Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, a long-time participant to ISKCON reform,
presents in this paper a first-hand historical overview of the problems
facing ISKCON, and what he sees as a sure point for successful change.
A devotee, therefore, should execute his devotional services with
full energy, endurance, and confidence. He should perform his scheduled
duties, he should be pure in heart, and he should serve in association
with devotees. All six of these items will lead the devotee to the
path of success. One should not be discouraged in the discharge
of devotional service. Failures may not be detrimental; they may
be the pillars of success. (Light of the Bhagavata, 43)
In October of 1984, I became active in what was later to be known
within ISKCON as 'the guru reform movement'. Over the next two years
I wrote a series of widely circulated papers in an attempt to understand
and help rectify some failures in ISKCON. As things turned out,
I became a leader of the reform movement. At the annual meeting
of the Governing Body Commission (GBC) in March of 1987, the reform
effort reached a denouement of sorts. Four of the most powerful
leaders of ISKCON all (simultaneously) sannyasis, initiating
gurus and GBC members resigned or were removed from office, each
under a noisome cloud of scandal.
These and other depredations had shrunk the GBC to fifteen members.
At the same time, the GBC had empowered an outside 'Committee of
Fifty', all senior disciples of Srila Prabhupada, to interview and
evaluate each of the remaining GBC members and to share its findings
with the body. That being accomplished, the GBC then requested that
committee to place before the GBC the names of some devotees as
prospective new members. (The GBC added new members by a two-thirds
My name was among those proposed, and I was voted onto the body.
I had wanted to return to my services of writing and scholarship
with the Bhaktivedanta Institute and the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust,
but I fell unwittingly under the sway of a fairly well-established
law: If you lead a successful revolution, you are condemned to become
part of the government. There is no doubt that in the activities
of reform I had to criticise many devotees who deviations
and shortcomings notwithstanding harboured an inviolable seed of
devotion to Prabhupada and Krsna. Having to serve on the GBC was
only a fitting punishment for my offence.
Although I prefer the contemplative to the active life, it is true
that my active engagements with the guru reform movement and later
the GBC have repeatedly produced bumper crops of material to feed
contemplation. I should explain that reflecting on the Hare Krishna
movement in that mode of critical self-awareness inculcated
in academia formed, from the beginning, an important component
of my involvement with it.
In 1971 I had moved with spouse and children into a fledgeling
temple community in Philadelphia, thereby committing our joint and
several futures to Prabhupada's movement. It was indeed an act of
faith, but faith seeks ceaselessly to understand, and I strove daily
to comprehend more fully just what I had done, what adventure I
had embarked on. The understanding that gradually took shape was
composed of three closely interrelated dimensions; and these three,
eventually, were to provide me with the features of certain broad
principles for reform. I shall call them the historical, the personal
and the social.
Prior to my joining ISKCON I had seriously pursued academic study
in religion and philosophy. Although the limits of the merely academic
impelled me to refuge within a living spiritual tradition, I could
not simply shed my prior formation. And so it was with a certain
thrill that I realised that, having joined the Hare Krishna movement,
I was granted the closest, real-time access to a kind of event that
fascinates scholars of religion: a religion transplanting itself
from its natal culture. I had once studied the movement of Christianity
from its original Jewish milieu into the cosmopolitan Mediterranean
world of the pax Romana. Now I recognised a parallel in Prabhupada's
ISKCON: Gaudiya Vaisnavism being led from its Bengal cradle-land
into the modern global civilisation of the pax Americana.
I didn't have just a 'ring-side seat' to this event; I was in the
I was committed. I had committed more than this life to the mercies
of ISKCON. I had committed my very soul. In spite of my predilections
for the long historical perspective, I was anything but a disinterested
observer. My own personal stake in the success of Srila Prabhupada's
endeavour had an individual as well as a social dimension. As an
individual, I had committed myself to the enterprise of becoming
a pure devotee. Prabhupada had succeeded in convincing a coterie
of idealistic American youth that sainthood was a feasible vocation,
a 'live option', and I was one among them. Prabhupada called us
to a kind of heroism of risk, of commitment, and of sacrifice in
an ultimate 'war against maya'. Prabhupada taught that this
consummate victory was granted only to those prepared to subordinate
all other concerns to the service of this single ultimate concern.
When I took initiation from him, I pledged myself to this principle.
Yet I could not carry out this pledge by myself; I required favourable
grounds. That was ISKCON, painstakingly crafted by Prabhupada himself,
placed by him in late twentieth century America, to nourish and
foster my personal pilgrimage toward pure service to God.
ISKCON harboured a further significance: ISKCON was itself my service.
Even as ISKCON nurtured me, I was bound in turn to nurture ISKCON.
Assisting Srila Prabhupada in his mission was both my obligation
and my saving grace. His mission was to deliver throngs of fallen
souls through propagation of the sankirtana yuga-dharma,
effecting thereby 'a respiritualisation of the entire human society'.
In this effort, ISKCON was both his means and his end. In the bhakti
sankirtana movement, as Prabhupada taught it, saving myself
and saving the world entailed each other. ISKCON was the context
Bhakti is at once personalistic and social, for it is a
philosophical truth that the personal and the social cannot be separated.
What a 'person' is can be fully manifest only through interactions
with other persons. This principle is exemplified at the highest
ontological level in Krsna, whose supreme personhood entails that
He is also supremely social. The fullness of the Godhead entails
that the supreme, transcendental Absolute is equally the supremely,
transcendentally relative. Krsna, therefore, is never alone but
always in the company of his devotees. He is constituted by relationships,
and many of His proper and eternal names include those of his nearest
and dearest as, for example, Radha-kanta (Radha's sweetheart),
Yasoda-nandana (Yasoda's darling boy), Partha-sarathi (charioteer
to Prtha's son) and so on. For this reason, bhakti
devotional service is pre-eminently a social activity, and
that social principle attains its fullest exfoliation in the idea
of sankirtana, the congregational glorification of God's
name, fame, activities and so on. Therefore, Prabhupada's founding
a society of devotees was not simply a tactical expedience; it was
a metaphysical necessity.
The effort of Prabhupada, then, was to establish the community
or communion of devotees, a communion that, out of the natural overflowing
of its own joy, would be ever increasing. That communion is one
in which certain kinds of personal transactions would take place
among the devotees; by them, the devotional consciousness of the
participants would ever increase; and, in a spirit of compassion
for those suffering outside this community, the members would always
be initiating others into their circle to share in the felicity
of their communion.
Prabhupada, however, was not inaugurating this society de novo,
from scratch. Inducted into ISKCON, we became part of a sampradaya
(the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya-sampradaya, to be precise), a venerable
historical community whose task, generation after generation, was
properly and correctly to receive a spiritual culture, attain full
formation and realisation through it, and pass it on complete and
sound, free from any adulteration, to the next generation. Although
Prabhupada came to us in the West as a solitary figure (an anomaly
we shall examine later), he was the repository of a vastly rich
tradition of teachers and students, who studied, composed, taught
and practised volumes of theology, commentary, drama, poetry and
song. When we became Prabhupada's students, he was initiating us
into the teachings and practices of that tradition, to become its
Here, then, was quite another way the historical past came to be
known by me as age-old tradition, received and transmitted
through authority. It is the outstanding national trait of Americans
to be without tradition. A nation of migrants, the United States
could realise more thoroughly than Europe the Enlightenment project
of a radical break with the past, of wholesale rejection of traditional
political and spiritual authority, of the reinvention of humanity
from the ground up. In America, tradition and traditional authorities
are reflexively viewed with scepticism, suspicion and even hostility.
Rootlessness is the national style, and the ability to perpetually
reinvent oneself through a series of discrete identities is practically
the national ideal. It is, unfortunately, the world's future, as
indigenous communities and traditions are dissolved by the solvent
of the ever-spreading pax Americana, to survive only in the
travesty of the theme park and the multi-media 'experience'. At
first, American I should say modern rootlessness was
an important, even necessary, condition for the beginning of ISKCON;
very soon, it became one the greatest impediments to its development
and continuance. The contrast between the condition of modern America
and the 'Vedic' culture of tradition and authority, of continuity
and conservation, that Prabhupada was attempting to transplant could
hardly have been greater. With growing amazement, I gradually got
sight of the immensity of Prabhupada's endeavour. It was breathtaking.
I also came to see that Prabhupada was very well aware of the overwhelming
difficulty of his undertaking. Seeing him immersed in that endeavour
gave me new appreciation for certain of his oft-repeated sayings,
such as 'Impossible is a word found in a fool's dictionary,' and
for his injunction to 'shoot the rhinoceros' (meaning that if you
are to attempt something, you might as well make it something formidable).
As Prabhupada explained in a 1971 letter to Balavanta Dasa: 'We
should always be enthusiastic to try for shooting the rhinoceros.
That way, if we fail, everybody will say, "Never mind, nobody can
shoot a rhinoceros anyway," and if we succeed, then everyone will
say, "Just see, what a wonderful thing they have done."'
Prabhupada understood the obstacles, but he remained ever-confident,
and instilled the same confidence in others. His ability to convey
a sense of unshakable confidence in himself and his mission attained
its impressive power because it was evidently part and parcel of
a simple and deep humility. The confidence of Prabhupada reposed,
of course, on supernatural foundations, on firm dependence on guru
and Krsna, and therefore it held impervious to all failures and
setbacks. 'So I don't think there is any cause of discouragement',
he wrote in 1969 to Vrndavanesvari, 'because we are working on a
Yet at every minute Srila Prabhupada was wrestling with failure
and setbacks. Indeed, as I was gradually to learn, when Prabhupada
single-handedly conducted Caitanya's mission to the West, he did
so as the sole undebilitated survivor of a monstrous spiritual failure
in India, the foundering of his spiritual master's mission and institution,
the Gaudiya Matha. He came to America like a survivor paddling away
from a colossal shipwreck. Even from the beginning of his Western
mission, Prabhupada was carrying on in the face of massive failure
and discouragement in the generation previous to us. He noted this,
for example, in a letter of 1972 responding to a disheartened Guru
Dasa: 'Do not be depressed. All along my godbrothers gave me only
depression, repression, compression but I continued strong
in my duty. So never mind there is some discouragement, continue
with your work in full enthusiastic Krishna Consciousness attitude
Prabhupada's own movement also soon provided him with ample reason
for discouragement. From the very outset there was trouble: his
authority was challenged; his position compromised; his instructions
distorted, neglected or selectively followed; his teachings moulded
to various fancies; his assets misused, mismanaged and misappropriated;
his standards broken; his dependents neglected, exploited and abused.
And the worst of this was committed by men Prabhupada entrusted
with responsible positions. Prabhupada travelled continuously around
the world, grappling with problems. Each day his mail washed up
to him a jumbled deposit of scandals, failures and disappointments.
Internal weaknesses and shortcomings turned the eleven years of
Prabhupada's personal supervision into a concatenation of crises.
It is a noteworthy feature of ISKCON during that time that there
was hardly any frank and open acknowledgement of the problems among
the members. Even though almost any of us could provide impressively
detailed accounts of a plethora of scandals and failures, a weird
sort of schizoid compartmentalisation allowed us to maintain the
conviction that we as a society were pure and transcendental and
that, almost by definition, we could do no wrong. Scandals and failures
tended each to be viewed as discrete and anomalous, and they were
rarely surveyed as a whole to alarm us with the picture of a chronic
condition, a pervasive pattern, a trend. We became so captivated
by our own dazzling ideals that we were blinded to our actual behaviour.
We could have benefitted by accepting some of the devastatingly
accurate criticisms levelled against us by the anti-cult movement,
but unfortunately the anti-cultists called for the destruction of
ISKCON. Their condemnations were indiscriminate and sweeping, and
they in no way wished us well. As a result, they simply fostered
the very bunker mentality they condemned and only fed the self-righteousness
of the devotees.
Yet given all that, it was more than possible to flourish spiritually
within ISKCON. True, when I moved into a temple of little over a
dozen residents, it was a shock to discover the extent of the struggle
with spiritual weakness that went on daily. It was a test to undergo
the difficulties of human relations within a small, tightly-knit,
high-demand, high-intensity, religious community, especially one
nearly bereft of the human comforts of social or psychological compatibilities.
Nevertheless, one could, if one wanted, negotiate all the individual
and group minefields, and not only advance in Krsna consciousness,
but also deliver it effectively to others. In fact, I could do neither
of those things at all outside of ISKCON. If, on my worst days,
I found myself thinking that the devotees I lived with were fools
and rascals, I always reminded myself that without these fools and
rascals, I could make no advancement in Krsna consciousness. I had
better learn to appreciate them. We were, all of us, fools and rascals;
nevertheless, Prabhupada still enabled us to do miraculous things,
rendered all the more miraculous in light of the character of the
Thus, it was not until after the demise of its founder-acarya in
1977 that ISKCON as a n institution had to acknowledge and come
to terms with its failures and shortcomings. At first with
the lineage apparently handed over securely by Prabhupada to eleven
hand-picked successor-acaryas ISKCON set out with
great panache, leaping off with the boyish ebullience of Siegfried
bounding down to the Rhine, horn blaring. Yet it was not long before
ISKCON had to confront, at last, its own shadow, as over the decade
intractable failures and shortcomings abuse of authority,
enjoyment of position, attachment to material pleasures, and the
like emerged within the group of initiating gurus. The movement
was forced to begin facing, frankly and openly, the gap between
its ideals and its actual achievements. We had attained the condition
for real progress.
So profound was ISKCON's denial, its concealment of its own problems
from itself, that many reacted initially as if these problems among
leaders were some shocking brand-new phenomenon. They contrasted
the prelapsarian paradise of ISKCON under Prabhupada with the now
hopelessly degenerate society, devoid as it is of the salvific presence
of any 'maha-bhagavata'. Some awaited eagerly the emergence
of a new 'self-effulgent acarya' who would restore us to
our lost purity. There are those who still await the coming of such
a saviour, while there are yet others who proclaim to have found
him manifest in the person of some particular devotee, usually this
or that elderly Indian sannyasi.
Yet even in the presence of Prabhupada the all-acknowledged
'maha-bhagavata' ISKCON regularly failed to live up
to its own ideals. Moreover, it was during Prabhupada's presence
that ISKCON devotees were most successful at maintaining their concealment;
only after Prabhupada was gone did the concealment begin to break
down. It has taken longest for those failures enacted during Prabhupada's
own presence to attain admission to consciousness. Seeking the reason
for this delayed recognition has led me to face an uncomfortable
fact: It was Prabhupada's very presence that had gradually begun
to function for many devotees as an instrument of concealment and
It was natural for us to identify ourselves to some extent with
Prabhupada as the living embodiment of our ideals and to see him
as the very personification of ISKCON (so that his purity became
ours). This helped us maintain our ideals and our enthusiasm to
attain them even in the face of setbacks and adversity. However,
such a relationship turns unhealthy if I engage in the worship or
adoration of an ideal precisely in order to compensate for personal
failures. In such cases, my self-respect no longer resides in the
heroism of my struggle, for I have given up on the struggle, without
acknowledging that I have done so. Now, as a substitute for dealing
honestly with my failures, I identify intensely myself with my saviour-figure.
My disowned anxieties about my true condition and the psychic tensions
of concealment find release as adulation, one that reveals its origin
in falsity though its strident, driven character. In such cases,
worshipping a guru becomes a substitute for becoming Krsna conscious.
Thus we have the too familiar phenomenon in ISKCON (then and now)
of fanatical followers and so-called 'guru groupies'. This pathological
submergence of self into an all-powerful, idealised saviour-figure
is, of course, one of the phenomena that gives rise to the notion
of a 'cult'. It is a sure sign of arrested spiritual development
disguising itself as true religion.
The point is that the difficulties that precipitated the guru reform
movement are intimately connected with psychological patterns and
styles of relationships that began to establish themselves from
the beginning. These are grounded in the inability of many devotees
to acknowledge and deal fruitfully with their own spiritual shortcomings
and failures, or, in traditional vocabulary, their inability to
execute the process of anartha-nivrtti (the eradication of
'unwanted things' from the heart). This general, widespread failure,
which pervades the institution and has even shaped some structural
features of it, is the root debility, of which the guru crisis
the 'crisis of succession' is simply a highly visible symptom.
It is my conviction that any real reform has to address effectively
the root debility. Too many of us have tried to fix the symptom
while ignoring the local manifestation of the disease, including
the manifestation within our own hearts. Too many have tried to
purify ISKCON as a substitute for purifying ourselves. This kind
of behaviour is the disease, not the cure.
In 1979 questions about the gurus' position had burst out in major
eruptions at ISKCON centres at Vrndavana and Juhu Beach, ejecting
over the rest of the movement thick fascicles of photocopied papers.
In May of 1980 the GBC body was forced to convene an 'extraordinary
general meeting' an emergency meeting in Los Angeles
to find immediate responses to controversial behaviour on the part
of Hamsaduta Swami (abuse of power, drugs, sex, crime), Jayatirtha
Swami (LSD, as it would turn out), and Tamala Krsna Goswami (extreme
autocracy). A mere three months after sanctioning these gurus, the
GBC issued a philosophical position paper defending the position
that the current gurus were to be understood as maha-bhagavatas.
In any case, by 1981 the GBC had to remove Hamsaduta from his position,
and it did the same with Jayatirtha in 1982. By this point, most
senior devotees believed that guru failures and abuses were going
to continue and the GBC could not control them. This growing anxiety
finally found institutional articulation at a routine meeting of
the North American temple presidents and sannyasis in September
of 1984. The thirty-five voting members present polled themselves
and discovered that 94% of them believed that 'there are fundamental
and compelling problems with the guru institution as it presently
exists in ISKCON'.
The group called a second meeting in November to pursue this issue
further, and, in spite of a good deal of reluctance, I was persuaded
to attend the meeting. Much to my surprise, I found myself becoming
greatly enlivened and encouraged by the association and the commitment
of the devotees. I realised, with a shock, that quite unconsciously
I had fallen into a state of despair about ISKCON and about
myself as well. I was in a spiritual slump, and the meeting was
waking me up. At this gathering I was asked to conduct research
to determine just exactly what had gone wrong with the way the position
of the guru had been institutionalised in ISKCON. I agreed to take
Back in Philadelphia, I concluded that the only way I could responsibly
conduct research on such a loaded subject was to attempt to entrust
myself to the guidance of Supersoul, the indwelling guide and director
of intelligence. I feared more than anything else my own stupidity.
I was the straw man, and I needed a brain. I decided to entrust
myself to Prabhupada's instructions for attaining direction from
Supersoul. Thus, as a remedial measure, I undertook to rigorously
restore my sadhana to a strict level. I defined good sadhana
as chanting the holy name while trying assiduously to avoid offences.
In this way, I would be in a position to receive intelligence from
Krsna whenever He chose to give it. Prabhupada's instructions were
as potent as they are simple:
In all spiritual affairs, one's first duty is to control his mind
and senses. Unless one controls his mind and senses, one cannot
make any advancement in spiritual life. Everyone within this material
world is engrossed in the modes of passion and ignorance. One must
promote himself to the platform of goodness, sattva-guna,
by following the instructions of Rupa Goswami in the first verse
of Upadesamrta, and then everything concerning how to make
further progress will be revealed. (The Nectar of Instruction,
It seemed that this was as pertinent for guidance of the entire
movement as it was for personal guidance.
As my sadhana became strict, my spirits picked up, and my
despair over the fate of ISKCON began to evaporate like fog. And
every day I thought hard about what had gone wrong in ISKCON. Then
a breakthrough came.
One evening some of us who had attended the meeting in Towaco were
discussing strategy. Sesa Dasa, the temple president, was there,
as well as Mahakrama Swami, who had been elected vice-chairman in
Towaco. He was also the regional secretary for Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami,
the initiating guru and GBC for our area. Although Satsvarupa Maharaja
would later publish an influential book called Guru Reform,
his initial reaction to the nascent reform movement had been filled
with misgivings. He did not interfere with our participation, yet
he had publicly expressed strong reservations about the Towaco meetings,
questioning the suitability of politics to deal with spiritual issues.
After our strategy meeting broke up that night, Sesa took me aside
and warned me: 'You know, you should be really careful about what
you say around Mahakrama! He reports everything back to Satsvarupa
Maharaja. You should know that.'
I was stunned. I thought: 'Here we are supposed to be the reform
party, and we think we can save ISKCON, but we cannot even trust
each other. How will we be any better?' It was during the sleepless
night that followed that I came to realise that the 'guru problem'
was merely a symptom of a disease, with which we were all infected.
The polarity of 'us-and-them' was wrong. I remembered the famous
motto of Pogo, the newspaper-comic possum: 'We have met the enemy
and he is us!' Any effort at reform that did not begin with
myself and with our 'side' would be superficial and counter-productive.
It would indeed be mundane politics.
Ideas flooded into my head, and in the morning I began intensely
discussing them with Kundali Dasa and others and setting them down
on paper. Addressing my godbrothers and godsisters. I began by asserting,
'The root of all problems now facing ISKCON is that we, the disciples
of Srila Prabhupada, have not yet established proper Vaisnava relationships
among ourselves. While Prabhupada was here with us, we did not enjoy
such relationships, and our spiritual master plainly told us that
our greatest fault was our tendency to quarrel with each other.'
And then I went on to commit to writing for the first time
my honest perceptions of life in ISKCON:
A society of devotees in which proper Vaisnava relations are not
yet the norm is called a kanistha-adhikari society. Its distinguishing
characteristic is contentiousness arising from envy. Envy is a product
of false ego. Because of false ego, the members are unable to establish
spiritual friendship among themselves. Instead, they vie with each
other for prestige, power and perquisites. Intensely desiring the
honour and respect of others, the contentious neophyte pretends
to be more advanced than he actually is. He tries to conceal his
shortcomings and falldowns, and in so doing he develops a secretive
mentality and holds himself back from entering into open and honest
relations with his Godbrothers. Because he cannot reveal his mind
in confidence, he remains aloof from real fellowship.
He strays from the path of devotional service, but his peers do
not help him. For he thinks that if he allows someone to preach
to him, he implicitly admits his own subordination. Therefore he
cuts himself off from hearing and becomes impervious to instruction
or good advice. Because he has many secret misgivings about himself,
he becomes eager to find the faults of others; that way he reassures
himself of his own superiority in spite of his many unacknowledged
Spiritual immaturity often leads a kanistha-adhikari to
identify spiritual advancement with organisational advancement.
He thinks that attaining prestige, power and the perquisites of
office is evidence of spiritual advancement. Lacking the assets
for real spiritual achievement, he substitutes organisational elevation,
which he can attain through his cunning or political prowess. He
therefore competes intensely with others for high office, and he
comes to believe implicitly that one achieves a spiritually elevated
state only by becoming victorious over others. In this way material
competition becomes institutionalised in kanistha-adhikari
I could also propose a path of reform:
Fortunately, however, the kanistha stage is followed by
the madhyama stage. A kanistha-adhikari advances to
the madhyama platform by means of sadhana-bhakti.
Sadhana-bhakti, pursued diligently and attentively, destroys
false ego, and as long as the neophyte devotees attend to their
sadhana they can be sure of elevation to the higher stages.
There is, however, no other assured means of advancement, and habitual
negligence in sadhana is therefore fatal to progressive spiritual
life. Furthermore, when a neophyte devotee has risen to the madhyama
platform, sadhana is absolutely necessary to maintain him
in that position. If he becomes slack in sadhana, he rapidly
reverts to the neophyte condition. Therefore, the essential prerequisite
for both creating and sustaining a madhyama society is intense
common commitment to sadhana.
Further on, when I described this grass-roots process of reform,
I expanded upon what I felt were the pervading social and individual
deficiencies in ISKCON:
One special advantage to this revolutionary project for the regeneration
of ISKCON is that it need not wait on the action of the GBC. It
can be initiated in each temple immediately. It can be started by
one devotee, and then spread by progression to two, three, and on
and on. Thus there can be many centres of reformation, and they
will each widen until all of ISKCON is included.
Any devotee who wants to institute reform must begin with himself.
The prerequisite for coming to the madhyama stage is to be
a strict follower of the regulative principles of devotional service.
Spiritual fellowship cannot flourish if anarthas are not
being relentlessly uprooted by daily practice. Therefore, every
devotee who wants to help in the reformation of ISKCON must first
carefully review his own spiritual condition and his personal devotional
practice. If he is careless in observing regulative principles and
slack in sadhana, he must immediately take up the process
of rectification. This entails attending the complete morning program
in all alertness, with especial concentration on attentive, offence-avoiding
japa. By this effort, a devotee may quickly remove all his
accommodations to sense gratification and undertake the deliberate
dismantling of his false ego. A devotee of the reforming party should
recognise sense gratification and false ego as the two great impediments
to Vaisnava fellowship. They are the mortal enemies of ISKCON, and
he should resolve to conquer them.
Having undertaken whatever personal reformatory measures are required,
the reforming devotee should then undertake the rectification of
his relationships. Most devotees will discover that few, if any,
of their relationships are satisfactory. The devotee will probably
see that he has almost no confidential friends, and that he does
not and cannot trust most of his associates. He is conscious that
many of his associates have made accommodations sometimes
quite extensive to sense gratification. Indeed, he has participated
in many meetings in which the faults and shortcomings of those not
present have been thoroughly examined. Yet the established patterns
of relationships are such that while everyone is free to talk about,
no one is free to talk to them. In this situation, devotees
find themselves standing helplessly by as they watch one of their
associates sink deeper and deeper into maya until he finally
bloops; no one is able to come to his aid. As the failing devotee
falls further and further away, the criticism of him intensifies,
but no one helps.
Nor can the devotees work together effectively, because they have
no way of working out the inevitable differences that arise in any
collective effort. When one devotee transgresses against another,
the offended party will either respond in wrath or else retreat
into wounded silence (complaining, however, vociferously to others).
He does not know how to approach the other devotee and openly resolve
their differences. He is unable to reveal his mind without giving
Under these conditions, a great stockpile of resentment builds
up in time, and the atmosphere is filled with sullen undercurrents
of hostility and mistrust, relieved only by periodic outbursts of
anger. In this uncongenial climate, devotional relations become
more and more burdensome, and materialistic people start to seem
relatively nice. The devotees find themselves living in deepening
isolation from one another, each enthroned in a well-fortified ivory
tower of false ego. They learn to get along by avoiding each other.
These are some local conditions that arise in the milieu of fratricidal
I called the finished paper a 'preliminary proposal', and gave
it the title 'The Next Step in the Expansion of ISKCON: Ending the
Fratricidal War.' My realisations were quite personal; I had conducted
no surveys, nor much textual research, on the guru question. So,
tentatively, I mailed photocopies to three or four devotees to get
their responses. (Remember that at this time November 1984
facsimile machines were not yet in common use; it was photocopying,
then ubiquitous, that carried the reform movement.) What happened
next astonished me: within two weeks strong responses some
of them very personal began flooding in from devotees all
over the world. Chain-photocopying had geometrically propagated
the paper swiftly throughout ISKCON. I received phone calls from
devotees who complained that I had left them off my mailing-list
I had to explain that the paper had published itself.
Clearly, I had struck a nerve. The response was overwhelmingly
favourable. However, Ramesvara Swami, the head of the North American
BBT, was outraged, and he charged me with the worst of malefactions:
because I was discouraging the devotees, I was hurting book distribution.
This I worried about until the Christmas mail delivered a store-bought
card from Los Angeles displaying on front the words 'Good Job!'
and 'Thank you!' inside. It was signed by Ramesvara Swami's biggest
book distributors 'Mothers Kaumadaki, Jagaddhatri and friends
too shy to write their names' who added the message: 'Dandavats
for your "Preliminary Proposal" for ISKCON. At last some hope!!'
Bahudaka Dasa, the chairman of the North American temple presidents
and leader of the reform movement in America, was a little disappointed.
He wrote me that:
We need solid research to understand what should be the role and
position of guru. With that paper we can push on strongly for real
change. ISKCON as Prabhupada set it up has changed radically and
the primary cause is the serious mistakes being made regarding the
position of guru. How can we establish the importance of sadhana
in our movement when the majority of gurus give the worst example
in this regard?
As Bahudaka wanted, I did go on to write a further paper about
the misunderstanding of Prabhupada's order concerning the position
of guru in ISKCON. '"Under My Order ...": Reflections on the Guru
in ISKCON' (August 1985) became accepted as the position paper of
the reform movement, and the paper's thesis helped lead, two years
later, to the formal dismantling of the 'zonal acarya' system.
My investigation of this issue brought home the fact that the difficulties
undergone by ISKCON uncannily paralleled those suffered by the Gaudiya
Matha after the demise of its founder. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati
Thakura had appointed no successor to occupy the chair at the head
of his institution; instead he ordered the institution to be managed
by a 'Governing Body Commission', that is, a board of directors
of the kind that runs modern corporate enterprises. ('Governing
Body Commission' is in fact the name of the governing board of the
British-established Indian Railways.)
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was attempting to construct a
preaching mission effective in the modern, global context. To do
this he instituted a collection of reforms that rendered his mission
suspect to many formed by and attached to prevailing practices,
which they regarded as sanctified by sacred tradition. The idea
of a GBC was one such innovation. However, it did not prevail. As
Srila Prabhupada recounts it:
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, at the time of his departure,
requested all his disciples to form a governing body and conduct
missionary activities cooperatively. He did not instruct a particular
man to become the next acarya. But just after his passing
away, his leading secretaries made plans, without authority, to
occupy the post of acarya, and they split into two factions
over who the next acarya would be. Consequently, both factions
were asara, or useless, because they had no authority, having
disobeyed the order of the spiritual master. Despite the spiritual
master's order to form a governing body and execute the missionary
activities of the Gaudiya Matha, the two unauthorized factions began
litigation that is still going on after forty years with no decision.
(Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi-lila 12.8, purport)
According to Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara Deva Goswami (who discussed
this matter during a audio-taped conversation with a group of GBC
members on October 17, 1980), a GBC of thirteen members was formed
ten days after the departure of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura,
but Sridhara Maharaja who would not serve on the body
was dissatisfied with it, and he and some other senior members prevailed
upon the Matha to elevate Ananta Vasudeva Dasa, a brahmacari
of brilliant scholastic ability who had served as Bhaktisiddhanta
Sarasvati Thakura's secretary, to the position of acarya.
In effect, the Matha reverted to an ancient, traditional model of
leadership, in which a single guru, recognised by all as possessing
exceptional spiritual power (charisma) is elevated above all others
to rule autocratically at the seat at the head of the institution.
One of Ananta Vasudeva's 'principle supporters', B.R. Sridhara Swami
recollects (referring to himself in the first person plural):
We made him acarya, though a brahmacari, because,
next to Prabhupada [Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura], he could
satisfy us with the siddhanta, sastric siddhanta,
sastric conclusion. He was well versed [in the sastra]. It
was universally accepted: Next to Prabhupada, he knows the sastric
siddhanta. So we felt indebted to him. And from early time,
we thought the next acarya will be he. That was our conviction.
Two years after the elevation of 'Vasudeva Prabhu', however, someone
stumbled across some 'love letters', part of a correspondence between
Ananta Vasudeva and a woman; these letters were brought to B.R.
Sridhara Swami, who concluded, together with some other senior men,
that Ananta Vasudeva could not 'do justice to the seat of our Guru
Maharaja' and should step down. Ananta Vasudeva, however, did not
agree, and he and his loyal followers squared off with the others
in protracted, painful hostilities that included systematic discrimination,
much persiflage and on occasion physical assault. Finally, as Sridhara
Maharaja put it, 'Prabhupada withdrew from him', and Ananta Vasudeva
began to preach against Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura
Sridhara Maharaja says this blasphemy was the result of Ananta Vasudeva's
having committed so many offences against devotees and he
left the mission. He gave himself sannyasa in Allahabad,
and later took initiation (as Puri Goswami) among the babajis
of Radha-kunda a group highly antagonistic to Bhaktisiddhanta
among whom he continued as leading intellectual light, even
though he eventually got married. After his abdication, the Gaudiya
Matha fragmented into contending parties over the succession, and
the case ended up before the Calcutta High Court for resolution.
We see that ISKCON is not going through anything new. It faces
the same issues that broke apart the Gaudiya Matha. The fact that
Bhaktisiddhanta's disciples could not continue their founder's visionary
reforms demonstrates first of all the sheer difficulty of the undertaking.
It may well take several generations to get it right. The undertaking
is to pass on a spiritual tradition in a sound and healthy form,
its living force undiminished, into the modern world. This is no
small task. Up until now, when the religions of the West have encountered
modernity, they have tended either to remain intact by withdrawing
into the self-protective shell of fundamentalism, or to become swallowed
up and assimilated by the world, to live on only as a few nostalgic
gestures. Does a similar fate await Lord Caitanya's movement? The
task facing Gaudiya Vaisnavas, it seems to me, is to discover another
Awareness of the history of the Gaudiya Matha not only shows us
the difficulty of challenge, but it may save us from the same mistakes
or at least help us rectify those we have made. Any hope we have
of healing fragmentation and isolation depends upon our recognition
of past mistakes. At the beginning of the reform movement, I tried
to show how, within ISKCON, concealment of failure leads to isolation.
This principle holds as much for relations among communities as
among individuals. Progress in spiritual life, individually and
institutionally, depends first of all on the frank acknowledgement
of shortcoming, errors and mistakes. Without that, all 'progress'
is mere bluff.
At a certain time, Germans found it necessary to put themselves
through a painful process to which they gave the name Vergangenheitsbewältigung
that is, 'coming to terms with the past', 'past' here referring
to the period 1933-45. ISKCON requires its own Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
Each devotee needs to undergo it as an individual, and the society
needs to undertake it as an institution. It is also a necessity
for the various present offshoots and spin-offs of the original
Gaudiya Matha. ISKCON is not the only place mistakes get buried.
In those quarters there seems to be a reluctance to face up to a
historical failure to serve the order of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati
The reform movement in ISKCON aimed at establishing the GBC-principle
and subordinating initiating gurus to the GBC authority, based on
Srila Prabhupada's order. To me, however, the most important element
of reform is the personal reform as I envisioned it in my 'preliminary
proposal'. And it is this project that has, as you might suspect,
proven to be the most intractable.
For devotees in the Krsna consciousness movement, reform must be
a fundamental spiritual practice, inseparable from our cultivation
of the holy name. We must accordingly recognise that reform is a
never-ending enterprise, our daily work. It should never be neglected,
nor should we ever assume that the job is accomplished. Our confession
should be perpetual:
trnad api sunicena taror iva sahisnuna
amanina manadena kirtaniya sada harih
One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant
than a tree, and who does not expect personal honour but is always
prepared to give all respect to others can very easily always chant
the holy name of the Lord. (Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya-lila
At the same time, if we show some perseverance in the matter, always
begging Krsna to destroy our desires to enjoy independently in this
world, Krsna will reciprocate with us and give us guidance from
within. In this way, the devotee becomes acquainted with the infinitely
caring and carefully guiding presence of Krsna, a presence that
becomes the solace of the devotee's heart. And the devotee can progress
confidently. The devotee is also empowered to give guidance to others.
When I became involved with the reform movement, it distressed
me to see the number of my revolutionary godbrothers who thought
that the problems with ISKCON were due to the fact that other people
were not Krsna conscious enough. The other people, in this context,
were those who had become the first initiating gurus after Prabhupada.
Each of them had been a responsible leader under Prabhupada, and
Prabhupada relied much upon them. Prabhupada deeply appreciated
them because they had shouldered the burden of so much responsibility
on his behalf. Whatever their shortcomings, they were Prabhupada's
'best men'. If, in the event, they turned out to be not good enough,
then the question I had to ask myself was: 'Why wasn't I any better?'
After all, we are told that the spiritual master's mercy is equally
available to all disciples, without discrimination. Prabhupada did
not play favourites. So the fault was mine: I had every opportunity
to be better, but I did not take it.
I also realised that, despite all their failings, Prabhupada appreciated
the service of these people. I should therefore appreciate it as
well. And it seemed to me that success in reform of leadership would
only come when Krsna became convinced that there were other people
who would be as willing to carry the burden of responsibility as
those who had failed and who would strive more diligently than they
did to become free from impurities. In sum, the personal qualification
for reform is: With a firm vow, we in ISKCON have to commit ourselves
to (1) purifying ourselves, and (2) accepting responsibility to
care for others. I am convinced that any devotee man or woman,
senior devotee or new bhakta, big preacher or humble doorkeeper
can, by taking these two vows, become increasingly empowered
by Krsna to save ISKCON. We can begin today.