(Interview with HH Niranjana Swami Maharaj on "A Case Study of Devotee Care Implementation - ISKCON in Ukraine")

The Journey begins to Ukraine...!!

The only way to enter into the Soviet Union was as a tourist with an official tour guide. So initially I started going as a tourist & eventually programs started in devotees homes & most important part was people were very eager to hear about Krishna & it was successful because of Srila Prabhupada’s books.

Increased number of devotees & temples across the Ukraine

As the years pass the number of practicing devotees increased significantly. In 2014 there were 12,000 devotees but now it must be around 1,00,000 practicing devotees throughout the whole former Soviet Union. As far as temple’s are concerned we have approximately 25 temples in Ukraine alone & we have small gathering in smaller temples, Namahatta Programs in 100 cities in Ukraine alone.

Devotee Care Initiatives & Obstacles faced

It took years & years together to instill in the minds of devotees that Devotee Care had to be given a higher priority. The Catalyst for this was my own experience about not able to see devotees for many days coming to temple. Another Catalyst was my visit to Chowpatty temple in 1993. That visit really instilled in me that there is need for the system of counselling. I felt over the years that the fundamental essence of devotee care is to care for devotees. One of the success of Ukraine in Devotee Care was that all the leaders were on the same page that we all felt the need of devotee care.

The major obstacle was to remove the mindset of Devotee Care Department, it is not to be done by devotee care department but each & every one of us. Another obstacle was to establish that every leader is responsible to take care of devotees who are under their shelter. Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself manifested this by His own example of caring for devotees.

Top Three Principles of Devotee Care

The first one is having trusting relationships with local leadership. It’s always important to get aligned with local leaders than to have our own separate opinion. Second principle is “Care, not control.” Many times, leaders control their subordinates than to care them due to which devotees don’t feel cared. Therefore, it's the responsibility of devotees in leadership roles to exemplify the qualities of a person who is capable of caring. And lastly that leaders should take devotee care as a top priority without considering it should be taken care by devotee care department.

Striking Devotee Care Stories

One significant story I remember is the overwhelming help we got from devotees all over when our community was facing conflicts amongst ourselves due to which many devotees got separated. Another story is devotee care outreach program conducted for our all isolated devotees & we got very positive response from that which resulted into nourishment of faith of each devotee in the process of Krishna Consciousness.

On Connection between Confidentiality & Care

Its basically deals with urge to speak. Srila Bhaktivinod Thakur writes about this that devotees should not speak about others unnecessarily. And It's very important for leaders to understand the guidelines of when to speak about others and when not to speak about others. Lord Caitanya cautioned Raghun?tha das Goswami to avoid gr?mya-kath?, to speak about others. When gr?mya-kath? is pervasive and when devotees don't learn how to control the urge to speak, the result is that devotees don't feel they can open up and reveal their mind in confidence. At the same time we have to speak the truth that allows us to create an atmosphere that is most conducive to confidentiality.

Bhakti Sangam Festival centred with Devotee Care Principles

The very important principle we have tried to imbibe is the family atmosphere where each devotee is cared for all their needs & not the commercial exchange we see in the outside world. And we believed on this process & it came out very successfully. It all started with the voluntary services rendered by group of devotees (yatras). And on each day a different yatra or group of devotees render services like cooking bhoga, distributing prasad, cleaning etc. The spirit of each devotee in rendering services is such that they don’t want to do it for one single day but for more days...!!

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