As this is the centenary year of Shrila Prabhupada's birth (ISKCON's
founder and acarya), we have decided to print a number of articles
about Shrila Prabhupada's work. The following article by Larry Shinn
provides us with an examination of Shrila Prabhupada as a mahatma,
his faith in the Lord, his sadhana, his erudition and his role in
the tradition. Significantly, it also explains the value of his
profound teaching by his personal example and how it cannot be imitated
by his followers. Shinn argues, consistent with everything Shrila
Prabhupada stood for, that the standards of personal devotion and
sädhana set by ISKCON's founder-acärya must be met by any member
who wants to inherit the kind of spiritual authority he possessed;
the position of guru is not befitting those unable to follow in
the footsteps of the previous acäryas as acärya means one who teaches
In India, the term mahatma, or "great-souled one",
is reserved for the exceptional person whose integrity as a religious,
or even political, leader stems from an inner purity or spirituality
that is expressed in all of their actions. When a person exhibits
an extraordinary piety reflecting a basic fidelity between their
daily actions and their religious claims, they are considered "great-souled".
Such was the case with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was often called
simply "The Mahatma". Allowing for the obvious idiosyncrasies
and failings of all humans, Gandhi was an exceptional proponent
of non-violence who remained a public leader in South Africa and
India for more than fifty years because of his personal and spiritual
integrity in living a non-violent life. When a person with such
spiritual power and personal integrity exercises influence over
a large number of people, they are popularly called "charismatic".
Such also was the case with Gandhi.
However, not all such persons gain the wide renown of Gandhi, even
when they exhibit such consistency of spiritual intentions and actions.
Such a person was Abhay Charan De, who became better known as A.
C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, the spiritual founder of the International
Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Though virtually all
of those who met Prabhupada attest to his spiritual fidelity and
integrity, few outside of ISKCON have claimed for him the title
of mahatma or the personal attribute of "charisma".
In these brief reflections, I will suggest that Prabhupada was "great-souled"
and "charismatic". I will then suggest that it was the
failure of his eleven early successors to understand fully the issues
surrounding fidelity of spirit and action that led many of them
astray. It seems to me that a brighter future for leaders in ISKCON
in America and elsewhere lies in an understanding of Prabhupäda's
personal spiritual legacy.
Whether one is born in a humble home with few religious pretensions
or as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, spiritual maturity is
a hard-won attainment. No person is born with the depth of spirituality
of a mahätma. Such clearly was the case with Abhay Charan
De. His early childhood hardly prefigured the powerful religious
person he was to become. His embrace of his family's Krishna faith
was tepid at best in his early years; indeed, he tells us that he
was very reluctant even to meet with Bhaktisiddhanta, his eventual
spiritual master. When Abhay began to express interest in his childhood
Krishna faith, his wife did not share his enthusiasm. The story
of his own growing faith and his wife's rejection of that faith
reminds us that developing religious teachers are not universally
attractive nor always materially successful. However, several influential
persons, from his childhood friend Naren Mullik to the members of
the League of Devotees in Jhansi, formed a cadre of supporters that
Abhay needed to develop his own deeper faith in Krishna.
There is no doubt that the depth of Prabhupada's faith and spiritual
power was forged in the long hours of chanting, reflection, and
writing over eleven years of near-solitude in the temples and retreat
rooms of Vrindaban and New Delhi just prior to his coming to America.
But one cannot discount Prabhupada's own depiction of his spiritual
journey as one of gradual awakening and deepening certainty throughout
his whole life, including the period of his American and world ministry.
His Back to Godhead articles, written between 1944 and his
death in 1977 reveal the balance of spiritual practice and theological
conceptualisation that Prabhupada brought to his life's work. His
piety was grounded in both his intellect and his heart, and the
two were mutually sustaining. Therefore, Prabhupada's spiritual
journey included not only scriptural study and theological argumentation,
but also daily chanting and worship of Krishna; he thus engaged
his heart as fully as his head. I realise that this very way of
separating a faith of head and heart would be uncomfortable to Prabhupada,
but it is just such a split that I think led some of his appointed
successors down roads of self-deception and ruin - a theme to be
discussed later in this essay.
While on his voyage to America on the Indian ship Jaladuta in the
Autumn of 1965, Prabhupada wrote a prayer that said, in part, "Although
my Guru Maharaja [Bhaktisiddhanta] ordered me to accomplish this
mission, I am not worthy or fit to do it... Therefore, O Lord [Krishna],
now I am begging for Your mercy so that I may become worthy."
Even at the age of sixty-nine, Prabhupada felt a deep-seated need
for the guidance of Krishna to lead him in his daily work. This
is the perspective of a humble, faith-filled man. These are the
words of one who believed that the knowledge gained from the Krishna
scriptures, and his years of study and translation of them were
not sufficient without continual nourishment of his faith by the
practice of chanting and praising of Lord Krishna. It was this balance
of scriptural erudition and deep personal faith to which his early
followers were attracted - not to a flashy self-presentation or
spellbinding sermons. One of Prabhupada's first devotees said simply,
"I didn't have any emotional experiences. Prabhupada was very
much an ordinary person until you developed a relationship [with
In my interviews with more than 130 devotees between 1980 and 1990,
devotee after devotee revealed that they were strongly attracted
to Prabhupada because of his scriptural erudition and sincere devotion
- that is, his piety. One early devotee said, "He was chanting,
and just by the sound of his voice I could see that this person
loves God." Another devotee who was sceptical of flashy Indian
gurus said, "When he walked in, I thought, 'He is different...'
He had that bearing, that gravity, that clear seriousness that you
associate with a military leader, a commander... The kirtana
began and Prabhupada became immediately ecstatic... [He] shattered
all my previous conceptions about a spiritual master." Even
academic scholars like Stillson Judah were "struck by his humility".
As yet another devotee said, "he never put on a show."
The composite picture one gets of Prabhupada is of a religious seeker
who never forgot his finitude before God, even when he achieved
a high level of spiritual development and served as the channel
for the devotee's love to God. Prabhupada was impressive to devotee
and outsider alike because of his personal piety. In this sense,
he was a mahatma.
However, Prabhupada's spiritual authority was also rooted in traditional
Vaishnava theological claims about the guru as a direct channel
to Lord Krishna. The Gaudiya Vaishnava notion of disciplic succession,
or paramparä (literally "uninterrupted series"), says
that an initiating guru stands in an unbroken chain of disciples
from Chaitanya and other notable teachers back to Krishna himself.
The guru is understood to be an external representation of God,
and as such, receives devotion intended for Krishna and serves as
a conduit for that devotion. Prabhupada says this succinctly: "A
disciple has to accept the spiritual master not only as spiritual
master, but also as the representative of the Supreme Personality
of Godhead and the Supersoul. In other words, the disciple should
accept the spiritual master as God because he is the external manifestation
of Krishna." Prabhupada spoke with just such traditional authority.
He instructed his disciples to surrender completely to the guru
in order to attain their fullest spiritual maturation. In making
such assertions, Prabhupada was conveying age-old teachings of the
medieval Vaishnava scripture that says, "It is the duty of
every human being to surrender to a bona fide spiritual master.
Giving him everything - body, mind, and intelligence - one must
take a Vaishnava initiation from him." In this sense, Prabhupada
had "traditional charisma" in Max Weber's terms.
When I was asked to offer this brief reflection on Prabhupada,
I was reminded of images of a special, holy man who, by his erudition
and personal piety as well as by his traditional role, touched the
lives of thousands of devotees in India, America and around the
world. I was also struck by the realisation that for all of his
extraordinary attributes, Prabhupada could not pass on his own personal
faith to his appointed successors even as he did pass on the mantle
of leadership (that is, traditional roles) for ISKCON. As I reminisced
about my interactions with Krishna gurus and devotees, which began
in 1974 and intensified through the 1980s, I was struck by this
realisation that the traditional roles and scriptural erudition
could be transmitted by teaching, but that the personal piety and
deep faith that attracted devotees to Prabhupada could not.
As I reviewed my interviews with devotees from the years just following
the death of Prabhupada, I came to realise that many devotees, and
certainly all of the newly appointed initiating gurus, spoke with
a confidence and enthusiasm about their maturing Krishna faith that
was almost always grounded in scriptural authority (that is, in
reciting a Krishna text), or in Prabhupada's interpretations of
those texts. It is true that some of the new gurus were noted for
their ecstatic chanting or personal piety, but their claim to authority
was grounded primarily in scriptural passages like those cited above.
Most "new gurus" exhibited a confidence, even a cockiness,
that if the scriptures said a guru was "as good as God",
then it was so - forgetting that such claims must be grounded in
the kind of personal humility that Prabhupada exhibited. In the
early and mid-1980s, I talked with some new gurus who were exceptionally
bright and erudite in scriptural argumentation but who had stopped
doing sankirtan themselves even as they taught the importance
of such "preaching" to new devotees. I met other new gurus
who were talented organisational managers but who had stopped chanting
their morning rounds of japa, and ultimately fell from their
lofty positions because of immoral behaviour. I met only a few new
gurus who were impressive because of their humbleness and piety,
and they have continued to provide leadership for ISKCON - even
in the dark days of the early and mid-1980s.
What is the legacy that Prabhupada has left for ISKCON? It is
the legacy of traditional authority (parampara), scriptural
erudition and personal piety as necessary corollaries to a healthy
and vibrant Krishna faith. Even as the reformers in ISKCON attempted
in the mid-1980s to reduce ISKCON'S reliance on relatively few gurus
(by appointing many new ones) and to separate some managerial and
organisational functions from the spiritual role of the guru, Prabhupada's
legacy of personal piety and moral purity seldom was offered as
the key to a new guru's success. Prabhupada's legacy is a faith
marked by a blend of head and heart - both focused upon God's divine
mercy and compassion-that separates the true spiritual master from
Too many of the early gurus relied upon their traditional scriptural
authority alone or upon artificial affectations of spirituality
to maintain their positions - until they "fell". Those
who have engaged in arduous spiritual practise balanced with disciplined
scriptural study over the past thirty years have acquired the status
and piety of the acharya that the scriptures describe.
Nori Muster, in her forthcoming book Betrayal of the Spirit,
offers a perspective on the gap between religious proclamations
and practise in ISKCON during her years in the movement throughout
the 1980s that I encourage all of those in leadership positions
in ISKCON today to take seriously. Though Muster's book may emphasise
primarily the negative attitudes and events associated with ISKCON
in America, it also reveals her longing for models of piety and
integrity that gurus and ISKCON leaders purportedly represent. Her
story reveals the deleterious effects of shallow religiosity, unethical
conduct and self-deceptive proclamations by some of ISKCON'S gurus
and leaders on the average devotee who simply looks to see how wide
the gap is between what a person asserts about his or her authority
as a spiritual leader and what he or she actually does. For Prabhupada
that gap was quite narrow. That is his legacy, from which contemporary
gurus can learn much.
The good news is that there are many signs in America, Europe and
elsewhere in the world that gurus and other leaders in ISKCON recognise
that they must live and act in ways that are more consistent with
their teachings. Conferences held in Europe during the past half
dozen years reveal a more contrite and apologetic tone in public
self-presentations by devotees. However, Prabhupada's legacy is
richer still in the lesson it would teach to contemporary devotees:
that the quality of one's spiritual practice and growth must undergird
one's theological and scriptural erudition and public and private
actions. His lesson is for the developing spiritual seeker-not for
one seeking a religious role in ISKCON as an institution.
In the final analysis, Prabhupada's life suggests that only the
guru who truly is linked to Krishna by his or her own private and
public devotion can serve as a conduit for disciples who rely upon
the Vaishnava's disciplic succession. Over the years, many Krishna
devotees have quoted to me numerous scriptural passages that confirm
this view of their disciplic authority - but seldom have they cited
the faith-development of Prabhupäda as a model for their own development.
With Prabhupada, the recitation of scriptural authorities was not
necessary to confirm his role as acarya. Images of the love-filled
and ecstatic Prabhupada softly singing praises to Krishna is his
legacy of God-centered love-images which can serve ISKCON and its
leaders well in his absence. It is this legacy of a guru's devotion
and humility before God - his piety - that Prabhupada asks his successors
to emulate. What better legacy could a spiritual teacher leave to
those who would follow him?1
For an early thought-piece on the guru-disciple
relationship, see my essay "Conflicting Network: Guru and Friend
in ISKCON", in Religious Movements, Genesis, Exodus, and
Numbers, edited by Rodney Start (New York: Paragon House, 1985).
For a fuller description of my understanding of the role and place
of Prabhupada as guru and the difficulties of transmitting prophetic
charisma to one's successors, see "Chapter 2 Godmen and Gurus"
and "Chapter 3 The Transmission of Charisma" in The
Dark Lord: Cult Images and the Hare Krishnas in America (Philadelphia:
Westminister, 1987). The reader will see how my reflections have
moved from an earlier formal and scholarly analysis of religious
and institutional roles and categories, to one currently more reliant
on the intangible synthesis of thought and religious practise in
what I can only imprecisely call "piety" or "spiritual