Tamal Krishna Goswami
NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate
The Proxy-Initiation Heresy
While the entire GBC and vast majority of ISKCON devotees are
today united in support of their gurus, the gurus' credibility and
even their legitimacy continues to be debated by the very large
community of marginalised devotees. As the GBC labours to inherit
Prabhupada's managerial mantle, individual gurus struggle to bear
the weight of guruship. The founder's authority as (1) administrative
head and (2) as initiator of new disciples must both be transferred
for the routinisation of his charisma to be complete. But the first
may be easier than the second, for the insufficiencies of managerial
authority, especially when it functions collegially as the GBC does,
are more easily forgiven than the transgressions of a guru who,
by definition, is the via media to God. Scripture enjoins that he
be worshipped as 'the supreme personality of servitor Godhead' (Prabhupada1974:
Adi-lila, 1.46 Purport), a vision difficult to maintain in
the wake of various guru scandals. ISKCON gurus may insist on the
full faith of their disciples even as Prabhupada did. But whereas
Prabhupada could boldly defend himself against his godbrothers'
criticism, present gurus cannot so easily dismiss the criticism
that arises if they fail to perfectly represent Prabhupada and Krishna.
Indeed, it is not entirely uncommon for disciples of the ISKCON
gurus to repose their faith primarily in Prabhupada, something quite
unthinkable with regard to Prabhupada's disciples and Bhaktisiddhanta
Sarasvati Prabhupada once corrected his servant for 'jumping over
the spiritual master' to pray directly to Bhaktisiddhanta (Goswami,
T. K. 1984: 245). But now, new converts are trained to first accept
Prabhupada's shelter exclusively for at least six months before
being advised to select that initiating guru who reminds them most
of Prabhupada. In fact, Prabhupada is more widely available now
than ever before (through audio, video, print and electronic reproduction).
Thus, the statement, 'I see my Spiritual Master as Prabhupada's
associate and so for that reason I also feel great attachment and
respect for him' (Rochford, 1997), coming from a new disciple, might
not be considered unfaithful. And the following, written by an aspiring
initiate after learning that the guru of his choice had recently
renounced his duties, becomes entirely understandable:
After building a relation with 'X' Maharaja on a guru/disciple
relation and then receiving the fax of the bad news, it really
hits hard. Now I can see why some devotees lose faith in ISKCON
sannyasis. You have to realise that Srila Prabhupada is
our true guru and that his instructions are always there for us
to fall back on. After all, he is our acarya, our master. I owe
everything I have and everything I will have in Krishna consciousness
to Srila Prabhupada for saving me from this material world of
repeated birth and death.21
Such comments are not rare. Yet, interestingly, these poignant
remarks prefaced a request that Tamal Krishna Goswami accept the
aspirant as a disciple and award him initiation in the future. They
are not written by one who believes that initiation from a present
ISKCON guru is unimportant. Similar letters requesting re-initiation
are also received from initiates whose gurus have fallen. Both bear
out what scripture affirms: without the mercy of the spiritual master
one cannot make spiritual advancement.
But is this really so? Is the devotion of the uninitiated fruitless?
And having been initiated, if one's guru falls, is all one's devotion
worthless? And what is the connection between the guru's own level
of advancement and the potential advancement of his disciple? These
questions, with only slight adjustments in terminology, are at the
heart of every founded religion. To cite but one example, the Christian
Church under Augustine's guidance rejected as heretical the Donatists'
assertion that the flawed character of a priest invalidated the
sacrament he administered. And, some eight hundred years later,
Aquinas invoked sacerdotalism to establish the via media of the
priesthood. Nor are such issues new to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which
emphasises the centrality of the guru's role in the salvation of
the disciple with the same fervour it argues for the existence of
the Godhead. Although elevating the guru to a place beside the Godhead,
Gaudiya Vaishnava doctrine makes provisions in case he falls. In
centuries past, acaryas like Bhaktivinoda and Narahari Cakravarti
gave guidelines for rejecting a fallen guru and accepting re-initiation.
Guru scandals and controversies, it seems, have besmirched the hallowed
sanctuary of religion since long ago.
While it is beyond our present purpose to delve into all the above
questions, one particular debate has engaged many both within and
on the margins of ISKCON. Must a devotee, not yet initiated, accept
a living breathing guru if he or she is to make full spiritual advancement?
Responding to this question in the North American Prabhupada Centennial
Survey, a considerable majority (86%) of full-time ISKCON members
responded affirmatively, as compared with just over half (52%) of
those no longer active in ISKCON (Rochford, 1997). Those who responded
negatively were not questioning the need for a guru. Rather, they
probably had in mind the notion that Prabhupada can continue to
initiate disciples even after his demise. This view, known until
recently as the ritvik acarya theory,22
claims that Prabhupada appointed ritviks (priests initiating
on behalf of Prabhupada) as proxies without intending that any of
his disciples become regular gurus. Adherents of this philosophy
believe that Prabhupada was and continues to be the only legitimate
guru for ISKCON. According to the same survey, nearly a quarter
(23%) of ISKCON's full-time members, and some of less than half
(45%) of those devotees no longer active in ISKCON agreed that Prabhupada
wanted those he named to continue as proxy-initiators after his
departure. (Rochford, 1997) This is not an insignificant number
when one considers the extent of GBC efforts to refute and prescribe
Considering the enormous importance the tradition invests in the
guru, it is no wonder the issue has sparked such heated debate.
The 'appointment' conversations and correspondence of Prabhupada
in the year prior to his demise are sufficiently elliptical to allow
various interpretations. Guru improprieties that surfaced in the
1980s were a confirmation for some that the gurus should be at best
no more than proxies. Prabhupada was the actual guru, they argued,
and they presented their interpretation of his statements as the
warrants to prove their case. But the GBC gave these statements
an entirely different reading, one that was firmly in keeping with
the traditional understanding of the principle of disciplic succession,
a principle enunciated throughout Prabhupada's teachings.
Proxy-initiation proponents established their own community, New
Jaipur, in Louisiana and published the Vedic Village Review
to propagate their philosophy. They have also conducted initiations
in which new recruits are deemed to be Prabhupada's own disciples,
although there have only been a few such ceremonies. Ironically,
the community and Review were both closed due to the moral
and legal transgressions of their organisers, survived only by the
proxy-initiation cause itself, which has since attracted new champions.
The GBC has been far from silent on this issue. They devoted the
entire first issue of the ISKCON Journal - seventeen essays, interviews
and testimonies in all - to exposing the proxy-initiation fallacy.
That same year (1990) the publisher and editors of the Vedic
Village Review were excommunicated for continuing to actively
promote their views despite repeated warnings. In 1995, the GBC
published the 51-page Gurus and Initiation in ISKCON, a compilation
of all the relevant ISKCON laws and official papers on the subject
(GBC 1995). Nor did that conclude the matter. Fresh legislation
in 1996 states, 'Temple presidents, at their discretion, have the
right to prohibit its [proxy-initiation] advocates from participating
in ISKCON functions or visiting an ISKCON temple if their advocacy
creates a disturbance.'23 Various
ISKCON leaders have individually published papers against the proxy-initiation
philosophy. Some, like Jayadvaita Swami (Swami, J., 1996a), have
conceded that the proxy-initiation people are right on certain non-philosophical
points. But the proxy-initiation people are in no way satisfied
with such minor concessions. They remain solid in their conviction
that the present ISKCON guru system is fundamentally flawed. Their
most recent outpouring, an 87-page position paper entitled The
Controversy Surrounding Srila Prabhupada's Final Order on the Future
of Initiations Within ISKCON, or simply, The Final Order,
has prompted the GBC to issue its own response entitled Disciple
of My Disciple (see, dasa,
B., et. al. 1997) along with promises that they will fully document
the history and theology of the guru in ISKCON as a way of finally
bringing the issue to rest. That, of course, is doubtful, for as
long as the gurus of ISKCON fail in the eyes of others to meet the
rigorous standards established by Srila Prabhupada, they will have
to continue to face their critics.24
At the very heart of this debate lies the succession issue: What
is the best way to routinise Prabhupada's charisma? Both sides agree
that Prabhupada must remain at the centre of ISKCON, but disagree
on how this may best be accomplished. Jayadvaita Swami sympathises
with the proxy-initiation proponents' thoughts:
Srila Prabhupada was staunch, unfailing, always perfect in his
discretion and determination. He was undisputedly an exalted and
empowered acarya, a pure and intimate personal associate
of Krishna. Is it any wonder, then, that some devotees feel that
only Srila Prabhupada can give them shelter and that no one else
deserves the same surrender and trust? (Swami, J., 1996a)
Yet, surrender and trust are the very currency of the guru-disciple
exchange. This is not a relationship of arbitrary acceptance, but
a contract in which total submission is offered in return for unalloyed
devotion to God. At stake in this debate is whether such a reward
is attainable, even generations from now, by establishing an exclusive
relationship with Prabhupada, bypassing such a relation with his
disciples or heirs.
Proxy-initiation theorists insist that Prabhupada made a permanent
arrangement on 9 July 1977 when he approved this writer's letter
to all the temple presidents which stated, "now that Srila
Prabhupada has named these eleven representatives, temple presidents
may henceforward send recommendations for first and second initiation
to whichever of these eleven representatives are nearest their temple."25
Making such a statement absolute renders it absurd, as Jayadvaita
Swami has vividly demonstrated (Swami, J., 1996b), and is opposed
to Prabhupada's time-bound use of the word 'henceforward' on numerous
occasions. Proxy-initiation theory supporters will lose their case
if their argument rests on haggling over the details of grammar
and punctuation in the appointment transcripts. Their strength is
in emphasising the value of directly connecting to Prabhupada's
purity. Otherwise, logic, reason, reliable testimony and scripture,
when used to interpret the transcripts will rule against them.
But even the 'direct connection' argument will not necessarily
win the proxy-initiation case. Here is one counter argument: A guru
who presents himself as a humble and sincere disciple of Prabhupada
(or, in future generations, of any future guru in disciplic line)
offers Prabhupada 'directly' through his words and actions. What
better way to get Prabhupada's association than by connecting through
one who is immersed in Prabhupada's teachings and mission? The advantage
of being personally trained under the guidance of such a guru cannot
be denied. The process of receiving initiation formalises the student-teacher
relationship and offers the promise of God's mercy through the agency
of the disciplic succession. As a via media, the present guru magnifies
rather than obscures a disciple's vision of the previous gurus,
offering them access otherwise denied to those who try for it 'directly.'
The counter argument continues: Prabhupada often stated that a
guru's success is to create at least one pure disciple. Did Prabhupada
fail so miserably that he could not create even one pure devotee
qualified to be a guru? Many of Prabhupada's disciples are 'pure'
in the sense that they have made his mission their life and soul.
Prabhupada's charisma may be that of a maha-bhagavata, a
topmost devotee of the Lord. But if his disciples have only been
able to individually capture a small fraction of that charisma,
it is stated in scripture that even their madhyama-bhagavata
(middle devotee) status is sufficient to qualify them for performing
initiations. Arguing that all of Prabhupada's offspring are spiritually
impotent, incapable of continuing the line of succession, appears
more as a condemnation of the founder rather than a glorification
And so the arguments run. The debate continues, but the outcome
appears already decided. Though it is still not too late to rethink
the future course of guru theology, traditional antecedents and
the reality of present day ISKCON make such a redefinition highly
unlikely. Yet, the proxy-initiation theorists will have left their
mark. If nothing more, even their most vigorous critics can thank
them for helping to recognise all devotees' right to a real and
direct relationship with Prabhupada.
Heresies of Continuity
Religion cannot exist independent of culture, and any attempt
to transfer religious truths to a culture alien to that in which
they thrived must necessarily involve either a reformulation of
those truths or an attempt to recreate that original culture in
a new environment. In all four heresies of continuity, we see attempts
at both reformulation and re-creation. The 'sannyasi-householder
controversy' deals with the recasting of traditional social relationships
in the context of mission. The 'gopi-bhava' and 'rasika-bhakti
controversies' are heresies of praxis; at stake are whether spiritual
disciplines should be esoteric or exoteric. The 'origin of the soul
heresy' attempts to understand the founder's view on this subject
and his consistency with previous members of the disciplic succession.
In fact, all the heresies of continuity concern the problems of
preservation of tradition-whether during the founder's time (between
his predecessors and himself) and during the time of his disciples
(between the founder and themselves). Though the tradition's beliefs
are at the forefront of these issues, the question of authority
is no less an issue here than it was with the previous heresies,
for arbiters must be there to decide exactly how traditions are
The Sannyasi-Householder Controversy
The system of social/occupational relationships known as varnashrama
is the glue that kept Hindu society in place for thousands of years.
Its corruption in the form of brahminical elitism has led to its
deterioration, culminating in the recent victory of scheduled caste
'untouchables' in India's parliamentary elections. Strange, it would
seem that Prabhupada should have chosen to swim with the current
of castism, considering its history and its potential for creating
Even a casual reading of Hindu texts, however, reveals that varnashrama
is the warp and woof of the Hindu social fabric; traditionalists
fear its absence will leave society threadbare, to disintegrate.
Prabhupada certainly held such a belief. As early as 1968 he began
to create a caste of brahmanas,26
much to the chagrin of India's caste-conscious, hereditary brahmanas
who bitterly complained that he was spoiling Vedic culture. But
Prabhupada defended his action with a battery of scriptural proof
texts, proving caste was according to one's qualities and work,
not birth. (Prabhupada1986: 238-9) He accused his priestly detractors
of ignorance and selfishness, and blamed them for nearly destroying
an ideal social model. The theological basis for his argument was
simple: a Vaishnava (a devotee of God) is considered transcendental
to all the designations of varna and ashrama. Hence,
a devotee is automatically a brahmana. His guru had encountered
similar opposition a half century earlier, and Sri Caitanya had
fought the identical battle when he had given elevated positions
in his movement to many of his lower birth associates.
There were no such opponents in twentieth century egalitarian America.
The possibility of upward socio/ spiritual mobility was practically
guaranteed by ISKCON's initiation system and nearly all devotees
were awarded brahminical initiation a year after their first initiation.27
However, sannyasa, the renounced order, was far more restricted.
Due to the degree of renunciation, all the members of society including
the brahmanas respected a sannyasa. Here lay the potential
for real conflict, for unlike brahmanism, which in ISKCON was open
to all, there were relatively few sannyasis. While in India tension
existed between the varnas, or castes, the danger in ISKCON
was the antagonism between the ashramas, the Vedic social
divisions based on the major life-cycle categories.
A controversy pitting sannyasis against grihasthas
(married householders) erupted in 1975. A number of seasoned ISKCON
sannyasis, including this writer, returned to America after
years of public preaching in India. But India and America were not
analogous preaching fields. In India, sannyasis assisted
by brahmacaris (celibate male students) traditionally managed
the temples, ministering to the laity, who in return supported them.
No such economic interdependence existed in ISKCON of the mid-seventies.
Few devotees had outside employment. Everyone - sannyasis,brahmacaris
and grihasthas - simply 'depended upon Krishna,' which practically
meant raising funds through literature distribution. Most temple
presidents were grihasthas, assisted by brahmacaris
and brahmacarinis (female celibate students), whose principal
engagement was financing the temples through the sale of ISKCON
The newly arrived sannyasis, with tales of their missionary
experiences in India, were appealing to many of the temple brahmacaris,
who were attracted by their austerity, knowledge and zealousness,
as well as by the freedom offered by the lifestyle of the itinerant
preachers. Many brahmacaris abandoned the temples. Within
a year's time, no less than ten sannyasi parties, assisted
by 200 brahmacaris, criss-crossed America. Temple presidents
felt the sannyasis' visits were more for recruiting local
brahmacari residents to leave the temples than for uplifting
and protecting the spiritual standards.
The conflict came to a head at the annual all-ISKCON festival in
Mayapur, West Bengal, in March of 1976. The sannyasi-dominated
GBC body,28 under the chairmanship
of this writer, passed a number of controversial resolutions: 'Husbandless
women with children could not live in an ISKCON temple. Husband
and wife could not live in ISKCON temples, even if separately. Before
entering marriage, devotees should have a means of supporting themselves
and not expect to 'live off' ISKCON. Upon getting married a householder
would be financially responsible for his wife until such time as
he took sannyasa .' (Goswami, S. 1983: Vol. VI: 168)
These resolutions reveal a deeply negative view of sexuality and
of women that was particularly prevalent in the early years of ISKCON.
This attitude is not without scriptural basis, for attachments of
any sort (especially to the opposite sex), when not overcome, are
believed to cause the soul to be reborn. The illusory material potency
Maya, the consort of the male god Shiva, is portrayed as a prison-house
keeper, and those who share her gender are considered to be her
representatives. This schema sees women as the cause of bondage
and their birth as misfortune. However, it is not an accurate reflection
of scriptural conclusion, as has been explained elsewhere:
The proper [scriptural] understanding reveals that any unfair
sexual bias implied by the Maya narrative is due to a philosophical
misunderstanding. For the feminine gender is generic to all souls
including those who are masculine embodied. All souls are categorised
as energy (read female) and God as the supreme energetic (read
male). When this philosophy is properly understood, all souls
irrespective of their sexual bodily encoding will relate with
each other harmoniously. (Goswami, T. K. 1996: 100)
Unfortunately, events in ISKCON have often demonstrated what an
enormous gap separates philosophical ideals from their historical
reality. The sannyasis of ISKCON, this writer as much as any others,
viewed women as maya, to be avoided whenever possible. We
shared our 'wisdom' with the brahmacaris: 'A woman is like
fire, a man like butter. If the butter is not kept at a safe distance,
it will melt.' Those brahmacaris who melted were 'fallen,'
and were to be married. Due to their intimate association with women,
they too were also representatives of maya, and henceforward,
their association was also to be avoided.
The resolutions passed by the predominantly sannyasi GBC
body attempted to selectively legislate certain aspects of India's
long-standing social system. That they were ill-suited to America
and particularly to the prevailing conditions within ISKCON was
clear from Prabhupada's response as he sought to prevent further
escalation of the controversy. He disapproved of preventing single
mothers with children from living in the temple: "I cannot
discriminate - man, woman, child, rich, poor, educated, or foolish.
Let them all come, and let them take Krishna consciousness, so that
they will not waste their human life." (Goswami, S. 1983: Vol.
When the North American grihastha temple presidents arrived,
the discriminatory legislation and its potential to split ISKCON
alarmed them. During his morning walks, Prabhupada sought to mediate,
suggesting that the grihasthas form a small committee to
define how they should live. One of the leading sannyasis
argued that the problem was that grihasthas had a propensity
for enjoyment that undermined the austere temple atmosphere. Their
association was thus unfavourable for both brahmacaris and
"Fanaticism!" was Prabhupada's response. "We should
always remember that either grihastha, brahmacari or sannyasa,
nobody can strictly follow all the rules and regulations. In the
Kali-yuga it is not possible. If I simply find fault with you, and
if you find fault with me, then it will be factional, and our real
business will be hampered. Therefore, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu has recommended
that hari-nama, chanting Hare Krishna mantra, should be very
rigidly performed, which is common for everyone - grihastha,vranaprastha
(the retired order), and sannyasa. They should always chant
Hare Krishna mantra, then everything will be adjusted. Otherwise,
it is impossible to advance.' (Goswami, S. 1983: Vol. VI: 172)
Although Prabhupada appreciated the service of his leading sannyasis
and their men which amounted to more than 50% of the distribution
of his publications worldwide, he was clearly displeased with their
sectarian views. It was inappropriate for them to constantly dwell
on the grihasthas' affairs. He told a story of two brahmanas
who were about to cross a river when a lady approached them for
help in crossing. One of the brahmanas took her on his back
and assisted her across. After she had departed the two brahmanas
continued their journey, but the other brahmana continuously
criticised his associate for allowing a woman to touch his body.
At last his friend had had enough: "I carried her on my back
for ten minutes, but you have been carrying her on your mind for
The misunderstanding did not abate; the polarisation so surcharged
the festival atmosphere Prabhupada was unable to rest. Finally,
he decided to call a meeting of the contesting parties. He heard
attentively a neutral brahmacari's conclusion: the real issue
was men and money. By encouraging the brahmacaris not to
cooperate with grihasthas, the sannyasis were luring
them away from the temples to travel and preach, which not only
created a financial strain on the temples, but also left many important
services unattended. Prabhupada heard the stories from all sides,
then gave his conclusive opinion. Discriminating between grihastha
and sannyasa was wrong. Everyone should be judged by his
advancement in Krishna consciousness. "Whether one is a brahmana,
a sannyasi or a sudra-regardless of what he is-he can become a spiritual
master if he knows the science of Krishna." (Prabhupada1975:
162)30 Party politics would
finish everything. There was no particular service for a grihastha,
another for a sannyasi. All were servants of Krishna and
should do the needful. Anyone can preach and anyone can serve in
the temple. It was all right for a brahmacari to want to
travel with a sannyasi, but if he had a responsible temple
service, he must not leave. ashramas do not determine the
quality of a devotee. The GBC was asked to strike out the biased
resolutions. The temple presidents felt vindicated.
In fact, it was actually a victory for all. As their spiritual
master, Prabhupada was emphasising the theological principle of
the transcendental equality of all ashramas: the ashramas
might define one's temporal situation, but one's eternal identity
was primary. Service to Krishna was the basis for mutual co-operation
between all sectors of society.31
The Gopi-bhava Club Heresy
While negative views of mundane sexuality thread their way through
much of the scripture, the same literature (paradoxically, some
would say) reverences conjugal love as the highest devotion to God.
That ISKCON faced a heresy involving gopi-bhava (the loving
mood of the gopis) is not surprising, nor was it the first
time the Gaudiya line had had to resolve such a contentious issue.
The culmination of Vaishnava religious practice is the attainment
of flawless love for the Deity. For Gaudiya Vaishnavas, the love
of the gopis, Krishna's cowherd lovers, is considered most
consummate. But ever since Shi Chaitanya established the primacy
of parakiya-bhava (love out of wedlock), there has been no
dearth of questions involving morality and practice. Perhaps no
other tradition explores in such vivid detail the possibilities
of the conjugal relationship between the devotee and the Godhead.
Considering the extensive textual tradition devoted to this subject,
the reserve most practitioners display for such topics is impressive.
The texts warn that highly advanced devotees can only understand
Krishna's conjugal pastimes; premature attempts to enter such esoteric
topics will end in mundane lust-the opposite of spiritual love.
Most advanced devotees are understandably cautious, considering
themselves unqualified. It is neither practical nor theologically
correct to expect everyone to be able to rise to the exalted level
of the gopis' love. Other relationships with Krishna-parental,
fraternal, and servile love-are equally desirable. In fact, each
soul is said constitutionally to have an eternal relationship with
the Godhead, and realisation of that relationship is more a matter
of acceptance than selection. In any case, attainment of perfect
love is gradual, and it can be arduous.
In his discourse, Prabhupada usually spoke of bhakti generically.
Yet he did not hesitate to translate Rupa Goswami's Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu,
a work entirely devoted to analysing devotional relationships. His
seventeen-volume translation of Krishnadasa Kaviraja's Shri Chaitanya-charitamrita
highlights many intimate pastimes in which Chaitanya and his companions
became absorbed in and identified with the conjugal mood of Radha
and her companions. However, Prabhupada repeatedly warned his audiences
not to compare these wholly transcendental descriptions with their
seemingly mundane equivalents.
In spite of this, a group of his disciples - perhaps twenty-five
women and an equal number of men - began meeting surreptitiously
to read the portions of Chaitanya-charitamrita that describe
Radha and Krishna's intimate pastimes. News of the 'Gopi-bhava
Club' reached Prabhupada during his visit to Los Angeles in June
of 1976. Calling the available GBC members and sannyasis,
Prabhupada ordered an investigation. He expressed grave concern
that such meetings, if allowed to go unchecked, would lead to illicit
activities, thus thwarting the preaching mission.
The club leaders appeared before Prabhupada explaining that they
were not trying to imitate Radha and Krishna's love affairs but
simply studying the descriptions in order to develop such desires.
Prabhupada's lips quivered with anger: "First deserve, then
desire! . . . So long as there is any pinch of material desire there
is no question of desiring on the spiritual platform!" (dasa,
H. 1992: Vol. II: 268)
When another of their leaders asked what harm there could be if
they restricted their readings to Prabhupada's books, Prabhupada
quickly refuted his argument: Many medicines may be available in
a drug store but that does not mean one can get them without a prescription.
Medicines are prescribed according to the disease. Similarly, his
books might contain descriptions of every stage of devotion from
the beginning practices to the highest development of love of God,
but one should concentrate on those sections suitable to one's level
Prabhupada's experience extended far beyond the limited knowledge
of his disciples. Growing up in Bengal and later on living for years
in Vandavana, he had ample opportunity to observe the behaviour
of the various sahajiya sects who attempted to sacramentalise
mundane, human sex. The sahajiyas were renounced in appearance,
dressed in a bare loincloth of babajis and living on the
simplest of diet. But their illicit sexual behaviour belied their
appearance and drew heavy criticism from the orthodox Gaudiya Vaishnavas.
Prabhupada inferred that some of his disciples must have associated
with Vrindavana babajis and become contaminated. He required
no further facts to reach his conclusion. Walking the next morning
with a group of disciples, he explained the background of the contamination.
(Prabhupada1990: Vol. XXI: 1-3) A segment of Chaitanya's movement
had deviated from his strict principles, appropriating the model
of Krishna and the gopis' love affairs for their debauchery.
Lacking any spiritual qualification, they still aspired for the
highest transcendental level of understanding. Prabhupada likened
the attempt to an ignorant fool's desiring a Ph.D. As his predecessors
had laboured to free Chaitanya's movement from the sahajiya
stigma, Prabhupada acted to protect ISKCON in the same way. "Keep
your movement very pure. Don't mind if somebody goes away. But we
must keep our principles pure." (Prabhupada1990: Vol. XXI:
This appeared to be a marked departure from Prabhupada's response
to other deviations. He seemed more willing to sacrifice a few for
the protection of the many. ISKCON's swelling population may have
provided him the confidence that his movement would survive such
losses. At the same time, a large organisation offered the risk
of many becoming contaminated. Based on what had happened in Chaitanya's
movement, there was historical precedence to justify such fear.
The promiscuity prevalent in Western society seemed to make such
a possibility all the more likely, ISKCON's puritanical rules notwithstanding.
The danger was misapplying theological doctrine. To use Prabhupada's
medical analogy, it was a case of wrong prescription. If a disease
was wrongly diagnosed and too strong a medicine supplied, the result,
as Prabhupada later stated, would not 'purify,' but rather 'putrefy.'
The Rasika-bhakti Heresy
Though Prabhupada's disapproval of the 'Gopi-bhava Club'
was well documented, a similar attempt was made again, some fifteen
years after his departure. That the group included four members
of the GBC and other gurus as well, added to the spectre of large
numbers of their followers becoming deviated. These devotees were
based in Vrindavana at ISKCON's Krishna-Balarama Temple. But perhaps
most alarming was their allegiance to an elder Gaudiya Matha sannyasi.
The rasika-bhakti controversy,
32 as it came to be known, was the re-occurrence of a problem
- premature 'realisation' - Prabhupada had seemingly resolved, coupled
with a challenge to authority.
The elder sannyasi Narayana Maharaja was a disciple of Prabhupada's
sannyasa guru and was long a well-wisher of ISKCON. A learned,
austere, long-time resident of Vrindavana, he has a fondness for
narrating rasa-katha, the sublime topics of Krishna's Vrindavana
pastimes. A small group of prominent ISKCON men and women were gradually
drawn into his association, ignoring history, GBC resolutions on
the books which forbade such outside association, and ample warnings
from their peers as well. Narayana Maharaja made no effort to conceal
his relationship with them, which as time went on became increasingly
intimate. When invited by ISKCON to a number of public functions,
he frankly proclaimed that ISKCON devotees should not remain neophyte,
clinging simply to rules and regulations, but should follow the
path of spontaneous devotion. His emphasis on gopi-bhava,
the mood of Krishna's amorous cowherd lovers, particularly disturbed
his ISKCON audiences who were conscious of so many warnings from
Prabhupada. Prabhupada had stressed that the path of spontaneous
devotion was only for liberated souls. He personally taught and
exemplified the activities of devotion performed according to rules
and regulations. Once a practitioner became purified of all material
inebrieties, spontaneous devotion would automatically manifest.
Yet, the ISKCON followers of Narayana Maharaja felt they were making
tangible spiritual advancement by following his advice and example.
They were increasing their chanting, became attached to the sacred
places where Krishna had performed His pastimes, and were generally
experiencing an overall deepening of their Krishna consciousness.
Prabhupada, they believed, was now guiding them in the person of
At the annual GBC meeting in 1993, members questioned their affiliation
with Narayana Maharaja. Those involved minimised the seriousness
of the relationship, though for some it had been going on for as
long as five years. Trusting in their word, the GBC let the matter
pass. But concern continued, especially among the ISKCON devotees
residing in Vrindavana who felt Narayana Maharaja's influence slowly
pervade the Krishna-Balarama Temple complex. By their next annual
meeting, the GBC forced the involved members to promise to greatly
restrict further association with their new teacher.
Though adhering externally, their sympathies for Narayana Maharaja's
teachings were unabated. Paintings done under his supervision depicting
Radha and Krishna's intimacy became popular throughout ISKCON. Devotees
sprinkled their lectures increasingly with rasa-katha. Narayana
Maharaja was even attracting a following in a few ISKCON centres.
The tension finally came to a head at the anniversary celebration
of Srila Prabhupada's entering the sannyasa order, traditionally
held at Narayana Maharaja's temple where the actual sannyasa
ceremony had taken place in 1959. Tamal Krishna Goswami and Giriraja
Swami, rather than glorifying Prabhupada, used the occasion to praise
Narayana Maharaja, recommending his association to all of ISKCON.
Narayana Maharaja spoke next. He pointed out that there were many
higher teachings that Prabhupada could have given had his disciples
been more advanced. He implied that Prabhupada's missionary work
was elementary and ISKCON devotees were now ready for the more advanced
stage of Krishna consciousness, which he could give.
Though none at the meeting voiced their protest, the indignation
evoked by these speeches reverberated world-wide. Many felt that
things had gone too far and that the GBC must now take a firm stand.
Narayana Maharaja's followers, however, would not back down; believing
that he was misunderstood, they met other ISKCON leaders in India,
Europe and North America to promote their cause. But they had not
correctly anticipated the response, especially from the North American
temple presidents. This influential group, the same who were primarily
responsible for putting an end to the zonal-acarya era, demanded
those following Narayana Maharaja be stripped of their positions.
Many feared that the movement was heading for a major schism.
This time the GBC was firm. The rasika-bhakti controversy
was first on the 1995 annual meeting's agenda. A week of thorough
investigation brought the implicated members in line. They admitted
that by promoting a non-ISKCON authority and his teachings, they
had relativised Prabhupada and his teachings. Many neophyte devotees
were already following their example and, as Prabhupada had predicted
during the gopi-bhava affair, missionary activities were
being minimised to focus on personal spiritual advancement.
Asked to suggest what they might do to make amends, the leaders
involved with the controversy tendered their resignations, which
the GBC promptly refused. They further volunteered to refrain from
initiating new disciples or visiting Vrindavana until their case
could be reassessed the following year. They promised to disassociate
themselves entirely from Narayana Maharaja and to correct any misunderstandings
created by their past behaviour. When the year passed, the GBC was
not entirely convinced of their contrition and at the March 1996
meeting insisted on maintaining most of the restrictions.
Considering that they had avoided a split, one might conclude that
the GBC should have relaxed the sanctions with a mood to fully reconcile
both parties. Many of the GBC wanted this and they were finally
presented the opportunity when Narayana Maharaja announced he would
tour the West. His visits to Holland and England were arranged by
disenchanted former members of ISKCON and were solely aimed at attracting
an ISKCON audience. Some members of ISKCON's congregation were initiated
without consideration of Prabhupada's strict standards.
Though Narayana Maharaja praised Prabhupada's accomplishments and
expressed his desire to see ISKCON united, the GBC considered his
tour anything but unifying. They called upon Narayana Maharaja's
former GBC followers to help draft a document that would clearly
express this conclusion. The resulting paper entitled 'Keeping
Faith with Srila Prabhupada ' was released world-wide through
the Internet. ISKCON leaders, while offering hospitable greetings
whenever Narayana Maharaja and his entourage visited an ISKCON temple,
made certain that he had little opportunity to contact ISKCON devotees.
By the time his tour ended in July, though dozens took initiation
from him in Europe and North America, there seemed to be little
overall impact within ISKCON's temples from his visit. Nevertheless,
he announced his intention to extend his tour later in the year
to include Australasia.33
A lingering concern to ISKCON are the disciples of a recently deceased
ISKCON guru, and those of gurus who are fallen, some of whom are
attracted to Narayana Maharaja. While the capitulation of the GBC
members previously following Narayana Maharaja has certainly demonstrated
GBC solidarity, that in itself will not be enough to prevent the
continued exodus of devotees who feel unable to repose full faith
in some ISKCON authority. Apart from their critics' cavilling, ISKCON
gurus must satisfy their disciples' legitimate expectations that
they be knowledgeable, self-controlled and realised. But trying
to emulate Prabhupada and his predecessors' perfection prematurely
can only lead others to further disenchantment.
The Origin of the Soul Heresy
Understanding origins is basic to nearly every thought system.
For the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, the question translates: Did the living
entities, now in material existence of repeated birth and death,
fall from the spiritual realm where they were enjoying personal
relationships with Krishna? Or, is there no fall, since souls are
described as either 'eternally liberated' or 'eternally bound'?
Concomitantly, how can they be eternally bound when the material
realm is temporary, when their relation or rasa with Krishna
is innate, and when there is a possibility that they may one day
be liberated by God's grace? While these particular questions have
been part of ISKCON's ongoing ontological debate, raising them after
Prabhupada's departure brought up fundamental questions about the
authority of Prabhupada's teachings.
This is not a modern dilemma, as relevant statements from the Vedanta-sutra
and Upanishads evince. The founders of every principal Indian
school of thought have offered their particular explanation, and
it is still a topic of interest today. As any ISKCON lecturer will
certify, no other subject raises more questions.
Prabhupada dealt extensively with the topic in his books, correspondence,
lectures and conversations. Yet his disciples were perplexed: 'If
Krishna is all-attractive, and we were once liberated souls, why
would we ever have chosen to leave Krishna's association?' 'Due
to misuse of free will, Prabhupada would respond.' 'But why?!' devotees
would demand to know. 'Because we are tiny, insignificant,' would
be Prabhupada's reply.
But devotees remained dissatisfied. It still seemed illogical.
As early as 1967, Prabhupada wrote:
About your question: the spirit soul is certainly eternal and
changeless; and the fall is superficial, just like the relation
between father and son cannot be broken ever. Now we are simply
in a phase of forgetfulness, and this forgetfulness is called
maya. There is a nice example of the waning of the moon.
To us the moon appears to be changing, but in fact, the moon is
always the same. So as eternal servitors of Krishna - our constitutional
position - we fall down when we try to become the enjoyer, imitating
Krishna. (See letter to Jananivasa, Prabhupada1987: Vol. I: 200)
In another letter, Prabhupada tried to sort out a devotee's paradoxical
Your next question, 'Is a pure devotee eternally liberated and
if so is he at any time a conditioned soul? We are eternally conditioned,
but as soon as we surrender to Krishna do we then become eternally
liberated?' You are not eternally conditioned. You are eternally
liberated but since we have become conditioned on account of our
desire to enjoy a materialistic way of life, from time immemorial,
therefore it appears that we are eternally conditioned. Because
we cannot trace out the history or the date when we became conditioned,
therefore it is technically called eternally conditioned. Otherwise
the living entity is not actually conditioned. The living entity
is always pure. (See, Goswami, H. d. 1996: 200)
In 1972, in response to a letter from his Australian disciples,
Prabhupada dictated a brief essay entitled 'Crow and Tala-fruit
Logic.' Prabhupada explains that the soul is never actually separated
from Krishna, but only dreams of such separation.
We never had any occasion when we were separated from Krishna.
Just like one man is dreaming and he forgets himself. In a dream
he creates himself in different forms: now I am the king discussing
like that. This creation of himself is as seer and subject matter
or seen, two things. But as soon as the dream is over the 'seen'
disappears. But the seer remains. Now he is in his original position
. . . We cannot say therefore that we are not with Krishna. As
soon as we try to become Lord, immediately we are covered by maya
[illusion]. Formerly we were with Krishna in his lila or
sport. But this covering of maya may be very, very, very,
very long duration, therefore many creations are coming and going.
Due to this long period of time it is sometimes said that we are
ever-conditioned. But this long duration of time becomes very
insignificant when one actually comes to Krishna consciousness.
Just like in a dream we are thinking very long time, but as soon
as we awaken we look at our watch and see it has become a moment
only. (See Goswami, H. d. 1996: 1879-8)
Most ISKCON readers wondered, in the light of such clear explanations
from their founder, how this subject managed to remain a burning
issue within ISKCON. But the seeming paradoxical nature of Prabhupada's
answers resists systematisation and argue for alternative readings.
The influence of Gaudiya Matha and other non-ISKCON authorities,
whose presentation of the subject sometimes differed from Prabhupada's,
further added to the confusion. New translations of important Vaishnava
texts also began to appear. Where these translations seemed at variance
with Prabhupada's translations or his teachings, controversy arose.
One divergent view holds that the bound soul originally came from
the brahmajyoti, the effulgent region of light surrounding
Krishna's abode. Such souls have never enjoyed a personal relationship
with Krishna. In the same 'Crow and Tala-fruit' essay, Prabhupada
rejects this idea, stating that the soul may have more recently
come from the brahmajyoti but originally was with Krishna. Prabhupada
counsels that it is a waste of time to argue whether our origin
is in Krishna's abode or the region of light surrounding it:
On the top of the tree there is nice Tala-fruit. A crow went
there and the fruit fell down. Some panditas (big, big
learned scholars) saw this and discussed: 'The fruit fell down
due to the crow's agitating the limb.' 'No, the fruit fell simultaneously
with the crow landing and frightened the crow so he flew away.'
'No, the fruit was ripe and the weight of the crow landing broke
it from the branch,' and so on and so on. What is the use of such
discussions? So, whether you were in the brahma-sayujya
or with Krishna in His lila, at the moment you are in
neither, so the best policy is to develop your Krishna consciousness
and go there, never mind what is your origin. (See Goswami, H.
d. 1996: 189-90)
But pundits (and ISKCON pundits are no exception) seem never to
tire of debate. When the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust decided to publish
Jiva Goswami's Sat Sandarbhas, there was constant contention
over the subtle nuances in translating Sanskrit terms. When two
of the appointed members of the translation team insisted that Jiva
Goswami was absolutely clear-bound souls have not fallen, but have
always been eternally bound-a serious controversy arose. The remaining
translators maintained that the Goswami's viewpoint was consistent
with Prabhupada's-souls have fallen to this world from the spiritual
Drutakarma dasa, an ISKCON scholar, subsequently completed an impressive
compilation of quotations entitled 'Once We Were with Krishna' to
establish that the conclusions of all the great teachers descended
from Chaitanya concur with Prabhupada's position on the fall of
the soul. In response, the two dissenting members of the translation
team published a book, In Vaikuntha Not Even the Leaves Fall,
so titled to emphasise their view that in Vaikuntha, the spiritual
realm, if even leaves do not fall, certainly souls do not either.
Observing the escalating controversy, the BBT trustees decided to
put the Sandarbha project on hold.
Even before the publication of Leaves, the authors' opinions
were already circulating and had gained some support. The GBC was
less alarmed by the immediate confusion caused by the controversy
than the long-range consequences of the conclusions in this book.
Particularly disturbing was the contention that Prabhupada's statements
about the fall of the soul were merely a preaching strategy adopted
to suit a particular time and circumstance, and did not represent
his actual conviction. The authors maintained that Prabhupada was
in agreement with all previous teachers in the line, but had made
adjustments as a convenient means of expressing a complex philosophical
concept for a Judeo-Christian audience unfamiliar with Sanskrit
terms or the Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy. Many wondered what possible
cataclysmic events could have occurred since Prabhupada's time to
so alter the circumstances as to require the authors to change Prabhupada's
preaching strategy (if indeed that is all it was). Their reason
for concern was obvious: once one aspect of Prabhupada's teaching
is labelled a mere preaching ploy, there is nothing to ensure that
whatever else he taught was not equally a deception. Leaves
threatened to undermine the very philosophical foundation of ISKCON.
The GBC at their annual meeting in 1995 took steps to check such
an occurrence. They resolved first, that the view expressed in Prabhupada's
commentary to the Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.54, namely, that
the original position of the soul is to be in a personal relationship
with Krishna, which having been rejected leads to fall-down into
the material world, is ISKCON's official view and none other should
be presented under any circumstance. (Prabhupada1987: 4.28.54) Second,
regarding philosophical controversies, Prabhupada's instructions
and personal example are to be the first and primary source for
ISKCON devotees. Vedic literatures, the writings of the past
acharyas, and even the current teachings of any bonafide non-ISKCON
acarya must be viewed through Prabhupada's teachings. Finally,
the GBC rejected the speculation that Prabhupada practiced deception.
The book In Vaikuntha Not Even the Leaves Fall was banned.34
Neither of the authors was philosophically satisfied by this legislation,
though they were willing to have the book withdrawn. But the purpose
of the resolution was simply to stave off further confusion. The
GBC had already concluded that a thorough response to the Leaves
book was required. By the time of the next annual meeting, they
published a comprehensive refutation, Our Original Position.
This book labours extensively to define key Sanskrit terms used
by Prabhupada and the previous acharyas with reference to
the soul. The authors establish the logic and consistency of Prabhupada's
presentation, then demonstrate how it is supported by previous acharyas.
In his preface to the volume, Hridayananda dasa Goswami explains
the view which he and the other authors maintained while compiling
the work: "The members of ISKCON, who live perpetually at the
feet of Srila Prabhupada, may speculate how Srila Prabhupada's statements
are true, but they may not challenge his statements, or claim that
they are false. This is precisely what it means to accept Srila
Prabhupada as the founder-acharya." (Goswami, H. d.
The publication of the GBC Press book seems to have had the desired
effect. ISKCON devotees are now nearly of one mind on this issue,
though a few (including the two contesting authors) have not been
swayed. Both authors' participation within ISKCON was restricted,
and they were asked to vacate their rent-free ISKCON residences.
The resolution of this issue was reached over a period of more than
four years during which time great effort was made to consider how
to preserve both persons' participation in the Society's activities.
The Chairman of the GBC explained at the time that either was again
welcome to become active, but they would have to first demonstrate
that they have changed their philosophical views. While ISKCON does
not insist that all its members must hold to a particular persuasion,
it does insist on certain policies for those engaged in teaching.
Larry Shinn: 'I think the movement will fare well precisely
to the extent that the leaders adhere to the spiritual practices
taught by Prabhupada and have achieved the kinds of levels of spiritual
advancement that comes with these practices.' (Gelberg, Steven J.,
ed. 1983: 100) We have seen that much of the debate over authority
and continuity has focused on this issue: namely, whether current
GBC members and gurus are spiritually qualified. This same question
will undoubtedly continue to be raised when considering ongoing
succession. As the present generation of gurus expires, how will
each of their disciplic lines be perpetuated? Disciples may feel
it their duty to pass on to the next generation the unique contributions
they believe their guru has bequeathed them. Will they be permitted
to accept disciples of their own in the presence of their guru's
godbrothers? Previously reviewing the plea of an elderly and learned
ISKCON sannyasi who sought permission to accept disciples
while his own guru was still alive, the GBC maintained that Prabhupada
clearly taught that such action would violate Vaishnava etiquette.
But what will be the GBC's response if the request comes from someone
much more junior whose guru happens to have departed? Though the
GBC is now well established as the legitimate successors to the
founder-acarya, Srila Prabhupada, the mechanics of further
succession, if left unresolved, are potentially schismatic.
Nor is the problem limited to disciplic succession: the GBC has,
until this year, resisted any efforts to include a member of the
next generation within its ranks.35
How could a disciple participate in reprimanding his guru, as the
GBC has had to do in the past? But neither old age nor death will
be checked, and the present generation of GBC members will ultimately
be replaced. The appointment this year of 30 deputies to assist
the GBC at their annual meeting may be a preliminary step in the
eventual transfer of authority.36
The appointment of new deputies has highlighted what some see as
a major problem. As one North American appointee remarked, the whole
concept was made 'short-sighted' and 'a bit ludicrous' for failing
to include a single woman. He asks, if 'the original statement of
the GBC for the purpose of expanding this body is to "help
make the GBC more relevant to the needs of the society while creating
valuable training opportunities for these members," shouldn't
it (the GBC) be anxious for the input of 50% of the membership of
the society (its women)?'
Gender has been a slowly simmering issue, one that many ISKCON
leaders have been extremely unwilling to acknowledge. Many women
refuse to join an organisation that is fundamentally patriarchal.
Though an increasing number on the GBC are sympathetic in regard
to gender issues, the majority of members continue to resist change.
Even the formation of a Women's Ministry by the North American GBC
and temple presidents was criticised by many. How this important
issue is handled will undoubtedly affect ISKCON's future development
There has been increasing recognition of the need to develop relevant
social models for all the members of ISKCON. There may no longer
be squabbles between sannyasis and grihasthas, but
members of every ashrama are finding it difficult to fulfil
their specific duties amidst an increasingly materialistic society.
That as many as 50% of those who have taken sannyasa have
later abandoned their vows may indicate imperfect training as a
brahmacaris or an unfulfilled life as sannyasis. In
either case, ISKCON leaders will need to invest energy in developing
training programs for all, beginning with the youngest. And it is
with its youth that ISKCON faces what is perhaps its greatest challenge.
ISKCON will continue to wrestle with knotty philosophical issues.
Splinter organisations, which began as Gaudiya Matha grafts, offer
nuanced understandings of Prabhupada's teachings. Though relatively
small in contrast to ISKCON's world-wide membership, their message
will continue to find a hearing in certain quarters. A far greater
challenge, however, will be interpreting the translations of authoritative
texts and commentaries as they are published and widely circulated.
The controversy regarding the origin of the soul is but one example
of what is likely to reoccur. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, the
publishers of Prabhupada's works, are studying the possibility of
training a team of translators who they feel assured will not deviate
from Prabhupada's conclusions. Yet scriptural statements are broad
enough, no matter how carefully they are translated to allow for
a wide spectrum of interpretation. No provision, no matter how carefully
prepared, can avoid diversity of opinion, as the history of every
A quick perusal of the heresies in this brief survey illustrates
the well-known truth that history repeats itself. Whatever heretical
issue Prabhupada resolved had to be dealt with again after his departure.
There is nothing to suggest that the future will be different. Yet
is seems equally certain that ISKCON will remain a cohesive respondent
in the face of each new challenge.
A portion of this paper, in a slightly modified
version, was presented at the annual meeting of the American academy
of Religion, New Orleans, 24, November 1996, as part of a session
'ISKCON After Thirty Years'.
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