Social Engineering

By Sesa Das for ISKCON News on 14 Jan 2011
Littering is a problem in the city of Vrindavan, India. Friends who recently returned from a pilgrimage to that holy place expressed to me how they were disturbed to see piles of trash lining the streets.

Social Engineering Littering is a problem in the city of Vrindavan, India. Friends who recently returned from a pilgrimage to that holy place expressed to me how they were disturbed to see piles of trash lining the streets.

Littering used to be a big problem in America. As a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s I vividly remember seeing highways totally trashed with every imaginable object that could be thrown from a moving automobile. Littering was thoughtless and ugly. Things are different today. Sure, you see the occasional pieces of litter along the roadside, but workers or volunteers quickly appear to clean it up. And, people just don’t litter like they used to. The difference between then and now for America is social engineering.

Social engineering is a discipline in political science that refers to efforts to influence popular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale, whether by governments or private groups ( Keep America Beautiful, an environmental organization founded in 1953, was instrumental in turning around the attitudes and behavior that resulted in littering in America. Their 1971 ad, which depicted a Native American crying after some litter thrown from a speeding car lands at his feet was perhaps their most influential piece of social engineering. The announcer doing the voiceover said, “People start pollution; people can stop it.”

Behavioral scientists working for Keep America Beautiful had identified the need to change behavior as the only effective way to achieve lasting, sustainable improvement in community quality of life. They taught a “five-step attitude change process as a primary tool for the development and implementation of culture changing programs and projects: 1.Get the Facts; 2. Involve the People; 3. Develop a Plan; 4. Focus on Results; and 5. Provide Positive Reinforcement.

After attitudinal change, behavioral would follow, brought about most effectively using a combination of methods: 1. Education and awareness; 2. Changing public policy through codes, laws, or ordinances; 3. Consistent and effective enforcement of existing codes, laws, and ordinances; and 4. Providing tools, resources, and strategies that encourage individuals to make different long-term choices. (

Despite the negative connotation of being manipulative which sometimes comes up in discussions of social engineering, this example of how the persistent problem of littering in America was resolved provides a positive view of this discipline.
Recently, I was involved in a conversation with some friends about the role we Hare Krishna devotees play in today’s society. Toward the end of the conversation one of the participants emphatically made the point that devotees are meant to be social engineers. I recoiled at the thought and countered his argument by saying that the Hare Krishnas have no role in society save and except to get out of it, taking as many people as possible with us back to the spiritual world. My arguments sounded good at the time, but the more I think about them, the more I realize I was dead wrong. We’ve actually got an obligation to work for change in society.

Take the example of littering in Vrindavan. No one can doubt the tremendous impact Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON have made in Vrindavan. Following the lead established by Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON today we find thousands of pilgrims from around the world visit Vrindavan annually, the standards of deity worship have improved in virtually every major temple throughout Vrindavan, and the amount of monetary investment in Vrindavan has exponentially increased. But with the crowds, the attraction of the temples, and land development come problems such as littering. As leaders can ISKCON remain aloof, content with our spiritual achievements, and do nothing to address social problems such as littering? I think not.

There are two sayings popularly attributed to Srila Prabhupada that are of relevance here. First, he taught that a brahmana leaves a place cleaner than when he got there. Second, he challenged, what is the use of being Americans if you don’t do something wonderful. Combining these teachings, I would suggest that as disciples of Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON we are ideally situated to do a bit of social engineering to fulfill our obligation to do something about the littering problem in Vrindavan.

Keep America Beautiful’s five-step attitude change process based in the teaching of Srila Prabhupada works well as an appropriate model to implement attitudinal changes with regard to both Vrindavan and problem of littering there.

(1) Get the Facts: We are gifted with a tremendous amount of knowledge about this world. Who is the actual proprietor, and that it is not our either to enjoy or destroy.
“Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.” Sri Isopanisad, Mantra One.

We know that although to mundane vision Vrindavan appears to be an ordinary geographic location, a small city ninety miles south of New Delhi, it is actually a replica of Krishna’s eternal spiritual planet, Goloka Vrndavana. Srila Prabhupada states:

“In the spiritual world of Vrindavan the buildings are made of touchstone, the cows are known as surabhi cows, givers of abundant milk, and the trees are known as wish-fulfilling trees, for they yield whatever one desires. In Vrindavan, Krsna herds the surabhi cows, and He is worshiped by hundreds and thousands of gopis, cowherd girls, who are all goddesses of fortune. When Krsna descends to the material world, this same Vrindavan descends, just as an entourage accompanies an important person. Because when Krsna comes His land also comes, Vrindavan is not considered to exist in the material world. Therefore devotees take shelter of the Vrindavan in India, for it is considered to be a replica of the original Vrindavan.”
Therefore, as guests to Vrindavan, we are obligated to adopt an attitude that reflects the special nature of this land and its owner, i.e. honor and respect, not litter.

(2) Involve the People: The mission of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as given by Srila Prabhupada when he formed ISKCON in July 1966 was to make the whole world aware of and involved in the internal and external value of Vrindavan:
• To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all people in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world.
• To propagate a consciousness of Krishna (God), as it is revealed in the great scriptures of India, Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.
• To bring the members of the Society together with each other and nearer to Krishna, the prime entity, thus developing the idea within the members and humanity at large, that each soul is part and parcel of the quality of Godhead (Krishna).
• To erect for the members, and for society at large, a holy place of transcendental pastimes, dedicated to the personality of Krishna.

(3) Develop a Plan: Srila Prabhupada has given us a plan how to change the consciousness of society at large through distribution of transcendental literature.
“If he buys one book his life may be turned (Letter to Jagadisa das, 11/18/1972)…The sufferings of humanity are due to forgetfulness of Krishna as the supreme enjoyer, the supreme proprietor, and the supreme friend. Therefore, to act to revive this consciousness within the entire human society is the highest welfare work (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Text 5.25 Purport)…Do not hesitate to use your American and European brains to increase, that is Krishna’s special gift to you, now use it. Any activity which will please Krishna should be accepted favorably, this is our guiding principle. Now apply it in this way, by doing everything and anything for spreading this Krishna Conscious literature…(Letter to Kirtiraja das, 11/27/1971).

(4) Focus on Results: Srila Prabhupada was very results orientated:
“As soon as I see such increased book distribution figures, I take that to mean that all other programs are successful (Letter to Jagadisa das, 01/05/1973)…
These books and magazines are our most important propaganda weapons to defeat the ignorance of maya’s army, and the more we produce such literature and see them profusely all over the world, themore we shll delvier the world from the suicide course (Letter to Jayadvaita das, 11/18/1972).
(5) Provide Positive Reinforcement

“Please print as many books as possible, this is my real pleasure. By printing these books of our Krishna Conscious philosophy in so many different languages we can actually inject our movement into the masses of persons all over the world, especially there in the western countries and we can literally turn whole nations into Krishna Conscious nations.” (Letter to Hrdayananda das Goswami, 12/21/1974)

Undoubtedly, these five points of attitudinal change will be most effective in the consciousness of the devotees of Lord Krishna who live in Vrindavan or who come to Vrindavan on spiritual pilgrimage. But according to the science of social engineering even a small dedicated group can play a decisive role in effecting attitudes about littering in Vrindavan. As stated in the Keep America Beautiful ad with the crying Native American, everything depends on people,
”People start pollution; people can stop it.”

As for the requisite behavioral change, here the devotees of Lord Krishna will need some help. The plan employed by Keep America Beautiful had four aspects of behavioral change: 1. Education and awareness, 2. Changing public policy through codes, laws, or ordinances, 3. Consistent and effective enforcement of existing codes, laws, and ordinances, and 4. Providing tools, resources, and strategies that encourage individuals to make different long-term choices.

There is no question of Srila Prabhupada’s and ISKCON’s dedication to education and awareness. “In order to change this materialistic society and prevent them from gliding to hell, first thing is to educate them. All decent men want to give service to humanity; only thing is they do not have information really what is that service.”(Letter to Ramesvara das, 01/09/1973)

The fact that Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON have had such an impact on the spiritual and financial aspects of the city of Vrindavan should also be an indication of the ability for devotees of Lord Krishna to muster the necessary political influence to achieve behavioral change. Public policy, codes/laws/ordinances and the enforcement of these codes/laws/ordinances ultimately follow the lead of the people. Thus, when the attitude of the general mass of people follows the decisive lead of the devotees of Lord Krishna, the necessary political action to change the behavior of littering will manifest. Lord Krishna Himself declares this to be an eternal principle, “Whatever action a great man performs, common men follow. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary act, all the world pursues.” (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Text 3.21)

Perhaps the area in which ISKCON has not been productive in terms of ridding Vrindavan of litter is in providing tools, resources, and strategies that encourage individuals to make different long-term choices. And, perhaps this deficiency is due to a reluctance to do social engineering. The same type of reluctance I felt when confronted with the idea that Hare Krishna devotees have an obligation to become involved in society’s problems. I now feel I have progressed beyond these doubts and firmly believe that with knowledge comes both spiritual and social responsibility.

Of course there is much more to be gained from service to the holy land of Vrindavan than simply keeping it litter free. And, yes, mundane social work can be a distraction from our spiritual goals. Yet, even as aspirants to the divine spiritual truth of Vrindavan, we cannot neglect the external cleanliness of this holy place lest friends returning from pilgrimage may have more to say to us about the litter than the glories of Vrindavan.

Posted in Editorials.