An Honest ISKCON Part 1 of 4
By bhakta Eric Johanson
What Should Have Been Done?
It’s easy to complain, but the question remains, “What should have been done by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) after the disappearance of Srila Prabhupada, especially in regard to initiating new devotees?” He certainly left instructions, some detailed, and there were the examples in the scriptures and of the previous acaryas (gurus). The greater context, however, was his desire to have what he developed maintained:
“Our philosophy is perfect, and we cannot be defeated by anyone. So it is up to you to learn it and be able to present it nicely. Now you have everything, respect, philosophy, money, temples, books, all these things I have given, but I am an old man and my notice is already there. Now it is up to you all how to manage it. If you cannot increase it, you should at least maintain what I have given you. You cannot accuse me that I have not given you anything. So it is a great responsibility you now have.” Letter to Jagganatha Suta dasa, Vrindavana, August 26, 1975
So here Srila Prabhupada lists some assets of the movement, some of which could be called material. But his real gift to his followers and all the conditioned souls was purely spiritual:
vande guroḥ śrī-caraṇāravindam
“The spiritual master is receiving benediction from the ocean of mercy. Just as a cloud pours water on a forest fire to extinguish it, so the spiritual master delivers the materially afflicted world by extinguishing the blazing fire of material existence. I offer my respectful obeisances unto the lotus feet of such a spiritual master, who is an ocean of auspicious qualities.” Sri Gurvastakam 1
As a devotee on the highest level of love of Krishna, Srila Prabhupada was always engaged in pure devotional service, and his mercy was to engage others in that process. The morning program in the temple and all his guidance on devotee’s daily activities were the foundation on which this service rested. The temples that provided this were thus a kind of assembly line of devotional purity and elevation. So as far as maintaining what he gave his disciples, this facility was of primary importance. Everything came from this routine of service in relationship to him. The spiritual connection to and through him was the conductor of Krishna’s love and mercy to the conditioned souls. His instructions were the wire.
“In this verse, yogeśvara-upāsanā means to render service to a pure devotee. Thus Narottama dāsa Ṭhākura says, chāḍiyā vaiṣṇava-sevā nistāra pāyeche kebā: without serving a pure devotee, one cannot advance in spiritual life. Prahlāda Mahārāja also has said:
naiṣāṁ matis tāvad urukramāṅghriṁ
spṛśaty anarthāpagamo yad-arthaḥ
niṣkincanānāṁ na vṛṇīta yāvat (Bhāg. 7.5.32).
One should take shelter of a pure devotee, who has nothing to do with this material world but is simply engaged in devotional service. By serving him only, one can transcend the qualitative material condition. In this verse it is recommended (yogeśvara-upāsanayā) that one serve the lotus feet of the topmost yogī, or the devotee.” Purport, Srimad Bhagavatam 4.22.22
All this was based on his vani, or instructions, and not his vapu, or physical presence. Therefore the prime duty of the movement’s leaders, the Governing Body Commission (GBC), was to see to the maintenance of this line of production.
“It is better to maintain a devotee than to try to convince others to become devotees. It is the duty of the GBC to maintain the devotees, keep them in the highest standard of Krishna Consciousness, and give them all good instruction, and let them go out and preach for making more devotees. Your first job should be to make sure that every one of the devotees in your zone of management is reading regularly our literatures and discussing the subject matter seriously from different angles of seeing, and that they are somehow or other absorbing the knowledge of Krishna Consciousness philosophy. If they are fully educated in our philosophy and if they can get all of the knowledge and study it from every viewpoint, then very easily they will perform tapasya or renunciation and that will be their advancement in Krishna Consciousness.” Letter to Satsvarupa, Los Angeles 16 June, 1972
So conversely, this also implies what the potential threats to the movement were. Here we find Srila Prabhupada emphasizing reading his books and discussing the philosophy for a firm foundation in Krishna consciousness. That philosophy teaches the preceding about how everything is conducted to and from the Lord through the medium of the devotee on the highest level, the maha-bhagavat. So perhaps the biggest threat to maintaining the spiritual lives of the devotees was the imposition of the contrary guidance of some deluded conditioned soul. If some follower of Srila Prabhupada was to give guidance, it should be in accordance with his – transparent. He had warned about this very thing a number of times:
“So don’t spoil the movement by manufacturing ideas. Don’t do that. Go on in the standard way, keep yourself pure; then movement is sure to be successful. But if you want to spoil it by whimsical, then what can be done? It will be spoiled. If you manufacture whims and disagree and fight amongst yourself, then it will be another edition of these so-called movements. It will lose the spiritual strength. Always remember it.” Room Conversation, April 27, 1976, Auckland, New Zealand
Ganesha: Srila Prabhupada, if the knowledge was handed down by the saintly kings, evam parampara-praptam, how is it that the knowledge was lost?
Srila Prabhupada: When it was not handed down. Simply understood by speculation. Or if it is not handed down as it is. They might have made some changes. Or they did not hand it down. Suppose I handed it down to you, but if you do not do that, then it is lost. Now the Krishna consciousness movement is going on in my presence. Now after my departure, if you do not do this, then it is lost. If you go on as you are doing now, then it will go on. But if you stop… – Room Conversation with Carol Cameron, May 9, 1975, Perth
This then describes the main threat that potential gurus held for the movement. After Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure, and thus the end of his ability to chastise and bring things back in line, preventing any different guidance by such persons should have been at the forefront of every GBC member’s attention. Meetings should have been called almost immediately after he left. It had been acknowledged shortly before his departure that his disciples were, to a one, unqualified to be guru.
Prabhupada: So many complaints.
Tamala Krsna: Therefore, change is good.
Prabhupada: No, you become guru, but you must be qualified first of all. Then you become.
Tamala Krsna: Oh, that kind of complaint was there.
Prabhupada: Did you know that?
Tamala Krsna: Yeah, I heard that, yeah.
Prabhupada: What is the use of producing some rascal guru?
Tamala Krsna: Well, I have studied myself and all of your disciples, and it’s clear fact that we are all conditioned souls, so we cannot be guru. Maybe one day it may be possible…
Tamala Krsna: …but not now.
Prabhupada: Yes. I shall choose some guru. I shall say, “Now you become acarya. You become authorized.” I am waiting for that. You become all acarya. I retire completely. But the training must be complete.
Tamala Krsna: The process of purification must be there.
Prabhupada: Oh, yes, must be there. Caitanya Mahaprabhu wants that. Amara ajnaya guru hana [Cc. Madhya 7.128]. “You become guru.” (laughs) But be qualified. Little thing, strictly follower…
Tamala Krsna: Not rubber stamp.
Prabhupada: Then you’ll not be effective. You can cheat, but it will not be effective. Just see our Gaudiya Matha. Everyone wanted to become guru, and a small temple and “guru.” What kind of guru? No publication, no preaching, simply bring some foodstuff… My Guru Maharaja used to say, “Joint mess,” a place for eating and sleeping. Amar amar ara takana (?)(Bengali): “Joint mess.” He said this. – Room Conversation, April 22, 1977, Bombay
Also Srila Prabhupada had not appointed any guru-successors from among his disciples by publicly announcing them by name. The guiding principle for the GBC, therefore, should have been to consider any potential guru’s threat to Srila Prabhupada’s program. Based on the fallen births and upbringing of virtually all his disciples, as well as their comparative lack of familiarity with Vaishavism, it should have been clear to any sober devotee that the potential for misdirection by potential gurus was immense. Therefore, perhaps the first thing a dutiful and realistic GBC should have done was to issue a blanket disclaimer that anyone seeking a guru from among Srila Prabhupada’s disciples did so at their own risk. This would have also maintained the emphasis on Srila Prabhupada, his temple program and service as the real means of deliverance. That these things remained available after his departure should have been the primary message of every temple.
There is this notion, somewhat along the lines of the above, that the GBC needs to protect devotees from being misled by so-called gurus, but that this requires that they be first approved by the Body. However, nowhere in the sastras (scriptures) do we find a guru being selected by the votes or approval of a managing or governing body. If anything, such an ecclesiastical process is condemned:
“It is imperative that a serious person accept a bona fide spiritual master in terms of the sastric injunctions. Sri Jiva Goswami advises that one not accept a spiritual master in terms of hereditary or customary social and ecclesiastical conventions. One should simply try to find a genuinely qualified spiritual master for actual advancement in spiritual understanding.” Purport, Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 1.35
“Mundane votes have no jurisdiction to elect a Vaisnava acarya. A Vaisnava acarya is self effulgent, and there is no need for any court judgement. A false acarya may try to override a Vaisnava by a High Court decision, but Bhaktivinode Thakura says that he is nothing but a disciple of Kali Yuga.” Purport, Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 1.220
The GBC certainly have a duty to protect devotees from being misled, but its implementation should not go against these prohibitions of Srila Prabhupada and the previous acaryas. What’s more, if the GBC endorse someone as a guru, they then become tied up with that person and thus also blamed if the so-called guru becomes an embarrassment.
Anyway, it is inevitable that new people will look up to some initiated disciple of Srila Prabhupada. Said disciple may also consider themselves advanced enough to initiate. If the GBC prohibit this union either individually or in a blanket sense, then, if the guru is bona fide, they interfere in a divine arrangement. However, in the far more likely event that the so-called guru is deluded about their qualifications, the GBC still have at their disposal a very effective tool to prevent innocents from being misled – they can ban the so-called guru from preaching in the movement’s temples. This way the GBC remains free and un-implicated in saying that someone is guru. There is, of course, also the possibility that they could be wrong about their judgment of a potential guru’s bona fides, whether they have truly deviated philosophically or in deed. Allowing them to return to the temples to preach is far more face-saving than walking back an ecclesiastical appointment.
This “banned from preaching in the temples” prohibition also facilitates a centralized loyalty to Srila Prabhupada’s core practices and temple programs as emphasized previously. If someone initiates some new people, their guidance need to wholly conform to Srila Prahupada’s. Even if they start conflicting with the temple president’s engagements for their new disciples, the sword of being banned still hangs over their heads.
The details of implementing this regime would be worked out as initiations and service needs occurred, but one detail seems obvious – if one wants to accept disciples, they must resign from their GBC or temple president’s posts. This avoids the obvious conflict of interest where a deviated so-called guru gets impunity to contravene Srila Prabhupada’s program and instructions. It might also be good if temple presidents were not the disciple of any guru who had disciples in that temple. Srila Prabhupada set up a well-functioning management scheme wherein somewhat independent temple presidents interacted loosely with their GBC representatives for the common goal of purely engaging the devotees. The less conflict that potential gurus could interject into this the better.
Srila Prabhupada’s Guidance on Becoming Guru
“When I order, ‘You become guru.’ he becomes regular guru. That’s all. He becomes disciple of my disciple. That’s it.” Conversation with GBC, May 28, 1977
Srila Prabhupada says a lot here in these few words, and they were delivered in a key conversation with some GBC members only months before his physical departure. The first thing said is that a personal order from him is needed. This was also stated in the April 1977 conversation with Tamal Krishna cited earlier (“I shall choose some guru. I shall say, ‘Now you become acarya. You become authorized.’”). Srila Prabhupada had previously given many general instructions that all his disciples should become guru. If these would have constituted enough of an order, he would not have added here that a more personal order from him was required.
Of course, someone could become qualified to be guru but only after Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure. So how could Srila Prabhupada then deliver the personal order? Srila Prabhupada said he received the order to take sannyasa from his guru in a dream:
“One has to accept the renounced order from another person who is in renounced order. So I never thought that I shall accept this renounced order of life. In my family life, when I was in the midst of my wife and children, sometimes I was dreaming my spiritual master, that he’s calling me, and I was following him. When my dream was over, I was thinking. I was little horrified. ‘Oh, Guru Mahārāja wants me to become sannyāsī. How can I accept sannyāsa?’ At that time, I was feeling not very satisfaction that I have to give up my family and have to become a mendicant. At that time, it was a horrible feeling. Sometimes I was thinking, ‘No, I cannot take sannyāsa.’ But again I saw the same dream. So in this way I was fortunate. My Guru Mahārāja (Prabhupāda begins to cry, choked voice) pulled me out from this material life.” His Divine Grace Bhaktiprajnana Kesava Maharaja’s Disappearance Day Lecture (Srila Prabhupada’s Sannyasa Guru), Seattle, October 21, 1968
Srila Prabhupada also describes how his disciples should act as guru when he says in the GBC conversation quote above, “regular guru. That’s all.” A regular guru means that he is still under regulation. Srila Prabhupada had accepted worship as a paramahamsa, or liberated soul, as an uttama adhikari or devotee on the highest level. He sat on raised platforms and accepted daily guru puja (worship) from his followers. He was called Prabhupada, or “one at whose feet, others sit.” Someone under regulation would not accept such pomp and honorifics. Srila Prabhupada’s guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, was also called Prabhupada but used to sit on the floor and return the obeisances of his followers.
Under regulation would also include following the regulations of vaidhi sadana bhakti – daily chanting at least sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and following the four regulative principles of no meat eating, illicit sex, gambling or intoxication. In addition, Srila Rupa Goswami had delineated the minimum of self-control required for such a “regular guru”:
vāco vegaṁ manasaḥ krodha-vegaṁ
etān vegān yo viṣaheta dhīraḥ
sarvām apīmāṁ pṛthivīṁ sa śiṣyāt
“A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind’s demands, the actions of anger and the urges of the tongue, belly and genitals is qualified to make disciples all over the world.” Nectar of Instruction 1
In other words, a guru should be an exemplary person, someone deserving of followers, who always knows what is to be done and what is not to be done, someone with all the divine qualities given in the Bhagavad-gita and none of the demoniac ones. Such a qualified and regulated devotee would at least mean a madhyama adhikari (firmly fixed-up middle level devotee). By “regular guru,” Srila Prabhupada was saying that any of his disciples who received the order should act as qualified madhyama adhikaris, according to those standards, many of which have been given here.
As far as would-be disciples go, Srila Prabhupada had also given many guidelines regarding who to accept as guru:
“In this verse Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī advises the devotee to be intelligent enough to distinguish between the kaniṣṭha-adhikārī, madhyama-adhikārī and uttama-adhikārī. The devotee should also know his own position and should not try to imitate a devotee situated on a higher platform. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura has given some practical hints to the effect that an uttama-adhikārī Vaiṣṇava can be recognized by his ability to convert many fallen souls to Vaiṣṇavism. One should not become a spiritual master unless he has attained the platform of uttama-adhikārī. A neophyte Vaiṣṇava or a Vaiṣṇava situated on the intermediate platform can also accept disciples, but such disciples must be on the same platform, and it should be understood that they cannot advance very well toward the ultimate goal of life under his insufficient guidance. Therefore a disciple should be careful to accept an uttama-adhikārī as a spiritual master.” Purport, Nectar of Instruction 5
“Make a GBC and Conduct the Mission”
As described in a previous quote, there was much doubt that any of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples had attained even the above minimum qualifications of a regular guru, much less those of an uttama adhikari. Based on the Nectar of Instruction purport just cited then, following of which should have been encouraged, along with the blanket disclaimer regarding the risk of accepting anyone as guru, the GBC should have primarily made arrangements for new people to act as siksa disciples of Srila Prabhupada. This means they would largely remain uninitiated and dedicated to following Srila Prabhupada’s instructions (siksa). They could wait for a real uttama guru to manifest. This was the truly honest and beneficial way the movement should have guided new people who joined after Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure. Srila Prabhupada had described his own guru’s similar arrangement, which, for future gurus, depended on an uttama adhikari arising from among his disciples:
“If Guru Maharaja could have seen someone who was qualified at that time to be acarya he would have mentioned. Because on the night before he passed away he talked of so many things, but never mentioned an acarya. His idea was acarya was not to be nominated amongst the governing body. He said openly you make a GBC and conduct the mission. So his idea was amongst the members of GBC who would come out successful and self effulgent acarya would be automatically selected.” Letter to Rupanuga, Tirupati, 28 April, 1974
Here the honest approach we have just outlined is shown to have been the preferred post-departure desire of both Srila Prabhupada and his guru, as indicated by the words, “you make a GBC and conduct the mission.” In both cases the mission had already been established and was being conducted. It was only a matter of continuing it and not interfering.
And the movement did not really lack devotees who could possibly become “self effulgent acarya” or uttama adhikaris. Krishna Balarama dasa (now Swami) was born in Vrindavana, India to brahmana Vaishnava parents. Srila Prabhupada had initially refused to initiate him because he said he was already guru. Others, such as Svarupa Damodara dasa (later Swami), had been born in Vaishnava families. Even among the Western-born devotees, Srila Prabhupada’s long time Sanskrit editor Pradhyumna dasa, was quite learned in the scriptures and a strict follower. According to Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy anyone who truly knows the science of Krishna can become a spiritual master.
kibā vipra, kibā nyāsī, śūdra kene naya
yei kṛṣṇa-tattva-vettā, sei ‘guru’ haya
“It does not matter whether a person is a vipra (learned scholar in Vedic wisdom) or is born in a lower family, or is in the renounced order of life – if he is master in the science of Kṛṣṇa, he is the perfect and bona fide spiritual master.” Sri Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya 8.128
Continuing Srila Prabhupada’s program, as described previously, was all the purification needed to elevate someone to the highest stage of Krishna consciousness. It was all possible if devotees “boiled the milk.”
“You can thin milk by adding water and you can make it thick by boiling. Now is the time for us to begin the boiling process. Now you know everything how to be a Vaisnava brahmana, now you must practice these things or the whole thing will be a show only. Better to develop the small number of devotees we have, make them truly Krishna conscious boys and girls than to go on getting many followers who do not understand and practice the real principles. Better one moon than many stars.” Letter, May 9, 1972
That one moon would be the uttama adhikari who would emerge from Srila Prabhupada’s disciples. So if there was a time for the devotees to engage with that much more intensity in becoming “truly Krishna conscious,” it was in the immediate aftermath of his departure.
Of course, what we have quoted so far is only a small sample from Srila Prabhupada’s guidance on who is guru and how they should conduct themselves. The GBC should have held emergency meetings right after his departure proactively anticipating the chaos that would ensue if some rogue started “initiating” new devotees. They could have immediately prohibited such activity until they had thoroughly studied and understood how Srila Prabhupada wanted new disciples initiated after his physical departure. The movement’s most learned brahmanas should have been deputed to study all the quotes and scriptures before any initiations were performed.
“The first thing, I warn Acyutananda, do not try to initiate. You are not in a proper position now to initiate anyone… Don’t be allured by such Maya. I am training you all to become future Spiritual Masters, but do not be in a hurry… You don’t be attracted by such cheap disciples immediately. One has to rise gradually by service… These services are most important. Don’t be allured by cheap disciples. Go on steadfastly to render service first. If you immediately become Guru, then the service activities will be stopped; and as there are many cheap gurus and cheap disciples, without any substantial knowledge, and manufacturing new sampradayas, and with service activities stopped, and all spiritual progress stopped up.” Letter to Acyutananda, 8/21/68