(Ravindra Svarupa dasa)
A paper delivered at the Vaishnava Academy conference held in Weisbaden, Germany in January 1994. Published in ISKCON Communications Journal, No. 3 (January-June 1994), 43-52 (Part 1) and No. 4 (July-December 1994), 25-33 (Part 2).
IntroductionIn January, 1994 ISKCON in Germany—under threat of government repression as a “cult”—organized a Vaishnava Academy Conference in Wiesbaden, titled “Twenty-five Years of ISKCON in Germany.” The conference was attended not only by academics but also by state church functionaries who advise the German government on “the sect issue.” This essay by Ravindra Svarupa dasa —originally published in 1994 in ISKCON Communications Journal—is an expanded version of his talk at that conference. In this paper, Ravindra Svarupa reflects in a self-critical fashion on a number of ISKCON’s major failures and errors, such as institutionalized misogyny and the deviations of the “zonal-acarya” system. In a historical analysis, Ravindra Svarupa attempts to unearth the root cause of these anomalies, and he proposes that an honest acknowledgement of spiritual failure—on both an individual and an institutional level—is the key to real reform and progress.
In 1971 I underwent the profoundly wrenching change of becoming a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, leaving one life and embarking on another. I abandoned old associations to immerse myself totally in the life of a tight-knit temple commune; I radically restyled my exterior to complement my utterly changed interior. I became a stranger in my own land.
I undertook such an arduous passage because I was convinced that I was thereby effecting an ontological crossing: I was leaving the material dimension for the spiritual, awakening from the nightmare of history to the peace of eternity. ISKCON temples were embassies of the kingdom of God. Although apparently located in Maya’s realm, they were under direct divine jurisdiction. There the powers of material conditioning and desire had no sway. This is what I believed.
Looking back at that younger self of mine—twenty-six years old at the time—I am appalled by his naiveté—“stupidity” would be appropriate—and at the same time awed by his sacrificial commitment. Foolish and ignorant though he was, I am more than ever convinced that, by the grace of God, he made the right choice. That decision of my younger self is indeed the spiritual capital on which I still live. My self-doubt, rather, is whether I would at this time have the courage to make such a decision, knowing what I know now.
What I know now, of course, is that transcendence is not so easily attained, that history does not so easily release us from its grasp. What I know now is that the line that separates the godly from the ungodly is not congruent with the line dividing ISKCON from non-ISKCON. I know now that, like most in this world, I am committed—in my case deeply committed—to an institution that has done things that make me appalled and ashamed.
I joined ISKCON in my youth, when ISKCON itself was new-born. Over the last quarter-century both of us have matured together. I can no longer be called by any stretch of the term a “youth,” nor can ISKCON be called a “youth-religion.” Through struggle and difficulty ISKCON has attained—has been forced to attain—concrete awareness of its own limitations, and has, on the institutional level, enacted structures of self-criticism and self-correction. I want to set before you what I think is the central problem ISKCON has faced in that struggle. That problem arises out of both the internal dynamics of its spiritual endeavor and of the historical situation in which it has found itself.
ISKCON aims at creating “pure devotees” of God, that is to say, people who serve God without any personal motive and without any interruption and who are free from all material desires. It is not thought in ISKCON that this is an ideal of which we must all, inevitably, fall short. On the contrary, ISKCON has the ability to present this ideal as a practical aim to its members and potential members in a extraordinarily vivid manner. Its members internalize this ideal for themselves, an ideal that demands an exacting and unremitting standard of purity in deeds, in words, in thought.
ISKCON says to people that pure devotional service, though an extremely elevated condition, is an attainable goal. Whenever ISKCON is powerful in recruiting new members and drawing from them a high level of commitment, it is because it can preach this with great confidence. People join and people remain because a very high ideal seems feasible of realization. Much of the power with which ISKCON is able to present this ideal as both a desirable and an achievable aim depends upon the concrete, physical presence of a successful devotee who functions as an exemplary model, a paradigmatic individual. This personage—the guru, or acarya (one who teaches by his own behavior), not only embodies the ideal for all to see, but also delivers the divine grace by which others can become similarly advanced. Thus the institution itself requires devotees who appear to have realized the ideals.
The problem for ISKCON has been to deal constructively with its own failures to live up to its ideals. Many more people have been attracted to the principles of Krishna consciousness than are actually able to follow them. Its more public shortcomings or scandals have resulted from a somewhat protracted refusal or inability to recognize its problems. In the minds of many devotees, they were simply not supposed to happen.
The difficulty for ISKCON was exacerbated from the beginning, however, by the marginal social position of most of the early recruits. They were very young and very alienated, and in joining ISKCON they became double dropouts—from mainstream society into the countercuture, from the counterculture into ISKCON. At the same time, certain attitudes of the 60s counterculture were retained and became part of the unofficial culture of ISKCON.
“Easy and Sublime”
When A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami—known later by the honorific title “Srila Prabhupada”—began preaching in New York City in the second half of the 60s, he characterized Krishna consciousness by a hendiadys that became something of a catchphrase: Krishna consciousness, he said, is “simultaneously easy and sublime.” The combination seems unlikely, for the easy is usually common and ordinary, and the sublime, difficult of realization. Yet in presenting this unlikely conjunction, Srila Prabhupada was quite faithfully representing his received Vaishnava (monotheistic, devotional) tradition from India.
That tradition, called “Gaudiya Vaishnavism,” had attained its distinctive identity in sixteenth century Bengal, as a reformed branch of a much older Vaishnava tradition. This reformation was the achievement of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533). Somewhat like his European contemporary, Martin Luthur, Mahaprabhu stressed a direct, intimately personal relationship with God, unmediated by the traditional priestly offices and ritual formularies; and Mahaprabhu was vigorous in extending this relationship to everyone, even the outcastes, the untouchables, and the fallen.
These two tendencies were consonant with Vaishnava tradition in general. Vaishnavism had always propounded, as the highest salvation, a relationship with a transcendent person, whom it viewed as ontologically higher than the undifferentiated Brahman attained by a mysticism of negation (Bhagavad-gita 14.27). And Vaishnavism had always extended spiritual enfranchisement to traditionally disenfranchised people (Bhagavad-gita 9.32). Mahaprabhu developed both tendencies further. He taught, and practiced, the process of entering into a relationship with God in his most private and confidential feature.
According to Gaudiya Vaishnava theology, God has both a public and a private face. When he manifests his power and majesty (aisvarya), he is known as Narayana and is served perforce in awe and reverence. However, when he sets aside his lordship, and allows his beauty and sweetness (madhurya) to overpower his majesty, he is known as Krishna, the all-attractive. In order to enjoy intimate exchanges of love, Krishna causes his confidential devotees to forget that he is God, so that they may serve him in a fraternal, parental, or conjugal mood. The attainment of such intimate service, Chaitanya taught, is the highest achievement of spiritual life. That achievement was not at all relegated to a future life: pure devotees could fully experience such ecstatic relationships even in this existence. The correct practice of devotional service results in direct experience of the divine (paresanubhava) (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.2.42). The person of Mahaprabhu himself underwent the extreme physiological alterations (sattivka-bhava) that accompany such ecstasies. The other side of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s endeavor was to extend this relationship with Krishna to all, including those considered degraded and uncultured by birth or habit. Some of his most prominent followers came from beyond the pale of orthodox Hinduism. For instance, Thakura Haridasa, whom Chaitanya made the exemplar (acarya) of chanting the divine names, was born a Muslim, and his great lieutenants Sanatana and Rupa Goswami had become outcastes by serving as ministers in the Turkish government of Hussain Shah. This liberality was an affront to the position and prerogatives of the hereditary caste Brahmins, who were shown scriptural text that stated, for example, that a pure devotee, no matter how low-born, is superior to the most well-qualified, but non-devoted, Brahmin (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.9.10).
Mahaprabhu could justify his liberal policy by citing Vaishnava texts that claimed the practices of devotional service to possess such spiritual power as to elevate untouchables (sva-paca) (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.33.7) and aboriginal peoples (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.4.18) to the highest position of Vedic culture. Furthermore, the specific devotional practice of congregational chanting of the names of God, which Chaitanya made the centerpiece of his reform movement, is natural and pleasing and requires no prior qualification whatsoever. Yet it possesses immense purifying potency.
Thus Chaitanya Mahaprabhu offered direct entry into what amounts to the private life of God, and, by virtue of a process practicable by all, could liberally extend that offer to the low as well as the high, the ignorant as well as the learned, the unworthy as well as the worthy, the fallen as well as the saved. All this Srila Prabhupada encapsulated in his conjunction “easy and sublime.”
However, it must be stressed that “easy” did not mean “cheap.” The “easy” process was supposed to make one fully qualified for the sublime position. The verifiable symptom of advancement in chanting is the disappearance of lust, greed, and anger from the heart; full qualification for the higher stages of devotional service is complete absence of all material desires (virakti). For example, the conjugal pastimes of Krishna cannot be understood by anyone still affected by mundane sexual desire. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s liberality did not stop him from enforcing very strict standards of conduct among his followers.
This particular mixture of elements, transmitted quite faithfully by Srila Prabhupada to America, did much to determine the inner tensions that produced the dynamic of ISKCON’s development in the West.
Preaching to “White Aborigines”
The demotic thrust of Vaishnava teaching provided theological justification for Srila Prabhupada’s coming to the West—for, by orthodox Hindu standards, all Westerners are ipso facto untouchables. Even so, Srila Prabhupada had initially envisioned his mission as directed toward the West’s political and cultural elite. Several years before his missionary journey, Srila Prabhupada had written in his English translation and commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam [League of Devotees: Vrindaban and Delhi, 1962], that the work was “a cultural presentation for the re-spiritualization of the entire human society,” “meant for bringing about a revolution in the impious life of a misdirected civilization of the world.” At that time, however, he envisioned such a cultural revolution as coming from above:
We are confident if the transcendental message of Srimad Bhagwatam is received only by the leading men of the world, certainly there will be a change of heart and naturally the people in general will follow them. The mass [of] people in general are so to say tools in the hands of the modern politicians and leaders of the people. If there is a change of heart of the leaders only, certainly there will be a radical change in the atmosphere of the world situation [sic].
As it turned out, the American establishment proved quite immune to the attractions of Krishna consciousness, but Srila Prabhupada unexpectedly found a sympathetic reception among the hippies—”the spoiled children of society,” as he once called them (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.12.23, purport)—who had emerged as a group in the year of Srila Prabhupada’s arrival. Srila Prabhupada was often to note that the hippies were “our best customers” (Letters to Gaurasundara dasa, 1969, and to Satsvarupa dasa, 1971), “immediate candidates of our Krishna Consciousness” (letter to Govinda dasi, 1969). The reason for such receptivity, according to Srila Prabhupada, was that “the youth in the West have reached the stage of vairagya, or renunciation. They are practically disgusted by material pleasure from material sources” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.16.26, purport).
In a 1971 Bhagavad-gita lecture Srila Prabhupada said that “these American boys” are fed up with this materialistic way of life. They want something spiritual. But because there is no such information, there is no such leader, they are becoming hippies, frustrated and confused. And because here is something substantial, they are taking it. This is the secret of success of this Krishna Consciousness movement.
In spite of having “reached renunciation,” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.16.26, purport), American youth, for want of spiritual direction, disastrously took refuge in sex and drugs. The hippies appeared to Srila Prabhupada as “morose” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.25.11, purport), “distressed,” “wretched,” “unclean,” “without shelter or food,” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.25.5, purport), “irresponsible and unregulated” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.6.10, purport), “lying idle, without any production,” (Bhagavad-gita lecture, 1976), and so on. While the counterculture at one point made something of an icon of Srila Prabhupada, he himself remained vigorously opposed to its standards and practices and frequently exhorted his followers to renounce all allegiance to it. This, for example is from a letter of 1969 to Hayagriva dasa:
Anyway, we should be very much careful [not] to publish anything in our paper which will give impression to the public that we are inclined to the hippy [sic] movement. In our papers nothing should be published which has even a small tinge of hippy ideas. I must tell you in this connection that if you have any sympathies with the hippy movement you should kindly give it up.
It is surprising that Gaudiya Vaishnavism could have been transplanted into the modern West at all. Yet it should not be surprising—especially to those acquainted with the history of religions—that its earliest American followers should have largely been drawn from radically marginalized and alienated youth. Although Srila Prabhupada may have hoped for a hearing from the establishment, he accepted the receptivity of the hippies as providential, and relied on the potency of the holy name, vigorously preached, to achieve the requisite effect. And, indeed, the movement increased with extraordinary rapidity.
It may seem strange that someone like Prabhupada, with a message so essentially traditional and conservative, should have attracted such radicalized youth. What was his appeal? His sustained and systematic critique of modern material civilization, undertaken from a spiritual perspective, resonated strongly with his young hearers’ own disillusionment. But the deep attraction, in my judgment, was Srila Prabhupada’s ability to implant in us an extraordinary hope: He was able to establish the ideal of sainthood as a viable goal of life, a practical vocational aim. Young western men and women became convinced that they could attain direct experience of God in this life. Srila Prabhupada made it very clear that such an achievement demands an uncompromising standard of purity, and yet his followers became convinced that, in spite of their own past actions and present conditioning, they could be elevated under Srila Prabhupada’s tutelage to that requisite standard of purity.
Srila Prabhupada’s success in establishing his beachhead in the counterculture soon produced problems within his movement. His early followers were young, immature, untrained, and inexperienced. Many of them had suffered mental, moral, and spiritual disorders as a result of their sojourn in the counterculture, if not in post-war America itself. In short, Srila Prabhupada constructed his movement out of dubious raw material. He was convinced that his efforts were a matter of spiritual life or death, and he was animated by a sense of extreme urgency. In a raging storm one must construct a shelter with whatever comes to hand. Later, architects may criticize. Indeed, Srila Prabhupada knew very well the defects of his handiwork. In the mid seventies, a certain ISKCON leader showed me a letter that Srila Prabhupada had sent him. As I recall it, Srila Prabhupada, writing about his difficulties in managing his movement, had made the striking statement: “Krishna did not send me any first-class men. He sent me only second and third-class men.” Another leader told me Srila Prabhupada had written to him in nearly identical language. (I should note that I have not been able to find either letter in the present archive collection of Srila Prabhupada’s correspondence.) The movement’s early explosive growth created a further problem. New people, without much material or spiritual maturity or even training, had to assume positions of leadership and responsibility. For example, I moved into the temple in Philadelphia in January, 1971, and by October I had been made President, with twelve or fifteen devotees under my material and spiritual care. My qualifications were that I was a bit older than everyone else, that I had held down regular jobs, that I had three years of post-graduate education. But I had never managed anything or anyone, and spiritually I was still very much occupied with my own struggles. The disciplined world of spiritual life was completely new to me, and I was only beginning to absorb the heritage Srila Prabhupada was giving us. But there was no one else to do the job, so I received on-the-job training with no immediate trainer.
I can hardly remember my performance without shuddering. I think that this was rather typical of ISKCON at the time.
Another difficulty arose from the inter-generational warfare of that era. A contempt for society and its institutions was a countercultural trait that was absorbed into ISKCON in the early days (and in some parts remained for a long time). As a result, devotees were often unnecessarily hostile to and confrontational with established authorities, (including their own parents); when those authorities responded in kind, it only confirmed one’s worst estimation. In some cases, the countercultural hostility became combined with elements extracted from Krishna conscious philosophy to produce a virulent antinomianism—something you will hardly find in, say, the Bhagavad-gita. This antinomianism later produced the disaster in the West Virginia New Vrindavan community.
Yet with all these early difficulties the movement still grew and developed, and even in the most trying times an extraordinary degree of spiritual discipline was available to those who sought it. One could say, in retrospect, that Srila Prabhupada should have put the brakes on the expansion of his movement, held back his preaching, until his leaders could be properly trained by him. One could say that he was doing a very risky thing. I am sure he knew the risks, but from his perspective it would have been inconceivable not to respond as energetically as possible to the God-given opportunity to save souls. The positive results would be eternal, the bad temporary. For my own part, I am deeply grateful for the risk he took in allowing the rapid expansion of ISKCON with all its attendant hazards and shortcomings. It saved me.
Dealing with Spiritual Failure
It seemed to his early followers that Srila Prabhupada offered them something unavailable in the religions they had been raised in. He offered direct spiritual experience of God (vijnana, or “realized” knowledge), as opposed to mere doctrinal or “book” knowledge (jnana). Bhakti yoga is a spiritual discipline that aims to alter or “purify” consciousness through deliberate cultivation so that the divine can eventually become directly present to it, become a reality of immediate perception (pratyaksa. See Bhagavad-gita 9.2). This systematic aim at experiential results gives bhakti yoga a common feature with modern material science, and indeed Srila Prabhupada often used the word “science” to translate “vijnana”. As the title of a popular ISKCON book puts it, bhakti yoga is “The Science of Self Realization.”
The practice of the science of self realization requires that one make oneself the subject of an experiment in the progressive purification of consciousness, an experiment that entails a fairly rigorous program of spiritual practices (sadhana) which includes rising each day before dawn to spend the first four or five hours in intense devotional exercises (“the morning program”). During this time, two hours is set aside for individual chanting on beads in fulfillment of a daily commitment to repeat the Hare Krishna mantra in this way, 1,728 times as a minimum.
Furthermore, one has to strictly observe four prohibitions. The first prohibition against eating meat, fish, or eggs means, in its most rigorous understanding, that one ought really to eat only food that has been sanctified by first being prepared for and offered to Krishna. The prohibition against taking intoxication means eschewing even the milder anodynes like tea and chocolate. The injunction not to gamble is meant to exclude participating not only in wagering and games of chance but also in time wasting diversions like sports, cinema, television, and so on. Finally, the injunction against illicit sex forbids not only sex outside of wedlock, but even within marriage if it is not exclusively intended for procreation; for that purpose, sex can be engaged in one time in a month, within the period of the woman’s fertility. The goal is to get through life with a minimum of involvement in sex, and not only in deed, but in speech and thought as well. Srila Prabhupada called these rules “the regulative principles of freedom” (Bhagavad-gita 2.64, purport). He made it starkly clear that self realization and sense gratification are mutually exclusive, and he refused to compromise on this matter. His followers tended to attribute the lifeless, dispirited condition of the routinized religions of their childhood precisely to institutional accommodations to sense gratification. Consequently, the very stringency of ISKCON’s regulative principles became to many a hallmark of ISKCON’s validity and acted as an attractive, rather than repellent, factor.
In addition, the emphasis on stringent practice was closely linked in the movement to a charismatic outpouring of enthusiasm, manifest especially in sankirtana, group chanting of the names of God while dancing to the rhythm of drums and cymbals, either within a temple or in public places. This central practice—sankirtana is said to be the yuga dharma, or dispensation for this age—illustrates the ability of devotional activities to produce an intense concentration of consciousness through the expressive engagement of the senses and feelings—a fundamental principle of bhakti yoga. The compelling energy generated by sankirtana, which easily engenders a contagious enthusiasm and a sense of exaltation, is greatly boosted in the participants by the affective channeling caused by the asceticism of the regulative principles. Conversely, the ability of devotional activities like sankirtana and Deity worship (arcana) to engage one’s feelings and senses can make adherence to the principles not an exercise in barren abnegation but rather a natural displacement of material activities by spiritual ones.
At any rate, not only did young people vigorously commit themselves to the regulative principles of Krishna consciousness with great self confidence, but they also rallied around the principles as a kind of shibboleth, a distinctive validating feature of ISKCON that set it apart both from other, competing new religious movements from the East and from the mainstream denominations of the West.
From the beginning, ISKCON has excelled in causing its members to internalize an extremely high ideal: that of a “pure devotee of Krishna,” one totally engaged in God’s service without any personal motive and without interruption. Such a standard was visibly exemplified in Srila Prabhupada himself, an acarya, or model for all to follow. Initiated devotees, who must strictly observe the regulative principles, are to conform themselves to the standard of a pure devotee, if not out of spontaneous love for God, at least out of dutiful obedience to the command of scripture and guru.
It is only natural to expect that it would take a great and often protracted struggle for young men and women, raised in the lax and increasingly permissive moral climate of urbanized, secular America, to live up to their newly adopted standard. Yet in the early culture of ISKCON such difficulties were not to be easily acknowledged. The shibbolethic role played by the regulative principles, and the fact that taking initiation vows was the only acceptable means of socialization within ISKCON, made strict following of the regulative principles a sine qua non of allegiance to Srila Prabhupada. At the same time, members who were themselves fairly new looked for validation by seeking and producing swift conversions, conversions that entailed, in the devotee’s mind, a complete break with outside society and total immersion with the culture of an ISKCON temple. Naturally, the temples became filled with premature and tentative candidates, who were under great internal and external pressure to profess a degree of commitment far in excess of the reality. Further, a lack of mature devotees, who had passed successfully through the trials of spiritual development, left most of the movement without experienced practical guides and counselors. All these factors combined to produce in the movement an inability to deal in a healthy and constructive manner with the spiritual failings and failures of its members. Those problems could hardly even be acknowledged, let alone discussed.
The climate of ISKCON in those days strongly discouraged any frank and open confession of difficulty in following the principles. This was true not only on the institutional level, but quite often on the personal one as well. For example, when soon after joining the temple I confided my own normal problem in a slightly senior devotee, hoping for some forgiveness, practical advice, sympathy, and encouragement, my confessor showed alarm, astonishment and anger; becoming aloof and stern, he simply delivered the judgment that I “could not be a devotee.” Such experiences seemed to have been all too typical. Concealment became the dominant mode of reaction. Devotees became isolated from each other, and real fellowship was baffled. The various forms of concealment that are the unfortunate by product of any religious group with a high demand for sanctity surfaced within ISKCON: bluffing, hypocrisy, intolerance, fanaticism, punctiliousness, fault finding, and the substitution of minor for major virtues. (I take this list from Anton T. Boisen, The Exploration of the Inner World. Harper and Brothers, 1936), p. 148.)
A steady stream of devotees joined the movement, and a steady stream left. In ISKCON jargon, they “blooped,” fell back into illusion. All too often the exit scenario went something like this: A devotee would simply disappear, without any forewarning, in the middle of the night. Sometimes this removal would be proceeded by a period of withdrawal and depression, but often there would be no clue at all. A close inquiry would subsequently disclose a few devotees who had ascertained that the “blooped” devotee had been having problems following the principles. He could not bring himself to admit it, and his sense of isolation and guilt drove him in silence from the community.
In the early days, each such departure tended to created a community crisis. It rocked the faith of many members, whose own hold on Krishna consciousness was none too strong. Sometimes the temple members covertly envied the “blooped” devotee. At any rate, the community reacted to the departure as to a betrayal. Usually a communal post mortem would spontaneously take place, in which the faults and shortcomings of the departed devotee were analyzed and condemned to the point at which the remaining members felt more secure about themselves and their values.
To the bewilderment and, frequently, annoyance of the temple residents, many “blooped” devotees did not utterly vanish. They would instead establish some sort of contact with a temple member; they would become part of a social network of other former temple residents. They would show up regularly at the Sunday feast and other public functions. They were always about, just on the periphery: I remember one temple resident who referred to them as “the shadow of ISKCON.” In ISKCON’s jargon these liminal persons were called “fringies,”—a term, by the way, one now rarely hears. Because of the anger and resentment many temple devotees felt toward the “fringies,” the treatment they received was often unfriendly, and they were subject to cutting or sarcastic remarks of the temple residents. At best, the temple devotees were indifferent, because “you could not preach to fringies.” Preaching meant in this context to persuade someone to join the temple community, and the fringies were inoculated against such appeals.
They maintained an allegiance to Krishna consciousness, but had stabilized themselves on what the temple residents considered an unsatisfactory platform, for the most part compromising to some degree with one or more of the regulative principles and participating in a reduced or irregular program of devotional activities. Over the years the population of fringies steadily increased, but ISKCON leaders and temple devotees did not acknowledge any duties or obligations toward them, nor concede much validity to their continuing allegiance. They represented failure, and the establishment wanted simply to disown them. Only over the last five or seven years, at different rates in different locations, has the ISKCON leadership began to acknowledge the “fringies” as “our people,” as a genuine congregation to whom the temple should minister. The belated recognition of a congregation illustrates the unwillingness to confront the fact of a wide spread failure of its member to maintain a long term commitment to its own standards of spiritual purity. But the movement as a whole was forced to face the problem when the fall down of a number of senior members who had taken on the role of initiating gurus after Srila Prabhupada’s passing away in 1977 finally led to a crisis.
All these gurus were sannyasis, those who had taken final and supposedly irrevocable vows of celibacy and renunciation, and their fall from the standards became the crowning event in what had been a continuing failure rate of those who had taken sannyasa vows, a rate that approached 90%. In 1969, three householder couples (grhasthas) very successfully launched the Hare Krishna movement in London. Impressed by the way that householders could preach, Srila Prabhupada encouraged marriage as a matter of policy. He explains his position in this 1971 Bombay Bhagavad-gita lecture (March 29):
Om Visnupada Paramahamsa Parivrajakacarya Asttotara Sata Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Maharaja Prabhupada [Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual master]: He was creating more brahmacaris and sannyasis for preaching work, but I am creating more grhasthas [applause], because in Europe and America the boys and girls intermingle so quickly and intimately that it is very difficult to keep one brahmacari. So there is no need of artificial brahmacaris.... So married life is called grhastha asrama. It is as good as sannyasa asrama. Asrama means where there is bhagavad bhajana [glorification of God]. It doesn’t matter whether one is sannyasi or one is grhastha or a brahmacari. The main principle is bhagavad bhajana. But practically also, I may inform you that these married couples, they are helping me very much....For practical example, I may say that one of my Godbrothers, a sannyasi, he was deputed [in the 1930s] to go to London for starting a temple, but three or four years he remained there, he could not execute the will [of his spiritual master]; therefore he was called back. Now, I sent [three] married couples. All of them are present here. And they worked so nicely that within one year we started our London temple, and that is going on very nicely. [applause] So it is not the question of a brahmacari, sannyasi or grhastha...... One who knows the science of Krsna and preaches all over the world, he is guru, spiritual master. It doesn’t matter. So in Europe and America I am especially creating more grhasthas, families, so that they can take up this movement very seriously and preach, and I am glad to inform you that this process has become very successful. Thank you very much. [applause]
Then, when I joined ISKCON it was assumed that everyone would become married, and indeed, devotees were urged to do so. Marriages were arranged, usually without courtship, and each had to be approved by Srila Prabhupada. But as early as 1971 Srila Prabhupada was becoming concerned, as shown by this letter of July 5th to Hridayananda, one of his leaders:
So far as R getting himself married, you must first discuss with him that this marriage business is not a farce, but it must be taken very seriously. There is no question of divorce, and if he will promise not to separate from his wife, then my sanction for the marriage is there; otherwise not. Recently too many couples have been drifting into Maya’s waters, and it is very discouraging. So if he will agree on these points, then you can perform the marriage with my blessings.
Srila Prabhupada’s discouragement with the outcome of marriages continued to increase. Finally, in 1974, Srila Prabhupada simply refused to sanction any further marriages. (In my temple, there were no marriages between devotees for nearly a year, and then they were performed under my local sanction with a civil ceremony.) Srila Prabhupada’s policy seemed to change as a result of his discouragement. Throughout ISKCON, householder life began to undergo a radical devaluation. Scriptural statements condemning married life as “a dark well” and so on became prominently quoted. Male devotees were strongly urged to remain brahmacari (celibate), which now seemed to be the norm, and sannyasa was a kind of reward for achievement. The number of men initiated into the sannyasa asrama increased dramatically. A genuine desire for transcendence, often co-mingled with an urge to acquire prestige, position, and power within the institution, had propelled most of these young men into rash and improvident heroics. The persistence of desires they could neither acknowledge nor control started to manifest as intolerance and fanaticism. The social climate began to turn ugly: Some of these sannyasis embarked on preaching campaigns against householders and even more so against women, whose life in the movement at this time became extremely trying. Feelings grew so heated that in 1976, a clash between householder temple presidents in North America and a powerful association of peripatetic sannyasis and brahmacaris escalated into a conflict so major that Srila Prabhupada called it a “fratricidal war.”
As one would expect, over the long run many of these young sannyasis found it impossible to maintain their vows. There was a steady, even growing, exodus. In most cases, an extreme sense of disgrace and shame, amplified by the merciless condemnation of the sannyasi community itself, propelled them into exile into the fringe or beyond.
Although the problems of grhasthas and sannyasis became well known by the agency of scandalized gossip, the devotees in the movement could not bring themselves collectively to acknowledge the scope of the difficulty and its significance. This was more or less the state of affairs when Srila Prabhupada passed away in November of 1977, at the age of eighty two, and ISKCON was transferred to the hands of his students, none of whom had had more than a dozen years training. Eleven select members of the GBC were elevated to the position of initiating guru. (The two householders among them were quickly persuaded to take sannyasa.) However, the empowerment of the next generation did nothing to abrogate the trend of sannyasis’ falling down, a trend that did not spare the group of new gurus. Some were soon in trouble. Within ten years of assuming the role of living exemplars and via media to God for thousands of new devotees, six of them had quite spectacularly plummeted, and ISKCON’s survival was in doubt.
The crisis of authority that shook ISKCON to its foundations in the years after Srila Prabhupada’s demise—and led finally in 1987 to a restructuring of the position of guru in ISKCON—was not exclusively due to the spiritual and material immaturity of the leaders, although that was serious enough in itself. Those shortcomings were linked, both as cause and effect, to a profound structural problem in ISKCON. This problem concerned the way in which the position of initiating guru had become institutionalized in ISKCON after Prabhupada. The problem arose when the conception of guru was implicitly based on a traditional model of an inspired, charismatic spiritual autocrat, an absolute and autonomously decisive authority, around whom an institution takes shape as the natural extension and embodiment of his charisma. Indeed, Srila Prabhupada himself was such a guru. Yet starting in 1970, Srila Prabhupada had worked diligently to establish a quite different sort of leadership structure in ISKCON, a structure he repeatedly emphasized that would continue after him. This is a model of management found in distinctly modern institutions, that of a corporate board of directors, called in ISKCON “the Governing Body Commission.” The practical problem facing ISKCON after Srila Prabhupada’s demise was this: How do gurus, who are God’s direct representatives and according to fundamental Vaisnava theology to be worshipped by their disciples “on a equal level with God,” fit within an organization functioning through modern rational and legal modes under the direction of a committee? This is the institutional and philosophical dilemma that ISKCON faced. Although ISKCON’s crisis of leadership and authority was precipitated by the falldowns and deviations of some of the gurus, that crisis was to a large extent resolved by a structural revisioning and reordering of the institutionalization of gurus in the society.
On May 28, 1977, during what turned out to be Srila Prabhupada’s terminal illness, the Governing Body Commission deputed a committee of seven members to question their spiritual master about the delicate matter of guru succession: How would the function of initiating guru be carried out in ISKCON after Srila Prabhupada’s departure? In response to this question, Srila Prabhupada said he would select some disciples to begin immediately performing all of the activities involved in giving initiation—approving the candidate, chanting on the beads, giving the name, and so on—acting as an officiating priest (rtvik) on Srila Prabhupada’s behalf. Those so initiated during Srila Prabhupada’s physical presence would be Srila Prabhupada’s disciples. After his demise, however, those same officiating gurus to be selected by Srila Prabhupada would, if qualified, become gurus in their own right. Those whom they initiated would be their own disciples, and Srila Prabhupada would be their grand-spiritual master.
In July, Srila Prabhupada selected eleven members of the GBC (then twenty in number) to begin acting at once as officiating gurus. Thus the GBC understood Srila Prabhupada to have chosen the first initiating gurus to succeed him.
After Srila Prabhupada’s demise in November, 1977, those eleven members quickly became elevated in an extraordinary way above all other devotees in the movement, even their colleagues on the GBC. Within the GBC, the gurus formed a special sub-committee, which had jurisdiction on all matters concerning gurus and initiation, including the exclusive power to appoint any new gurus and to deal with any problems concerning gurus.
The new gurus received the same ceremonial treatment that was accorded Srila Prabhupada. In every ISKCON temple room, there was reserved for Srila Prabhupada an elevated ceremonial seat, called a vyasasana, that represented the spiritual authority of its occupier. After Prabhupada’s demise, most temples installed a life-size statue of Prabhupada on the vyasasana. During the daily morning order of service, Srila Prabhupada was honored at that vyasasana with a ceremony called guru-puja, during which the devotees would gather at the vyasasana and sing a traditional hymn in praise of guru while a priest would perform the formal arati ceremony of worship. In addition, after Srila Prabhupada’s demise, new, lower vyasasanas were installed next to Srila Prabhupada’s, and there the new gurus daily received puja at the same time that Srila Prabhupada was offered his.
Each of the new gurus was allocated his own geographical area to initiate in and preside over. Srila Prabhupada had organized the GBC so that each member was responsible for the movement’s activities in a particular geographical area, or “zone.” With the advent of new gurus, those 20 or so GBC zones became part of eleven greater zones, each of which had one of the eleven initiating gurus as its head. That guru’s zone would consist of the zone he managed as a GBC member, and then in most cases the zone or zones of other GBC members who were not initiating gurus. To all new recruits, the local zonal acarya was presented as the spiritual master. Although in principle a new devotee was free to chose his initiating guru out of the eleven, formidable social and institutional pressures directed his choice to one place only. Typically, a new devotee strongly attracted to taking initiation from another guru would be relocated to that guru’s zone.
In point of fact, in each ISKCON temple room two—not one—vyasasanas were established for new gurus. The two smaller vyasasanas flanked Srila Prabhupada’s. The one on Srila Prabhupada’s right was consecrated to the exclusive use of the local zonal acarya. The one on the left, referred to as the “guest vyasasana,” was occupied by any of the initiating gurus from outside the zone who might happen to be visiting.
The zonal acarya naturally exercised great de facto power, and the relation between the guru and the GBC (both individually and collectively) soon became a difficult and troubling issue. It seemed to many that Srila Prabhupada had established two authority structures—that of the GBC and that of the gurus. Indeed, the gurus, with their status as sacred persons, a status constantly emphasized by formal deference and ceremonial honors, and their growing numbers of personally devoted followers, quickly eclipsed the GBC. Many of the gurus felt that the GBC was a temporary, ad hoc expedient until the movement could be unified under the charismatic leadership of a single, “self-effulgent acarya,” who would emerge among the gurus in the course of time, in the way that an emperor would gradually be recognized among a group of kings. Further, many gurus tended to feel that the essential characteristic of a guru as an absolute authority (being the representative of God on earth) was vitiated by the give-and-take of collegial relations among the GBC. Indeed, in response to the question about such a compromise of the guru’s position, it was at one point officially stated that for the sake of the movement’s unity and harmony the gurus voluntarily set aside the natural exercise of their absolute position and accepted the relativity of working with the GBC.
Yet it is interesting that the true position of the guru in ISKCON was most honestly proclaimed to the devotees in symbolic terms, in the language of furniture, as it were, rather than in explicit verbal utterance. I have already mentioned that two vyasasanas, or ceremonial seats, were provided in each temple for the gurus coming after Srila Prabhupada. This system of twin vyasasanas was established without any explicit articulation of its meaning to the devotees in ISKCON. Indeed, I am convinced that even those who established the system had not fully articulated its meaning even to themselves; for what ever reason, they were not all fully conscious of what they were doing, but were acting more on instinct or intuition. Why could there not have been only one additional vyasasana upon which any new guru could sit? Why two? This question was not asked until the reform movement raised it in 1985. In fact the exclusive vyasasana, reserved for the sole use of the acarya of that zone, symbolized the seat of that guru as the head of the institution. The exclusive vyasasana indicated the traditional absolute and autocratic guru of Hindu tradition. And it is that particular conception of the role of guru which was indeed essentially in conflict with the GBC system of management as set up by Srila Prabhupada.
The Sanskrit word acarya was commonly used in ISKCON as a designation, as a title, for the initiating gurus, but the word has several meanings, and this ambiguity became the source of much difficulty. The most basic meaning is “one who teaches by example.” It is synonymous with guru. However, acarya tends to convey a more honorific sense. The outstanding teachers and leaders are called acaryas, and the word is encountered as a title, and incorporated into the names of teachers who were founders of institutions or communities: Sankaracarya, Madhvacarya, Ramanujacarya, and the like. Finally, acarya is specifically used to denote a guru or teacher who resides at the head of the institution.
The acarya in this last sense denotes a prominent and traditional form of religious leadership in India: in which a single, charismatic individual attracts others to him and by a natural process an institution forms about him. In this typically premodern style of leadership, the organization is very much a personal extension, a veritable embodiment, of that charismatic individual. (Srila Prabhupada is often quoted as having said that ISKCON was “his body.”) The viability and spiritual credibility of the institution is largely a function of the perceived spiritual potency of the acarya. In India, the current acarya would appoint his successor from among his followers, and in this way the charisma would be transferred. Upon the demise of his predecessor, the successor acarya would take the seat at the head of the institute. That successor acarya would be ritually elevated over all other disciples of his guru (his “god-brothers”), and all of them would bring new members to him for initiation.
ISKCON, however, represents a departure from this archaic form of organization. Srila Prabhupada repeatedly stressed his intention that ISKCON would not, after his departure, be managed by a single acarya, but rather by the board of directors, the Governing Body Commission, that he formed and began to train in 1970. Srila Prabhupada’s intention, and his departure from the tradition of the institutional acarya, is shown in a striking way in his will. Traditionally, it was in the first article of his will that an acarya named his successor, passing on his institution to his heir as if it were his personal property. The first article of Srila Prabhupada’s will reads: “The Governing Body Commission (GBC) will be the ultimate managing authority for the entire International Society for Krishna Consciousness.”
(To speakers of American English, “Governing Body Commission” has a distinctly British ring, revealing at once the colonial provenance of the phrase. Indeed, “Governing Body Commission” turns out to be the title of the board of directors of that great British contribution to India of modern efficiency and management, the Indian Railways.)
With its corporate form of organization, ISKCON thus represents a modernization of a religious tradition. That modernization is the culmination of several generations of effort and it was not easily accomplished. Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838-1914) was the first acarya in the tradition to receive a western-style education and to write in English. A visionary, he saw a reformed and revitalized Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition operating as a unified world-wide preaching mission in the modern world. He instilled this vision in his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (1874-1937), who was to became Srila Prabhupada’s guru. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati had constructed a preaching mission of over sixty centers throughout India called the Gaudiya Matha. He tried to push beyond the boundary of India by sending a missionary sannyasi in the 1930s to Europe (but without much success). The Gaudiya Matha was a large, vital, and growing concern, yet soon after the demise of its founder, the organization fragmented. Srila Prabhupada explains how this happened:
Such disagreement among the disciples of one acarya is also found among the members of the Gaudiya Matha. In the beginning, during the presence of Om Visnupada Paramahamsa Parivrajakacarya Astottara-sata Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura Prabhupada, all the disciples worked in agreement; but just after his disappearance, they disagreed. One party strictly followed the instructions of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, but another group created their own concoction about executing his desires. 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 in 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. (Caitanya-caritamrita, Adi-lila, 12.8, purport)
Other accounts, from Gaudiya Matha sources, say that a Governing Body Commission was formed and operated for a while before the attempt to establish an acarya at the head of the institution shattered the organization. In any case, it is clear that the previous generation came to grief on the same issue that confronted ISKCON: of forming a unified preaching mission that did not depend on the direction of any one individual but rather on a collegial body, functioning cooperatively. Indeed, the acarya first established over the main body of the Gaudiya Matha suffered the same fate as that which befell a number of the ISKCON acaryas: after being raised so high, he fell down from the principles of Krishna consciousness. From Srila Prabhupada’s perspective, all these spiritual problems must be considered as the consequence of the disciples’ disobedience of the order of the spiritual master.
Because the Gaudiya Matha had failed, Srila Prabhupada had to work independently, establishing his own society and becoming its sole acarya. Had things gone better, he would have been one of many missionaries and preachers within a unified Gaudiya mission. In other words, Srila Prabhupada’s position as the autonomous guru at the head of ISKCON, was, from his point of view, a second-best arrangement, the consequence of failure.
Learning from that failure, Srila Prabhupada set up a governing body and watched over its operations as it tried to manage the society. He taught the GBC how to function. For example, in 1975 he took the body through its first regular annual meeting, showing how the GBC should strictly follow parliamentary procedure (as set forth in Robert’s Rules of Order), how proposals should be put forward, discussed, voted upon (Srila Prabhupada himself voted on each item, acting as one among many), and those that passed entered into a minutes book. As time went on he tried to turn as much management over to the GBC as possible, intervening only when there were crises. He made sure the whole movement understood that the GBC was being trained to continue at the head of the society after he was gone.
The GBC did carry on, and no one had tried to establish a single acarya over ISKCON. Yet the division of ISKCON into private initiating zones, the installation of the exclusive vyasasana, the ritual elevation of the gurus far above their own god-brothers, had implicitly established eleven acaryas of the traditional institutional type, each bearing the same relationship to his zone as Srila Prabhupada had borne to the entire movement.
The manner in which the first eleven were selected as gurus became interpreted in accordance with the paradigm of the acarya’s appointment of a successor to the head of his institution. For example, in a book of homages to one of the new gurus, published in 1979, we read this: “Desiring to prepare his disciples for his departure, His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada very wisely selected eleven of his most intimate disciples to become both his material and spiritual successors.”
At the same time, a growing number of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples felt there was something wrong with the position of new gurus in ISKCON. Many felt their god-brothers—or most of them, anyway—were simply unqualified for such a position. Yet when several acaryas began to engage in questionable or even scandalous behavior, it was only with some difficulty that the GBC established its right to exercise any authority over gurus, who were seen, after all, as Srila Prabhupada’s hand picked successors. Even after the GBC established its authority, its control in most cases remained more de jure than de facto.
After two gurus, Hamsadutta and Jayatirtha, were expelled from ISKCON, many Prabhupada disciples were in constant anxiety, fearing it was only a matter of time before some one or other of the remaining acaryas fell down or deviated. A group centered in California began circulating papers around the movement arguing that none of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples was fit to be an acarya. These dissidents refused to believe that Srila Prabhupada could have hand-picked to be gurus any of these (to them) obviously unqualified people, and they argued that the archival tape recording of the May 28, 1977 conversation had been doctored by the gurus. This group proposed that no one should be initiated in ISKCON until the “self-effulgent acarya” would emerge. The idea of putting all initiations on indefinite hold did not appeal to most devotees, however, and this group eventually dissolved. Yet the notion that ISKCON needed a “self-effulgent acarya” to lead it adequately became the shared presupposition of what I would describe as the extreme right and the extreme left. The extreme right constituted those partisans who fervently believed that some one or the other of the current zonal acaryas, say Kirtanananda or Jayatirtha or Bhagavan, was indeed the awaited “self-effulgent acarya,” lacking only full recognition to take his place at the head of all ISKCON as Srila Prabhupada’s legitimate successor, a recognition unfortunately thwarted by “ambitious and envious god-brothers.” The extreme left was composed of those who held that none of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples is qualified to be an acarya, and until such a qualified acarya emerges and is spontaneously recognized by everyone (“self-effulgent”) no one should claim to be a guru in his own right.
In the fall of 1984 a routine meeting of the temple presidents of North America turned into a collective and public acknowledgment that nearly everyone held deep private misgivings about the manner in which the position of guru had been established in ISKCON. They organized an immediate second meeting to further consider the issue, and thus the “guru reform movement” was born. With the engagement of a significant number of second-tier leaders, men whose loyalty to ISKCON was not in doubt, a credible and potent movement was established. The temple presidents in North America, almost to a man, deeply believed something was drastically wrong, yet there was no clear idea of exactly what it was. At the second meeting, I was assigned the task of preparing a research paper which would precisely locate what had gone wrong in the establishment of the gurus. In my research, I happened upon a 1978 letter written to a GBC member by Pradyumna dasa, a scholarly devotee who had been Srila Prabhupada’s assistant in his translation work and who was familiar with Vaishnava traditions; the letter spelled out objections to the newly established guru system. That letter provided the clue as to the precise problem. Building on Pradyumna’s insight, I was able to present a paper that combined analysis and polemics to argue that in violation of the desires of Srila Prabhupada, the traditional post of the “institutional acarya” had been established in ISKCON and that this acarya system was essentially in conflict with the GBC system so carefully established by Srila Prabhupada. This paper received the endorsement of the North American temple presidents.
By this time, the “reform moment” had broadened among Prabhupada’s disciples, far beyond the core group of the temple presidents. To many in that movement, the really vital issue was not one of structure but of the spiritual qualifications, or rather the perceived lack of them, in the present gurus. As a leader of the reform movement, however, I tried to focus our political effort on rectifying the structural problem.
I was not blind to the spiritual shortcomings of some of the gurus. I even recognized that the structural problem was in part an institutionalization of a serious spiritual defect—that is, unacknowledged personal ambition in some of ISKCON’s leaders. However, it was clear to me that the gurus held no monopoly on spiritual deficiency. I was not sure that the reform movement was that much purer—as many of the attacks on the gurus were weighted by a generous load of envy, vengefulness, and resentment. In my view, what had gone wrong in ISKCON constituted a collective judgment on all of Srila Prabhupada’s disciples. After all, it is Vaishnava doctrine that one advances by the grace of guru, and the guru’s grace is equally available to all his disciples. Those who became gurus were among Srila Prabhupada’s “best men.” If they were not good enough, each critic like me had to ask himself: “Why wasn’t I any better?” Thus the first part of “guru reform” had to be personal reformation, a renewed dedication to the cultivation of spiritual life by all Srila Prabhupada’s disciples, reformers most of all. It would not do to try to purify ISKCON without purifying oneself.
Among those who focused on the lack of qualified people to be gurus, some thought the solution was to devise a way to continue the movement and yet eliminate the position of guru as far as possible. Initiations would continue, but the guru would be considered some sort of apprentice or merely a formal ecclesiastical functionary. To my mind, these people were proposing an essential change in the tradition, not merely an adaptation to new circumstances. Typically, this group also awaited the coming of the “self-effulgent acarya” to lead ISKCON, which, in the interregnum, would make do with semi- or demi-gurus. Captivated by the image of the acarya as an absolute and decisive authority, whose judgments were indubitably correct, and needing such a person for their own spiritual security, the give-and-take of a collegial body did not appeal to them any more than it appealed to most of the gurus they ostensibly opposed.
It was my conviction that we could retain in ISKCON the full-fledged position of guru, as delineated by the Scriptures, a position that did not essentially involve being the autonomous autocratic head of an institution, did not essentially disallow discussion, consultation, revision and adjustment, and did not forbid collegial decision-making as a kind of lese majesté.
The zonal acarya position had asserted it was intrinsic to the position of guru to be absolute, and it professed that the gurus would voluntarily sacrifice that position for the sake of the movement. This implied that by working with a GBC the gurus were doing something unnatural or artificial, and of course their “voluntary sacrifice” seemed increasingly pro forma. To counter this conception of the guru, I argued that there was a significant way in which it was essential for the bona-fide guru to be relative. After all, Vaishnava doctrine holds that the essential qualifying characteristic of a guru is that he strictly follows the order of his guru. He never becomes the master, but always remains the servant. Consequently, to be qualified to be a guru in ISKCON it was essential to strictly follow the order of Srila Prabhupada, who had decreed that all of us must serve cooperatively under the authority of the GBC. Accepting the authority of the GBC board was not a voluntary option. Because it was Srila Prabhupada’s order, it was necessary to guru-hood itself.
The first effort of the “guru reform movement” was to urge a strengthening commitment to spiritual purification on everyone’s part. The second effort was to persuade the GBC to dismantle the “zonal acarya system” efficiently and decisively. We were able to put forward two proposals to the GBC, which, taken together, would dismantle the system. The first was to make the process of receiving authorization to initiate radically more open. Initially, the “initiating acarya standing committee” had the power to appoint new gurus; in 1982, it was changed to a three-fourths vote of the GBC. Up until 1986, only some half-dozen new gurus had been added (and a couple removed). From my perspective, the central intent of this proposal was to eliminate a de facto “property requirement” for becoming an initiating guru. Since a guru had to have his exclusive initiating zone, one or more of the established gurus had to lose territory to create a zone for any new gurus. Such a major change, sometimes entailing the migration of large numbers of disciples, required negotiations at the highest level. And many gurus were reluctant to shrink the area of their authority. The paradigm of the institutional acarya envisioned a zone unified and made coherent by a common devotion and submission to a single person. The guru zones became more unified than ISKCON as a whole, which was becoming increasingly fragmented, turning into a kind of amphictyony of independently empowered leaders. The paradigm of the reform movement, in contrast, envisioned ISKCON temples in which the disciples of many different gurus could all work together for their common cause. The unifying personality was to be the founder-acarya of the institution, Srila Prabhupada, the master of all subsequent gurus and disciples. This could be achieved only by eliminating the implicit property requirement for being a guru, something that would happen if the authorizing process were opened up and the number of gurus increased.
The second proposal was simply that there should be only one other vyasasana than Srila Prabhupada’s in ISKCON temples, and any of the initiating gurus could sit on it. This proposal abolished the exclusive vyasasana, the symbol of the zonal acarya’s sovereignty. It is characteristic of religions that symbols and that which they symbolize are tightly unified; they could be said to interpenetrate. I realized therefore that if the symbol of the system were eliminated, it would go far to eliminate the system. The destruction of the symbol was a necessary if not a sufficient condition for the destruction of the reality. The proposal also dealt with a difficulty within the reform movement: there was little agreement on what to do about the rituals involving the gurus, and a particularly militant segment wanted badly to remove all symbols of spiritual authority from them. The proposal simply to remove the exclusive vyasasana received a consensus and satisfied the need to rectify the rituals, but it left the further issue of guru-ritual until later. It was surgically precise. It would do the job.
Eventually, both these proposals were put into effect by the GBC. There are now fifty-odd initiating gurus in ISKCON, all of them serving under GBC direction and fully accountable to the GBC. ISKCON regulations go out of their way to assure that new members are able to freely decide who their guru will be, and most temples have a diverse mix of disciples of different gurus working together. I believe we now have a movement organized the way Srila Prabhupada wanted it. That by itself does not guarantee purity of the members, but it is a necessary condition for it.
It has taken time for confidence in ISKCON to be restored. The reform movement was consolidated in 1987, when four more fallen or deviated gurus were removed and fifteen new members were elected to the GBC, among them leaders of the reform movement. For a number of devotees, the loss of faith in ISKCON leadership, the spectacular fall of six gurus, called into question their faith in Srila Prabhupada, although such a doubt was usually unacknowledged and unarticulated. They could not believe Srila Prabhupada had intended the original eleven to be gurus, and the “appointment tape” continued to be reinterpreted. The left-wing challenge to gurus has undergone two further incarnations, resting on conspiracy theories, stories of suppressed instructions of Srila Prabhupada, whom they claim wanted the “officiating guru” system to continue after his demise, so that Prabhupada, (contrary to all Vaishnava teaching), would continue to initiate disciples posthumously. These stories have been crafted to get Prabhupada “off the hook.”
There is a failure to appreciate the problem Srila Prabhupada faced in his last days. We can be sure that he knew his own disciples better than they knew themselves; he had no illusions about their spiritual qualification. Yet they were pressing for a selection of successor gurus, the ultimate position to the ambitious. Hamsadutta and Kirtanananda had already been rebuked by Srila Prabhupada for receiving guru-puja “in the presence of the spiritual master,” a serious transgression. Without any indication from Srila Prabhupada in this manner, there would likely have been chaos. Yet Srila Prabhupada clearly did not want to give his sanction to unfit people, a spiritual error. So he selected them without endorsing them. In response to the question of initiation after his departure, Srila Prabhupada gave a list of “officiating gurus,” designating them in an indirect or oblique manner. He expected them to become “regular gurus” in the future, but there was no “hand-picking of successors,” no laying on of hands or anointing with oil, no transfer of power to some special and exclusive group. He also knew that some, like Kirtanananda, would initiate with or without his sanction, so he named them. If not there would likely have been a schism in 1978 instead of 1987. To me, Srila Prabhupada’s solution was brilliant, the best that could have been done under the circumstances. The result would depend upon Krishna.
I have come to recognize that what ISKCON had to achieve, through much conflict and suffering, was no easy thing. The problem is to take an ancient religious tradition, long isolated from the impact of modernity, and retrofit it for the modern world while at the same time transplanting it from its native soil into multiple outside cultures and civilizations—all without vitiating or distorting its essential practices and doctrines. The process has been the endeavor of two generations, and it is far from complete.
I joined ISKCON for spiritual life and not anything else. At the time, I did not know what would become of that part of myself that was an academically trained scholar of religion. But Krishna has both used and instructed that part, giving me a ring-side seat to a fascinating instance of dynamic religious growth and change. My life in ISKCON has had unsurpassably wonderful times and times of abysmal torment and dread, but in any case not one day has failed to be consummately interesting.
Our work of reform and renewal continues. It has to be perpetual. As part of that work, ISKCON is beginning to look back at itself, engaging in its own process of honestly coming to terms with its past. Only by so doing can it have a viable and progressive future.