Published with permission from Chaitanya  “Chaits” Mangala:

“There were over 800 devotees attending the “Mosaic of Our Generations” Gala Evening at Ford Theatre. HK devotees young and old from all varnas and ashrams walked the red carpet dressed their most elegant attire. I read a slightly abridged version of Burke’s speech to keep in the time constrants for the evening. The audience was moved to laughter and tears by Burke’s heartfelt words.”

(The Ford Theater presentation was part of the 20th Kulimela being held in LA this weekend.)

Past as Prologue: Remembering the Past, Thinking of the Future

by Burke Rochford

July, 2009

First and foremost let me say what a great pleasure it is for me to contribute to this Kulimela celebration.  I only wish that I was standing before you now to deliver my brief comments.  I want to thank my dear friend Chaits, and all the other organizers of this Kulimela, for all their hard work in organizing this wonderful event.

As I thought about what I might say on this occasion I couldn’t help but think of the days back in 1979 and 1980 when I was working with one of the boys ashrams in Los Angeles as part of my research, taking boys who were then five, six, and seven years old to Venice beach or to the park near the temple.  These were amazing days for me as I got to know a number of young boys who, of course, are now adults, many with their own families.

I remember one day I was sitting in the back of a van with a number of the boys as we waited for the teacher to drive us to the park for an afternoon outing.  By now I had a close relationship with the boys in the ashram who seemed to relish these afternoon outings as much as I did.  As we waited, one of the boys turned to me and out of no where asked, “Bhakta Burke do you drink?”  His question disarmed me momentarily as I knew he was asking if I drank alcohol.  Adult devotees normally wouldn’t ask a question of this sort, or at least not so directly.  Taken off guard by his question I tried to fudge my answer somewhat responding, “Well not normally but sometimes at the University—I  was a grad student at UCLA at the time—I go to parties and will drink a beer with other students.”

The young devotee turned away with a concerned look on his face.  A few minutes latter, he turned to the boy sitting next to him and reported, “Bhakta Burke drinks.”  Not understanding the meaning of what was being said, the boy replied, “I drink a lot of water too.”  This elicited, “No, No, Bhakta Burke drinks alcohol!  He goes to parties at his school and the karmies make him drink beer.  He doesn’t want to but they make him.”  The image I have now as I think about this exchange is that the karmies were somehow pouring beer down my throat while I protested all the while.

I often think of this and so many other similar stories where these young devotee boys did everything in their power to see me as a devotee.  They needed to see me as such because we had a loving relationship and it simply wasn’t within their imagination to think that a non-devotee (a karmie) could be worthy of their love and respect.  It was important therefore for them to know that I wouldn’t on my own accord anyway, act against the regulative principles; they simply cared too much for me to believe this could be true.  Rather it was those “rascal” karmies who were forcing me to misbehave.  Then as now, I see this as an expression of pure love.

How far the movement has come from those days in the late 1970s and early 1980s when young boys and girls had little choice but to live in ashram-gurukulas separate from their parents.  As we all know too well, many of the young people who attended these schools in North America, India, and elsewhere, faced neglect and abuse at the hands of the very people responsible for their spiritual and material well-being.  Like many of you here, my heart will never fully recover from what happened to these innocent young people.  Young people that Prabhupada called the “future hope” of his movement.

But while our hearts may be broken, and anger may persist among some second generation devotees and their parents, we are all here today for some reason.  The past—the good, the bad, and yes, the tragic and ugly—has somehow kept us all together.  The young boy who, in 1979, struggled to see me as a devotee like him lives in all of us.  Knowingly or unknowingly, we are joined together in a powerful way, not by an institution, but by our collective lifelong experiences of love and yes disappointment that have shaped us individually and collectively.  Oh, how I wish I could be among you now so that I too might feel that love, especially as the kirtan begins and all that separates us melts away with each penetrating drum beat.

The challenge ahead is to remain together as a strong and unified community, no matter where any one of us stands in relation to ISKCON, or even to Krishna Consciousness.   I must say to you now that I am convinced that the future of Prabhupada’s vision and movement lies with those of you here today, and the many other second and third generation devotees unable to join in these festivities.

Clearly, ISKCON in North America and increasingly in other portions of the world is becoming Hinduized under the influence of a large and growing congregation of immigrant Indian-Hindus and their families.  As such, the organization that Prabhupada founded to spread Krishna Consciousness all over the world has for all intents and purposes returned to its Indian roots, leaving behind many of the Western converts and their children who represent ISKCON’s beginnings.

This has gone forward at a rapid pace in recent years in part because ISKCON leaders have generally failed to turn to younger devotee men and women, such as those of you here, who have the talent and commitment required to move ISKCON forward and to do so in keeping with Prabhupada’s vision.  While it may be long past time for the older devotees to step aside in favor of new and younger leadership, it is also true that all of us who embrace Krishna, enthusiastic kirtans, and the general well-being of the devotee community, must step up to ensure our collective future.  Young and old, Indians and Westerners, all must work together cooperatively if we are to be successful.

The past must never be forgotten, but the past must also inform the struggle to create a better future for ALL of your generation, future generations of devotees, as well as for the older devotees who pioneered Krishna Consciousness in America and the West.  This will not be an easy task for sure and will require the cooperation of many many devotees.  But to do this successfully ultimately demands the sort of love and compassion that a seven year old boy extended to me some thirty years ago here in Los Angeles.  His instinct was to offer loving protection, not condemnation.  I pray that all of us can do the same as we move forward together to create a future for ourselves, our families, and the greater devotee community.

All best wishes.