Bylaws and Centralization – the Facts
By Ravindra Svarupa dasa
Dear Temple Presidents in North America,
Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
I have been asked by the Executive Committee of the North American GBC and Temple Presidents to write you concerning issues raised by various web posting in response to a draft of proposed new bylaws for North American ISKCON temples. This draft had been circulated and discussed among us during our last meeting, held in January in Dallas. Soon after, the text somehow passed into general circulation, and a number of web posting sprang up to raise a general alarm.
“Our Whole Movement Could Be Killed,” warned Vyapaka Prabhu, in the title of a posting on the ritvik website Sampradaya Sun. He alleges that the bylaws disclose a sinister effort by the GBC “wherein every temple is effectively taken over by the GBC or their proxy.” Other writers join in with him to inveigh against what they say is an attempt of the GBC to establish total centralized control of all temples—precisely the kind that Srila Prabhupada himself explicitly forbade.
They bring up the well-know incident of 1972 when some GBC members in America embraced and even began to implement such a centralized system. Srila Prabhupada responded by contacting the temple presidents directly and ordering them “to disregard for the time being any decision from the GBC men until my further instruction.” And Prabhupada consequently wrote a well-known letter to Karandhara outlining the principles of the empowerment of local leaders as opposed to remote centralized bureaucratic control.
Now, say these outraged critics, the GBC, in flagrant violation of all the instructions Prabhupada has given, are reviving the errors of the past with an illicit gambit to disempower local devotees and seize total control.
I can state without equivocation that none of these charges is true. That the claims made in these posting could be accepted as true is, to me, heartbreaking testimony to the state of fragmentation and isolation among devotees who ought to be unified in Srila Prabhupada’s service. The postings also attests to the distressing degree to which ISKCON’s own history has become hazy, distorted or lost in memory.
I shall try to clear up various areas of misunderstanding and forgetfulness, and by doing so, show why the current effort to revise the North American bylaws follows Srila Prabhupada’s will.
Three Areas of Misunderstanding
First, is the notable lack of awareness concerning how ISKCON in North America currently works. The web writers seem not to know how such bylaw revisions came to be proposed and formulated, and how they will eventually be adapted. Most if not all of the writers have had little if any regular participation in the life of ISKCON. It is a fact that those who have broken off from ISKCON tend to imagine it perpetually as it was during their last involvement, frozen in time. Hence the frequent astonishment of those who return after prolonged absence: “It’s so different!” Much of the writers’ idea of what is happening now springs from their own lack of current experience.
Second, none of the writers seem to know or remember clearly the actual management structure for ISKCON that Prabhupada set up. What was the line of authority in ISKCON during Srila Prabhupada’s presence? What responsibilities did he lay upon the GBC? What powers did he want the GBC to exercise? A quick review of a few important documents should be sufficient to repair any failures of knowledge or memory.
Third, the writers have not bothered to inform themselves of the actual facts of the 1972 attempt to centralize. They have claimed the GBC is now “doing the exact same thing,” but not only do they not know what is happening now, they seem to be ignorant also of what had happened then. A closer look at the 1972 incident will make it clear what Srila Prabhupada was specifically objecting to, and that will make evident the baselessness of the accusation that the GBC is “doing the exact same thing.”
Here I shall attempt to fill in these three areas of deficiency, so that one can get a correct understanding of how the GBC is working to implement and fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s directions for ISKCON and the GBC.
Lack of Knowledge of ISKCON
The bylaws changes are portrayed as plot devised and furthered by the GBC, as a kind of power-grab by that body to establish absolute control, taking powers away from the temple presidents and local devotees. On the contrary, the effort to revise the bylaws for North America began in 2004 as a joint endeavor of the GBC and the temple presidents in North America working together. The ongoing effort to revise the bylaws is as much a product of the temple presidents as they are of the GBC.
In North America, the GBCs and temple presidents first began meeting and regularly working together as a team in 1987. Especially after the autocracy of the “zonal acarya system,” we felt the need for the GBCs and temple presidents to function together on a far more collegial basis than had been the practice in the past. Over time, this joint group began exercising more and more regular supervision over the affairs of ISKCON in North America. The outcome of this and parallel developments in other regions was the formal establishment by the GBC in 2002 of a kind of standing sub-committee called Regional Governing Body. These are groups in various geographical areas—North America, India, Europe, etc.—made up of the GBCs, temple presidents, sannyasis, and other area leaders, with delegated powers from the international GBC to oversee ISKCON affairs in their regions. By this move, the international GBC decentralized its authority and empowered local leaders.
It was the North American RGB members—temple presidents and GBCs alike—who, in 2004, saw the need of regularizing the bylaws of ISKCON temples. It had become clear that many temples had bylaws or articles of incorporation that did not embody Srila Prabhupada’s chain of authority nor formally give the GBC the minimum powers of oversight needed to maintain the temples’ spiritual and managerial standards—the crucial responsibilities that Srila Prabhupada held the GBC accountable for. For example, in some bylaws the temple president may have been officially answerable only to a board of directors of entirely unspecified qualifications. In actual practice, ISKCON temples had generally followed Srila Prabhupada directions and simply ignored the legal technicalities when they differed. Temple presidents all knew what Srila Prabhupada wanted, and they followed his system. The fact that the legal documents—often standard boilerplate texts provided by a local attorney—did not reflect the line of authority established by Prabhupada was simply regarded as one more case of the mismatch between the spiritual and the mundane. The mundane, tedious legal technicality did not really much matter.
The times, however, were a-changin’. When the GBC had attempted to remove a philosophically deviant temple president in India, exercising the responsibility placed on it by Srila Prabhupada, that president used Krishna’s money to hire lawyers and go to the civil courts. Then another ritvik proponent in India, by manipulating and twisting legal technicalities, managed to take a temple out of ISKCON. And then it happened right here in North America. Mundane legal technicalities had become suddenly important. Such things were as much a concern for the temple presidents and it was for the GBC. So began a concerted, unified effort. All the current temple bylaws and articles were gathered together and reviewed, outside legal authorities were consulted, drafts of possible revisions were sent out to temple presidents and discussed, brought back for reworking, and sent out again. We aimed at consensus. Changes were adopted at recent meetings of the GBC and temple presidents with unanimous votes.
This is still a work in progress, for it is a delicate business. Prabhupada wanted the GBC to exercise only limited managerial power over the temple yet at the same time he wanted the GBC to retain sufficient powers of oversight and supervision as to insure that temples remained faithful to the basic teachings and practices of Krishna consciousness. Now it had become necessary for that balance to be expressed in legal documents according to the standards and norms of the North American polity. In January, the work was still unfinished. However, one early draft had found it way into hands of some inimical to ISKCON; they proceeded to raised a ruckus over some proposed changes that, by the time they made an issue of it, had already been dropped.
The provisional nature of this work is a reason for some confidentiality. It is incomplete. Even so, a few temples have already had to put in place an intermediate form of the bylaws. This is why: For quite some time ritviks leaders have been openly boasting that they would take over ISKCON temples in North America, using means they had developed in India. In other words, they would exploit opportunities they found in our current legal documents. When this actually began to happen in Long Island, we began the concerted effort to repair our documents. Then reliable information reached North American leaders that a plan to take over certain other temples had been put into motion. Events confirmed this intelligence; therefore, as a precautionary emergency measure, those targeted temples quickly adopted new bylaws, knowing that they could be later amended when a final version was produced.
In any case, this is an effort in which the GBCs and temple presidents in North America are jointly engaged. We are a team, working together, and we have been for many years. Those who do not know ISKCON well should take note of this fact.
The North American team has always urged all temple presidents to participate fully in this process. We all know what this entails for you. Most of you are already over-engaged with your own temples and congregation. Now you must sacrifice time, energy, and money—already scarce—to involve yourself in this and other regional concerns. As a result, all of you may not have been able to keep as involved and informed as you would have liked. If so, you may have yourself become concerned or alarmed by reading or hearing such allegations as contained in the web postings. In that case, I hope this letter helps to set your mind at rest and to show that your efforts to stay involved in regional concerns are eminently worthwhile.
Ignorance of Srila Prabhupada’s Management Structure
As already noted, when the various temples in North America were incorporated, their bylaws and articles of incorporation were frequently off-the-shelf, boilerplate texts, provided by a local attorney, suitable for conventional American non-profit organizations. As a result, the formal legal documents of many temples did not reflect with sufficient clarity Prabhupada’s directions regarding the authority of the Governing Body Commission, the local GBC secretary, and the temple president.
What did Srila Prabhupada actually want?
Although Srila Prabhupada formed the GBC in 1970, he did not fully establish the modus operandi of the GBC until 1975, at the beginning of the first of its official annual general meetings. Before then, Srila Prabhupada had considered, and even tried out, different ways of establishing the structure of authority in ISKCON, but his final determination can be found embodied in the minutes of the GBC meeting in Mayapur in 1975.
Srila Prabhupada had ordered that the GBC should hold an annual general meeting; this is in accord with the standard practice of a corporate board of directors. The GBC would meet once each year in Mayapur, just before the Gaura Purnima festival. He stipulated that this annual meeting should be conducted according to the standard rules of parliamentary procedure, according to which proposals are put forward, discussed, amended if needed, and voted upon by the members. The resolutions produced in this way are recorded in a corporate minute book. That first formal meeting—conducted in this way—took place in 1975. To show how to follow established procedure, Prabhupada himself participated in part of the first meeting, raising his hand to vote along with the others. So long as Srila Prabhupada was present among us, he personally reviewed the annual resolutions and signed off on them.
At this very first formal meeting, held under Srila Prabhupada close supervision, the GBC adapted a resolution defining the duties and responsibilities of the GBC:
1. Resolved: The GBC (Governing Body Commission) has been established by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to represent Him in carrying out the responsibility of managing the International Society for Krishna Consciousness of which He is the Founder-Acarya and supreme authority. The GBC accepts as its life and soul His divine instructions and recognizes that it is completely dependent on His mercy in all respects. The GBC has no other function or purpose other than to execute the instructions so kindly given by His Divine Grace and preserve and spread his Teachings to the world in their pure form.
It is understood that the GBC, as a collective body of 14-members has been authorized by His Divine Grace to make necessary arrangements for carrying out these responsibilities of management. These arrangements may include delegating authority, managing resources, setting objectives, making plans, calling for reports, evaluating results, training others, maintaining spiritual standards and defining spheres of influence of the various GBC members as well as other devotees.
The members of the GBC do not have any inherent authority but rather derive their authority from the Governing Body Commission itself and ultimately from His Divine Grace. Their authority may be over a particular geographic area or over a particular function. Whichever area of responsibility be given to the various members their primary responsibility is to the society as a whole.
2) Resolved: A GBC member should not consider himself as the whole GBC, but as a member or commissioner, commissioned by the whole Governing Board.
Here, the GBC body is made accountable to Srila Prabhupada for managing the entire society, and the individual members are accountable in turn to the whole body. In order to fulfill their obligations, the GBC members are authorized by Srila Prabhupada to make the “necessary arrangements.” In a recorded conversation between Srila Prabhupada and GBC members at the time of this meeting (March 27, 1975), the “necessary arrangements” were spelled out concretely: “. . . . this is discussing the responsibilities of the GBC men in their zones. So we’ve already said to organize opening new temples, to appoint temple presidents for new temples, to be responsible for training all temple presidents and insuring spiritual standards.”
When Prabhupada established the GBC in 1970, he put his initial ideas in a document called the “Directions of Management.” There he stipulated that the GBC members would be elected regularly by temple presidents. In the event, such elections were never held, and in this meeting of 1975, when Prabhupada first guided the GBC in adopting its full formal structure and function, that provision of the “Directions of Management” was rescinded:
5. Resolved: The selection of GBC members is that Srila Prabhupada will nominate, and if there is a discrepancy, His Grace will change him. There will be no elections, and the present GBC member will remain.
On the second day of the same meeting, this resolution was passed:
4) Resolved: There should be no change of [temple] Presidents but difficulties should be worked out. In the case of an incorrigible President who
1) doesn’t submit [monthly] reports or submits false reports
2) who misspends money
3) who doesn’t follow regulative principles
he must be changed. Three GBC men may decide on this in an urgent case and in a non-urgent case it may be done by majority vote of GBC by letter.
This clearly shows how the GBC, being responsible for the management of the ISKCON, is given the power to remove a temple president in specific circumstances.
This first formal meeting, then, provides a clear articulation of a line of descending authority. Srila Prabhupada read and signed these minutes.
A year later, Srila Prabhupada plainly articulated and emphatically affirmed this line in a letter to Vasudeva dasa in Fiji (30 June, 1976):
I beg to inform you that we are managing our Krishna Consciousness Movement by the Governing Body Commission, GBC. We have got about 20 GBC’s looking after the whole world affair, and above the GBC I am there. Below the GBC there are the temple president, secretary, treasurer in every centre. So the temple president is responsible to the GBC and the GBC is responsible to me. In this way we are managing.
It is also significant that at the 1975 GBC meeting it was resolved that “An annual oath of allegiance should be signed by each GBC and Temple President,” and elsewhere in the conversation cited above Srila Prabhupada showed particular concern about it.
We can plainly see, then, how Prabhupada wanted a clear line of authority extending from him to the GBC body, from the GBC body to the individual zonal secretaries, from each secretary to the temple president. However, as we have already noted, our legal article and bylaws in North America often do not adequately reflect this line of authority. Some provide that the temple president is chosen by and works under the authority of a board of directors, whose qualification are not spelled out. In some instances, the board itself seems answerable to the “members,” which some may consider the congregation. Frequently, there are no provisions to secure clearly Prabhupada’s dictum “the temple president is responsible to the GBC.” Rather, the temple president is wholly subordinate to a board of directors of unspecified qualifications or to a voting congregation, or to both. In this and related ways, the authority of the GBC body, of the individual zonal secretary, and of the temple president, tend in many cases not to be clearly and unambiguously established.
The current reconsideration of bylaws by the North America temple presidents and GBCs is simply designed to rectify this deficiency by establishing in formal documents the position of ISKCON GBCs and temple president, who have a sacred obligation to Srila Prabhupada to safeguard the temples. Recent events make it a practical necessity. While it would have been prudent to have done this years ago, the designs of inimical interests to use the secular courts to subvert Prabhupada’s order make it imperative. The new bylaws are intended to do no more than rectify as far as possible any divergence between formal legal structure and Srila Prabhupada’s orders.
It seems, however, that some may have come to prefer our unintentionally acquired legal structure as being more “democratic” and less “hierarchical.” We should carefully take note that such a structure was certainly not preferable to Srila Prabhupada, who clearly established a descending line of authority. What Prabhupada wanted may now have been forgotten or misunderstood. During the 80s, in a number of temples or congregations, disillusionment with higher authorities led to provisions of their accidentally acquired bylaws to be more and more put into actual practice. Subsequently, some temple presidents found themselves in thrall to a board of directors or a congregation whose knowledge of or commitment to Prabhupada’s standards and teachings was weak. This is precisely the kind of situation Srila Prabhupada desired to prevent.
As we have seen, Prabhupada wanted a clear descending line of authority, with the GBC having power to safeguard the integrity of the teaching and practicing of Krishna consciousness in his temples. At the same time, Prabhupada made it clear that such a line of authority did not at all entail centralized, remote bureaucratic control. He saw no incompatibility between descending authority and the empowerment of local devotee. He also insisted on local empowerment, and several times he stopped efforts at excessive centralization, most famously in 1972. Now web alarmists equate the current effort with those in past. Citing that incident, Vyapaka Prabhu writes: “It would seem reasonable to conclude that the changes proposed in 1992 [sic] would be miniscule in comparison to the GBC contemporary effort.”
If we actually look at the 1972 attempt, however, we will see that such comparisons are based on ignorance of what centralization was actually attempted.
Forgetfulness of ISKCON’s History
On April 10, 1972 Srila Prabhupada wrote to Satsvarupa Maharaja:
But I have been very much disturbed recently by the meeting which you all have had in New York, wherein you have passed so many resolutions and elected Atreya Rsi to GBC Secretary, and made so many other changes. I am very much puzzled by the whole business. Therefore I have not approved of it, and you may by now have received my letter why I have temporarily suspended the GBC. Let us not revive this old matter, but I want to know from you what is your opinion of the matter, and how is it that Hamsaduta and Atreya Rsi were able to persuade you all senior leaders of the Society to follow their foolish activities? Kindly inform.
From now on, the temples will operate independently and try to improve their spiritual life more carefully, so there is no more need for such financial arrangement of centralization, as you have proposed.
Atreya Rsi Prabhu had joined ISKCON as an MBA fresh out of Harvard Business School. He compared the management structure of ISKCON with what he had learned about the established corporate practices, and he found ISKCON wanting. He began to share his perceptions with some GBC members, recommending the greater efficiencies and economies of contemporary corporations to the GBC. Some became quite persuaded, and the New York meeting ensued. Rupanuga Prabhu, the GBC for my temple, soon after told me what had been proposed and accepted at the meeting.
It was (to the best of my memory) this: Each zone should be consolidated such that all the resources of each temple—manpower, money, vehicles, book inventory, and so on—were directly controlled and managed by the central zonal headquarters. Each temple would be assigned by zonal central headquarters those resources as needed. All funds raised by each temple would be submitted to the central zonal headquarters, along with all accounting. Each temple would also regularly submit its future plans and budget to zonal headquarters. After review and approval, each temple would be allocated funds for its operations by zonal central headquarters. Zonal headquarters would also be able to transfer personnel, vehicles, and other resources among temple at will. Atreya Rsi Prabhu said that this was the standard model of successful business corporations, and it had been proven to provide higher management with the control necessary for maximum efficiencies in the uses of resources.
Rupanuga Prabhu warned me that although the GBC was impressed with this plan and that it might well be put into action, it had not yet been authorized by Srila Prabhupada. He was traveling overseas, and no changes would be made until Prabhupada was able to review and approve the scheme. As it turned out, however, one GBC immediately put it into action, without waiting for Prabhupada’s sanction, forming what was called “The Midwestern Consolidated Zone.” That is why we temple presidents each received a telegram from Srila Prabhupada telling us that he had suspended the GBC and that we should report to him directly.
It should be obvious that what the North American GBC and temple presidents are working on is nothing like the 1972 plan. In his letter to Satsvarupa Maharaja, Srila Prabhupada particularly mentioned the crux of this plan: “such financial arrangement of centralization.”
Prabhupada again singles out this element in his letter to Karandhara Prabhu on December 22, 1972, by saying “one shall dominate and distribute benefits to the others and they do nothing but beg from you and you provide”:
Accounts must be kept, things must be in order and lawfully done, but that should be each temple’s concern, not yours. 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.
This matter came up again, at the end of 1972, because Karandhara Prabhu, after consulting with some lawyers, was proposing a single “umbrella corporation” for the United States temples. Prabhupada saw this as a reprise of the attempt earlier that year:
Regarding your points about taxation, corporate status, etc., I have heard from Jayatirtha you want to make big plan for centralization of management, taxes, monies, corporate status, bookkeeping, credit, like that. I do not at all approve of such plan. Do not centralize anything. Each temple must remain independent and self-sufficient. That was my plan from the very beginning, why you are thinking otherwise? Once before you wanted to do something centralizing with your GBC meeting, and if I did not interfere the whole thing would have been killed. Do not think in this way of big corporation, big credits, centralization—these are all nonsense proposals.
No honest, well-informed person can find any such attempt at centralization in the current undertaking. We all understand and accept Prabhupada principles of management and fully realize the need for local empowerment and autonomy. At the same time, we also understand that Prabhupada ordered the GBC to exercise certain spiritual and managerial authority over the temples. He obviously did not see these two—local autonomy and GBC authority—as mutually exclusive.
The significance of the first line in Srila Prabhupada will should be recognized. Traditionally, the acarya at the head of an institution legally appointed the successor acarya by naming him in his will. Legally, the successor acarya inherited the organization from his predecessor. Instead of naming an individual to inherit his institution, Prabhupada wrote this:
I, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Settler of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, and disciple of Om Visnupada 108 Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja Prabhupada, presently residing at Sri Krsna-Balarama Mandir in Vrndavana, make this my last will:
1. The Governing Body Commission (GBC) will be the ultimate managing authority of the entire International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Honoring all of Srila Prabhupada instructions—especially as spelled out in the letters of 1972—the GBC also remains duty bound to be that “ultimate managing authority.” ISKCON temple presidents and devotees respect Prabhupada’s will and recognize the duty of the GBC. All that is new in the current effort is to give Srila Prabhupada’s desire legal standing in corporate documents—to make what was recognized de facto (in practice) also established de jure (in law). One would have to be deluded about both the present and the past to equate this effort with the transgressions of 1972.
One Further Important Consideration
A significant change has taken place in the North American temples since Srila Prabhupada’s time. We have all acquired large congregations which have become in most cases the major source of temple support. During Prabhupada time, congregations were usually small, and temples raised funds by the efforts of is own residential devotees. Now we depend financially on our congregations. As a result of that, we give our congregational members a voice in our local plans and activities. This is a natural and healthy development, but with its opportunities come some risks—risks that were not a concern during Prabhupada’s time.
In accordance with Vaisnava principles, our congregations tend to be open and growing. We try to increase their commitment to and involvement with the strict teachings and practices as given by Srila Prabhupada. Yet many in our congregations have various degrees of other allegiances: to other gurus and teachers, to traditional practices of ethnic Hindu communities, to “new age” teachings and practices, to non-ISKCON Gaudiya communities, to other assorted novel concocted teaching and spiritual fads, and so on. Most of us have seen, here or there and now and then, one or the other of such congregational factions become influential in a temple or its community to the detriment of Srila Prabhupada teachings. Most temples allow a regular voice to congregational members (in the form of “temple support group” or “advisory board”), and they encourage participation and even leadership in many activities. This is all to the good, but the temples need at the same time to be able to strongly protect and maintain the integrity of Srila Prabhupada’s teaching, should it come to that. This is an important consideration in the current effort to improve the legal temple documents.
I hope these reflections have helped to dispel any doubts raised by alarmists and to establish the importance of the current undertaking to protect and develop Srila Prabhupada’s movement according to his will.
Your fallen servant,
Ravindra Svarupa dasa