This year’s annual ISKCON North American Leadership Conference, held at Hare Krishna Dham in Houston, Texas from January 9th to 12th, presented many developments that inspired both new and seasoned devotees alike.
Members of ISKCON’s highest ecclesiastical authority, the Governing Body Commission, met before the official conference, on January 7th and 8th.
The Leadership Conference proper was then held for the following three-and-a-half days. Seventy-five devotees, both senior and new, attended and were housed at ISKCON Houston’s recently built residential apartments.
The conference began with fifteen senior disciples of ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada sharing memories of their guru. The presentation was organized by Malati Dasi, who was initiated by Prabhupada in 1967.
The North American Conference of ISKCON Leaders gather outside the new Houston temple
Another highlight of the conference was a presentation on distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books by National Sankirtan Strategist Vaisesika Das and Svavasa Das, Director of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, which publishes Prabhupada’s books.
After many years of struggle in the 1990s and early 2000s, book distribution in North America has seen a remarkable upswing of late, with an annual average growth of 26% per year since 2008. Amazingly, 2013 saw the largest remittance to the BBT in thirty years.
“I started my talk by recalling how in the beginning of 2012, we united in North America as one team by focusing our attention on increasing sankirtan and support for the BBT,” says Vaisesika. “In 2012, the theme was “Goals are Potent,” and we had a 28.6% increase in book distribution. And in 2013, our theme was ‘Tax Your Brain,’ and we achieved a 25% increase.”
Although in 2011, just three temples were selling 58% of the books distributed across North America, those temples now produce only 43% of the total, proving that there’s a healthy increase across the board and that every temple is doing its part.
Vaisesika spoke about the most successful strategies that temples had used in the past year, including traveling sankirtan teams like that of Rupanuga Vedic College, and the Motel Gita project, which has so far placed over 200,000 Bhagavad-gitas in motel rooms throughout North America.
He served out a cake to celebrate the success of 2013, and then laid out the goals for 2014. This year, which will be themed “Moving Up,” leaders plan a 10% increase in book sales, including at least 1008 sets of Srimad Bhagavatam and 250 sets of Chaitanya Charitamrita.
They also want to establish an ISKCON introductory course such as ISKCON Silicon Valley’s “Bhakti Roots” program at every North American temple by June 1st; and to open at least one more sankirtan training center like the one in Denver, Colorado.
Finally, Vaisesika displayed the BBT’s new catalogue of foreign language books to be printed in North America, including titles in Vietnamese, Japanese, Farsi, Arabic and Korean.
“We did a small skit about how to distribute foreign books, and I talked about the benefits of distributing foreign books in America,” he says. “People love getting books in their own native language. It makes new income streams, widens and diversifies our congregation, and is fun and easy.”
Elsewhere during the conference, North American Child Protection Officer Lilasuka Dasi reported on her work in training child protection teams and improving child protection systems across North America.
Laguna Beach temple president Tukarama Das, meanwhile, gave an interesting presentation on Ahimsa milk, arguing that ISKCON Leaders should be more conscientious about reducing milk consumption from any source that doesn’t protect its cows.
Tukarama’s own temple has used only cruelty-free dairy from devotee farms for the past three years, and he encouraged leaders to improve ISKCON’s farms all over North America so that they could protect more cows and ultimately provide Ahimsa milk to temples.
The topic is a red-hot one in ISKCON at present, with European leaders also discussing it at their meetings in October (http://news.iskcon.org/european-leaders-discuss-milk-to-drink-or-not-to-drink,4137/), so it seems likely that the pressure generated from such discussions will push ISKCON communities into action over the coming months and years.
Also presenting at the North American Leadership Conference was new North American Communications Director Keshava Das, who spoke about the work he’s been doing with temples over the past year on their local communications efforts. He presented some of the materials he distributes to temples, including a starter kit that will help them improve their communications with their neighbors, their congregation, and the media.
“He also talked about the work that ISKCON devotees have been doing as official representatives of Hinduism in dialogue with the Canadian Archdiocese,” says International GBC Minister of Communications Anuttama Das. “And he did a brief exercise to help the leaders present understand the value of preparing crisis communication plans. He’s also planning a two-hour ‘webinar’ next week on crisis communications for North American leaders.”
Another very well-received presentation was that of North American Deity Minister Jayananda Das, who spoke about how he spends several months a year visiting North American temples and helping to train pujaris (priests). He also reported on a new Deity Worship Manual due out in the next couple of months, and invited temple presidents to send their pujaris to get trained at the Mayapur Academy’s Deity Worship course.
Other presentations at the conference included Western USA GBC Badrinarayan Das’s report on international ISKCON highlights of the year; Praharana Dasi’s on ISKCON Canada; Sunanda Das’s on the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium in Mayapur, India; and Anuttama Das’s on the plans for ISKCON’s 50th anniversary.
There were also temple reports and updates from Radha-Ramana Das in Chicago, Prema Vilasa Das in Columbus, Ananda Vrindavana Dasi in Washington DC, and Parijata Dasi in Pennsylvania’s Gita Nagari farm.
A whole afternoon, meanwhile, was devoted to a separate meeting wherein temple presidents discussed their highlights and challenges from 2013, and shared best practices.
Conference attendees also enjoyed a drama performance directed by Bhaktimarga Swami entitled “The Little Big Ramayana,” a condensed version of the spiritual epic, and received a forty-five minute tour of ISKCON Houston’s brand new 24,000 square foot Vedic temple -- set to open on May 16th this year.
A unique feature of this year’s conference was that ISKCON took a step towards succession by inviting thirty-five young students -- all current or former residents of the ashram training program at the Krishna House in Gainesville, Florida -- to sit in on all the meetings’ sessions.
“The result was that there was a warm exchange and a lot of appreciation on both sides,” says Krishna House president Kalakanatha Das. “The younger devotees got a better idea of the scope of ISKCON, what it means to have a leadership role in ISKCON, and also how people are able to stay in Krishna consciousness for their entire lives. And the older devotees were inspired to see the youthful enthusiasm, and the fact that Krishna consciousness is still very viable for the youth of America.”
The students also got a sense of the opportunities in ISKCON’s mission through the reports from various temples. And they not only participated in but supported the conference, by helping to set up the meeting rooms, clean, cook and serve prasadam meals.
“For them, the experience was uniformly inspiring,” Kalakantha says. “All of them I spoke to got a lot out of it, and were glad they went. The organizers must have been glad we came too, because they invited us back next year!”
Next year’s North American Leadership Conference will be held in Dallas, Texas, with ISKCON Dallas temple president Nityananda Das as the chairman. GBC Romapada Swami, Alachua temple president Mukhya, and Seattle’s Nanda-Suta Das will serve as vice chairs.[ america ] [ conference ] [ houston ] [ leadership ] [ north-america ] [ texas ]