Iskcon New Town, Kolkata, organized three day “Devotee Care Course” from 26th Nov – 28th Nov 2021. 35 devotees from Iskcon participated in the course. Apart from the devotees of Iskcon New Town, Kolkata there were devotees from Iskcon Panihati, Iskcon Dhanbad and devotees from north-eastern states like Assam and Meghalaya. The total course duration was of 21 hours, and it was completed in 3 days. The class would begin at 10 am and would continue till 6:30 pm. In between there were breaks for lunch and morning and evening snacks.
HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu and HG Damodara Prabhu were the facilitators of the course. HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu is a senior devotee of Iskcon and is known all over the world for his wonderful spiritual discourses on Vedic literatures like Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, Chaitanya Charitamrita.
Why the need for Devotee Care Course?
Although devotees were excited about the course, but everyone was wondering why this course is required? In Iskcon devotee are aware and have attended courses/seminars on how to improve japa, how to distribute more number of Prabhupada’s books, how to study Vedic literatures scrutinizingly, how to organize festivals but for the first time many were hearing about Devotee Care Course.
So, HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu at the start of the course briefly addressed this important question – What is Devotee Care and why it is important? However, as the course progressed everyone started understanding the topic and by 3rd day everyone was convinced that Devotee Care is indeed important and should be implemented withing Iskcon.
Devotees are the most important asset of Iskcon, and nothing can replace it. There have been many unfortunate incidents of devotees leaving Iskcon after practicing Krishna consciousness for many years or may be for many decades because they felt uncared withing the Iskcon community. Devotees are sentient beings. They have feelings and emotions. If they do not find their emotional needs getting fulfilled, they get broken hearted and with a heavy heart they disassociate themselves from the association of devotees. This course has been designed keeping in mind that devotees who are extremely dear to Krishna and Srila Prabhupada should be wonderfully taken care in Iskcon so that they never leave Iskcon.
HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu’s commitment for Devotee Care
HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu said that when the first time he attended the course, he got so inspired that he took a commitment that he will travel to any corner of the world to share this wonderful blessing. He said the if this course is taken seriously then it will make Iskcon what Srila Prabhupada actually wanted it to become – a beacon light for the whole world. There is only one problem in the whole world and that is lack of Krishna Consciousness and there is only one solution and that is Krishna Consciousness. And Iskcon is that organization which can give Krishna Consciousness and relieve the world from all sufferings.
One of the important highlights of the course was that everyone was engaged during the course. It was not like regular class where only the speaker speaks, and others just have to listen. There were many group exercises and skits. Everyone participated.
How it started?
Devotee Care course was first proposed in 2014. Top leadership of Iskcon showed interest in the concept. Lots of research was done while preparing the course. Questionaries were sent to leaders of Iskcon. Their inputs were taken into consideration. After due diligence Iskcon designed Devotee Care Course in 2017. A booklet was prepared. The booklet explains the importance of Devotee Care and systematically lays down guidelines as how care should be given. It also has several quotes from the scriptures, from Srila Prabhupada and from current Iskcon leadership which underlines the importance of Devotee Care. In the words of HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu “It is lifeline for devotee care. Each of the words are packed with tremendous wisdom. The more we read, the more we understand the importance of Devotee Care and get inspired to implement it.” All the participants were given the booklet at the start of the course.
Devotee Care course focusses on following four important questions
- What is devotee care?
- Why is it important?
- Who is responsible?
- How can it be practically applied? (i.e. embedded in Iskcon communities)
If all devotees are focussed on one consensus that devotee care is important then it will bring great result. It can then be widely implemented in Iskcon.
Defining Care & the need for a structure to give care
Care is a virtue. There should be a genuine desire to care for others. Especially the leaders of Iskcon should highlight the importance of giving care to the devotees. Now to give care to others without having a proper system in place is mere a lip service. Also having a system without virtue has no meaning because in that case there is no acceptance within the heart.
Lord Chaitanya cared for everyone, so he took sannyasa. But he also made structure so that devotees are taken care. He trained devotees, instructed Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami to write books. Similarly, acharyas like Bhaktivinod Thakura and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura created system so that devotees feel protected and nourished.
Srila Prabhupada focussed so much on taking care of the devotees. He was always concerned about the well-being of the devotees. Just few days before his departure from this material world, he called HH Giriraj Swami Maharaj and asked how the movement will go on. HH Giriraj Swami Maharaj said by chanting and harinam. Srila Prabhupada said chanting and harinam is wonderful, but the movement will grow with proper organization and intelligence.
We see that Srila Prabhupada created a system. He created GBC so that this Krishna Consciousness movement can grow in an organized way. He created BBT so that the spiritual literatures can be printed and distributed widely in a systematic way.
So, care should be as a virtue but there should also be a system put in place to give care. If any devotee faces any difficulty, they should come and get care.
HH Radhanath Swami says, “Leadership should be always asking question what it will take for each devotee to feel protected, inspired and enthused to remain in Krishna Consciousness till his/her last breath.
Vision & Mission of Devotee Care
Understanding the need of care GBC came out with a mandate for devotee care. It is described in the booklet from Page 10 -16.
The booklet describes the Vision and Mission of Devotee Care:
Every devotee is spiritually happy and materially well -situated, positively identifying with ISKCON as a caring Society. Each devotee (a) responsibly looks after his or her diverse needs (b) can easily and successfully seek qualified help within the Society, and (c) wholeheartedly extends that care to others.
- Ensure that the Vaishnava virtue of care pervades all aspects of the Iskcon society.
- Support and provide specific care services that enhance the spiritual, emotional, physical and social well – being of all ISKCON members.
HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu explained that vision means to see future and mission means to put efforts to make dreams into a reality. For example, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu gave a vision – prithvite ache yata nagaradi grama sarvatra prachara haibe mora nama i.e. in each and every town of the world my name will be chanted. And to shape his vision, he gave a mission, yāre dekha, tāre kaha ‘kṛṣṇa’-upadeśa, instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa as they are given in the Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.
Areas and Recipients of Devotee Care
Areas of Devotee Care: 12 areas of Devotee Care have been identified. These are: (1) Spiritual Life, 2(a) Healthcare (Physical), 2(b) Healthcare (Mental/Emotional), 3 Marriage, Sex & Relationships (4) Child – rearing and child – care (5) Education (6) Career and Employment (7) Financial (8) Housing (9) Travel and Immigration (10) Consumer and Lifestyle (11) Legal and Civic (12) Mediation Advice.
And there are 12 recipients of Devotee Care: 1. Women, 2 cows, 3. Brahmanas 4. Children and youth 5. The elderly 6. Brahmachari Community 7. Grihastha Community 8. Vanaprashtas 9. Sannyasis 10. Other Temple Residents 11. Leaders 12. Senior devotees.
It was important to know what the devotees attending the class think about the areas and recipients of devotee care. The class was divided into groups, and they were asked to discuss within the group and find out which are 3 most important areas of devotee care and top three recipients of devotee care. While there were some difference of opinions but everyone agreed that the most important area is Healthcare (Mental/Emotional). Along with this priority was given to spiritual life and education. For top three recipients of Devotee Care there were Children and youth, Grihastha Community and Leaders.
Twelve principles and Values
Devotee Care should permeate every aspect of devotees’ life. And for this it is important that there are principles, guidelines, sets of practices and systems put in place. Each Iskcon temple may have emphasis on different aspects. Some Iskcon centres are run by brahmacharis, some by congregation devotees. Then there are farm communities. But for all the centres the core principle should be the same.
Six principles have been laid down for devotee care. These are – Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and example, Vaishnava Seva, Loving Relationships, Attentive Listening, Positive Sense of belonging, Spirited (PEP) Leadership.
What could be the cause of inadequate devotee care in Iskcon?
It is always better to learn from the past, so that the mistakes can be corrected and not repeated in the future. There have been instances of inadequate devotee care. In their spiritual life many devotees have gone through the experience where they felt that they did not get proper care. There are twenty-one reasons given in the booklet for inadequate devotee care. They arrived at these reasons based on the inputs they received from the worldwide devotee community.
Before going through the reasons given in the booklet, HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu asked devotees to list down the reasons which they feel are the cause of inadequate devotee care. Interestingly devotees attending the course too agreed with the reasons given in the booklet. The top reasons for inadequate devotee care included self-interest, short – term vision, wrong priorities & lack of individual empowerment.
Devotees also enacted skits to show how inadequate Devotee Care affects them. In the skit devotees showed that how even when they are sick then no one is there to care for them. During the exam times, students are asked to go out and distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books and so on.
Who is responsible for Devotee Care?
Ideally every devotee in Iskcon is responsible for Devotee Care but the leaders have to play the most important role. “Many researchers (and previously philosophers) have taught that the responsibility for embedding value in an organization rest with leaders, including administrators.” Devotee Care Education, Course Material, Page 28. Within Iskcon there are two types of leaders (a) the direct care-giver (b) the caring administrator. These two types of leaders should have proper skill set so that they can give proper care.
So, it is important that the leaders are properly trained and educated. Even in corporate world we see that one is first trained before one becomes a leader. So, training and education is required for Iskcon leaders as well. Iskcon leaders play a significant role in embedding the culture of care within the devotee community.
HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu gave the example of HH Radhanath Swami Maharaj. He said that when HH Radhanath Swami Maharaj is away from Iskcon Chowpatty, Mumbai for a long period of time then upon returning back the first question he asks is – Are all the devotees happy? Are all the children happy?
Earlier at Iskcon Chowpatty there were differences among grihastas and brahmacharis but Maharaj made sure that both the ashramas develop genuine love and respect for each other, they value each other’s contribution.
One of the most important qualities of a leader is that he respects everyone’s opinion. So, he listens to all. Lord Rama before giving shelter to Vibhishana had a meeting with all the vanara leaders. He heard everyone, everyone felt happy and valued. So, when he decided to give shelter to Vibhishana everyone agreed.
Emphatic and Reflective Listening
For one and a half day HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu covered multiple aspects of Devotee Care. On the 2nd day after lunch, HG Damodara Prabhu took over. He helped in revising the whole subject. He spoke on the importance of developing right listening skill. This concept he explained through a skit.
Skit on Emphatic listening
One devotee took the role of a manger of the temple. A devotee came to him with his grievances. Initially it was shown that the manager was not showing much interest in hearing the devotee’s problem. So, the devotee felt unwanted and uncared. But later when the manager heard the devotee emphatically and encouraged him and appreciated him for the services he is doing then he felt happy and cared.
People’s Emotional Vacuum
After the skit, HG Damodara Prabhu explained the importance of empathic listening. He said that empathy means feeling other’s pain i.e para-dukha-dukhi. If we have to correct others, then first we have to connect with them. Lord Chaitanya first connected with Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya and then corrected his wrong concepts and made him a devotee. If someone feels that he has been understood, then that person is going to completely get connected with us.
People have emotional vacuum and if we take care of the emotional need of a devotee by listening attentively then many problems will get resolved. He further said that where you have to give affection do not give instruction because by this problem will not get solved but will aggravate. If someone feels that someone understands him then 50% of the problem gets solved. We have two ears which are always open and a mouth which is always shut. So, let us listen with our two ears and with open hearts.
Caregivers should be cautious
The caregivers should be willing to listen and address other devotees need. They should not start giving opinion immediately and should also respect other’s opinion. Also, it is important that care givers should not micromanage a person, show partiality in dealing, be insensitive to others needs and should not get attached emotionally and physically especially with opposite gender.
After this HG Damodara Prabhu explained in detail that how devotees have to prepare Presentation on Devotee Care.
Team Presentations on Developing Devotee Care System
It was important that there should be proper assessment to ascertain that the devotees attending the course have properly understood the importance of Devotee Care. And if given an opportunity, how are they going to create a structure to implement it. To demonstrate their devotee care skill, devotees were required to make presentation on topics of their interest. To create a system, a team is required. So, first teams were made. To prepare the team the entire class was divided into four groups and each group was given a spiritual name – Jagannath, Baladeva, Subhadra and Sudarshana.
Class divided into groups
Teams were made in such a way that they can relate with a common area of interest. For example, all the grihasthas and devotees engaged in congregation preaching were in one group, devotees involved in youth preaching were in one group and so on.
For presentation, following four components were required.
- Defining Devotee Care
- Importance of Devotee Care
- Leadership Roles in implementing Devotee Care
- Strategic Planning
For strategic planning, devotees had to have a vision statement, key result areas, annual goals, foreseeable challenges and means of evaluation. They also had to do SWOT analysis while preparing strategic planning.
Although each of the teams choose their own topic for presentation but HG Damodara Prabhu was actively helping devotees in writing their vision statement, in making strategic planning and in SWOT analysis.
Each team had 20 minutes for presentation. It was followed by questions from the audience and evaluators. Needless to say, HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu and HG Damodara Prabhu were the evaluators.
The Four team made presentation on following topics:
- Jagannath group: Mental & Emotional need of Iskcon leader
- Baladeva group: Career and Employment for Youth
- Subhadra group: Taking care of Mental/Emotional Needs of Grihastha Communities
- Sudarshan group: Temple Grihastha Development committee
After the presentation, the audience asked questions to the teams. Later the evaluators too asked questions and gave their feedback. One interesting thing was that each team selected their topic by keeping in mind that they will try their best to implement it.
Conclusion & Certificate Distribution
After the presentation devotees were requested to speak about their experience about the course. Without fail everyone felt satisfied and grateful to Iskcon GBC for formulating this course. They shared their personal viewpoint, and all agreed that they will implement it in whatever way it’s possible. HG Acharya Ratan Prabhu said that he will work on forming a Devotee Care Team in Iskcon New Town Kolkata. Everyone thanked HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu and HG Damodara Prabhu for conducting the course in a planned and strategic way and giving their time and invaluable association to all. HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu thanked all for taking up Devotee Care Course and requested all to apply this knowledge in their devotional life.
At the end devotees got certificate for participating and completing Devotee Care Course. Certificates were first offered to Srila Prabhupada by HG Acharya Ratan Prabhu. And then each participant received certificate from HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu. During certificate distribution devotees were beautifully singing Hare Krishna kirtan. And finally, there was a group photograph of all the devotees with HG Radha Gopinath Prabhu.
Reference: Devotee Care Education, Course Material, Student Handbook