Maintaining the authority of a spiritual institution in the modern age
By Samba das
Due to the influence of Lord Krishna, India had always been an ideal place to engage in spiritual life. With the arrival of Kali Yuga five thousand years ago however the situation began to deteriorate. As time went by the people in general had become so degraded that many charlatans had assumed the roles of spiritual leaders with the intent to cheat the innocent people. The vaisnava tradition was being misrepresented. The age old process of advancing in spiritual life through the guru disciple relationship was falling into disrepute.
Srila Prabhupada explains in Bhagavad-gita (8.11) how the process of spiritual life in this age has become very difficult: “The social construction of the world has changed so much… there are many institutions for different departments of knowledge, (but) there is no recognized institution where students can be educated in the brahmacari principles.” For the first time in history it had became necessary to create an artificial ‘sub’ society where spiritual inclined people could gather. For centuries spiritualists could count on the understanding and generosity of the general public, suddenly it became necessary to organise preaching activity to convince the public to provide the means for them to subsist. Seeing this situation lead Srila Bhakisiddhanta to create the Gaudiya Math which had some success in India. Following Srila Bhakisiddhanta’s order Srila Prabhupada went on to create ISKCON — more than just an institution, Srila Prabhupada envisioned that one day it could become a completely alternative society.
Interestingly, from the very inception of his spiritual organisation, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta understood its limitations. He warned in the ‘Harmonist’: “The idea of an organized church in an intelligible form, indeed, marks the close of the living spiritual movement… The people of this world understand preventive systems; they have no idea at all of the unprevented positive eternal life. Neither can there be any earthly contrivance for the permanent preservation of the life eternal on this mundane plane of popular scale.”
In this long and revealing article he argued that spiritual teachers needed to retain their individuality and sovereign right to teach the absolute truth in their own way, he explains… “The Supreme Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, in pursuance of the teachings of the scriptures enjoins all absence of conventionalism for the teachers of the eternal religion. It does not follow that the mechanical adoption of the unconventional life by any person will make him a fit teacher of religion. Regulation is necessary for controlling the inherent worldliness of conditioned souls. But no mechanical regulation has any value, even for such a purpose. The bona-fide teacher of religion is neither any product of, nor the favourer of any mechanical system. In his hands no system has likewise the chance of degenerating into a lifeless arrangement.”
When we view the life of our Srila Prabhupada we can understand that he was such an unconventional teacher of the eternal religion. Seeing him chanting in parks with the hippies in the early years was certainly unconventional. Nor did he abide by the conventionalism that had developed in his own gurus institution, where he was seen as somewhat of an outsider. Because of his transcendental autocracy ISKCON likewise never stagnated into any kind of mechanical system. Since his departure however, we have faced difficulties, our credibility has been under attack and our authority appears to have been eroded.
Could we have made the mistake of adopting ‘preventive systems’? Has the institution tried to take on a role that is assumed by the Supreme Lord Himself? ISKCON’s policy of guru approval (official or not) may be a case in point. By assuming the right to approve gurus, we may have become an ‘intruder’ in a transcendental process. In a letter on 3rd May 1975 Srila Prabhupada wrote: “…the chanting of Hare Krishna is very efficacious because it develops personal relationship with the Personality of Godhead… Please go on reading our literatures and pray to Krishna to give you the right direction from within how to approach a bona-fide spiritual master…”
Spiritual life begins by approaching a spiritual master with inquiries and offering service. This is the basis from which all spiritual advancement begins; it is a personal relationship between the aspirant and Krishna Himself. Prabhupada explains1: “Krishna reveals Himself from within to one who is serious about God realization. Both Krishna and the spiritual master help the sincere soul. The spiritual master is the external manifestation of God, who is situated in everyone’s heart as Supersoul. For one who is very serious about understanding the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Supersoul immediately renders assistance by directing him to a bona fide spiritual master.” So much propaganda has been made against our society due to the fall-down of gurus who had been ‘approved’ by ISKCON. By appointing gurus as an official part of the institution, by regulating them, the gurus became identified as the institution.
In sastra we find no mention of the process of spiritual life being guided by a committee, this guidance is always based on the process of humble submission and enquiry from disciple to guru. Just as the varnasrama system created by Krishna is a material system designed to bring a conditioned soul to the mode of goodness, enabling him to then transcend that mode and come to the level of pure goodness, suddha sattva — so the institution is a material facility designed to do the very same thing, which gives an explanation as to why Srila Prabhupada wanted to establish ‘daivi varnasrama’ in ISKCON.
As a relatively young society, there is much we can still do to increase the facilities in this world to provide shelter for those who wish to undergo spiritual training. Srila Prabhupada played two roles, one as the preceptor guru, and another as the steward of our organisation, managing and overseeing many properties, and making sure that the activities carried out on those properties did not endanger them or the society in general. In his will he described that the GBC was the ‘ultimate managing authority” of ISKCON and went on to list all the properties in ISKCON’s name and who would be responsible for them. In a letter to Hayagriva in 1972 he said: “My only request is that all the GBC members should be strict to the standard of life, and see that others are also following them. Then our centres will be well-managed. Kindly do that and advise your co-workers to do that.”
Much of the criticism against ISKCON seems to have occurred in cases where the institution acted, or ruled in an area that would traditionally be the prerogative of a guru. If ISKCON as an institution were to limit itself to planning, creating, maintaining and expanding facilities in which the parampara of Lord Chaitanya can thrive and do its business of connecting people to Krishna, it may save itself from falling into disrepute.
Srila Prabhupada wanted the GBC to be a ‘managerial authority’. He gave guidelines as to what they had to do — visit temples, make sure the devotees are reading, chanting etc. To ensure that the activities in the temples do not tarnish the reputation of ISKCON, it would be necessary to ensure that only those gurus and disciples that act within the scope of Srila Prabhupadas instructions may utilise our properties, or use the ISKCON name to further their preaching activities. They may be required to contribute financially to the upkeep of ISKCON centres and as followers of Srila Prabhupada they would be encouraged to obtain new facilities which they would then donate to ISKCON.
In short it appears that the institution would be able to maintain its authority, by strictly adhering to its scope as outlined by Srila Prabhupada, which in turn would ensure that the activities carried out in its centres were exemplary. In this way there would be a beneficial separation of spiritual and managerial roles.
Bio: I’m from London and joined ISKCON in 1976 at Bhaktivedanta Manor at the age of 16. In the early days I served in the areas of construction and maintenance in the UK and Ireland. I served as the research director and later on as the division manager for the Sri Mayapur Project Masterplan in the 90’s and designed some of the original grihasta buildings and the bramachary asram. Now I am living in Mayapur engaged in writing and editing. My wife, Sacidevi is from Mauritius and our 12 year old son, Sudama is attending the Sri Rupanuga Paramartika Vidyapitha gurukula village in Mayapur.
Your servant Samba das