Being a guru in Iskcon: a spiritual leadership seminar

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By Tattvavit Dasa

Anuttama Prabhu, ISKCON’s Director of Communications and a member of the GBC’s Guru Services Committee, and Hanuman Prabhu, a GBC Deputy from Spain and the BBT Director for South America, facilitated a four-day seminar on spiritual leadership in mid-October in Mumbai. Sessions were held six hours a day and were being taught for the second time; last February, the pilot course was launched in Ujjain.

Six initiating gurus took part, along with eight mature devotees who now act as instructing gurus, some of whom may become initiating gurus. Had the course included only initiating gurus, perhaps it would have differed, but it was open to these other devotees as well.

Two attendees, Bhakti Caitanya Swami and Prahladananda Swami, are members of the Guru Services committee, which envisioned the course in February 2006. In May 2007, a steering committee met in Washington, D.C. Later, a smaller team prepared the seminar material.

Also present in Mumbai were Sivarama Swami, Bhakti Vijnana Goswami, and Guru Prasada Swami (GBC Members and initiating gurus). Six devotees from India attended: Siddhartha Prabhu, Mahaman Prabhu, and Bhaktivinoda Prabhu (disciples of Srila Prabhupada), Suradas Prabhu (based for many years in Mumbai), Sarvaisvarya Prabhu (a sannyasa candidate and regional secretary), and Vedanta Caitanya Prabhu (a temple administrator). Two devotees from America attended: Vaisesika Prabhu, a famous book distributor, and Ekalavya Prabhu, who now serves in Nagpur. Kaunteya Prabhu, from Italy, a new member of the GBC, also attended.

Once everyone got used to everyone else’s accent, much interaction took place. The educational approach in the seminar was to value the dialogue between scriptural truths and individual perceptions. Although a limited number of scriptural texts were discussed in depth, the highly participatory learning methods drew out the individuals’ viewpoints on many topics: the guru’s role and identity, the guru’s relationship with ISKCON, cooperation with ISKCON managers, guru/disciple relationships, disciples’ expectations, brahminical leadership skills, life management, spiritual health, peer support, and establishing a healthy sanga of gurus (eventually a retreat will also be organized as an additional part of the seminar, where special topics will be more deeply explored). One aim of the seminar was that participants collaboratively produce guidelines for gurus in these ten areas. The other aim was for the students to write action points for their own personal benefit.

Someone may wonder how it is that gurus attend training seminars. The question was answered this way: Learning from one another is a strength, not a weakness, and wanting to always learn and improve in devotional service is the sign of Vaishnava humility.

Given the nature of ISKCON, a multi-guru institution, the gurus’ effectiveness depends on fidelity to Srila Prabhupada, allegiance to ISKCON, brahminical leadership, cooperation and unity, spiritual strength, scriptural knowledge and realization, an exemplary and balanced lifestyle, concern for everyone’s welfare, reflection and self-awareness, social responsibility and accountability, empowerment of followers, and peer association and support. The course stressed these ten principles and values.

At the end of the seminar, Sivarama Swami expressed thanks for the hard work that had gone into preparing it. Future generations of gurus will be better able to serve Srila Prabhupada’s mission thanks to programs like this, he said.

Prahladananda Swami thanked Anuttama and his wife, Rukmini, for donating the funds for the seminar’s development. Anuttama thanked Hanuman for spending hours on refining the resource material after the pilot seminar was taught.

Bhaktivinoda Prabhu expressed an appreciation that seminars like this one are the proper use of Hare Krishna Land at Juhu Beach, because Srila Prabhupada instructed that people should stay comfortably here to learn about India’s spiritual culture.

Finally, Suradas Prabhu appreciated the way Anuttama and Hanuman humbly and lucidly expressed themselves, always smiling, and he compared the strong facilitation team to two lions.

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1 Unregistered

“Someone may wonder how it is that gurus can attend training seminars.”

Why on earth would anyone wonder that?

Comment posted by ramani on October 28th, 2008
2 Akruranatha

Good point, Ramani!

If even Vyasadeva (the Personality of Godhead) was trained by Narada, and Krishna Himself studied with Sandipani Muni and sought the valuable counsel of Uddhava, and Lord Caitanya was initiated by Isvara Puri and Kesava Bharati and sought instructions from Ramananda Raya, how could anybody think that just because one devotee is acting as spiritual master to a junior devotee, he cannot attend a seminar to try to learn more about this important service in ISKCON?

I guess this idea (that gurus should not need training seminars) is something we inherited from the days when Srila Prabhupada, the Founder-Acarya, was the only spiritual master in the ISKCON society. We got this idea that to serve as someone’s guru you have to be above the need to be instructed by anyone else. We sometimes foolishly try to imitate his autonomy and supremacy.

Even as it applies to Srila Prabhupada, the idea is faulty: Srila Prabhupada never presented himself as supreme or autonomous. He always presented himself as a faithful servant of Om Vishnupada Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur Prabhupada. His message was never that he was God, but always that he was a servant of Krishna, of Lord Caitanya, and that his duty was to deliver the message of Lord Caitanya to his disciples intact, without adding or subtracting or adulterating.

[By being a faithful Vaisnava servant of God, one becomes “God-like”, and the disciple accepts God’s representative “as good as God”, but the guru must *never* pretend to be God.]

Prabhupada did give the example of humility and practicality. For example, there is a film of him at the new Golden Avatar recording studio, and he is asked about how he wants to go about recording some bhajans on the cutting edge recording equipment, and he says “You are the expert”, showing how, when it comes to using this equipment, he is willing to defer to one who is versed in its use.

Now, it is true that Srila Prabhupada did not need any classes or instructions from other Vaisnava groups on how to organize ISKCON or to act as spiritual master. He had already learned this subject matter perfectly from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and from Krishna.

But what he learned and passed on to us is that his disciples should cooperate together under the auspices of the GBC to preach his message of Krishna consciousness (Lord Caitanya’s message) everywhere. I am glad our gurus attend good seminars to help them do that well.

Comment posted by Akruranatha on October 30th, 2008
3 Akruranatha

God is fully independent (svarat). Everything comes from Him, everything rests in Him, and when everything is destroyed He only will remain.

This entire universe is not quite different from Him. “idam hi visvam bhagavan ivetaro” (S.B. 1.5.20) “iva” here means “almost the same” and “itarah” means “different from.” Srila Prabhupada says in the Purport:

“For a pure devotee, the conception of Mukunda, Lord Sri Krishna, is both personal and impersonal. The impersonal cosmic situation is also Mukunda because it is the emanation of the energy of Mukunda. . . ”

“Both the spiritual and the material skies and their paraphernalia are emanations of the internal and external energies of the Lord. External energy is comparatively inferior, whereas the internal potency superior. The superior energy is living force, and therefore she is completely identical, but the external energy, being inert, is partially identical. But both energies are neither equal to or greater than the Lord, who is the generator of all energies . . .”

We jivas are not completely independent, but when we want to assert ourselves as independent of Krishna we mistake the cosmic situation for something it is not. We think our material bodies are ourselves, and the objects of our senses are meant for our enjoyment. Thus we suffer the horrors of samsara, like blazing fire.

This desire to imitate the fully-independent Lord is so strong that we somehow think the holy messenger of God, being not different from God, must also be fully independent and cannot be a servant, a student, a disciple. Where does this idea come from?

When God Himself performs His manifested lila on earth, He sets the example of accepting a spiritual master, showing that He does not even exempt Himself from this rule that one must surrender to the lotus feet of the spiritual master.

And as Lord Caitanya, He takes the role of His devotee, showing us how we can live as pure devotees.

Yet somehow we keep mistaking the idea and thinking that if we become enlightened, we will be fully independent like God.

“Why should an enlightened man take a class, or cooperate with others, or submit himself to (possibly faulty) decisions of the GBC?”

Because a truly enlightened man is a fully surrendered devotee and never considers himself independent of his guru’s order or of the need to learn properly.

These seminars must be full of hari-katha, beloved by atmaramas. Swan-like gurus will attend them.

Comment posted by Akruranatha on October 30th, 2008
4 Pandu das

>>‚ÄúSomeone may wonder how it is that gurus can attend training seminars.‚ÄĚ

>Why on earth would anyone wonder that?

Well, I admit at first glace I wondered that, not exactly how they can attend, but more like wondering what is lacking in simply being Krishna conscious that one would need to attend a seminar to fill some lack.

As Srila Prabhupada said in a Bhagavad-gita (2.46-62) lecture on Dec. 16, 1969, “A devotee who is always in Krsna consciousness, for him there is nothing unknown. He knows everything. ” Therefore one might hope that a guru would understand his service perfectly well simply by virtue of being Krishna conscious.

Of course I was not in attendance, but from the list of subjects I don’t doubt that the seminar would be helpful for ISKCON gurus.

Comment posted by Pandu das on October 30th, 2008
5 pustakrishna

ISKCON is a unique entity. It is a worldwide Krishna consciousness mission, the creation and manifestation of Srila Prabhupad, acting under the guidance of his Guru Maharaj. It is not necessary for each and every guru or spiritual master in the Brahma-Madhva Sampradaya be of the stature of Srila Prabhupad. In fact, it is impossible. Still, aspiring devotees need…I repeat, need the guidance of spiritual teachers, acharyas, so that they can continue their progressive march homeward. We must never be envious of Srila Prabhupad, and it is good to acknowledge that Srila Prabhupad’s stature, as a Saktyavesh Avatar of Sri Nityananda Prabhu, is unique.
When Srila Prabhupad sadly departed from us, imitation of his position by some unqualified disciples, created havoc in ISKCON. Thus, that lesson needs to be remembered so that it is not repeated. The external paraphernalia of Guru-ship can never replace the inner quality of a humble and compassionate vaishnava. And, so long as bhaktas act in the role of acharyas in ISKCON, they must never forget that pratishta which creates self-centric importance runs counter to self-less Krishna centric devotional service.
In the statements of this article, there is some mention of “training sessions” for gurus to be, or gurus in training. It sounds a little like a seminary, a training school for priests who may later go out to become the leaders of a congregation. There is always the danger that pratishta becomes an issue, since one should become a guru reluctantly, and ideally at the insistence of his own guru. It is a service to their own guru maharaj that makes the best environment to act in the role of acharya.
Nonetheless, ISKCON is evolving in its own unique organic way. It is a great branch of the tree of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. It will expand its own offshoots and bear fruits in its own unique manner. You are planning to expand the number of gurus or spiritual teachers to accommodate the needs of the Society. It is the etiquette for a disciple not to take disciples while their guru maharaj is still alive. What will be the fate then of a qualified individual who could make a fine acharya given time, place and circumstance? Should they be cultivated to become an initiating teacher during the lifetime of their initiating spiritual master? Will the needs of the Mission take precedence over the etiquette given the unique nature of ISKCON? Questions…Pusta Krishna das

Comment posted by pustakrishna on October 31st, 2008
6 Akruranatha

“It is the etiquette for a disciple not to take disciples while their guru maharaj is still alive. What will be the fate then of a qualified individual who could make a fine acharya given time, place and circumstance? Should they be cultivated to become an initiating teacher during the lifetime of their initiating spiritual master? Will the needs of the Mission take precedence over the etiquette given the unique nature of ISKCON?”

At least one example in contemporary ISKCON is that of Kadamba-Kanana Maharaja, who on the order of his guru Jayadvaita Maharaja is initiating in his guru’s presence. This arrangement seems to be working out well.

[I do not know details, but am only relating what I have heard from Kadamba-Kanana Maharaja’s disciple, the soldier-preacher Partha-Sarathi Prabhu, who is Jayadvaita Maharaja’s grand-disciple and Srila Prabhupada’s great-grand-disciple.]

He also seems to be a grand and great disciple. :-)

Comment posted by Akruranatha on November 4th, 2008

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