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Guru and GBC in ISKCON


On May 15, 1999, the American Family Foundation, which monitors and informs the public about “cults”, held its annual conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. Interestingly, ISKCON’s North American Minister of Communications, Anuttama Das, along with Radha Dasi, a devotee and legal consultant to ISKCON in North America, appeared on a conference panel titled Can Cultic Groups Change: The Case of ISKCON.

The ISKCON Communications Journal (ICJ), then published the proceedings of the panel, and one of its learned reader, the distinguished Indologist Dr. Rahul Peter Das, wrote to the ICJ editors, expressing his concern about some of Anuttama’s statements. The editors then asked me to speak to this issue. I will thus present here 1) Anuttama’s original statement, 2) the response by Dr. Das, and 3) my own observations on the matter.

1) Anuttama’s statement:

“ISKCON is new. Many of our organizational problems came from the fact that in the early years especially, most ISKCON members were young, Western converts. Due to a lack of maturity and organizational structure there was a vulnerability to excess and abuse of power.

“Another issue, or tension, for us is the question of authority and leadership. The traditional model in most Indian religious traditions, is a hierarchical organization, with the concentration of power in the hands of one individual, the guru, or acarya. Shortly before his passing away, my teacher, Prabhupada, established a Governing Body Commission, a group of people to oversee the ISKCON organization. After his death in 1977, there was a series of crises with some of the topmost, hand-selected leaders, who had been appointed as gurus. There was quite a struggle between the organization and some of those individuals who argued that as gurus their position was above the authority of the GBC.

“This struggle lasted for years. Many people argued that the tradition supports the guru as the absolute principal of authority, divine authority. This can be strongly documented in much of Hindu religious thought. Our organization has struggled to solidly establish that, in our movement, no one is above our managing body and that there must be checks and balances for all. In 1986, there was a series of reforms limiting what is known in ISKCON jargon as the ‘zonal acarya system’. This year, 1999, there was another series of resolutions passed at the international meetings giving more specific interpretation of appropriate powers and privileges for those in leadership positions.”

Dr. Rahul Peter Das’s response:

“As an outsider to any religion, but one interested in ISKCON as a manifestation of a stream of Indian religious thought which is a major part of what I study, I see a theological problem in a statement by Anuttama Dasa given on p.44, namely on the question of authority and leadership.

“It is of course a commonplace that in many Indian religious traditions, including modern ones like the Ananda Marga, there is no difference between the supreme/divine principle and

the sadguru, the latter being but a corporeal manifestation of the former. This is of course obvious in your own tradition too (Chaitanya).

“To the outsider, it seems that the very attraction of ISKCON to many followers seems to be precisely the application of this principle to Prabhupada too, and that one could justly speak of him being, within ISKCON, a manifestation similar to Chaitanya (this is, I emphasise once again, the outsider’s view, but one found confirmed by much that is said and published within ISKCON itself, also in its iconography).

“Now it is known that in religious movements with such a background (Indian Sufism too is a good example of this), authority often takes the form of transference of this divine aspect to another corporeal being, very often an offspring of the original guru (material transference is clearly important here). This is a form of leadership which has nothing to do with the secular Western democratic principles mentioned in the pages quoted. I therefore see here not a question of democracy or the like, but of fundamental theological doctrine, and I would be very interested in finding out how the “reformers” within ISKCON have actually come to terms with this problem.

My response:

Let us keep in mind that Anuttama Dasa (AD) was speaking at an “anti-cult” convention. Historically one of the main concerns of such groups has been what they perceive to be the tendency of “cults” to invest absolute authority in a human leader, who is then prone to abuse and exploit such power. Thus AD attempts to assure the audience that ISKCON has taken positive steps to subordinate the power of the guru to a collegial, administrative board, the GBC. AD does point out, however, that “Many people (in ISKCON) argued that the tradition supports the guru as the absolute principal of authority, divine authority.” He even admits that the absolute position of the guru “can be strongly documented in much of Hindu religious thought.” But despite that fact, “Our organization has struggled to solidly establish that, in our movement, no one is above our managing body and that there must be checks and balances for all.”

The obvious problem here can be sketched as follows:

  1. Hindu tradition seems to give absolute authority to the guru.
  2. ISKCON denies such authority to its own gurus.
  3. Yet ISKCON claims to be an authentic part of Hinduism.

Das immediately perceived this problem, and I shall now list and reply to the three basic arguments of his letter.

RPD: 1. It is of course a commonplace that in many Indian religious traditions, including modern ones like the Ananda Marga, there is no difference between the supreme/divine principle and the sadguru, the latter being but a corporeal manifestation of the former. This is of course obvious in your own tradition too (Chaitanya).

To claim that one’s “sad -guru” (spiritual master) is identical with “the supreme/divine principle” is to make an ontological claim, i.e. a claim involving the nature of being. Indeed, the great theological debates in India among such leading Vedantists as Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva centered precisely on rival ontological claims about the nature of being.

Specifically, the great Vedantists disputed the nature of the relationship between the Upanisadic absolute, brahman, “the supreme/divine principle”, and the material world with its individual souls housed in physical and psychic bodies.

The claim that in the Caitanya tradition, “there is no difference between the supreme/divine principle and the sad-guru, or authentic spiritual master,” is only partially true. Sri Caitanya taught the ontological doctrine of bhedabheda-tattva, i.e. the simultaneous “difference and non-difference” between God and the innumerable individual souls who rest upon Him. Srila Prabhupada explained that individual souls are qualitatively one with Krishna, or God, but quantatively different. In other words, our consciousness, in its original, pure state, is equal in quality to that of the consciousness of God. But God’s consciousness is infinite, whereas ours, in comparison, is infinitesimal.

At present, we who are “conditioned souls”, trapped within the material nature, experience a covered, impure consciousness, but in Krishna consciousness, pure love of God, we experience our original divine awareness. For the members of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada is a liberated soul, fixed in his original pure consciousness, and thus able, in pure devotion, to transparently represent Lord Krishna. Thus a pure soul like Srila Prabhupada is “one with” the Lord in two senses:

Just as any authentic representative stands for, and is, in that sense, identical to that which he or she represents, so the genuine representative of God is identical with God. For example, if I purchase an airline ticket from an authorized agent of the airline, the airline must honor that ticket, even if the agent has made a mistake in my favor. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada’s assurance of spiritual liberation for his serious followers will be honored by Lord Krsna. As mentioned above, all living beings, pure or impure, are held to be, in an ontological sense, qualitatively one with God. However a pure soul like Srila Prabhupada has realized his divine nature and acts accordingly. We note here that certain monistic doctrines do in fact claim that the guru, and ultimately all souls, are one in all respects with the “supreme/divine principle”. But Vaisnava communities, such as the Gaudiya Vaisnavas, although acknowledging that God sometimes incarnates in this world, in general fervently oppose such monistic ideas.

There are of course other groups who admit to a type of monotheism, but then claim that their guru is an incarnation of the one God. ISKCON makes no such claim for Srila Prabhupada. Indeed, in 1970, Srila Prabhupada expelled four of his senior disciples who dared to claim that he was God. One may read of this in the standard biography Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta by Satsvarüpa Dasa Gosvami.

In general, the members of ISKCON faithfully follow Srila Prabhupada because they recognize him to be a pure representative of God, and thus they are confident that by pleasing him, they are pleasing the Supreme Lord. For those diligently engaged in the spiritual practice of Krishna consciousness, this is not merely a theory or belief, but a practical, daily experience.

RPD: 2. To the outsider, it seems that the very attraction of ISKCON to many followers seems to be precisely the application of this principle to Prabhupada too, and that one could justly speak of him being, within ISKCON, a manifestation similar to Chaitanya (this is, I emphasise once again, the outsider’s view, but one found confirmed by much that is said and published within ISKCON itself, also in its iconography).

Undoubtedly people join ISKCON for a variety of reasons. Indeed in the Bhagavad-gita itself (7.16), Lord Krsna states that people approach Him, God, with four types of motives: to alleviate suffering; to achieve prosperity, to satisfy curiosity, and to attain final wisdom.

But one would expect all those who seek God, regardless of their motive, to be concerned with the quality of their contact or link with God. In that sense, the conviction of ISKCON devotees of Srila Prabhupada’s unique ability to purely represent God is indeed a compelling one. Again, however, this is no way implies a monistic perception of Srila Prabhupada as God Himself. In fact the Vaisnavas claim just the opposite: that the more one humbly surrenders to the Supreme Lord, the more one can serve, and represent Him, purely. Thus ISKCON devotees glorify Srila Prabhupada as divine precisely because of his full submission to God, a qualification which Srila Prabhupada painstakingly taught them to insist upon in a guru.

“I emphasise,” claims Professor Das, “the outsider’s view.” Thus we may say that from the “insider’s” view, it is not merely the “application” of a theological principle to Srila Prabhupada that attracts many to him, but rather the direct experience of ISKCON devotees of Srila Prabhupada’s dramatic ability to bring his followers into close proximity of Lord Krsna.

RPD: 3. Now it is known that in religious movements with such a background (Indian Sufism too is a good example of this), authority often takes the form of transference of this divine aspect to another corporeal being, very often an offspring of the original guru (material transference is clearly important here). This is a form of leadership which has nothing to do with the secular Western democratic principles mentioned in the pages quoted. I therefore see here not a question of democracy or the like, but of fundamental theological doctrine, and I would be very interested in finding out how the “reformers” within ISKCON have actually come to terms with this problem.

Professor Das here raises several points:

  1. He refers to the general issue of the transference of authority from the guru to his or her successors.
  2. He mentions that “very often” the guru’s authority is transferred to the guru’s child (or, presumably, another relative).
  3. He notes that such transmission of power “has nothing to do with the secular Western democratic principles mentioned [by Anuttama] in the pages quoted [in the ICJ article]

I will address these points in order.

  1. Whenever the general issue of the transmission of divine authority arises, Vaisnavas are sure to quote Lord Krsna’s description in the Bhagavad-gita (4.1-3) of the parampara, the chain of disciplic succession that begins with the Lord Himself. Lord Krsna states here that He has chosen to speak this spiritual knowledge of the Gita to Arjuna, since this middle son of Pandu is the Lord’s devotee (bhakta) and friend (sakha). Similarly, Lord Krsna states elsewhere in the Gita (13.19), “My devotee (mad-bhakta) realizes this [divine knowledge] and thus attains to My nature.” It would not be difficult to argue from a vast array of Vaisnava literature that spiritual, and specifically devotional, qualities, rather than a mystic family connection, qualifies the disciple to become a guru. Indeed, in normal education, a good student gets the chance to become a teacher, and not merely a child of the former teacher.
  2. In writing my commentary on the Srimad-bhagavatam verses 11.1.6-7, I quoted Srila Prabhupada’s own spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who in his own commentary on these verses, spoken directly and thoroughly to the issue of awarding spiritual authority to one’s material offspring. The context is a discussion of the famous incident toward the end of Lord Krsna’s life on earth, in which almost all of the members of the Lord’s own Yadu dynasty killed each other in a fratricidal battle. Here is my commentary on those verses, which I based on the commentary of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura:”Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura has made a very important comment on this verse. He states that since the intentions of the Supreme Lord, Krsnacandra, are always perfect, it was certainly in consideration of the greatest benefit for the entire world that He destroyed His own family on the pretext of a curse by brahmanas. In this connection, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura has shown a parallel in the pastimes of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who is Krsna Himself appearing as His own devotee.”Lord Caitanya appeared along with His first plenary expansion, known as Lord Nityananda Prabhu, and with Lord Advaita Prabhu. All three personalities—Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Nityananda Prabhu and Advaita Prabhu—are accepted by Vaisnava acaryas to be in the category of visnu-tattva, the full status of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. These three Personalities of Godhead perceived that in the future Their so-called seminal descendants would get undue recognition and thus, being puffed up, would commit grave offenses against those who were actually Vaisnava gurus or representatives of the Lord.”Every living being is part and parcel of the Supreme Lord, as stated in the Bhagavad-gita (mamaivamsah). Every living entity is originally a son of God, yet to execute His pastimes the Lord selects certain highly qualified living entities whom He allows to take birth as His personal relatives. But those living entities who appear as descendants of the Lord’s personal family may undoubtedly become proud of such a position and thus abuse the great adulation they receive from ordinary people. In this way such persons may artificially get undue attention and divert people from the actual principle of spiritual advancement, which is to surrender to the pure devotee who represents the Lord. The last eight verses of the Twelfth Chapter of Bhagavad-gita give a description of the pure devotees the Lord permits to act as acaryas, or spiritual leaders of mankind. In other words, simply to take birth in the personal family of Krsna is not the qualification for being a spiritual master, since according to Bhagavad-gita, pitaham asya jagatah: every living entity is eternally a member of the Lord’s family. Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita, samo ’ham sarva-bhütesu na me dvesyo ’sti na priyah: “I am equal to everyone. No one is My enemy, and no one is My special friend.” If the Supreme Personality of Godhead appears to have a special family, such as the Yadu dynasty, such a so-called family is a special arrangement of the Lord’s pastimes in order to attract the conditioned souls. When Krsna descends, He acts as if He were an ordinary person in order to attract the living entities to His pastimes. Therefore Krsna acted as though the Yadu dynasty was His personal family, although in fact every living entity is a member of His family.”Ordinary people, however, not understanding the higher principles of spiritual knowledge, easily forget the actual qualifications of a bona fide spiritual master and instead give undue importance to people born in the Lord’s so -called family. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, therefore, avoided this impediment on the path of spiritual enlightenment by leaving behind no children. Although Caitanya Mahaprabhu married twice, He was childless. Nityananda Prabhu, who is also the Supreme Personality of Godhead, did not accept any of the natural sons born of His own son, Sri Virabhadra. Similarly, Lord Advaita Acarya divested of His association all of His sons except Acyutananda and two others. Acyutananda, the chief faithful son of Advaita Acarya, had no seminal progeny, and the remaining three of the six sons of Lord Advaita fell from the path of devotion to the Lord and are known as rejected sons. In other words, the appearance of Caitanya Mahaprabhu allowed little facility for continuing a so-called seminal family to create confusion. The respect shown to the conception of seminal lineage in deference to the ideas of the smartas is unfit to be accepted by one who actually understands the supreme truth from Vedic authority.”Other acaryas, or spiritual masters, have also demonstrated this point in their own families. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, our own beloved spiritual master, who is the mighty author of this Srimad- Bhagavatam series, was born in a family of pure devotees, and he himself exhibited all the symptoms of pure devotional service from his very childhood. Srila Prabhupada eventually came to the Western countries and exhibited unprecedented spiritual potency in establishing the Krsna consciousness movement all over the world. In a few short years, he translated more than fifty large volumes of Vedic philosophy. By his practical activities he is certainly understood to be a most empowered representative of the Lord. Nonetheless, his own family members, although devotees of Krsna, did not at all come up to the proper standard of devotional service and are therefore not given attention by the members of ISKCON. The natural tendency for the members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness would be to offer all reverence and worship to the members of Srila Prabhupada’s immediate family. But since by Krsna’s arrangement these family members are not at all on the platform of pure devotional service, the members of ISKCON give them hardly any attention but instead worship those who actually exhibit the qualities of highly advanced Vaisnavas, regardless of their so-called birth. In other words, birth cannot constitute the qualification for a respectable person, even when one is born in the Lord’s own family or in the acarya’s family, what to speak of an ordinary wealthy or learned family.”In India there is a class of men known as nityananda- vamsa, who claim to be direct descendants of Lord Nityananda and therefore worthy of the highest respect for their position in devotional service. In this regard, Srila Prabhupada has written in The Nectar of Devotion, “In the Middle Ages, after the disappearance of Lord Caitanya’s great associate Lord Nityananda, a class of priestly persons claimed to be the descendants of Nityananda, calling themselves the gosvami caste. They further claimed that the practice and spreading of devotional service belonged only to their particular class, which was known as nityananda-vamsa. In this way they exercised their artificial power for some time, until Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, the powerful acarya of the Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya, completely smashed their idea. There was a great hard struggle for some time, but it has turned out successful, and it is now correctly and practically established that devotional service is not restricted to a particular class of men. Besides that, anyone who is engaged in devotional service is already a high-class brahmana . So Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura’s struggle for this movement has come out successful. It is on the basis of his position that anyone, from any part of the universe, can become a Gaudiya Vaisnava.”

    “In other words, the essence of spiritual knowledge is that every living being, regardless of his present status in life, is originally a servant of the Supreme Lord, and it is the mission of the Lord to reclaim all of these fallen living entities. Despite his past situation, any living being who is willing to surrender again at the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord or His bona fide representative can purify himself by strictly adhering to the rules and regulations of bhakti-yoga and thus act as a high-class brahmana. Nonetheless, the seminal descendants of the Lord think themselves to have acquired their ancestor’s character and position. Thus the Supreme Lord, who is the well-wisher of the entire universe and especially of His devotees, bewilders the discriminatory power of His own descendants in such a contradictory way that these seminal descendants become recognized as deviant and the actual qualification to be a representative of the Lord, namely unalloyed surrender to the will of Krsna, remains prominent.”

  3. Finally, I will address Das’s claim that in normal Hindu traditon, the transmission of divine authority “has nothing to do with the secular Western democratic principles mentioned [by Anuttama] in the pages quoted [in the ICJ article]. We may first note that ISKCON does not follow the principles of a popular “Jacksonian” democracy, but rather invests ultimate managing authority in a body of senior leaders. Traditionally the members of the governing board appointed new members, and thus one might more reasonably accuse this system of being an “oligarchy”, a term which seems to be somewhat infected with negative connotations in contemporary culture. We should add, to be fair, that there is a growing trend in ISKCON to insist that even the GBC members should somehow be elected by the senior members of the spiritual communities which they are to govern. Indeed, the largest ISKCON community in North America, that of Alachua, Florida, has recently declared its intention of electing its own GBC representative to whom the international GBC may award or not award voting rights.

Yet the basic issue remains: can the “Hindu” or “Vedic” guru authentically function under the authority of a governing body, however constituted? I will argue that he or she can, to some extent. I base my argument on a rather broad overview of Vedic civilization, in the traditional, and not the academic, sense of the term ‘Vedic’.

In the pages of the most influential Vaisnava scriptures, such as the Srimad-bhagavatam and the Bhagavad-gita, and in such foundational texts as the Mahabharata, we find that the universe is what I like to call a “cosmic village.” Important people throughtout the cosmos know, and know about, each other, and have regular mutual dealings. The celestial gods, the semi-divine Gandharvas and Apsaras, the celestial bad-guys known as Asuras, Daityas, or Danavas, the human beings of earth, the great Naga serpents etc etc are all intimately acquainted with one another, and regularly interact. Within this “cosmic village”, there is a universally recognized code of proper behavior known as dharma. Of course the theistic Vaisnavas claim that dharma is the “law of God”, but even the decent non-theists, and at times even the demonic, recognize the power of dharma, and the dangers of adharma. My point is that the guru, as he appears in ancient scriptures, functions within and for this cosmic village ruled by dharma.

It is necessary here to make a distinction between the a “mere” guru and the Acarya. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary defines acarya as “knowing or teaching the acara or rules; a spiritual guide or teacher.” In Hindu tradition, one may call one’s spiritual preceptor acarya, but the term has another, larger sense in which it denotes the great teachers who have guided the destiny of Indian religious civilization. It is in this sense that the mighty Sankara is Sankaracarya; that the great Ramanuja is Ramanujacarya; that Madhva is Madhvacarya; that Vallabha is Vallabhacarya, etc.

We find the distinction between acarya and guru in Rüpa Gosvami’s Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, as rendered by Srila Prabhupada. There, in the sixth chapter, Rüpa Gosvami lists as one of the “basic principles” of bhakti- yoga, “…following in the footsteps of great acaryas (teachers) under the direction of the spiritual master…” Thus the “great acarya” is distinguished from the “spiritual master” (guru) in the sense that the guru guides the disciple in the program or discipline or teaching established by the great acarya. And we see that Hinduism has actually functioned this way for many centuries.

Indeed in the Mahabharata, we find that great acaryas occasionally declare a new dharma, an example being the injunction of Sukracarya that brahmanas are no longer allowed to drink liquor (MBh 1.71.52-55), or that of Svetaketu that women must be monogamous (MBh 1.113.15-20).

Even in these two example, however, the Acarya makes adjustments in ethical codes, for even the Acarya cannot adjust or change the “eternal dharma”, sanatana-dharma. Thus the same Sukracarya who declared a new drinking law, lost his status as acarya when, as described in the Srimad-bhagavatam, Canto 8, Chapter 19, he instructed his disciple Bali Maharaja not to obey the Supreme Lord, who had appeared before them as Vamana.

Returning to our cosmic village, we find that even the great Acaryas, and what to speak of the “ordinary” gurus, must obey the law of God. We also find that even a disciple, as in the case of Bali, may detect a discrecpancy in the guru. A striking confirmation of this principles is found in this statement of Bhisma to YudhisThira in the Mahabharata 12.57.7:

guror apy avaliptasya karyakaryam ajanatah
utpatha-pratipannasya parityago vidhiyate

“One is enjoined to renounce even a guru who is contaminated, not knowing what is to be done and what is not to be done, and who has taken to a deviant path.”

The phrase, guror api, “even a guru” surely refers to the high status traditionally awarded to a spiritual preceptor.

There is a further consideration. Srila Prabhupada taught the traditional view that one should confirm a spiritual teaching through three authorities: guru, sadhu, and sastra, or “one’s own guru, other saintly persons, and sacred scriptures.” Thus the guru functions within a cultural economy of checks and balances.

Srila Prabhupada institutionalized these checks and balances by establishing the GBC, and indeed the body of senior Vaisnavas, as a sadhu-force, within ISKCON. And it is our practical experience that individual gurus may, and sometimes do, deviate from ISKCON’s spiritual standards, but the greater body of senior devotees time and again has been able to keep ISKCON basically on track. Of course a similar function is given to the community of the faithful in Sunni Islam, and in various other historical religious traditions.

Finally, I will state what should be, but often is not, obvious: that one may go off any road on either side of the road. Thus there is a real danger for ISKCON, in its zeal to avoid the high-profile guru falldowns of the recent past, to sanitize and restrain the position of guru in ISKCON to a point where it is no longer recognizable, and indeed no longer functions, as a real spiritual force for good in the society.

Last year a desperate father wrote to me explaining that his unmarried daughter had “moved in” with a young male devotee who was my initiated disciple. He asked that I order my disciple to separate from his daughter. I sadly replied that in today’s ISKCON, the guru can do less harm, but less good as well, and that I simply no longer had the authority to so order my “disciple”.

I conclude that the guru in Gaudiya Vaisnava culture is ideally a soul surrendered to Krsna, and thereby qualified to lead the community by purely representing the Lord. The guru is also one with Krsna in an ontological sense, as are all other souls, but always as the subordinate servant of the Lord. Within the cosmic village of Bhagavatam culture, the guru, and even the great acarya, functions within a system of constraints established by dharma, sastra (scripture), and the examples and teachings of recognized saints (sadhu). Thus, ISKCON’s system of requiring the guru to abide by, and within, a social reality governed by the GBC is not intrinsically a violation of the tradition in which ISKCON finds its legitimacy. At the same time, ISKCON must avoid the danger of an equal and opposite reaction to the excesses of unrestrained, and uncontrolled gurus, who marred ISKCON’s recent past. Such a reaction will clearly damage ISKCON as much as the calamaties which provoked it.