by Nitya Krsna dasa
The Circular Firing Squad
Schism, Factions and Sectarianism
Initiation in Vaishnavism means, among other things, that one agrees to follow the direction of their spiritual master for the rest of their life. It is by this submission to a pure personality that sincere initiates are delivered from the burden of the past karma of many lifetimes, both sinful and otherwise. Genuine deliverance is, however, dependent on the guru being genuine and the disciple being sincere. Initiated people are commonly called disciples and receive a spiritual Sanskrit name when they take their initiation vows. Uninitiated devotees are called bhakta John or bhaktin Mary, etc.
Around 1980, the initial abuses of the zonals caused some devotees to leave the ISKCON corporate institution to seek guidance from other disciples of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Prabhupada, Srila Prabhupada’s guru. The Indian temples of these older devotees constitute the remnants of the Gaudiya Matha, the institution Srila Bhaktisiddhanta founded in the first half of the 20th century. These elder devotees, or their disciples, then initiated new people that had come from the ISKCON institution and even “reinitiated” some of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples. Others leaving GBC authority heeded Srila Prabhupada’s instructions to avoid his “Godbrothers.” Some of them even started alternative versions of ISKCON.
“So I have now issued orders that all my disciples should avoid all of my Godbrothers. They should not have any dealings with them nor even correspondence, nor should they give them any of my books or should they purchase any of their books, neither should you visit any of their temples. Please avoid them.” Letter to Visvakarma, 11/9/75
The largest of these alternatives arose in the late 80’s and is the groups under the rittvik umbrella, groups which largely disavow the possibility that anyone can become guru after Srila Prabhupada. They actually claim that Srila Prabhupada is still offering initiation himself, something their opponents say is counter to Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition and scripture. A rittvik, in this use of the word, is the priest who conducts the apparent initiation ceremony for new devotees on behalf of Srila Prabhupada. This group’s popularity continues largely because of the ongoing scandals among those who have claimed to be guru after Srila Prabhupada.
Not confined to the ISKCON institution, other more charismatic disciples of Srila Prabhupada have also set themselves up as apparent gurus in their own little institutions “outside” of that group. Some of these have also had scandals. These more organized groups of outside devotees all claim to offer some kind of alternative initiation to the GBC’s arrangement.
Beyond these groups promoting their own apparent initiation processes, there are also thousands of outside devotees who don’t follow any of their leadership structures. Some of them also live in nonaffiliated or semi-affiliated devotee communities or have small institutions.
Needless to say, this is more than fertile ground for sectarianism and the accompanying condemnations and name calling. Most groups claim they are the only true followers of Srila Prabhupada, and that the others are misleading or even demons. When you consider how many critics of the GBC were exploited by abusive leaders or even had children victimized by pedophiles in that institution’s schools, the vitriol can sometimes shatter glass. There is something particularly galling for one who innocently followed a supposedly absolute spiritual authority and had these things happen to them – and there is no shortage of such devotees.
This is further exacerbated by how the GBC has, throughout all its questionable dispensations and reforms, always assumed an absolute position as Srila Prabhupada’s supposed mouthpiece. They never really admit to mistakes, despite the often devastating consequences of their decisions or this policy.
This situation was not one that Srila Prabhupada was unfamiliar with. Something very similar had occurred when his own spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saravati Prabhupada, had departed in 1937. Srila Prabhupada once wrote this to a trusted senior manager:
“So Sridhara Maharaja and his two associate gentlemen unauthorizedly selected one acarya and later it proved a failure. The result is now everyone is claiming to be acarya even though they may be kanistha adhikari with no ability to preach. In some of the camps the acarya is being changed three times a year. Therefore we may not commit the same mistake in our ISKCON camp.” Letter to Rupanuga, 28 April, 1974
Shortly after Srila Bhaktisiddhanta departed, the GBC of his Gaudiya Matha became dominated by Sridhara maharaja and some others, and they selected Ananta Vasudeva dasa, a very learned devotee, as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s sole successor. This man nevertheless soon became embroiled in scandal and recognized as a dharmadvaji.
The principle that Srila Prabhupada is describing above is completely applicable to what occurred after his own departure. It is tragic that his own zonal acarya led GBC did not take the time to thoroughly study all these prophetic quotes and warnings. It is either naïve or misleading to say that the zonal acarya dominated GBC selected eleven successors instead of one, and that they therefore heeded the above warning. One need only judge by the results that followed both of these decisions.
The idea is that most spiritual movements preach an absolute message. Some people are then going to follow them in a submissive way, putting some degree of faith in the leaders. When Srila Prabhupada departed, the rank-and-file devotees of the ISKCON institution were accustomed to the GBC members faithfully repeating him, so they initially believed them. Most also accepted the eleven, as well as the GBC members, as the most advanced and experienced devotees in the movement. They had often been the most effective preachers, opening many new centers and convincing numbers to become devotees. They had regularly pleased Srila Prabhupada by their service, dedication and enthusiasm. Therefore virtually everyone went along when the eleven zonal acaryas said they had been appointed gurus and successors by Srila Prabhupada. Too bad this was at best an exaggeration and at worst a lie.
In an official July 1977 letter to the movement, Srila Prabhupada had only formally appointed them as “rittiks,” mere priests who would perform the initiation ceremony for new devotees on his behalf. He did this because he was physically indisposed during the last months of his presence. He was still the new initiates’ guru.
The problem and reason for the chaos in both movements was that the so-called successors became embarrassments and widely accepted as hypocritical dharmadvajis. Most of Srila Prabhupada’s initiated disciples who had served a scandal-ridden zonal acarya felt betrayed and misled when they realized the truth; they had accepted someone as their spiritual authority in the absence of their lately departed spiritual master, and he turned out to not be as serious about Krishna consciousness as they were.
This is what led to the phenomena described in the above quote. Some of these betrayed people resentfully turned to believing that they had just as much ability to be this lowered standard of “guru,” or at least some kind of spiritual authority. When there are a number of such people who amass followers, you have the same kind of factionalism and sectarian chaos that occurred after the departure of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Prabhupada.
This very quickly leads to the ass-like behavior described above by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Everyone thinks their group’s take on the chaos and concerned parties is the Krishna conscious one. Devotees loyal to the GBC say that Srila Prabhupada founded their institution and ordered all his followers to cooperate under its “ultimate managing authority.” Therefore, right or wrong, anyone who rejects the GBC’s authority is not his serious follower.
Their critics counter this by saying that the GBC is no longer following certain orders of Srila Prabhupada or the scriptures. The rittviks try to prove that Srila Prabhupada’s will and some other “final order” remarks direct that all initiations after his departure were to be officiated by further rittvik priests, supposedly making even more new disciples for him. This leads them to zealously preach that the ISKCON institution and any other “living gurus” are disobeying his orders.
The first group to leave the ISKCON institution en mass took shelter of the often stricter Indian bodied godbrothers of Srila Prabhupada (or their followers) and claims that both the ISKCON institution and the rittviks are concocting and have therefore lost their connection to the real Gaudiya Vaishnava parampara, another name for the disciplic succession. A number of disciples of Srila Prabhupada who went this way have, by now, also assumed the position of guru. Thus they are also rittvik targets.
What has resulted, although there are exceptions that are better behaved, is a kind of circular firing squad where leaders and fanatics of all three groups play up their group’s strengths and point fingers at other’s weaknesses. The common sectarian thread is that everyone claims to be the only true followers of Srila Prabhupada or the parampara.
Needless to say, this plays havoc with devotees’ peace of mind and anything like pure Krishna consciousness. If one affiliates with a sectarian group, their “Krishna consciousness,” or mantra meditation, is done in an overall context of war with other devotees, something that is hardly detached.
The emotional and psychological background of these wars is also a great source of disturbance. In a sectarian group or not, victims of dharmadvajis struggle constantly with blaming that person or the GBC for their material and spiritual difficulties, especially if they have left what could be called spiritual society. Such people generally become very suspicious of subsequent claims of pure Krishna consciousness. Those previously connected with revealed dharmadvajis therefore appear fated to be immersed in distrust and conflict, sources of anxiety that are hardly conducive to pure devotion. The unenviable position of these victims is described nicely in Srimad Bhagavatam.
ekadasat-prasangan nikrta-matir vyudaka-srotah-skhalanavad ubhayato ’pi duhkhadam pakhanḍam abhiyati
Sometimes, to mitigate distresses in this forest of the material world, the conditioned soul receives cheap blessings from atheists. He then loses all intelligence in their association. This is exactly like jumping in a shallow river. As a result one simply breaks his head. He is not able to mitigate his sufferings from the heat, and in both ways he suffers. The misguided conditioned soul also approaches so-called sadhus and svamis who preach against the principles of the Vedas. He does not receive benefit from them, either in the present or in the future. Srimad Bhagavatam 5.14.13
The “Ring of Power”
Having already described some of the problems plaguing the ISKCON institution, perhaps the greatest weakness of the rittviks is that there was no real clear self-evident order from Srila Prabhupada for such a clear break with strict Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition and the scriptures. They therefore put emphasis on easily disputed terms such as “henceforward” in the July 1977 letter selecting the eleven rittiks. They also rely on a heavy dose of conspiracy theory, wherein Srila Prabhupada supposedly communicated these directions during secluded, unrecorded garden conversations with only a couple of devotees, the most powerful of which, Tamal Krishna swami, supposedly covered it up so he could become a zonal acarya. The rittviks are not the only ones who accept evidence that Tamal Krishna and several other insiders conspired to poison Srila Prabhupada in his last months.
In terms of Srila Prabhupada’s verification, the rittvik’s conspiracy theories hardly move the scale compared to the many times he ordered his disciples to become gurus and successors.
“So all my students present here who are feeling so much obliged… I am also obliged to them because they are helping me in this missionary work. At the same time, I shall request them all to become spiritual master. Every one of you should be spiritual master next. And what is their duty? Whatever you are hearing from me, whatever you are learning from me, you have to distribute the same in toto without any addition or alteration. Then all of you become the spiritual master. That is the science of becoming spiritual master. Spiritual master is not any… To become a spiritual master is not very wonderful thing. Simply one has to become sincere soul. That’s all. Evam parampara-praptam imam rajarṣayo viduh.” Lecture on Vyasa-puja, 5 September, 1969 (our emphasis)
“I want to see my disciples become bona fide Spiritual Master and spread Krishna consciousness very widely, that will make me and Krishna very happy.” Letter to: Tusta Krishna Swami from New Delhi, 2 December, 1975
The rittviks also say Srila Prabhupada was so great a guru that he could go against the standards of the previous acaryas, something their critics say does not evince a very deep understanding of Krishna consciousness. Rittvik fanatics also regularly resort to aggressive “snapping” techniques to convert other devotees, hoping to ultimately outnumber their opponents in the ISKCON institution. A favorite, featured on many of their websites, is accusing non-adherents of “saying Srila Prabhupada is dead.”
Besides disregarding Srila Prabhupada’s strictures against taking spiritual guidance from his godbrothers, those who did so have also been criticized for other things. Instead of “Srila Prabhupada,” many of them subsequently began referring to him by the much lowered title of “swamiji.” His other followers consider this offensive and indicative of a significant loss of faith. After his late 60’s success, a number of Srila Prabhupada’s godbrothers became envious of his worldwide preaching and subsequently demanded these kinds of slights. Most of those who went to the godbrothers and their disciples also preach an impersonal origination of the soul, something other followers of Srila Prabhupada say runs counter to his teaching everyone’s eternal personal relationship with Krishna.
The three above groups are the apparent heavy hitters among Srila Prabhupada’s followers because they all purport to offer some kind of initiation into the line of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu or Srila Prabhupada. Once a newcomer accepts initiation, even so-called, they become psychologically bound and, therefore, far more committed to their chosen leaders or apparent guru. They also believe they have received the bhakti-lata-bija in their heart, the “seed of devotional service.”
This is what makes these groups superficially more legitimate and able to continue Srila Prabhupada’s mission. Regardless of their honesty, something many completely outside devotees pride themselves in, claiming to offer initiation has enabled these three groups to attract many hundreds or thousands of followers. These initiation claims have therefore been compared to Tolkien’s ring of power – they give the possessor great influence that simultaneously pulls the unqualified into a whirlpool of corruption.
This doesn’t mean that sectarianism is confined to these three factions. There are other outside leaders who also preach that their interpretation of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings is the strictest or “the real one.” Even if they are right, or at least have the most faithful one, they sometimes excel these three in sectarian zealotry and name calling.
The tendency toward sectarianism is natural for any spiritual group. This is because spirituality is inherently absolute. Even if a leader, in the manner of Srila Prabhupada, strives to be all-inclusive of other serious spiritual seekers, their followers will inevitably think and say that their leader or group is the best one. This is the inevitable tendency of spiritual neophytes. If, undiscouraged by the leader, they take this to the point of conflict and name calling, etc., the group then becomes sectarian.
When Srila Prabhupada’s movement was growing rapidly in the 70’s everyone was convinced that it would eventually take over the world. Therefore, one more driver of current conflict is fear that another sect will become the dominant one. Taken to extremes, some think that a rival could get control of mundane governments and even institute laws making their competitors illegal. This then causes them to redouble their antagonism, sometimes launching a quixotic holy crusade.
Although Srila Prabhupada encouraged engaging everything in Krishna’s service, even anger, such applications were largely confined to blasphemy of devotees or the Lord.
“Similarly, anger can be controlled. We cannot stop anger altogether, but if we simply become angry with those who blaspheme the Lord or the devotees of the Lord, we control our anger in Krsna consciousness. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu became angry with the miscreant brothers Jagai and Madhai, who blasphemed and struck Nityananda Prabhu. In His Siksastaka Lord Caitanya wrote, trnad api sunicena taror api sahisnuna: ‘One should be humbler than the grass and more tolerant than the tree.’ One may then ask why the Lord exhibited His anger. The point is that one should be ready to tolerate all insults to one’s own self, but when Krsna or His pure devotee is blasphemed, a genuine devotee becomes angry and acts like fire against the offenders. Krodha, anger, cannot be stopped, but it can be applied rightly. It was in anger that Hanuman set fire to Lanka, but he is worshiped as the greatest devotee of Lord Ramacandra. This means that he utilized his anger in the right way. Arjuna serves as another example. He was not willing to fight, but Krsna incited his anger: ‘You must fight!’ To fight without anger is not possible. Anger is controlled, however, when utilized in the service of the Lord.” Purport, Nectar of Instruction 1
So here Srila Prabhupada also approves anger engaged in war ordered by the Lord. Although sectarian conflict is hardly sanctioned, most groups are unfortunately convinced that their leaders are the Lord’s representative. Therefore, once they say another sect is demoniac, deviant or insidious, their followers plunge full-on into an anxious, disturbed war mentality.
Of course much sectarianism is simply one leader or group of leaders competing with others for followers, all accompanied by the mundane politics that accompany such desires for control. Nevertheless, everything is done behind the mask of Krishna consciousness. “I served your leaders and got screwed, and because I know just as much, I (we) now have the right to take over.” The controllers of institutions, on the other hand, inevitably accuse critics of “introducing politics” or “envy” of leaders who supposedly worked their way legitimately to the top. Because this is done regardless of the institution being government, a corporation or a Krishna conscious group, it can be seen as an essential act of politics. To the extent that sectarian devotee conflict is under the influence of such materialistic mentality, it is truly ass-like behavior.
It should be obvious that this is not pleasing to Srila Prabhupada. The possibility of such situations had certainly occurred to him earlier.
“There are always some factions, everywhere in this world we find so many factions. But we must, in Krsna consciousness, do the needful and cooperate.”
Letter to Ksirodakasayi, 4th March, 1973
“Now, we have by Krsna’s Grace built up something significant in the shape of this ISKCON and we are all one family. Sometimes there may be disagreement and quarrel but we should not go away. These inebrieties can be adjusted by the cooperative spirit, tolerance and maturity so I request you to kindly remain in the association of our devotees and work together. The test of our actual dedication and sincerity to serve the Spiritual Master will be in this mutual cooperative spirit to push on this Movement and not make factions and deviate.” Letter to Babhru, 9 December, 1973
One can take this last remark as saying that the mere act of creating quarreling factions is a deviation. It should be noted, however, that both of these quotes are regularly used by zealots of the ISKCON institution to preach that their critics are disobeying Srila Prabhupada, regardless of the evidence or scriptural authority they present. However, the effectiveness of this tact has diminished as that institution’s scandals, contradictions and “infallibility” has continued.
“To Know the Sectarians, You Need a Program”
Another characteristic of sectarianism is that no one admits that they are just a sect. Nevertheless a sect is commonly defined as a “sub-group” of the parent circle that preceded the parting of ways. One can see from their use of this and related terms that Srila Prabhupada and Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura also largely accepted this common understanding. According to this it is clear that, at this time, all three groups, the ISKCON institution, the rittviks and Srila Prabhupada’s followers now connected with the Gaudiya Matha, are separate sects of his original movement.
Nevertheless this clear understanding becomes that much foggier the closer one is to a particular group. According to every group’s leaders, they are the ones preaching the genuine eternal Krishna consciousness that is found in the spiritual world. Their competitors are the ones resorting to mere faith or belief due to delusion. Every group claims the previously described authority of sanatana dharma, the eternal constitutional activity of the living being.
“One may have faith in a particular process, and he may change this faith and adopt another, but sanatana-dharma refers to that activity which cannot be changed.” Letter to Subrata Lahiri, Bombay, 4 January, 1973
Nevertheless Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura nicely described what belies all these groups’ contradictory certainty.
“Due to these differences there is disagreement, cessation of social intercourse, and fighting” Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Sri Krishna Samhita, introduction
Because this can easily be a source of confusion, it is valuable to examine some of the additional devices devotees use to avoid the sectarian label. As described previously, the ISKCON institution relies heavily on being the corporation that Srila Prabhupada founded in 1966. They also have virtually all the remaining temples and the GBC leadership structure that he created. They are active all over the world, and there are many places where Srila Prabhupada names ISKCON as the place where real Krishna consciousness can be found. New and naïve people very easily accept that this is still applicable.
The regular criticism of the ISKCON institution by the rittviks and those now with the Gaudiya Matha is what it has traditionally used to make them appear not only envious but sectarian. In this regard, some rittvik antagonism towards others is so extreme that it obscures their preaching of Krishna conscious basics. The Prabhupada Anti-Defamation Association (PADA) websites are noteworthy in this regard. The first early 80’s Western temple of those who approached Srila Prabhupada’s godbrother, Sridhara maharaja, was in San Jose, California and was managed by Dhira Krishna swami, the previous president of the Los Angeles ISKCON institution community. His was also a hotbed of criticism of the GBC and zonal acaryas.
These and other attempts were very quickly labeled envious sectarianism by ISKCON institutional leaders. They were “creating factions.” This was an extremely effective technique prior to the internet, when the ISKCON institution’s temples and publications largely monopolized how Srila Prabhupada’s followers interacted. However, as the zonal acarya and other scandals continued and the number of exploited, “fried and deep fried” devotees increased, the internet made these critics tangible threats to that institution’s hegemony. Prior to his passing, Narayana maharaja, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada’s godbrother Kesava maharaja, took hundreds of followers from them in the 90’s and early 21st century. The rittviks even took temples away, something that resulted in occasional physical intimidations, as well as long legal struggles, much like during the collapse of the Gaudiya Matha. These threats prompted the GBC to produce lengthy “damage control” treatises and resolutions aimed at shoring up their credibility. Temple authorities were also instructed to act decisively when competition threatened to take devotees out of their orbit.
This was how the GBC was forced to engage in the same overt sectarian acrimony they had long accused their rivals of. Previous to the internet, the GBC made great use of the Orwellian technique of making influential critics “non-persons,” or devotees who were just no longer mentioned. Although this was hardly “sanatana dharma” and very much mundane Machiavellian politics, they were largely able to get away with it.
These policies also directed antagonism toward anyone who departed the GBC’s sphere and started preaching successfully on their own, regardless of how critical they were. At the least they were viewed as competitors taking visitors or fund-raising territories away. This sectarianism zealotry was seen as the apparent right of the “authorized” institution Srila Prabhupada founded.
Many of Srila Prabhupada’s followers who approached his godbrothers or their followers have now created new branches of the Gaudiya Matha organization, or they have joined the old ones. To the extent that they regionally compete with the rittviks or the ISKCON institution there is local competition and sectarian rhetoric. However, their world-wide contribution diminished greatly after the passings of both Sridhara and Narayana maharajas.
The ISKCON institution and rittviks more than make up for this, however. Their enmity continues fierce and unabated. If one is known to avoid GBC approval for their preaching, they are banned from ISKCON institution websites. Rittvik websites are similarly exclusive, and many of their zealots quickly label one a demon for simply doubting their thesis. Another symptom of sectarian mentality is that it is not enough to simply follow Srila Prabhupada’s program and philosophy – one must accept the group’s conclusions to be “truly Krishna conscious.”
What Else Has Been Lost
When Srila Prabhupada was physically manifest he demanded a very high standard from his followers in terms of both conduct and philosophy. Initiated male devotees kept very short or “shaved up” hair. All strict followers, however, chanted sixteen rounds of 108 Hare Krishna maha-mantras daily and followed the four rules and regulations – no sex that was not for procreation, no meat eating, no intoxication and no gambling. Although some were also celibate and lived in the temple, everyone was expected to attend the 4 a.m. morning program there. In addition, everyone was expected to spend a certain time every day reading Srila Prabhupada’s translations of Vaishnava scriptures such as Bhagavad-gita. The morning program also included a mandatory class on one of these by an older devotee.
All this rule and routine following was meant to raise someone’s consciousness to the mode of goodness, where they became free from the anxieties and laziness of the modes of passion and ignorance. Ones thoughts thus became peaceful and suffused with Krishna, the personal absolute truth. When one was not attending temple programs, they donated a percentage of their daily income, or they were engaged in Srila Prabhupada’s approved service activities, as specified by his authorized temple authorities. The purpose behind everything was for everyone, high and low, to develop what was called the submissive “service attitude,” something that eventually matures as pure devotion and eternal service to Krishna. Srila Prabhupada would regularly preach that the temple floor sweeper’s service was as important to Krishna as that of the priest on the altar or the temple president. They were all absolute.
The result of all this was a well-functioning social network wherein every individual felt accountable to everyone else in terms of both conduct and thought. Everyone was afraid of being seen as “off,” or deviating from Srila Prabhupada’s instructions, prescribed routines, service attitude or philosophy. Vaishnava etiquette also demanded that one be respectful towards everyone, but especially more learned or empowered preachers. One was also enjoined to seek other’s permission before embarking on some mission or project. All this was the engine behind the expansion of Srila Prabhupada’s world mission, where hundreds or thousands of devotees would go out daily in public to sing the Hare Krishna mantra or raise funds by distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books.
At the foundation of everything, however, was faith that Srila Prabhupada was fully absorbed in love of Krishna and a devotee on the highest level. That is what really motivated his thousands to daily perform austerities that most Westerners find unthinkable. They all aspired to come to his level of consciousness. This was truly the greater Krishna consciousness movement. Srila Prabhupada’s personal humble example also provided all the symptoms of such a devotee.
Needless to say, all this broke down relatively quickly when the zonal acaryas were seen to be overbearing, self-interested and ridden with contradictions and scandal. Their counter-examples made it difficult to accept comparisons of them with Srila Prabhupada. Devotees’ enthusiasm to perform the daily austerities also began to decrease in proportion to the scandals and hypocrisy.
It became even harder for devotees to remain strict when they were forced to leave the temples, often not of their own choice. Although more serious and intelligent devotees managed to carve out a relatively Krishna conscious place in material society, their being driven from the movement was perhaps the zonal acaryas’ greatest offense to Srila Prabhupada and Lord Krishna.
Srila Prabhupada’s long-time secretary, Pradhyumna dasa, was an early critic and casualty of the zonal’s ruthlessness. Although he had been ordered by Srila Prabhupada to complete his translation of the 18,000 verse Srimad Bhagavatam, the zonal-dominated GBC gave the honor to one of their own, the audacious Hridayananda swami. Pradhyumna dasa was also perhaps the movement’s most qualified brahmana (strict, learned second initiate), having been personally trained by Srila Prabhupada for years. Other braminical devotees, such as Yasodanandana swami and Kailasa Candra dasa, were also driven out in the early years. And there were many other serious brahmanas lost, devotees who could not work in support of the zonals’ self-interested disregard for Vaishnava standards.
What remained after the purges were malleable newcomers and disciples of Srila Prabhupada who were often less knowledgeable or lacking in dedication to ethics and truth. Everyone left saw the consequences of not keeping quiet. The calculating decided to wait out the hard times until their turn came. Others were just plain yes-men, ladder climbers who would say whatever the leaders wanted to hear. In other words, the zonals rather quickly rid the movement of those with both the courage and knowledge to keep it on Srila Prabhupada’s directed track.
One can now only imagine if things had not changed. Previously the movement’s social strictness served as a kind of boiling caldron of spiritual purity. Serious devotees fervently believed they would eventually see and associate with Krishna, and they performed their intense devotional service with this goal. Such devotees would seek each other out and inspire others to go out with them to preach and distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books. In such an atmosphere of intense desire it was not hard to envision someone advancing beyond the madhyama adhikari (middle, learned) level to bhava (preliminary love) and then to the spontaneous pure love of the uttama adhikari (highest devotee).
Pure Krishna consciousness was most easily sought in the strict atmosphere Srila Prabhupada mandated. One was free from political distractions and anxieties and could hear the holy name constantly, performing service under the order of his authorized servants. However, once temples become run by dharmadvajis or other suspicious, sectarian persons, anyone endeavoring for pure Krishna consciousness has to make a concerted effort to avoid their influence.
Because of the collapse of enthusiasm, fund raising has also changed for the most part. Most temples no longer depend on collections by dedicated temple devotees, from books or any other sales. Without absolute faith in their leaders, it became practically impossible for most to go out and daily face rejection from the public. Many Western temples now function more as churches for people of Indian descent. Although they often donate generously, it is frequently in exchange for more involvement in the temple’s management and worship standards. Movement leaders also engage in a variety of business activities and investments. This “Hinduization” and business in the place of Srila Prabhupada’s program then elicits additional criticism.
Such things only further contribute to the circular firing squad. There the standard is to merely appear better than one’s targets; something that the internet greatly facilitates.
All this fragmentation and factionalism, combined with the prevailing mood that one is “as good as the GBC” (or better), means that practically every somewhat experienced devotee has their own personal version of Srila Prabhupada’s mission or philosophy. Although there is usually less variety inside the three main factions, it is especially true of those who spurn these groups. This has caused some to label them a philosophical “smorgasbord.”
This is not to say that there aren’t learned outside devotees who can write in a manner that is virtually indistinguishable from Srila Prabhupada. That doesn’t mean, however, that these more learned devotee’s missions don’t suffer from other ill effects of the above described chaos. With little or no accountability to ones godbrothers or sisters, many outside leaders have picked and chosen from the cultural and philosophical aspects of Srila Prabhupada’s original mission. Some don’t sing the Hare Krishna mantra in public, others avoid Deity worship, and some just preach on the internet or use internet-based technology like skype. Many also minimize the traditional Vaishnava dress and hair standards that Srila Prabhupada mandated for his serious followers. What often distinguishes one leader from another are more superficial criteria, such as being one of Srila Prabhupada’s “pet” disciples who opened or managed temples or how hard one works to maintain a popular Krishna conscious website.
Everything becomes even more philosophically diverse when the topic is how Srila Prabhupada’s movement fell to pieces. This is the smorgasbord at its finest. Besides pointing out that many who claimed to be guru turned out to be pretenders, some have written elaborate theses about initiation or the lack of it. One attempted to merge the GBC’s version with rittvik by advocating the need to follow the “prominent link” (Srila Prabhupada). Neither group really agreed however.
Another downplayed the emphasis on formal initiation altogether by claiming that Srila Prabhupada’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism is rather a line of instruction or a “siksa guru sampradaya.” A common misunderstanding among Srila Prabhupada’s followers, although not derived from him, is that anyone who can preach the ABCs of Krishna consciousness is a siksa guru, but is not necessarily qualified to give diksa (initiation). A genuine siksa guru is, however, just as advanced as a bona fide diksa guru.
“According to sastric injunctions, there is no difference between siksa-guru and diksa-guru, and generally the siksa-guru later on becomes the diksa-guru.” Srimad Bhagavatam, 4.12.32, purport
This proposal is thus burdened by this wrong application of the philosophy. These are just two explanations among many. Another common idea for outside devotees is that initiation is sometimes as easy as believing Srila Prabhupada’s books.
For the most part, these collapse theories are different varieties of blaming something the zonal acaryas either distorted or misunderstood. They, as well as the competing factions, are apparent products of the cognitive dissonance fallout of the zonals’ scandals. One can certainly make a strong argument that their abuse of the position of guru is the main reason for, not only the chaos, but the entire rittvik movement.
Another side effect of the zonals is a general distrust of anyone who preaches in the absolute manner Srila Prabhupada encouraged. Those whose presentations are more free from doubt are sometimes denigrated as would-be zonal acaryas. Although many of their accusers distance themselves from the formal rittvik camp, this criticism has similarities to that way of thinking. It is a different shade of the belief that no follower of Srila Prabhupada is capable of making tangible advancement and enlightening others. Some have called this a type of “soft rittvik.” It is also indicative of the all-pervasive acrimony among Srila Prabhupada’s followers, even between those outside the main factions.
This is not to discredit all the hard working devotees who avoid criticizing others, both in the three main factions and outside. All of them are chanting Hare Krishna and trying to do some service to Srila Prabhupada, often heroically striving to be Krishna conscious through all the chaos and conflict. There are also a number that strive to be non-sectarian. All that is clear, however, is that everything is a lot less clear. Unity is long gone, and cooperation is usually a surprise.
“Unfortunately, when the acarya disappears, rogues and nondevotees take advantage and immediately begin to introduce unauthorized principles ……The acarya, the authorized representative of the Supreme Lord, establishes these principles, but when he disappears, things once again become disordered.” Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.48, purport
Influence of the Age
All this sectarianism, finger pointing and varieties of philosophy are easily understood as symptoms of Kali yuga, the current Iron age, also known as “the age of quarrel.” Forty or so years after Srila Prabhupada’s departure, it is almost rare to find two experienced devotees who completely agree on his teachings. Submission, respect and service attitude have now largely been replaced by distrust, conflict, victim mentality and resentment, often as a result of jumping into the “shallow river” of dharmadvajis. A great many devotees thus find themselves all too familiar with the anxieties of material existence, despite superficially following many of Srila Prabhupada’s strictures.
Most of Srila Prabhupada’s followers were also Westerners devoid of training in Vedic culture until they contacted his movement. He engaged them in stringent devotional activity, but almost immediately after his departure even his senior managers began concocting and rationalizing due to immaturity and self-interest. Everyone’s short-term training in Vaishnava etiquette and practice eventually proved little bulwark from their fallen, mostly Western, natures.
Kali’s influence can also be observed in the general quality of people who become devotees. Hardly anyone was really all that interested in realizing the absolute truth. Most only become devotees when distress eliminates all hope of material happiness. This was also the case for most of Srila Prabhupada’s initiated disciples, and almost certainly reflects their plight after his disappearance. In our rush to judge these devotees we should not forget Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s words above.
“Swanlike persons consider the necessity for different practices according to one‘s qualification, so they are naturally detached from sectarian quarrels.” Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Sri Krishna Samhita, introduction
This means that not every devotee is going to be able to practice Krishna consciousness on a high standard. Even if they can chant sixteen rounds every day and follow the four regulative principles, it is pretty rare for someone to be genuinely renounced or understand Vaishnava philosophy clearly. Most Westerners bring with them a very sentimental understanding of religion. Even Indian bodied devotees drag along the same thinking from the strain of Hinduism they were born into. Muddled sentimental understandings of Krishna consciousness very often lead to the widespread disappointment we have witnessed since Srila Prabhupada’s departure. This letter was cited earlier.
“You should be always alert in understanding the sastric conclusions that will help you, otherwise we can be misled by bogus philosophies.” Letter to Ayodhyapati dasa, Vrindavana India, 22 September, 1976
Srila Prabhupada is reported as also having said, “Dull witted must be cheated. I am pleased, Krishna is pleased, why are you not pleased?” Although this remark was not recorded, the disciple he said this to, Bahubhavani devi dasi, claims to have had it firmly imprinted on her consciousness. According to this detached standard, virtually every follower and initiated disciple of Srila Prabhupada failed pretty miserably after his disappearance.
However, Srila Prabhupada was also very well known for giving deviant and fallen disciples any number of chances to reform themselves and catch on to the standards he wanted them to manage or practice on. His movement has often been described as “a house in which everyone could live,” one that was capable of accommodating anyone willing to follow the minimum standards of four regulations and chanting sixteen rounds.
According to their particular qualifications, devotees in Kali yuga, particularly Western ones, are only going to practice Krishna consciousness on the highest level they are capable of. Srila Prabhupada understood that hardly any Westerners were capable of living in the Indian temples of his day, so he wanted many Western amenities, such as flush toilets, installed in his. Similarly, most devotees require an active social environment which surrounds them with other committed adherents. Srila Prabhupada especially wanted to feature this in his movement.
It then goes without saying that when disingenuous leaders present distorted teachings, those with sentimental, socially dependent conceptions of Krishna consciousness are often going to be misled. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone in such groups is necessarily a deviant, sahajiya (lazy devotee) or dharmadvaji. The need for fixed-up leaders was one reason Srila Prabhupada instituted higher standards for them.
Other individual propensities will cause certain personality types to gravitate to similar leaders or even to their corresponding co-dependent personality types. Many with low self-esteem become convinced that real surrender absolutely requires having a strong, overbearing leader. Academic leaning devotees will feel more at home with similar leaders, and criminally inclined devotees usually find each other. The possible combinations are endless, and Srila Prabhupada also desired this kind of variety, so that everyone could find a comfortable environment to serve Krishna.
One could say that those who require such accommodation are not very advanced spiritually because they can be subject to the abusive, speculative, criminal, etc. bents of these leaders, things that will often cause them disappointment or tarnish the reputation of the Krishna consciousness movement.
The above dependencies and many others can, and usually are, used negatively by critical sectarian zealots. The swanlike devotee understands that a great deal of this weakness or difference is due to the varying levels of qualification of the adherents. Without accommodation, many of the regular devotees in these groups would not be able to chant sixteen rounds and follow the four regulative principles – they would not be able to live on what Vedic culture considers the human platform.
Nevertheless not every devotee is on the same level of Krishna consciousness. Some are going to strongly endeavor to get above their weaknesses. Some will also recognize the contradictions of their leaders or apparent gurus.