Ravindra Svarupa Dasa
Inthis paper, which was delivered at the Vaisnava Academy Conferencein Germanyearlier this year, Ravindra Svarupa Dasa addresses thehistorical developmentof what became known as the 'reform movement'within the International Societyfor Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON),its impact on ISKCON's administrative andsocial structures and howISKCON has adapted to ongoing norms of self-analysisand renewal.Since the explosive and charged internal debates of themid-nineteeneighties and the extensive changes these brought to ISKCON'sself-perception,scholars and researchers have been waiting for someone tocommenton what happened, why it happened and how it happened. RavindraSvarupa thus breaks theunintentional, yet uneasy silence, by sharingperceptions and developmentswhich, although almost ten years, openthe door to an ISKCON that has surviveda storm.
In 1971 Iunderwent the profoundly wrenching change of becoming a member of theInternational Society for Krsna Consciousness, leaving one life and embarkingon another. I abandoned old associationsto immerse myself totally in the life of a tight-knit temple commune; I radicallyrestyled my exterior to complement my utterly changed interior. I became a stranger in my own land.
I undertook such an arduous passagebecause I was convinced that I was thereby effectingan ontological crossing: I was leaving the material dimension for thespiritual; awakening from the nightmare of history to the peace ofeternity. ISKCON temples were embassiesof the kingdom of God. Although apparently located in maya's realm, they wereunder divine jurisdiction, where the powers of material conditioning and desirehad no sway.
Looking back at that younger self oftwenty-six years of age, I am appalled by his naiveté and at thesame time awed by his sacrificial commitment. Foolish and ignorant though he was, I am more than ever convinced that,by the grace of God, he made the right choice and is indeed the spiritualcapital on which I still live. My self-doubt comes from wondering whether Iwould still have the courage to make such a decision today, knowing what I donow - which is, of course, that transcendence is not so readily attained; thathistory does not so easily release us from its grasp; that the line thatseparates the godly from the ungodly is not congruent with the line dividingISKCON from non-ISKCON, and that I, like many others, am committed - in my casedeeply committed - to an institution that has done things to make me appalledand ashamed.
I joined ISKCON in my youth when theSociety was itself newborn. Over the past twenty-five years, we have maturedtogether. I can no longer, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a'youth', nor can ISKCON be called a 'youth-religion'. Through struggle and difficulty, the Societyhas attained - been forced to attain - concrete awareness of its ownlimitations and has, on the institutional level, enacted structures ofself-criticism and self-correction. Iwant to set before you what I think id the central problem ISKCON has faced inthat struggle. That problem arises outof both the dynamics of its spiritual endeavour and of the historical situationit has found itself in.
ISKCON aims at creating 'pure devotees'of God - that is to say, people who serve God without any personal motive andwithout any interruption, and who are free from all material desires. It is not thought in ISKCON that this is anideal we must all, inevitably, fall short of. On the contrary, it has the ability to present this as a practical aimto its members and potential members in an extraordinarily vivid manner, who then internalise an ideal that demands an exacting and unremittingpurity in deed, word and thought. ISKCONtells people that pure devotional service, though an extremely elevated condition, is an attainable goal. Whenever ISKCON issuccessful in recruiting new members and drawing from them a high level of commitment,it is because it can preach this with great confidence. People join and people remain because itseems feasible to realise such a high ideal.
Much of the power with which ISKCON isable to present this ideal as both desirable and achievable depends upon theconcrete, physical presence of a successful devotee who functions as anexemplary model, a paradigmatic individual. This personage - the guru or acarya (one who teaches by his ownbehaviour), not only embodies the ideal for all to see, but also delivers thedivine grace by which others can become similarly advanced. Thus the institution itself requires devoteeswho appear to have realised the ideals.
The problem for ISKCON has been to dealconstructively with its own failures to live up to its ideals. Many more people have been attracted to theprinciples of Krsna consciousness than are actually able to follow them. Its more public shortcomings or scandals haveresulted from as somewhat protracted refusal or inability to recognise itsproblems. In the minds of many devotees,they were simply not supposed to happen.
The difficult for ISJCON wasexacerbated from the beginning, however, by the marginal social position ofmost of the early recruits. They werevery young and very alienated, and in joining ISKCON they became doubledropouts - from mainstream society into the counterculture, from thecounterculture into ISKCON. At the sametime, certain attitudes of the sixties counterculture were retained and becamepart of the unofficial culture of ISKCON.
'Easy and sublime'
When A. C.Bhaktivedanta Swami - known later by the honorific title 'SrilaPrabhupada' - began preaching in NewYork City in the second half of the sixties, he characterised Krsnaconsciousness by a hendiadys that became something of a catchphrase: Krsnaconsciousness, he said, is 'simultaneously easy and sublime'. The combination seems unlikely, for the easyis usually common and ordinary, and the sublime difficult of realisation. Yet in presenting this unlikely conjunction,Srila Prabhupada was quite faithfully representing his received Vaisnava(monotheistic, devotional) tradition from India.
Known as 'Gaudiya Vaisnavism', it hadattained its distinctive identity in sixteenth century Bengal, as a reformed branch of a much older Vaisnavatradition. This reformation was theachievement of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533). Somewhat like his European contemporary,Martin Luther, Mahaprabhu stressed a direct, intimately personal relationshipwith God, unmediated by the traditional priestly offices and ritualformularies, and Mahaprabhu was vigorous in extending this relationship toeveryone, even the outcasts, untouchables and fallen.
Both these tendencies were consonantwith Vaisnava tradition in general. Vaisnavism has always propounded, as the highest salvation, arelationship with a transcendent person, whom it viewed as ontologically higherthan the undifferentiated Brahman attained by a mysticism of negation (Bg.14.27). In addition, Vaisnavism had always extended spiritual enfranchisementto traditionally disenfranchised people (Bg. 9.32). Mahaprabhu developedthese tendencies further: he taught and practised the process of entering intoa relationship with God in His most private and confidential feature.
According to Gaudiya Vaisnava theology,God has both a public and a private face. When He manifests his power and majesty (aisvarya), He is knownas Narayana and is served in awe and reverence. When He sets aside His lordship, however, and allows his beauty andsweetness (madhurya) to overpower his majesty, He is known as Krsna, theall-attractive. In order to enjoyintimate exchanges of love, Krsna causes His confidential devotees to forgetthat He is God, so that they may serve Him in a fraternal, parental or conjugalmood. Caitanya taught that theattainment of such intimate service is the highest achievement of spiritualityand was not relegated to a future life - pure devotees could fully experiencesuch ecstatic relationships in their present existence. The correct practice of devotional serviceresults in direct experience of the divine (paresanbhava) (SB.11.2.42). Mahaprabhu himself underwentthe extreme physiological alterations (sattivkabhava) that accompaniedsuch ecstasies.
The other part of Caitanya Mahaprabhu'sendeavour was to extend this relationship with Krsna to all, including thoseconsidered degraded and uncultured by birth or habit. Some of his most prominent followers camefrom 'beyond the pale' of orthodox Hinduism. For instance, Thakura Haridasa, whom Caitanya made the exemplar (acarya)of chanting the divine names, was born a Muslim and his great lieutenants,Sanatana and Rupa Goswami, had become outcasts by serving as ministers in theTurkish government of Hussain Shah. Thisliberality was an affront to the position and prerogatives of the hereditarycaste Brahmins, who were shown scriptural text that stated, for example, that apure devotee, no matter how low-born, is superior to the most well-qualified,but non-devoted, Brahmin. (SB. 7.9.10).
Mahaprabhu was able to justify hisliberal policy by citing Vaisnava texts that claimed the practice of devotionalservice to possess such spiritual power as to elevate untouchables (sva-paca)(SB. 3.33.7) and aboriginal peoples (SB 2.4.18) to the highestposition of Vedic culture. Furthermore,the specific devotional practice of congregational chanting of the names ofGod, which Caitanya made the centre of his reform movement, is natural andpleasing, and requires no prior qualification, yet it possesses immensepurifying potency.
Thus Caitanya Mahaprabhu offered directentry into what amounts to the private life of God and, by virtue of a processpracticable by all, could liberally extend that offer to the low as well as thehigh, the ignorant as well as the learned, the unworthy as well as the worthy,the fallen as well as the saved. SrilaPrabhupada encapsulated all this into his conjunction 'easy and sublime'.
It must be stressed, however, that'easy' did not mean 'cheap. The 'easy'process was supposed to make one fully qualified for the 'sublime'position. The verifiable symptom ofadvancement in chanting is the disappearance of lust, greed and anger from theheart; full qualification for the higher stages of devotional service iscomplete absence of all material desires (virakti). For example, the conjugal pastimes of Krsnacannot be understood by anyone still affected by mundane sexual desire. Caitanya Mahaprabhu's liberality did not stophim from enforcing very strict standards of conduct among his followers.
This particular mixture of elements,faithfully transplanted by Srila Prabhupada to America,did much to determine the inner tensions that produced the dynamic of ISKCON'sdevelopment in the West.
Preaching to 'White Aborigines'
The demoticthrust of Vaisnava teaching provided theological justification for SrilaPrabhupada's coming to the West - for, by orthodox Hindu standards, allWesterners are ipso facto untouchables. Even so, Srila Prabhupada had initially envisioned his mission asdirected towards the West's political and cultural elite. Several years before his missionary journey,Srila Prabhupada had written in his English translation and commentary on SrimadBhagavatam (League of Devotees: Vrindavan and Delhi, 1962), that the workwas 'a cultural presentation for the re-spiritualisation of the entire humansociety ... meant for bringing about a revolution in the impious life of misdirectedcivilisation of the world'. At thattime, however, he saw such a cultural revolution as coming from above:
We are confident if the transcendental message of SrimadBhagavatam
is received only by the leading men of the world, certainlythere
will be a change of heart and naturally the people in general
will followthem. The mass (of) people in generalare ... tools
in the hands of the modernpoliticians and leaders of the people. If
there is a change of heart of the leaders only, certainly there
willbe a radical change in atmosphere of the world situation (sic.).
Although theAmerican establishment subsequently proved itself immune to the attractions ofKrsna consciousness, Srila Prabhupada unexpectedly found a sympatheticreception among the hippies - 'the spoiled children of society', as he oncecalled them (SB. 4.12.23, purp.) - who had emerged as a group in the year ofSrila Prabhupada's arrival. SrilaPrabhupada was often to note that the hippies were 'our best customers'(Letters of Gaurasundara Dasa, 1969, and Satsvarupa Dasa, 1971). According to Srila Prabhupada, the reason forsuch receptivity was that 'the youth in the West have reached the stage of vairagya,or renunciation. They are practicallydisgusted by material pleasure from material sources'. (SB.6.16.26, purp.). In a 1971 Bhagavad-gitalecture, Srila Prabhupada commented:
... these American boys are fed up withthis materialistic way
of life. They want something spiritual. But because there is
no such information,there is no such leader, they are becoming
hippies, frustrated andconfused. And because here is somethingsubstantial,
they are taking it. This isthe secret of success of this Krsna
In spite ofhaving 'reached renunciation' (SB. 6.16.26, purp.), American youth, for want ofspiritual direction, disastrously took refuge in sex and drugs. The hippies appeared to Srila Prabhupada as'morose' (SB. 4.25.11, purp.), 'distressed', 'wretched', 'unclean', 'withoutshelter or food' (SB. 4,25.5, purp.), 'irresponsibleand unregulated' (SB. 5.6.10, purp.), 'lying idle, without any production' (Bhagavad-gitalecture, 1976), and so on. Whilst at one stage the counterculture made SrilaPrabhupada something of an icon, he remained vigorously opposed to itsstandards and practices, and frequently exhorted his followed to renounce allallegiance to it:
Anyway, we should be very much careful(not) to publish
anything in our paper which will give impression to the publicthat
we are inclined to the hippy (sic.)movement. In our papers nothing
shouldbe published which has even a small tinge of hippy ideas.
I must tell you in this connection that ifyou have any sympathies
with the hippy movement you should kindly give itup. (Letter
toHayagriva Dasa, 1969).
Although it issurprising that Gaudiya Vaishnavism was able to be transplanted into the modernWest at all, that fact that its earliest American followers were largely drawnfrom radically marginalised and alienated youth should not be so unexpected -especially to those acquainted with the history of religions. Although Srila Prabhupada may have hoped formore attention from the establishment, he accepted the receptivity of thehippies as providential, relying on the potency of the holy name - vigorouslypreached - to achieve the requisite effect. Thus the movement increased with extraordinary rapidity.
It may seem strange that someone likePrabhupada, with a message so essentially traditional and conservative, shouldhave attracted such radicalised youth. What was his appeal? Perhaps hissustained and systematic critique of modern material civilisation resonatedstrongly with their own disillusionment? In my opinion, however, the deep attractionwas Srila Prabhupada's ability to implant an extraordinary hope: the ideal ofsainthood as a viable goal of life, a practical vocational aim. Thus the young men and women of the Westbecame convinced they could attain direct experience of God in this life.Although Srila Prabhupada also made it clear that such an achievement demandsan uncompromising standard of purity, his followers were sure that, despite their past actionsand present conditioning, they could, under Srila Prabhupada's guidance,achieve this.
Srila Prabhupada's success inestablishing his beachhead in the counterculture soon produced problems withinhis movement. His early followers were young, immature, untrained andinexperienced. Many of them had sufferedmental, moral and spiritual disorders as a result of their sojourn in thecounterculture - and possibly from post-war American society itself. In short, Srila Prabhupada constructed hismovement out of dubious raw material. Hewas convinced that his efforts were a matter of spiritual life or death, andwas animated by a sense of extreme urgency. In a raging storm one must construct a shelter with whatever comes tohand, although later architects may criticise it. Srila Prabhupada was well aware of thedefects of his handiwork; in writing about his difficulties in managing themovement, he made the following striking statement: 'Krsna did not send me anyfirst-class men. He sent me only secondand third-class men.'
The movement's early explosive growthcreated a further problem. New people,without much material or spiritual maturity, or indeed training, had to assumepositions of leadership and responsibility. For example, I moved into a Philadelphia templein January 1971 and by October I had been made temple president, with twelve tofifteen devotees under my material and spiritual care. My qualifications were that I was slightlyolder than everyone else, had been in regular employment, and had undergone three years ofpost-graduate education. Although I had never managed anything or anyone, and wasstill largely occupied with my own struggles within the disciplined world ofspiritual life, there was no-one else to do the job. I shudder when I remember my performance, but believe this was typicalof ISKCON at the time.
Another difficulty arose from theinter-generational warfare of that era. The typical countercultural trait of contempt for society and all its institutions, was absorbed into ISKCON in its early days(and in some parts remained for a long time). As a result, devotees were often unnecessarily hostile to, and confrontational with, established authorities(including their own parents); when those authorities responded in kind, itexacerbated the problem. In some cases,the countercultural hostility combined with certain elements of the Krsnaconscious philosophy to produce a virulent antinomianism, which culminated inthe disaster at the New Vrindavan community in West Virginia.
In spite these early difficulties,however, the movement grew and developed, with an extraordinary amount ofspiritual discipline available to those who sought it. In retrospect, perhaps, it could be said thatSrila Prabhupada could have halted the expansion of his movement until he hadproperly trained his leaders. I am surehe knew the risks, but it would have been inconceivable to him not to respondas energetically as possible to this God-given opportunity to save souls. He would have seen the positive results aseternal, the negative temporary. For myown part I am deeply grateful for his decision to allow the rapid expansion ofISKCON with all its attendant hazards and shortcomings - it saved me.
Dealing with spiritual failure
It seemed to hisearly followers that Srila Prabhupada offered them something unavailable in thereligions they had been raised in - direct spiritual experience of God (vijnana,or realised knowledge), as opposed to mere doctrinal or 'book' knowledge (jnana). Bhakti-yoga is a spiritual discipline thataims to alter or 'purify' consciousness through deliberate cultivation so thatthe divine can eventually become a reality of immediate perception (pratyaksa). (See Bg. 9.2).
This systematic aim at experientialresults gives bhakti-yoga a common feature with modern material science,and indeed Srila Prabhupada often used the word 'science' to translate vijnana,calling it 'the science of self-realisation'. The practice of such science requires an individual to make themselvesthe subject of an experiment in the progressive purification of consciousness,entailing a fairly rigorous programme of spiritual practices (sadhana)such as rising each day before dawn and spending the first four or five hoursin intense devotional exercises (known as 'the morning programme'). During this time, two hours is set aside forindividual chanting on beads in fulfilment of a daily commitment to repeat theHare Krsna mantra 1,728 times.
Another requirement is the strictobservation of what Srila Prabhupada termed 'the four regulative principles offreedom'. Firstly, not to consume meat, fish or eggs that, in its most rigorousunderstanding, means that only food first sanctified and offered to Krsnashould be eaten by devotees. The second, not taking intoxicants, means eschewing even the milderanodynes such as tea and chocolate. The third, not to gamble, excludes participating not only in wageringand games of chance but also in perceived time-wasting diversions such assports, cinema, television etc. Finally, the injunction against illicit sexforbids not only sex outside of wedlock but even within marriage if notexclusively intended for procreation; for that purpose, sex can be engaged inonce a month, within the period of the woman's fertility. The goal is this latter prohibition is forthe individual to go through life with the minimum involvement in sexualactivity, whether in thought, speech or deed.
Srila Prabhupada made it starkly clearthat self-realisation and sense-gratification are mutually exclusive, and herefused to compromise on this matter. Hisfollowers tended to attribute the lifeless, dispirited condition of theroutinised religions of their childhood precisely to institutionalaccommodations to sense-gratification. Consequently, the stringency of ISKCON's regulative principles became,to many, a hallmark of the movement's validity and an attractive, rather thanrepellent, factor.
In addition, the emphasis on stringentdevotional practice was closely linked to a charismatic outpouring ofenthusiasm, manifest especially during sankirtana (group chanting of thenames of God while dancing to the rhythm of drums and cymbals, either within atemple or in public places). Sankirtanis said to be the yuga-dharma (dispensation) for this age, andillustrates the ability of devotional activities to produce an intenseconcentration of consciousness through the expressive engagement of the sensesand feelings - a fundamental principle of bhakti-yoga.
The compelling energy generated by sankirtana,which easily engenders a contagious enthusiasm and sense of exaltation, isgreatly boosted in the participants by the affective channelling caused by theasceticism of the regulative principles. Conversely, the ability of sankirtan and arcana (Deityworship) to engage one's feelings and senses can make adherence to theprinciples a natural displacement of material activities with spiritual ones,rather than just an exercise in barren abnegation. Not only did young people vigorously committhemselves to the regulative principles with great self-confidence, therefore,but they also rallied around them as a kind of shibboleth - a distinctive,validating feature of ISKCON that set it apart from the other new religiousmovements from the East that were appearing at that time, and from the moretraditional mainstream Western denominations.
From the beginning, ISKCON has excelledin instilling in its members an extremely high ideal: that of a 'pure devoteeof Krsna', one totally engaged in God's service without any personal motive andwithout interruption. Such a standard was visibly exemplified by SrilaPrabhupada himself, an acarya (or model), for all to follow. It was understood that initiated devoteesmust strictly observe the regulative principles and conform themselves to thisstandard, if not out of spontaneous love for God, at least out of dutifulobedience to the commands of scripture and guru.
It is only natural to expect that itwould was a great and often protracted struggle for young men and women, raisedin the lax and increasingly permissive moral climate of urbanised, secularAmerica, to live up to their newly-adopted standard. Yet in the early days of ISKCON, suchdifficulties were not easily acknowledged. The shibbolethic role played by the regulative principles, and the factthat taking initiation was the only acceptable means of socialisation withinISKCON, made strict following of these principles a sine qua non ofallegiance to Srila Prabhupada. At thesame time, members who were themselves fairly new, looked for validation byseeking and producing swift conversions, entailing, in the devotee's mind, acomplete break with society and total immersion in the culture of an ISKCONtemple.
The temples became filled withpremature and tentative candidates, who were under enormous internal andexternal pressure to profess a degree of commitment far in excess of thereality. Furthermore, the lack of maturedevotees - who had successfully passed through the trials of spiritual development- left most of the movement without experienced, practical guides andcounsellors. All these factors combinedto produce in the movement an inability to deal in a healthy and constructivemanner, with the spiritual failings and failures of its members.
These problems were barelyacknowledged, let alone discussed. ISKCON's prevailing climate at that time discouraged any frank and openconfession of difficulty in following the principles, not only at aninstitutional level but quite often on a personal one as well. For example, soon after I joined the temple Iconfided my own problems to a slightly more senior devotee, hoping forforgiveness, practical advice, sympathy and encouragement; instead my'confessor' showed alarm, astonishment and anger, sternly delivering the judgementthat I 'could not be a devotee'. Suchexperiences seem to have been all too typical. Concealment, the unfortunate by-product of anyreligious group with a high demand for sanctity, surfaced, manifesting itselfin bluffing, hypocrisy, intolerance, fanaticism, punctiliousness, fault-findingand the substitution of minor virtues for major ones. Devotees became isolated from each other, andreal fellowship was baffled.
A steady stream of members joined themovement, and an equally steady stream left. In ISKCON jargon, they 'blooped' (fell back into illusion). All too often the exit scenario was the same:without any forewarning, the devotee would simply disappear in the middle ofthe night. Sometimes this would be preceded by a period of withdrawal anddepression, but often there would no clue at all. A close inquiry would subsequently disclose afew devotees who had ascertained that the 'blooper' had been having problemsfollowing the principles. Not being able to bring himselfto admit it, his sense of isolation and guilt drove him from thecommunity. In the early days, such departures tended to create a community crisis and was seenas a betrayal. It rocked the faith ofmany members, whose own hold on Krsna consciousness was none too strong, andsometimes the departing devotee was covertly envied. A communal post-mortem was usually heldafter such departures, in which the faults and shortcomings of the missingdevotee were analysed and condemned to the point at which the remaining membersfelt more secure about themselves and their values. To the bewilderment, and frequentlyannoyance, of the remaining temple residents, many 'blooped' devotees did nottotally vanish. They would instead establish some sort of contact with a templemember, becoming part of the social network of other former templeresidents. They would show up regularlyat the Sunday feast and other public functions. One temple resident referred to them as 'the shadow of ISKCON'; themovement itself called them 'fringies' (a term rarely heard these days).
Due to the anger and resentment manytemple devotees felt towards the fringies, the treatment they received wasoften unfriendly, with cutting or sarcastic remarks being directed at them. At best, temple residents were indifferent as'you could not preach to fringies'. Inthis context, 'preaching' meant persuading someone to join the temple communityand the fringies were inoculated against such appeals; they maintained an allegianceto Krsna consciousness but had stabilised themselves on what the templeresidents considered an unsatisfactory platform, usually compromising to somedegree with one or more of the regulative principles and participating in areduced or irregular programme of devotional service.
Over the years, the population offringies steadily increased, but ISKCON leaders and temple devotees did notacknowledge any duty or obligation towards them, nor give much validity totheir continued allegiance. Theyrepresented failure, and the establishment wanted simply to disown them. It is only over the last seven years or so -and at varying rates at different locations - that the ISKCON leadership beganto recognise the fringies as a genuine congregation to whom the temple shouldminister. This belated acknowledgementillustrates ISKCON's unwillingness to confront the widespread failure of itsmembership to maintain a long-term commitment to its own standards of spiritualpurity.
However, the movement as a whole wasforced to face the problem when the fall-down of a number of senior members whohad taken on the role of initiating gurus after Srila Prabhupada died in 1997,finally led to a crisis. The gurus wereall sannyasis, who had taken final and supposedly irrevocable vows ofcelibacy and renunciation, and their fall from these standards become thepivotal event, with almost ninety per cent of those taking sannyasa vows failing tomaintain them.
A few years earlier, in 1969, threehouseholder couples (grhasthas) had successfully launched the Hare Krsnamovement in London. Impressed by this, SrilaPrabhupada encouraged marriage as a matter of policy. He explained his positionin a 1971 Bhagavad-gita lecture in Bombay:
... Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Maharaja Prabhupada (Srila Prabhupada'sspiritual
master) ... was creating more brahmacaris and sannyasis
forpreaching work, but I am creating more grhastas,
because in Europe andAmerica the boys and girls intermingle so
quickly and intimately that it isvery difficult to keep one brahmacari. So
there is no need of artificial brahmacaris ... So married life
iscalled grhastha-asrama. It is asgood as sannyasa-asrama.
Asramameans where this is bhagavad-bhajan (glorification
of God). It doesn't matter whether one is sannyasior one
is grhastha or a brahmacari. The main principle
is bhagavad-bhajana. But practically also, I may inform
you thatthese married couples, they are helping me very much ...
For practical example,I may say that one of my Godbrothers, a
sannyasi, he was deputed (in the1930s) to go to London
for starting a temple, but three or four years heremained there,
he could not execute the will (of his spiritual master);therefore
he was called back. Now, Isent (three) married couples. All
ofthem are present here. And they workedso nicely that within
one year we started our London temple, andthat is going on very
nicely. So it isnot the question of brahmacari, sannyasi
or grhastha ...One who knows the science of Krsna and preaches
allover the world, he is guru, spiritual master. It doesn't matter.
So in Europe and America Iam especially creating more grhasthas,
families, so that they can takeup this movement very seriously
and preach, and I am glad to inform you thatthis process has become
When I joinedISKCON, therefore, it was assumed that everyone would become married, andindeed, devotees were urged to do so. Marriages were arranged, usually without courtship, and each had to beapproved by Srila Prabhupada. However,as early as 1971, Srila Prabhupada was becoming concerned, as illustrated inthe following extract from a letter to one of his leaders, Hridayananda:
So far as R― getting himself married, you must first discusswith
him that this marriage business is not a farce, but it must be
taken veryseriously. There is no question ofdivorce, and if he
will promise not to separate from his wife, then my sanctionfor
the marriage is there; otherwise not. Recently too many couples
have been drifting into Maya's waters,and it is very discouraging.
So if hewill agree on these points, then you can perform the marriage
SrilaPrabhupada's disenchantment with the outcome of marriages continued toincrease. Finally, in 1974, he simplyrefused to sanction any further marriages. (In my temple there were nomarriages between devotees for nearly a year, after which they were performedunder my sanction with civil ceremonies). Srila Prabhupada's policy seemed to change as a result of hisdiscouragement. At this time, householder life began to undergo a radicaldevaluation throughout ISKCON. Scriptural statements condemning married life as 'a dark well' etc.,became prominently quoted. Male devoteeswere strongly urged to remain celibate, that now seemed the norm, and sannyasawas seen as a reward for achievement. The number of men initiated into the sannyasa asaramadramatically increased. A genuine desire for transcendence, often combined withthe urge to acquire prestige, position and power within the institution,propelled most of these young men into a rash and improvident decision. The persistence of desires they could neither acknowledge or control started to manifest asintolerance and fanaticism.
The social climate began to turn ugly.Some of these sannyasis embarked on preaching campaigns againsthouseholders and even more so against women, whose life in the movement at thistime became extremely trying. In 1976, aclash between householder temple presidents in Americaand a powerful association of peripatetic sannyasis and brahmacarisescalated into a conflict so major that Srila Prabhupada called it a'fratricidal war'. As one would expect,over the long run many of these young sannyasis found it impossible tomaintain their vows. There was a steady,even growing, exodus. In most cases, anextreme sense of disgrace and shame, amplified by the merciless condemnation ofthe sannyasi community, propelled these devotees into exile into thefringe or beyond.
Although the hostility between grhasthasand sannyasis became well-known through scandalised gossip, the movementcould not bring itself to collectively acknowledge the scope and significanceof the problem. This was more or lessthe state of affairs when Srila Prabhupada died in November 1977, and ISKCONwas transferred to the hands of his students, none of whom had had more than adozen years of training.
Eleven select members of the GoverningBody Commission (GBC) were elevated to the position of initiating guru (the twohouseholders among them quickly persuaded to take sannyasa). However, the empowerment of the nextgeneration did nothing to abrogate the number of sannyasis falling down,a trend that did not spare the group of new gurus. Within ten years of assuming the role ofliving exemplars and via media to God for thousands of new devotees, six ofthem had quite spectacularly plummeted, and ISKCON's survival was in doubt.
The crisis ofauthority within ISKCON that finally led, in 1987, to a restructuring of theposition of guru, was not exclusively due to the spiritual and materialimmaturity of the leaders - although this serious enough in itself. Rather, these shortcomings were linked - bothas cause and effect - to a profound 'structural' problem within ISKCON.
The position of initiating guru withinISKCON had become institutionalised after Prabhupada's death. Problems arose when the conception of guruwas implicitly based on a traditional model of an inspired, charismatic,spiritual autocrat, an absolute and autonomously decisive authority, with theinstitution becoming a natural extension and embodiment of this person. Indeed, Srila Prabhupada was himself such aguru. However, as far back as 1970, Srila Prabhupada had worked diligently toestablish a different sort of leadership structure in ISKCON, one which herepeatedly emphasised would continue after him. Called the Governing BodyCommission (GBC), this management structure was modelled on a typical corporateentity - the board of directors. The practical and philosophical problem facingISKCON after Prabhupada's demise was how did gurus, who are - according tofundamental Vaisnava theology - God's direct representatives and therefore tobe worshipped by their disciples 'on an equal level with God', fit within anorganisation functioning through modern rational and legal modes under thedirection of a committee. AlthoughISKCON's leadership crisis was precipitated by the fall-downs and deviations ofseveral of its gurus, this was largely resolved by a structural revision of theinstitutionalisation of gurus in the Society.
On 28 May 1977, during what was to be Srila Prabhupada'sterminal illness, the GBC deputised a committee of seven members to questionSrila Prabhupada about the delicate matter of guru succession: how would thefunction of initiating guru be carried out after Srila Prabhupada's departure.In response, Srila Prabhupada said he would select some disciples toimmediately begin performing all the activities involved in giving initiation -approving the candidate, chanting on the beads, giving the name, etc. These devotees would act as officiatingpriests (ritviks) on Srila Prabhupada's behalf. After Srila Prabhupada's death, however,those same officiating priests would, if qualified, become gurus in their ownright, with any devotees initiated by them becoming their own disciples andSrila Prabhupada beingthese disciples' grand-spiritual master.
In July 1977, Srila Prabhupada selectedeleven members of the GBC (then twenty in number) to begin acting asofficiating gurus. The GBC thusunderstood Srila Prabhupada to have chosen the first initiating gurus tosucceed him.
After Srila Prabhupada died in November1977, the eleven members became - extraordinarily quickly - elevated above allother devotees in ISKCON (even the remaining GBC members). They formed a special sub-committee withinthe GBC, which had jurisdiction on all matters concerning gurus and initiation,including the exclusive power to deal with any problems concerning gurus and toappoint new ones.
In every temple room, an elevated seat(vyasasana) that represented the spiritual authority of its occupier, was reserved for Srila Prabhupada. After his death, most temples installed a life-sizestatue of Prabhupada on the vyasasana. During themorning programme. Srila Prabhupada was honoured with a ceremony called guru-puja,during which devotees would gather at the vyasasana and sing atraditional hymn of praise to the guru while a priest performed the formal aratiservice. However, at the same time thePrabhupada statues were installed, two new lower vyasasanas were also put inplace next to Prabhupada's, from where the new gurus received daily pujuat the same time as Prabhupada. The oneon Prabhupada's right was consecrated to the exclusive use of the local zonal acarya,whereas the left-hand one was the 'guest vyasasana', for use by otherinitiating gurus who visited the temple.
Srila Prabhupada had organised the GBCso that each member was responsible for the movement's activities in aparticular geographical area or 'zone'. With the advent of the new gurus, these twenty or so zones became partof eleven larger zones, each headed by one of the initiating gurus. Each zone would consist of the geographicarea the guru had managed as a GBC member and, in most cases, the zone(s) ofother GBC members who were not initiating gurus. To all new recruits, the local zonal acaryawas presented as 'the' spiritual master. Although in principle a new devotee was free to choose his initiatingguru, formidable social and institutional pressures usually directed his choiceto a particular 'zone'. Typically, a devotee strongly attracted to takinginitiation from a guru outside his own geographical location would be relocatedto that guru's zone.
The zonal acarya exercised greatde facto power, and the relationship between the guru and the GBC (bothindividually and collectively) soon became a difficult and troublingissue. In fact, many devotees believedthat Srila Prabhupada had established two authority structures - the GBC andthe gurus. Indeed the gurus - with their status as 'sacred persons' constantlyemphasised by formal deference and ceremonial honours, and their growing numbersof personal devotees - quickly eclipsed the GBC. Many of the gurus felt that the GBC was atemporary, ad hoc expedient until the movement could be unified under thecharismatic leadership of a single 'self-effulgent' acarya, who wouldemerge among the gurus in due course of time. Furthermore, they felt that the essential characteristic of a guru asthe representative of God on earth and therefore the absolute authority, was vitiated by the give-and-take of collegialrelations among the GBC. Indeed, it was at one point officially stated that forthe sake of the movement's unity and harmony, the gurus had 'voluntarily' setaside the natural exercise of their absolute authority and accepted therelatively of working with the GBC.
It is interesting to note that the trueposition of the guru was most honestly proclaimed to devotees in symbolicterms, rather than explicit verbal utterance; for example, the installation oftwin vasayanas in the temple, a system which was established without anyclear articulation of its meaning. Indeed, I am convinced that even those who initiated this procedure werenot fully conscious of what they were doing, but were acting more on instinctor intuition. In fact, the question ofwhy there were two extra vyasasanas rather than just one was not raiseduntil the reform movement in 1985. Itsubsequently transpired that the vyasasana reserved for the sole use ofthe zonal acarya symbolised the seat of that guru as the head of theinstitution, the traditional absolute and autocratic guru of Hinduism. It was essentially that particular conceptionof the role of guru which was in conflict with the GBC system of management setup by Srila Prabhupada.
The Sanskrit word acarya wascommonly used in ISKCON as a designation for the initiating gurus, although theword itself has several meanings. Thisambiguity became the source of much difficulty. Its most basic meaning, 'onewho teaches by example', is synonymous with guru. However, acarya tendsto convey a more honorific sense. Outstanding teachers, leaders and founders ofinstitutions typically have the title acarya incorporated into theirnames - Sankaracarya, Madhvacarya, Ramanujacarya, etc. - and the word isspecifically used to denote a guru who resides at the head of an institution.
In this latter sense, acaryarepresents a prominent and traditional form of religious leadership in India,in which a single, charismatic individual attracts others to him and by anatural process an institution forms around him, which becomes a personalextension or embodiment of that individual. (Srila Prabhupada is often quoted as saying that ISKCON was 'hisbody'). The viability and spiritualcredibility of the institution is largely a function of the perceived spiritualpotency of the acarya. In India,the current acarya would appoint his successor from among his followers,and in this way the charisma would be transferred. Upon the demise of his predecessor, thesuccessor acarya was ritually elevated over all other disciples(godbrothers) of his guru, and they would thereafter bring new members to himfor initiation.
ISKCON, however, represents a departurefrom this archaic form of organisation. Srila Prabhupada repeatedly stressedhis intention that ISKCON would not, after his death be managed by a single acarya,but rather by a board of directors (the GBC), that he formed and began to trainin 1970. Srila Prabhupada's intention,and his departure from the 'institutional acarya', is shown in astriking way in his will. Traditionally,it was in the first article of his will that an acarya named hissuccessor, passing on his institution to the heir as if it were personalproperty. However, the first paragraphof Srila Prabhupada's will reads: 'The Governing Body Commission (GBC) will bethe ultimate managing authority for the entire International Society for KrsnaConsciousness.' (Governing Body Commission has a distinctly British ring,revealing the colonial provenance of the phrase. Indeed, it was the title of the board ofdirectors of that great British contribution to India,the Indian Railway).
With its corporate form oforganisation, ISKCON thus represents the modernisation of a religioustradition; it is the culmination of several generations of effort and was noteasily accomplished. BhaktivinodeThakura (1838-1914) was the first acarya of the tradition to receive awestern-style education and to write in English. A visionary, he saw a reformed andrevitalised Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition operating as a unified, worldwidepreaching mission. He instilled thisvision in his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (1874-1937), wholater became Srila Prabhupada's guru. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati subsequently constructed a preaching mission calledthe Gaudiya Matha in over sixty centres throughout India. During the 1930s, he tried to push beyond theboundaries of India in the by sending a missionary sannyasi to Europe (but without muchsuccess). The Gaudiya Matha was a large,vital and growing concern, yet soon after the demise of its founder, theorganisation fragmented. SrilaPrabhupada explains how this happened:
Such disagreement among the disciples of one acarya is alsofound among the members of the Gaudiya Matha. In the beginning, during thepresence of Om Visnupada Paramahamsa Parivrajakacarya Astottara-sata Sri SrimadBhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada, all the disciples worked inagreement, but after his disappearance, they disagreed. One party strictly followed the instructionsof Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, but another group created their ownconcoction about executing his desires. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, atthe time of his departure, requested all his disciples to form a governing bodyand conduct missionary activities co-operatively. He did no instruct a particular man to becomethe next acarya. But just afterhis passing away, his leading secretaries made plans, without authority, tooccupy the post of acarya, and they split in two factions over who thenext acarya would be. Consequently, both factions were asara, oruseless, because they had no authority, having disobeyed the order of thespiritual master. Despite the spiritual master's order to form a governing bodyand execute the missionary activities of the Gaudiya Matha, the twounauthorised factions began litigation that is still going on after forty yearswith no decision. (Caitanya-caritamrta,Adi-lila, 12.8, purp.).
Other accounts,from Gaudiya Math sources, say that the GBC was formed and operated for a whilebefore the attempt to establish an acarya at the head of the institutionshattered the organisation. In any case,it is clear that the previous generation came to grief on the same issue thatconfronted ISKCON: forming a unified preaching mission that did not depend onthe direction of any one individual but rather on a collegial body, functioningco-operatively. Indeed, the acaryafirst established over the main body of the Gaudiya Math suffered the same fateas that which befell a number of the ISKCON acaryas - after being raisedso high, he deviated from the principles of Krsna consciousness. From Srila Prabhupada's perspective, allthese spiritual problems must be considered as the consequence of thedisciples' disobedience of the order of the spiritual master.
As the Gaudiya Math had failed, SrilaPrabhupada had to work independently, establishing his own society and becomingits sole acarya as opposed to one of many missionaries and preacherswithin a unified Gaudiya mission. Srila Prabhupada saw his position as theautonomous guru at the head of ISKCON as a second best arrangement, theconsequence of failure.
Learning from that failure, SrilaPrabhupada set up a governing body and watched over its operations as it triedto manage the Society. For example, in1975 he guided the body through its first annual meeting, emphasising adherenceto strict parliamentary procedure (as set forth in Roberts' Rules of Order). He demonstrated how proposals should be put forward,discussed and voted upon (Srila Prabhupada himself voted on each item), and howto enter agreed proposals into the minute book. As time passed, he tried to turn as much of the management as possibleover to the GBC, intervening only when there were crises. He ensured the whole movement understood thatthe GBC was being trained to continue at the head of ISKCON after he was gone.
After Prabhupada's departure, the GBCcontinued to manage ISKCON and no-one tried to establish a single acarya. Yet, the division of the Society intoprivate initiating zones, the installation of the exclusive vyasasanaand the ritual elevation of the gurus far above their own god-brothers, hadimplicitly established eleven institutional acaryas, each bearing the samerelationship to his zone as Srila Prabhupara had borne to the entire movement.
The manner in which the first elevenwere selected as gurus became interpreted in accordance with the paradigm ofthe acarya's appointment of a successor to the head of hisinstitution. For example a book ofhomage to one of the new gurus, published in 1979, stated: 'Desiring to preparehis disciples for his departure, His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada very wiselyselected eleven of his most intimate disciples to become both his material andspiritual successors.'
At the same time, a growing number ofSrila Prabhupada's disciples felt there was something wrong with the positionof new gurus in ISKCON. Many felt theirgod-brothers - or most of them, anyway - were unqualified for such aposition. Yet when several acaryasbegan to engage in questionable or even scandalous behaviour, the GBC haddifficulty in establishing its right to exercise authority over the gurus whowere seen, after all, as Srila Prabhupada's hand-picked successors.
After two gurus, Hamsadutta andJayatirtha, were expelled from ISKCON, many Prabhupada disciples were inconstant anxiety, fearing it was only a matter of time before one or more ofthe remaining acaryas deviated. ACalifornia-based group began circulating papers around the movement declaringthat none of Srila Prabhupada's disciples was fit to be an acarya. They refused to believe that Srila Prabhupadacould have hand-picked any of these (to them) obviously unqualified people, andargued that the archival tape recording of conversation held on 27 May, 1977,had been doctored by the gurus themselves. This group proposed that no-oneshould be initiated in ISKCON until the 'self-effulgent acarya'emerged. The idea of putting allinitiations on indefinite hold did not appeal to most devotees, however, andthe group eventually dissolved.
However, the notion that ISKCON neededa 'self-effulgent acarya' to adequately lead it became the sharedpresupposition of what I would describe as the extreme right and extremeleft. The extreme right constitutedthose partisans who fervently believed that one or other of the current zonal acaryaswas indeed the awaited 'self-effulgent acarya', lacking only fullrecognition to take his place as Srila Prabhupada's legal successor, arecognition unfortunately thwarted by 'ambitious and enviousgod-brothers'. The extreme leftcomprised those who felt that none of Srila Prabhupada's disciples was qualifiedto be an acarya, and until such a spontaneously recognised - or'self-effulgent' - person emerged, no-one should claim to be a guru in his ownright.
In the autumn of 1984 a routine meeting of the temple presidents of North America led to acollective and public acknowledgement that nearly everyone held deep privatemisgivings about the manner in which the position of guru had been establishedin ISKCON. They organised an immediatesecond meeting, to further consider the issue, and thus the 'guru reformmovement' was born. With the engagementof a significant number of second-tier leaders, men whose loyalty to ISKCON wasnot in doubt, a credible and potent movement was established. The majority of North American templepresidents believed something was drastically wrong, yet there was no clearidea of exactly what it was. At the second meeting, I was assigned the task ofpreparing a research paper which would precisely indicate what had gone wrongin the establishment of the gurus.
During my research, I discovered a 1978letter written to a GBC member by Pradyuma Dasa, a scholarly devotee who hadbeen Srila Prabhupada's assistant in his translation work and who was familiarwith Vaisnava traditions. The letter spelled out objections to the newlyestablished guru system and provided the clue as to the precise problem. Building on Pradyuma's insight, I was able topresent a paper that combined analysis and polemics to argue that in violationof the wishes of Srila Prabhupada, the traditional position of the'institutional acarya' had been established in ISKCON and that this acaryasystem was essentially in conflict with the GBC system so carefullyestablished by Srila Prabhupada. This paper received the endorsement of theNorth American temple presidents.
By this time, the 'reform movement' hadbroadened among Prabhupada's disciples, far beyond the core group of the templepresidents. To many in that movement, the vital issue was not one of structurebut of spiritual qualifications, or rather the perceived lack of them., in the present gurus. As a leader of the reform movement, however, I tried to focus ourpolitical effort to rectify the structural problem.
I was not blind to the spiritualshortcomings of some of the gurus. Ieven recognised that the structural problem was in part an institutionalisationof a serious spiritual defect - that is, unacknowledged personal ambition insome of ISKCON's leaders. However, itwas clear to me that the gurus held no monopoly on spiritual deficiency. I was not sure that the reform movement wasthat much purer - as many of the attacks on gurus were weighted by a generousload of envy, vengefulness and resentment. In my view, what had gone wrong in ISKCON constituted a collective judgementon all of Srila Prabhupada's disciples. After all, it is Vaisnava doctrine that oneadvances by the grace of guru, and the guru's grace is equally available to allhis disciples. Those who became gurus were among Srila Prabhupada's 'best men'. If they were not good enough, each critic hadto ask himself: 'Why wasn't I any better?' Thus the first part of 'guru reform' had to be personal reformation, arenewed dedication to the cultivation of spiritual life by all of SrilaPrabhupada's disciples, reformers most of all. It would not do to try to purify ISKCON without purifying oneself.
Among those who focused on the lack ofqualified people to be gurus, some thought the solution was to devise a way tocontinue the movement and yet eliminate as far as possible, the position ofguru. Initiations would continue, butthe guru would be considered an apprentice or merely a formal ecclesiasticalfunction. However, I felt these people were proposing an essential change inthe tradition, not merely an adaptation to new circumstances. Typically, this group also awaited the comingof the 'self-effulgent acarya' to lead ISKCON, which, in the interim,would make do with semi- or demi-gurus. Captivated by the image of the acarya as an absolute and decisiveauthority, whose judgements were indubitably correct, and needing such a personfor their own spiritual security, the give-and-take of a collegial body did notappeal to them any more than it appealed to most of the gurus they ostensiblyopposed.
It was my conviction that we couldretain in ISKCON the fully-fledged position of guru, as delineated by theScriptures, a position that did not essentially involve being the autonomousautocratic head of an institution, disallow discussion, consultation, revisionand adjustment, and did not forbid collegial decision-making as a kind of lesemajeste.
The zonal acarya position hadasserted that it was intrinsic to the position of guru to be absolute, and thatthe gurus would voluntarily sacrifice that position for the sake of themovement. This implied that by workingwith the GBC the gurus were doing something unnatural or artificial, and ofcourse their 'voluntary sacrifice' seemed increasingly pro forma. To counter this conception of the guru, Iargued that it was necessary for the bona fide guru to be relative. After all, Vaisnava doctrine holds that theessential qualifying characteristic of a guru is that he follows the order ofhis own guru. He never becomes the master, but always remains the servant. Consequently, to be qualified as a guru inISKCON it was essential to strictly follow the order of Srila Prabhupada, whohad decreed that all devotees must serve co-operatively under the authority ofthe GBC. Accepting the authority of theGBC board was not a voluntary option - because it was Srila Prabhupada's order,it was necessary to guru-hood itself.
The first effort of the 'guru reformmovement' was to urge a strengthening commitment to spiritual purification oneveryone's part. The second effort wasto persuade the GBC to dismantle the 'zonal acarya system' efficientlyand decisively. The reform movement wasable to put forward two proposals to the GBC, which, taken together, woulddismantle the system. The first was to makethe process of receiving authorisation to initiate radically more open.Initially, the 'initiating acarya standing committee' had the power toappoint new gurus; in 1982, it was changed to a three-fourths vote of theGBC. Until 1986, only six new gurus hadbeen added (and two removed).
From my perspective, the central intentof this proposal was to eliminate a de facto 'property requirement' forbecoming an initiating guru. Since aguru had to have his exclusive initiating zone, one or more of the establishedgurus had to lose territory to create a zone for any new gurus. Such a major change, sometimes entailing themigration of large numbers of disciples, required negotiations at the highestlevel. In addition, many gurus were reluctant to shrink the area of theirauthority. The paradigm of theinstitutional acarya envisioned a zone unified and made coherent by acommon devotion and submission to a single person. The guru zones became more unified thanISKCON as a whole, which was increasingly fragmenting, turning into a kind ofamphictyony of independently empowered leaders. In contrast, the reformmovement envisioned ISKCON temples in which the disciples of many differentgurus could work together for their common cause. This could be achieved only by eliminatingthe implicit property requirement for being a guru, through opening up theauthorising process and increasing the number of gurus.
The second proposal was simply thatthere should be only one other vyasasana other than Srila Prabhupada'sin ISKCON temples, and any of the initiating gurus could sit on it. Thisproposal abolished the exclusive vyasasana, the symbol of the zonal acarya'ssovereignty. It is a characteristic ofreligions that symbols and that which they represent are tightly unified; theycould be said to interpenetrate. I realised therefore that if the symbol of thesystem was removed, it would go far to eliminate the system; its removal was anecessary, if insufficient, condition for the destruction of the reality. Theproposal also dealt with a difficulty within the reform movement itself. There was little agreement on what to doabout the rituals involving the gurus, and a particularly militant segmentwanted badly to remove all symbols of spiritual authority from them. Removing the exclusive vyasasana receiveda consensus and satisfied the need to rectify the rituals, but it left thefurther issue of guru-ritual until later. It was surgically precise; it would do the job.
Both proposals were eventually put intoeffect by the GBC. There are now over fifty initiating gurus in ISKCON, all ofthem serving under GBC direction and fully accountable to the GBC. ISKCON regulations go out of their way toassure that new members are able to freely decide who their guru will be, andmost temples have a diverse mix of disciples of different gurus workingtogether. I believe we now have amovement organised the way Srila Prabhupada wanted it. That by itself does not guarantee purity ofits members, but it is a necessary condition for it.
It has taken time for confidence inISKCON to be restored. The reform movement was consolidated in 1987, when fourmore fallen or deviated gurus were removed and fifteen new members were electedto the GBC, among them leaders of the reform movement. For a number of devotees, the loss of faithin ISKCON leadership and the spectacular fall of six gurus, called intoquestion their faith in Srila Prabhupada, although such a doubt was usuallyunacknowledged and unarticulated. Theycould not believe Srila Prabhupada had intended the original eleven to begurus, and the 'appointment tape' continued to be reinterpreted. The left-wing challenge to gurus hasundergone two further incarnations, resting on conspiracy theories, stories ofsuppressed instructions of Srila Prabhupada, whom they claim wanted the'officiating guru' system to continue after his demise, so that Prabhupada(contrary to all Vaisnava teaching) would continue to initiate disciplesposthumously. These stories have beencrafted to get Prabhupada 'off the hook'.
There is a failure to appreciate theproblem Srila Prabhupada faced in his last days. We can be sure that he knew his own disciplesbetter than they knew themselves; he had no illusions about their spiritualqualification. Yet they were pressingfor a selection of successor gurus, the ultimate position for the ambitious.Hamsadutta and Kirtanananda had already been rebuked by Srila Prabhupada forreceiving guru-puja in the presence of the spiritual master, a serioustransgression. Without any indicationfrom Srila Prabhupada in this manner, there would have been chaos. Yet Srila Prabhupada clearly did not want togive his sanction to unfit people, a spiritual error. He therefore selected them withoutendorsement. In response to the questionof initiation after departure, Srila Prabhupada gave a list of 'officiatinggurus', designating them in an indirect or oblique manner. He expected them to become 'regular gurus' inthe future, but there was no 'hand-picking of successors', no laying of handsand anointing with oil, no transfer of power to some special and exclusivegroup. Srila Prabhupada also knew thatsome, like Kirtanananda, would initiate with or without his sanction, so henamed them. If he had not, there wouldlikely have been a schism in 1978 instead of 1987. I feel that SrilaPrabhupada's solution was brilliant, the best that could have been done underthe circumstances. The result woulddepend on Krsna.
I have come to recognise that whatISKCON had to achieve, through much conflict and suffering, was no easything. The problem is to take an ancientreligious tradition, long isolated from the impact of modernity, and retrofitit for the modern world, while at the same time transplanting it from itsnative soil into multiple outside cultures and civilisations - all withoutvitiating or distorting its essential practices and doctrines. The process has been the endeavour of twogenerations, and is far from complete.
I joined ISKCON for spiritual life andnothing else. At the time, I did not know what would become of that part of myself that was an academically trained scholar ofreligion. However, Krsna has both usedand instructed that part, giving me a ringside seat to a fascinating process ofdynamic religious growth and change. Mylife in ISKCON has had unsurpassably wonderful times and abysmal torment anddread, but in any case not one day has failed to be consummately interesting.
Our work of reform and renewal continues. It has to be perpetual. As part of that work, ISKCON is beginning to look back at itself engaging in its own process of honestly coming to terms with its past. Only by so doing can it have a viable and progressive future.
Delivered as a lecture at the 'Twenty-five years of ISKCON in Germany' Conference organised by the Vaisnava Academy in Bonn, and held in Wiesbaden, Germany on 29 January, 1994.