By Kesava Krsna Dasa
How to become a guru within ISKCON? Many say that our understanding of guru-tattva is undeveloped. Others opine that we are far from enabling traditional guru/disciple roles. Should the question even be asked, “How to become guru of disciples?” Are we missing something?
How to become guru has been problematic from the time of Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure. The age-old traditional guru/disciple roles have to somehow conform to a modern managerial structure of checks and balances – the parallel system of authority is rightly helping to curb possible excess of power.
The very nature of a cooperative ISKCON causes policy-makers to try and fit in guru/disciple requirements. Guru-tattva will be moulded by institutional necessities. To date, all members of ISKCON are officially sisksa followers of our Founder Acarya, Srila Prabhupada. This in itself has a balancing effect on all ISKCON members. This balance might cause others to think that this impinges on traditional guru/disciple roles, for it now appears that gurus do not have outright ‘sovereignty’ as it were, over their disciples.
In spite of the proactive accommodating nature of these strictures implemented by reactive measures, there remains differing views on institutional guru-tattva. To illustrate, one sannyasa told me that he thinks the original eleven gurus nominated by Srila Prabhupada should remain gurus because His Divine Grace cannot be mistaken. This is interesting, because if we follow this opinion, it would turn all subsequent guru-tattva policies literally upside down.
Along with these parallel strictures come new possibilities, as raised in various arguments during ongoing female diksa guru discussions. One of them is how new ISKCON members, in spite of knowing they must take shelter of Srila Prabhupada until such a time that they choose an initiating guru to dedicate their lives for, would prefer to take shelter of one whom they developed a strong relationship with, who is not an initiating guru.
This will be a cause of further intense discussion, not because this issue was raised by a prominent female devotee in this position, but because it is certain that the same is true for many other senior devotees as well, including males. It is sure to open up into something that our institutional version of guru-tattva obliges, or not.
Let us look at some hard realities. Most, if not all initiating gurus are forever on the move preaching. This means that most correspondence between disciples and their gurus is distant, but instant, as technology allows, and if time permits. Following in Srila Prabhupada’s footsteps, the modern initiating gurus have largely distant relationships with their disciples except if and when they visit – yes, we know how the internal bond should bridge any distance.
But these relationships are not always solidly personal as we might have expected them to be traditionally, when both gurus and disciples were usually localised. In one sense, these localised guru/disciple roles were more natural. We have to admit that our fast-paced modern adaptation of these same roles is unnatural in comparison, and therefore “Utility Is The Principle”. If some gurus are unable to identify each of their disciples by name, is that of concern?
The modern institutional standard for becoming a guru is usually based on candidates proving and excelling in certain areas of preaching, backed by excellent personal conduct. It is worth noting that these are measurable for-all-to-see achievements. Theoretically, candidates might strive for these measurements simply to become guru. This does not gel with those who say that to become guru is much more than ‘earning’ such a position – it should be self-evident sanction from a pure guru.
Aside from all these candidates for guru, there is perhaps a greater number of sincere and qualified senior devotees who do not come forward for guruship. As we tend to base our estimations of devotees on what ‘external’ measurements they match up to, we also miss out on many others who match up internally and not notice them properly. How much could we be missing when we base our measurements externally?
Generally speaking, it is those devotees who prefer to remain background, anonymous or low-key who might have more spiritual substance. As these types of devotees are mostly localised, there are chances of newcomers being ‘attracted’ and inspired by them spiritually. But they are not on the list of initiating gurus. It is going to come to our attention that locally is where the greatest need for gurus is met.
At the local level, close relationships are formed between newcomers and senior devotees. Translate this into institutional ISKCON terms and we will find that there is something more natural in these relationships. If the local devotees are internally qualified to become guru, but are not gurus, the potential for expansion could be impeded, that goes unnoticed by us.
Local gurus will be most productive because they can engage disciples in areas (local) where forever travelling gurus cannot, or who do not have the time and energy for. The local guru subject will inevitably be considered as we expand. This will also lead to the need to ask of standards and criterion for such devotees.
Let us suppose we expect a minimum standarad of say, 30 or 35 years serving within ISKCON, and candidates have proven continuous dedication, along with suitable personal Krishna conscious qualifications for instance. Such can be verified and approved by combined authorities locally.
Such an expansion as this may necessitate further checks and balances, and we expect anxious consternation, which brings us to the subject of being a guru. Is the position of guru actually something any of us could strive for? Even with the best of intentions for ISKCON?
Some devotes joke that if anyone is concerned about their future financial security and health, then become a guru or sannyasa. We also have to admit that there is a gulf of difference between general devotees and those who have access to finances and healthcare. Is this ‘inequality’ justifiable within ISKCON? Is this too reminiscent of corporate workings?
If these sorts of security help in wanting a guru position, we have to say it is motivated. At ISKCON’s early stage of development without adequate all-devotee-cover finances and health in place, thoughts like these do go through the minds of devotees – they talk about them.
This is pertinent to our guru discussions because in material society there are music gurus, soccer gurus, financial gurus, food gurus and the rest. The sacred position of guru has been taken over by commercialism. It is nice that another Sanskrit word has entered the lexicon of English vocabulary, but we see it’s descent into normal inane usage.
The guruship to which we refer relates literally to Guru-everything. Why everything? Dpes not the guru give the holy name which is everything? Does not the guru give Seen Truth (transcendental knowledge) that is everything? Does the guru represent Krishna who says “aham sarvasya prabhavo”?
To be able to give “everything” intact and representing parampara adds extra magnitude to the position. And how frequently the devotees debate back and forth on lady gurus in the meantime… Is there a special prerogative that because we are a part of ISKCON and benefit from much good association, that we can adapt as Kali-yuga deteriorates?
For instance, when Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu orders that “everyone become guru,” is He saying that everyone must become maha-bhagavata first? Surely, the Lord understands the role of ISKCON within progressing Kali-yuga. Does this “everyone” mean males only?
We have this call from Lord Chaitanya, and it is open to debate as usual. And we have realities as we face them. Against these we hold cherished ideals such as Srila Prabhupada naming only Jahnava Mata as an example of lady acarya, and that only the most elevated purest can initiate. We can then ask, why did Srila Prabhupada ‘come down’ to the madhyama level to interact and preach? Did not our previous acaryas do the same?
If madhyama is a good enough platform from which to preach and accept disciples, and a great many ISKCON devotees are of madhyama substance – though from sraddha upwards – both men and women, is this not suitable either for accepting disciples? On this level, we must acknowledge that many of our ‘local’ devotees are there too.
Besides quoting Srila Prabhupada for or against lady gurus which is largely inconclusive, because there are valid points both ways, we can try and balance them with those of Lod Chaitanya and the madhyama level of advancement. There are more references as well. But, yet we are normally thinking that nobody ever wants to become a guru for understandable reasons.
Do some devotees secretly aim to secure a position for long-term security? Because the alternative is, if one joined young and has no work experience or something to fall back on, it’s going to be difficult. If one is not concerned about finances and health security, is there a legititmate case for becoming a guru in order to please?
If say, all our lady members felt comfortably secure in knowing that they shall be respected and honoured as Mothers in the true sense of the term, and have all security provided, would that be enough reason not to strive for guruship? If, on the other hand there are urgent, pressing reasons in wanting to help newcomers go Back To Godhead, should any of us stand in the way of this?
Once the allowance for lady diksa is given – whether soon or years ahead – it will open up the possibility of more and more devotees being asked or required to initiate. This can be seen as opening the floodgates of Sri Gauranga’s mercy or lowering the bar in spiritual terms.
In any case, ISKCON will go through more phases of change and reform. Our institutional guru-tattva will also change in practice. To speak of definitive guru-tattva will be determined according our fitting standards, though eternal principles remain. Many devotees remain undecided on lady gurus, but can try to offer some thoughts of things assured to happen.
When our local devotees attract newcomers and form close relationships with them, this is the closest thing to the traditional guru/disciple roles we can detect, and in line with guru-tattva. If we are really intent on expansion, perhaps this is the way to go.
Ys Kesava Krsna Dasa