Bhakti-vriksha Program Versus Counselor System–Which is Best?

August 1, 2008 at 5:42 pm Leave a comment

BY DEVAKI DD

The need for taking care of devotees is becoming a popular topic of discussion in ISKCON. During the last GBC meetings in Mayapur I have been invited to take part in the GBC sub-committee for devotee care. In our last meeting HH Radhanath Maharaja was requested to give a presentation on the principles the Chowpatty temple in Mumbai, India, applies to develop their community and take care of devotees, with the Counselor System being the main focus. Maharaja’s final comment was: “Why re-invent the wheel? You are already so much ahead of us, doing so many wonderful things over there—maybe we should simply apply the same principles everywhere!”

Chowpatty is becoming more and more an example for ideal community development within ISKCON. However, sometimes it is not easy to convince senior devotees of the value of the much discussed and glorified Counselor System. And without full and active support from senior devotees it is rather difficult to put into practise. Often we hear the opinion, “the Bhakti-vriksha Program does the same thing.” Some devotees conclude, therefore: “No need for any new systems!”

There are basic differences between these two programs; it is not that one is better than the other. If we analyze them more deeply we discover that they have fundamentally different goals, and that there is plenty of room for both programs to run side by side in a yatra.

Superficially they might appear similar, since the common goal of all programs within Krishna consciousness is to build relationships on the basis of sravanam and kirtanam. As long as we don’t have spontaneous attraction and taste to come together and associate on the basis of hearing and chanting, we have to create forums to gradually cultivate this taste.

However, this is only the general purpose of both programs. The main difference is that Bhakti-vriksha preaching focuses on expansion and spreading, whereas the Counselor System aims to ‘boil the milk’ and ‘give substance’.

The Bhakti-vriksha Program accompanies a person through their first eighteen months in Krishna consciousness, bringing them to the level of first initiation. Then the group should divide into new cells, and those initiated devotees can become leaders of the next Bhakti-vriksha groups.

In this way the main emphasis is on spreading and expansion—bringing more and more living entities to the lotus feet of Srila Prabhupada. But what happens to them after initiation? The system is not offering much further support and guidance.

The Counselor System accompanies devotees throughout their whole devotional lives. It addresses the need of each and every devotee for confidential relationships with senior Vaisnavas, where they can find inspiration, support, and guidance. As long as we are in the material world we will always need such relationships in order to provide nourishment to our bhakti lata bijas. It is a basic principle of Vaisnava relationships: accepting dependence on others with similar goals and tastes. Caitanya Mahaprabhu Himself was placing certain devotees under the care of others.

The counselor system recognizes that one can give only shelter to others if one has shelter oneself; therefore counselors are advised to have counselor relationships themselves. It also puts great emphasis on equal association—counselors meet regularly among themselves and develop affectionate and confidential relationships on the same principles of sravanam and kirtanam. Association among equals brings subtle anarthas, such as envy, to the surface. In this way the main emphasis of the Counselor System can be described as ‘giving substance’ and ‘boiling the milk.’

In this regard I would like to quote the famous letter Srila Prabhupada wrote to Rupanuga (1972):

“Now I want that we shall concentrate on making our devotees Krishna conscious and ourselves becoming Krishna conscious, and not be so much concerned with expanding ourselves widely but without any spiritual content. Just like boiling the milk, it becomes thicker and sweeter. Now do like that, boil the milk.”

Expansion is only meaningful if it is well balanced with giving substance. However, giving substance is always more difficult than expanding. External development is more attractive to the masses, because it gives quick and big results, and it is pleasing to the senses and the ego. Internal development is pleasing to the heart and soul. It requires internal work, and the results are more difficult to assess and long term. Very often the more external mood of expanding is suffocating the internal mood of giving substance.

Sometimes we find that devotees are extremely enthusiastic, if not to say fanatic, about one particular program at the exclusion of others. In one lecture HH Radhananth Maharaja gave a nice definition of fanaticism: “If our enthusiasm is not guided by higher intelligence than our own, it becomes fanaticism.”

Often some material motivation is hiding behind our fanatic enthusiasm for one particular program or system—the motivation for power and control. If a person is the main propagator of one particular system, naturally his power and influence will increase the more devotees he can convince of “his” system. Then he will not be open to other programs, but simply try to bring as many people as possible under his control.

A preacher who has no other motivation than serving and uplifting others will always be open to other programs. He will be able to discover and appreciate their values and goals, able to implement them simultaneously, according to time, place, and circumstance.

Let us put aside our personal ambitions and accept as our real identification being humble servants of the Vaisnavas. Only with such a frame of mind can we act for the benefit and upliftment of the devotees and living entities at large. And only with such a frame of mind will we be able to turn ISKCON into what Srila Prabhupada wanted it to be: Vaikuntha.

First I have to admit

First I have to admit that,  though working for the Congregational Development Ministry, I don’t have any experience in Bhakti-vriksha preaching myself; all my ‘knowledge’ comes from second hand reports, articles, manuals, etc.

That said, I fully agree that the question if Bhakti-vriksha or Counselor System are ‘better’ doesn’t make any sense; it’s like asking if apples are better than oranges. In a particular situation one or the other may be useful, or both.

It’s also true that the Bhakti-vriksha Program focuses very much on outreach and expansion, bringing as many conditioned souls to Krishna consciousness as humanly possible, while the Counselor System focuses on caring for devotees’ spiritual, emotional, and material needs.

What I understand differently, from studying the Bhakti-vriksha Manual and Free to Preach, per example, is that the Bhakti-vriksha process does not stop taking care of devotees after they receive harinama (first) initiation, or after the original cell group divides into two.

According to my understanding, devotees continue in the Bhakti-vriksha environment, and while reaching out to bring new members into their groups is an important part of the program, taking care of each other and developing confidential relationships among themselves is equally important.

Group members are supposed to not only meet during regular meetings, but develop and maintain friendly relationships during all times. There are also meetings of group leaders, and depending on the local cirumstances, devotees will be engaged in temple and other services as well.

In Free to Preach, Prema Padmini Mataji explains how details of group management and leaders’ association and relation among each other have been adjusted in Mathuradesh, when problems became obvious.

Similarly, the Counselor System primarily focuses on providing care and support for already existing devotees, but this obviously includes how they are able to perform and increase their service, which often will be some type of outreach, like book distribution, etc.

Which program to choose, or if both should be implemented, depends in my opinion on the particular situation, and also on the preference of the devotees implementing them. None of the programs follow iron-cast rules; both have to be adjusted according to the local circumstances.

Your servant, phanisvara das.

Where does any acarya in our

Where does any acarya in our line speak about this councilor system?

not the words, but the principle

respected prabhu / mataji,

the words “counselor system” may not have been used by our previous acaryas, but the principle of taking care of devotees in an organized manner is not a new one.

srila prabhupada, conversation, paris, july 31, 1976:

… That is the way of Indian teaching, that there is one teacher, and how he’s managing hundreds? That means there are groups. One who is elderly student, he’s taking some beginners: “Write a or a like this.” That he can teach. What he has learned, he can teach. Similarly, next group, next group. So in this way, one teacher can manage hundreds of students of different categories. This is organization. Not that everything I have to do. I cannot teach anybody to do it. That is not intelligence. Intelligence is that employ others to help you. That is intelligence. Not that “Oh, I was busy, I could not do it.” Why? What about your assistant? Train assistant so that in your absence things can be done. … Everyone should be teacher and student.

also srila bhaktivinode thakura and his son, srila bhaktisiddhanta sarasvati thakura, used to organize devotees into groups, the newer ones being cared for by more mature devotees.

ys phani.

From Vijay Venugopal Prabhu

This is a comment from Vijay Venugopala Prabhu, who together with his good wife Prema Padmini Mataji, established Bhakti-vriksha preaching in Mathuradesh (Middle East), where no regular temples are possible. They started from zero, and today there are thousands of devotees in this yatra. You can read an account of their preaching activities in Mathuradesh here, and an ongoing diary of their present service as “Bhakti-vriksha consultants” here.


The Bhakti-vriksha System provides the basic ‘Mood’ and ‘System’ for lifelong (not only 18 months) love, care, and training for devotees.

Most importantly, there is a complete Vaishanava Community Development program built around this, which produces a community where

  • Everyone has the interests of the whole community at heart
  • Everyone is trained to love every member as you love yourself
  • Devotees learn to sacrifice their time, their false ego, their money, their privacy—and the results will be enduring
  • Devotees get wonderful guidance and security to help cope with daily challenges
  • Natural and innocent love burns away unhealthy behaviours
  • The Vaishnava Community is a living organism—not a set of concepts and rules

At the end of the eighteen months, when the qualified among the members become leaders, they continue being guided and cared for with love by the same devotee (who was their Bhakti-vriksha group leader, and now becomes a sector leader). This guidance never stops. The training and milk-boiling never stops either—this is a living vibrant comunity, with a full complement of services, seminars, Bhakti-sastri courses etc., apart from festivals, dhama visits, etc. They share their entire lives together, including the samskaras of their families, from birth, till death.

And because the emphasis is on being servant leaders, rather than being ambitious and power-hungry, the leaders in a Bhakti-vriksha communty are eager to serve, and not at all eager to become leaders. The expansion thrusts servant leadership on them, which they take only as a responsibility to Guru, Srila Prabhupada, and Lord Caitanya. Rather than fulfilling any material desires, their old material desires get burnt away one by one due to their service mood and sacrifice.

I have lived with and seen all this for the last twenty years, and therefore wish to assure Devaki Mataji that I can show here all the above in real life.

Any community leaders anywhere in the world can choose either of the two systems and they will certainly not lose out in the slightest in terms of ‘boiling the milk’ if they choose Bhakti-vriksha; nor is it going to create a ‘power trip’ for anyone, since whatever system they choose, it is the community leadership which is in command in any ISKCON community, and not any outsider.

Your Servant,
Vijay Venugopal dasa

reply to Vijay Venugopal

Maybe I have an incomplete impression of the bhakti vrksa program, because I am judging from the practical applications I have seen – I have actually never read the manual. But I have attended many bhakti vrksa programs around Europe, Australia and Bangladesh. And after discussions with the participating and leading devotees I gathered those impressions. So maybe those programs I have visited were not so exemplary.

Sometimes it might be easier to introduce a new program with a strong focus on ‘boiling the milk’, rather than adding it to a program which has been existing for many years, but with incomplete application.

Your servant, Devaki dd

Further comment from Vijay Venugopal Prabhu:

The Bhakti Vriksha program, as developed by us in Mathuradesh, is more than a simple application of theory. It consists of three parts—the mood, the system, and the organisation. Many people just read the BV Manual and implement the weekly program. This is an incomplete application, and would not produce the results of community development which I described above. We nowadays travel to different parts of the world and help in a phased implementation. It takes a few years to get everything right and build a vibrant Vaishnava community as I have described.

Thank you to Devaki mataji

Thank you to Devaki mataji for bringing up this discussion here. Thank you also to my godbrothers Phanisvara and Vijaya Venugopala prabhus for their very valuable and enriching answers.

One thing I would like to add to this discussion: In Germany we have some groups that are called “Bhakti-vriksha groups”. But if we have a closer look at what they are practising we can easily see that some very essentiell BV-principles are missing there and what they are doing is in the best case a small “shadow” of BV but not more. Even often local BV-leaders are not properly trained and educated in BV at all. So, if we are judging BV according to how devotees try to implement it, we may get a completely wrong impression and understanding of what BV really is because not everybody is walking his or her talk.

Better to learn BV from such longterm, successful and expert BV-preachers like Vijaya Venugopala and Prema Padmini prabhus than judging BV according to how other devotees who are less successful understand and implement it.

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