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The Perils of Succession: Heresies of Authority and Continuity In the Hare Krishna Movement

 

Tamal Krishna Goswami

Part Two
NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate footnote page.

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 this view.

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 of him.

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 to continue.

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 conflict.

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 literature.

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. VI: 168)

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 sannyasis.

"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 three hours!"29

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 of realisation.

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: 5)

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 Narayana Maharaja.

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 questions:

    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 realm.

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. 1996: viii)

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.

Concluding Remarks
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 and growth.

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 religion testifies.

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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