they may surprise you with the depth of their understanding.
And even if your parents are “classical materialists,” by the arrangement of destiny they are your parents and thus, unless they engage in violent or aggressively offensive behavior or unless they desire it otherwise, you are bound to a special relationship with them during this lifetime.
Your Parents Want to Be Proud of You
Perhaps your parents dreamed about another career for you. Still, you may try to identify the values which they wanted you to imbibe, and which are compatible with Krishna consciousness (cleanliness? regulation? perseverance? honesty?). Prove to them that you still accept these values, and that they are accepted by ISKCON in general.
My mother always wanted me to be a good student, to have higher education, and she especially hoped that I would learn to speak English well. Therefore when I joined, I used to tell her stories of how useful my knowledge is in my work for ISKCON, of other devotees studying at my university, or how I was asked to interpret for an important guest in the temple etc.
Don’t Dump the Responsibility For Your Family Conflicts on ISKCON
It is a misunderstanding to think that being an ISKCON member gives one the right to treat one’s family unfairly. If your involvement with ISKCON conflicts with your involvement in the family, this is your PERSONAL problem. Solve it as best you can and take responsibility before your family members for the solution you have chosen. Never dump the responsibility on ISKCON! Remember, no ISKCON authority has the right to instruct you to break off from your family.
Sometimes young devotees feel that running away from home and staying in the temple will improve their Krishna consciousness and service. But such childish, irresponsible actions bring unnecessary trouble not only to the parents and to the devotee in case, but to the whole temple or even country, which will by far overweigh the value of all contributions made.
“The reason my parents give me trouble is that I have joined ISKCON. Shouldn’t ISKCON give me shelter?” In most cases, family conflicts have much deeper roots. Maybe you are searching for your place in life. Your parents feel they are losing you, and because they are unable to accept the fact that you are not their little child anymore, they conveniently blame ISKCON. It is easier to find the enemy outside. The scenario may be more dramatic: there may have been psychological problems in your family for many years. None of its members, including you, are ready to bring them to the surface and work for a solution. Being a part of the problem, you may not even be able to realize your own deeper motives in treating your family the way you do -- no matter how many verses you quote to authorize your actions. Such cases require professional counseling. But in any case, the responsibility is on you—not on the temple president, nor on your guru, nor on Krishna.
Take Personal Responsibility For Your Choices and Actions
This advice, closely related with that preceding it, puts to test our personal maturity and integrity. It is especially important to those whose parents are afraid that ISKCON is a sect and will do their children harm.
Amongst devotees, we often account for our actions by referring to an authority. “My temple president told me to do it. My Guru Maharaja wants his disciples to distribute books. I cannot drink alcohol, it is forbidden. I cannot watch TV, devotees don’t do it.”
We understand that the basis for our following spiritual or institutional authority was our free choice, and that we wholeheartedly agree with the instructions we follow. But our parents may not be so sure of that. If we refer to the authority too often, they may get the impression that we are enslaved, brainwashed, forced to undergo austerities against our will. Therefore, when you explain your motives, point to logic and to your free choice, not to the Vedic or ISKCON authority. “I chant because I like it. 16 rounds a day is standard and I want to keep it.” “I have chosen to refrain from meat eating because I have become convinced it is better for my body and mind,” (give book titles, including non-ISKCON publications). “I have to go now because I have promised to my friend that we will distribute books together today,” (not “I have to go, this is my service.”) “Excuse me, I won’t watch this film. There is so much violence in such films,” (not “The Gita says it is maya.”) “I will not eat meat anymore. I cannot stand the thought of slaughter,” (not “Only non-humans eat meat.”)
Another thing you can do to prevent notions of brainwashing is to prove that you haven’t lost criticism. If your parents criticize ISKCON and are right, admit it. If they witnessed an incident when the devotees treated you (or someone else) improperly, don’t try to deny it. Especially not if your parents themselves were the victims. Maintaining respect and humility, express your negative judgment of the particular action, and inform your parents what you are going to do about it. Unfortunately, ISKCON is not a society of pure saints. Don’t find faults, but don’t try to create an idealized picture of our movement. Sooner or later they will realize its falsity and lose all faith. The same may happen to you, because cheaters ultimately cheat themselves.
“My parents are hopeless! They will never change. What is the use of associating with them?” Try to remember your own beginning steps in Krishna consciousness. Did you accept everything at once? You were young, curious, and you wanted to join the movement. Your parents are older, more mature, more fixed in their ways, and above all, they didn’t make a decision to join! How much longer does it have to take for them to accept new ideas and make changes? But if you simply keep contact with them and show them good example, after some years wonderful things may happen. Here is a story told by Kirtiraja dasa, as I remember it.
Kirtiraja lived for many years in Sweden. He kept regular phone contact with his mother. She never seemed favorable to his way of life. Still he would call and simply inform her where he was and what he was doing. At one point he was requested to go to Russia, to help the devotees. This was long before the recent changes there so his mission was not at all safe. Before leaving, he called his mother. “I am going to Russia,” he said, anticipating her nervous reaction. “The devotees there need help.” “Oh yes, you have to go there,” she replied. He was so surprised that he exclaimed, “Aren’t you afraid something may happen to me?!” “Lord Krishna will protect you,” came the answer.
Give Your Parents the Freedom to Be What They Want to Be
What if your parents don’t respond to your attempts to help them in their spiritual lives? You should remain respectful. Lord Krishna Himself respects the independence of all living beings.
Even if our parents do not join ISKCON, by good example they may become less materialistic, more religious. Maybe they will become better Christians? There was a case in Perm, in Russia, when a girl joined Krishna consciousness and her elderly parents were so inspired by her choice that the father decided to become a priest and the mother joined a monastery. If we have a sectarian vision (“Either they join us or go to hell”), our parents will sense it and resist our attempts to help them. And they will be right, because such an attitude proves we do not know our own theology! Don’t cross them out (“They will go to hell anyway”), but wholeheartedly give them freedom of choice. This is not a psycho-technique. You have to work it out in your own conscience with the help of your spiritual realization.
Introspect and Examine Your Motives
Most of us are not completely pure. It is difficult to see one’s own internal faults. But judging from the absence of ecstasy during chanting, we must still have impure motives. It is good to sometimes reflect, “Why do I want to be in ISKCON? Is it only because I want spiritual life? Or maybe I want to get away from my family, school, and other responsibilities. Maybe I am just attracted by the exotic lifestyle. Or maybe the Vaishnava philosophy gives me a pretext to break my personal relationships, because somehow I cannot make them successful? Maybe I want to be a great devotee, a powerful renunciant worshipped by the general populace? Do I preach to my parents because I want to help them, or because I want to hurt them, in revenge for all the bad things they are doing to me?” Such introspection may make you more humble and sensitive to the needs of others. It is a condition of your self-improvement.
Seek Qualified Help
There may be problems in your family that are impossible to solve by usual methods. Your parents may be alcoholics, criminals, or they may have a mental disease. In such cases, seek professional help. If you can find a devotee who has experience and proper education in this field, this would be perfect. In such cases, professional qualification is very important, devotional qualification cannot make up for lack of specialized knowledge. Also keep your local ISKCON authorities informed about the situation.
Home is the place from where we start our journey in life. Krishna consciousness is our most important journey. Therefore let us be careful about how we make the first steps. Sooner or later, we will leave our parents behind. But whether we will leave them satisfied and eager to give us blessings, or in a state of suffering, being angry, fearful or frustrated, may depend on us and may have a great impact on our journey.
This article is reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 4, Number 1, 1996, pages 33-41. The journal's address is: 63 Divinity Rd, Oxford, OX4 1LH, UK (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: http://www.icj.iskcon.net).