Some thoughts on gurus in ISKCON
By Krishna dharma das
With the current furore surrounding the vexed issue of whether ladies should be allowed to give initiation, I thought it might be a good time to resurrect a few arguments I raised around 25 years ago in a paper entitled ‘Do we need a guru approval system?’ Some of you may recall that, I think it’s still languishing here on Dandavats. In that paper I argued that there were no compelling reasons why ISKCON needs to approve gurus, neither from the sastric nor managerial points of view. At the time I was considered by many devotees to be borderline insane for making such an outlandish proposal. ‘How could you even think of such a thing? We would be overrun by charlatans, upstarts and chancers of every complexion.’ This was the gist of the main objections, centred around the perfectly reasonable proposition that the GBC must oversee standards, although there were a few other demurrals along other lines such as gurus must be personally authorised by a higher authority. Not everyone disagreed though, and some of the thoughts I expressed have gained traction even with the GBC, with their concerns over the so called ‘parallel lines of authority.’ In light of the problems I began by mentioning, which I see as directly springing from the mistaken idea that the GBC must appoint (approve) gurus, I would like to revisit my ideas and try to address some of the objections I have so often heard. If your initial visceral response to my thoughts resembles the above, namely that Krishna dharma has lost his mind, poor fellow, then I only ask that you please try to bracket those feelings and carefully consider the reasoning I offer. It requires a little ‘out of the box’ thinking, as in essence I am asking that you try to envision a hypothetical situation where there are no institutional controls over initiations, and thus the problems I perceive as being caused by those very controls will not exist.
Firstly, what does sastra say about selecting a guru? Well, the Hari Bhakti Vilasa (HBV) deals extensively with the qualities of a bona-fide guru, providing a sizeable list of attributes one should look for in his choice of mentor, along with the qualifications of an authentic disciple. This book was compiled by Sanatana Goswami under the direct instructions of Lord Chaitanya, and we find this particular instruction in Chaitanya Charitamrita as follows:
guru-laksaṇa, sisya-laksaṇa, doṅhara parikṣaṇa
sevya — bhagavan, sarva-mantra-vicaraṇa
Your book should describe the characteristics of the bona fide guru and the bona fide disciple. Then, before accepting a spiritual master, one can be assured of the spiritual master’s position. Similarly, the spiritual master can also be assured of the disciple’s position. –CC Madhya Lila 24.330
Here the Lord asks that there be mutual testing of each other’s qualifications by both guru and disciple. No mention is made of a third party being required to oversee either party’s judgment. Nor do we find any such mention anywhere throughout the lengthy purport to that verse. Nor indeed do we find the HBV speaking about the need for third party oversight of either disciple or guru. They are both enjoined to make their own judgment. This makes perfect sense, as they are the only persons who will be affected by the initiation. The fact that I or anyone else may not see another person’s choice of guru as being properly qualified is entirely irrelevant. It is only the disciple who will stand or fall by his decision, and only the guru who must take responsibility for the disciple.
I should perhaps add here that there is also no injunction against seeking third party advice, and one may well desire such guidance, but my point is that it is not required. Mere testing by guru and disciple is all that is enjoined.
Let’s look at some common objections on this point. If I in my naivete and lack of sound spiritual judgment happen to choose an outright charlatan as my diksha guru, is that not going to impact on ISKCON? Will we not then have an unqualified individual masquerading as a bona-fide guru within our ranks? And is it not ISKCON’s responsibility to make sure that I am not misled by such rascals?
Okay, firstly, if the guru concerned is not approved by the GBC then he or she has no factual institutional standing. Their status as guru is only conferred by my acceptance of them as such. No one else need see them in the same light, and again, no one else need be personally affected by my choice. Without GBC backing my guru will have no institutional influence; such power derives only from having a post within the society that lies within the lines of managerial accountability. And here is the answer to the concern that someone might wreak havoc in the society. We have managerial mechanisms for dealing with such issues. If a person is found to be causing problems, guru or otherwise, then the appropriate managerial steps can be taken. In any event, when does it matter if my guru is qualified or not? I can think of a few instances—deity worship, giving class, accepting a post in ISKCON maybe—that kind of thing. All such instances are dealt with locally by temple management, who will use their own determination and processes to ascertain the bona-fides of an individual. One’s choice of guru may be a factor, but in the situation I envision, where there are no institutional controls, the temple managers can decide for themselves if or not they want to accept the validity of an initiation. They will anyway have to check the references of the individual concerned, and if they wish they can also check those of his or her guru. As it stands, one may well have a fallen guru and still be accepted for any of the above services. That is quite common. Or conversely one may be initiated by Srila Prabhupada but not be accepted for the service, for a whole host of other reasons. It is the qualification of the individual that matters, not so much that of his or her guru. The qualification of a person’s guru is really only a concern when one is seeking initiation from that person; when we want to be sure that he or she is rightly situated in the parampara. And that is part of the testing process the disciple must undertake.
The problem of institutional influence is created when the guru is given institutional backing, i.e. approval. Then, if by some misfortune the guru goes go awry, the institution has a major problem on its hands. It must rescind its approval and somehow inform the disciples that their guru maharaja lord and master has gone off the rails, even though they previously gave him their imprimatur. How on earth are they supposed to monitor the situation anyway, ensuring that all their officially endorsed gurus are staying on the straight and narrow? Subtle deviations can so easily creep in and are not always so easy to spot. To be frank, I have seen and heard some extremely dubious things from approved gurus, but so often the tendency of disciples is to almost blindly accept everything, because after all the GBC has given the stamp of approval. But returning to my point, if there is no institutional authorisation there is no need for them to monitor the gurus, because the only persons who need be concerned are those accepting the guru as their guide. And hopefully they will keep at least a part of their intelligence awake to the possibility that anyone can fall victim to maya.
Of course, the GBC are charged with overseeing spiritual standards, but what does that entail? As I understand it, they must first ensure that all projects affiliated with ISKCON are properly following Srila Prabhupada’s instructions in alignment with the siddhanta he taught. There should not be any bogus philosophy espoused or evinced in any centre. Fine, but how does approving gurus do anything to assist in this regard? Again, local authorities will monitor their own situations, and whether an individual is approved as guru or not is irrelevant. The quality of one’s katha or preaching is what matters, and in fact local authorities need to be more on their guard when officially approved gurus are around, as they are taken much more seriously than anyone else. More about that shortly. Without mentioning names, I know of temples that have blacklisted certain approved gurus for fear of their influence.
How about the danger of devotees being misled? Should the GBC not be there to protect them? Yes, of course, but again what does that entail? Do they not do this by ensuring that temples are not succumbing to the influence of false doctrines, by making sure that the temple leaders are preaching and teaching correctly? So how does approving gurus make any difference? Everyone, approved or otherwise, siksha or diksha guru, must be subject to the same scrutiny at the point of action. Again, giving a person the official stamp of approval exacerbates this problem as he is then elevated to a position of high esteem.
And as far as misleading individuals is concerned, there are so many corrupting influences that we might be exposed to every day. Asat-sanga abounds everywhere, and it is for us to ensure that we are properly hearing and chanting in order to protect our intelligence. Indeed, the best and perhaps only real protection an authority can give is to offer sufficient and proper training in how to take shelter of our philosophy. Should we not be showing devotees how to think for themselves, rather than telling them what they should think, and then trying to control them with legislation? Srila Prabhupada comments on this in connection with governmental leadership in Simad Bhagavatam
“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.” – SB 9.10.50 purport.
People are always free to do what they choose. You cannot control those choices, not even Krishna does that, he gives us that much freedom. We can restrict our freedom by foolish choices, but such restriction is merely the natural consequences of our misusing our liberty. It therefore behoves leaders to ensure that those in their care are properly educated so that they can make informed choices. I would argue that the very fact that the GBC does not wholly trust the discrimination of devotees to make their own free choice of guru indicates a weakness in our education. It seems to me that the assumption underlying the guru approval process is that devotees, no matter how long they have been practising, are not capable of making an independent decision on who should be their guru. Gurus also cannot make an independent decision about who can be their disciples. On both sides there is oversight, even though these are highly subjective decisions, and despite the fact that sastra, as shown above, fully devolves the responsibility of choice to the parties involved. And, to make it even more questionable, the GBC themselves make an official disclaimer in their guru law book that their approval does not guarantee anything. One must still use his own discrimination.
It could be argued that devotees are indeed free to choose who they like. The only requirement is that one’s choice must be scrutinised by ISKCON authority and duly approved, and even that is only if you want to work within the institution. However, this has numerous drawbacks. Firstly, as I suggest above, it contravenes sastra. Secondly, it effectively creates a class of diksha gurus who are viewed as something quite apart from everyone else. What we generally observe is that devotees will select someone from the list of approved gurus, even though they may have had little or no contact with that person and may well have scant dealings with them even after taking initiation. As far as testing goes, because the guru is already approved and has many disciples, we see that most often there is hardly any serious examination in terms of sastric guidance. Thirdly, those who are not approved, even though they may have done all the hard work of making and nurturing a devotee, will likely be marginalised as less significant (after all, there must be some reason why they are not authorised, right?) and then left aside as that devotee chooses someone else as their life and soul.
We now have tens of thousands of devotees in our society. Many of them have been serious practitioners for decades and are quite capable of giving siksha to younger devotees, and in many cases are doing just that. Ultimately, it is siksha that is most important, ours is a siksha line, diksha itself has no real value if the disciple does not accept siksha, so why are we making artificial distinctions between siksha and diksha? Okay, their dealings are different, but of siksha guru sastra says in Caitanya Caritamrita:
One should know the instructing spiritual master to be the Personality of Krishna. Lord Krishna manifests Himself as the Supersoul and as the greatest devotee of the Lord. –CCAdi Lila 1.47,
And in the purport to that verse:
There is no difference between the shelter-giving Supreme Lord and the initiating and instructing spiritual masters. If one foolishly discriminates between them, he commits an offense in the discharge of devotional service.
Srila Prabhupada further says in Srimad Bhagavatam:
According to sastric injunctions, there is no difference between siksha-guru and diksha-guru, and generally the siksha-guru later on becomes the diksha-guru. –SB 4.12.32
This hardly ever happens in our society now. Although the ‘no-objection’ system is meant to make it easy for devotees to take up the role of diksha guru, it just isn’t happening. There are only 80 or so approved gurus, a number that has hardly changed in the last twenty years or so. Hence the current approved gurus take on more and more disciples that they have little chance of ever actually guiding, hence we see the creation of imaginative ideas like mentor systems where the mentors who actually do the guidance don’t require GBC approval. Which sort of defeats the object a bit, I would suggest.
Actually, Srila Prabhupada wanted millions of gurus:
So try to follow the path of acharya process. Then life will be successful. And to become acharya is not very difficult. First of all, to become very faithful servant of your acharya, follow strictly what he says. Try to please him and spread Krishna consciousness. That’s all. It is not at all difficult. Try to follow the instruction of your Guru Mahārāja and spread Krishna consciousness. That is the order of Lord Caitanya.
āmāra ajñāya guru hañā tāra’ ei deśa
yāre dekha tāre kaha krishna upadesa
“By following My order, you become guru.” And if we strictly follow the acharya system and try our best to spread the instruction of Krishna… Yare dekha tare kaha ‘krishna’-upadesa (CC Madhya 7.128). There are two kinds of krisha-upadesa. Upadesa means instruction. Instruction given by Krishna, that is also ‘krishna’-upadesa, and instruction received about Krishna, that is also krishna upadesa. Krishnasya upadesa iti Krishna upadesa. Samasa, sasti-tat-puruṣa-samasa. And Krishna viṣaya upadesa, that is also Krishna upadesa. Bahu-vrihi-samasa. This is the way of analyzing Sanskrit grammar. So Krishna’s upadesa is Bhagavad-gītā. He’s directly giving instruction. So one who is spreading krishna upadesa, simply repeat what is said by Krishna, then you become acharya. Not difficult at all. Everything is stated there. We have to simply repeat like parrot. Not exactly parrot. Parrot does not understand the meaning; he simply vibrates. But you should understand the meaning also; otherwise how you can explain? So, so we want to spread Krishna consciousness. Simply prepare yourself how to repeat Krishna’s instructions very nicely, without any malinterpretation. Then, in future… Suppose you have got now ten thousand. We shall expand to hundred thousand. That is required. Then hundred thousand to million, and million to ten million.
Devotees: Haribol! Jaya!
Prabhupāda: So there will be no scarcity of ācārya, and people will understand Kṛṣṇa consciousness very easily. So make that organization. Don’t be falsely puffed up. Follow the ācārya’s instruction and try to make yourself perfect, mature. Then it will be very easy to fight out māyā. Yes. Ācāryas, they declare war against māyā’s activities. –Lecture on CC Adi-lila 1.13 — Mayapur, April 6, 1975.
Here also Srila Prabhupada addresses the question of authorisation. It is not that you must be given a personal order. That was not done in Srila Prabhupada’s case, certainly no public declaration was made, nor in the case of his guru, or his grand guru before that, and so on. As we see from the above, the order is already there, and it simply behoves the disciple to take up that order and become authorised by strictly following the authority. Even if we are approved or officially authorised, if we do not properly follow we lose our so called authority. Again, it is for the disciple to examine the guru to ensure that he or she is indeed authorised by their strict adherence to the parampara.
Srila Prabhupada wrote to one disciple:
Keep trained up 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 Krishna consciousness very widely, that will make me and Krishna very happy. –Srila Prabhupada Letter: Tusta Krsna —2 December, 1975
And even if we want to have a standard such as Bhaktivedanta Degrees for devotees acting as guru (which is not now the case, of course), there is still no need for approvals by the GBC. All they would need to do is state that one’s diksha initiation will not be accepted as valid unless the guru has passed XYZ exam. Disciples could then make their own decision about whether or not they wish to accept a person who has not passed that exam.
As far as I can see by approving diksha gurus we simply create problems, such as the Vaishnavi diksha guru issue. If the GBC stopped approving gurus that issue would vanish. It would then be down to individuals to decide if they want to select a Vaishnavi as their guru, and the society can decide at the point of application if or not they want to recognise the validity of those initiations. No one else need be bothered. After all, who is anyone to say that another person’s choice of guru is wrong? And if it is, so what? It’s not affecting them in any way, unless they choose to get bothered about it. Similarly, ritvik, another disturbing controversy that would very likely vanish if approvals stopped. At least the GBC would no longer be subject to calumny from ritvik followers, who would be left having to direct their disapproval toward individual devotees for taking diksha from gurus that they, the ritviks, consider unqualified. And again, who are they to make such judgments? It’s really none of their business. In fact, the HBV even says that one should keep his mantra and his guru secret. If we observed that protocol instead of having grand diksha ceremonies in temples, guru acronyms appended to one’s name, the term ‘ISKCON guru’ widely used in our public propaganda, etc, then the criticism would pretty much dry up. But if the GBC insist on approving gurus and we continue with our present culture then the problems will never go away, as far as I can see.
Without official ratification gurus will be nothing more than guides for as many persons as he or she can influence by his or her association. Okay, there may still be the occasional dubious charismatic who attracts numerous followers, but again if this is posing any problem then the managerial mechanisms are there. And if the society’s leaders take seriously their responsibility to teach and train devotees, then there will be much less chance that false and cheating gurus will flourish (not that it hasn’t happened anyway, even with the approvals).
So especially you (leaders) must encourage the students to read our books throughout the day as much as possible, and give them all good advice how to understand the books, and inspire them to study the things from every point of view. In this way, by constantly engaging our tongues in the service of the Lord, either by discussing His philosophy or by chanting Hare Krishna, the truth is that Krishna Himself will reveal Himself to us and we shall understand how to do everything properly. Now we have got so many students and so many temples but I am fearful that if we expand too much in this way we shall become weakened and gradually the whole thing will become lost. Just like milk. We may thin it more and more with water for cheating the customer, but in the end it will cease to be any longer milk. Better to boil the milk now very vigorously and make it thick and sweet, that is the best process. So let us concentrate on training our devotees very thoroughly in the knowledge of Krishna consciousness from our books, from tapes, by discussing always, and in so many ways instruct them in the right propositions.” (SPL to Hamsaduta, 22nd June, 1972)
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
Your aspiring servant
Krishna dharma das