Tamal Krishna Goswami
NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate
Imagine, if you will, a seventy-year-old Hindu Vaishnava scholar
journeying from India aboard a steamship bound for America. His
personal effects consist of but a few sets of saffron renunciate's
cloth, a pair of white rubber shoes, and forty rupees ('hardly a
day's spending money,' he would later remark after arriving in New
York City). Though asking for alms is a privilege of his calling,
he has no intention of begging. Before taking the vow of renunciation
(sannyasa), he had a family, a business and hailed from a
community of Bengali merchants who prospered during the British
Raj. Now he had, stowed amidst the ship's cargo, three treasure
chests filled with sets of his published translations of the ancient
Bhagavata-Purana. These priceless treasures are to be both
the basis of his mission and the means of his survival, but he wonders
how the West will receive them. Arriving at Boston Harbour on 17,
September 1965, observing the awesome display of material success
played out on the American skyline, he composes the following lines:
My dear Lord Krishna, You are so kind upon this useless soul,
but I do not know why You have brought me here. Now You can do
whatever You like with me. But I guess You have some business
here, otherwise why would You bring me to this terrible place?
Most of the population here is covered by the material modes of
ignorance and passion. Absorbed in material life, they think themselves
very happy and satisfied, and therefore they have no taste for
the transcendental message of Vasudeva. I do not know how they
will be able to understand it (Goswami, S. 1983: Vol. II: p281).
From the moment of his landing, his thoughts pregnant with uncertainty,
to his first temples in the counter-culture capitals of New York's
Lower East Side and San Francisco's Haight, A. C. Bhaktivedanta
Swami focused his mission: to transplant the sacred wisdom of India
into the fertile soil of the West. His mission was time-bound, no
less by his advanced age, than by the growing secularism which had
already begun to uproot his motherland's timeworn traditions. If
his fledgling attempt succeeded in America, he would not only export
it all over the world, but use it to rekindle the flagging spirit
of his own countrymen.
Prabhupada (to use the respectful address later given Bhaktivedanta
Swami by his disciples) brought to his task some exceptional qualifications.
His religious education began in childhood under the tutelage of
devout parents. Later, he attended compulsory Bible classes while
majoring in philosophy, Sanskrit and English Literature at Calcutta's
Scottish Churches' College. Family obligations then obliged him
to pursue a business career that provided him skills as an organiser.
But the missionary zeal, which energised the second half of his
life, was a consequence of none of these. Rather, it was the direct
influence of his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati's lineage is traced to the fifteenth
century saint Shri Chaitanya, who is considered by the tradition
to be an incarnation of the Godhead with other gods subordinate
to him. Chaitanyaism, or more correctly Gaudiya-Vaishnavism, traces
its line further back to the thirteenth century teacher Madhva and,
the tradition holds, to the creator Brahma and before him, the Godhead
Krishna. The various branches of Vaishnavism are clearly monotheistic,
worshipping Vishnu or one of his prominent manifestations as the
Supreme Deity. The nuances which differentiate each of the schools
of Vaishnavism will not concern us here apart from distinguishing
Sri Chaitanya's teaching which is compressed within the slogan acintya-bhedabheda-tattva
- the inconceivable simultaneous oneness and difference between
God and the individual soul.
The foundation of Chaitanya's philosophy is the Bhagavata-Purana,
a Sanskrit compilation of prodigious length, attributed to Vyasadeva.
Chaitanya's followers produced a vast corpus of original work as
well as commentaries on the Bhagavata and other classic texts. A
formidable library was thus created to firmly fix the sect's teachings.
As an initiated disciple in the line of Chaitanya, Prabhupada studied
and published articles on many of these texts and in 1939 was awarded
the title 'Bhaktivedanta' by his godbrothers in recognition of his
scholarship (Goswami, S. 1980: Vol. I: 103).
While much care was taken to insure the sect's textual orthodoxy,
organisationally Chaitanya's movement was nothing more than numerous
disciplic lines descended from his original followers. Though doctrinal
differences often differentiated them, they were bound together
only by their collective allegiance to Chaitanya, not by any common
organisational affiliation. An effort to resolve this lack of cohesion
was made by Kedaranatha Datta, later known as Bhaktivinoda Thakura.
The father of Prabhupada's guru Bhaktisiddhanta, Bhaktivinoda served
as Chief Magistrate of the High Court in Puri, Orissa, a post that
included honorary jurisdiction over the ancient temple of Jagannatha.
He was an avid student of world religions. A spiritual search eventually
led him to rediscover his own Chaitanya tradition, and he became
its most ardent champion. Over the centuries, its prestige had become
tarnished by various sahajiya sects who often sacramentalised
sex. Bhaktivinoda concluded that they misconstrued the theology,
claiming allegiance to Chaitanya without strictly following his
pure discipline. Bhaktivinoda proceeded to renovate the line. Most
importantly for our purpose here, for the first time he gave Chaitanya's
movement coherent organisational structure, creating a loose confederation
which he dubbed Sri Nama-Hatta, 'the market place of the holy name.'
1 Using the influence of his office, he vigorously organised
a massive network of practitioners, creating a hierarchy of leadership
and designating for himself the humble role of 'sweeper' of the
market place-in effect, 'protector of the faith'. (See Bhaktivinoda
Bhaktivinoda's son continued the work begun by his father. Bhaktisiddhanta
Sarasvati founded the Gaudiya Matha with its sixty-four affiliated
temples and initiated some sixty thousand disciples. Keeping in
the spirit of his father, not only was he a prolific author and
publisher of Chaitanyaite literature, but he also further standardised
the Chaitanyaite devotional practices while erecting a tightly knit
organisational superstructure. However, the weakness of that structure
was revealed only after he expired. His chief followers failed to
abide by his final instruction to form a governing body that would
replace him as the ultimate authority. Consequently, the Gaudiya
Matha succumbed to factionalism and legal bickering over the division
of the vast holdings accumulated during the lifetime of its founder.
Prabhupada's solitary voyage to the West was as much due to his
disgust at seeing his guru's institution fracture as to the missionary
order he had received from him. He was determined that the society
he formed would not repeat the failure of succession that had befallen
the mission of his guru. But given the strangeness of his religious
and cultural message as well as the youth of his first followers,
the same problems of succession were practically inevitable.
Perhaps the most formidable, and certainly the first, obstacle
to overcome was his Western audience's relative unfamiliarity with
Chaitanya's teachings. He would have to unpack the densely encoded
Sanskrit texts for his Western readers. For this purpose, he reached
beyond the specific Chaitanya liturgy to the Bhagavad-gita, Isopanishad
and Bhagavata-Purana. His 'Bhaktivedanta Purports,' heavily
stamped with his devotion for Krishna, were meant to insure his
followers absolute fidelity. As he would declare in 1975, 'My books
will be the law books for the next ten thousand years.'2
But Prabhupada quickly discovered that while his young American
converts could easily modify their hippie habits to conform to the
monastic discipline, it was far more difficult for them to leave
behind their intellectual baggage. Obedience to authority of any
sort was the thing his largely youthful audience found most abhorrent.
If subservience to the guru's instructions was something even his
advanced godbrothers in India had found difficult, could these young
Americans be expected to conquer their own rebelliousness? As often
and repeatedly as he beat them with mantras and lessons, at least
a few could not. One disciple in particular, Kirtanananda Swami
- the very first to shave his head and don the traditional monk's
robes of a sannyasi as early as 1966 - proved to be incorrigible.
The early case of Kirtanananda Swami forecast the problems of succession
that lay ahead, problems of authority and of the continuity of tradition,
faced both by Prabhupada and later, by his disciples after Prabhupada's
departure. While he might personally be able to nourish and protect
the movement in its infancy, its inevitable expansion would require
a suitable superstructure that would endure the crisis created by
E. Burke Rochford, Jr. and Larry D. Shinn in their respective works,
and ISKCON scholar Ravindra Svarupa dasa in a number of essays,
have amply documented the struggle for authority created by Prabhupada's
departure (See Rochford, E. B., Jr. 1985, Shinn, Larry 1987: 47-60,
and dasa, Ravindra Svarupa 1985, 1994). All three scholars more
or less concur on identifying the major issues: 'who are the real
inheritors of Prabhupada's mantle? The new gurus? The GBC? All the
disciples of Prabhupada who have the capacity to be gurus? No easy
answers emerged in the years following Prabhupada's death.' (Shinn,
Two prominent Indian supporters of ISKCON raised the same questions
when they met Prabhupada in Vrindavana shortly before his death
in 1977.4 Would Prabhupada appoint
a single successor from among his followers? Prabhupada's answer:
All his disciples would succeed him. The response disappointed them,
for they had in mind the autocratic guru of Hindu tradition. Perhaps
if they had been more familiar with Prabhupada's teachings they
would not have been so surprised. In a purport to the Shri Chaitanya-caritamrita
(Adi-lila, 12.8), he writes:
Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, at the time of his departure,
requested all his disciples to form a governing body and conduct
missionary activity cooperatively. He did not instruct a particular
man to become the next acarya. But just after his passing
away, his leading secretaries made plans, without authority, to
occupy the post of acarya, and they split into two factions
over who the next acarya would be. Consequently, both factions
were asura, or useless, because they had no authority,
having disobeyed the order of the spiritual master (Prabhupada1975).
Indeed, Lord Chaitanya had given an open order for all to "become
a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land."5
But a succession of 'all' is a succession of none. Yet, anarchy
was certainly not Prabhupada's intention.
In the disobedience of his first disciple Kirtanananda, Prabhupada
recognised the seeds of dissent, which, if left unchecked, would
dismantle his fledgling institution. Kirtanananda's challenge must
have convinced Prabhupada that he needed to train his disciples
quickly in order to form a governing board to insure the institution's
cohesion, particularly when he was no longer present. At least while
he was present he could lay the foundation and construct the framework
for his vision of a vast missionary movement. Thus by 1970, four
years after incorporating the International Society for Krishna
Consciousness (ISKCON), Prabhupada established the Governing Body
Commission (GBC), as his 'direct representatives to act as the instrument
for the execution of the will of His Divine Grace'. (Goswami, S.
1982: Vol. IV: 103-104) 6 But
an organisational superstructure is no better than its members and
therein lay a huge problem.
Kirtanananda Swami was the son of a Southern Baptist minister.
Initiated by Prabhupada into the order of sannyasa while
accompanying his master to India, Kirtanananda believed that the
spreading of Krishna consciousness was hampered by the devotees'
odd appearance - by the traditional robes and sikha, the
tuft of hair left on an otherwise cleanly shaven head.7
But Kirtanananda and his spiritual master disagreed on more than
what constituted proper devotional attire. Underlying the misgiving
about dress, were Kirtanananda's doubts about dualism: he could
not distinguish between the impersonal and personal features of
Krishna, between the soul as individually distinct from the Godhead
(See letters to Brahmananda, Rayarama, and Gargamuni, Prabhupada1987:
Prabhupada's initial response to Kirtanananda's deviation was novel:
rather than condemning his speculations, he suggested that Kirtanananda
stop in London on his return to America in order to test out his
ideas. But Kirtanananda circumvented his guru's order, flying directly
to New York where he made his godbrothers the target of his new
gospel. Prabhupada tightened the screws: he ordered that Kirtanananda
should be stopped from speaking in any of the society's temples.8
When his disciples wrote to India repeating Kirtanananda's
arguments, Prabhupada refuted impersonalism in each of his replies.
Yet he did not reject his wayward disciple; Kirtanananda's confusion,
he suggested, was a "temporary manifestation of maya [illusion]"
and "will be corrected as soon as I return" (See letter
to Himavati, Prabhupada1987: 241-2).
Prabhupada explained that he signed all his letters to disciples
as 'Your ever well-wisher' to indicate that he remained ever concerned
for his disciples, even if they left him. But other disciples found
it difficult to embrace their spiritual master's mood. They spat
on Kirtanananda and ejected him from the temple (See letter to Rayarama,
Kirtanananda's mistaken attitude, Prabhupada ultimately concluded,
was based on his refusal to accept the parampara (disciplic
succession) system and the authority of the scriptures. His misfortune,
however, proved a learning experience for the other disciples. Though
one or two had been swayed by Kirtanananda's arguments, the majority
had become strengthened by successfully defending their guru's teachings.
The harsh response of the spitting incidents was tempered by Prabhupada's
abiding concern for even one who had turned against him. Consequently,
within a matter of months, Kirtanananda had recanted and apologised
and began work once more under his master to establish the New Vrindaban,
West Virginia community. Though time would prove that his philosophical
misconceptions were not in fact corrected, Prabhupada's skilful
handling of the incident allowed Kirtanananda to return, at least
temporarily, to active and beneficial service for ISKCON. 10
The Kirtanananda incident is the first instance of an open challenge
to the founder's authority. It was not Prabhupada alone but the
authority of the entire disciplic line and the scriptures that were
being questioned. In the Christian tradition, such challenges were
regarded as heresy; and the heretic was considered as evil:
The word heresy is derived from a Greek word meaning 'choice.'
It had been used to designate the particular teachings of philosophical
schools, and it denoted the opinions that each one had chosen.
Christian writers began to use the term and soon gave it a pejorative
significance. To them it indicated that a person had chosen a
human opinion and rejected divine revelation. In this sense heresy
has an evil significance, and the heretic is considered evil (Tyson
We may note, in comparison, that in Prabhupada's estimation Kirtanananda
deviated from the authority of the disciplic line and scripture,
which was for ISKCON a rejection of divine revelation in favour
of human opinion. Prabhupada treated Kirtanananda's influence as
an evil to be carefully guarded against, but unlike his disciples
who demonised the evil-doer, Prabhupada treated him with compassion.11
As we shall see, this is often a distinguishing feature in the way
Prabhupada and his disciples handled similar challenges.
In fact, the challenges faced first by Prabhupada and later by
his disciples are so strikingly similar that they appear to be mirror
images of each other, logically suggesting a treatment in consonance
with their inherent congruence. They fall within two broad categories:
the problem of a) authority of the leadership, and b) continuity
of the tradition. These are the two crucial problems every founded
religion must solve if it wishes to preserve its identity over time,
particularly after the founder's departure. We shall look at four
'heresies' of authority, the first two as they arose while the founder
was still alive, showing how he met these challenges, then looking
at two 'heresies' of authority that arose after the founder's departure,
showing how his disciples met and are meeting these challenges.
We will then treat four heresies of continuity following the same
scheme-first during the founder's time, then during the period of
his disciples. But before we begin, a brief caveat for ISKCON readers.
Heresies polarise. But divisiveness is not necessarily bad. The
disruptive beliefs and actions of contentious persons can also be
stimulants, forcing the institution and its leaders to define and
defend itself. Exploring heresy can provide insights into doctrinal
and institutional issues that other methods might not so easily
reveal. The study of heresies, therefore, is important for more
than antiquarian reasons. A religious tradition should pay attention
to heresies not merely to guard against the errors of the past (and
certainly not to demonise their advocates) but to learn from them.
Every heresy is a warning of unresolved tensions within a tradition
and a challenge to preserve the tradition in changing cultural and
Heresies of Authority
The Guru is God Heresy
There were lessons, undoubtedly, in the Kirtanananda episode
for Prabhupada as well as for his disciples. Upon his return to
America, he increased his translation output with the intention
of establishing the movement on a firm philosophical footing. At
the same time he began the formation of a body to govern his growing
It may be recalled that after the departure of Prabhupada's guru,
the Gaudiya Matha splintered when Bhaktisiddhanta's senior disciples,
instead of following his instruction to govern collegially, attempted
to appoint a sole successor. Thirty years had elapsed and each leader
was now the head of his own institution. They had been silent when,
immediately after arriving in America, Prabhupada had sought their
help. Now, hearing of Prabhupada's success, they suggested he return
to India to discuss the most effective means to spread Chaitanya's
teachings. But Prabhupada was wary of their sudden interest in his
activities. 'Tell them,' he said, 'that I will only come if they
agree to form a governing body with twelve members. Since they have
never dared to leave India, they can collectively appoint one representative
and ISKCON shall make up the other eleven.' (Goswami, T. 1991:193)
There was no reply. Instead, a veiled criticism of Prabhupada was
included in a letter to devotees in New York from Acyutananda dasa,
a disciple of Prabhupada who was living in one of the Indian Gaudiya
Mathas. Acyutananda dasa suggested that the title 'Prabhupada' ('he,
at whose feet all masters sit') should be reserved for Bhaktisiddhanta
Sarasvati and Rupa Goswami (Sri Chaitanya's foremost disciple).
Always alert lest any harm befall his fledgling movement, Prabhupada
viewed his disciple's criticism as a spot of cancer which, if left
unchecked, would relativise his absolute position. He also noted
that the honorific 'His Divine Grace' and 'Prabhupada' had come
to be omitted from the cover of the most recent of his translations
released by ISKCON Press, Boston. Another publication merely described
him as 'acarya', ('the institutional head') even though he
had instructed that the title 'founder-acarya' be included
in all his publications.
To get a better sense of the distinction we need to explicate the
term acarya. 'One who teaches by example' (which may refer
to any genuine devotee) is the first definition. Another meaning
is 'one who grants initiation to a disciple,' - in other words,
a guru. Then there is a third meaning, 'the spiritual head of an
institution,' a title that may be given to future successors. But
the designation 'founder- acarya' is exclusive, inapplicable
to any other head of the institution other than its founder.13
When Prabhupada objected to the omission of 'founder' before the
title 'acarya,' he was obviously insisting on this last definition.
Prabhupada detected similar challenges to his absolute authority
in the behaviour of certain leaders of his Los Angeles headquarters.
Increasingly, in the guise of protecting his privacy for his translating,
the leaders denied devotees direct access to him. In San Francisco
at the Festival of the Chariots, there was no seat for him on any
of the carts. Thus, he saw on a number of places moves to minimise
his position. With an adroitness which was characteristic of his
administrative skills, he acted suddenly to check this latest threat.
First, he awarded the renounced order of sannyasa to his
errant managers, commanding that they give up their administrative
roles in exchange for travelling and preaching. Simultaneously,
he appointed twelve of his most trusted disciples as members of
the first Governing Body Commission. As a final act, he announced
that despite his poor health and advanced age, he would himself
leave for establishing ISKCON's mission in India, the source of
the attack on his movement.
But the cancer had not been checked. Halting in Japan en route
to India, Prabhupada learned that four of his new renunciants had
begun preaching a strange gospel. At a huge gathering of ISKCON
faithful at New Vrindaban on Krishna's birth anniversary, 1970,
they had announced that by leaving America, Prabhupada had rejected
his disciples for failing to recognise that Prabhupada was actually
Krishna Himself. This was nothing but another aspect of impersonalism.
While Kirtanananda had previously failed to distinguish between
the personal and impersonal conceptions of Godhead, the new sannyasis
had failed to distinguish the guru from the Godhead. Vaishnavas
teach that the guru is the servant of God, but never the Godhead
Himself. A Vaishnava spiritual master will never say that he is
God or that God is impersonal.
In Japan, Prabhupada revealed the underlying implication: by making
him God, the seat of the guru was now vacated to make room for one
of his Gaudiya Matha godbrothers. He was, in effect, being picked
upstairs. He asked Sudama dasa and Tamal Krishna Goswami, the two
GBC representatives with him in Tokyo, what they intended to do.
In unison they responded that the four errant sannyasis should
be driven out of ISKCON. Prabhupada immediately agreed.
The GBC members at the New Vrindavana festival had already begun
to expose the fallacious teachings of the four sannyasis
by citing numerous references from Prabhupada's books. But they
were surprised by the harsh edict that came from Japan. Nevertheless,
they carried out the order, relaying Prabhupada's instruction that
the sannyasis must now preach separately from the institution,
depending solely on Krishna for their support. Though penniless
and without institutional shelter, the forced independence appeared
to strengthen their connection with Prabhupada, and they headed
in different directions to carry out his order to preach.
Prabhupada's stern response seems to indicate that he was prepared
to sacrifice a few individuals to save his Society from being seriously
infected with what he considered impersonalist poison. He did not,
however, reject the errant sannyasis; he had merely quarantined
them from other disciples to prevent further harm to his movement.
He continued to correspond with them and encouraged them to preach.
Gradually purified by the ordeal, each was eventually incorporated
back into ISKCON and went on to perform important service for the
Society. At the heart of this heresy is the challenge to Prabhupada's
authority. Elevating Prabhupada to the position of God cleared the
way for a successor, which in this case Prabhupada believed to be
one of his godbrothers. Because Prabhupada saw this as the real
threat, he may have been more severe in his response than when he
dealt with Kirtanananda. As long as the living authority is on earth,
he may adopt strategies that can seem inconsistent. Although he
never acts arbitrarily (he is guided by sadhu and shastra
- the precedents set by previous saintly persons and the injunctions
of scripture), time, place, and circumstances may influence his
decisions. Guru, sadhu and shastra check and balance
each other. But when the guru departs sadhu and shastra
can take on a new import, as those who succeed him become the new
interpreters of past precedents, scriptural law and new set of circumstances.
The Centralisation Heresy
Although the Governing Body Commission would eventually become
'the ultimate managing authority' of ISKCON (Goswami, S. 1983: Vol.
VI: 328-9) Prabhupada retained final authority in all matters during
his lifetime. Once in a while he vetoed the GBC's decisions, and
on one notable occasion he was forced to suspend its functioning
entirely. In March of 1972, without consulting Prabhupada, eight
of the twelve GBC members held a meeting in New York to centralise
ISKCON's management. The plan was to centralise control in the hands
of each zonal secretary by giving the GBC member complete control
over the temples' finances. All funds collected were to be sent
to a head office, which would then allot expenditures to each temple.
In a memo he issued to all ISKCON temple presidents, Prabhupada
referred to the 'big, big minutes' of the meeting in which they
had inducted one of his disciples, the chartered accountant Atreya
Risi dasa, as a new member and as secretary. The meeting had empowered
a management committee of two to act without Prabhupada's permission
and 'without divulging to the devotees.' (Prabhupada1987: 1956-7)
This attempt at autonomy 'has upset my brain,' Prabhupada
wrote his temple presidents. He spelled out his alarm in capitals:
'I AUTHORISE YOU TO DISREGARD FOR THE TIME BEING ANY DECISION FROM
THE GBC MEN UNTIL MY FURTHER INSTRUCTION.' Seeking to establish
a direct link with each temple president, he urged that they manage
their temples' affairs 'peacefully and independently,' and inform
him of the names of their assistants. Finally, he repeated: 'ALL
GBC ORDERS ARE SUSPENDED HEREWITH BY ME UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.'
In a further letter to Hamsaduta dasa, one of the illegitimate
meeting's organisers, Prabhupada pointed out how it was unconstitutional
(1987: 1958-9).14 The seven
members in attendance may have constituted a quorum, but the meeting
had been convened without a general announcement to all twelve GBC
members. Prabhupada expressed surprise that none of the other GBC
members had detected this defect in the procedure. 'What will happen
when I am not here, shall everything be spoiled by GBC?'
Prabhupada's concern seemed to focus on two issues. The first was
to avoid centralisation that would hamper each temple's development
by dampening their individual enthusiasm. In a letter dated 13,
October 1969, prior to the GBC's establishment, Prabhupada wrote
this writer (1987: 1054):
I have seen the agenda of your presidents' meeting. This is nice.
One thing should be followed, however, as your countrymen are
more or less independent spirited and lovers of democracy. So
everything should be done very carefully so that their sentiments
may not be hurt, According to Sanskrit moral principles, everything
has to be acted, taking consideration of the place, audience and
time. As far as possible the centres should act freely, but conjointly.
They must look forward to the common development.
Further instructions contained in a letter dated October 18 indicate
Prabhupada's concern to avoid centralisation, yet encourage organisation
(Goswami 1991: 189-97).
A secondary concern was the undue stress on management and finances
that Prabhupada believed was not a solution to some of the problems
of spiritual laxity, but their cause. He described these problems
as (1) a failure to maintain neatness and cleanliness ('I still
see those who are initiated as brahmanas, they do not wash their
hand after eating even; of course, there may be so many defects
due to your births in non-brahmana families, but how long shall
it go on?'); (2) failure of all the members to chant sixteen rounds
daily; (3) failure at times to maintain the rigid schedule of temple
worship beginning at 4:00 a.m. ('I find that the devotees are still
sleeping up to six, seven o'clock.') (See letter to Hamsaduta, Prabhupada1987:
A terse telegram from Prabhupada summarises his view: 'Your material
legal formula will not help us. Only our spiritual life can help
us.' (See telegrams to Hamsaduta, Karandhara and all temple presidents,
Prabhupada called his GBC member for Western USA, Karandhara dasa,
to Tokyo to clearly establish the GBC's responsibilities. In a letter
issued by Karandhara, but bearing Prabhupada's signature of approval,
one can sense Prabhupada's authorship:
The formula for ISKCON organisation is very simple and can be
understood by everyone. The world is divided into twelve zones.
For each zone there is one zonal secretary appointed by Srila
Prabhupada. The zonal secretary's duty is to see that the spiritual
principles are being upheld very nicely in all the temples of
the zone. Otherwise each temple shall be independent and self-supporting.
Let every temple president work according to his own capacity
to improve the Krishna consciousness of the centre. So far the
practical management is concerned, that is required, but not that
we should become too much absorbed in fancy organisation. Our
business is spiritual life, so whatever organisation needs to
be done, the presidents may handle and take advice and assistance
from their GBC representative. In this way let the Society's work
go on and everyone increase their service at their own creative
rate. (See letter to all temple presidents, Prabhupada1987: 1966-7)
The failed attempt at centralisation did not mean that Prabhupada's
chosen leaders would cease jockeying for position and control, desires
that seem at the heart of each heresy. Indeed, every religion's
history is chequered with dark moments of ambition, in which personal
desire is seen as divine empowerment. Prabhupada's formula for preventing
such hegemony was to ensure each temple's autonomy within a loose-knit
framework supervised by the GBC. Local temples were to be financially
and legally autonomous though spiritually answerable to the GBC.
Yet in 1976 Prabhupada again encountered an attempt at centralisation,
this time under the prompting of lawyers who suggested that all
ISKCON temples in the United States should be sheltered under a
single 'umbrella corporation'. Prabhupada again stubbornly opposed
this, insisting that it would make all ISKCON temples vulnerable
to any litigation filed against one. Time proved Prabhupada's wisdom;
had ISKCON followed its legal advisors, it would have been bankrupted
by the anti-cult inspired court cases of the 1980s.
By suspending the GBC temporarily, Prabhupada indicated that this
highest body was neither infallible nor autonomous. As long as he
was present, it was answerable to him, but in his absence how would
its mistakes be rectified? Ideally, it would correct itself, but
events following Prabhupada's departure proved otherwise.
The Zonal Acarya Heresy
The departure of ISKCON's charismatic founder traumatised the
Society's entire membership and, as might be expected, inaugurated
an extended struggle to resolve the issue of authority. His death
was not sudden, but followed a protracted illness lasting a year.
Though devotees had enough time to prepare themselves for the inevitable
conclusion, their total dependence upon Prabhupada left them deeply
shaken by his absence. The aftershocks were felt again and again,
individually and on ISKCON as a whole. Prabhupada had warned that
the acarya's departure is a great loss to the world; the
spiritual vacuum thus created would be the cause of havoc in his
institution, a view confirmed by the history of the Gaudiya Matha.
But despite such warnings, ISKCON's leaders acted hastily to fill
the void created by Prabhupada's departure. No doubt they were motivated
by one of Prabhupada's final requests that they at least maintain
what he had left them. Yet immaturity and, on the part of some,
desire and ambition, led to the establishment of a zonal acarya
system in the 1980s which threatened to leave ISKCON as divided
as the Gaudiya Matha. The eighties decade also saw attempts to bring
into ISKCON acaryas from outside Gaudiya groups. It also
saw the proposal that since none of Prabhupada's disciples was qualified
to serve as guru, Prabhupada himself would continue to initiate
posthumously (the ritvik-acarya theory).
The GBC was in place to oversee the functioning of ISKCON. Yet
how was this 'ultimate managing authority' to be harmonised with
the position of the initiating guru, particularly as the role of
the guru had become institutionalised in ISKCON after Prabhupada's
departure? Ravindra Svarupa frames the issue for us 'The problem
arose when the conception of guru was implicitly based on the traditional
model of an inspired, charismatic, spiritual autocrat, an absolute
and autonomously decisive authority, around who an institution takes
shape as the natural extension and embodiment of his charisma.'
(dasa, R. 1994: 43) This echoes Shinn's remarks, following the views
of Max Weber: 'Consequently, if the movement begun by such a charismatic
figure is to continue, the charisma must somehow be 'routinised'
or transferred to surviving institutional rules or structures.'
(Shinn 1987: 50)
Prabhupada prepared for such routinisation by creating the GBC.
'The practical problem facing ISKCON after Srila Prabhupada's demise
was this: How do gurus, who are God's direct representatives and
according to fundamental Vaishnava theology to be worshipped by
their disciples 'on an equal level with God,' fit within an organisation
functioning through modern rational and legal modes under the direction
of a committee?' (dasa, R. 1994: 25)
In their first annual meeting held after Prabhupada's demise in
the spring of 1978 in Mayapur, West Bengal, the GBC decided to consult
Prabhupada's respected and closest godbrother B. R. Sridhara Maharaja
to help resolve this dilemma. But in the Gaudiya Matha, Sridhara
Maharaja himself had been prominent among those advocating a successor
acarya instead of the GBC that Bhaktisiddhanta had ordered
after his own guru's demise. Now the acarya at the head of
his own institution, he recommended that ISKCON gurus must be similarly
The majority (of the GBC) are non-acarya (non-guru). According
to my opinion, that will create a difficulty. In our system, both
autocracy and democracy cannot go together. But ours is an autocratic
thing, extremely autocratic. Guru is all in all. Our submission
to guru is unconditional. This is a great difficulty. Submission
to guru is unconditional. So when I (as a disciple) see my guru's
powers are being pressed by other Vaishnavas it will create disturbance
in the mind of the shishya (disciple), to grow his shraddha,
faith, absolute faith... It is better that the members of
the governing body be gurus. They are all acaryas. The
assembly of acaryas will consult with one another. (See
Rochford 1991: 223)
Six months before his own demise, Prabhupada had announced that
he would appoint some of his disciples to perform all of the functions
of initiating new disciples, as he had become too ill to do so.
Those so initiated would still be Prabhupada's disciples, while
those who would be initiated after his demise would become his grand-disciples.
Shortly thereafter, Prabhupada selected eleven disciples to begin
assisting him and asked his secretary to communicate their names
to the rest of ISKCON.15
Following Prabhupada's death and the fateful meeting with Prabhupada's
godbrother Sridhara Maharaja, the eleven gurus named by Prabhupada
assumed an extraordinary position above all others including the
non-guru GBC members. Even within the GBC, they established their
own Guru Board to appoint new gurus and handle guru problems. In
the temples their status was elevated practically equal to Prabhupada's.
They accepted honorific titles, were given elevated seats and were
worshipped in the same manner accorded previously to Prabhupada.
Each was allocated his own exclusive geographical area in which
to initiate-his own GBC zone and that of any other non-guru GBC
willing to align with him. Since all the new recruits soon became
his disciples, each guru exercised an increasing influence over
not only the devotees within his own GBC zone, but any other zone
of which he was the initiating guru. Thus, for all purposes he became
the zonal acarya, the head of the institution (or at least
a significant geographical portion of the institution).
As Ravindra Svarupa notes, 'The guru zones were more unified than
ISKCON as a whole, which was becoming increasingly fragmented, turning
into a kind of amphictyony of independently empowered leaders.'
(dasa, R. 1994: 31) While disciples of the new gurus found nothing
strange in this new arrangement, disciples of Prabhupada who were
not gurus became increasingly alarmed. In Pradyumna dasa's prophetic
letter written just after the changes were set in place, he expresses
his concerns in two ways. First, that the eleven gurus not having
been appointed to the position of acarya and for which they are
unqualified both by a) insufficient knowledge of shastra (scripture)
and b) the incomplete realisation of Krishna Consciousness, are
accepting worship on that level-and this may lead to anomalies in
the Society and personally, because of lack of complete detachment
in atma-jnana (knowledge of the self), to have build-up of pride,
and subsequent fall-down. Secondly, that the united society ISKCON,
because of a legal division and control by a few members instead
of the joint GBC will become broken up in separate societies and
the unified preaching effort very much hindered. (See, dasa, R.
An exodus of Prabhupada's disciples followed. Within only a few
years of his departure, a majority of Prabhupada's disciples ceased
to actively participate in ISKCON.16
Faith in the gurus and in the institution as a whole was severely
shaken when the GBC had to censure three of the eleven gurus for
varying degrees of misconduct. Jayatirtha dasa was found to be taking
'LSD' and was guilty of sexual transgressions. Hamsaduta Swami,
in a much publicised case, was discovered amassing weapons, and
was also found to be sexually promiscuous. Tamal Krishna Goswami,
the leader of a large number of sannyasa and brahmacari
preachers, insisted that he was now their via media in relating
to Prabhupada and expected that his godbrothers follow him absolutely.
Furthermore, he temporarily engaged them in raising funds for community
development rather than allowing them to continue the service of
book selling, the principal missionary directive they had received
from Prabhupada. The GBC suspended the initiating rights of all
three gurus. But when on the advice of Prabhupada's godbrother Sridhara
Maharaja, the sanctions came to be lifted surprisingly soon, it
seemed that individual gurus had become stronger than the collective
GBC. At the same time, Sridhara Maharaja's influence continued to
increase as a number of prominent ISKCON leaders including Jayatirtha
defected to join his camp. The defectees claimed that Sridhara Maharaja,
due to his exalted qualifications, was clearly Prabhupada's successor.
As Rochford has rightly pointed out, Sridhara Maharaja, perhaps
unwittingly at first, became a political symbol for growing discontent
with the ISKCON management system. (Rochford, 1985: 247) Surrounded
by dissidents, Sridhara Maharaja's criticism of the GBC increased,
and he also raised the questions about certain decisions and actions
of Prabhupada. This seemed to confirm to ISKCON leaders what they
had previously learned from Prabhupada: it was best to keep away
from the Gaudiya Matha. Wary of further contact, the GBC entirely
separated themselves from Sridhara Maharaja.17
But this did not remedy the unhappy state of affairs within ISKCON.
Divisiveness due to zonal acarya hegemony continued to increase
until the leading non-GBC disciples of Prabhupada, many of them
temple presidents in North America, expressed their collective outrage.
By the end of 1984 they launched what came to be known as the 'guru
reform movement,' culminating in the fateful meeting at the New
Vrindavana community attended by all GBC and temple presidents and
open to all Prabhupada disciples. This cathartic gathering, which
had begun from a groundswell of discontent, gained such momentum
that it eventually swept away the entire zonal acarya system.
At the next annual GBC meeting in the spring of 1987, the number
of ISKCON gurus was more than doubled and the number of GBC men
significantly increased to include some of the prominent leaders
of the guru reform movement.18
Gurus were now free to initiate in any zone.19 Most significantly, each guru was clearly
made to understand that his authority was tied to the GBC, thus
re-establishing Prabhupada, through the GBC, as the head of ISKCON.
The stormy decade following Prabhupada's demise left many casualties
in its wake: perhaps as many as 90% of Prabhupada's initiated disciples
were now marginalised; disciples of fallen gurus felt they had no
shelter; the preaching mission as a whole lost momentum and cohesion.
ISKCON was battered and bruised-but it had survived. Important lessons
had been learned. One was that Prabhupada's position was unique
and not to be imitated. His status was not due merely to being ISKCON's
founder, but to his exalted level of Krishna consciousness. The
status of GBC, gurus, and other leaders, on the other hand, was
as much a matter of inheritance as personal qualification. But reliance
on such inherited status, without a continued effort to become actually
qualified, would prove to be but a thin veneer of spirituality.
Knowing devotees to be fallible, Prabhupada had purposely named
no single successor, but instead had designated the GBC as the ultimate
managing authority for ISKCON.20
In doing so, Prabhupada forbade any single person, no matter how
exalted, to try to imitate his position. Rather, all were enjoined
to 'follow in his footsteps.'
The GBC emerged from the zonal acarya decade a tougher,
more honest, and thoroughly collegial body. No longer did individuals
fighting for turf dominate it. Gurus with large followings sat on
an equal level with non-guru godbrothers. And they were not the
only ones to be humbled. The GBC itself, the 'ultimate managing
authority,' had seen its own authority collapse, only to be resurrected
by a 'lower house' of temple presidents. Assuming extraordinary
powers, the temple presidents had made the GBC submit itself to
the judgement of its own appointed committee of 50 non-GBC godbrothers,
thus in effect temporarily suspending itself, something that only
Prabhupada while alive could have done. This action put the GBC
and everyone in ISKCON on notice that no individual or group was
beyond scrutiny. Even 'ultimate authorities' have limits. As Shinn
notes shortly after the momentous meetings of 1986 and 1987, 'the
impressive fact for any careful observer of ISKCON's history is
that it has been able to evolve in a very short time from a charismatic
movement to a relatively stable institution in the face of a hostile
external environment and a volatile governing structure within.'
(Shinn, 1987: 60)