The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was established in 1966 by Srila Prabhupada in New York, when the Hippie Movement was in its prime in America. Young Americans were rebelling and social norms were being rejected. The Hare Krishna Movement gave a sense of direction to thousands of young men and women at that time. Youth issues are still a central concern of ISKCON and its Youth Forum is an internationally active division. The Director of the branch in New Delhi, Mr. Sunder Gopal Das, talked at length with us about the Youth Forum, the coexistence of science and religion and Spirituality.
VP: ISKCON Youth Forum- What is it?
SGD: IYF or the ISKCON Youth Forum was started in 1994-95. Internationally, it is a single entity but each branch has its own identity and functions independently. Through the forum the young are taught the principles of Vedic scriptures, especially Bhagwad Gita, and their application in their day to day life. It is a proactive effort of ISKCON to generate awareness among people about the knowledge which is often rejected as unscientific and mythical. We speak to them in their language, in the language of logic and science. Our effort is towards creating well-being in society through spiritual knowledge.
VP: How does the forum function with this central theme?
SGD: We have a “Discovery of Self” series which is divided into various parts and through it we try to combine scriptures with science. The series starts with the idea of God and explores why the scientific community is resistant to this idea. God is not a myth. Neither do all scientists reject the idea of God’s existence. Research in the field of Biotechnology and the intricate machinery of cells has led many scientists to believe in the theory of Intelligent Design. So, if God exists, then why can’t we see him? This is a very common question. The next step in the series is “Getting the eyes to see God”. It is wrong to say that existence is dependent on the perception of senses alone. No one has ever seen an electron but we all know about their existence. Our present knowledge is still not complete. By effect we should try to understand the existence of the cause.
VP: What other activities does the forum conduct?
SGD: We organize various cultural festivals with youth oriented themes. Presently, we are organizing the Umang Festival, and its theme is “Fashion to Compassion”. We organize seminars on youth issues like anger management, depression and self control. We also have a counseling cell where people can seek spiritual help for their personal problems.
VP: How does the youth benefit from the knowledge of the scriptures?
SGD: The effort here is to reinstate the knowledge of Vedas. This knowledge is such that can make the youth an asset to the society. Vedas talk about the family life and individual problems and suggest simple solutions to them. This knowledge is much in need today. Around 30% of Americans are patients of some or the other mental illness. This trend is soon becoming prevalent here in India. The knowledge of the scriptures is liberating. People find peace when they chant the Hare Rama Hare Krishna mantra.
VP: What is ISKCON’s take on Hinduism?
SGD: We don’t propagate Hinduism. ISKCON is essentially a non-sectarian institution. Our ideology is that of Sanatan Dharma or the universal religion. Sanatan Dharma is about compassion for all living beings. The religion that teaches love for God and all His children is the best religion.
VP: Is their a difference between Religion and Spirituality?
SGD: There is no difference. The difference is created. The religions that we are aware of are all revelation based. How did Mohammed write the Quran? He experienced spiritual enlightenment and that became the basis of the religion that is Islam. All religions, if you see, are inherently same. They all have the same elements. We chant the “Hare Krishna Hare Rama Mantra”, the Christians chant the name of Lord and Mohammedans say the name of Allah five times a day. If we stop finding the differences all religions can be harmonized.
VP: ISKCON is based on the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. What is this ideology and how has it evolved?
SGD: The Hare Krishna movement, though it was started by Srila Prabhupad in the West, is strongly rooted in India. It originates from the Brahma Madhava Gaudiya Smpradaya and its origins can be traced back to the 16th century Bhakti movement of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The practice under this system is that of the “Guru- Shishya Parampara”, i.e. every disciple must have a guru, who imparts him the correct knowledge of the scriptures. Human beings have major fallacies which hinder their ability to acquire knowledge. Our eyes can only see in the range of 3900-7500 angstrom. Our ears have no power beyond 20-20,000 hz. But does that mean there is nothing beyond these ranges. When one has to reach beyond our limitations, there arises the need of a guru. Today our interaction with the youth is in the language of the modern times, but our traditions are not compromised.
VP: How liberal is ISKCON?
SGD: ISKCON is very liberal. We propose nothing. We don’t force anyone to accept our ideology. People come to us on their own and we welcome them with open arms. We strongly believe that one must renounce intoxication, illicit sex and non-vegetarianism and all disciples are required to do so, but even if you don’t give up these habits ISKCON doesn’t question you. You might not be given responsibilities but you will be welcomed like anyone else. The emphasis is that one must at least aim to renounce such habits.
VP: What is your take on today’s youth?
SGD: The youth today are realizing the problems that the society is facing. They are eager to know how to get out of it. But certain systems don’t allow them to do so. Most youth are thus frustrated with the futility of their existence. They need to take their spiritual aspects more seriously. There is an urgent need to complement the limitless information with true knowledge.