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Sannyasa and Iskcon

Friday, 14 July 2006 / Published in Discussion / 3,815 views

By Gaura Keshava das

Sannyasa is not taken in ISKCON in the traditional Varnashram manner. Sannyasa in ISKCON is “awarded” to candidates that apply for it and go through the Society’s system of being considered and placed on a waiting list for years. A council of ISKCON senior Sannyasins considers all candidates. The traditional Varnashram system involves a person simply deciding to become renounced and finishing up his family business and (usually but not always) approaching another person who already is a practicing sannyasin and receiving training and sannyasa diksha from him.

So the question for ISKCON is. Whether Dhanurdhara Swami would have been awarded the order of Sannyasa, knowing all that is currently known about what is documented that he did and what he himself has admitted to. If the answer to this is “Yes”, then perhaps ISKCON needs to rethink it’s criteria for “awarding” sannyasa. If the answer to this is “No” then perhaps ISKCON needs to rethink his continued status of sannyasa. Would another devotee applying for sannyasa today with the same track record be “awarded” sannyasa?

We should also not forget that although we automatically accept sannyasins as advanced in spiritual life, probably due to the “rigid” process that they go through in order to receive their ordination, sannyasa in and of itself is a stage of life or ashram, part of the material (but useful) social system called Varnashram. It is not in itself a spiritual status. There are many Non-Vaisnava (Mayavadi) sannyasins in India who are considered great spiritual offenders by Vaisnavas. However sannyasa in ISKCON is not simply a stage of life to which anyone who reaches a particular age attaches himself. The way that it is revered in the Society, although having suffered damage due to frequent falldown, still commands much respect and obedience. As such the leadership of the society would do well to carefully monitor the standard of it’s sannyasins.

The alternative is to give up control of who takes up sannyasa and I do not think that ISKCON is ready for such a move.

By the way almost the same comment as made above can be made about the system of approving (or not disapproving) individuals to become gurus in ISKCON. The post of guru is also something which the institution (GBC) controls (although there is an attempt to deregulate this control to some extent). Since guruship in ISKCON is also still “awarded” under institutional guidelines (ecclesiastical conventions) we cannot say that it is the same as the “natural” sastric system whereby a person becomes a guru simply by the successful conclusion of mutual testing between prospective guru and prospective disciple.

Personally I am for the total deregulation of both these positions and the following of the “natural” sastric systems for them. This would not stop the GBC from enforcing strictly basic spiritual standards on all members of ISKCON regardless of their being gurus or sishyas. The GBC could also enforce the different standards for the different varnas (if people ever admit belonging to one of them) and ashrams for those who wish to work within ISKCON. If all such standards were accepted then where would be the need to police who belonged to what ashram or who gave diksha to whom?

Since I do not think that this is going to happen in the near future however, the leadership should dispassionately weigh the facts of the case and decide to apply their control over such positions even handedly. Remember that the world and the devotees are watching you. At the same time the decisions must not simply be based on the Vox Populi but on sound principles of Vaisnava philosophy.

2 Responses to “Sannyasa and Iskcon”

  1. Gaura Keshava prabhu I would have to disgaree with your contention that Iskcon should totally degregulate the positions of sannyasa and guru. The vedic tradition will not work in Iskcon because Iskcon is not cognate with traditional vedic society. Iskcon is a religious institution with positions of authority. In vedic society anyone could be a guru or sannyasi. If someone is a guru or sannyasi in Iskcon then that person represent’s Iskcon. If Iskcon’s gurus and sannyasis are just any people who feel like being a guru or sannyasi, then those positions in Iskcon will lose all credibility.

    The position of being a guru or sannyasa in Iskcon or any other gaudiya institution, is something which can bring a great deal of wealth and prestige. If anyone can freely take those positions then that will create a situation where there is going to be many people who are going to try to be in the “guru business” or “sannyasa business”. That is the nature of people who are not liberated souls. In order to gain wealth, and power over peoples lives, many people will see the necessity of promoting themselves as spiritual leaders.

    Charismatic people who learn gaudiya philosophy well enough to create the impression of being spiritually advanced will be given the opportunity to exploit the innocence and ignorance of people looking for spiritual guidance from Iskcon. As someone with a lot of experience dealing with a wide variety of gaudiya vaisnavas for a long time I can assure you that there is no lack of people who would take advantage of others if given the chance. Besides those who would take the position of guru or sannyasa with the blatant intent on gaining wealth, there are more then enough people who are simply egotistic enough to think themselves to be spiritually qualified and who want recognition and prestige as great souls. That is natural and to be expected when persons who are not liberated souls are given the opportunity to be treated and worshipped as such. The temptation to exploit other people’s ignorance and innocence when there is the potential for a lot of wealth, power, and prestige is to great for anyone but a liberated soul to be affected by.

    If Iskcon were to totally deregulate as you suggest then the inevitable result will be serious damage to Iskcon’s credibility and serious damage to innocents who are fooled into accepting unqualified people as God’s representative on earth. The damage which has occured in the past and present to Iskcon’s credibility and to innocent people due to guru and sannyasa problems, will be nothing compared to what could happen if anyone at their whim could attempt to portray themselves as bona fide spiritual masters and sannyasis. It doesn’t matter how sincere a devotee thinks he is. It doesn’t matter how much “devotioanl service” he is doing or has done, or how long that devotee has been doing it. All that matters is what level of realization that person is on. Srila Prabhupada used to say that the last temptation of maya was in wanting to be God. When I first heard that I thought it meant something about mayavadi philosophy. But I learned later that there is another purport to that statement. The last temptation of maya is wanting to be [i]treated[/i] as God, to have the authority over others as God does. The last temptation of maya is in wanting to be worshipped and served.

    Sri Caitanya gave the order to become guru and liberate the land. But that does not mean that unqualified people should be promoted by Iskcon as gurus, sannyasis or liberated souls. They have not earned that respect. It also doesn’t mean that if you are a madhyama or kanistha adhikari that you are supposed to promote yourself as a liberated soul and allow people to think of you as something much much higher then what you actually are, for supposedly their benefit.

    Srila Prabhupada wrote:

    The first-class devotee does not at all see anyone who is not in the service of the Lord, but the second-class devotee makes distinctions between devotees and nondevotees. The second-class devotees are therefore meant for preaching work, they must loudly preach the glories of the Lord. The second-class devotee accepts disciples from the section of third-class devotees or nondevotees. Sometimes the first-class devotee also comes down to the category of the second-class devotee for preaching work. (Srimad Bhagavatam 2:3:21 purport.)

    This is a general principle. However, A person who is liberated acharya and guru cannot commit any mistake, but there are persons who are less qualified or not liberated, but still can act as ‘guru’ and ‘acharya’ by strictly following the disciplic succession. (Lecture 26th April, 1968. New York)

    People who are not liberated souls can take the position of guru in Iskcon according to Srila Prabhupada. But they should not promote or allow promotion of themselves as liberated souls. They should make it clear to any potential disciple what their level of realization is. If they are not directly in association with the Lord, as an uttama adhikari is, then they should make that very clear. Potential disciples need to be told by madhyama vaisnavas who are taking disciples that they are not uttama vaisnavas. That they are not liberated souls in direct communion and communication with God. The abilities and powers of an uttama guru is what sastra generally refers to when describing a guru. To let potential disciples remain unaware of the distinction between a liberated guru on the highest level of intimacy with God, and a madhyama vaisnava who is not that, then that is going to cause problems.

    From S.B. 4.28.41

    In this way King Malayadhvaja attained perfect knowledge because in his pure state he was directly instructed by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. By means of such enlightening transcendental knowledge, he could understand everything from all angles of vision.


    In this verse the words saksad bhagavatoktena guruna harina are very significant. The Supreme Personality of Godhead speaks directly to the individual soul when the devotee has completely purified himself by rendering devotional service to the Lord. Lord Krsna confirms this also in Bhagavad-gita (10.10):

    tesam satata-yuktanam
    bhajatam priti-purvakam
    dadami buddhi-yogam tam
    yena mam upayanti te

    “To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.”

    The Lord is the Supersoul seated in everyone’s heart, and He acts as the caitya-guru, the spiritual master within. However, He gives direct instructions only to the advanced, pure devotees. In the beginning, when a devotee is serious and sincere, the Lord gives him directions from within to approach a bona fide spiritual master. When one is trained by the spiritual master according to the regulative principles of devotional service and is situated on the platform of spontaneous attachment for the Lord (raga-bhakti), the Lord also gives instructions from within. Tesam satata-yuktanam bhajatam priti-purvakam [Bg. 10.10]. This distinct advantage is obtained by a liberated soul. Having attained this stage, King Malayadhvaja was directly in touch with the Supreme Lord and was receiving instructions from Him directly.

    Srila Prabhupada also writes

    .Srila Raghunatha dasa Gosvami confirms that this is the real position of a bona fide spiritual master and says that one should always think of the spiritual master in terms of his intimate relationship with Mukunda (Sri Krsna)…In his prayers to the spiritual master, Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura confirms that all the revealed scriptures accept the spiritual master to be identical with the Personality of Godhead because he is a very dear and confidential servant of the Lord.”

    Here we are given an explanation of what the uttama adhikari guru is all about. But at the same time we should also understand that sometimes people can take the role of a guru and not be what is described above. There are gradations of spiritual masters, some are like what is described above, some are not. They may be madhyama adhikaris, they may not be an intimate or confidential servant who is directly instructed by the Lord. When sastra speaks about the position of the bona fide guru it is the above type of guru who is generally being described. Therefore people who read Srila Prabhupada’s books are going to expect a guru within Iskcon to be what is described in those books. Those who are not on that level but who are still gurus in Iskcon should not allow that misconcpetion about themselves. As we have seen so many people have accepted madhyama or second-class vaisnavas as guru or even kanistha or third-class vaisnavas, all the while thinking that the sastric descriptions of an uttama or first-class vaisnava applies to them. When those gurus let them down it is devastating to the disciples. They lose faith in the society which they feel has cheated them by promoting a person as a guru, as a via-medium of God, as a confidante and intimate associate of Sri Radha Krishna.

    If anyone is allowed within Iskcon to promote themselves as guru then the potential is their for chaos. How many devotees will spend their time in the pursuit of Iskcon’s agenda and how many will spend their time in pursuit of their own agenda for wealth and power?

  2. Gaura Keshava das says :

    Shiva, no matter what I say I knew that you would not agree. You and most of ISKCON are not ready for what I am saying even though it is satrically correct. I can wait, eventually you will all have to change your ideas.

    However this does not change two facts:

    1. Any system of Institutional “approval” is not Sastric. Srila Prabhuoada says “It is imperative that a serious person accept a bona fide spiritual master in terms of the sastric injunctions. Sri Jiva Gosvami advises that one not accept a spiritual master in terms of hereditary or customary social and ecclesiastical conventions. One should simply try to find a genuinely qualified spiritual master for actual advancement in spiritual understanding.

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