A brief overview of the history of the process of initiation in ISKCON.
By Hari-sauri dasa
Śrīla Prabhupāda introduced the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa immediately, both collectively and individually. As soon as some people became attracted to the chanting and they started taking a serious interest in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, then he introduced them to chanting on beads. We have seen the pictures of the devotees when they started coming to the store-front at 26 2nd Ave., he got them to make sets of beads for themselves, and then very quickly, on Janmastami day September 6, 1966, he initiated them into the chanting of the holy names. Of course that is what initiation is all about–it means that one’s individual chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra is sanctioned or empowered by the spiritual master.
When we chant Hare Kṛṣṇa that means that literally we have Kṛṣṇa dancing on our tongues. Through public kirtana Kṛṣṇa is available to everybody. Nevertheless, if one wants to be really serious about chanting, then the process is to take initiation, because it is at that point that one makes an actual commitment to the Supreme Lord to begin rendering service to Him. Casual chanting is also beneficial but one makes more rapid advancement when one makes a formal commitment.
We see then that within two months Śrīla Prabhupāda started to initiate devotees. There is a whole process to initiation. In the beginning Śrīla Prabhupāda was doing it all by himself:
he was picking the candidates, approving them;
he was giving them their new spiritual names,
he was chanting the first round on their beads,
he was doing the fire yajna.
In this way he began to guide them into the science of chanting. And then after a few more months then he started to give brahṁana initiation. Again chanting, but the gayatri mantra this time, with Prabhupāda sitting personally with the candidate and speaking the mantra into their ear, and giving them their Brahmana thread.
In this way Prabhupāda began the process, the sadhana of chanting. Casual chanting was also going on, but it was in this very specific science of sadhana bhakti that Śrīla Prabhupāda was interested in getting people committed to.
So then what happened? Kṛṣṇa consciousness started to expand. By early 1968 there were five temples in N. America and there were about 50-60 initiated devotees. Then from 1968–1971, four years, at the end of 1971 there were nearly 60 temples, and there were about 600 initiated devotees. Kṛṣṇa consciousness had spread from America to Europe; Śrīla Prabhupāda went to Africa; he went back to India with a large group of devotees; Australia and Japan started up etc… Kṛṣṇa consciousness suddenly exploded. It increased ten times its size in four years. And then from 1971–1977 the number of disciples increased from 600 to over 5,000, and the number of temples went from 60 to 108.
This rapid expansion prompted Śrīla Prabhupāda to introduce some innovations into the whole process of initiating people into the chanting of the holy names. He started to delegate all the different aspects of the process of giving initiation. By 1968 he had made a few Brahmana disciples and had started to install Deities. He also started structuring ISKCON; we see that the first real asrama structures started growing up from 1968 onwards, with the appearance of New Vrindaban, and then some of the bigger temples like Los Angeles. The brahmacari, brahmacarini and grhastha asramas became distinct, and by 1970-71 Śrīla Prabhupāda started giving sannyasa initiation to several devotees.
Prabhupāda therefore devised some systems to help him to cope with the very rapid expansion of ISKCON around the world, and to facilitate that expansion also. It became obvious that he couldn’t travel to every single temple. But people were joining in all these places, and they wanted initiation. So Prabhupāda started to delegate the responsibilities of giving initiation to some of his disciples.
He started something quite revolutionary–giving initiations through the mail. I don’t know whether SBSST ever did that but Prabhupāda was doing it. He instructed the temple presidents that “Now whoever you recommend and whose name you send to me, I will accept them.” He accepted them without even seeing them. He started having the presidents perform the fire yajnas; and as soon as he got someone a little qualified as his personal secretary, he delegated to him the business of choosing the names. Just like when I got initiated in 1972 in Sydney. There were about sixteen of us, Śrīla Prabhupāda was personally there and when each candidate came up, Prabhupāda was asking his secretary ‘Now what is his name?” So the system was that the secretary, or at that time his Sanskrit editor Pradyumna prabhu was on his party, had some books with different names of Kṛṣṇa or Radharani, or the Visnu-sahasra-nama etc. Whatever the beginning letter of the candidate’s name was, he would find an equivalent Sanskrit name. For example, my karmi name was Denis Harrison, and when I grew up everyone used to call me Harry, because my name was Harrison. When I joined the temple I was Bhakta Harry. So when I got initiated, because my name was Harri-son, the secretary, Shyamasundar prabhu, picked out the name ‘Hari-sauri.’ Similarly Bhakta Phillip became Partha, Bhaktin Anne became Ambika, and so forth. [There were one or two occasions, fairly rare, where it did occur that Prabhupāda didn’t actually accept the name the secretary gave. In Vṛndāvana in 1975, at Janmastami time, Bhakta Richard from Australia was accepted for initiation. When he came up the secretary gave his name. And Prabhupāda looked at him and he shook his head and said, “No.” And he gave a name of his own choosing–“Bhagavat Asraya.” So there were one or two occasions when Prabhupāda wouldn’t go along with what the secretary picked out, but on the whole that was the system. The point was that the secretary was actually doing that.]
Still for a while Prabhupāda continued to chant the first round on the new initiates’ beads. The beads would then be sent in the mail along with the acceptance letter.
Similarly he delegated the responsibility of awarding the gayatri mantra, second initiation. Even without seeing the candidates, Śrīla Prabhupāda was accepting the recommendations of the temple presidents, then, for the men at least, Prabhupāda would chant on their sacred threads, and they would also be mailed; and for chanting the mantra in their ear, then Prabhupāda did something else a little revolutionary. He started doing it through his separated energy–he made a tape recording and he sent that cassette to every temple. Every temple president had a cassette of Śrīla Prabhupāda chanting the gayatri mantra which was played in the ear of the new second initiate and that was as good as hearing the gayatri mantra from Śrīla Prabhupāda himself. Separated energy.
In this way then Śrīla Prabhupāda was able to expand this movement very rapidly all over the world. But by 1972 there were so many people joining that it even became troublesome to do it through the mail, at least with respect to chanting on the beads. So even that function Śrīla Prabhupāda started to delegate. At the beginning of 1973 Prabhupāda wrote to Revatinandan Swami, who was at that time probably the only sannyasi in Europe, with a solution to this problem:
4 January, 1973
My Dear Revatinandana,
Please accept my blessings. Just now I have received some more requests for giving first initiation from Dhananjaya, and now I am receiving weekly not less than ten to fifteen such requests from new students. So it is becoming very expensive to send so many sets of beads such long distance, and it has become little bothersome for me also, so I think now you may be appointed by me to give first initiations to new disciples by chanting on their beads on my behalf. In America Kirtanananda Swami is going that. So now if there are two of you that will give me great relief. Kirtanananda will chant on the beads for new devotees in America, Canada, like that, you can chant on the beads for the European continent new disciples. They shall, of course, still be considered as my disciples, not that they shall become your disciples, but you will be empowered by me to chant their beads and that is the same effect of binding master and disciple as if I were personally chanting. They may continue to send me their letters of request, along the President’s recommendation, and I shall give them name and it will be entered by my Secretary in our records, only I will send my letter of reply to you and you will purchase beads there and chant them and send, along with my letter to the new initiates. Is that all right?
I shall continue to deal with the matter of second initiations. The sacred threads do not require so much postage to send airmail.”
A similar letter also sent to Kirtanananda Swami the next day. The following month Śrīla Prabhupāda arrived in Australia. When he did initiations, even though he was personally present, he had Madhudvisa Swami chant on many of the beads.
Thus we see that Prabhupāda delegated all the different aspects of the process of giving initiation to his disciples except one: the recommendation, the application, had to come to Prabhupāda and he had to send a letter back approving it. Then in 1977 that also changed, and even that function Śrīla Prabhupāda delegated. What happened was that Śrīla Prabhupāda got very, very sick at the Mayapur festival in 1977. He did do one big initiation ceremony, but he never really recovered from that illness. So around about May-time, Prabhupāda actually stopped giving initiations. For a couple of months, although new people were joining, nobody was getting initiated. This had happened previously that when Prabhupāda had gotten very sick he temporarily suspended giving initiations, because of course, when the spiritual master gives initiation he gets so much of the karmic effect from the disciples; generally of course that goes through to Kṛṣṇa and most of it gets burnt up but there is some effect on the guru also. I saw that whenever Prabhupāda gave a big initiation, just afterwards he would get some kind of physical illness. So on one or two occasions when he got really seriously ill, he stopped giving initiations until he had recovered.
In mid-May of 1977 then, Prabhupāda was in Hrishikesh. Then he took a turn for the worse, and they rushed back to Vṛndāvana and it seemed like Prabhupāda was going to leave at any moment. That was the week that he made his will. Prabhupāda said all the GBCS should come. When they arrived Prabhupāda told them, “Now, if you have any questions about anything that is not clear, you meet together, you formulate your questions, and then you come to me and I will answer them.” So they did that on May 28. And one of the questions that they asked was, “How will the process of initiations go on after your departure?” Prabhupāda made it very clear, he said he would name some people, and he said “When I give the instruction, then they will become regular gurus.” Whoever they initiate, they will be their disciples, and he used this phrase, that they will be “disciple of my disciple.” And he also said, “They will be my grand disciples.”
So that was very clear. Everyone understood perfectly what was going to happen after Prabhupāda left the planet. And of course it was what Śrīla Prabhupāda had been telling was going to happen since the last ten years. It wasn’t anything revolutionary or mysterious. Prabhupāda definitively stated it for the final time.
There was however, one remaining problem, that whilst Prabhupāda was still on the planet, candidates that were coming and he wasn’t giving initiations. In early July Śrīla Prabhupāda meant with Tamal Krishna Goswami, his secretary, and he told him, “Now I am going to give you some names and these people will act on my behalf to give initiation.” And so on July 9th the letter was sent, and that named eleven senior disciples, who Prabhupāda said would now be responsible for giving initiations to the new candidates.
As I have already explained, all the functions of initiations had already been delegated to his disciples, but the significant part about this one was that it was the final delegation–that Prabhupāda said that now, the new candidates need no longer write to me and the recommendations don’t have to come to me. Rather they write to one of these eleven men, whoever is nearest, and if they accept them, then they become initiated. At the same time he said they will still be my disciples. And the reason why Prabhupāda said that was because previously he had said, on May 28, and also prior to that, that there was an etiquette that as long as the spiritual master is on the planet, then the disciples, who may be doing the preaching, bring the new candidates to him:
Letter to Tusta Krsna Swami, December 2, 1975:
“Keep trained very rigidly, and then you are bona fide guru, and you can accept disciples on the same principle. But as a matter of etiquette it is the custom that during the lifetime of your spiritual master you bring the prospective disciples to him, and in his absence or disappearance you can accept disciples without any limitation. This is the law of disciplic succession. I want to see my disciples become bona fide spiritual master and spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness very widely; that will make me and Kṛṣṇa very happy.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda therefore observed that etiquette.
Its clear from this how Prabhupāda delegated to his disciples all of these different aspects of the process for giving initiation into the chanting of the holy names. From the very beginning of ISKCON’s existence he started doing it, and the letter from July was just a final delegation, that’s all. It was in the specific context of Śrīla Prabhupāda still being on the planet but not doing the process himself. It was with the understanding, finalized on May 28, that when he disappeared, then the process of initiation, the acceptance of disciples, that would go to his disciples completely.