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Krsna Culture Kids: Exploring the ISKCON Childhood Experience

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“In her presentation and in this paper Norma McCaig posits a framework for examining and understanding cultural challenges facing devotee youth and their parents. She points out that, although they inhabit the same ISKCON culture, they are coming into that culture from different angles; they are either immigrants or natives, they are there by choice or birth. This difference in origins, and the different perceptions that these give rise to, leads to further differences in blending with external cultures. This paper shows one way of understanding the relationships between the generations. Development of this understanding is vital if ISKCON is to develop a stable base of devotee families.”

This is a link to an article by Norma McCaig originally published in ICJ Vol 9, No 1 – September 2001. Ms. McCaig specialises in programmes for raising awareness of the dymanics of the internationally mobile family, the lifelong impact and uses of a globally nomadic childhood, crosscultural transition and intercultural communication.

FYI: It’s a fairly long, academic article – filled with graphs and charts – but it does have some interesting insights.

 

Krsna Culture Kids: Exploring the ISKCON Childhood Experience

Norma McCaig 

Introduction

Having spent a portion of my youth in the Palni Hills of Tamil Nadu, I was delighted to be present at the Vaisnava Family and Youth Conference, surrounded by elements of a culture I hold dear. The willingness of the ISKCON community to explore the impact of devotee life on family dynamics is impressive. You are addressing difficult issues with openness and courage and stand only to benefit from such honest inquiry.

In this paper I provide a framework for discussion of family cultural issues as they affect the children of devotees. This structure is based on work I have done with global nomads, persons who, like myself, have been raised internationally because of a parent’s career choice and have experienced numerous cross-cultural transitions. Global nomads and children of devotees share similar experiences of cultural transition and marginalisation when entering the culture of their ‘home’ countries. I am here because my work meets your community’s experience where your children meet the culture of the outside world.

Overview

Four areas are to be addressed in the scope of this paper:

(1) An overview of relevant terms used in the intercultural field and for this paper.

(2) An exploration of how ISKCON’s parents and children develop culturally (and differently).

(3) What the implications are of high mobility, transitions and intercultural interaction for Krsna youth relating to one another, the ISKCON community and the outside world.

(4) What might be done to guide and support them.

Four second-generation panellists, Yudhisthira Dasa, Jahnavi Devi Dasi (of Children of Krishna), Amrta Dasi, and Prajyumna Kafle, joined me in the presentation from which this paper is drawn. References are made to their comments throughout this document. I would refer you as well to papers presented by Yudhisthira Dasa and Prajyumna Kafle for powerfully eloquent reflections and suggestions borne of their own experiences.

An important note: many aspects of adjustment to the outside world are similar for both parents and children. As a result, many first-generation devotees will find resonance with much that follows. It is at such points of intersection that you will be able to come alongside your children to support them. However, it is important to do so with keen awareness of the differences in your experiences – and the notion that, as Jahnavi said at the conference, your child’s responses and conclusions may differ, therefore, from your own.

Relevant terminology

Many of you may have read the excellent book The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up Among Worlds, by Ruth Van Reken and David C. Pollock, that has resonated so power-fully with a number of second-generation Hare Krsna youth. The insights therein provided the impetus to hold this session at the Vaisnava Family and Youth Conference.

The term ‘third-culture kid’ was originally coined in the 1960s by sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem. It is this original definition that I will use in this paper. Dr Useem defined third-culture kids as persons who, as children, accompany parents on foreign assignments due to a parent’s ‘certain specific sponsored role such as business, foreign service, military, missionary or other categories where he/she assumed a representative rather than solely an individual role’. (Useem and Useem 1963) (Useem R. 1976)’ (Jordan, p. 10).

A global nomad is someone who has lived abroad as a child because of a parent’s career choice. (McCaig 1996).

The two terms are very nearly synonymous. Global nomad is a little broader, as it includes not only those whose parents are sponsored abroad by ‘the church, the company or the flag’ but also those whose parents work abroad independently, such as the jazz musician who bases his family in Europe while he plays concerts in that region.

Both terms, global nomad and third-culture kid, are useful in defining this specific cultural community whose members are linked through the circumstances of their internationally mobile upbringing. Some ISKCON youth are more comfortable using one term or the other to describe themselves. Many use them interchangeably. What speaks to both groups is the description that follows. In this case it comes on the heels of the global nomad definition:

As a result of their internationally-mobile upbringing, many feel simultaneously part-of and apart-from all countries in which they live, including their country of passport, often having a greater sense of the wholeness of common culture with others who share their global nomad heritage. (McCaig, 1998)

This also describes most ISKCON youth who have never left their country’s borders, but have experienced cultural discomfort in adjusting to the outside world. The difference between their experience and that of the global nomad/third-culture kid is largely one of degree.

To comment about the importance of terminology on a personal, rather than academic level, having one’s experience ‘named’ in a way that feels true to the core of one’s being is like finally coming home to oneself after a long journey to nowhere. The sense of cultural affirmation that comes with this can be almost overwhelming. This positive naming of a shared heritage ascribes normalcy and worth to the experience.

The terms ‘global nomad’ and ‘third-culture kid’ have done this for several generations of internationally-raised individuals. ISKCON itself seems to be on the cusp of ‘naming consciousness’, as cultures within it – particularly that of Krsna youth – seek the affirmation of definition. While centring one’s self in Krsna is the ultimate goal, this naming process provides additional clarity for devotees and their children as they move through life.

In the course of this paper, several new definitions or descriptors are used to distinguish between different cultural experiences within the ISKCON community.

It is my hope that members of the ISKCON community will find the same sense of cultural resonance, validation and identity in these new terms that many global nomads and third-culture kids have found in claiming these descriptors as their own.

Now let’s explore how the ISKCON culture has shaped different generations of devotees and their children.

Family acculturation and continua of cultural identity

As common knowledge has it, first-generation devotees typically grew up in the outside world and chose to join the Hare Krsna movement through Prabhupada as young adults. Within their country’s borders, devotees then entered the enclosed, self-sufficient ISKCON communities essentially as spiritual and cultural émigrés. Because these early first-generation devotees chose the ISKCON mainstream values and culture after childhood, they are referred to as ‘Krsna-culture adults’ in this paper.

These Krsna-culture adults maintained little communication with the material world in their countries and generally held no thought of ever returning permanently to it. Their culture of origin was consciously and intentionally left behind as they willingly assimilated into their culture of choice, the ISKCON culture. The values and traditions of their adopted culture were (and still are, of course) closely related to the more traditional mainstream values of India as evidenced by the community’s use of Indian words, gestures, customs, dress, and foods, as well as Vaisnava spiritual philosophy.

For devotees who are not from India, elements of their culture of birth generally remained through the idioms, facial gestures, and body language that are a part of any culture’s verbal and nonverbal communication. These became blended with the Indian influence, to form each country’s unique ISKCON culture (see Figure 1, overleaf).

Figure 1. Continuum of Krsna-culture adult identity

(This graphic, and all others in this paper, uses population bell curves to describe identity. They are meant to illustrate concepts and are not based on specific research data. )

The Krsna-culture adults’ culture of choice is, however, their children’s culture of origin, their core culture (see Figure 2). Life according to ISKCON was the only life most devotee children knew growing up. This was particularly true for the older members of the second-generation, whose contact with the wider world during childhood was more limited than today’s ISKCON youth.

Regardless of age or nationality, these children of devotees share a common culture as ‘Krsna-culture kids’. This fact shapes who they are and speaks to why they are – and always will be – culturally different from their Krsna-culture parents. Once a Krsna-culture kid, always a Krsna-culture kid. This is not a phase; it is a lifelong identity marker of benefits and challenges that inform the Krsna-culture kid’s decisions throughout life, just as the childhood experiences of first-generation devotees have had an impact on the decision of each to seek Krsna consciousness through ISKCON. Obviously, it is also why Krsna-culture kids are so different from mainstream culture youth in their respective countries.

Figure 2. The second-generation Krsna-culture kid cultural identity continuum

There is one important distinction between the Krsna-culture adult and the Krsna-culture kid experience. Krsna-culture adults willingly moved to the edge of their country’s culture to become marginal individuals there. Their children, on the other hand, were born into that marginality or received it during highly developmental years. Yudhisthira Dasa, who grew up in the movement, both domestically and internationally, said in his opening remarks at the Vaisnava Family and Youth Conference: ‘It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally stopped being afraid of being a Hare Krsna, of being different’.

For many Krsna-culture adults, the mainstream cultural values of the community have also been shifting as a result of events in ISKCON’s history, leading, in a sense, to forced migration back into the outside world to live and work. It is their children, the second-generation young adults, largely born into the movement, gurukula-schooled and with minimal lived experience in the outside world, who find themselves balancing on the roughest edge where ISKCON culture meets the wider world. Younger Krsna-culture kids, whose interac-tion with the outside culture is more commonplace from an earlier age, are, on the other hand, raised more bi-culturally than are their older siblings. As such, their transition into the outside world as young adults may well be less abrupt.

In 1928, sociologist Robert E. Park defined his marginal man as ‘a cultural hybrid, [one] who is living and sharing intimately in the cultural life and traditions of two distinct peoples, never quite willing to break, even if permitted to do so, with his past and his traditions, and not quite accepted, because of prejudice, in the new society in which he now [seeks] to find a place. He [is] a man on the margin of two cultures and two societies which never completely [interpenetrate and fuse]’ (Park, p. 892). It is here, in the internalised aspects of life lived on the margins of different cultures, that the experience of Park’s marginal man intersects with that of both Krsna-culture adults and Krsna-culture kids.

Some Krsna-culture kids have yet another significant cultural overlay to their lives – the experience of living with their parents in another country, or perhaps several countries, either as expatriates sponsored by ISKCON or under other auspices. Through the internationally mobile experience they become third-culture Krsna kids (third-culture kids), part of the worldwide cultural community of third-culture kids/global nomads mentioned earlier. Figure 3 illustrates the cultural identity continuum of that community.

Figure 3. The global nomad cultural identity continuum

Again, this community includes the sons and daughters of diplomats, international business executives, United Nations employees, overseas military personnel, and missionaries, to name a few sponsoring communities. They are known as ‘missionary kids’, ‘business kids’, ‘military brats’ (for dependents of service men and women in the Armed Forces), ‘suitcase children’ (for Finnish global nomads) and, now, ‘third-culture Krsna kids’.

Figure 4 illustrates the third-culture kid’s cultural identity continuum. In this model, culture B is just one other country of residence abroad. For some third-culture kids, time lived in several countries during childhood adds more layers to their cultural identity.

Figure 4: The third-culture kid cultural identity continuum

Third-culture kids are exposed to even greater complexities of culture that may include major unexpected differences in language, customs, food, basic daily amenities – the list can go on and on – as they explore and adjust to at least three cultures simultaneously in each country of residence outside their home country:

(1) The ISKCON community culture in the host country,

(2) the host country outside culture, and,

(3) the expatriate community culture.

For younger third-culture kids educated outside the gurukula system, this could include adjusting to either a host country school or to an international school and perhaps needing to learn a new language.

For all Krsna-culture kids, adjustment to the outside world requires cross-cultural awareness and intercultural communication skills, even within the borders of their own nations. The third-culture kids’ adjustment process and core value system is usually affected in part by the complexity of adjusting to international relocations into multiple cultures, each of which may be radically different from the rest.

Encouraging discussion about the similarities and differences between the Krsna-culture kid and third-culture kid experiences – and ways they affect perceptions – would be useful for both groups. It is critically important for those considering marriage to share how each views the outside world – how to relate to it, where to live, and how children need to be raised. The effect of national culture, ISKCON culture and, where relevant, third-culture-kid culture on each partner – especially in intercultural marriages – needs to be con-sidered, as all can affect the dynamics of daily married life in ways not initially apparent.

Finally, and importantly, each of these diagrams is presented as a continuum for good reason. The bell shape in each diagram sends the message that it is impossible to stereotype those in any of the systems represented. Not all members of each system align themselves totally with the core values of that system at the centre of the bell curve. Wide variation may exist. Within ISKCON itself, clearly some members are committed to traditional public expression of faith through dress, for example. Others choose to express their faith more pri-vately, perhaps as an adaptation to the realities of bridging the gap between ISKCON and the outside world. Their position on the curve would perhaps be moving toward the national culture. In addition, throughout one’s life, where one would place oneself relative to the values of one’s primary cultural system often varies according to circumstance.

Using these continua as a starting point for discussion can be valuable in developing awareness and understanding of others, both in ISKCON and the community beyond. Focused discussions can be especially helpful as a means for spouses, friends, parents and their children – grown and growing – to share feelings, attitudes and opinions to foster better communication. Where would they put themselves on the continuum? What does being Krsna conscious mean to each? What impact has the community had on each? How would each express the values of the majority of the community and their own in relation to it? How are these values expressed in daily life or in life planning? What are the benefits and challenges they bring? How can each family member support the other in balancing more than one culture, living in more than one culture?

In confirming whether or not their assumptions about each other are correct and by opening the door to further dialogue, parents can affirm and support their children during their growing years and the transition into adulthood.

Implications of high mobility, transitions and intercultural interaction

High mobility

It is common for Krsna youth to relocate several times with their parents; such relocations can be either to other parts of their home country or other parts of the world. For some, the benefits that come with frequent moves might include a healthy sense of adventure. You know you’re a Krsna-culture kid or third-culture kid when, as Yudhisthira said, ‘Just watching the travel channel makes you itchy’. Along with this might come the willingness to take risks and change, and a high degree of independence. On the other hand, some feel in themselves a built-in migratory instinct that can result in change for the sake of change, and a sense of restlessness and rootlessness that is disquieting to the soul.

Perhaps the greatest impact of high mobility revolves around issues of commitment and belonging. Many who move may show hesitancy in making any sort of commitment – relationships, employment, putting down roots. They may quickly move on emotionally, professionally and geographically. In addition, many have difficulty making decisions and developing long-term plans. If a Krsna-culture kid has moved every two to three years during childhood, a five- or ten-year plan may be difficult to envision. This may be related in part to the child’s sense of powerlessness, as alluded to earlier. Children have little or no voice in matters involving where they will live and with whom. This may be particularly relevant to youth who lived apart from their parents in gurukulas. As Jahnavi Devi Dasi described it: ‘Kids may think parents are thinking more of themselves and may feel betrayed, unable to trust what priority [they] have in their parent’s lives’. She went on to say that this is where, for the child, the parents’ commitment to the philosophy of detachment can backfire. You become so attached to what you didn’t have – love and commitment – and at the same time you don’t know how to commit’.

Another critical factor for children who move often is the sense of loss that comes with each uprooting and replanting. In his presentations, David Pollock expresses this with brief eloquence: ‘Hellos are awkward; goodbyes are painful’. With enough successive goodbyes, the ‘certainty’ of hurt seems inevitable. The child, and later the adult, may grow protective

and wary of connecting with others with any degree of emotional intimacy. In his presentation, Prajyumna used a metaphor to describe powerful feelings related to these partings: ‘You’re like a prostitute who cuts off feelings because you can’t give your heart’. Understanding the power of loss, allowing the child to express feelings of sadness, to honour the value of who and what is left behind, and to have enough time to say goodbye to, as Pollock says, places, people and pets are ways to help children cope with leave taking. When the grief process is allowed to flow and move to resolution, turning toward the new home can be done with perhaps a greater sense of excitement and anticipation.

During the presentation, Prajyumna, who lived in several countries, shared the metaphor of forensics as a suitable one for the Krsna-culture kid and third-culture kid experience when he said: ‘When you enter into an environment, you leave pieces of yourself, and you pick up aspects of the environment you leave’, echoing Tennyson’s, ‘I am a part of all that I have met’. Each changes the other; nothing remains the same. Touching on the benefits and challenges of high mobility, Prajyumna went on to say: ‘The global nomad child is doing that all over the planet, so to comprehend who you are, where you belong, [involves] a lot of confusion. But when you address all that confusion and you understand who you are and you can see yourself in full depth, then you’re a much richer personality than somebody who has only come to the conclusion about their [identity] from one environment’.

Moving, domestically or internationally, can add layers of experience and perspectives that last a lifetime. Youth who have done so often develop good social skills in the process of reconnecting in new places and working through the process of fitting in with the new environment. Like cultural chameleons, they take on the some of the colouration of their surroundings, adapting to the ways of those around them. Krsna-culture kids understand this process unconsciously, and the ability to adjust is part of the Krsna-culture kids’ understanding of who they are. For Yudhisthira, for example, encountering the cultural chameleon image brought a revelation of its own. ‘I thought I was shy’, he said. ‘Now I realise I was just observing’. As it turns out, this skill of observation, learned by youth as a coping strategy when moving from place to place, can benefit Krsna-culture kids in any number of ways later in adulthood – particularly in professions involving mediation, negotiation and accurate reporting, to name a few.

Transition

Moving can challenge anyone’s sensibilities because one is adjusting at several levels simultaneously. After an initial period of fascination and exhilaration about being in a new place, reality sets in. One of the reasons the relocation experience is so powerful is that it requires adjustment on six and sometimes seven different levels – often several simultaneously:

(1) Practically – finding housing, shopping, learning about the new location;

(2) Socially – making friends, establishing networks within ISKCON and otherwise;

(3) Culturally – learning the customs and habits of the new area;

(4) Professionally, vocationally or educationally – adjusting to new surroundings;

(5) Emotionally – dealing with homesickness or the stress of the move;

(6) Physically – adjusting to new sights, sounds, smells, climate, and foods;

(7) Spiritually – the change may strengthen or challenge faith.

As a result, every member of the family, young and old, experiences culture shock when adjusting to the new environment. Changes in mood, reactions to the discomfort of change – culture fatigue – are normal. Awareness of the process can encourage parents to develop strategies both for preventing some of the stress and for dealing with it as it occurs.

Intercultural Interaction

For Krsna-culture kids, when the change involves greater interaction with the outside world, the impact at each level mentioned above is magnified by the overriding difference between cultures. This has been particularly true for second-generation Krsna-culture kids who are moving beyond the confines of the ISKCON community upbringing into the real-ity of daily life on their own in the mainstream culture. Jahnavi, for example, ‘had no idea of the outside world’ until she was thirteen. She spoke of her shock and disgust when at that age she saw the suggestive dancing of female singers on stage. Others experience confusion or have strong reactions when sitting next to someone in a cafeteria wolfing down a steak; facing the profanity and near public nudity that the outside world takes for granted; deciding how, when, and if his or her identity as a Hare Krsna should be revealed; learning the rules of friendship, classroom behaviour, and workplace behaviour; trying to comprehend the rules of male/female interaction and dating; making decisions about how much or how little to change behaviour while still staying true to oneself. The intercultural dimensions of this transition are extremely challenging. That they are being discussed more openly now can only be good for all Krsna-culture kids, present and future.

Conclusion

Panellists in the session were clear about ways parents and the community can help their children. Giving Krsna-culture kids a sense of their own community is important. One of the greatest benefits of ISKCON is the heritage given to its youth. As one panellist said, ‘If you have a devotee identity, you can depend on it for internal security’.

Jahnavi Devi Dasi observed: ‘Kids need to hear where their parents were coming from in becoming devotees’. Her final words to parents were, ‘Understand that the kids had no choice, give them room, and don’t judge’.

The dialogue continues in person and via the Internet as Krsna-culture kids – youth and young adults alike – exchange impressions of their unique upbringing and how they face the future. The community itself can extend the dialogue further so that the wisdom borne of discussion can be passed on to the next generation of parents and youth. It is an ongoing process for all. In the words of T. S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time

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September 16, 2006 - Posted by | Education, Gurukula, Gurukuli, Hare Krishna, India, ISKCON, Vaishnava Youth

1 Comment »

  1. I see that this article was posted a few months ago, but I want to comment nonetheless. I think it was very interesting reading, the piece very well points out a feeling that isn’t easy to grasp: the feeling of being out of place and some reasons for it.
    As I was reading I realized a few things about the way I grew up in Iskcon. My parents could not agree on whether or not to send me to gurukul or Steiner/Waldorf School, and they came to some compromise between themselves: I would go to gurukul Saturdays and Steiner/Waldorf School the rest of the days. To this day I can see how that compromise is oddly present: I am (in a few weeks) done with my degree in Steiner Pedagogy and am preparing myself for the year that I have ahead of me: I have agreed to teach in a gurukul on the other side of the globe… Slightly ironic, or perhaps it is just fate.
    In other words, I think that your blog is great; I wish I had stumbled over it sooner.
    Thanks again!

    Comment by Niscaitanya | May 14, 2007 | Reply


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