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Dandavats! All Glories to Sri Guru and Sri Gauranga!

Maintaining the authority of a spiritual institution in the modern age

Thursday, 02 November 2006 / Published in Articles / 3,463 views

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

"Bearing the Burden"
Vraja Left Us

5 Responses to “Maintaining the authority of a spiritual institution in the modern age”

  1. Japa Jim says :

    I would just like to add that the GBC was appointed managerial authority in ISKCON, yet also the GBC during the time of Srila Prabhupada had spiritual authority to teach and guide new devotees, perform like siksha gurus and essentially approve initiations of new devotees. When a GBC member recommended a devotee for initiation it was automatically accepted by Srila Prabhupada. They had much spiritual authority and empowerment as well as the managerial authority over the corporate structure of ISKCON.
    On the legal level they were managers. On the spiritual level they were delegated representatives of Srila Prabhupada.
    I don’t think the idea of the GBC having only managerial authority actually corresponds to the facts of how they served and represented Srila Prabhupada in ISKCON. The GBC definitely had great spiritual authority as well as the managerial authority over the legal affairs of ISKCON.
    The move to reduce GBC authority down to simple managers has changed the actual structure that Srila Prabhupada has built up in ISKCON with the GBC authority.

    The GBC are meant to be direct representatives of Srila Prabhupada’s authority, not just managers of money and properties.

  2. Sanjaya Das says :

    The only spiritual authorities are Guru and Krishna…Guru in the true sense, meaning one who is 100%
    surrendered to Krishna…the pure devotee. As Samba das quoted Srila Prabhupada ” “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.”
    The GBC cannot play the role of spiritual authority unless they are pure devotees. Being still conditioned souls, they cannot give proper guidance to the living entities. Yes, they can encourage devotees to follow spiritual disciplines, but being conditioned, they cannot deliver the jiva. The GBC’s job is to direct and manage the society so that temple programs are running and the devotees are chanting etc. The GBC cannot deliver the jiva. ISKCON cannot deliver the jiva. The jiva is delivered from the bondage of this material tabernacle by the mercy of the real authorities, Krishna and his external representative, the spiritual master…pure devotee.

  3. Krishna Dharma says :

    I agree with Japa Jim that managerial authority in ISKCON cannot be separated from spiritual authority. After all we are a spiritual movement and all our activities should surely be on the spiritual platform. Prabhupada writes:

    In our preaching work also, we deal with so much property and money and so many books bought and sold, but because these dealings all pertain to the Krsna consciousness movement, they should never be considered material. That one is absorbed in thoughts of such management does not mean that he is outside of Krsna consciousness. If one rigidly observes the regulative principle of chanting sixteen rounds of the maha-mantra every day, his dealings with the material world for the sake of spreading the Krsna consciousness movement are not different from the spiritual cultivation of Krsna consciousness. SB 5.16.3

    And he also indicated that the GBC should act in a spiritual role on numerous occasions, such as this one:

    This is the function of the GBC, to see that one may not be taken away by maya. The GBC should all be the instructor gurus. I am the initiator guru, and you should be the instructor guru by teaching what I am teaching and doing what I am doing. This is not a title, but you must actually come to this platform. This I want. Letter to: Madhudvisa: — Detroit 4 August, 1975

    He made it clear that the main job of the GBC is spiritual training:

    You mention you like to speak now very often, but the first business should be to preach to the devotees. It is better to maintain a devotee than to try to convince others to become devotees. It is the duty of the GBC to maintain the devotees, keep them in the highest standard of Krishna Consciousness, and give them all good instruction, and let them go out and preach for making more devotees. Your first job should be to make sure that every one of the devotees in your zone of management is reading regularly our literatures and discussing the subject matter seriously from different angles of seeing, and that they are somehow or other absorbing the knowledge of Krishna Consciousness philosophy. If they are fully educated in our philosophy and if they can get all of the knowledge and study it from every viewpoint, then very easily they will perform tapasya or renunciation and that will be their advancement in Krishna Consciousness. So first thing is to instruct all of your temple presidents and the other devotees to read daily, just as we have done in our morning class in Los Angeles. You may remember that we were reading one sloka each morning in Sanskrit and reciting it altogether and then discussing it thoroughly by seeing different new things. So you introduce this system and train the devotees first. Don’t be too much concerned for the time being with nondevotees, now we must fix-up what devotees we have got in the knowledge of Krishna Consciousness, then we will succeed. What good are many, many devotees if none of them are knowledgeable? Letter to: Satsvarupa — Los Angeles 16 June, 1972

    There are numerous such instructions. It seems our ethos should be education and empowerment, rather than control and legislation, as the following suggests:

    Simply enforcing laws and ordinances cannot make the citizens obedient and lawful. That is impossible. Throughout the entire world there are so many states, legislative assemblies and parliaments, but still the citizens are rogues and thieves. Good citizenship, therefore, cannot be enforced; the citizens must be trained. As there are schools and colleges to train students to become chemical engineers, lawyers or specialists in many other departments of knowledge, there must be schools and colleges to train students to become brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas, sudras, brahmacaris, grhasthas, vanaprasthas and sannyasis. This will provide the preliminary condition for good citizenship (varnasrama-gunan-vitah). SB 9.10.50

    A cultural movement for the respiritualisation of society – this is the vision. Not that we have to be the whole society ourselves, complete with so many laws and procedures and the like. Some systems and management, of course, but not too much, that is how I understand it. Prabhupada said,

    Krishna Consciousness Movement is for training men to be independently thoughtful and competent in all types of departments of knowledge and action, not for making bureaucracy. Once there is bureaucracy the whole thing will be spoiled. There must be always individual striving and work and responsibility, competitive spirit, not that one shall dominate and distribute benefits to the others and they do nothing but beg from you and you provide. No. Never mind there may be botheration to register each centre, take tax certificate each, become separate corporations in each state. That will train men how to do these things, and they shall develop reliability and responsibility, that is the point. Letter to: Karandhara — Bombay 22 December, 1972

    Training and education comes up again and again in Prabhupada’s instructions. That surely has to be our prime function. That is our first purpose as given by Prabhupada:

    To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world. (First Purpose, Seven Purposes of ISKCON, Incorporation document, 1966)



  4. Samba das says :

    ‘Japa jim’ wrote:
    “I don’t think the idea of the GBC having only managerial authority actually corresponds to the facts of how they served and represented Srila Prabhupada in ISKCON. The GBC definitely had great spiritual authority as well as the managerial authority over the legal affairs of ISKCON.”
    Samba Das responds:
    ISKCON is undoubtedly a great spiritual organization but it is made up of individuals with degrees of spirituality corresponding to their individual levels of surrender. Devotees in the role of GBC have the same responsibility as any disciple to carry on the mission of their guru with integrity and honesty, even becoming gurus themselves. Just as Srila Prabhupada performed the activities of practical management and spiritual enlightenment as service to his guru, his disciples should do the same. But things are not the same as they were. Srila Prabhupada was an uttama adhikary, in his hands ISKCON was protected. Some of his disciples however fell down from the position of guru despite the fact that they were examined by an official ISKCON committee and given a green light to initiate. Some of them did things that brought great shame upon ISKCON. This is an unfortunate fact. It may be that an adjustment in the way we are perceived will help our reputation. A publishing house will sometimes publish the statements of some of its authors with the disclaimer: “The views published here are not necessarily the views of the publisher.” In this way the views get published, but the publishing house is free from any repercussion. ISKCON’s officers may perform certain ‘official’ duties, but their actions or views outside of those duties should not necessarily be approved by the institution. In that way the institution cannot fall into disrepute so easily, but both activities go on.

  5. Madhavananda Das (Orissa) says :

    The following are a few comments from Sri Srimad Gour Govinda Swami Maharaja on this topic. It is an excerpt from a short article from Sri Krishna Kathamrita magazine number 10 in which we posed certain commonly asked questions about institutions and spiritual life, with answers from Maharaja’s teachings.
    Should we accept someone as an authority if they have material attachments and are not situated on the spiritual platform?
    We accept because we are in a society. Someone may be GBC of some region of the world, so according to the management system he is authority. But by the spiritual system, unless I am convinced, I cannot accept him as authority. That is up to me. I have independence. It is my choice. As far as the management system goes, I accept him because he is GBC. But as far as spiritual things go, unless I am convinced I cannot accept. “Please excuse me.” Acceptance of someone as a spiritual authority should not be forced or compulsory. That is a principle. For me to accept someone as a spiritual authority my heart must be convinced, because it is based on the desire of the heart. It is not an external thing. It is internal. Acting in that way is not offensive. I am not disregarding him. He is a vaiṣṇava, so I offer him obeisances. We pay obeisances to all vaiṣṇavas, regardless if they are kaniṣṭha, madhyama, or whatever. That is etiquette. But accepting someone as spiritual master, that is something else. (Evening darśana, Bhubaneswar, 1990)